Transparency, labeling improvements take center stage in Farm Bureau discussion
Before the pandemic exposed the gap between producer and processor in the livestock market, those in the industry were looking for answers.
Early in fall 2019, the Nebraska Farm Bureau put together a task force to look at the cattle markets and suggest changes that producers were hoping to see.
The main concerns for stability of the cattle market came after the 2019 fire in Holcomb, Kansas at the Tyson Foods plant.
“It reinforced the need for some changes to be done,” said Martey Stewart, chairman of the Nebraska Cattle Markets Task Force.
Stewart raises cattle Dixon, Nebraska and has watched first hand as both his cattle business, and his job at the local sale barn, have both been impacted by markets that no longer seem to benefit producers.
While the task force was assembled before anyone knew of COVID-19 beginning across the ocean, Stewart said the pandemic gave a national spotlight to the troubles the market faces when just four packers control 80% of the meat processing in the United States.
The original scope of the task force was focusing on the markets, but that quickly changed as surveys of Nebraska cattlemen quickly identified new and equally important topics to discuss.
“We spent more weeks and hours than we thought we might,” Stewart said. “The impact was a lot more spread out than we once thought.”
Ultimately, the task force released a 36-page report in September that detailed six key topics: fed cattle markets, the livestock marketing reporting act, small and medium-sized packing facilities, beef packer market power, risk management and value-added programs, and mandatory country of origin labeling.
The task force, which was originally slated to meet for six one-hour sessions, ended up spending over 10 full days together virtually and in-person to hash out the key aspects of the industry that the Nebraska Farm Bureau and, ultimately, the American Farm Bureau can help change.
The task force report is scheduled to be discussed at the American Farm Bureau convention, held virtually Jan. 10-13.
While all six topics are equally important, Stewart said he expects that market transparency and country of origin labeling will take the center stage.
“People are going to want to see more transparency in the markets with the deals packers are doing with feedlots,” he said.
One issue that’s been a focus for agricultural leaders at the state and national levels is reducing regulations for smaller meat processors. It’s a topic that has strong support since the pandemic dramatically increased activity at local lockers across the country.
Aside from the pandemic’s impacts, Stewart said many producers were struggling before 2019 and returning to “normal” just isn’t going to cut it. It’s been hard for him and his fellow producers to watch as packers make record profits while producers struggle to stay in business, he said.
Perhaps the best part of the pandemic, he said, has been that everyone is now coming together regardless of organization affiliation.
“Some people are discovering that we need to come together and pool our voices,” he said. “We fell into that trap that they had everything to gain and we had everything to lose. This last year was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
One question at the end of the task force report was whether or not a permanent group is needed to watch markets and highlight problem areas. Nebraska’s task force was given the go-ahead to continue its work and, at the very least, give an avenue for their members to voice concerns.
“This lets our grassroots members know that we care about their concerns out here,” Stewart said.