RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Over the last 20 years, American agriculture has become consolidated at a breathtaking pace. Today, fewer than two percent of farms account for half of all agricultural sales. The new antitrust division of President Obama's Justice Department has said that scrutinizing monopolies in agriculture is now a top priority.

NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT: Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice sent out a press release that received virtually no attention outside of the ag media. Starting next year, Justice and the U.S. Department of Agriculture will hold joint workshops or hearings in farm towns throughout the United States to learn about anti-competitive conduct in agricultural markets.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Organization for Competitive Markets 11th annual convention - Confronting the Threats to Market Competition.

BURNETT: For the 150 people who gathered in this hotel ballroom in St. Louis on August 7th, they couldn't believe what they were hearing. This nonprofit, nonpartisan group - small but influential - is made up of farmers, academics and others concerned about the gigantification of American agriculture.

Their executive director, Fred Stokes, a Mississippi rancher and registered Republican, has been leading the charge for the government to intervene.

Mr. FRED STOKES (Executive Director, Organization for Competitive Markets): We want to stop this rubber-stamping of every ag merger that comes down the pike. We want to call in the predators that are putting our farmers and ranchers out of business. We want them to do their job.

BURNETT: The speaker that everyone was eager to hear was Phil Weiser, deputy assistant attorney general for agriculture. He's the top cop over Big Ag, selected by Christine Varney, the new head of the antitrust division.

Mr. PHIL WEISER (Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Agriculture): We recognize this is a very important sector. This is something that Christine Varney has placed a huge emphasis on. And we need to learn more about it.

BURNETT: Just the fact that Weiser came here and delivered his first speech since getting the job to a group of farmer agitators was seen as a break from the Bush administration. Frustrated farmers claim the operative philosophy of President Bush's antitrust division was let's make a deal.

After some tweaking, it approved mergers between Dean Foods and Suiza Foods to create the nation's largest milk processor; between Smithfield Foods and Premium Standard Farms to create the largest hog processor; and JBS and Smithfield Beef for one of the nation's biggest cattle feeders.

David Balto, a longtime public-interest antitrust lawyer, says it's hard for people to understand how unprecedented these joint Justice/Agriculture hearings are going to be.

Mr. DAVID BALTO (Antitrust Lawyer): Typically, antitrust enforcers sit at their desk and wait till the phone rings, and then decide whether or not to open an investigation. He's saying, we're going out there, into the areas, and meet face to face with farmers, and I think they'll get a much more profound understanding of why farmers are being egregiously harmed by the lack of antitrust enforcement.

Mr. DON QUAMBY (Hog Farmer): With the hogs, it's gotten to be where you can't make any money anymore raising them, because the packers own everything.

BURNETT: The antitrust enforcers will likely hear from people like Don Quamby, a hog farmer from Wellsville, Missouri. He said he came to this meeting because he's deeply concerned about the death of independent hog farms.

Mr. QUAMBY: Well, it used to be you had several different markets that you'd go to in our area, several different buyers. Now we don't have that.

BURNETT: Why should consumers should care this?

Mr. QUAMBY: Well, because once the packer owns all the market, they can charge whatever price they want, then, at the consumer level, once the meat gets to the store.

BURNETT: Ag economics orthodoxy holds that bigger is better - the bigger a food processor or seed company is, the more they can afford for research and development and economy of scale creates efficiencies that generally mean lower consumer prices.

But that certainly wasn't the sentiment in the hallway outside the meeting room. For the farmers and their plaid shirts and seed caps who came, listened and drank coffee, the hour is late.

Jim Foster farms in Montgomery City, Missouri.

Mr. JIM FOSTER (Farmer): I've got grandsons — 10, eight and six - and their ability to raise hogs like I did, as an independent, depends on whether these guys do their job or not.

BURNETT: The Justice Department lawyer told the group the antitrust division plans to take a hard look at three areas of agriculture. The first is seed companies. The American Antitrust Institute asserts that in some markets, Monsanto controls 90 percent of the technology behind genetically modified seeds for cotton, corn and soybeans. Monsanto disputes that figure.

The second segment is beef packing. And the third is dairy, where consolidation has been especially dramatic. In the last decade, more than 4,500 dairy farms have disappeared every year. Critics claim, in part, because of collusive and exclusionary tactics by big milk.

John Burnett, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Want to hear more? You can tune in this afternoon to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED for a special report on the difficulties facing the dairy industry.

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