January 23, 2003, Issue #218
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

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ASSOCIATED PRESS: Two former Tyson Foods managers pleaded guilty Friday to conspiring to smuggle illegal immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras into the United States to work at the poultry plants of the nation's largest meat producer.

The pleas come less than three weeks before Tyson and three other current and former employees are to face trial in the case.

In separate federal court hearings, Spencer Mabe, 50, and Truley Ponder, 59, both former managers at Tyson's complex in Shelbyville, Tennessee, pleaded guilty to one conspiracy count each.

Ponder's attorney, Aubrey Harwell, said his client would testify against Tyson if subpoenaed. Mabe's attorney, W. Thomas Dillard, declined to say whether his client would testify. Federal prosecutors declined to comment.

Gary Mikelson, spokesman for Springdale, Arkansas-based Tyson, said the plea bargains did "not change the company's position or the facts, which show our company is serious about our responsibility to hire only properly documented workers."

Mikelson's statement said "it was a violation of company policy that led us to relieve Truley Ponder and Spencer Mabe from their job duties in September 2000, before the government's case against our company was filed."

A former Tyson employee, Amador Anchondo-Rascon of Shelbyville, has said Tyson managers asked him to supply and transport illegal immigrants to the company's poultry plants and to provide the workers with fraudulent identification. Anchondo-Rascon, 43, made a deal with prosecutors and plans to testify at the trial, set to begin February 4.

Other defendants in the case are Gerald Lankford, 63, of North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, a former employee; Robert Hash, 49, of Greenwood, Arkansas; and Keith Snyder, 42, of Bella Vista, Arkansas Hash and Snyder remain on administrative leave from Tyson.

Another former Tyson manager, Jimmy Rowland, 36, of Shelbyville, committed suicide in April 2001 after he was indicted.

Judge R. Allan Edgar scheduled Mabe and Ponder's sentencing hearings for May 12. They could receive up to five years in prison each, but their attorneys said their clients hoped to avoid any time behind bars.


On January 14 I sat in on CNN's "Crossfire" --- a live public policy debate format around a roundtable co-hosted by James Carville/Paul Begula on the left and Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson on the right. The talk featured a number of agenda topics which flashed by in bantering duels --- and included an exchange between the hosts and former U.S. attorney Joe DiGenova and Reverend Jesse Jackson on the merits of Illinois Governor George Ryan's abrupt decision to commute the death sentences for 167 convicts in the final days of his governorship.

DiGenova's skepticism on Ryan's motives defined the "talk" when the celebrated attorney characterized Ryan as a "fleeing felon" who was "getting out of town ahead of the posse"  (whose motive could therefore be seen as trying to provide himself some innoculation and possibly favorable consideration in a "later jury selection process") On December 20, TheWashington Post had reported that Ryan was likely to be indicted in the near future following a growing five year investigation into a licenses-for-bribes scheme during his tenure as Illinois Secretary of State.

I reflected on all the trade missions Governor Ryan has taken with ADM sponsorship to Cuba as part of the stampede of public officials pushing for normalization of trade with the nearly bankrupt, dictator-led country --- and I recalled the one occasion I met Ryan (at the Department of Justice sponsored Economic Crime Summit held at the Hyatt Hotel (Old Union Station) in St. Louis on April 28, 1998). You see Attorney General Janet Reno --- the featured luncheon speaker that day- had been forced to cancel --- and Illinois Secretary of State Ryan was hastily brought in to pinch hit. I thought it a strange substitution at the time.

I remember his entrance surrounded by a large entourage of Illinois State Police. (reminding me of another Illinois governor who used state troopers to shut down a professor's office at the University of Illinois in 1993 when the  courageous professor announced he would conduct a seminar with anti-ethanol experts among the speakers, after ignoring veiled threats from state government, including Governor Edgar's office.)

I was also a speaker and panel leader that April day in 1998 at the Economic Crime Summit --- and my presentation on "ADM as a case study in corruption of the Ag-Food sector" --- came right before lunch. I did not pull any punches, and was especially critical of the "political dimension" of white collar crime and Clinton Administration high-level cover-up which characterized the ADM case. Later that summer ADM executives, including Mick Andreas, son of chairman Dwayne O.Andreas, went on trial in Chicago for price-fixing and were later found guilty and sent to prison.

