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‘Ideological, partisan breakdown’: Proposed legislation reveals conflict among agriculturalists

Generic Farm Corn
Posted at 3:08 PM, Aug 18, 2023

Rifts between family farmers and large agribusiness companies have expanded as debate over animal confinement legislation and a fairness in farming act hits new heights. 

The Organization for Competitive Markets, a members-based group of small town farmers from across the country, recently met to discuss its opposition to the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression Act, known as EATS, and Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall of Kansas. Marshall and Iowa U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson are leading the push for EATS alongside other legislators in farm states.

“It is very rare for us to take aim directly at a senator, but we feel Marshall’s EATS act is the most egregious of attacks against independent family farmers we’ve ever seen by a U.S. Senator,” said Marty Irby, OCM secretary and Competitive Markets Action president.

Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said farming used to be one of the most nonpartisan issues, with more Democrats previously residing in farm states. He said infighting makes it harder to be politically active and “the culture war has infected another type of policy.”

“We’re seeing ideological and partisan breakdown on a type of legislation that typically hasn’t been,” Smith said. “And it may be even some traditional farm advocates that are more conservative don’t like the EATS act, because they don’t want to make something like this partisan, as farming legislation typically is not partisan.”

EATS followed California’s approval of Proposition 12, which prohibits in-state production and marketing of pork from pigs raised in unregulated confinement. The proposition also barred the selling of products in California from states that do not follow the guidelines.

In a recent interview with RFD-TV, a program focused on rural issues, Marshall said lawmakers are “drawing a line in the sand” to stop Proposition 12 and future regulations.

“These are radical animal-rights activists that are leading this charge against us,” he said. “We do not want California telling Kansas or Iowa farmers on how to raise pigs, next it’s going to be cattle, then they’re going to tell us we can’t grow GMO corn.”

Smith said California has passed legislation regulating incoming products before. The state has so many people, it can leverage industries’ need to sell in the state to pass laws that are stricter than federal guidelines, he said. 

Companies cannot stop selling to California, and it is not cost effective to make separate products that comply with the state’s regulations, so they will produce all their products to comply. 

“This EATS act is a backlash by Sen. Marshall and his allies, mostly conservative Republicans from farm states, that would cancel any state regulations pre-processing on agricultural production that conflict with federal law, that it would basically default to the federal standards,” Smith said. 

Irby said OCM and its leaders have repeatedly asked Marshall to back legislation they support and he has yet to do so. 

“It’s unfortunate he decided to introduce the EATS attack against states’ rights without even asking our members in the state for their opinion or input before the bill was introduced, and that was a huge mistake on his part and his staff,” Irby said.

Marshall did not respond to a Kansas Reflector request for comment.

The division in agricultural opinion on the act may arise from small, family-owned farms wanting to be competitive against big businesses, Smith said. 

“The smaller family farmers and ranchers actually see an opportunity here, because the confined feeding operations are mostly done by big agribusiness corporations,” he said. “It’s not the small family farmer and rancher that’s doing these confined feeding operations, and so the California regulation would actually probably benefit them, because it would make them more competitive.”

OCM also raised concerns about Chinese ownership of agribusiness, saying EATS will pave the way for Chinese corporations to expand across the country. 

Smithfield Foods, with brands including Nathan’s Famous, Farmer John and Farmland, is owned by WH Group Limited. According to the Smithfield Foods website, WH Group Limited is based in Hong Kong and is the largest pork company in the world. 


‘Fairness in Farming’

While OCM strongly opposes EATS, it supports the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act

The measure, first introduced in 2016, would establish restrictions and requirements for checkoff programs overseen by the Department of Agriculture. These programs provide research for agricultural commodities without reference to specific brands.

Farmers have to pay fees to the USDA, and they want to prevent companies from benefiting from those fees if they are also lobbying in congress, Smith explained. 

He said the small farms don’t have as much money to hire lobbyists as big corporations, and with more money comes more influence and benefits.

While OCM supports this act, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association leadership disagrees. In a May 11 news release, president Todd Wilkinson called the bill “the Obliterating Family Farms Act.”

“The bill is nothing but an attack on cattle producers who have worked hard to build a program that promotes our wholesome American beef while also strengthening our family farms and ranches,” he said.

Irby accused the NCBA of being “nothing more than a front group for foreign interests and multinational corporations like the Chinese-owned Smithfield.”

“They’ve hijacked the voice of independent family farmers and continue to misrepresent their constituency,” Irby said. 

Wilkinson criticized Irby in the same news release, saying conservative organizations were being “infiltrated” by animal rights activists. He referenced how before Irby worked for the company, he worked for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, both animal rights advocacy groups.

“Irby is no friend of animal agriculture, and he has turned FreedomWorks into a lobbying machine for the OFF Act and for ending our way of life,” he said.

In a news release announcing Irby’s reelection as secretary of OCM, he said he was honored to continue in the role. 

“If the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association thinks their recent slanderous personal attacks are working for them, they’re dumber than I thought,” Irby said. “They’ve only motivated me to work twice as hard to defeat the EATS Act and see the enactment of the OFF Act.”

In June, OCM launched a campaign against EATS and recently visited Washington, D.C., to advocate against the act in the upcoming Farm Bill, legislation passed by Congress every five years to support agricultural policy.

“Producers across the nation are rallying against the EATS Act, and we will continue to stand strong on the front lines in the war the leaders of EATS have launched against American family farmers,” said Mike Weaver, an OCM board director, in a news release.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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