As an organizer working with farm groups in Wisconsin, I have asked many poultry farmers about the conditions they’re working under. Sadly, no one will speak to me.

It’s not that I’m unfriendly. In fact, I regularly speak to dairy and vegetable farmers about their problems, and most producers are more than willing to talk about their challenges and share their experiences with me.

But poultry farmers display a unique type of fear. Not of me—but of their industry. Poultry farmers work on contract with larger companies and the contracts they sign require that they raise the birds provided by the company, to the specs it provides and in a set window. The poultry industry is so concentrated, that the lack of competing buyers allows agribusiness processors total control to dictate the price, the farm conditions, the building specifics, and the feed every farmer must use. And farmers often go deeply into debt to meet those requirements.

In this environment, farmers are scared, not just to speak to me, but to talk to anyone about how hard it is for them to get by. And yet, most feel they have no choice but to continue working for the small handful of companies that now control the industry.

Concentration in agriculture is—and has been—a problem in American agriculture for years. The documentary Food, Inc. famously featured several contract poultry farmers trapped under crippling debt and unable to change their practices for the better. In 2010, many former and current farmers testified at public hearings that the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) held on the poultry industry. They spoke out about consolidation, vertical integration, and the debt they had taken on to stay in the business.

John Oliver also ran a powerful segment about the conditions back in 2015. And yet nothing significant has changed since then.

So, it was a promising development when, earlier this month, President Biden, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and representatives from a number of farm groups came together to announce a plan to “boost competition in the meat industry.”

At the core of the plan is the allocation of $1 billion to assist independent meat processors and ranchers to become more competitive within the larger industry. In Biden’s own words, “capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, is exploitation.”

While it’s a good first move, not only in recognizing the problem, but also in dedicating resources to the matter, the truth is that it’s far from enough. In addition to supporting independent producers, the administration, and more specifically the USDA, must make a sincere attempt to improve the rules of the game. Or rather, to ensure that our agricultural markets ensure fair competition.

We know that our food and farm systems lack such dynamics.

A study out of the University of Missouri found that when four firms control more than 45 percent of any given sector of the economy, those entities with market share show a proclivity to engage in anti-competitive practices that hurt farmers, workers, and consumers. Such practices include price and wage fixing, as well as dictating conditions to buyers and sellers. Additionally, innovation declines as, with fewer and fewer actors involved in some market, competition is replaced by collusion.

According to the Open Markets Institute, over the last three decades, the four largest poultry processors went from holding 35 to 51 percent of total market share, while in beef processing, that figure went from 25 to 85 percent, and in hogs, it went from 33 to 66 percent. The dairy industry, as of 2017, saw its four largest cooperatives control over 53 percent of all unprocessed raw milk sales.

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