Episode 6: Big Doesn’t Just Happen

A barm against a sunrise sky

Get ready for the most exciting episode of The Stories Behind Our Food we’ve done yet. We talked to Joe Maxwell about consolidation in the food system and why it’s a threat to American farmers, workers and consumers. “Big doesn’t just happen,” Joe told us. “Big is allowed to happen.”

Make sure to visit the Organization for Competitive Markets’ website to learn how you can get involved. It’s here: https://competitivemarkets.com/

A man and his hogs.

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Episode Transcript

Danielle :0:02Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee. These are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is the stories behind our food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insight or knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux and I’m Kate Chess and we’re your hosts

Danielle :0:28Today. I’m excited to talk with Joe Maxwell about independent family farms. They’re going extinct. Corporations control everything from seeds to supply and prices while chipping away at regulations that inform and protect consumers. It has left the independent food economy, especially farmers devoid of oxygen. How can we change the rules of the game and this episode join myself, Kate and Joe Maxwell, the executive director for the Organization of competitive markets. We will explore how big food hurts American farmers, workers and shoppers. We will discuss how Joe’s history as a hog farmer and legislator has shaped his work in the food system and provide action steps so you can get involved too. Very excited to have Joe on the podcast here. If you had maybe one minute to tell the listeners what, what would be an elevator pitch on why you think this work is important? If you had one minute, what might you tell a listener?

Joe:1:31Absolutely. And I want to thank you all for the opportunity to be on and for all those listening in, it’s extremely important because today independent family agriculture and the family farmers and ranchers that operate within a independent agriculture are on the verge of going bankrupt and being made extinct, by the actions and policies at our state capitals and in Washington DC. And unfortunately their voice is drowned out by big agriculture, industrial agriculture and we need your help. We need it today and we need to join forces if the family farmers of America are gonna survive and they’re the ones that could have the ability and capacity to deliver the safe, healthy food that we know consumers like you are looking for.

Danielle :2:27Thank you, Joe. That’s, that’s awesome. I really love working with OCM, a organization for competitive markets. But maybe, maybe we’ll kind of get into what, what is OCM kind of, how did you become connected to them and your history there?

Joe:2:44Organization for competitive markets, OCM is a 20 year old organization, a that works with family, farmers and ranchers across the country. It’s a national organization and it strives to, reinforce policies and advocacy that support independent family agriculture. we pushed back against the power in the marketplace that multinational food companies now have a, in an effort to give a space, so that our farmers, the what we believe in history will show and does show. Are they good stewards of the land that the animals, our environment and their neighbors, I give them a space so they can operate, stay in business and deliver healthy, safe food, for America’s consumers.

Danielle :3:39That’s great. And I know that you folks are working on a few different projects obviously, as an organizer for equal exchange. I’m really excited about the project that we’re working on together. So, yeah, maybe can you talk a little bit about the food and agribusiness bill and kind of why you think this path is a good step forward for the u s food system specifically?

Joe:4:04Absolutely, and I know many folks that are probably listening are familiar with the recent mega mergers, such as Bayer, Monsanto. These mergers that came over the last several years have sold a concentrated, the, the power of the market and those that control, the very, inputs for the production of our food today after these Bayer, Monsanto type mega mergers, over 70% of seed corn, just as an example, is controlled by two companies. we see that as much as 95% of agricultural seed, now will bear the Monsanto traits, so that, additional roundup can be sprayed on the crops. and, so it’s linking the chemicals, to the actual seed and forcing farmers didn’t have no choice in the market to have the ability to produce a more sustainable, type grains. We also are looking right now, in your, in the protein side.

Joe:5:19folks like, Brazil’s JBS and Brazil’s Marfrig, are now two are the top four, beef producers in the United States that control over 80% of that market. We also see Smith China now own Smithfield and it controls over 25% of the pork production in this country. the problem with those statistics is not that we don’t want to support farmers and ranchers, across the globe. But the fact when these, dominating forces come into the U s market, they’re also in the world market and they’re dictating to every farmer and rancher, price or dictating to the consumer the choices that they’ll have in the grocery stores. And so, we see it’s time to hit the pause button on these mega mergers and these acquisitions within the agricultural sector, beverage and food manufacturing and retail. we believe that until we do, workers will not see justice. Farmers and ranchers will not see justice, nor will the consumer. So we’re working hard to get the u s congress and the Senate and the House, to stop these acquisitions and mergers and take a deep look at the harm that’s been caused to our economy, to the farmers and ranchers, the workers, the environment. Take a look at this and put in place the safeguards necessary to have a fair and open market that delivers health, healthy and safe foods, to, to consumers. Not only here in the u s but around the world.

