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USDA Livestock Reforms - Renewed Hope for MN Farmers and Producers?

June 22, 2010

MINNEAPOLIS - Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is publishing a new rule which is aimed at leveling the playing field for small livestock and poultry producers. It's promoted as a way to restore market competition and strengthen protections against price discrimination.

Advocates say the new rule adds much-needed enforcement to the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, and could be a huge step towards revitalizing Minnesota's rural communities. One such advocate, John Crabtree, who is media director with the Center for Rural Affairs, says change is needed.

"For literally decades now, the USDA has not been very effective at enforcing those market rules. Small family farmers and ranchers deserve fair access to an equitable marketplace. They don't want, need, or deserve anything more than the largest producers get, but they do deserve a fair shake. "

In announcing the rule, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that concerns about the lack of fairness and common-sense treatment have gone unaddressed for too long. Many of the provisions addressed by the rule were voiced during dozens of Rural Tour stops made nationwide by Vilsack this past year.

Price discrimination from meatpackers against small-volume livestock producers is one of the practices addressed by the new rule. It's a practice that has squeezed out small producers, says Crabtree.

"That fundamental unfairness is what's driven literally tens of thousands of producers out of business."

The number of livestock farms in Minnesota has rapidly diminished over the past few decades. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, sixty years ago, there were more than 110,000 hog farms in Minnesota. By the mid-1980s, that number fell to under 17,000, and today there are less than 5,000 hog farms in the state.

Crabtree says the renewed interest in enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act is too late for the farms that have already gone out of business, but he is cautiously optimistic about the future for small farmers and livestock producers.

"If the Secretary, and the others in the USDA and the administration, are as good as their word and they're going to stand up on this, then maybe we can create a marketplace that helps the next generation of farmers and ranchers get into the business of livestock production, get into the business of farming at all."

Meatpackers and corporate livestock and poultry producers are condemning the proposal as a contradiction of established legal precedent. The USDA is accepting public comments through August 23 on the proposed rule.

The proposed rule can be found at www.gipsa.usda.gov

Sharon Rolenc, Public News Service - MN