USDA got tons of responses to its request for public input on its pending GIPSA rule.
Your reporter devoted several hours of his holiday weekend to trying to find a pattern. Maybe it’s just me and my preconceived notions, but what I think I see is that a high percentage of the support for the changes comes from a few cattle producers, a lot of city folks—no few of them women for some reason—and quite a few people who say they were poultry farmers who got abused by integrators.
On the other side, there are a lot of people opposing the proposed regulation with email addresses indicating they work for folks like Cargill, Tyson, Perdue and other processor entities. But in my mostly random searches, a fairly sizable majority of the full time cattle and hog producers, and quite a few apparently satisfied poultry producers, seemed to think GIPSA was overreaching.
Like I said, maybe it’s me. You can do the same sort of search yourself if you want and make your own judgment of the responses. Here’s how I did it: I found the comment site here and near the top, in the “search” blank I typed “GIPSA-2010-PSP”.
That provides (as of Sunday) some 57,000 responses. Then I went through them trying to pick page numbers at random and reading 3 or 4 responses from each page. I was in town on a fast computer and internet connection, so I looked at several dozen. That doesn’t mean I’m right. But I did see some interesting stuff and (BELIEVE IT OR NOT!) it reinforced what I expected. (I bet it works the same way with you and the decision makers.)
One thing I did was when I saw a name odd enough to probably Google well, I tried. That’s how I found Lateaseetta Kiggins, who despite failing to mention it on her MySpace site, is apparently very, very concerned about the issue and, judging by her letter, has a solid grasp on the issues:
“This new proposed rule is an important first step in leveling the playing field for livestock producers, improving market transparency and protecting poultry growers from unfair contract terms. The proposed rule would eliminate the most abusive contract terms and practices used by poultry companies, ban retaliation against growers who speak out about unfair conditions or contract abuses; protect growers who make expensive upgrades to their chicken houses; require notification before companies suspend contracts with growers; and allow growers to opt out of arbitration clauses. Unfortunately, the proposed rule fails to rein in similarly unfair practices in livestock markets. The proposed rule addresses a few specific unfair practices widely used by meatpackers, but it fails to establish guidelines that would prevent meatpackers from unfairly favoring one hog or cattle farmer over another through marketing agreements and contracts. It does prevent one limited kind of price discrimination (the full trailer volume discount), bans packer-to-packer sales, prohibits one auction buyer from representing multiple meatpackers and offers only limited improvements on marketing transparency. These are important and necessary improvements, but do not address most of the widespread unfair treatment in the cattle and hog industry. In addition to implementing this proposed rule as soon as possible, I urge you to take the next steps necessary to address the market power of large meatpackers and require packers to pay a firm bid price for all livestock they procure and require them to sell in an open public market where all buyers and sellers have access.”
I wondered how Lateaseetta and so many others with less Googleable names could come to not only the same conclusion but express it in the same words, and so I used the search term on the Regulations site and found that oddly phrased “(the full trailer volume discount)” was apparently included in almost 9,000 of the messages.
Clever researcher I am, I suspected there might be a form email at work here. So I Googled the full trailer term and who pops up but our friends at Food and Water Watch? Then I had a turn at checking other distinct phrases. There were 801 responses that included the phrase “The meatpackers and their allies are complaining, but given their unjust treatment of family farmers…”
There were 78 responses saying “Had these provisions been in place years ago, it would have protected me from the major financial loss that I experienced”…
You can play the same game if you want. It’s kind of interesting and provides the best way I can think of to do what respondent Pamela Potthoff suggests.
“As you analyze the comments you have received it is too bad you do not have more information about those writing the letters; such as the size of their operation, current relationship to packers (Are they currently getting preferential treatment?), affiliations in organizations, etc. It seems to me the bigger the operation, the more likely producers are to oppose the proposed changes.”
Pamela (who describes herself as a “medium sized” cow-calf producer) and I agree on that. The more the respondents depend on livestock as their primary income, the more likely they are to oppose the GIPSA rule.
That is hardly a surprise. Most of the polls I’ve seen seem to find strong majorities of professional cattle people in opposition. My personal conversations leave me thinking support within the industry itself is limited to a relatively small group of people. When I Google names from the “pro” list, I find a significant number of the proponents seem to have written letters to editors or served on WORC or R-CALF or other groups in the Willy Nelson lobby for years; folks who love COOL and hate international trade and GMO crops.
But my favorite result from the Google searches goes to an Idaho ranch couple:
“As a family ranch we have seen our cattle market continue to be more controlled by the massive corporate meat packers….Operating costs have sky rocketed, narrowing our profit margins. Family ranches are quickly disappearing as the next generation is forced to seek other employment off the ranch -the profit margin can no longer support multiple generations, unlike years ago when the cattle market was not a captive corporate market”
When I Googled the ranch name and address provided, I found it was a 2-section place with a federal allotment. The price is $3.5 million. Are cheap cattle forcing the sale of a place like that? The pro letters are full of complaints about the disappearance of family farmers, the demise of rural communities and the ever-shrinking cow herd.
They all presume—I’ve seen not one of them offer convincing evidence—that cheap cattle prices have caused that and that the cheap cattle have been caused by packer concentration and processors “ill-gotten gains.” There is no mention of the draw of multi-million dollar paydays.
Please. Do the same thing I did. Take a random sample of the responses. See if it doesn’t strike you the same way it does me. Like I said, my reading is that a preponderance of the beef industry strongly opposes these regulations.
Not that it matters. The smart boys in D.C. told me months ago this whole public comment period was just kabuki designed to provide cover for GIPSA’s controversial administrator to do what he wanted to do when he took the job. There’s no law telling him he has to read the responses, much less give them fair consideration.
My bet: The Administration thinks “we need to adopt these regulations so we can see what’s in them.”