(Note: Andreas and T. Wilson are now free, but Dr. Mark Whitacre, another ADM executive who turned informant for the FBI and essentially gave the government its entire case against ADM and others --- remains in prison, serving a nine year sentence for embezzlement of funds from ADM, based largely on information ADM provided the investigators when it found itself under the magnifying glass --- thus, diverting a key thrust of the investigation away from itself.)

There was a big audience that day in St. Louis, nearly five years ago, and I have often wondered what Ryan's scouts reported about my presentation. One thing is perfectly clear --- even if Governor Ryan eventually goes behind bars --- and that is that the "shadow on the Land of Lincoln " stretching from Decatur to Springfield, and across the corn and soybean fields to Chicago, over the Board of Trade through the locks on the Illinois River, and on to the gilded halls of higher learning at the University of Illinois remains.

Suddenly, to the world observer, Ryan's grandstand move makes him (and his patrons) the guys with the "white hats" on --- while the subtle juxtaposition with certain former Texas governors will not be lost.  The real white collar, corrupting "master mind" and Pied Piper of Decatur remains on the loose, practically untouchable --- and the Washington "insiders" and talking heads --- will continue to give him a pass --- to the peril of our Nation's agriculture and homeland security.

Copies of the aforementioned Hollis presentation before the 1998 Economic Crime Summit can be obtained for $10 plus handling fee of $2 c/o ABC, 1312 Eighteenth Street. N.W. Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20036


MARK DOWIE, RANGE MAGAZINE: The last American president who was bold enough to attack corporate corruption head on was Teddy Roosevelt, a pro-business Republican. And his most memorable target for reform was the meat-packing industry.

Back then, in fact even as recently as 20 years ago, American cattle ranchers would brand anyone using a term like "monopoly capitalism" a Marxist crank, or worse. And most felt the same toward anyone who talked nice about government regulation. But having been victims of the modern meat-packers' cartel for a couple of decades, the nation's primary beef producers have changed their tune.

Step onto the Buck Harris ranch south of Pryor, Montana, and the first thing you'll hear is Patti Harris cussin' the packers, who seem to have completely replaced bankers, brokers and bureaucrats on her enemies' list.

"They're the worst," she says. "They're pulling in two or three times what they made when you last worked for me; and this year I'll sell my steers for the exact same price I did back then."

Step into the main house and you might hear her son Mook placing a phone call to their congressman asking support for a ban on packer ownership of cattle.

Segue to St. Francis, Kansas and listen to rancher Mike Callicrate: "Today the packer monopoly is far more powerful than it was back in Roosevelt's time," he says, "and now, as then, the food security of America is in danger, as producers and consumers are both being cheated."

Since 1980 the four largest beef processors in the country --- Cargill, ConAgra, Farmland National, and Tyson Foods, which in September 2001 acquired IBP (Iowa Beef Packers, the largest of them all) --- have increased their share of the steer and heifer slaughter from 36% to 82%. And during those same years, they've wrangled such a tight grip on cattle markets that their profit margins have soared 233% while the price for cattle on the hoof steadily weakened.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, producers' share of the retail beef dollar has declined 25% since 1975, which translates into $400-per-head less at the scales. This, while the cost of almost everything else a cattleman needs to survive-fodder, machinery, labor, insurance and medicine --- has either doubled or tripled.

Of course the same thing has been happening to one degree or another throughout the entire agricultural economy, as giant corporations like Archer Daniels Midland gobble up midsized farms and use their massive buying power to depress the price of harvested food crops. But the meat packing situation appears to be worsening. In fact, it's far worse now than it was at the turn of the century when ranchers were at virtual war with the packing houses --- a situation that required White House intervention.

Economic studies of monopolized industries indicate that when any market becomes dominated by fewer than six firms, fair pricing becomes compromised. So when over 80% of cattle is slaughtered and processed by four large firms, which on any given day own up to 35% of that cattle, we are inviting monopoly.

Here's how it works.

