Callicrate Discusses Rebuilding a Broken System


By Mayzie Purviance

Mike Callicrate joined the Northern Plains Resource Council at their 2019 annual meeting November 9, 2019 as their Saturday morning speaker.  Callicrate holds many titles: Cattleman, political activist, author, founder of the farm advocacy group, Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), and the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit again the world’s largest meat packer IBP (now part of Tyson Foods).

Callicrate enlightened the room on various topics, particularly pertaining to the current state of the cattle market in his talk titled, “A Broken Food System: How to Rebuild.”

“I was at a sale barn in Nebraska years ago when R-CALF was first started.  I’d go around and talk to groups at sale barns and they would pack in 800 people in a sale barn in Nebraska.  A woman came up to me afterwards and she said, ‘I’m so happy that you’re out there talking about our problems and I really hope we can find solutions,’ and she was telling me about all the financial problems that her and her family have.  And her husband, who’s standing there next to her, said, ‘Honey, please don’t tell Mr. Callicrate all our problems.’ They were ashamed and they shouldn’t be ashamed because it wasn’t their fault that they were going bankrupt on their farm,” Callicrate said.

Callicrate said when he got home from his speech with R-CALF, he began thinking and asking himself, “Why are these multigenerational farm families going out of business?”  He thought the answer was bigger than the typical supply and demand and wrote a piece called, “What Happened, Grandpa?”

“Basically, the U.S. has lost nearly half its ranchers, over 90 percent of its hog farmers and 80 percent of its dairy farmers just in the last 35 years,” Callicrate stated.

“Where in the world are people and the policy makers at when we are losing our food system and today, are a net importer of food on a value basis?” Callicrate asked.  “We are a net importer in this place that was supposed to feed the world and you all are going to be a part of that because when you graduated from Colorado State University in 1975, you were told, ‘don’t be afraid to borrow all the money you possibly can because you’re going to feed the world and you’re going to be super successful in this wonderful industrial model of farming and ranching and food distribution.’”

Callicrate said after borrowing all that money, many woke up one morning and suddenly, everything they own (including livestock and land) was worth about half of what it was the day before.  Callicrate’s message was emotional, impactful and powerful as he continued with his speech.

“We talk about markets, and I would argue that nothing is going to work without a market.  I mean, a real market, an open and competitive market,” Callicrate said.  “Something the Northern Plains Council has always supported.”

Callicrate added that this is the whole reason OCM was started (about) 21 years ago: Open, fair and competitive markets.

“How do we get this done?” he asked North Plains Council members.

“We’ve got to become much more aggressive citizens and recover from the consumerism that we’ve been sold for the last 50 years,” Callicrate said.

Callicrate provided examples of unfair cattle markets and told stories of lawsuits filed against the big packers.  He used terms such as “gangster” and “mafia” to describe the big packers and summed it all up with one word: “criminal.”

“So, the solution – raise heck,” Callicrate stated.  “We put $22 on the cattle market and we put a whole bunch more of that on the cattle market that’s not near high enough, but we have to raise heck.  We have to get on national press.  We have to stop letting them work us against each other.”

Callicrate displayed an image of a group of people from the HEAL Food Alliance.  HEAL stands for Health, Environment, Agriculture and Labor and HEAL’s mission is “To build our collective power to create food and farm systems that are healthy for our families, accessible and affordable for all communities, and fair to the hard-working people who grow, distribute, prepare, and serve our food – while protecting the air, water, and land we all depend on.”

“So, while we’re fighting with each other, these ladies are fighting for us,” Callicrate said.  “This is the power of diversity.  This is the power of collaboration.  I love what they’re doing – OCM has been involved with this organization since it started, and they are still supportive of their work.  These are young people on campuses that are trying to make big food companies do things differently.”

Callicrate said HEAL and alternative food systems are also part of the solution.

“So, we’ve got to raise heck, we’ve got to break up the big meat packer, we’ve got to legislate, litigate… Let’s keep it all going but at the same time, let’s build a food hub.  Let’s make sure that we have political power in the community that the schools are buying from it,” Callicrate said.

Callicrate emphasized that in order to work towards any of these solutions, you need income.

“You’ve got to figure out how to get to the marketplace,” he said.  “If you don’t have a market, you can’t do any of this stuff.  We have to acknowledge that there is no market and we have to build an alternative but raising heck for the mean time… we will increase farm data income.

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