Back Forty: Why Biden won’t get credit for his antitrust effort in farm country

Back Forty will bring you periodic reviews, interviews, and reporter insights about the stories they wrote. We hope you enjoy it as a companion to our content on and our Ag Insider policy news site. You can subscribe to the newsletter below.

Executives from Bayer, Monsanto, Dow, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and other agricultural entities are sworn in during a Senate Judiciary hearing on “Consolidation and Competition in the U.S. Seed and Agrochemical Industry,” 2016. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.

By Brent Cunningham

Donald Trump’s election, in 2016, sharpened a debate that had been simmering on the political left since the turn of the century: Why do so many rural Americans vote for Republican candidates whose policies are often antithetical to their economic interests? 

The latest attempt at an answer is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy, by political scientist Tom Schaller and journalist Paul Waldman. Schaller and Waldman argue that white, rural Americans are understandably angry and despairing about the havoc wreaked on their communities and livelihoods by the policies of a globalized, post-industrial economy — from poverty and population loss to drug addiction and premature death. And that anger and despair, they argue, coupled with the “incessant veneration of rural White culture and values as somehow superior to those of almost every other group of Americans,” leads white, rural Americans to embrace the idea, endlessly driven home by Republican pols and their conservative media allies, that they are under siege by a conspiracy of corrupt urban elites, homosexuals, and racial and religious minorities that seeks to wipe out God-fearing “real Americans.”

In other words, a fog of grievance and culture war fantasy prevents a significant number of residents of rural America from acknowledging who and what are actually to blame for their various problems — including many of the politicians they support, from the White House to the school board. 

It’s not a new theory, and this is not a review of White Rural Rage. Instead, I want to take a closer look at an important subset of white, rural America — farmers — and at one issue that crops up in the book: The extreme consolidation of power in agriculture, and what role, if any, it is likely to play in the Biden-Trump rematch.

Driven by both evolving technology and policy choices that favored big over small, the number of U.S. farms has been falling, more or less steadily, from a peak of 6.8 million in 1935 to 1.9 million today, and those that remain have expanded from an average of 154 acres to 464 acres. Today, the 105,000 biggest operations, those with more than $1 million in annual sales, make up just 6 percent of all farms but account for more than three quarters of total agricultural sales. The 1.4 million farms with sales of $50,000 or less — 74 percent of all U.S. farms — account for just 2 percent of agricultural sales.

Meanwhile, a handful of giant corporations — from Cargill to Bayer to JBS — has taken control of every aspect of agriculture, from producing and selling seeds and fertilizers to the processing, distribution, and retail sales of the foods farmers produce. In 2023, those companies and their related associations collectively spent more than $178 million — more than the defense industry — on lobbying to sustain and extend their power.

The results of this concentration, for many farmers and for the communities where they live and work, have been life-altering. The farmers get squeezed from both ends, as the cost of seeds and other inputs rises while the prices they get for their products fall. The difference inflates the profits of the agribusiness giants. For example, ​​the average pay of contract chicken farmers rose just 2.5 cents a pound from 1988 to 2016, while the wholesale price of chicken increased 17.4 cents a pound, and the retail price rose 65 cents a pound. The biggest farms can survive this equation, but the smaller operations struggle. From the last agricultural census, in 2017, to the most recent, in 2023, the number of farms dropped another 7 percent. The cascading effect of these closures can gut local economies, leading to rising debt, bankruptcy, and rates of suicide

Not surprisingly, a lot of farmers are angry about this. In its monthly survey of the agricultural economy by Purdue University, farmers consistently cite high input costs and low crop and cattle prices as their biggest concerns. But in 2020, farmers voted overwhelmingly to re-elect Trump, despite the fact that his administration consistently sided with the companies setting those prices. 

Trump dissolved the agency created to ensure fair and competitive markets for livestock and poultry industries, for instance, and he greenlit both the Bayer-Monsanto merger, which created the world’s largest company for vegetable seed, cotton seed, and herbicides, and the Dow-Dupont merger, which created the largest ag-biotech and seed firm in the U.S. His trade war with China cost farmers billions in lost exports, leading to a surge in bankruptcies. (Trump bailed out the farmers, with billions of taxpayer dollars, but even then most of the money went to the big operations.)  

Yet polls suggest that farmers will again support Trump over Biden this fall by a wide margin.   

Biden made the revival of antitrust regulation a centerpiece of his administration, appointing Lina Khan, a prominent antitrust legal scholar, to head the FTC. Under Khan, the agency has blocked the merger of supermarket chains Kroger and Albertsons; sued an ag-data broker for allegedly enabling price-fixing among big poultry and pork producers; sued to block Koch Foods from requiring chicken farmers to pay a “termination penalty” to switch to rival processors; and sued to block “loyalty programs” under which pesticide manufacturers Syngenta Crop Protection and Corteva allegedly paid distributors to block competitors from selling cheaper generic products to farmers.