Very much the way Enron and Dynergy manipulated energy markets in California using fictional transactions with nicknames like "Death Star," "Fat Boy" and "Get Shorty," the four largest packers corner the cattle market with captive supplies of anywhere from 20% to 35% of the pre-slaughter cattle in the country. By holding a few million steers over the market every day, packers can keep wholesale prices down. And by joining forces with larger retailers like Wal-Mart, as IBP/Tyson recently did, they can exert a strong influence on retail prices. And who earns the difference between low wholesale and high retail? Not the rancher.

"Packers have gained an economic stranglehold on the independent cattle producer," according to Jay Miller, market committee chairman of The Ranchers-Cattleman Action Legal Fund (R-CALF). The big four companies, he says, "are using captive supplies of cattle to distort the supply and demand relationship and further depress live cattle prices."

Miller and his members are asking Congress to intervene by banning packer ownership of cattle for more than 14 days prior to slaughter. Of course the packers aren't sitting still for that kind of legislation and have recruited the American Meat Institute and a host of K Street bandits to represent their cause on the Hill.

Ranchers have struck back by filing class-action lawsuits against three of the largest packers. Picket vs. IBP, Murdock vs. Excel (Cargill) and Leuking vs. ConAgra all claim that the packers in question use forward contracts and captive supplies in violation of the Packers and Stockyard Act, a trust-busting statute passed in 1921 to hog-tie an earlier packer cartel.

No one is claiming that the big four are conspiring to fix prices. Fact is they don't have to conspire, it being easy enough to watch each other's supplies and bid less aggressively on the remaining cattle needed to meet demand. And when supplies get low, the worst of them will buy a few truckloads of cheap imported cattle and leave American cattlemen with herds at the ranch gates watching prices tumble.

"It was time to draw a line in the sand," says Jack Boehler of Orleans, Nebraska, a plaintiff in the case against ConAgra.

Meanwhile, cattlemen's organizations have been pushing Congress to clean up the system. This spring the Senate passed a farm bill containing a hard-fought ban against packer ownership. The House is considering the same provision. But the packers and their lobbyists are turning up the heat. A few strategically targeted campaign contributions could steer the ban right into a subcommittee trash can.

At a recent forum in Kansas City sponsored by the Department of Agriculture's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration, R-CALF Vice President Kathleen Kelley spoke out. "Why must we regulate market dominance?"  she asked. "The free market is, after all, based on survival of the fittest, so shouldn't we allow the most fit to grow, to prosper, to thrive, even though others may be shoved out of business as a result?" Kelley paused to survey the sea of angry faces before her, then answered her own question. "Not when it threatens our democracy." The applause was deafening.

"This isn't about the price of cattle, wheat, cotton or chickens," she continued. "It's about the value of culture, the value of community, the value of creative independent spirit. It's about trusting humanity unchained from big government and big business to mold itself into a dynamic, progressive culture." More applause. She smiled and finished her speech.

"An independent, diverse agrarian production system is vital to the health and well-being of our sovereign nation. A production system that lacks the strength of diversity and competition also lacks the incentive to innovate. It becomes a parasite which meets only the needs it has to foster its own survival and often fails to respond effectively to crisis. We must foster an effective regulatory climate that recognizes the crucial importance of real competition."

There it was, a reluctant but necessary call for regulation, something that would have been booed down by the same crowd 20 years ago.

Mark Dowie is a ranch hand on the Gale Ranch in Chileno Valley, California


CHARLES ABBOTT, REUTERS: The largest U.S. farm group representing 5.3 million members narrowly voted on Tuesday to drop its opposition to meatpackers raising hogs and cattle in competition with farmers.

Packer ownership is one of the most divisive issues in agriculture. One-third of U.S. hogs and cattle are fattened for market under the control or ownership of a handful of mammoth meatpackers who dominate the industry.

Oklahoma rancher Bob Drake wanted the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) to support a ban on packer ownership as a way to help family and independent producers get a fair price. Defenders say growers get a more stable income when they cooperate with packers in raising animals.

On a 207-185 vote, delegates at American Farm Bureau Federation convention defeated Drake's proposal to have AFBF support a ban on packer ownership of cattle, a partial reinstatement of existing policy.

Delegates of the AFBF also voted, by a narrow margin, to continue supporting mandatory country-of-origin labels on meat and meat products despite warnings of high costs, defeating a proposal by Missouri Farm Bureau president Charles Kruse to endorse only voluntary labeling. Now voluntary, labeling becomes mandatory in September 2004.

