SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A symbolic resolution passed the Sullivan County Commission last week, and as Commissioner Herschel Glover explains, it’s a plea to the higher-ups to do something about the fact that local cattle farmers aren’t seeing a share of the high prices consumers are paying in the meat aisle.

The resolution asks Sullivan County’s state and federal representatives to “review the dramatic pricing gap in the cattle industry beginning with pricing for cattle producers at selling markets, moving through meat packaging houses, and ending at extreme high pricing for consumers within retail markets.”

Glover, a Sullivan County cattle farmer himself, said that though he knows his resolution at the commission level was nothing but symbolic, he hoped to open a dialogue on the topic he said is long overdue.

“If we were to sit and do nothing, then nothing I felt like would have been done,” he said of his resolution.

‘The numbers just don’t add up’

Glover’s push for action from legislators is to garner a “fair price per pound” for cattle.

In his resolution, he outlines that “cattle producers struggle to get a fair price for their cattle at livestock markets while the nation’s four largest meatpackers (Tyson, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company, and JBS), along with retail markets, receive a significantly better return for beef products.”

In a statement from Tennessee Congresswoman Diana Harshbarger, she reveals that aims to help.

“I also called upon the Department of Justice to provide updates on their findings for President Trump’s Civil Investigative Demands issued last year to the four largest meatpackers regarding concerns of anti-competitive conduct. I will continue to engage with our farmers to make sure they have what they need to be successful and to ensure a fair market place. We should always support those who help us put food on our kitchen table.”

Rep. Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.)

“For the past couple of years, everything that’s related to the beef industry, beef producers have gone up tremendously in cost, but the prices of the beef cattle have not,” Glover said is the root of the argument.

He reached out to all the regional lawmakers, including Tennessee Rep. Scotty Campbell, who represents parts of Sullivan County and all of Johnson County.

“Part of this is because of the number of meatpackers across the country and other factors as well — less meat processing facilities; there’s been a lot of consolidation been a number of factors that have gotten us to this point,” Campbell told News Channel 11. “But the numbers need to be adjusted in some way somehow, the free market ought to be able to work this out, but I’m not so sure how this is going to play out at this point.”

He explained that beef cattle prices today are basically the same or close to what they were two to three years ago.

About four or five years ago, he said that cattle prices were $2.40 to $2.60 a pound, but now the prices have fallen back to $1.40 to $1.50, and he argued that the cost of material to raise cattle has also gone up.

“For instance, fertilizer this year is $1,100 a tonne,” he said. “You have to put about 300 pounds to the acre to get a good crop of hay. At that, you’re getting four to five rolls of hay in a very good year. Now, with the price of fertilizer being that high, you’re gonna have $50 to $60 a roll in your hay before you even start your tractor up to feed cattle.”

Glover said that during this type of year, a full-grown cow will eat anywhere from 24 to 26 pounds of hay a day.

“So, it’s going to cost a lot more to feed, it’s going to cost a lot more to grow. But the prices of our cattle per pound have not gone up over time,” he said. “You can’t keep paying 25%, 35%, 40% more for material to grow beef and supplies to grow beef and then pay your bills, and then when you go to sell your beef at the market, you’re getting $1.45 to $1.50 a pound for it. The numbers just don’t add up with the cost.”

‘We kind of got the ball rolling’

Glover explained that he got the idea to draft the symbolic resolution at the last Farm Bureau meeting about a month ago.

“Farm Bureau of Tennessee had some representatives there, and we went through this discussion, and that was one of the topics that came up was the price of beef in this area,” he said. “So, that’s how we kind of got the ball rolling, and they’ve been very supportive and they’re willing to go the extra mile with this resolution and take it forward and get the attention it needs.”

According to Debra Kenerson, Tennessee’s statistician for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tennessee ranks No. 5 in the nation with a total of 372 cattle operations, per the last census data available from 2017. 

In Northeast Tennessee, there were 56 cattle operations according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

“Sullivan County and Upper East Tennessee’s got the best beef around, best quality beef and a lot of folks are wanting that beef right now,” Glover said.

Harshbarger told News Channel 11 that she also got the ball rolling, so to speak.

“After hearing directly from farmers in East Tennessee about the challenges they face I signed on as a cosponsor to the Butcher Block Act, which creates a grant and loan guarantee program to develop or expand meat processing facilities. Only companies with under 5% of the market are eligible so the processors cannot benefit from this.”

Rep. Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.)

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in July 2021 that the USDA would spend $500 million to encourage smaller meatpacking firms to increase productivity, the Associated Press reported.

“I hope that the legislators and even at the federal level can sit down and work together to get us a fair price per pound for our cattle so the cattle industry can survive,” Glover said. “If we keep going the way we’re doing now, I’m afraid that we’re going to start bringing beef in, importing more beef in from out of the country. And I want to see American people eating American beef — that’s our goal.”

At the state level, Campbell confirmed the topic is up for discussion during the current General Assembly in Nashville.

“The discussion has started, and I believe that there’ll be more conversations in the coming days,” he said. “I’m not sure what that will look like in the end, but hopefully, we can find a way to assist.”

‘Give us a fair price for our beef.

But for the little guy like Glover, the fight is not with the consumers or grocery stores, but with large-scale meatpackers like Tyson, Cargill, National Beef Packing Company and JBS who make up the largest piece of the pie driving the beef market.

“We’ve got to have a fair price for our product so we can continue to provide the quality beef,” Glover argued, saying the large corporations are not offering fair prices for the beef cattle farmers are raising.

He said the proposed meatpacking facility in neighboring Washington County, which was pulled from the county commission’s agenda to consider rezoning the property to accommodate the proposed facility, would be a tremendous benefit to local beef producers.

“For instance, with the slaughterhouse going into Washington County, that’s gonna be a big boost for this area, for all of us and we just want our farmers to make a good living and keep continuing to do what they love to do and produce beef,” he said.

Glover also said that if the people of Washington County are hesitant to have a slaughterhouse erected in their backyard, he invited that type of facility to consider Sullivan County as an alternative location.

“I think we should look at every avenue available to get the price up to where the farmers can survive,” he said.

But it’s not that simple.

Glover explained that the price fetched by the farmer at the stockyard is not up to the farmer anymore, but up to those four large meatpacking companies, and he wants to know who is calling the shots.

“I feel like it starts from the time our cattle leave the stock pen and when they get to the slaughterhouses,” Glover said. “And there are just four slaughterhouses in the United States right now that are mainly doing beef slaughter.

“So, that’s the starting point where we’re at right now. We want to know who they are; they always say, ‘Well, that’s what they want. That’s what they’re willing to pay.’ Well, we want to know who ‘they’ are because it’s not been a fair playing field for the beef producers in the last two to three years.”

He said the ultimate goal for his symbolic resolution was to get the ball rolling — to ask the right questions — and it seems the politicians it was aimed at are responding.

“The bottom line is, people are paying way too much for beef at the store, and the farmer is getting way too little of that money,” Campbell said.

Farmers like Glover say they want to ask the big corporation meatpackers for a fair price. That’s it.

“Give us a fair price for our product,” he said. “Give us a fair price for our beef. That’s all we ask for. Because if we’re not here to provide that beef for you and give you good quality beef in the long run, it’s gonna make it hard on your business also.”

He added that his beef is not with the local grocery stores, but with the meatpacking industry driving the prices the grocery stores are forced to charge.

“What worries me if our local producers start slowly going out of business, it’s also going to affect our other bases in this area — our farm supplies or hardware stores,” Glover said. “It’s kind of a domino effect, and we don’t want that to happen. We want Sullivan County to continue to grow.”