Echoing concerns raised by independent grocers over alleged anticompetitive tactics deployed by big retailers, smaller farmers and ranchers in the U.S. have cried foul during the pandemic over what they say are anticompetitive practices from the country's biggest meat suppliers. These practices, smaller producers say, have stymied family farmers' access to the market even as pandemic-prompted meat shortages plagued retailers and excessively inflated meat prices for consumers.
On Jan. 3, sixth-generation family farmer Corwin Heatwole, founder and CEO of Harrisonburg, Va.-based poultry supplier Farmer Focus, had the chance to take some of these concerns all the way to the White House, participating in a virtual roundtable with President Joe Biden and several ag-industry leaders about creating a more-competitive meat supply chain.
Farmer Focus, founded in 2014, currently partners with more than 70 independent poultry farmers, all of whom own their animals and inventory and are paid a flat rate by the pound for their organic, non-GMO, certified humane chickens. "We’ve found that when you empower farmers with ownership and control, enabling farms to be viable and sustainable for the next generation, incredible success stories emerge," Heatwole said during the White House discussion.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, for their parts, emphasized agriculture and justice departments' collaboration on efforts to enforce antitrust laws and announced a new online portal that will allow farmers to report concerns about potential antitrust violations. A White House statement on the meeting also noted that farmer and rancher participants "explained that they are often at the mercy of just a few buyers who determine the price they receive, and that even as these conglomerates raise prices at the grocery stores, they push down prices for farmers and ranchers, taking wealth out of rural communities and hurting consumers."
Heatwole spoke with Winsight Grocery Business about the meeting, the landscape for meat producers at the start of 2022 and what he wants to see in the year ahead.
Christine LaFave Grace: Were you happy with the outcome of the White House roundtable? What do you want to see next?
Corwin Heatwole: It was first an honor and a blessing to be included in such an important meeting and announcement that we believe will absolutely help level the playing field for farmers and ranchers and bolster the industry and bring resilience to the food supply network. It was really a huge validation to what our company has done and the difference we’ve made with farmers and ranchers and how we have been a part of adding resilience to the supply chain.
We definitely are excited about the different programs and their clear focus and the difference that we believe that will make. It’s an honor to link arms to help attack these significant industry problems.
This new web portal to share anticompetitive practices and actions—do you think that’s something that can make a meaningful difference in getting specific concerns on federal officials’ radar?
It has been challenging for farmers to have a strong voice in areas where there is unfair treatment and lack of competition that is holding them back. It will definitely be beneficial for farmers to have a portal like that which is an easier way to file challenges and issues and have their voice heard.
You mentioned in the roundtable that with the right structures and practices in place, multigeneration family farms can make a comeback. What stories have you seen from the field, so to speak?
We have the blessing of hearing a lot of exciting testimonials and success stories from our farmers—we have some that have shared that before, they were on the brink of bankruptcy and now their farms are thriving and they’re able to not just recover but start to make investments in capital infrastructure on their farm, which is the future of their farm.
And it’s been also special to see the next generation coming back from choosing other careers and coming back to the family farm. We have one instance where a farmer shared with me that he had chosen a career in law enforcement because he did not believe that the family farm had a future, and after partnering with Farmer Focus and seeing what viable and sustainable farming can be and should be, he called his dad one day from the patrol car and said, “Dad, I’m coming home.”
Those are the kinds of stories that we get to hear of what our model of how we partner with farmers, allowing them ownership of the animals and inventory on their farm and giving them the operational control that belongs in the hands of the farmer and a much better alternative to the tournament-style pay system that pits farmers against each other—and obviously fair pay comes along with that—bringing those benefits to the farmers has allowed the farming community here to thrive.
How would you say consumer awareness of some of these competition-related issues for farmers has evolved? And do you see growing interest in these issues, or is the attitude still mostly, “So long as I can get the chicken that I want, I don’t need to know much more”?
You’ve hit on a very important topic, and consumer awareness and understanding of the details to a specific industry has been lacking. Also, labeling is confusing. I often get confused when I go the grocery store—of course, I have the blessing to understand the intricate details of the poultry industry, but not everyone has that blessing. So the clarity and the spotlight on some of these issues coming from these [White House] announcements will absolutely help consumers understand where some challenges are, and then the bolstering of small processors and the support there will bring access to the farmers that are doing things the right way and make these products more available to consumers.
How does the producer price situation look to you at the start of 2022?
It’s been a challenging year. And I don’t think that there has been anyone in our industry that has been immune to the inflationary pressures [in] feed and freight and packaging. All of the key drivers have seen some inflation, but we’re all working to ensure a resilient supply chain and also that we are working to bring our consumers the best prices possible.
What is Farmer Focus looking forward to in the year ahead?
We are excited that we have a really strong waiting list of farmers excited to partner with us, and we have a lot of consumers anxious to purchase our products. There’s a gap in the middle and that is increasing processing capabilities—we’ll be working hard on that. And then as we continue to expand the processing capabilities, we’ll work with our marketing department to be very transparent and continue to educate consumers on the importance of transparency and traceability, the traceability from every package back to the farm that produced the product.
With regard to expanding processing capability, what’s that going to take?
For most people, especially young companies like ours, access to traditional financing and affordable means of securing capital is your No. 1 barrier, so that’s where the programs that the Administration announced on Monday are very exciting, and we’re evaluating those to see how those will align to expand our process.
As a sixth-generation family farmer, you’ve had the chance to see and appreciate how the industry has changed in recent decades. What gives you hope going forward?
Over the last 40 to 50 years you’ve seen this mass consolidation of the industry to where it has been all about producing volume and cheaper food. And over the last five or so years, you’re seeing this movement back to caring about where your food comes from, how it was produced, the farmer welfare, the animal welfare and was the environment impacted in the process. So that’s why this clarity of labeling is really critical, so that consumers can know that they’re supporting a brand that has the right focus. That’s what I’m really excited about—the consumer’s appetite for brands and companies that do have the right focus.