Still pending was an Illinois resolution, presented as a compromise, calling for an AFBF study of how to assure fair livestock prices. The study would look at packer ownership, effectiveness of country-of-origin labeling, how to encourage packers to buy animals on the cash market and fair-play marketing laws.

It was expected to go to a vote on Wednesday, the final day of the convention. Delegates can re-open debate on any issue until the end of the convention.

Until now, AFBF backed a ban on packer ownership of cattle and hogs more than 14 days before slaughter, excepting farmer-owned cooperatives and small packers. The resolutions committee, composed predominantly of state presidents, deleted the language from the proposed AFBF policy book.

"I don't have any assurance," said one Texas delegate, that a ban would boost income. He said a ban might impinge on marketing "alliances" that offer producers more money for delivering crops and livestock with consumer-desired traits.

Producers are so divided --- often on regional lines --- that a national consensus is not possible, some farm leaders say. Producers from the U.S. Southeast, where many farmers feed packer-owned hogs or raise them under contracts pledging delivery to packers --- say closer ties with packers stabilize farm income. Midwesterners range from vocal concern about concentration in the meat industry to ambivalence about interfering with a grower's right to sign a contract.

U.S. groups representing hog and cattle producers are neutral on packer ownership of hogs and cattle while the 300,000-member National Farmers Union supports a ban.

A spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said his group preferred private-sector solutions rather than government intervention in the marketplace.

Dave Roper, president of the National Pork Producers Council. said in a telephone interview that producers did not want to be put at a disadvantage. Most proposals for a ban exempt poultry, where processors exercise far more control over production.

Along with defeating Kruse's proposal, delegates approved language calling for a study of the benefits and drawbacks of county-of-origin labeling before it becomes mandatory.

Mississippi delegate Fred Stokes said estimates that labeling and related record-keeping would cost $2 billion a year were "pretty far fetched."

"If we don't do something, we are headed for a train wreck come September 2004," Kruse argued. "The calves that are on the ground right now in every state are going to be subject to mandatory labeling" but there was no uniform system to prove they were U.S. animals.


ANNE FITZGERALD, DES MOINES REGISTER: From the Far West to New England, signs reminiscent of the troubled 1980s in rural America are surfacing again, and the situation is especially worrisome in drought-stricken states such as Kansas and Nebraska.

But even in Iowa, one of America's agricultural garden spots last year, pressures are pushing farmers to the brink emotionally and financially and stymieing the next generation of farmers, experts said last week. In a state where 2002 corn yields averaged a record 165 bushels per acre --- 27% above the U.S. average --- concerns are rising, according to interviews with economists, farm management officials, rural mental-health experts leaders of farm organizations.

In November, calls to Iowa Concern, a hot line established during the 1980s farm crisis, set a record: 951 people sought legal, financial and mental-health advice, about 200 more than in November 1985 at the height of that decade's farm crisis. Not all calls two months ago were farm-related, but those who run the hot line believe November's call volume indicates rising stress among rural residents, including farmers.

"The world is changing around them, and they feel a sense of powerlessness," said Neil Harl, a noted economist at Iowa State University in Ames. One farmer who is seeing the changes is David Fisher, 66, who farms near Hubbard in north-central Iowa.  Fisher wouldn't say how much he lost raising hogs last year. He just laughed as he sat in his farm office, his arms tightly crossed.  "It was not a good year," he said. "It was not profitable."

On average, Iowa pork producers such as Fisher lost more than $16 per hog in 2002, ISU Extension economist John Lawrence said. For Fisher, whose farm sells thousands of hogs each year, the losses were significant.  There's another reason for Iowans to be concerned: The red ink that began flowing in late 2001 for hog producers is apt to continue this year, Lawrence said.

Iowa produces one-fourth of the pork sold in the United States, and that means the state will feel the sting of the ongoing financial problems hog farmers are experiencing. "It's not just farmers it's going to shake out," said Alvin Lamar, a farm management specialist in Iowa Falls, the Hardin County seat, which is 20 miles north of Fisher's farm.

"It's going to have an effect on financial institutions and the businesses up and down these streets." During the farm crisis of the 1980s, thousands of farmers in Iowa were forced into bankruptcy, and countless rural businesses, including banks, implement dealers and Main Street stores, were forced to close. Foreclosures and suicides became an all too common occurrence in Iowa's rural countryside two decades ago.

With today's mounting financial losses, stress has increased across Iowa, experts said last week.

Fisher said the pork business has been good for his family, which has raised hogs since the 1940s. But he sees precarious times ahead for independent producers, including his son-in-law, Paul Cook, 32, who farms with him. In Hardin County, where Fisher farms, last year's record or near-record corn yields, coupled with higher crop prices, eased some of the losses farmers experienced when they sold livestock. At the same time, however, most crop farmers got no federal loan deficiency payments, so-called LDPs, which are triggered by low crop prices. That cut farm income - in cases, by tens of thousands of dollars.

"We'll be lucky to match the income we made in 2000," said Lamar, the farm management specialist.

Harl, the ISU economist, said the growing crisis in rural America is more diffused, and the solutions will be more difficult to craft, than in the 1980s. This time, the culprit is consolidation, not just large debts. And this time, farmers are not alone.

As the business of producing and selling food becomes increasingly global, lenders, grain handlers, implement dealers and others whose livelihoods depend on agriculture also are under pressure to get bigger or get out. And that, in turn, adds to the stress being experienced in rural America.

"Change is very difficult," said Randy Hertz, vice president of Hertz Farm Management in Nevada. "It's both good and bad."  "What scares me is the clout that companies like Wal-Mart or some of the food retailers have. That's huge," he said. "It's a different game, and none of us have learned to play it yet."

Jean Kinsey, an economist and co-director of the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota, said companies that buy and resell what farmers produce are driving the consolidation.  "If you're going to supply McDonald's, you've got to supply it the way they want it," she said. "It's a pretty powerful force, and we're probably not going to go back to the good old days."

Some applaud the change, claiming companies and farms alike gain efficiencies as they expand. Critics believe, however, that the trend jeopardizes a basic good --- food --- and puts independent businesses at risk.

For farmers, consolidation means fewer meatpackers to sell livestock to, fewer local cooperatives to bid on their grain, and fewer suppliers from whom to buy seeds and fertilizer and machinery. For rural communities like Hubbard, those changes mean fewer locally owned businesses.

Years ago, Fisher said, the town had two car dealerships, two implement dealers, a Main Street full of shops, and its own school. Now, he said, there is a consolidated school district, one auto dealer, an implement dealer and a welding shop that's open just two days a week.

Except for time out for military service and college, Fisher has lived and worked on a farm his entire life. He knows some years are good and some bad.  He knows a farmer has to be a good marketer, as well as a good producer. But even that is not enough these days.

With consolidation, his options have narrowed. He sells about half of his hogs on contract to Farmland Industries, the other half on the cash market. With Farmland now in bankruptcy, he faces losing a major market. In addition, he and his son-in-law have lost equity in their operation and face losing equity in Farmland, for decades the largest farmer-owned cooperative in the United States.

Fisher does not dwell on the mounting pressures, however. Stress comes with the job, he said. Instead, he prays. He is grateful for his family, their health and living in a free country. "We have a lot to be thankful for," he said, holding his 8-year-old grandson, Levi, in his lap.


ED MAIXNER, FARM PROGRESS: American farmers are becoming more attuned to the preferences of all those people in the cities and suburbs who buy their products and pay the costs of government farm programs, recent research suggests. Bob Pares, with pollster RoperASW of New York City, reported Monday to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention . . . on the results of his company's research of consumer attitudes toward American farmers and their food production practices.

Overall, he says, farmers showed better awareness of consumer attitudes than when Roper did a similar survey in 1999.Roper found American consumers maintain a generally high regard for farmers' production of quality foods and responsible care of the natural environment. And, Pares says, the consumers with the most education and most influential positions in their communities generally have the most positive attitudes toward farmers.

"An educated consumer is still your best consumer," he told AFBF members. For example, in both the 1999 and 2002 surveys Roper conducted with 1,000 consumers, 65% of respondents believe farmers care more about food safety than does the average American. Pares says Americans' willingness to protect farmers financially also remains strong but is focused on supporting environmental stewardship.

