Second District Congressman Markwayne Mullin publicly letting loose on any aspect of the Trump administration is not exactly man-bites-dog, but it does get attention.
Few members of Congress have been more loyal to Trump than Mullin. Almost daily, his social media accounts light up with praise of the president and bitter denunciation of Mullin’s Democratic colleagues.
So when Mullin called for Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s resignation on Friday, it caused some heads to swivel in surprise.
“I gave the White House a heads up,” Mullin said Tuesday by telephone from his Adair County ranch. “They had some reservations, but I was fed up by it.”
Mullin and others representing rural districts have been quietly complaining about what they see as Perdue’s unresponsiveness to growing inequities in the cattle markets and, more recently, the COVID-19 epidemic’s impact on agriculture.
“It’s time for Sonny Perdue to step down,” Mullin said in the first of two Facebook videos on the subject posted Friday. “It’s time for President Trump to find someone who is going to lead that department.”
In the videos, Mullin accuses the meatpackers who control the markets of price gouging and notes that “not a single farmer or rancher” has received a COVID-19 relief payment from the USDA.
It’s hard to say whether the administration was listening, but on Tuesday the White House announced USDA relief payments will begin going out by the end of the month.
Mullin once again took to Facebook, this time to praise Trump, who Mullin said intervened personally in the matter.
Perhaps of longer term consequence to Oklahomans, particularly in Mullin’s district, is the growing disparity between the price of cattle on the hoof and beef in grocery stories and restaurants.
Oklahoma annually ranks among the nation’s top five beef-producing states and for the number of cow-calf operations. With poultry and pork largely controlled by vertically integrated corporations, cattle have been the last holdout for traditional livestock growers.
But Mullin, whose family not only runs cattle but sells the finished product at their restaurant, said four large meatpackers — Tyson, Cargill, National Beef and Brazil-based JBS — so control the markets that most competition has been squeezed out of pricing.
“To buy steak for the restaurant, it’s $17 a pound,” Mullin said. “It’s $6 a pound for junk ground beef. ... To sell cattle, it’s not even worth it. It’s 66 cents a pound to $1.35, and it’s hard to get $1.35.”
According to the National Cattleman’s Association website, the wholesale price of beef has increased 40% to more than 100% in the past year, depending on the cut.
The price paid for cattle for slaughter has dropped about 20% in the same period.
COVID-19 outbreaks that have partially or fully shuttered some processing facilities are a factor in the situation, but questions about beef prices predate the epidemic.
The USDA announced an investigation into the matter last year, and as recently as a month ago Perdue said that investigation was expanding. But several members of congress, including Oklahoma’s entire delegation, have asked for a progress report that has not been forthcoming.
According to Mullin, Perdue has not answered phone calls or responded to the request.
“I’ve defended him multiple times but there’s no excuse for this one,” Mullin said Tuesday. “The cattle business is in full-out crisis.”