In 2021, Biden issued an executive order directing the FTC and other agencies to go after corporate right-to-repair restrictions that prevent farmers and ranchers from doing their own lower-cost maintenance on tractors, combines, and other equipment. His administration established the Agricultural Competition Partnership to help state attorneys general boost fairness and competition in food and ag markets and the Farmer Seed Liaison to help bring transparency to the seed market and increase farmer input.

So why has all this not convinced more farmers to support him? Schaller and Waldman would say it’s because they’re too in thrall to leaders like Chip Roy, a congressman from Texas who, they write, “has no particular rural agenda” and whose website is festooned with “culture war posturing on abortion and ‘wokeness’ in the military,” but short on “announcements of grants obtained for the local hospital or new initiatives to bring jobs to rural Texas.”

There is definitely some truth to that — the GOP has been consumed by Chip Roys and Marjorie Taylor Greenes, people who have no interest in governing and who prosper by keeping voters angry and afraid. But the reality, of course, is more complicated.

Consolidation aside, many farmers are at odds with the Biden administration over  environmental protections, like the regulation of wetlands and streams under the Clean Water Act. But also, the administration’s efforts to combat the concentration of power in agriculture hasn’t always been as robust as its executive orders and legal challenges suggest — especially when it comes to some of the thorniest issues. Take, for example, meatpacking, which is among the most highly concentrated of all ag sectors and has gotten more so under Biden.   

To remedy the imbalance on this front, the administration is investing $1 billion to help small slaughterhouses ramp up and expand. Building infrastructure to support ranchers whose operations are too small to sell to the big packers will, the USDA claims, “directly combat consolidation in the meat processing sector.”

A lot of folks who understand these issues say that’s wishful thinking. “To my knowledge, there is no example in history where you deconcentrate a market by financing new entrants,” Austin Frerick, an ag policy expert and author of Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry, told me. “Many of these smaller operations won’t be able to get their products into grocery stores because all the slots go to the big guys, and then they’ll be snapped up for pennies on the dollar.

“It’s a way to say you care without having to actually do anything to change the structural reality,” he said.

Fairly or not, Biden is also haunted by the fact that Democrats haven’t done much to rein in Big Ag over the last several decades. If Ronald Reagan touched off the deregulation boom, Bill Clinton made sure it accelerated into the new century. As my colleague Bridget Huber notes in her review of Frerick’s book, the 1996 farm bill, which Clinton signed despite protests from family farmers and consumer groups, snuffed out what remained of measures to ensure balance in the farm economy. Among other things, it incentivized farmers to grow more corn and soy, which drove the boom in both CAFOs and ethanol in the decades that followed.

Barack Obama came into office talking a good game about trust-busting. His agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, led a national listening tour of rural America in 2009, during which a lot of farmers risked retaliation — from meatpackers, grain buyers, etc. — by speaking about the challenges they faced. But then Vilsack slow-walked the regulatory update of the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA), a 1921 law designed to protect farmers from anti-competitive practices by meatpackers, and didn’t release the new rules until December 2016, the end of Obama’s second term. Because the rules weren’t fully implemented, they were quickly overturned by Trump.

A lot of farmers felt burned. So what are they thinking today, when Vilsack — who spent the Trump years as CEO of the Dairy Export Council, the marketing arm of Big Dairy, before returning to be Biden’s ag secretary — is again talking up PSA rule revisions? The process this time has been underway since 2021, and arguably the most important rule — the so-called harm-to-competition rule — continues to languish as the clock ticks on Biden’s term. Some courts have interpreted that rule to mean that plaintiffs must prove industry-wide competitive harm in claims against meatpackers, which makes it difficult to win those cases. The proposed new rule would clarify that the PSA does not require such proof, but without that update the law will continue to be difficult to enforce no matter what other changes are made.          

One more thing. Just before Vilsack returned to the USDA and started talking about the need to level the playing field for farmers, he went on the podcast Iowa Starting Line and warned Democrats running for president, including his future boss, against making an issue of agricultural monopolies. “[T]here are a substantial number of people hired and employed by those businesses here in Iowa. So you’re essentially saying to all of those folks, you might be out of a job. That’s not, to me, a winning message.”

Sheesh. Frerick and others I spoke to told me that it’s difficult for farmers to know exactly who the villain is when it comes to consolidation. “Words mean nothing in this space anymore,” Frerick said. “To be blunt, there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome going on. They’re just trying to survive.”

If farmers, and their neighbors, don’t trust either party on this core issue, it makes their support for Trump — who at least validates their anger at condescending liberals and the woke mob — somewhat easier to understand. Even if Trump was the one who largely sold them on that alternate reality in the first place.

And yet. Say what you will about Biden’s imperfect — and incomplete — record on antitrust, but he’s done more on this issue than any president in recent history, and clearly more than Trump. Imagine what he could do with four more years.