Author: Aaron Gott
The federal antitrust laws are a decisive proclamation that competition is the best policy—competition leads to better products and services, the greatest value at the lowest price. But, just like with anything else, there are exceptions. Congress and the courts have carved out numerous exceptions from antitrust liability—or as we’ll call them, exemptions. There’s an insurance exemption, a labor exemption, a baseball exemption, a state-action exemption, and many others. And they exist for a variety of reasons. Without the labor exemption, for example, union activity would be a felony. And we have a baseball exemption because, well, America likes baseball.
Today we’re going to talk about one important exemption for the agriculture industry: the farm cooperative exemption. Created by the Capper-Volstead Co-operative Marketing Associations Act (7 U.S.C. §§ 291–92), the farm cooperative exemption provides associations of persons or entities who produce agricultural products a limited exemption from antitrust liability relating to the production, handling, and marketing of farm products.
The farm cooperative exemption has some personal significance to me: I grew up across the street from one in my small Iowa town. And that co-op sponsored one of my little league teams.
At Bona Law, we regularly deal with antitrust exemptions. In fact, we have argued state-action exemption issues before the U.S. Supreme Court several times. As with any other exemption—and this is very important—the farm cooperative exemption is limited, disfavored, and narrowly applied. So it can easily become a trap. Like anything with antitrust, there are plenty of nuances and exceptions. We’re going to address some of those, but you should contact an antitrust lawyer if you really need to know whether the antitrust laws could apply, you’re being sued, or you want to consider suing.
The farm cooperative exemption allows a group of farmers—each of which is a competitor in the market—to come together and essentially act as one farmer. Through a cooperative, farmers pool their output together, agree on a price, and ultimately have more bargaining power in dealing with buyers—who historically were much bigger outfits than the individual farmers competing for their business.
The exemption also allows cooperatives to join together under a common marketing agency.
The exemption is overseen by the USDA, and the act gives direct oversight power to the Secretary of Agriculture. The secretary can, on his own volition, hold hearings, find facts, and issue orders to prevent cooperatives from monopolizing or restraining trade “to such an extent that the price of any agricultural product is unduly enhanced” as a result. But litigation—whether enforcement by the Department of Justice Antitrust Division or private civil lawsuits—is where a cooperative’s fate is usually decided.
Without the exemption, this sort of arrangement would be analytically indistinguishable from a price-fixing cartel, except that price-fixing cartels typically do not operate out in the open, since it is a serious felony. In fact, before 1922 when the act went into effect, farmers who acted together to market their products were sometimes prosecuted under the Sherman Act.
Conditions for the Antitrust Exemption
The Capper-Volstead Act establishes several conditions for the exemption to apply. There are two universal conditions: