A Country with No Farmers

“A country with no farmers is no country at all,” says Shad Dasher, owner of The Onion Man Company, an onion farm in Glennville, Ga., on this episode of Building Local Power. In the 1930s, the United States boasted some 6.8 million farms. Today, we’re down to roughly two million — a more than 70% decline. 

The rapid consolidation of agriculture across the U.S. has obliterated many small and mid-size farms and has posed monumental challenges for small farmers and consumers alike. In the second half of this episode, Sarah Carden, Senior Policy Advocate at Farm Action, explains how increased consolidation drives up land prices, reduces agricultural diversity, increases prices for consumers, and diminishes the economic viability of communities. 

What we’re seeing is a hollowing out of U.S. agriculture — “farmers are going extinct,” as Sarah says solemnly. All of this points to a clear need to shift our American ideology away from misguided notions of “efficiency” and, as Sarah suggests, to implement policies that support a decentralized farming system. 

Listen to the episode on your favorite podcast platform.

Farm Action Report titled: The Fall of Antitrust, the Rise of Corporate Power: Impacts of Market Concentration on Farmers and Ranchers

Farm Action’s Policy Recommendations 

Civil Eats article titled As Grocery Stores Get Bigger, Small Farms Get Squeezed Out that mentions Shad Dasher

American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture answers questions on agricultural products that the U.S. imports and exports

United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service team wrote a report titled Three Decades of Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture 

The National Family Farm Coalition’s new report called Selling Out the Delta: Farmland Investment and Small Farmer Land Access in Mississippi.

In the Shadow of Man by Jane Goodall – World-renowned primatologist, conservationist, and humanitarian Dr. Jane Goodall’s account of her life among the wild chimpanzees of Gombe is one of the most enthralling stories of animal behavior ever written.

Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power. I am your co-host, Reggie Rucker, and we are back with another episode for this season where we are highlighting frontline stories in the fight against monopoly power by talking with people from all across the country who are actively engaging in building more equitable, thriving local economies.
In the last episode, Aaron Johnson and Stacy Mitchell detailed the numerous positive impacts that local independent grocery stores have on communities. In this episode, we take one step back and answer the question, “How does that produce even get to the grocery store? How does that sauteed onion get to your plate?” Well, we take it to the small town of Glennville, Georgia, where a Vidalia onion farmer walks us through his journey of joy and trials and tribulations becoming one of the few remaining small Vidalia onion farmers in the nation. To get into it, let me kick it over to my co-host who has yet to make me cry over the many sessions of chopping it up, Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: I haven’t, Reggie, but I have an inkling that our guest on the show today might make you shed a tear. I am Luke Gannon, and today on Building Local Power, Shad Dasher paints a firsthand picture of what farming looks like in America. So let’s dive right in.
Shad Dasher: Well, I’m a third generation Vidalia onion farmer. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a farmer and my dad was a farmer, and I just followed in the footsteps. And we used to raise a good bit of hogs, but also a lot of produce. And back whenever my grandfather started growing onions, they found out there was a particular region in this area that has a little bit of low sulfur, and so it makes the onions a little bit sweeter. And from that, just grew up, following behind my granddaddy and my dad and just learning from them and just fell in love with, like my grandmother would say, playing in the dirt. That’s all I’ve done except for one. I’m a Desert Storm veteran. I joined the National Guard and served in it, then came back to the farm.
Luke Gannon: Apart from when Shad served in the National Guard, the farm has been his entire life. And when you and your parents and grandparents have worked the land for generations, there’s no shortage of stories to tell.
Shad Dasher: My dad and his brothers operated Dasher Brothers Farms. So we had several cousins. I’ve got 16 cousins, and we would all be doing something on the farm. And somebody’s birthday would come up, we would butcher some of the kids and have a big family barbecue at my grandmother’s house and we’d go pull peanuts and have peanut bowlings.
And you just got out there and worked the land. That’s one of the most peaceful things, to be able to get out there on the tractor and go to plowing and cultivating and just different things like that. And then just enjoying being out in the open on a farm, learning how stuff was grown and watching. When you set out like tomato plants, within 65 to 75 days, you’ll be picking tomatoes or picking squash.
Luke Gannon: Since the ripe age of 14, Shad has modeled what it means to love the dirt and love working the land. Over the years, the farm has changed from hog farming all the way to Vidalia onion farming. As Shad walks out his front door every morning, this is what he sees.
Shad Dasher: Well, the onion farm, you’ll see the fields, and most of them are small fields, anywhere from, say, 10 acres to 50 or 60 acres. You’ve got pine trees and poplar trees and gum trees around the fence rows.
Onion season starts here, like most growers grow their own plant beds, so in, say, mid-August, we’ll start turning the ground, preparing the onion beds and we’ll start sowing onion seed in September. And the planting season will go from the whole month of September. Usually it takes about six weeks for that onion to grow to about… The base of the onion plant needs to be about the size of a number two pencil.
Then in November and December, you’ll pull the plants out of the plant bed, you’ll go to the dry production field. There, different people have different settings on the population, but you’ll have an implement hooked up to the tractor, which will punch roughly 82,000 to 110,000 holes to the acre. So five good workers can set an acre a day. And it’s all hand-planted. You have to walk through the fields, you drop off bundles of plants, and the workers come behind and set out. And then they go on to another farm. This is mainly H-2A labor that we’re having to use now, because we just can’t get the local help to come.
So, say, from January to early April, it’s mainly myself fertilizing and watering the onions, and spraying. Then in mid-April, we’ll begin the harvest season. This month will be harvest season. I begin by coming to the shed roughly around 5:30 in the morning, check to make sure all the machineries are in working order. We’ll have roughly between 45 and 50 workers up underneath the packing house. And we’ll start working at eight o’clock, grading and processing onions and bagging onions. We’ll run until about right around ten o’clock at night. And if there’s any trucks that need to be loaded after ten o’clock, then I will stay as needed. That would have to be the busiest time, just making sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
Luke Gannon: Shad’s farm is located in Glennville, Georgia, with a whopping population, according to the census, of 3,707 people, but 10,000 people when you include the outskirts. It’s the kind of small community where you know your grocery cashiers and bankers by name, and the kind of community where you patiently await the yearly onion festival.
Shad Dasher: We always have a… Used to there was a rivalry between Glennville and Vidalia, dealing with the onions. We had our own Glennville sweet onion, and because of the heat degrees, Glennville would always harvest a few days earlier than Vidalia. So there was always a rivalry between who had the sweetest onion and we were always ahead of them and it was a constant battle.
So we have a Glennville Sweet Onion Festival every year, that I think this coming year will be either 39th or 40th year running. So everybody comes into town that has moved off, because it’s the Glennville Onion Festival. All the friends and family that’s moved off come home to see mama and daddy, aunts and uncles, and it’s a one big day deal, have a hometown parade and do food booths and all. It’s a real good time.
Just everybody here is local and you get along and very much rivalry, I would say. It’s just that there’s just nothing really here anymore. Kids have to move off to get a job to be able to make a living. And you’ve got several churches, and several churches have different programs and it’s open to the community. And then we do have a little theater where shows are put on. So once a year, twice a year, there’s a little skit deal that goes on.
But talking back to the grocery store, used to there was roughly probably about 15 truck farmers, and that’s vegetable people that grow vegetables. Now in this community, I say right off the top of my head, there’s only three of us left.
That’s one thing I enjoy a lot is being able to grow vegetables and have people that really hadn’t… Just like watermelons. You take watermelons now, the grocery store chains want you to cut that melon when it’s 75% done. People do not know what a good homegrown watermelon is supposed to taste like. And whenever they get… It’s like the tomato. They don’t know what a homegrown tomato tastes like. And once they taste how a watermelon or a tomato’s supposed to be grown, they say, “Man, we have never ate nothing like this before.” And you see, there’s just something that’s missing out in this country is just like cultivation, clout. That’s a lost art.
Luke Gannon: As a small farmer in America, you need a lot of hope and perseverance because a natural disaster could uproot your livelihood at any time.
Shad Dasher: Got young people that are interested in getting into the farming industry. Just like myself, I have five children, the three boys, they hadn’t fell in love with the dirt, but my two girls, if there was money for me to feel comfortable with them getting into the business and carrying on with it, I would be sure of that, because a few years back in 1996, I’ve got two brothers, they farmed with me. We had 200 acres of Vidalia onions. We were roughly five days from harvest. Had one of the most beautifulest crops we’ve ever once seen. Went to bed with 200 acres, got up the next morning with a hundred acres. A hailstorm had come through and it’s like you just took a lawn mower and mowed the whole hundred acres down.
The USDA came out and said, “Well, if you lost 60% of your acreage, you would get low interest loans.” Because at that time, there was no proper insurance. So the inspector came out, he looked at the fields, he said, “You’ve got a 60% loss. Just keep up with your records on your sales and tonnage off of the other hundred acres, and bring them to Reidsville, Georgia,” which was 15 miles from the farm. We did that.
I left my two brothers at the tractor shed, and I drove 15 miles. I walked into the farm service agency, Ms. Annette sat down, took her calculator, calculated out the formula that USDA had provided, and then she looked at me and she says, “Shad, you don’t qualify for no help.” And I says, “Ms. Annette,” I says, “I lost a hundred acres.” She said, “Yeah, but you made so much tonnage on that other hundred acres, that you don’t get no help.”
So 15 mile ride back to the farm, pull up, my two brothers look at me, which are younger than me, they say, “We’re going to get any help?” And I says, “Nope, we’ve got to tighten the belt, weather the storm, and just have to hope.” And that was the year they quit.
So I tell people I’ve got the double S disease, and that is stupid and stubborn, because I still love planting in that dirt and I like growing stuff and I like seeing the community find my growth of the vegetables in life. It’s just in my blood.
But it’s just like the German citizen said over in Germany, because my wife is German and I had the opportunity to travel over there, a country with no farmers is no country at all. And this past year is the first time the United States has imported more food than it has exported. So once you have somebody controlling what you eat, you’re in a pretty bad shape.
Luke Gannon: But hailstorms aren’t Shad’s biggest problem anymore. Now corporate consolidation in the food and agriculture industry has put Shad’s livelihood at risk.
Shad Dasher: The more the corporations, the larger keep getting larger. And at one time, whenever I was in my teenage years, there were close to like 300 Vidalia onion farmers. Now there would be roughly somewhere, I would say, 21 to 24 farmers left out of that 300. Here in Glennville, we used to have three grocery stores. We’re down to one grocery store. We had two major hardware stores. Now we’re down to one hardware store. The downtown area where we used to have several stores, just about all of those are closed up. You just don’t have the type of activity you used to have whenever I was, say, in my later 19-year-old. So it’s been a big change since all that has taken place.
Well, I do have one dealing with a wholesale house in Atlanta, Georgia. A friend of mine worked with the Georgia Department of Agriculture for a number of years, named Mike. He called me and wanted me to ride up to this wholesale house at Atlanta Farmers Market.
