RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Rein in the Big Hogs

Size matters. Or, at least, in politics the size of the organization matters. The sweep of the D's in Congress is due to amazing top-down organization. Here in Missouri, organizers started preparing for this election in 2004, designating resources and people to work on the next big go-around.

I hung door hangers on the same streets I had worked two years ago and was amazed at the change. Signs in the yards. People coming to their doors to proudly say they were registered and had already found a ride to the polls which, in low-income areas, are miles away. Uphill.

It was a wonderful thing to see.

But before we get all blathery about the wins, let's review the issues. Iraq, of course, and the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few greedy greed-heads.

On Sept. 18, hog production giants Premium Standard Farms and Smithfield announced a merger. Besides paying shareholders, Smithfield would take over $117 million debt owed by PSF.

Part of the debt is $4.5 million awarded to neighbors in a nuisance suit six weeks before the merger was announced. They had won their suit, based on the fact that PSF has fouled the air over their north Missouri homes, made them sick and depleted their property values so they could not sell. Now that the merger has been announced, the neighbors' debt will become, at best, difficult to collect.

Congress, pay attention! There is a pattern emerging: A corporation starts to owe a big amount of money in workmen's comp claims or other claims, and the corporation suddenly become available for takeover. The details of whether the debt is paid became lost in the fine print.

PSF and Smithfield will combine to own over 1,000,000 sows, putting them in position to control 20% of hog production and 31% of pork packing. Another way to say that is that in much of the United States, and in north Missouri, they'll own 100% of the hog business.

And, in owning 100% of the hog business, they'll own 100% of the job market, the real estate market and, ultimately, the government.

This is shameful. In the last decade, while the hog population has grown, hog farmers have nearly disappeared. They have been replaced by giant company stores manned by helpless workers. In the Missouri counties where Premium Standard Farms has operated for the last decade, childhood poverty hovers around 30%.

Besides being major polluters, industrial animal raising has been taken to court and found guilty of exploiting workers, usually immigrant workers that arrive in rural areas without language, contacts or any kind of advocacy. The giants that control the industry ignore the claims.

If you don't pay your bills and you ignore lawsuits, you'll become rich. So these giants are rich enough that they can spend their money on lobbyists dedicated to changing laws and stripping power from government agencies that want to prosecute. Staffs in state Departments of Resources and Conservation have been decimated.

Back when there was pride in holding office, public servants (as they were called) worked to create their legacy. They -- many of them anyway -- measured their success by listing the social goods they left behind. Harry Truman prosecuted businessmen that profited unfairly from World War II. Jack Kennedy improved care for mentally ill people. Lyndon Johnson signed equal voting rights into law.

Those random examples don't summarize the terms of each of those leaders, of course, but the point is that each of them tried to create a bit of social progress for the ordinary American.

Today, public servants have become servile to the corporations. Under the Bush administration, the anti-democratic process has accelerated. It is impossible to come up with any social improvement from the last six years.

Under Bush II, health care costs have risen and increasing numbers of us are uninsured. Climate change is accelerating. The US could have been a leader in finding solutions, but we're not. The income gap between rich and poor has become huge and Congress refuses to raise the minimum wage. And the PATRIOT Act -- don't get me started!

We can imagine a time when only Rush Limbaugh wheezes forth positively for the Prez.

Rush appears to be a big eater, but he doesn't talk about food. In fact, agricultural policy is not on the radar screens of most reporters. It's hard to understand agriculture, and it's not very glamorous. So it shouldn't be surprising that, to the average journalists, covering food production and policy is the lowest of low-priorities.

Amazingly, there are pork producers dedicated to fighting this kind of monopoly. In my county, a half dozen new pasture-based producers have sprung up in the last couple of years, selling directly to the public at farmers' markets and through the locker plants. If the policy makers won't help them, the consumer must. If you eat bacon, ham or any other kind of pork, find independent farmers raising hogs on pasture and ask how you can help.

Then write your new congressional representatives and tell them you expect them to rein in the corporations!

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2006

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