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Chris Petersen with his hogs. Photo: Steve LeVine/Axios

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Chris Petersen, a third-generation hog farmer who says "I bleed rural" and tears up at the fate of family and friends, has found a way to keep his small holding going, and avoid the exodus that so many are making. His grown son and daughter have, too.

But meanwhile, Petersen is at war with the big companies that he says are destroying the culture of smaller places like Clear Lake.

  • "We are going down the same road as the Russians with the collective farm system," he told me yesterday. "There, the government controlled it. Here, it's the corporations."

The big picture: While his is a dramatic rendering of the state of American agriculture, Petersen has a point: Across industries, the U.S. has become a country of monopolies.

  • Three companies control about 80% of mobile telecoms. Three have 95% of credit cards. Four have 70% of airline flights within the U.S. Google handles 60% of search. The list goes on. (h/t The Economist)
  • In agriculture, four companies control 66% of U.S. hogs slaughtered in 2015, 85% of the steer, and half the chickens, according to the Department of Agriculture. (h/t Open Markets Institute)
  • Similarly, just four companies control 85% of U.S. corn seed sales, up from 60% in 2000, and 75% of soy bean seed, a jump from about half, the Agriculture Department says. Far larger than anyone — the American companies DowDuPont and Monsanto.

As we have reported, some economists say this concentration of market power is gumming up the economy and is largely to blame for decades of flat wages and weak productivity growth.

  • The issue has become a higher-profile plank of both political parties — and could move to the center of the 2020 debate.

Farmers like Petersen are on the receiving end of all this concentration. Just in the five years from 2007 to 2012, the number of U.S. hog farms declined by 25%, the Agriculture Department says.

Joe Peiffer, a bankruptcy lawyer in the Iowa city of Hiawatha, told me that the current wave of consolidation shows no sign of reversing.

  • The culprit he sees is cheap food: In 1960, Americans spent 17% of their disposable income on food; the figure now is just 6.4%, according to U.S. government figures. The tight margins ran out everyone but the big dogs.
  • Whatever the reason, you can see the outcome outside of Des Moines. "A lot of towns are ghost towns because the farmers are gone. Schools are consolidating. My high school graduated 86 kids in 1974. It was 50 last year."

The heyday, in Petersen's memory, was the 1970s, when "rural America was ungodly vibrant." Sixty cents per pound of hog gave farmers a healthy profit, he said.

  • The nearby city of Swaledale had just 220 people, yet when you added in everyone in the surrounding, smaller towns, there was sufficient business for a bank, grocery and hardware stores, a gas station, and two bars with restaurants.
  • Now, Swaledale is about 150, and the businesses have shuttered: "It's all gone. That's what they've done to rural America."

When Petersen says "they," he means Big Ag, which in his view is plain greedy. It is trying "to run us out," he says, banging the table with his fist.

  • In a statement, Bayer, which owns Monsanto, said: “Agriculture is a complex and highly competitive industry, and there are hundreds of companies driving innovation and competing for farmers’ business. After a robust global regulatory review process, we brought together two talented teams and a robust portfolio to offer more choices for farmers. Working with our customers and partners around the world, we are focused on developing smarter ways to grow healthy crops that are more environmentally and economically sustainable.”
  • DowDuPont did not respond to an email.

In 2001, Petersen went bankrupt. After that, he changed his business model and began to raise a premium hog known as a Berkshire, a breed whose meat he compares with Kobe beef. They fetch twice the price of the standard hog.

  • The whole sequence is outside the packers system. He said he earns more from the 500 Berkshires he raises every year than from the 2,500 ordinary hogs he used to produce.
  • "It's capitalism at its best. You get a price, not a fee," Petersen said.

Petersen's daughter Becky and son Matt live nearby. How have they managed to stay? Becky's husband Curtis and Matt both work as conductors for Union Pacific Railroad, he says.

  • Petersen doesn't want to say what they earn but says it's "ungodly wages." Both have acreage and raise cattle and chickens.

"In this wicked world," he says, "they're adjusted and are doing well."

Go deeper: Shrinking, aging, withering away

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Technology

3D printing's next act: big metal objects

Chief Scientist Andy Bayramian makes modifications to the laser system on Seurat's 3D metal printer. Photo courtesy of Seurat Technologies.

A new metal 3D printing technology could revolutionize the way large industrial products like planes and cars are made, reducing the cost and carbon footprint of mass manufacturing.

Why it matters: 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — has been used since the 1980s to make small plastic parts and prototypes. Metal printing is newer, and the challenge has been figuring out how to make things like large car parts faster and cheaper than traditional methods.

Updated 3 hours ago - Technology

Mayors see cryptocurrency as a way to address income inequality

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At the U.S. Conference of Mayors' meeting in D.C. this week, there's buzz around the idea of giving cryptocurrency accounts to low-income people.

Why it matters: Cities have been experimenting with newfangled ways to address income inequality — like guaranteed income programs — and the latest wave of trials could involve paying benefits or dividends in bitcoin, stablecoin or other digital currencies.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Fauci: "Confident" Omicron cases will peak in February
  2. Vaccines: Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker

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