Danielle :7:06Wow. That’s, that’s great. It sounds like, so it sounds to me like this bill is going to kind of give the economy a chance to pause, right. A chance to breathe. You know, a lot of the concentration, it’s almost like sucking oxygen out of the room for, for independent business. I’m just curious for like on an as an individual, what, what is, you know, why, why exactly is consolidation bad on an individual level? What is the impact on the human level of concentration? Right? Like all those statistics that you just mentioned. Wow. Like, that’s, you know, all those percentages. But what does that really mean on an individual level? You know, I’m a consumer. I’m shopping at my store. Why, why is consolidation bad for me?

Joe:7:54Right? Well, first you also mentioned businesses. this heavy concentration is driving out a small businesses and denying, men and women the opportunity to enter into the food sector. so, it, it denies individuals to fulfill their dream of having their own business, to processed foods, to package foods, and to deliver a high quality, healthy food to their neighbors. How does that reverse of that? Right. Is that we know that here in the US and, also globally, that individual eaters, care about where their food comes from. There’s a rising concern, legitimate concern already in, that, the way in which industrial agricultural globally is producing food. It’s killing. they, they have a care for their bottom line, but they don’t have a care, an equal care for the folks that they’re actually feeding. And so when you wake up in the morning and you think about what am I going to have for breakfast? And you think about how, what your kids and children, should have for breakfast, you, you go to your grocery store and you can’t find that healthy food because too few companies, as few as four companies, regardless of the number of brands or labels that’s on that grocery shelf, it’s really controlled by roughly four companies. And they’re not giving you the healthy choice. They’re giving you the choice that most efficiently produces that, calories in that box or on that shelf, that puts the most money in their pocket.

Danielle :9:53And so consumers wake up every day and are denied opportunities. We also know, especially in the U S and Europe, the, the consumers also trust the voice of those local farmers and ranchers. They trust that, that, that historical, traditional family farm type agriculture, cares about them. And, they not only want to do it for themselves, out of being able to have healthy choices for themselves and their families, but they want to help those farmers. And we are very, very thankful for everyone that has that position, that they are willing to step up and want justice, not only food justice for themselves, the justice for America’s family, farmers and ranchers, that there’ll be treated fairly in the marketplace, that they will have an opportunity to be the sixth or seventh generation. We have, all of us, the staff members, you’re a, Angela Huffman is our director of communications and research, always goof this up, but she, her and her family have been on their farm for over 190 years, who works for us.

Joe:11:12Her family still owns a multi century farm, in, in Europe. And, they, you know, we, we as farmers, I, I’m a fourth generation family farmer from Missouri and, you know, we care about our land. We want to hand it down to the next generation that will feed our neighbors, better than what we found it. we want to care for those animals and we’re not allowed to do that. And we know all those issues are of interest to the consumer, not just the fact that they want justice on the food shelves, but they want justice for those people that have that kind of value, that kind of caring spirit, as they till the soil or raise the, raise the animal.

Danielle :11:56That seems like a great thing about OCM, but folks who were involved with the organization have a personal stake. Can you tell us, Joe, a little bit about what your background is, a farmer, like how that affects this work that you’re doing?

Joe:12:09It’s extremely personal. In that I, have lived, the decline of independent family agriculture in the U s we were thriving in the late seventies, and then there were policy changes in Washington DC, that, began to erode the market opportunity, the fairness and equity, within the marketplace for farmers like myself. My great Granddad plowed the original prairie land under a in Missouri and my grandpa and my dad a farm that as do my brother and myself. Now I take my hat off. My brother is the true American farmer. I do a lot of this work more pretend I’m a farmer. So I want to take my hat off to my brother Steve. he is, the true spirit of what makes American agriculture great. But I have lived that in his early eighties, a this further concentration, these, lax enforcement of the antitrust laws.

Joe:13:25And we’ve allowed monopolies to begin to control the food sector, with that market power brings economic power to them, that economic power brings in political influence or political power. And so, they have now gained a lock of control over the policies, dictated by our elected officials in Washington DC. And so, over that 30 year span or so, I have seen us go from a thriving marketplace where consumers had choice and justice in their food system and we’re family farmers could thrive. The one now where we’re on the verge of bankruptcy and consumers being denied healthy, safe food. We, we strongly, OCM works every day and we all share as staff and as board members, those kinds of values. And that makes it not only personal but gives us a more momentum to get up every day and, and to work hard, for justice within our food system.

