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by Siena Chrisman, WhyHunger

Last night in Ankeny, Iowa, just north of Des Moines, a standing-room-only crowd of over 250 people called on the Justice Department and USDA to “bust up big ag!” and put the needs of people before corporations. Today is the official listening session where the government agencies will hear from all interested parties on the issue of corporate concentration in the food system—particularly, this round addresses “Issues of Concern to Farmers”—but the scheduled panels today are heavy on business and light on actual farmers. Several local groups organized Thursday’s town hall as a venue for farmers to voice their real concerns.

The evening began with a panel of independent farmers from Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri addressing concentration in seeds, dairy, and livestock; a representative from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union; and good food advocates talking about consumer issues (I had the great privilege to be one of those last speakers).

And then the floor was open to public comments. About 50 people spoke, almost all of them farmers. They told heartbreaking stories: The 29th anniversary of one man’s parents was a farm foreclosure. “The American Dream has turned into the American nightmare” for a southern Iowa dairy farmer, whose milk prices have been so low he can’t afford his feed costs. The 15-year-old son of a fifth generation dairy farmer wants to become the sixth generation, but if things don’t change in the next six months, they’re not going to have a farm.

Things are dire for farmers—as they are for so many of people who don’t have control over their food—but they’re ready to fight. They made powerful demands of the Department of Justice and Congress to enforce antitrust laws and break up the hugely concentrated ag industries. But government isn’t quite the last hope; people are. A family farmer from near Des Moines wanted to talk about power: “Industry cannot turn one wheel unless people make those machines work,” he said. “We have the power here, and we need to understand what that power means.”