I rode up there, walked into the meeting. And they’re an international company. And the fella set a box of scallop squash on the counter, a half bushel box. I don’t know if you’re familiar with scallop squash or not, but they get about the size of a dollar is what they were wanting picked. And it’s about the thickness of an oyster shell. And he says, “How much would it cost for you to get this picked and packed, Mr. Dasher?” And I said, “Probably about $5 to $6.” The gentleman went to closing up the box, said the meeting was over. And this was about 20 years ago. And I says, “Why is this meeting over with because of $5 to $6?” He says, “Mr. Dasher, this box, I can get picked for a quarter in Guatemala, put it on a ship, send it to Miami, and they’d be up here in Forest Park within four or five days. And they’ve got a new technology where the Ziploc bag goes over that box and it looks like it’s just been picked the next day.”
So if you’re in the international business of bringing in produce and growing produce here in the United States, then you’re going to constantly be… You’ll have a job. But I say in the next 10 years, if you’re like myself, very rarely will you see people like me, because we have no business to go to because we’re not a one-stop shop. Everything’s getting consolidated. You’re at the mercy of consolidation, just like seed people.
You’ve got two seed companies that come to town, and so you don’t have choices to shop around. The consolidation of grocery stores used to, like going back whenever I was a teenager when the 15 truck farmers were here, you could go to the outlying towns and pull up to the back door of a grocery store chain and sell your produce straight to the grocery store that had been picked that morning, you had it in the grocery store by 12:00. Now you had to send everything to a DC center, and it’s sitting there sometimes for two to three weeks.
Used to be an organic grower of Vidalia onions, but I no longer grow organic Vidalia onions because before the bigger growers jumped into the organic Vidalia onion business, you could sell a 40 pound carton of Vidalia onions for $35 to $40 a carton, and at one time, I’d gotten up to 150 acres of organic Vidalia onions. But when the larger conventional Vidalia onion growers started getting calls from the grocery store chains like Kroger, Publix, Costcos, they started using the organic onions as a little carrot they would dangle out in front of the grocery store chain and say, “Well, if you buy X amount of conventional onions from us, we’ll have so many organic onions for you.” So the price plummeted down to $16 to $22, $24 a carton, and it takes roughly about $25 a carton to break even with organic onions. So what little niche market that was was destroyed by bigger growers.
And the grocery store chains now, they are more interested in a one-stop all purchasing plant. So what few growers that are left here growing Vidalia onions have had to become international buyers. So they import a good bit of Peruvian onions, Mexican onions, and Guatemalans, wherever they can source sweet onions. And one time, I called Costco, offered to be able to try and supply them with onions, and they said, “No, you don’t carry international onions.” So I even went back and says, “Well, what if I just repacked for y’all to make a little extra money on the farm?” and they said, “No, we’ve already got somebody dealing with that.” So to be a regional grower is pretty tough, and you have to find little niche markets to try and sustain yourself.
Luke Gannon: In order to survive, Shad has worked with church groups, nonprofits, and local farmers markets to keep his farm afloat. The community support has been essential for his business.
Shad Dasher: We do have a small farmers market located 15 miles south of Glennville in a small town called Ludowici, Georgia, and we carry a good bit of our produce down there and sell to the local communities down there and people passing by. But in terms of finding other… Let me put it this way, if I was to lose my fundraising niche, I would have to in turn either go and grow for these what I call international growers of Vidalia onions and be underneath them, so I would say a servant. Yes, sir. No, sir.
One thing about a farmer or a rancher, we’re very independent. And just like with me, I’m a tinkerer. I’ll sit there and I’ll tear apart a cultivator or a planter and I’ll remodify it, trying to get the best out of it. And we really hate to have somebody put, as I say, their thumb on me and say, “You’re going to do it this way or not.” It’s the independence. When you’re out there in that field, turning the ground, plowing that crop. We’re out there having the crew out there. And you enjoy being out there and you enjoy it. See, that’s just like for me, it’s dangerous for me because farming is a job, but it’s also my hobby.
Luke Gannon: At some point soon, America is going to have to ask itself, “Can a nation survive without farmers?” I, for one, was really taken aback by Shad’s story. I hope you were too. A big thank you to Shad Dasher for joining us on the show today.
For the second half of this episode, we invited Sarah Carden, who is the senior policy advocate at Farm Action, where she threads Shad’s story with the necessary policy reform for the nation’s food and agriculture system.
But before that, I’m going to pass it to the man who irons his clothes every single morning, even though he works from home. Reggie Rucker.
Reggie Rucker: You know what they say, you stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. But actually, seriously, what’s more important than what they say, it’s what Shad said. A country without farmers is no country at all. But today, we are at a moment where policymakers, regulators, and citizens can make the choice to support a decentralized system where millions of farmers like Shad can produce healthy, local food for their regions.