On that score, in fact, farmers and consumers have quite similar views. Roper asked both consumers and farmers whether they generally agree with paying tax dollars to help farmers survive. A third of consumers aren't sure about that but Roper found that only 19% of consumers, and 16% of farmers, are generally opposed to farm subsidies.

In a related matter, Roper found that a majority of both consumers and farmers --- 65% of consumers; 55% of farmers --- want subsidies used to help farmers in environmentally
beneficial and sustainable farming practices. Only 15% of consumers and 32% of farmers want subsidies paid to support farm output. Pares says his research also found that farmers still have major disconnects on consumer views of agriculture and are far behind trends on some consumer attitudes.

For example, Pares says 48% of consumers say they don't want to see any antibiotics used to promote growth of animals that will become their food.  Meanwhile, 55% of the 700 farmers in the survey reported they expect to use antibiotics for that purpose within the next year.

Roper also found that 86% of consumers say they would switch, if informed of the choice, to products from food companies whose suppliers produce crops and livestock under only environmentally sound and sustainable farming conditions.

Pares says consumers do tend to over-reach on such questions --- often reflecting notions that aren't necessarily their actual behavior. Still, he says, such strong responses do show the formation of consumer attitudes,  "so don't just dis this kind of response," he cautions.


CBC NEWS ONLINE: Canadian consumers could soon be able to trace their loaf of bread right to the farmer who grew the wheat for the bread.

The Canadian Grain Commission unveiled a plan to create a paper trial from the farm gate to the dinner plate. The commission is now gathering opinions from farmers and the food industry about the plan.

The commission is trying to put a shine on a slightly tarnished reputation.  In the past year, some loads of grain were turned back because they contained unlicensed varieties. Terry Harasym of the Canadian Grain Commission says the current quality assurance system relies on visual inspections. Unlicensed varieties look the same as licensed ones. As a result, the commission has a plan to hold everyone in the system accountable.

"Every time grain changes hands, you would have samples that would be taken and declarations signed," says Harasym. The Canadian Wheat Board still has to approve the plan.

Ian McCreary, director of the board, says the system may have problems if it segregates genetically modified wheat. GM wheat is still in the process of getting approval in Canada. McCreary says if the wheat is given the green light, it shouldn't be set apart from regular wheat.  "You would need scientifically reputable tests that could be done on the gang way," says McCreary. Harasym says farmers and those in the industry will decide whether the new system is implemented.


ARTURO S. RODRIGUEZ, PRESIDENT, UNITED FARM WORKERS UNION: Cesar Chavez's legacy is all about peace and non-violent action. If there was ever a time for Cesar's legacy to come alive it is now. Basic principle demands that the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO joins national and global efforts in opposing the Bush administration's plans to mount a "preemptive" war in Iraq.

President Bush has not offered convincing evidence to the American people that war is needed because Iraq poses a real threat to our country. Yet such a use of U.S. military force would require thousands of young men and women, many of them people of color, to fight overseas in the name of democracy. President Bush's war in Iraq would do lasting harm to our democracy here at home.

Congressional staff and think-tank experts estimate this war would cost as much a $200 billion, requiring reductions in public spending on job creation, health care, welfare, the environment and other vital government programs. Little or no U.S. funds would be available to aid cash-strapped state governments such as California, Arizona, Texas and Washington state that could soon slash health and welfare programs for poor and minority residents, including farm workers. White House officials say reductions are needed to place the federal budget "on a war footing."

Increased military spending plus budget cuts would cause more despair for millions of impoverished working families, including farm workers, who are among the poorest and most abused workers in America. The latest U.S. Department of Labor figures show 90% of California farm workers earn less than   $10,000 a year and 90% have no health coverage.

With $1.4 billion in federal funding needed to save the Los Angeles County health care system from collapse, the Bush administration wants to spend $200 billion on the war in Iraq--and $2 billion on just one B-2 bomber.

                                    EDITOR'S NOTE

Preparing to post this year-end 218th edition of THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER it is
gratifying to know that over 1100 people throughout the world are currently receiving it on a
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To that small cadre of contributors this editor can only express his profound gratitude and
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From the outset it was never the purpose of THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER to
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