Cattlemen struggle against giant meatpackers and economic squeezes

  • Bill Bullard, surrounded by hundreds of cattlemen and feedlot owners, addresses U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice officials at a conference on competition in the livestock industry

    Ed Andrieski/Ap
  • "Feed Lot," stone lithographic by Sue Coe. For more of her work, including her Slaughterhouse and Factory Farm series, see

  • Cattle fatten near Greeley, Colorado, in a giant feedlot recently bought by Brazilian firm JBS, the world’s largest beef processor.

    Kevin Moloney
  • Beef sides hang in refrigeration at a Cargill meatpacking plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado, where 5,000 animals a day are processed.

    Kevin Moloney
  • Randy Stevenson at his Double S Livestock backgrounding operation in Wheatland, Wyoming. Stevenson used to run a small feedlot selling directly to meatpackers, but says he got forced out of that business.

    Michael Shane Smith
  • Stevenson in the corrals.

    Michael Shane Smith
  • Norman Smith is the last of the old-time ranchers on his part of this mesa in western Colorado. All the surrounding ranches have been split up and sold at prices too high for a working rancher to afford.

    JT Thomas
  • A newborn calf gets an ear tag (while its mother objects).

    JT Thomas

Fort Collins, Colorado
A sea of cream-colored cowboy hats, the kind ranchers wear on their days off, fills a sterile conference room at the Fort Collins Marriott. Banners from groups like the Ranchers-Cattlemen Legal Action Fund and the Western Organization of Resource Councils add bright slashes of color, and warn that JBS, the world's largest meatpacker, now controls 24 percent of all cattle produced in the United States. It's August 2010, the night before a national workshop on competition in the livestock industry, and well over 500 ranchers, feedlot owners and their allies are packed into this room to talk about change.

Word spreads that I want to hear their stories. We all know they're harassed by many demons: Land, feed and fuel costs have all soared. Newly health-conscious consumers disdain red meat; environmentalists regularly sue over grazing practices. Retail giants like Walmart grab an increasing share of any profits. The price a rancher gets for beef, adjusted for inflation, dropped from $1.97 to 93 cents per pound between 1980 and 2009.

Today, though, the ranchers are focused on a different villain, and one after another, they pull me aside to tell different versions of the same tale. They talk about the meatpackers' power -- how it's become nearly impossible to make a living as a small operator, because the meatpackers no longer buy much from small operators. It's harder and harder to get a fair price for cattle, they say, and the meatpackers that slaughter and process the beef conspire to make it so.

Bill Bullard, president of the Montana-based Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), mounts the podium like a preacher and rallies the crowd. "Our cattle industry is shrinking," Bullard booms. "Folks, these are signs of an unhealthy industry. An industry in severe crisis." He's one of many who raise the specter of the nation's chicken and hog industries, in which once-independent farmers are now treated more like meatpackers' employees.

Close to 2,000 people show up at the next day's workshop, held at nearby Colorado State University and sponsored by the U.S. departments of Agriculture and Justice. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack fields questions about the meatpackers and cites a grim statistic: The number of U.S. cattle producers has plummeted from 1.6 million in 1980 to 950,000 today. Vilsack doesn't directly blame the meatpackers, but says, "We can't continue these trends, because if we do, we're going to end up with a handful of farmers, a handful of packers, a handful of processors, a handful of grocery stores, and at that point, the consumers will suffer as well."

It's a chord that twangs mournfully throughout U.S. agriculture, as a traditional rural way of life appears to take its last, sad, shuddery breaths. But the ranchers haven't given up hope. In fact, many speakers thank the Obama administration for showing more guts than previous administrations -- Democrat or Republican -- and finally standing up to the meatpacking industry.

The rise of the meatpackers began in the 1880s -- an era, in the words of the Federal Trade Commission, "when the modern American meat industry was in its infancy." Back then, John Rockefeller was building the Standard Oil empire as other powerful men became railroad and steel barons. The "Big Five" meatpacking companies controlled 45 percent of the domestic cattle market by the early 1890s. Every Tuesday at 2 p.m., their representatives met in downtown Chicago to decide how many cattle each would bring to the marketplace. This illegal act of collusion -- which kept meat prices high by limiting supply -- was known as the Veeder Pool, because the meatpackers' attorney, Henry Veeder, kept records for the meetings and later testified about them in Congress. The Veeder Pool and similar dodgy arrangements put the squeeze on ranchers, whose cattle decreased in quality and value as the packers held them back from the market.

The big meatpackers were mostly able to evade enforcement of the 1890 federal Sherman Antitrust Act. Whenever the pressure got too strong, the companies would play legal hide-and-seek, merging or dissolving to avoid prosecution. Even when trust-busting President Teddy Roosevelt took office, the companies retained their power. Upton Sinclair, a leading muckraker, described the power of the "Beef Trust" in his classic 1906 novel, The Jungle:

"It was the incarnation of blind and insensate Greed. It was a monster devouring with a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hoofs ... it was the spirit of Capitalism made flesh ... it wiped out thousands of businesses every year, it drove men to madness and suicide. It had forced the price of cattle so low as to destroy the stock-raising industry ... it had ruined butchers who refused to carry its products. It divided the country into districts, and fixed the price of meat in all of them ..."

Spurred by that book and cattlemen's complaints, in 1918 the FTC found "evidence of two generations of combined effort on the part of the American meat packers, particularly the Armour, Swift and Morris families, to control an ever increasing part of the food of the American people." The meatpackers were "skilled in concealing" their collusion and maintained "the appearance of competition," the FTC said.

Lill Erickson
Lill Erickson
Mar 22, 2011 10:46 AM
Excellent article outlining the situation. However, there is hope. In Montana a growing number of ranchers are working with Western Sustainability Exchange to create a beef value chain of ranchers, feeders, small processors and markets who share a common vision that by working together we can have a beef system that is healthy, humane, environmentally responsible and locally based.
Bente Marie Callaway
Bente Marie Callaway Subscriber
Mar 22, 2011 01:47 PM
Ranchers can fight back in other ways, although it isn't costless. They can "de-integrate" the national supply market by creating their own supply chains to local markets, provided they can raise the capital and aquire the know-how to sell directly to local food wholesalers and supermarkets. Not likely? There is a growing market for beef from "ecologically" farmed cattle that is already bypassing the multi-nationals and making inroads in local markets, where consumers have demonstrated amply they are willing to pay more for ecological products. The market share of beef products from ecological producers is probably larger in the UK than in the US. So, there are economic models to go by.

Bob Taylor's a smart guy. Ask him about how this would work and the chances for success.
Lill Erickson
Lill Erickson
Mar 22, 2011 01:55 PM
I agree with Bente. Though hard it is happening in Montana. We are creating a Sustainable Beef Value Chain. Small at this point but the pieces are coming together to increase the scale as the markets grow.
Barbara & Frank Flocke
Barbara & Frank Flocke Subscriber
Mar 29, 2011 02:34 PM
I think the last poster describes the way it has to happen. Most ranchers might not be able to do this on their own without a system in place that is built from the bottom up. Once a supply chain is in place local ranchers interested in raising cattle in a sustainable way can get on and the system can grow to accommodate more suppliers.