The farm bill has been languishing in the Senate for weeks, buried under the weight of hundreds of specious, unrelated amendments.

But the chamber reached a deal Thursday; each party agreed to float only 20 amendments. That means the bill is back on track. Majority leader Harry Reid vowed the Senate would hammer out a version by holiday break, meaning it would go to reconciliation and then to the president’s desk early in the new year.

So now it’s crunch time. The agribiz giants will be hauling out the big guns, trying to shoot down anything that conflicts with their interests.

One major focus of their attention will be the Competition Title that by some miracle made it out of the Senate Ag Committee. I’ve rhapsodized about it before — it includes a "packer ban" which would limit the power wielded by meat giants like Smithfield Foods and Tyson.

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Two of the most powerful Big Meat trade groups — the American Meat Institute and the National Pork Producers Council — have hired the D.C. lobbying outfit C&M Capitolink, a firm shot through with dodgy former Capitol Hill ag committee and USDA staffers.

This one, for example, "took a leave of absence [from C&M] to serve in the Bush Administration from August 2001 to September 2003 as Special Assistant to Deputy Secretary of Agriculture James R. Moseley." Charming, huh?

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Then there’s this cat, whose path to C&M started with stints on the staffs of the House and Senate ag committees and includes a run as chief lobbyist for CropLife America, the main trade group for the pesticide industry (and itself a C&M client).

Other C&M clients include the Bush-connected "private security" firm Blackwater USA, pesticide giant Bayer CropScience, and the Chlorine Chemistry Council.

Don’t let your senators get bamboozled by the likes of C&M. Call them today and insist that they support the Competition Title. You can contact the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 or locate your Senators’ office number on the web here.

Below the fold, I’m pasting in a guide to the Competition Title by the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Check it out.

Background on Livestock Title and Amendments

By the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

The Livestock Title of the Farm Bill approved by the Senate Agriculture Committee:

  • Improves market competition by prohibiting packer-ownership of livestock;
  • Protects individual choice by prohibiting forced, mandatory arbitration clauses written by packer lawyers;
  • Protects producer rights by creating a three day right to review or cancel a contract after signing;
  • Protects cash flow and investments by preventing companies’ from forcing contract producers to make expensive, mandatory equipment upgrades after a contract is signed;
  • Protects producer contract expectations by preventing premature contract terminations if producers have made a sizable capital investment;
  • Improves enforcement of the law by granting USDA authority to bring enforcement actions against poultry dealers for violations of the Packers & Stockyards Act;
  • Protects producer rights by prohibiting company retaliation against growers who seek to bargain collectively

Vote YES: Harkin-Enzi “No Competitive Injury” Amendment:
For 85 years, the Packers and Stockyards Act has protected individual farmers from unfair and deceptive trade practices. Recently, however, some judges have required producers who have proved that they are injured by an unfair or deceptive practice of a packer or processor to also show “competitive harm” to the entire industry. This “competitive harm” requirement is not in the Act and if the court rulings are allowed to stand, the Act loses most of its utility. The amendment filed by Senators Harkin (D-IA) and Enzi (R-WY) will clarify for the courts that the PSA does not require that a farmer or rancher show a competitive injury to the entire industry. The amendment is supported by the USDA.

Vote YES: Tester-Harkin-Grassley “No Legitimate Business Justification” Amendment:
Price manipulation is clearly prohibited by the Packers & Stockyards Act (PSA), but some judges have recently ruled that price manipulation is excused if a packer or processor can show “a legitimate business justification” for manipulating prices — such as gaining access to more livestock at the price they want to pay. This defense to price manipulation is not in the PSA and the court rulings, if allowed to stand, weaken the law substantially. The amendment filed by Senators Tester (D-MT), Harkin (D-IA), and Grassley (R-IA) will clarify that the PSA cannot be interpreted to include “a legitimate business justification” for market manipulation.

Vote YES: Enzi-Dorgan Captive Supply Reform Act Amendment:
Packers use captive supplies — livestock they own or control through contracts — to manipulate prices. Many contracts do not have a competitively negotiated price. Instead, they are based on a future cash market that packers manipulate by using captive supplies and staying out of the spot markets. Senators Enzi (R-WY) and Dorgan (D-ND) have filed an amendment to improve livestock marketing competition by requiring all forward contracts to have a fixed base price. The Captive Supply Reform amendment complements the ban on packer ownership already included in the Senate Farm Bill and increases competition by eliminating unpriced captives supplies.

Vote NO: Any Amendment to Strike or Weaken the Livestock Title to the Farm Bill
The Senate Ag Committee approved a Livestock Title in the Farm Bill which provides needed reforms to livestock and poultry laws. Enforcement of the law, producer rights, reallocation of enforcement resources and other matters are included. These are necessary reforms to correct the deficiencies of livestock and poultry enforcement that has been documented by many government reports. Support the committee-based Livestock Title and oppose any amendments to strike, study, or weaken one or more of its provisions.

Vote NO: Any Amendment to Alter or Strike the Voluntary Arbitration Provision
The Senate Agriculture Committee approved a provision making arbitration of disputes between producers and livestock and poultry companies voluntary, instead of forcing producers to sign binding, mandatory arbitration clauses as part of non-negotiable contracts. Arbitration is prohibitively expensive for producers, and limits their legal rights. USDA supports the committee-passed provision. Producers should be able to choose whether or not they wish to arbitrate a dispute. Protect farmers’ right to defend themselves against abusive business practices — support the committee passed voluntary arbitration provision and oppose efforts to strike or replace.

Vote NO: Any Amendment to Strike or Replace Packer Ownership Prohibition
The Senate Ag Committee approved a provision to improve livestock market competition by prohibiting packers from owning livestock more than 14 days prior to slaughter. Packer ownership is a form of captive supply that drives prices down and prevents open access to markets by producers. An amendment may be offered to strike, replace or study this provision. Protect market competition, support the committee passed provision and oppose efforts to strike or replace it.