A few years back, I thought I was on to a Really Big Story: President Bush had plucked a man named Chuck Conner from his perch as president of the Corn Refiners Association — a front group for Archer Daniels Midland, and the force behind those putrid high-fructose corn syrup ads — and made him his "special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade and food assistance." Eventually, Conner became the USDA’s deputy secretary — widely seen as the agency’s fixer, the guy who got things done.
In the corn bubble in which I then existed — some say I’m still there — this seemed like a really big deal. A man who had essentially worked as a lobbyist for Archer Daniels Midland — the company that singlehandely rigged up both the corn ethanol program and the high-fructose corn syrup market, two massive travesties — was now advising the president on ag policy.
And people … yawned. Thinking back on it, of course they did. This was the Bush administration — crony capitalism had been raised to the level of statecraft. These guys were handing billion-dollar no-bid contracts to the vice president’s old company, to perform outsourcing functions in a war he himself had engineered. What was a bit of Oval Office bump-and-tickle with an industrial corn man?
Well, for those of you who care, here’s a newsflash: Conner waltzed out of Bush’s USDA and into another top job at a big agribiz trade group: the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Now, the group’s name makes it sound a bit down-home, like a bunch of guys in overalls banding together to run a grain elevator.
Don’t be fooled. The NCFC is made up mainly of "cooperatives" that have scaled up to corporate size; many of them work in concert with agribiz giants like ADM to squeeze small farmers and workers. One glaring example is the giant entity Dairy Farmers of America, an NCFC member that controls a third of the milk produced in the U.S. DFA has been accused of colluding with milk-processing giant Dean Foods to squeeze farmers on price.