Roger Bernard, Farm Journal Policy & Washington Editor
The final joint USDA/Dept. of Justice (DOJ) workshop on livestock competition issues is largely in the history books. Today's session focused in part on margins such as farm-to-retail, etc., and served as kind of a wrap up of the other sessions held so far.
The session well attended for the start, but the number of folks present declined throughout the morning, especially as the "headliners" -- USDA Sec. Ton Vilsack, Attorney General Eric Holder and antitrust chief Christine Varney -- left, the number of attendees fell.
USDA's Vilsack used the session to continue to lament that many farmers are having difficulty earning a profit and are forced to find off-farm work to supplement their income, but still heralded the latest forecast for U.S. ag exports that would be a record for fiscal year 2011.
Besides the public sessions, Vilsack and company held a press conference in another location during the session. And from the questions from reporters, they were clearly looking for what new was learned today and from the sessions in general.
One reporter asked basically what USDA/DOJ had to "show" for the workshops other than a rule on poultry marketing and whether the sessions were merely a "hand holding session" for small farmers. That prompted a terse response from Vilsack who said he didn't think "the premise of the question was accurate." He did confirm the poultry marketing rules announced earlier did come out of the hearings and noted that the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA) proposed rule will also reflect some of what came from the meetings.
Varney commented that DOJ cannot always be "transparent" about their actions, especially relative to any investigations, but noted that it has resulted in some actual actions. She related a story of a producer who called DOJ to complain that he had made changes to his operation to meet the requirements of a buyer only to have the buyer back out of the deal. Varney explained that without resorting to litigation, the matter was resolved by DOJ intervention.
Both officials heralded a new cooperation between USDA and DOJ has also come from the sessions held across the country.
Many of those commenting during the public testimony portion called for the GIPSA rule to be implemented immediately. But that will not be the case as USDA's Vilsack revealed they received 57,000 public comments on the proposed rule and those would be reviewed for formulation of the final rule.
So as these sessions draw to a close, it's not publicly clear what will happen as a result of the sessions. But perhaps one of the best results could be relative to a comment from Varney -- that DOJ officials have a much better understanding of issues by getting outside the Beltway in DC and talking directly with producers from around the country.
By that measure, perhaps the sessions will be seen as a success.