1,300 ranchers, others gather to air antitrust views
By TIM HEARDEN
Allan Sents knows what it's like to be a small fish in the big pond that is the meat marketing industry.
The owner and operator of a 10,000-head-capacity commercial cattle feedlot in central Kansas, Sents said he has sometimes had difficulties getting access to the market and has occasionally seen intimidation tactics used by major meatpackers.
He said he sees room for "limited but meaningful" government involvement to maintain "a level playing field" for small producers and feedlot owners, and he believes the Aug. 27 antitrust workshop in Fort Collins, Colo., may have created the momentum for such involvement.
"I think it did for the first time ever get the debate more in the open with all sides expressing their opinion," said Sents, who was one of the panelists at the hearing hosted by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder.
"There has to be some give and take at some point," said Sents, a U.S. Cattlemen's Association regional director. "That's what's been so frustrating; everyone's been so polarized and nobody's wanted to work for common ground. To say nothing's wrong ... I think is detrimental to the industry in the long run."
Sents' impressions are shared by many with varying opinions in the aftermath of the highly anticipated livestock hearing, which drew more than 1,300 ranchers and others to a student center ballroom at Colorado State University.
Representatives of all points of view said they believed they were given a fair hearing at the workshop, and that they hoped the debate would lead to a greater public understanding of how the industry works.
Colin Woodall, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said he hopes more people will become aware of the implications of a proposed Grain Inspectors, Packers and Stockyards Administration rule that would place unprecedented restrictions on livestock marketing.
"If we've got some people asking questions about what this GIPSA rule is ... then we're going to call a victory out of this hearing," Woodall said.
"I think that overall it's really about what we expected as far as attendance and the messages that we heard," he said. "More importantly it really illustrated to me how little a lot of folks know about cattle marketing and how little they know about this GIPSA rule, and that's very, very concerning."
The NCBA and National Pork Producers Council held a joint press conference on Aug. 26 to renew their opposition to the rule, whose provisions include barring packers from acquiring livestock from other packers and setting up an arbitration process to handle disputes between packers and producers.
Colorado Cattlemen's Association president Robbie LeValley, a cattle producer and owner of a company that markets beef locally, said she is worried the proposed rule could negatively affect her family business.
"Our innovation and our willingness to do direct marketing has basically now labeled us a packer and under the proposed rule, as I read it, now limits our marketing options -- meaning not being able to sell to other packers," she said in a statement. "While some say that is not the intent of the rule, the vagueness of the language makes it very possible."
The USCA and the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America support the rule, arguing it will bring more fairness to an industry dominated by a few major meatpackers.
National Cattlemen's Beef Association: http://beefusa.org/
R-CALF USA: http://www.r-calfusa.com/
U.S. Cattlemen's Association: http://www.uscattlemen.org/
Antitrust workshops Web site: http://www.justice.gov/atr/public/workshops/ag2010/index.htm