US & World

Family Farms Dwindle, Administration Probes Why

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack launch a series of workshops Friday delving into agriculture anti-trust issues. Some big agribusiness firms say the forums will showcase a well functioning, free market. Many producers think the probe will expose a system increasingly hostile to traditional family farms.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack launch a series of workshops probing anti-trust issues in agriculture Friday.

Some big agribusiness firms say the forums will show a well functioning, free market. Many producers think the meetings will expose a system increasingly hostile to the traditional family farm.

Twenty-five years ago, Montgomery County, Mo., had about 200 independent hog farmers. There are two now.

Jim Foster with his old open-air hog barns is one of them. "Bought this place in '63 when I got out of college and got married, been here ever since," Foster says.

It hasn't been easy keeping this rambling operation together. Big packing companies took over most pork production years ago. That drove down prices and drove most of Foster's neighbors out of the industry. He's got just one steady buyer for his hogs.

Meanwhile, companies that sell Foster supplies have grown just as powerful, as the ones he depends on to buy his livestock. That leaves Foster trapped between giants. A situation he blames on "hands off" economic policy.

"The biggest boar at the trough needs to win no matter who he lashes out with his tusks and kills, 'cause the biggest company left standing will be efficient, and that efficiency will move down to the consumer," Foster says. "That's hog wash. That doesn't work. We found out from the banks that it doesn't work that way. They keep that efficiency in their pocket."

Foster thinks the workshops starting in Ankeny, Iowa, mark a sharp turn in thinking. He's not the only one.

"It indicates that the federal government, for the first time in a very long time, is willing to look at this problem area," says Neil Harl, professor emeritus at Iowa State University.

For 30 years he's been howling about what he calls the "towering concentration" in agribusiness. He's found an ally in Justice Department anti-trust chief Christine Varney.

"Farmers are more and more facing very difficult day-to-day issues of surviving economically," Varney says. "I'm very interested in looking at the factors that contribute to that difficulty."

The Justice Department and at least seven state attorneys general are investigating Monsanto, the world's largest seed company. They're looking into whether Monsanto used its patented "Roundup Ready" gene to kill off competition and jack up prices.

"We believe an objective review of the agriculture sector will reveal that competition is alive and flourishing," says Lee Quarles a spokesman for Monsanto.

Quarles says farmers wouldn't buy its seeds if they didn't work.

But something is killing family farms. About 80,000 mid-sized operations disappeared just in the last five years.

Vilsack says he wants to know just how much consolidation in agribusiness contributes to that decline.

"When agribusiness purchasing power is reduced to a small number of companies, does that create such an unlevel playing field that it compels those in the middle to either get bigger or get out," Vilsack asks.

At his farm, Foster enjoys his grand kids but worries if they'll ever have a future in agriculture. That's why he's going to testify at the workshop in Ankeny.

"I'm not interested in one guy farming our whole county," Foster says. "I'm interested in a lot of young families with swing sets in the back yard, raising kids. That's what it's all about."

Foster thinks there's a better than even chance the meetings may rebalance the marketplace; and give mid-sized operations like his a little more clout.

"You have to be optimistic," Foster says. But he adds that decades from now he doesn't want have to explain that back in 2010, he didn't even try to save the family farm. Copyright 2010 KCUR-FM. To see more, visit