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The Coloradoan (Fort Collins) Friday Aug. 20, 2010

(quotes R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard) 

Fort Collins agriculture workshop will include top Obama administration officials 

By Robert Moore

Thousands of ranchers from across the country are expected to descend on Fort Collins for a workshop next week that one cattlemen's group is calling "the most important day in the history of our U.S. cattle industry."

Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will attend the Aug. 27 public workshop at Colorado State University's Lory Student Center, which will examine competition in the livestock industry. A detailed agenda and full list of participants is expected to be released today.

"Competition and regulation are some of the most critical issues facing American agriculture, and this workshop will help to shed some light on their potential impacts on farmers and ranchers in our part of the country," said Rep. Betsy Markey, D-Fort Collins, who will attend the workshop.

The Fort Collins workshop, which focuses on regulation and competition in the livestock industry, is the fourth in a series of five workshops that the Agriculture and Justice departments have been conducting across the country to look into competitive and antitrust issues in agriculture. Previous sessions focused on row crops and hogs in Iowa, poultry in Alabama and dairy in Wisconsin. The final event will be in Washington, D.C., and will focus on discrepancies between the prices received by farmers and the prices paid by consumers.

The previous events drew 300 to 600 participants, but attendance at the Fort Collins workshop certainly will dwarf those figures. A Montana-based group - the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, known as R-CALF USA - has set a goal of bringing 25,000 people to Fort Collins.

That's why the group said the meeting marks the most important day ever for U.S. cattle growers.

"We are an industry in crisis; and we believe that if we are serious about restoring economic activity to rural communities, we must focus on that cattle industry that bears the greatest potential to revitalize rural America," said Bill Bullard, the chief executive officer for R-CALF USA.

"And this hearing represents an unprecedented invitation by two Cabinet-level officials, the U.S. attorney general and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, that have invited rural America to show them how serious they are about striking off in a new direction, because the path that we've been following has produced disastrous results."

R-CALF USA and a number of other groups believe the federal government needs to enforce antitrust laws to break up what they believe is a monopolistic meat-packing industry. Bullard said groups from as far away as Washington state and Florida are organizing van pools and caravans to come to Fort Collins, part of the goal of getting 25,000 supporters to the workshop.

"And we believe that that will be the critical mass necessary to send a powerful message to Washington that we need to take aggressive steps to restore competition, and they can do that by enforcing our antitrust laws and enforcing the Packers and Stockyards Act to ensure that our industry is not being controlled or manipulated by the highly concentrated meat-packing industry," he said.

Mark Dopp, the senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the American Meat Institute, will be among the panelists at the workshop. AMI is the trade group for the nation's meat packing companies.

He said the industry hopes the workshop will produce "a fuller and more complete discussion about the state of the industry and the true nature of how things work."

He said market forces other than ownership concentration have driven changes in the livestock business in recent years. He cited a producer focus on higher quality and more expensive meat as an example.

"You have to wonder a little bit about the people who talk about increasing concentration as the source of all evils because, guess what, it hasn't changed for the better part of 20 years," Dopp said. "A lot of other things have changed, but not that."

He said he expects a large crowd of industry critics at the workshop but hoped federal policy makers wouldn't make decisions based on the crowd size for one side or the other.

"I'm hoping that the people who run the Department of Justice and the people who run the Department of Agriculture will not simply make decisions based on what appears to be some people's efforts to engage in a pep rally," Dopp said. "Let's make sound policy decisions on sound principles, not based on how many people show up to wave a sign."

A number of Colorado state and federal officials are expected to attend the event.

"I want to thank Secretary Vilsack and Attorney General Holder for coming to Colorado to meet with farmers, ranchers, processors and others who have a stake in the beef and hog market here in Colorado," said Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. "This workshop is an opportunity for the federal government to hear Coloradans' voices as well as for farmers, ranchers and processors to discuss this important matter, and I want to encourage Coloradans to attend."

The workshop has created an unexpected boon for the Fort Collins economy because of the ranchers coming from all over the country to attend the hearing, said Jim Clark, director of the Fort Collins Convention and Visitors Bureau.



Coloradoan business/growth editor Pat Ferrier contributed to this story.

Copyright 2010


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