Corporate Control, Fairness & Democracy

The Nebraska legislature voted in February to end the state’s ban on packer ownership of hogs.

Long-time readers will remember that legal challenges led the courts to strike down Nebraska’s broader anti-corporate farming law, Initiative 300, in 2006. Similar laws have been struck down or gutted by court action across the nation.

Multinational packers such as Smithfield and Tyson will now be able to own hogs in the state. State lawmakers left the ban in place for cattle – for now.

Senators threw out the state’s ban on packer ownership of hogs on a vote of 34-12. That stands in stark contrast to the 1999 vote that put the law in place. That year all but one Senator voted in support of banning packer ownership of livestock.

The Center for Rural Affairs has long believed livestock should be owned by farmers and ranchers, not by large multinational corporations. That’s why we vigorously opposed repeal of the law.

We see the recent loss, along with the loss of anti-corporate farming laws across the country, as part of the trend of a corporate takeover of the economy and, ultimately, of our democracy. 

The fight is fundamentally about fairness and competition in the marketplace. Competition drives capitalism, makes markets fair and creates new opportunity.

Interestingly, the debate in Nebraska was not partisan. There were a mix of liberal and conservative senators on both sides of the issue.

Free-market conservatives found themselves split, some voting to repeal the prohibition that they saw as interference in the free market, and others arguing the ban itself was necessary to maintain a free market.

Meanwhile, liberal senators who often fight to improve incomes for working people and protect our natural resources found themselves voting in favor of allowing Smithfield to own hogs in Nebraska, a move that will diminish returns for farmers and put our natural resources at risk.

The debate was between populists who believe that everyday people deserve a fair shake, and those who believe in – or are resigned to – the creeping corporate takeover of our economy and our democracy.

That sentiment has far-reaching impact.

This is about whether meat packers will eventually own and control all livestock production. It’s also about whether proposed mega-mergers in the seed industry will leave farmers with fewer choices and higher costs. And it’s about the pressure that big box retailers put on small town grocers and hardware store owners.

Ample research shows that in communities where family farms control the landscape, incomes are higher, unemployment is lower and environmental outcomes are better. Similar research shows that a strong small business sector buoys local economies and communities.

The increased corporate domination of all sectors of our economy results in less opportunity for everyday rural people.

Rural people are fighting back. Citizens in North Dakota faced a change similar to the lifting of Nebraska’s ban on packer ownership of hogs. Grassroots groups, led by North Dakota Farmers Union, launched a ballot initiative. The change in their law will now go before the people this June.

Make no mistake, the fight against the creeping corporate control of our economy and our democracy is hard. It is perhaps the hardest thing we are called to do. But it is so fundamental to the values of the Center for Rural Affairs that we will continue to force the issue in the public square and in the halls of congress.