On Tuesday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it was withdrawing the Farmer Fair Practice rules—or the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (“GIPSA”) rules, as they’re more commonly known—effectively saying, “Know what? Never mind.”
It was a devastating blow to contract farmers, who had been hoping to benefit from the protection the rules promised.
GIPSA was established in 1994 to promote fair and competitive trading practices. Had the rules gone into effect this week, they would’ve made it a little easier for poultry and livestock farmers to sue processors or meatpackers over unfair treatment by updating language in the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 to clarify a stance USDA and GIPSA have long held: that farmers shouldn’t have to prove “competitive injury” (that their buyers have done something to impact all farmers in their position, as a class) in order to pursue legal action.
Here’s the thing: The GIPSA rules probably wouldn’t have unseated the big meat and poultry companies. But they would have gone a long way towards giving farmers and ranchers some bargaining power with their customers, the multinational meat processors who control the highly consolidated marketplace. That’s especially true in the vertically integrated chicken industry, where “integrators” like Tyson and Perdue not only buy the chickens, but provide birds, feed, and vaccinations—everything but raise the birds themselves.
“They dictate everything. We have no control over anything,” says Rudy Howell, a Perdue grower in North Carolina. “The only recourse you had was to go to GIPSA—and they can’t do nothing because Congress, every year the farm bill came up they put a rider on it, and [didn’t] give the money to enforce the laws.”
Howell is talking about GIPSA’s long, painful incubation period, which has become a sore point for many farmers across the country. According to Joe Maxwell, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, President Obama was elected, in part, by farmers and ranchers in agricultural states who believed his promise that his administration would take on corporate consolidation in agriculture.
Though the GIPSA rules were initially required in the 2008 Farm Bill, enaction was delayed year after year until the final days of the Obama administration. Signing the Farmer Fair Practices rule then became the responsibility of the Trump Administration, which delayed its decision until this week. For many farmers—especially those who supported the political rise of Donald Trump—the decision is a grievous disappointment.
“We had a lot of hope, with the election of President Trump, that these rules would be implemented,” Maxwell says. “Placing America first over multinational corporate interests seemed to be a commitment made by him during his campaign. I believe many in the rural community have been credited for electing the President, and a lot of that was based upon the belief that these rules would be put in place—that family farmers and ranchers would be put first.”