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By Lynda Waddington 3/12/10 10:15 AM

ANKENY, IOWA — Whether they realized it or not, the roughly 250 family farmers, workers and consumers gathered in Ankeny, Iowa, Thursday night fired off their own point-by-point response to a letter from two Republican senators that urged the U.S. departments of agriculture and justice to maintain the existing status quo in the agriculture industry.

Speakers line up to comment at Thursday night's townhall. Photo by  Lynda Waddington, Iowa IndependentSpeakers line up to comment at Thursday night’s townhall. Photo: Lynda Waddington, Iowa Independent

The often rambunctious townhall event was organized by a coalition of groups concerned that everyday people do not have adequate opportunity to express their opinions on the agricultural industry at a joint U.S. Department of Justice and USDA antitrust workshop on Friday. And it had one overarching message: “Bust up big ag.”

“We are here today to make sure that the voices of everyday people are heard loud and clear and send a simple but powerful message to our government regulators and elected officials,” said Barb Kalbach, a fourth generation family farmer from Dexter and board member for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “Bust up big ag, pass policies that promote sustainable agriculture and local markets, and put people first during the workshop series by prioritizing public comments and input and adding more family farmers and consumers to panels.”

On Wednesday, however, two Republicans in leadership positions on the Senate Agriculture Committee urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to do just the opposite.

“We urge you to ensure that these sessions are balanced and reflect the wide array of producers and business operations in modern-day agriculture,” wrote Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Pat Roberts of Kansas.

After noting that “American agriculture is responsible for feeding the world,” that many industry “segments have become more vertically-integrated” and “other small and successful agriculture businesses have merged” to meet demands, the senators note that change is often met with frustration.

“Such change has led to better income margins for producers and processors as well as lower prices for consumers,” they wrote, adding that competition issues have been “studied extensively by several entities including the United State Congress and, specifically, the Senate Agricultural Committee.”

Although Chambliss and Roberts appear to call for a wide swath of American agriculture to have representation at the meeting, it is difficult to overlook the key point of their correspondence:

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