Big Agriculture Probes

Some Obama administration officials have made clear their unease with the increasing control a handful of corporations have over the nation's food supply. At a gathering in Iowa in March they could show whether they are serious about changing the system. The first joint workshops on agriculture by regulators at the U.S. Justice and Agriculture Departments is expected to give farmers, lobbyists, executives, and academics a strong indication of where the Obama administration stands on consolidation in agriculture. Administration officials said the meeting will give antitrust attorneys and farm regulators their first chance to work side-by-side and examine the concentration of power in rural America. The Iowa meeting will be followed by four other gatherings held later in the year. Industry officials and farming groups aren't sure whether the hearings are political theater or a first step toward legal action, or both. For farmers, it's the most attention paid in years to their long-standing complaints that big corporations are choking out smaller players. “This is certainly a much brighter spotlight than we've seen in the last 10 years," said Tara Smith, the American Farm Bureau's director of congressional relations.