ILSR is telling these stories one at a time and building a coalition of people willing and ready to create a better future. If you connect to the vision of a thriving food and agriculture industry as part of a sustainable community and thriving economy, consider heading over to ilsr.org/donate. Even if it’s just $5, $10, whatever you can, your contribution at ilsr.org/donate matters to our work to fight corporate power and build thriving, equitable communities.
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Okay, that’s our break. Thank you so much for listening, and now back to the show.
Thank you so much, Sarah, for taking some time out to talk with us today. We really appreciate it. The first thing I want to do is sort of just set the table, and I actually didn’t even mean to do that, but set the table so people have a very general sense of the food industry. But basically, shows up on their tables, grocery store shelves, but we don’t really know where it comes from. We have this vague sense of a migrant farmer who’s doing this grueling work out in the fields. But then beyond that, we just really don’t know how it gets from… We know the cliche, farm to fork, but we don’t really know how that happened. So we were blessed to hear Shad’s story, and that was enlightening for us. Can you tell us a little bit more about sort of that story of farmers, and tell us some things about the farm community, the farm, the farming community, the farming industry that most people really just wouldn’t know about?
Sarah Carden: Yeah, so I think what’s important or interesting is that when people picture a farm, I don’t think that that is in line with what farms look like today. I think there’s a real dichotomy. I also, when I’m not at Farm Action, run a vegetable farm, and we encounter this all the time when we have school groups come by and they say, “Where’s your barn for your animals? Where are your chickens?” The farmscape is not sort of the old quintessential Old MacDonald image any longer. Due to various pressures, farmland has really been vastly consolidated, animals have been driven inside, largely, and cropland has been separated from the animals. So they’re different operations now. It’s no longer a sort of diverse family farm homestead.
The vast majority of our livestock, our meat and poultry, is now being produced in large densely populated confinement buildings that we advocates call CAFOs. Cropland is usually located somewhere else, with a handful of farmers that are really responsible for managing thousands of acres across multiple counties.
Another important thing to keep in mind when we try to picture where our food is coming from is Shad touched on how many fewer Vidalia farms are left. This is not isolated to Vidalia farmers. Farmers are going extinct. The data, how quickly we are losing farmers is pretty staggering. I think in the mid 1930s, we sort of peaked at around 6.8 million farms. Today, we’re down to about 2 million. And what’s important to keep in mind is despite that nearly 5 million loss number, we’re still farming about the same amount of acreage. It’s just there’s that many fewer folks farming that.
So this farm landscape has shifted a lot, and unfortunately, it’s been at the detriment to the most. There’s a handful of corporations, agribusinesses that are doing great from this, but in the meantime, we’re seeing a loss of farmers. We’re seeing the extraction, a depopulation in our rural communities, and we’re seeing a real resiliency issue in our food supply chain that I think the pandemic highlighted and really brought to the table, but has been there for a long time, and it is really a national security issue.
Luke Gannon: Sarah, I’m wondering if you can expand a little more on how Shad’s story stacks up to other small and mid-size farmers. Stories that you’ve heard across the country in terms of the size of Shad’s farm, the scale at which it operates, the variety. I had no idea before I talked to Shad that there’s just a Vidalia onion farmer. So can you sort of make a lay of the land of what farmers look like across the country who are not these five big conglomerates?
Sarah Carden: Yeah, so what’s interesting is there are… So there’s these big conglomerates that are really producing a lot of our food. I think about 3% of our farms are responsible for about nearly half of the production, right? But that said, there are still a lot of small farms out there. I think the USDA defines… There’s different what is a small farm, but if you’re going to… You can set it at different income levels. But there’s a lot of small farms out there.
These farms are largely relying on off-farm income because they cannot compete in today’s market to earn a livable wage. So there’s usually multiple sources of revenue coming in to support those households.
The farms that I see when I look at the data that we are losing the fastest are the mid-size producers. They’re the ones that are going extinct. There’s no place for them. Their operations are too expensive, have too high of a cost, and there’s just no market for them to sell into. So it’s go big or go home. And then you have the small farms that can survive by getting outside jobs to live off of, and they just can barely scrape by to keep this land in their family.
Shad, like you said, Shad just grows Vidalia onions, which it’s not atypical. Most of our farms have very little crop diversity, just because of the pressure to be efficient and to compete on economies of scale.
