Minnesota beef farmers divided over proposed federal slaughterhouse rules

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Minnesotans took center stage this week as Congress entered the convoluted web of regulating beef prices in two separate hearings.

On Wednesday, House Agriculture Chairman David Scott of Georgia asked representatives of the big four beef producers – including Cargill CEO David MacLennan – if they had reached an “agreement” to fix the price of beef , which has skyrocketed for many American families since the pandemic began.

Everyone said “no”.

A day earlier in Senate Ag, U.S. Senator Tina Smith invoked the stories of two Minnesotans — a cattle-trading owner in Bagley and a cow-calf rancher outside of Finlayson — as Exhibits A and B of what is broken in the cattle market.

“The price of the burger just keeps going up,” Smith said. “Meanwhile, the big beef processors – who control 85% of the market – are seeing their profits soar.”

Billy Bushelle, co-owner of the selling barn in Bagley, spoke by phone just hours after Tuesday’s hearing on a price transparency bill, noting that the drought and the pandemic have caused unhappiness without precedent to Minnesota breeders.

“These two summers combined in a row have made it very challenging for my cow-calf producers,” Bushelle said. “Many had to liquidate.”

Hannah Bernhardt, a Finlayson cow and sheep farmer, said she avoided the pinch that other feeders and farmers have felt by selling directly to consumers, a rarity in the industry. But she has seen her neighbors pay less for their cattle than it takes to raise them.

“Unless you have the ability to build a website and have the knowledge to lead the market, you can’t control your prices and you basically take whatever buyers are going to give,” said Berhardt told the Star Tribune.

Smith is a co-sponsor of the Livestock Price Discovery and Transparency Act 2021presented by two GOP senators (Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Deb Fischer of Nebraska) and two Democrats (Ron Wyden of Oregon and Jon Tester of Montana).

Livestock market prices have been volatile during the pandemic, as steaks disappeared from grocery stores, meatpacking plants closed and Americans stopped eating out. Other so-called “black swan” events, ranging from cyberattacks to a fire at a major beef plant in Kansas, interrupted a return to normal.

But not everyone in the industry thinks Grassley’s bill – which would impose certain prices – is necessary.

“We all know that cattle [market] is cyclical,” said Allison VanDerWal, executive director of the Minnesota Cattlemen’s Association. “I remember 2014, 2015 when we had this massive shortage of fed cattle.”

A positive compromise of congressional attention, VanDerWal said, could be further support at all levels of the industry.

Wednesday’s hearing veered off the line of questions about beef prices when two GOP congressmen from Arkansas and Georgia pressed Cargill’s MacLennan on the Minnetonka-based food giant’s year-long equity initiative to increase the representation of black farmers.

On several occasions, MacLennan has backed the program — which provides premium prices or other market opportunities to black farmers, who have historically been underrepresented in the farming community — noting that less than 1.5% of farmers in the countries are black.

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