Unsanitized: J.D. Scholten on How to Revitalize Our Broken Food Systems

On Wednesday, Donald Trump signed an executive order that the press reported as intended to force open meatpacking plants using the Defense Production Act. It doesn’t actually force open meatpacking plants. It delegates to the Secretary of Agriculture and basically tells him to do something about it. It was more of a typical PR ploy from Trump, to show his base he was working tirelessly to protect their precious hamburgers.

But there was one part of the order worth highlighting. In the policy section, the order notes: “closure of a single large beef processing facility can result in the loss of over 10 million individual servings of beef in a single day.” You may reasonably ask why we’ve created a situation where one processing plant closure due to an infectious disease can take that much food out of the system. Maybe that was the problem all along.

J.D. Scholten thinks so. He was the populist Democratic candidate who almost defeated Steve King in the deep-red 4th Congressional District in Iowa in 2018. He’s running in a possible rematch with King this year, and his home in Sioux City is situated in the U.S. county with the most rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in America. Why? “Sioux City has been an immigrant meatpacking town since the 1880s,” Scholten told me in an interview. “When my family moved her in 1984, our first family photo, which was our Christmas card that year, was in front of the stockyard plant.”

Meat processing plants are hotspots for the outbreak because of a reluctance on the part of plant managers to keep workers safe; one lawsuit indicates that workers were not given time to wash their hands or wipe their noses. Scholten visited a Tyson plant in Dakota City, Nebraska on Tuesday, where managers were testing every employee, but still telling them to work, with the test results not due back for three days. Late on Wednesday, Tyson finally closed the plant for four days.

The backlog of meat processing squeezes farmers and ranchers, who have to either continue to feed their stock, sell them to someone who can, or undergo mass kills. But Scholten points out that the pandemic only increased their existing hardship. “Just last week, packed beef was going for $100 more than live cattle,” he said. “Meat is going off the shelf at higher prices but the farmers aren’t getting a higher price. I know there’s talk about farmers and workers, but it’s both against the packers right now.”

Meatpacking is a deeply concentrated industry. Four Big Ag monopolies control 85 percent of the nation’s beef, and 50 plants produce 98 percent of the supply. Where there were once 10,000 slaughterhouses, there are now about one-tenth. This forces ranchers to accept low prices if they want their cattle to get to market. It also hollows out communities by consolidating the skilled processing labor instead of spreading it out county by county. “That’s a lot of rural development jobs,” Scholten said. “It’s led to rural poverty and a decline in the rural economy.”

Two of those big beef companies are Brazilian conglomerates. One in four hogs in the U.S. is owned by a Chinese-owned firm like Smithfield Foods. And a lot of this product doesn’t end up on American tables. “Sixty percent of apple juice is made in China,” Scholten noted. “Here in our district there are apple orchards all over the place, and we’re not an apple area. All these policies, geared toward international trade, we’re losing sight of our base of agriculture and our food system. Who are we doing this for?”

Scholten explains that 85 percent of all food in Iowa is imported, which is crazy if you drive around the state and see endless crops. There are only two “farm to table” restaurants in his entire district, a district made up of essentially all farms. Even local groceries have been overrun by Dollar General, which doesn’t sell fresh meat and produce. Decades of prioritizing outsourcing and enabling market dominance has destroyed the local and regional culture of our food system, and ruined self-sufficiency, just like supply chains for medical equipment or defense products or almost everything else.

In the short term, Scholten wants to see short-term coordination, to end the absurdity of millions struggling to find food in understocked food banks while farmers bulldoze crops and throw away milk. He wants significant protections for food system workers, too, so they don’t have to choose between risking their life and losing a paycheck. But in the long term, Scholten proposes serious antitrust enforcement to break up Ag monopolies (modernizing the antimonopoly Packers and Stockyards Act, which turns 100 next year, tops the list), and returning to a sustainable local supply system. “We need to implement farm to nursing home, farm to prison, farm to community schools,” he said. “Ag is almost all policy driven. We can create that market and let it grow. And allow more money to stay in the communities that grow the stuff.”

Written by David Dayen

Iowa Starting Line: JD Scholten: Food Supply Chain Doesn’t Have to Be So Fragile

When it comes to the problem of outbreaks at meatpacking facilities and whether to temporarily shut them down, the workers at the plants and the farmers selling their livestock to plants are often pitted against each other.

JD Scholten, who’s running for Rep. Steve King’s seat in Iowa’s Fourth District, rejects that premise.

“It’s kind of a double-whammy,” he said. “I 100 percent disagree that it’s farmers or workers; it’s both. They’re both getting screwed at this point.”

And it’s largely because only a few companies control the nation’s meatpacking operations, making workers more necessary and giving farmers few options. These operations are where the majority of coronavirus outbreaks in the Midwest are occurring.

