There was a moment in those halcyon days of late 2008, when liberals across the nation thought electing a president could actually by itself lead to a transformational moment that didn’t require massive organizing and fighting. As part of that moment, there was a lot of talk among the food and environmental movements that maybe Obama would appoint someone as Secretary of Agriculture who would really shake things up. Maybe even someone like Michael Pollan, people suggested only half-joking. Of course, as everyone soon discovered, Obama was not a revolutionary figure in any sense of the term. He was a pretty standard liberal Democrat who was not anti-big business at all, even as he hoped to reform some of their more predatory practices. So he did what any Democrat would do and appointed someone like Tom Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture, who was nothing if not a friend to Big Ag. This was one of the early realizations that Obama was not what everyone projected upon him but what he always was.
This is what I thought of today when I read Dayen’s new piece on how Vilsack is attempting to influence the Democratic primary by urging candidates to be nice to his friends in Big Ag, who are of course paying him handsomely for the service.
Any Democrat looking to improve life for everyday Iowans, then, could highlight preventing or reversing big ag consolidation as a way to salvage rural America. Anyone, that is, except for Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and former President Barack Obama’s agriculture secretary. Which makes sense, because he’s a mouthpiece for the corporate dairy industry.
Vilsack was heavily recruited to run for Senate against Republican Joni Ernst in 2020, but announced earlier this year that he would take a pass. Speaking on the “Iowa Starting Line” podcast last month, he warned Democratic candidates against talking about farm monopolies. “Well, there are a substantial number of people hired and employed by those businesses here in Iowa,” Vilsack said. “So you’re essentially saying to all of those folks, you might be out of a job. That’s not to me a winning message.”
If the conversation is about lost jobs, Vilsack has it backward: Farm consolidation causes job loss, from family farmers cashing out to Bayer cutting 12,000 jobs when it merged with Monsanto.
But his message will come as a relief to his industry employers.
Vilsack is president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, joining just days after wrapping up as Obama’s agriculture secretary. The council’s members include the large corporate players who have made the dairy business a rolling disaster in America.
Prices for milk have plummeted since 2014, leading to the closure of around 4,600 dairy farms per year, a number that is expected to accelerate. The problem is a small set of monopoly purchasers. A single processor slowing purchases, as Grassland Dairy Products did in 2017, can lead to disaster. Some dairy companies have begun to include a list of suicide prevention hotlines in the envelope with farmers’ checks.
For the most part, only large factory farmers have remained viable; the average number of cows per dairy farm has doubled since 2004.
In the past, cooperatives would organize dairy farmers to protect their interests against consolidated buyers. But co-ops now include monopoly giants like Dairy Farmers of America, which “represents” 13,000 farmers producing 30 percent of the raw milk supply. As a hybrid producer and buyer, DFA can dictate terms to farmers in areas where there’s no alternative. They also own or partner with milk processors and marketers, meaning that they make more money when they keep prices to co-op members low.
DFA’s $14 billion in annual revenue rarely gets shared with its own members, unless forced. Last year, DFA paid out a $50 million class-action settlement to 9,000 farms for cornering the raw milk market and driving down prices in the Northeast, including Sanders’s state of Vermont. That followed a $140 million settlement in the Southeast in 2012.
Vilsack did disclose his affiliation at the top of the “Iowa Startling Line” interview, saying, “I work for dairy farmers and the dairy industry in the country as we try to export dairy products around the world.” But if farmers aren’t profiting from what they produce, expanded exports do little for them.
The U.S. Dairy Export Council is funded through direct grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program, a marketing fund that gave the organization $4.7 million in public dollars last year, along with the dairy “checkoff” program, in which farmers kick in 7.5 cents for every 100 pounds of milk they sell for promotional campaigns. Checkoff programs have been savaged by farm reform groups and 2020 candidates like Warren, because the money often goes to lobbying activities for big ag.
In the last available disclosure form from the U.S Dairy Export Council’s corporate parent, from 2016, Vilsack’s predecessor in the organization, Thomas Suber, earned $753,620. “I’m surprisingly more busy now than I was when I was secretary,” Vilsack noted to “Iowa Starting Line.”
In the interview, Vilsack insisted that breaking up agricultural monopolies would do nothing for farmers “because a company of the broken-up companies will hold the patent to the seed. And as long as they hold the patent, they’re going to be able to license that technology to all those other smaller companies.” He suggested reducing patent protections on seeds from 20 years to five years.
This is a fine idea; Sanders actually endorsed it in his agricultural policy speech. But it skillfully avoids anything that would affect Vilsack’s job. Seeds are not the only input on farms, and crops are not the only items raised. In his answer about farm monopolies, dairy and livestock didn’t come up.
Furthermore, Vilsack completely contradicted himself moments later in the interview by saying, “It’s not so much the input costs that these guys are worried about, it’s their lack of market opportunity.” He endorsed creating local food markets (an odd thing for the head of an export council to say), where farmers can negotiate “directly as the producer with you the consumer.” This is precisely what isn’t done by Vilsack’s employers in the dairy industry, who force prices downward in anti-competitive ways.
It’s all pretty par for the course from a system that has made a few people very rich while marginalizing the actual farmers. Hopefully, we can rethink our agricultural system while we rethink our other environmental problems. I am, however, not optimistic about this or anything else concerning the planet.