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Farm loyalty and Meat processing Plants

Updated: May 20, 2022

When I was a kid on our family farm in Nebraska, my brother and I made sure that my calf would grow up to become a well-fed cow. Raising the calf was one of my 4-H projects, and he actually received a blue ribbon at the county fair. I didn’t remember the 4-H pledge (the four H’s of head, heart, hands, and health), so I looked it up:

I pledge my head to clearer thinking

My heart to greater loyalty

My hands to larger service

And my health to better living

for my club, my community, my country and my world.

I have tried to keep the first pledge, but the second not so well. Loyalty, of course, has a lot of meanings, but If we remember that it comes in the pledge after “clearer thinking,” then its more positive meaning may become available. In light of the current reign of the coronavirus in the meat processing plants throughout our country, I wonder if I and many others have been disloyal to farming and farming communities.

Sometimes the idea of loyalty sounds like the opposite of “clearer thinking.” That’s blind loyalty. Thoughtful loyalty means remaining connected; not abandoning and dismissing. Like many others, I left the farm, which seems OK, but I think I also abandoned farming, at least until I began working on my previous book Civilizing the Economy. There I proposed that we look at different systems of provision, such as the food system, and design the system not only to make provisions for all, but also to protect human and non-human providers. From a systems perspective, it’s clear that the connection between raising calves and eating them needs to be recognized as promoting either a climate of justice or injustice.

When we sold my calf, I petted him and said go-by. I remember feeling sad, but not like I or my calf had been violated. Nor was I troubled by eating the chickens I had killed, and my mother had cooked, or the corn I picked from the sweet corn stocks. If I had been asked, I would have said that these plants and animals were alive, and it was OK to eat them. In a way, the 4-h pledge, as well as the teaching of my parents, provided the context for living on the farm.

Family farms in Nebraska, of course, belonged to a different world than that of the brutal slaughterhouses that Upton Sinclair described in his 1906 novel, Jungle, which exposed the owners shocking treatment of both animals and workers. While there are local farms today that have some resemblance to our family farm, the world of “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAGOs) and JBS’s meat processing plants have stark similarities with the slaughterhouses that Sinclair exposed more than a century ago.

Over a third of the workers at the Nebraska meat processing plants are undocumented workers. Trump has called their work “essential,” and ordered the plants to remain open. These are workers without health care, without any civic rights, and dependent on wages. And, of course, they do not have the right to vote. Even the information they need is only given in English and sign language, while they speak Spanish! Still, the workers return to work knowing they could catch covid 19. Talk about a climate of injustice!!!

The plants themselves belong to global businesses. Some of the plants in Nebraska belong to JBS, a Brazilian company that is the largest meat producer in the world.

JBS was founded a little over 60 years ago by Jose Batista Sobrinho (therefore: JBS) and is now run by his two sons. Much of its expansion in the United States was financed with low-interest bank loans. The brothers later admitted in a plea deal that they had bribed bank and government officials to obtain them. With these loans, they purchased their first US meat plants in 2007 and now, with three other meat processing corporations, control 80 percent of the meat processing in the United States. Since 2007, JBS has spent more than $7.7 million on lobbying, and has won more than $900 million in government meat contracts, according to the Washington Post.

US meat packing plants belong to a global animal and animal parts trading network. It turns out that almost half of “grass-fed” beef in the United States is imported from Australia, most of it by JBS. One could assume that if it is “grass-fed, then the cows would be raised locally. The label “product of USA,” however, does not say where the cows are raised, but where they were processed.

Do we want to know this? As many of us are turning to “impossible beef” or other plant-based foods, the beef is not on our plate, so to speak. Farm loyalty, however, does not mean eating meat. It does mean not denying our systemic relationship with each other, other animals, and the earth. JBS belongs to a world that is not only using its scale of operations to put small and local farmers out of business, managing meat processing plants dependent on disenfranchised workers, but also advancing the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests to raise more cattle,

A group of farmers have formed the “Agriculture Fairness Alliance” and petitioned Congress to dismantle the meat processing oligarchy and to protect small farmers. Their work would seem to move us toward a climate of justice. You can take a look at their petition by clicking here.

Elizbeth Warren and others have pledged to break up the largest food and meat companies because they use their “economic power to spend unlimited sums of money electing and manipulating politicians” and because they are “leaving family farmers with fewer choices, thinner margins and less independence.” Not much like the 4-H pledge, but maybe a good expression of farm loyalty.

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