In Iowa, that has led to local officials calling for Gov. Kim Reynolds or the companies themselves to temporarily shut down production so communities can do testing and cleaning to contain the outbreaks.

But the biggest counter-argument for closing these meatpacking plants is that closures and reduced production will affect the nation’s food supply, which Iowa plays an outsized role in.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

The solution is to enforce antitrust laws, Scholten said, so there are more meatpacking and slaughter operations. Then, hard-hit plants could close for cleaning and employee testing without the food supply feeling it.

“If a plant goes down, it affects everything,” Scholten said of the current arrangement, where plants like the Smithfield one in South Dakota process about five percent of the nation’s pork. “So, there’s not much resiliency or sustainability or adaptability.”

Expanding the market will also open up options for where farmers can sell their livestock, which has been a challenge for the past few weeks. Recent reports have talked to many farmers who faced the prospect of euthanizing their animals if they couldn’t sell them to plants.

“When we come out of this, we absolutely have to enforce our anti-trust laws, and the biggest thing that that will do is allow farmers to have competitive markets,” Scholten said. “So, [farmers] can continue to sell to Tyson and JBS and all these different entities, but now what I’m saying is there’s also a potential to sell to a local person and create alternative markets.”

It would put less pressure on workers, too, who have continued going to work despite the health risks.

“It’s insane that these workers have been going without PPE and without masks,” Scholten said. “No one should have to choose between earning a paycheck and their life.”

Yesterday, Donald Trump used the Defense Production Act to sign an executive order requiring meatpacking plants to remain open as part of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

According to Bloomberg News, part of the order the government will provide protective equipment and guidance, but Trump gave no details. However, there are signs that companies won’t be held liable for employee or customer infections and deaths.

In Sioux City, an outbreak at a Tyson Fresh Meats facility in Dakota City, Nebraska is widely suspected to be the main reason for the metro area’s explosion of cases.

Tyson’s refusal to confirm or deny the numbers led area mayors on Monday to issue a call for transparency on where the cases are coming from. In Woodbury County, the number of cases have increased by 674 in nine days.

“It affects all of us. These workers go to the same grocery store I go to. They’re my neighbors. And it’s one of those things where we’re all in this together,” Scholten said. “And if [companies] are going to be part of our community and ask so much from our community, this is the least they could do for us.”

Meat packing companies in Iowa like Tyson have repeatedly assured officials they’re following social distancing guidelines and providing PPE to the people working on the floor, but accounts from workers there contradict those promises.

Still, the area governors—Reynolds, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem—have refused to issue stay-at-home orders or order the plants to close.

Previously, Ricketts rejected the idea of closing any Nebraska plants, suggesting that a meat shortage would result in demonstrations like those seen in other states. Noem and Reynolds have left the final decision up to the plants

“It’s about having a food system that is more local and regional. These are all very doable things, it’s just what we’re seeing right now is putting a spotlight on this,” Scholten said. “I hope on the back end of this we really come out of this with the idea that our food system is extremely valuable to our nation and our nation’s security and we need to be more resilient and flexible.”

Written by Nikoel Hytrek


BEFORE CORONAVIRUS HIT, farmers in the U.S. were already hurting from years of falling food prices, severe weather, and, more recently, President Donald Trump’s trade war. “We’ve had a record number of farm bankruptcies [in the U.S.], total farm debt is at $425 billion, [and farmer] incomes have fallen by about half since 2013,” said Eric Deeble, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which supports small and mid-sized family farms.

Now, with the global pandemic closing factories and restaurants and disrupting supply chains, already stressed farms are grappling with lower demand and fewer markets to sell in, as well as a presidential administration that favors relief for big businesses over small. Small farmers in particular — those who sell directly to farmers markets, schools, and other local food hubs — are facing an existential crisis, as they face slim odds of accessing competitive federal stimulus money.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

They have reason to be pessimistic. In recent years, federal subsidies to help struggling farmers have flowed almost exclusively to large corporate farms. Of the roughly $28 billion the Trump administration has distributed to food producers to offset losses from his trade wars, almost all went to big farms.

Advocates for small farmers say this is driven in part by the preference of Trump’s agriculture secretary, Sonny Purdue, who has encouraged farmers to get bigger farms if they wanted to stay in business. “Big get bigger and small go out … and that’s what we’ve seen,” he told a group of Wisconsin dairy farmers in 2018, echoing Richard Nixon’s agriculture secretary, who infamously told farmers in the 1970s to “get big or get out.” While 91 percent of U.S. farms are small — defined by the federal government as an operation with gross cash income under $250,000 — large farms account for 85 percent of the country’s farm production.

The public health crisis has already had a devastating impact on agriculture across the country. A report released in mid-March by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition estimated that small farms would see a $689 million decline in sales from March to May this year due to Covid-19, leading to a payroll decline of $103 million and a total loss to the economy of $1.3 billion. Now, as the pandemic shows no sign of slowing, the coalition worries that the impact for small farmers will be even more substantial — which could lead many small farms to permanently close.