Shad’s a little unusual in that he’s at least growing a food crop for people. Most of our acreage, especially our cropland, is now really being devoted to corn and soybeans. And this isn’t corn that’s ending up on your plate or in your edamame. These are going to animal feed, and a lot of it is going into an export economy.
And that’s not by accident. Our farm policy, and this is where our work at Farm Action really focuses, is really driving farmers into this, to produce corn and soy. There’s a lot of incentives for them to continue to overproduce this commodity crop. And in the meantime, we are no longer feeding ourselves. We’re importing food from other countries that we need, and we export animal feed that goes and we export livestock that’s raised in really terrible conditions that have really harmful effects for their communities. So we’re really in a vulnerable position because we no longer can feed ourselves, and we are dependent on nations with which we have variable relationships with to feed us and buy our exports.
Reggie Rucker: So you’ve mentioned this sort of a couple of different ways. Earlier, you talked about this being somewhat of a national, maybe not even somewhat, it’s a national security risk. And then here, you’re talking about our reliance on foreign nations that we’ve seen it in oil and we’re sort of running up against the same issues. We’re reliant on dangerous actors to provide us food. So Shad had this compelling quote of a country without farmers is no country at all. Is that what he’s talking about? Or can you kind of expand more on what this notion is? What does it mean to you when you hear this phrase, “a country without farmers is no country at all”?
Sarah Carden: It brings up a lot of emotion, honestly. Yeah, you sort of touched on a number of different things in that and it’s sort of loaded, but when you bring that up, our farmers are losing control of the land, right? They are being driven off the land and farmland is being snatched. And now there’s a lot of data on the growing average age of the American farmer, that the next generation of farmers cannot access farmland because they’re being forced to compete against investment firms and foreign countries and other folks who see farmland as an investment opportunity to grow and diversify their portfolios.
They lease the land back to farmers, but farmers are no longer the driver… It’s this concept of absentee ownership. So an example of just because you’re leasing the farmland back, there’s a change in that. So if you’re responsible, if you’re passing down this piece of land for generations, you are the very invested interest in how this land is going to… What it’s going to look like in 10 years, in 20 years, in 50 years. If you’re farming this land for somebody who’s given you a 3, 5, 10 year lease contract, your interests are going to be different, right? So you’re going to farm it differently. What you’re going to farm is going to be different. What kind of investments you’re going to make in that land is going to be different.
So we are just increasingly… Every year, we have fewer farmers growing food for their communities. That can mean things like what Shad is doing. It can mean folks who are raising livestock that they can sell then to their local independent grocer that goes back into their community. That can mean folks like myself, that do more of a diversified vegetable. We lose these people every year. More and more farmland sort of goes into this corn, soybean overproduction of commodity. And as a result now, USDA is now predicting a record high trade deficit in 2023.
So think about that. We think of ourselves as this huge agricultural powerhouse in America, but we’re actually now importing more food than we are exporting. And moreover, what we’re importing is the food we eat. So we are no longer feeding ourselves. So sort of on Shad’s point, we are on that track to be a country that has no farmers.
Luke Gannon: So Sarah, you’ve said we’ve gone from 6.8 million farmers to we’re down to 2 million now, we’re losing farmland every year. So I want to know, how did we get here? Can you give a brief history of what has happened in terms of consolidation in the agriculture and farming industry in the last decade?
Sarah Carden: Yeah, can I back it up just a little bit further than the decade to sort of set the stage?
Luke Gannon: Of course, please.
Sarah Carden: Because I think this didn’t start a decade ago. This kind of has been… And consolidation and consolidation pressures, they’re not unique to farming and agriculture. We’ve seen them across industries.
A really important turning point is in the ’90s during the Reagan administration. There was a shift… It’s called the Chicago School of Antitrust. There was a shift in interpretation of antitrust legislation that had been in place for a very, very long time, which traditionally existed to promote competition and healthy competitive markets, and they instead started prioritizing efficiency, with the argument that this would lead to cheaper stuff for Americans, right? And this was where this rise of bigger is better came from.
So at that point, starting around then, if you look back over time, you see a really significant shift in how… And a lack of enforcement of antitrust legislation. And with that, a rise and a huge rise in mergers and acquisitions, and we see industries consolidating across the spectrum. You see it everywhere, and not just food and ag, although food and ag does feel like one of those industries where it’s just really egregious.
We have a report out at Farm Action, the concentration report, that sort of examines all the different industries within the food and ag system and the food supply chain and every single sector. Economists will argue that when the top four corporations control more than 40% of the market, you’re in a precarious situation. This could lead to a real vulnerable market opportunity.