Danielle :14:37I think that’s really interesting too. And I’m just kind of looking at your background, right? You know, multigenerational hog farmer. Then you’re kind of talking about the impact of policy on farmers and how that was really real for your family, where you kind of always interested in that connection as a young person. Like where did that begin? That’s just like something that’s really interesting to me. Like did you feel the policy was kind of the next thing that you, the direction that you needed to go to find impact and then kind of what brought you from like multigenerational hog farmer legislator and then kind of taking a different path with OCM as a nonprofit organization? And how do you, you know, kind of exert power and influence in those different spheres and spaces? Just interested in that.

Joe:15:29Growing up? my Steve, I’ve mentioned my brother Steve, we’re twins. Our agreement with the farm who was a value set in us by my, probably more influenced by my granddad because my dad would be out, driving the tractors and we, my brother and I would be helping take care of the animals. And he instilled in us this sense of stewardship, this huge amount of responsibility that a independent family agriculture has as to the things that’s been given to care for. And so I had this deep seated value early in my life as extended by my Granddad and my dad. And all we wanted to do was far. Yeah. So growing up I never dreamed I would be doing this. One day, with changes in Washington d C it became evident that to two of us wasn’t going to be able to stay on the farm. I was going to, and my brother was married. And so I, I was not at the time. And so I, I decided I was going to do something and I got mad. I got furious, right?

Joe:16:43Hate to say that. But I would have been happy to, you know, set on my feed bucket on my prairie farm and watch the sun up come up in the sun, go down. But I became furious that people, policymakers are elected officials would work against my interest, and, and deny me what I grew up as a small child on that prairie farm wanting to do. And I recognize that they made choices. This wasn’t just natural occurrence, it’s just big. Just does it happen. Gig allowed to happen. They gag or culture has been a allowed to happen by our policymakers passing legislation that supports high heavy subsidies or their practices or their predatory retaliatory in discriminatory practices or their abuse of the land and the animals and the gruel communities and the farmers are policy makers make those choices daily. And so got mad.

Joe:17:51And I began to, I thought, well, the other thing I thought to be honest, well, I’m as smart as those elected officials know exactly, I would work. And ultimately ran for office, and and awesome. And I encourage everybody listening, get mad when you go to the grocery store, angry when you go to the grocery store, get angry when you see how little of someone in the food sector, wages are because of the concentration, the prey. Get angry when you could buy healthy food for your children. Get angry and sign up and do something about it because you can make a difference.

Danielle :18:30Yeah. I love what you said and I think that, you know, you do have this interesting experience of like, you know, growing up with your family, just having that farm experience and seeing how that influence that, how consolidation influences people on a human level. And I think that the system exists in a way where we’re really disconnected from our food and that’s the way that folks want it. Like you mentioned, you have this illusion of diversity, illusion of choice. You see hundreds and thousands of brands that are on the shelf as you walk through the grocery store. But like you said, it’s on by four companies and one for companies have that level of consolidation and abusive levels of power. What are they able to do and how are they able to influence the food that we eat? And it’s set up in that way, on purpose, right? To disconnect us from our food and how do we, how do we turn the table on that? How do we begin to start to connect people with their food and to all of these complexities? I think it’s a journey, but I, that’s definitely why I am really excited about this bill that equal exchange is working on with you. So thank you for all your work and I’m really, really great story.

Joe:19:38Thank you. The, the one thing that’s important to know is this legislation would just put a moratorium on these acquisitions and mergers and would establish a commission so that we can study these issues and the impact and the congress and all of us can come together to have the solutions that work. we’re, we believe it’s a low bar. It’s a benchmark. It’s the beginning. and we believe in a u s senator or any member of Congress that does not sign on to this bill and support this bill is really making a choice, a choice to support the demise of independent family agriculture. And the injustice on the grocery store shelves are the consumers of the United States.

Danielle :20:28So my understanding is that your organization is bipartisan. Can you speak to that a little bit? You say any legislators should be signing onto this bill. Do you feel like this is an issue for people across the political spectrum?

Joe:20:40Absolutely. This is, this is not a partisan issue. This is really an issue that affects Democrats, Republicans, independents. It’s an issue that’s impacting the economies, within all states. It’s an issue that’s impacting consumers in every state. And we do not find our organization is a nonpartisan, but we seek out bipartisanship on the support of the legislation. we understand that for some it’s a little tougher lift. but we believe this is a benchmark. This is a place to start so that at a bipartisan way, a the U s Congress House the Senate and come together and find the solutions together, that restore a stewardship within the marketplace, justice within the marketplace and justice on the grocery store shelves.

