Farmers say consolidation in the industry means they’re forced to buy more costly seeds. But Monsanto, the world’s largest seed firm, says competition ‘is alive and flourishing.’

For 40 years, farmer Todd Leake and his family have battled bitter cold, hungry pests and a short growing season to coax soybeans out of their fields in eastern North Dakota.

The one thing they never had to fight for, though, was their seeds.

A decade ago, salesmen from as many as 50 seed companies would compete for their dollars. Each would promise healthier plants, richer yields or a better discount.

Today the Leakes have little choice: There are four seed companies in their area, and all sell seeds that include genetic traits patented and licensed by Monsanto Co., the world’s largest seed firm.

“There’s basically nothing else available,” said Leake, 48. “You have to use their seeds and pay their prices.”

The concerns of farmers such as Leake will take center stage in Ankeny, Iowa, on Friday as the Justice Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture kick off the first of a yearlong series of public meetings to examine whether antitrust practices in agriculture are driving food prices higher.

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