PITTSBORO — Antitrust legislation has made global headlines in recent months with free market advocates decrying big company domination of the technology and information industries.
But a Pittsboro-based advocacy group, the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), is calling out antitrust violations in a different sector — farming.
“You think telecommunications with like the T-Mobile-Sprint merger, for example, or market power that a lot of tech companies like your Apple and your Google have in their space ...” said RAFI Program Manager Tyler Whitley. “But in agriculture it has happened for a while, too, but with fewer hearing about it.”
Antitrust laws are designed to prevent monopolies, to facilitate and promote fair competition in a capitalistic society. Companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google have been scrutinized for exceeding the legal borders of their market influence and creating environments in which potential competitors almost invariably fail.
Such companies, though, have gone largely unchecked despite claims of malfeasance because antitrust laws afford them too much leeway, according to Whitley.
“The issue is that for a very long time, there’s been a very narrow definition used for determining if there are antitrust violations,” he said.
Whitley says antitrust violations are common in the farming industry — though underpublicized — especially as big company mergers limit farmer options and homogenize local markets.
“It is certainly something that has intensified over the last 10 plus years in agriculture,” he said. “It has really progressed more rapidly than in other sectors.”
Options for seed purchase are dwindling, Whitley said, especially since the Bayer-Monsanto merger in 2018. And in Chatham County, where poultry farming has long been one of the area’s staples, the fact that there are few integrator options — processing plants that buy chickens from local farms — strips farmers of their leverage.
A 2015 USDA Economic Research survey determined that about 25% of farmers nationwide have only one nearby integrator to whom they can sell chickens. Altogether, more than 50% had only one or two available integrators. Citing that study, Whitley said that farmer prospects are increasingly grim.
“So, you know, think of that — half the entire poultry industry only has two options available to them,” he said. “That amount of consolidation really limits opportunities for farmers and for other small businesses that feed into those larger industries as well.”
The problem is not that antitrust laws don’t exist. They have been around for centuries. But many are antiquated by today’s industry standards; they must evolve or be replaced.
“There are a lot of antitrust laws out there currently on the books,” Whitley said. “And so, some of it just needs to be revamped for today’s modern economy.”
More specific enforcement standards are necessary, too, he says, to ensure that antitrust violations aren’t overlooked. “So I would say in a nutshell, that’s kind of the bigger issue — it’s the enforcement.”
Whitley is the program manager for RAFI’s Challenging Corporate Power program, advocating for family farms and helping vulnerable populations navigate their legal options. The CCP “fight(s) the egregious growth of corporate power by holding corporations and government accountable ...” RAFI’s website says, and by “collaborating with a broad base of stakeholders, farmers, workers, environmental activists, animal welfare groups, and others, we will build an equitable food system.”
To that end, RAFI is publicly endorsing Senator Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) omnibus bill, the Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act, which was introduced earlier this month.
“For far too long, antitrust law in the United States has not kept pace with developments in our economy, creating unchecked growth in market consolidation and concentration,” RAFI Communications Manager Beth Hauptle wrote in a press release last week. “For farmers and rural small businesses this means there are far too few companies selling seeds, only one poultry company in town, and farmers who are legally locked out of repairing their own tractors. Rural prosperity has withered on the vine as monopolies and monopsonies reap all the financial benefits of industry consolidation and vertical integration. This legislation is a lifeline to America’s rural communities.”
But passage of Klobuchar’s bill would only start the process of empowering local farmers to reclaim their industry from national and global companies, Whitley said.
“This is really just foundational legislation that is necessary to then expand into agriculture, livestock and poultry and other sectors to get at other issues that are affected by antitrust,” he said.
In the meantime, while bills make their way through D.C.’s legislative channels, farmers are scrambling to adjust their practices to survive, if they can.
“Some are able to restructure or some are able to become more flexible and find new markets,” Whitely said, “but some have to sell, and I think that’s a real big issue that you see right now.”
RAFI representatives hope the group’s advocacy programs will register with D.C. and state lawmakers, but the most powerful voice, according to Whitley, is the public’s.
“You can always contact your local representative, that doesn’t cost anything,” he said. “If you’re able to send an email to your senator or your congressperson, you can tell them, ‘Hey, this is an issue I have.’”
Without a show of community support, farmers may not have their needs recognized.
“Most people who are going to read this publication aren’t farmers,” Whitely said. “So, if only farmers are talking about issues that affect agriculture, that’s a very small percentage of the population. But all of us eat multiple times a day, so all of us need to become an advocate for a just food system.”
Reporter D. Lars Dolder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @dldolder.