RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
NPR's business news begins with a push to level the plowing field for farmers.
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MONTAGNE: But as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, many producers think the probe will expose a system increasingly hostile to the traditional family farm.
FRANK MORRIS: Twenty-five years ago, Montgomery County, Missouri had about 200 independent hog farmers. Now, there are two.
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MORRIS: Jim Foster, with his old open air hog barns, is one of them.
JIM FOSTER: Bought this in '63 when I got out of college and got married, and I've been here ever since.
MORRIS: Meantime, companies that sell Foster supplies have grown just as powerful as the ones he depends on to buy his livestock. That leaves Jim Foster trapped between giants, a situation he blames on hands-off economic policy.
FOSTER: The biggest boar at the trough needs to win no matter who he lashes out with his tusks and kills because the biggest company left standing will be efficient, and that efficiency will move down to the consumer. Well, that's hogwash. That doesn't work. We found out from the banks that it doesn't work that way. They keep the efficiency in their pocket.
MORRIS: Foster thinks the workshops starting this morning in Ankeny, Iowa mark a 180 - a sharp turn in thinking. He's not the only one.
NEIL HARL: It indicates that the federal government, for the first time in a very long time, is willing to look at this problem area.
MORRIS: Neil Harl is professor emeritus at Iowa State University. For 30 years, he's been howling about what he calls towering concentration in agribusiness. Now he's found an ally in antitrust chief Christine Varney.
CHRISTINE VARNEY: Farmers are more and more facing very difficult day-to-day issues of surviving economically, and I'm very interested in looking at the factors that contribute to that difficulty.
MORRIS: Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles says today's hearing will show that it hasn't.
LEE QUARLES: We believe an objective review of the agriculture sector will reveal that competition is alive and flourishing.
MORRIS: Quarles says the farmers wouldn't pay for Monsanto's seed traits if they didn't work. But something's killing family farms. About 80,000 midsized operations disappeared just in the last five years. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says he wants to know just how much consolidation in agribusiness contributes to that decline.
TOM VILSACK: We're going to try to find out if there is a correlation and whether or not when agribusiness purchasing power is reduced in the hands of a small number of companies, does that create such an unlevel playing field that it compels those in the middle to either get bigger or get out.
FOSTER: It's supposed to be somewhere around here.
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MORRIS: Back on his farm, Jim Foster enjoys his grandkids, but worries if they'll have a future in agriculture. That's why he's in Ankeny this morning to testify at the workshop.
FOSTER: I'm not interested in one guy farming our whole county. I'm interested in a lot of young families with swing sets in the backyard raising kids. That's what it's all about.
MORRIS: For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
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