Under pressure from groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the National Farmers Union, Congress did work to address some of the needs of small and direct-market farmers in the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, signed into law on March 27. While lawmakers did not include all that advocates pressed for — like emergency food purchases from small processors and direct payments to small farms — the CARES Act did allocate $9.5 billion to farmers and said some (unspecified portion) of that amount should go to “producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools.”

But in the weeks following the CARES Act, farmers struggled to access any relief, as the agriculture aid stalled and many farmers found themselves ineligible for the Small Business Administration emergency loans. On April 10, 33 senators sent a bipartisan letter to Purdue, urging the USDA to follow the CARES Act and distribute federal aid to small farmers specifically. A week later, when the USDA finally announced how it planned to allocate the $9.5 billion from the CARES Act, it appeared that no money would be reserved specifically for small farmers.

In a statement provided to The Intercept, a USDA spokesperson said the department planned to provide assistance to “most farms” that experienced at least a 5 percent loss. To ensure that funding will help small farms, the USDA said it “is utilizing payment limits and [adjusted gross income] eligibility criteria that were used by Congress when developing the 2018 Farm Bill” — the same bill that left small farmers in the lurch over the last two years. The spokesperson also said that the USDA planned to use a $900,000 AGI limit for those who do not make 75 percent or more of their income from farming — a notably high threshold considering that small farmers earn between $1,000 and $250,000 from their farms.

“Bailout money always goes to the big farmers, the people who produce soy and crops and sell into commodity markets,” said John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, a national organization that supports sustainable agriculture. “This is all part of our country’s cheap food policy where we basically subsidize capital-intensive, large-scale industrial farming.”

Farmers who sell directly to consumers or participate in regional food hubs typically don’t rely on federal subsidies.

“Small diversified farmers are pretty effective at doing what they do, which is finding markets and filling them, and haven’t required a lot of support,” said Deeble. “But the flip side is if you’re usually good in normal times and don’t rely much on the government, it can be harder to get government help when you need it.”RelatedThe Food Supply Chain Is Not Yet in Danger — but the Workers Who Keep Us Fed Are

J.D. Scholten, a Democratic House candidate running in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District, said there’s still a lot of uncertainty about how the federal stimulus money will be allocated, “but what we’ve seen [since the trade wars] is that Secretary Purdue gets to dictate who gets bailed out and who doesn’t, and there’s not a lot of oversight.”

Colby Ferguson, a small farmer and the director of government and public relations for the Maryland Farm Bureau, defended the bulk of federal subsidies flowing to large farms. “They should get most of the money since they generate the most volume of our food supply,” he said. “If we didn’t help the big guys, that would also affect the small guys.”

The Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit that supports local markets across the country, has also been pushing for emergency aid and a federal declaration that farmers markets should be allowed to operate as essential businesses. (California has deemed farmers markets essential, but other states have shut them down or left it more ambiguous.) Advocates say open-air markets can serve as a safer way to buy groceries during the pandemic.

“If farmers markets go out of business that means local farmers lose access to those consumers,” said Ben Feldman, executive director for the Farmers Market Coalition. While American food purchasing has swiftly shifted during the pandemic from restaurants to grocery stores, it is typically much harder for small farmers to sell their products to large grocery stores.

“I don’t want to be alarmist, because farmers market operators, like the farmers who sell to them, are very resilient and adaptable and do an incredible amount with very limited resources,” said Feldman. “But this could definitely force markets to close.”

According to the USDA, local food sales more than doubled between 2012 and 2017. But profit margins for small farmers remain low or nonexistent, and most small farmers also have other jobs.

Peck of Family Farm Defenders said he worries this pandemic will be exploited by big corporations to crush the local food movement and correspondingly wreak further damage on the climate. “To feed the world and cool the planet, we need to move away from industrial agribusiness,” he said.Share Your Coronavirus StoryClick here to learn about contacting a reporter securely, or email us at coronavirus@theintercept.com

Some advocates say they’re cautiously optimistic that the next stimulus bill could offer more help to small farmers and noted that there’s been growing public awareness of the risks posed by our global supply chain and the need to invest in a more resilient food system.

Scholten, who has been sounding the alarm for years about the risks of monopolized agriculture, said the pandemic exposes how “dangerously dependent” we are on imports. “We’ve had these ‘get big or get off the farm’ policies for years,” he said. “But I think there’s huge potential now to regionalize our food production, localize it.”

“In the 4th District of Iowa, the second-most agricultural producing district in the nation, we have only two farm-to-table restaurants; we have small towns losing their grocery stores because Dollar General is coming in and undercutting them, but they don’t sell fresh produce and meats, and we have farmers not making a dime,” he said. “So who are we doing this [production] all for?”

By Rachel Cohen