Danielle :21:46Awesome. Thanks. I have a question that I think a lot of times when you talk about monopolies, you know, thinking about the commission and what, what kinds of things they’ll be working on, you know, cause consolidation at the food system is such a huge topic and there’s so many different things that consolidation touches a lot of people. They kind of focus on price, right? What is the price for consumer? I think that’s definitely an important thing to think about. What, what other things can you imagine that the commission might focus on in regards to consolidation? Anything on like, you know, the, I know that the diversity of the food that we’re growing and you know, even if you look back, you know, not even a hundred years ago that the thousands of varietals of lettuce for instance. Right? And now how many, you know what, I think I had saw some national geographic chart, it was like down to 32 and you know, what is that doing also for the nutrition of our food? I just wasn’t sure if you thought that maybe the commission might focus on, you know, beyond price. What other types of things does consolidation touch that they might focus on?

Joe:22:50Yeah, absolutely. Well, first, um, big ag industrial ag will tell you that they are driving efficiencies on behalf of consumers.

Danielle :23:01Okay.

Joe:23:02To include price, lower prices. What we, what our evidence at, OCM shows is that what they’re driving is efficiencies that put money in their pockets. As we’ve seen fewer and fewer companies, process buying a agricultural goods, processing them into foods for consumers have, there has been fewer and fewer within that food chain. we have seen consumer prices go up and farmer prices go down. Okay. there is not a direct supply and demand fundamentals in operation. They’re extracting the wealth from both the farmer and their rural communities as well as from the pocket of the consumer. So we know the evidence is there. We w we are calling on Congress to take that evidence. So they, consumers are afraid that if it gets, if we move back to more local and regional food systems, that their grocery prices are gonna go up where they can’t afford it.

Danielle :24:15Okay.

Joe:24:16What else needs to be looked at? That is the fact that farmers, back when my dad was farming, we’re getting over 50% of the retail food dollar today farmers are getting less than 15%.

Danielle :24:34Wow. Yeah. I had seen that statistic too, and that was, that was jarring.

Joe:24:40And the other thing that we want to look at is the harm that’s caused when you have so few companies like the Bayer, Monsanto’s the Dow, Dupont, the Syngenta’s, with Kim China, the controlling of the seed, we’re coming to words becoming more monolithic type production, but within that we’re getting fewer and fewer varieties of seed.

Danielle :25:11Yeah.

Joe:25:11Yeah. Which is opening us up to a disease to come in and having no food produced in the United States.

Danielle :25:21Yeah.

Joe:25:22We are very concerned at the shortage of research and development, specially with the climate change. And whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, that you look out your window, you have to admit there’s extreme weather and farmers are on the front line of that. And with these fewer companies, there’s getting to be less and less research and development on a, on variety development, that can withstand the weather. So both threat of disease, the threat, the changes that we see out there with our climate as we’re trying to produce the food to feed our neighbors. And these companies have zero incentive because there’s no competition because there’s too few of them. They just carve up the country into sectors and they’re the only one you can buy from. Wow. And so it’s a threat to our national security. It’s a threat to our future food security. and, so we want them to also take a look at that from a national security or a food security for this country. Look, we also want to look at the concentration. The Roosevelt Institute did a great study, that shows with this heavy concentrating, these fewer and fewer companies controlling the food system, that they now are controlling wages in depressing wages. and, our, whether you’re a UFC, WWE, member or any a union member, you can attest that a, you see the pressure on, on your wages and the threats that those companies bring even against the, organized labor in this country and workers that are organized that find themselves making less and less. I processing food processing, meat processing worker, make significantly less than a manufacturing worker because of this heavy concentration. You get to take the job or you don’t. And we only paying this and is really depressed wages across the country.

Kate:27:31Yeah, we’re the only game in town. So take it or leave it. Yeah.

Joe:27:35Take it or leave it, and a poultry contract grower. the pilgrims, the puritans, the others control the broiler industry. And that farmer no longer is even raising their own animals or feeding the animals their own feet. They just become a landlord or an owner of a building. They got millions dollars borrowed, for the Tysons, the puritans, the pilgrims, any of those companies. And, and then there’s no one else, they’ll rip that building. And taxpayers are subsidizing that industry either through SBA, there’s a government report out on how I SBA, but one point $8 billion into the poultry industry to, to benefit these large monopolies. There’s tax dollars that underwrite the loans so that the banks have no risks. The taxpayer take on the risk if that company stops leasing that building from the farmer. So the farmer, is on the line with consumer and taxpayers on the line and we think it Oughta, they’ll take a look about fair, arrangements with these contract poultry growers and contract a pig growers.