In the food and ag space where I work, we see things like 85% market control in beef and 60% in chicken processing. In the seed industry, there’s three guys. Shad talked about this. He’s got two people he can get fertilizer from, three people he can get seed from. There’s just so few.
For farmers where this comes into play, so they have this huge consolidation on their input side. All the things they need to bring into their farm to have a productive operation or operation season, they have no control over their market. They’re forced to pay what they’re offered, and often under very dangerous terms. And then there’s the buyer side, what they’re selling to, and that is equally as consolidated. So they have no leverage there. And they’re stuck, and people often refer to this hourglass. They’re stuck in the middle in between all these huge entities, and it gives them very, very little opportunity to… And you see just these terrible statistics about suicide rates being triple in farmers, because they’re looking at these operations and they have no place where they can make active changes to improve their numbers, because the market is no longer competitive. They just have no more… In vast majority of these operations.
Reggie Rucker: So you’ve made the case for why the way that the industry is currently set up and overly concentrated is problematic for the farmers themselves, the small and mid-size farmers themselves. Is there a similar sort of problem that then sort of trickles down to the consumers? Or are they winning? Are they getting cheaper fruits and vegetables and food and everything’s good for the consumer and it’s just the farmers that are hurting? Yeah. Is there a problem for consumers that we should be concerned about as well here?
Sarah Carden: We are now seeing the failure of this policy. So on the consumer end of the spectrum, we are seeing record high food prices. Everybody knows how much they were paying for eggs, right? Farm Action actually did a report recently. We sent a letter to some of the enforcement agencies. We looked at the financial records of some of the major egg corporations. And while prices are sky high for consumers, they are also reporting record high profits. We’ve seen this… We do this a lot at Farm Action, so we see this in fertilizer and we sent a similar letter. We do these reports… We’ve seen it in meat packing.
Another really great example of how… So because the market is no longer competitive and is controlled in all these different markets by two, three, maybe four large corporations, they’re able to, under the guise of various different emergency supply chain issues or avian flu in the egg case or whatnot, these issues are real, but they use it to drive up their prices way higher than they need to. And they can coordinate pretty easily, because it’s only two or three guys, whether they’re explicitly having a phone call or they all just know to watch each other’s prices and take advantage of these markets together.
A really great example of that was back in 2019. I don’t know if you remember, there was a Tyson meat packing plant over in Holcomb, Kansas that caught fire and was forced to shut down. That plant was responsible for 5% or 6% of the beef process in the U.S.. So the fire happens on a Friday. By Monday morning, the meat packers are out there, saying, “You better go get your beef, because we’re down. We’re going to have a huge shortage nationwide.” So we’ve all seen what happens, the shelves are empty, there’s this huge run. Meanwhile, the price retailers are paying is racked up. At the same time, the meat packers are cutting the price they’re paying to these cattle producers, because they’re saying, “We’ve lost processing capacity,” right?
So you look at two weeks following that fire, and we found there was a 67% spread between what the beef packers are paying to the farmer and what they’re charging retail grocery, which is, just to put that in perspective, like 143% increase over the preceding two years.
Reggie Rucker: Geez.
Sarah Carden: But here’s the kicker. If you look at the three weeks that followed that fire, the beef industry actually slaughtered 5,000 more cattle than the three weeks prior to the fire. So they had the processing capacity, right?
Reggie Rucker: Yeah.
Sarah Carden: So they’re consuming there. And then we all saw, and maybe I’m getting too much into this, but we all saw how during the pandemic, how… Because when you only have a handful of entities responsible for such a huge portion of your food supply, not only can they manipulate prices, but there’s a real resiliency issue there, right? One thing goes down… We saw that in infant formula when that one plant shuttered. And then parents and families are still having trouble feeding their babies. Yeah, there’s definitely a consumer side to this.
Luke Gannon: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, Sarah, you’ve done a great job of detailing that. It is very clear that we have a problem, and it’s not just for consumers, it’s for farmers, it’s for people across the board. So I’m curious if there are policies at our disposal that we could implement to create a fairer playing field in the farming sector.
Sarah Carden: Yes, there’s a number of different policies that we at Farm Action are supporting and advocating for. Senators Booker and Warren have both introduced forms of legislation that call for merger moratoriums. That would really just… Senator Booker’s is specific to the agribusiness space, and Senator Warren’s is a little broader, but that would essentially just call for, “Let’s stop all… No more giant, mega mergers,” right? Senator Warren’s also includes a really important lookback provision which reexamines past mergers that may…
