Beefing Up Family Farms

Beefing Up Family Farms

Ranchers in their white cowboys hats, at a federal government hearing on meatpacker consolidation and farm policy (Photo: Kris Hite)

A few weeks ago, Fort Collins hosted the most critical moment in the history of the American cattle industry, at least according to one rancher advocacy organization. A U.S. government hearing on the monopolization of the meatpacking industry brought thousands of farmers and ranchers to town to share their tough-luck stories of survival.

I covered the proceedings for in an essay-ish news story, published September 10, 2010, “Down on the Farm.”


The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), a grassroots group based in Montana, has called the Fort Collins hearing “the most important day in the history of your U.S. cattle industry.” R-CALF tried to spur 25,000 ranchers to turn out and speak up against the corporate stranglehold of the packing industry – and in favor of a proposed new rule that might help ease some of the tensions. Estimates of the crowd that pack into a main ballroom and several overflow rooms are closer to 1,800, but that’s still a lot of belt buckles, cowboy hats and pushbroom moustaches.

They have come from Minnesota and California and West Virginia and South Dakota and, of course, Texas. They came from all parts of Colorado and its neighboring states. Generally known as a tight-lipped demographic, these ranchers are here to speak, but it’s not exactly a universal message.

The family farmers and ranchers facing corporate oppression have stepped into a cowpie of liberal sympathy, although there are some different reactions to the mess. On one hand, ranchers who align with R-CALF’s positions are eager and willing to tap the populist and progressive rush of purpose to beat back consolidation and industrial tactics in defense of the salt-of-the-earth families that grow and raise America’s food.

Then again, many ranchers are in Fort Collins to stand before government officials and declare that no new regulations – including the proposed rule to limit consolidation and control by meatpackers – are warranted. It’s a typical rural, anti-government stance, and some folks still reserve the brunt of their wrath over the decline of their farms for the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws.

I came away feeling slightly hopeful that federal officials are aware of — and trying to help resolve — the problems for family farms due to the consolidation of meatpackers and retailers. But after sitting through hours of panels and public comments, it’s also pretty obvious that there is hardly a united front among rural families and communities when it comes to devising solutions that will sustain a locally-rooted ag economy and develop sound, domestic food policy.

Besides, it’s easier — and immediately cheaper — to shop at Wal-Mart and just eat fast food.

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