Kate:28:57I find this extremely sobering and convincing and I think anybody listening probably will as well. But it seems to me like a big challenge here, Joe, is just misinformation or lack of information when there are multiple labels out there, you feel like you have a choice in the grocery store. A lot of brands are trying to cast themselves as being, you know, local farmers in some way, despite the fact that they’re not. How can — what can people do to tell their neighbors about this? How can we — I’m not sure everybody recognizes this is the problem that it is.

Joe:29:28Well first of all, they should go to competitivemarkets.com and take a look. We, Angela, I’ve been on our team as director of communications and research is a master at taking some of these complex issues and drilling it down where it can be comprehended and that’s extremely important. I get a little too much in the weeds unfortunately, but she does a great job on that page and I think anyone will find it a digestible and understandable. the second thing is, is that we find is it sounds so bad. No one believes, not we hear all the time. Well that can’t be happening here in America. Oh yes. It is land of the free anymore. And the opportunity to start your small business in your rural community or in your urban or suburban community. It’s, it’s not, we don’t, we have lost freedom. There’s grave injustices within our economic system. Okay.

Joe:30:30Oh, OCM believes what is important is not a, as some try to get caught up in this concept of redistribution of wealth. No, we need a fair and equitable distribution of the opportunity for prosperity that represents America.

Joe:30:49When we help build that prosperity, whether you’re the worker, the farmer or the business owner, we help build that prosperity. Everyone deserves — has a right to share in that prosperity. And we’re all being denied that today and this work, putting a stop on, on these mega mergers, taking a look at our economic system and ensuring that there’s a fair and equitable distribution, to all. One of the notes — I want to put a big note on this one. You know the communities of color in agriculture have suffered for generations and had been denied opportunity. And as we take a look at this, we need to make sure that when we say economic opportunity for all or justice for all we really mean this time in America for all.

Kate:31:51Thank you for saying that. I find that incredibly powerful.

Danielle :31:56Thanks Joe. This is just all these things are swirling around in my mind. Really excited to be working with OCM on some of the campaigns and I’m going to put a lot of this information that Joe has talked about in the show notes so you can stay connected, stay informed. I definitely, We’d love, folks to, you know, join us, right? Like did get involved in this campaign like Joe saying like get mad. So definitely a stay tuned, Equal Exchange is going to be working on this campaign if you want to get involved so you can join organizing with equal exchange and we work with OCM a lot. You can connect with OCM directly. And I would also like to say that equal exchange is having an annual summit and that will be June 20th to 22nd at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. And we’ll be doing a lot of this work and how it’s, it’s important to stay in form. It’s important to really be in tune with the conversation that Joe and I have had today. But I think that would equal exchange wants to do is to connect individuals to what they can actually do and empower them to feel as though they actually can create change in the food system and that year it’s not just your dollar that matters, it’s your voice that matters. It’s your, your political voice. And we want to try to elevate that and encourage folks to use that as much as possible. And I just want to thank you so much Joe and I dunno if there’s anything you have to add in like how folks can stay connected but, we’ll definitely put any resources or information that you suggest in our show notes.

Joe:33:33Well we appreciate your partnership in this effort. We would suggest that folks go to competitivemarkets.com. learn more and sign up. There’s petitions on there. Let’s work together. Let’s put our voices together and unite or, an economic, change, in, in the way of which we approach our food system. And let’s ensure it’s justice for all.

Kate:33:59You’ve been a fantastic gas or so have you on here. Thank you very much.

Danielle :34:05Thanks Joe.

Kate:34:10Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. A podcast by equal exchange, inc a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equal exchange.co op to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts, Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux, sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of The Stories Behind our Food.


  1. suzanne | 18th May 19

    Joe commented on efficiencies claimed by larger farmers and price of food. I know the food I buy at my local farmer’s market is more expensive than the local grocery store; even the organic upscale grocery stores. I know I must pay more to be fair to the farmer’s costs and work but, 2-3 times more? And many people can’t pay these high prices for food. What can be done to make access to quality, local food more available to everyone?
    I am mad about the consolidation in the farming and food processing industry. One day a man was cooking up samples and giving away coupons for ‘smart chicken’ and talking about cold processing and how much better it was. When I asked point blank where the chicken was processed he admitted it was AK. I live in CA where there is already a big poultry industry. I’m mad that the grocery store, which prides itself on its quality food and its local roots is letting this company promote its products in their store.
    And I hope Joe and his brother are ok after the flooding this spring in the Midwest. Best wishes and thank you for your work to bring fairness to farmers and healthy, good tasting food to all people.

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