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Farmers Union looks to bring more fairness to farmers

National president urges farmers to tell their stories, persuade policymakers

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Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union organization, addressed the audience Friday at the 106th annual convention of the South Dakota Farmers Union. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)
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HURON — The National Farmers Union organization will continue to fight against unfair market and pricing practices in the agriculture industry, and will call upon farmers and ranchers to tell their stories to reach out and influence state and national policymakers.

That was one of the messages from Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union organization, Friday afternoon at the 106th Annual Convention of the South Dakota Farmers Union in Huron.

“Beyond education, legislation and cooperation, Farmers Union is an organization dedicated to the success of family farmers and ranchers and their communities,” Larew told the audience during the state of the union address at the Crossroads Hotel and Convention Center. “It’s not (just) about my farm, it’s about all of us trying to make the situation better. That really sets Farmers Union apart from other organizations.”

Larew talked about the importance of the Fairness For Farmers program. Fairness For Farmers is a nationwide campaign run by National Farmers Union. The organization is fighting for stronger enforcement of antitrust laws and breaking up the corporate monopolies that use their size to unfairly take advantage of farmers and ranchers while forcing consumers to pay higher prices at the grocery store.

The program is set up to combat a problem that has existed for generations, Larew said. Many companies controlling markets for farm inputs, like fertilizer and commodities, are vertically integrated, which means they control multiple stages of the supply chain. One particular example is the chicken industry, where farmers must sign a contract with a company – known as an integrator – that provides the birds, feed, medication and processing. Integrators can suppress wages, force expensive upgrades, and even sabotage a farmer by providing poorer quality inputs, according to the Farmers Union website.

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The problem also extends to farm equipment manufacturers, which Larew said have monopolized that market on equipment repairs. These companies unfairly force farmers to do some key repairs by restricting access to certain parts or software solely through their dealership networks.

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The 106th annual convention of the South Dakota Farmers Union was held Thursday and Friday, Dec. 16 and 17, in Huron. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

Organizations like Farmers Union have fought that unfairness for years, and despite often bipartisan promises, progress has been slower than anyone would like.

“We often talk about bipartisanship. I think it’s going to be the key to getting these things through. We need more bipartisanship, but that alone is not the answer, because that’s what we’ve had over the last several decades. It started with changes Reagan put in place. That then played out through the Clinton years, through Bush and Bush again, and played out in the Obama administration and Trump administration,” Larew said. “We’ll see what happens in the current administration. What we have had (in the past) is a bipartisan lack of enforcement against antitrust.”

Signs coming out of the Biden administration seem to indicate a willingness to tackle some of the issues Farmers Union is concerned about. The White House in July issued an executive order promoting competition in the American economy. Larew said the National Farmers Union believes that order provides a chance to keep momentum built toward achieving fairness across the agriculture industry.

“I’ve directed my administration to crack down on what some major players are doing in the economy that are keeping prices higher than they need be,” Biden stated in August . “Take your groceries bill: When big agriculture operations consolidate, they put a squeeze on small and family farms, making them pay more for seed, paying them less for what they produce, and raising prices on what your groceries — what you pay for your groceries at the grocery store.”

Larew said the Fairness for Farmers program is attacking the problem on many fronts, but one of the most effective methods of getting the message across to lawmakers and those in power is having real farmers and ranchers affected by these issues to speak up, tell their stories and speak truth to power.

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“We’ve had some really good paid lobbyists over the years, and they continue to be good,” Larew said. “But the best lobbyists we ever had are the farmers and ranchers who tell their story. That is how we are most effective and we continue to push that in everything we do. Sharing your story, telling the tale and connecting to those who can make change is critically important.”

Infrastructure upgrades

As the work continues on the Fairness For Farmers program, Larew noted a few recent positive developments at the national level, including the recent passage of the national infrastructure bill .

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Rob Larew, president of the National Farmers Union organization, addressed the audience Friday at the 106th annual convention of the South Dakota Farmers Union. (Erik Kaufman / Mitchell Republic)

“The passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a momentous achievement in boosting our rural communities and the economy as a whole. The bill strengthens our food supply chain as it makes tremendous, much-needed investments in the roads, bridges, dams, and waterways that family farmers and ranchers depend on,” Larew said in a statement after the bill was passed in November. “The bill also updates hours-of-service regulations for agriculture and livestock haulers, which will keep our crops, inputs, and livestock moving.”

Larew said the new funding for infrastructure is long overdue, and some obvious needs - such as the lack of widespread broadband internet access in rural areas - affects farmers and ranchers as much as everyone else.

“A lot of times we see these bills with massive price tags, it can be overwhelming. But the way I like to think about this package is that this is money that we have failed to invest over the last several decades,” Larew said Friday. “So when you look at the damage we’ve done to infrastructure over the years, this was long overdue. It wasn’t that many years ago broadband internet was seen as a luxury. Any time you leave rural America without (good internet) access, it puts them at a huge disadvantage.”

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There is a lot of work left to do, and Larew, a West Virginia native, said farmers and ranchers from all 50 states will be critical to helping solve issues facing the agriculture industry in 2021 and beyond. He said he has seen people across the country working on affecting change, including people in South Dakota, and he believes change is truly possible when those individuals work together for the common good.

“(As a candidate for the National Farmers Union presidency), the meeting I had with your South Dakota delegates really stood out. They were so seriously and fiercely focused on making sure whatever we were doing at the national level was focused on the heart of who we are, and making sure farmers and ranchers have that opportunity,” Larew said. “I will continue to do everything in my power to leverage your work to make that happen.”

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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