We now have a… The DOJ and the FTC, who really are our main antitrust sort of watchdogs, have expressed an interest. I think there’s a lot more recognition to this failed anti-trust policy that we’re seeing, and they’re expressing an interest in stronger enforcement. Anyway, this would give them the authority to reexamine past mergers of the past 20 years that have been harmful.
But there’s also other ways that we talk about leveling the playing field for farmers. Driving supports. Right now, the vast majority of our farm supports are really sucked up by certain types of farmers and also sort of this corn, soybean production model, and by larger farmers. So we work a lot in the farming world, redirecting those resources so that more folks are supported, more folks can… Farming different types of people, farming different types of crops to introduce diversity of crops, diversity of farmers, diversity of production models, right? So redistributing these resources is another way to…
The reason that a lot of farmers… And we’re farmer-led. We are not calling out the soybean, corn farmers. We’re supporting them. They’re farming what they need to do, because if they farm corn and soybean, they have a lot of different government supports, if they do it conventionally, to give them a stable, safe income. But if they want to go and grow vegetables, for instance, and hopefully it’s not organic or regenerative, because that’s even harder, there’s just much less out there. This ranges from crop insurance options to technical assistance to infrastructure to market opportunity. We just don’t make the same kinds of investments in other farming industries.
Reggie Rucker: So as we get sort of near the close of this, we want to end on a little bit of a high note, despite all the seriously dire potential to not preserve this critical industry. You just laid out the tools that are available and the interest in doing something from our policymakers. So what happens if we do, what happens if we get this right? What does Shad’s story look like in the long run? And you talked about it, he talked about it, that next generation of farmer who gets to take over and carry the legacy forward. What does that look like if we get this right?
Sarah Carden: I like ending on that note. This is a fun game. Yeah, no, I mean, we think a lot about… What our vision for the food and farm system is with… Back to communities with farmers who are… A more regionalized local food distribution network that supports farmers growing food for their communities. That they can sell to a local, independent grocery store, and that they can bank at their local bank, and support local restaurants. That’s a real key to adding resiliency to our farm system, addressing national security and bringing back our rural communities, and bringing back a path to opportunity for the next generation of farmers.
I could go on for a long time about the details of what that vision looks like. I know we have a limited time, but that’s kind of the picture. And of course, one that farmers are farming to… The other way of creating resiliency is through the environment too, and that their production models can really help contribute in that sense as well.
Luke Gannon: I’d love to hear what book has influenced you. It could be a book you read 10 years ago or last year.
Sarah Carden: Oh gosh, I’m getting sweaty palms. I really have a hard time with favorite… Gosh, 20-some odd years ago, I read one of Jane Goodall’s books about her sort of work with the chimpanzees, called In the Shadow of Man. What was pioneering about her was nobody studied animals the way she did, and nobody asked the kinds of questions she was asking. So she really revolutionized both an approach to science and our understanding of the world we live in, and that really stuck with me for a long time in how I see things, how I approach problems.
Luke Gannon: That’s great. No, I love it. Well, I hope we can revolutionize farming too and open that path of opportunity that you’re talking about. So those are all of the questions from us. We cannot thank you enough, Sarah, for being on the show today and giving us your time.
Reggie Rucker: Not wanting to be ageist, I’m realizing that Luke always uses 10 years ago as if that’s a long time ago. And when you get to be my age, at least, I’ll speak for myself, ten years ago was like yesterday and it’s like, “That’s not that long ago.”
Luke Gannon: Well, thank you so much, Sarah, for this thoughtful and wonderful conversation and for joining us on the show today. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to this episode of Building Local Power. You can find links to everything discussed today by going to ilsr.org and clicking on the show page for this episode. That is ilsr.org.
Reggie Rucker: And if you like this podcast, please share it with all of your family, your friends, the people that follow you on social media because you’re such a great follow, everyone. And remember, all of your reviews, likes, and donations help produce this podcast and support the research and resources that we make available to the public on our website.
This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. This podcast is edited by Drew Birschbach and Luke Gannon. Our theme music for this season is composed by ILSR’s communications manager, Andrew Frank. Thank you for listening to Building Local Power.

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Music Credit: Andrew Frank, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Photo Credit: Andrew Frank, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Drew Birschbach and Luke Gannon

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

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As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.