Fowl play: the chicken farmers being bullied by big poultry

More than 97% of US chicken farmers work with a big producer, but many say theyre being treated unfairly and principles to help protect them are now in limbo

Back in 2001, Alton Terry, his wife and two young children were living in San Jose, California, but they dreamed of a quieter, more rural life. Terrys grandparents had been farmers, and that invigorated him to move their own families to Shelbyville, Tennessee, to start a chicken farm.

Like the majority of chicken farmers in the US, Terry entered into an exclusive contract with a big producer, Tyson Foods. The first couple of years we didnt have any problems, announced Terry, but then Tyson started asking us to lay in extra equipment that we had to pay for.

Terry had taken out a $500,000 loan to build the chicken mansions on his farm, and he wasnt willing to fork out more fund for equipment that he announced wasnt necessary, including extra feed bins and upgrades to the chicken houses.

If we are independent contractors, so why does the company have the right to tell us what equipment to utilize? announced Terry. We were independent in name only when it benefited the company.

Terry asserts Tyson retaliated by making him sick chicks. In 2005, Tyson didnt renew Terrys contract. Detecting another big customer was difficult because Tyson was the only chicken company in the area.

Terry sued Tyson in 2008, alleging the company canceled his contract because he rallied farmers in the area to lodge complaints about the company with their congressional special representatives and the US Department of Agriculture( USDA ); he announced Tyson mistreated him with tactics such as weighing his fowls incorrectly while not allowing him to watch the weigh-in, a violation of USDA rules.

He lost the case in 2010 after a federal judge declared that the law necessitated him to show that Tysons actions had maimed competition for the entire poultry industry , not just him. The court ordered Terry to pay Tyson virtually $30,000 in legal costs. He was forced to declare bankruptcy.

We lost the farm, our residence, our ponies and our dogs, announced Terry, who now operates as a handyman and carpenter.

Seven years later, a placed of federal principles has emerged that aims to strengthen protection for farmers. But the new principles, drawn up in the final days of the Obama administration, are in limbo. The Trump administration postponed the enactment of any new federal rules for two months from inauguration, and just last week, the USDA announced that the new rules would remain on hold for another six months.

The new principles a culmination of decades of try by farmers and their preaches would no longer necessitate farmers to prove damaging to competition within the industry owned largely by a handful of producers. The four largest chicken producers in the two countries, which include Tyson Foods and Pilgrims Pride, power more than half of the chicken market and 57% of the turkey market, according to the USDA.

Its genuinely a tale of unchecked corporate concentration, announced Sally Lee, who works at household farmer advocacy nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA and co-director of Under Contract, a documentary about farmers who suffered severe financial losses and emotional toll from what they said was unfair treatment by big chicken producers. There are a few companies that control the market so they can exercise extreme strength over farmers trying to work with them.

Clawing for control

More than 97% of chicken farmers in the US work under contract with a big producer. A farmer can choose to work independently and sell chickens to a company for processing or immediately to retailers and customers, but these farmers are at situations of extreme disadvantage, announced Lee, since most chicken processing plants are owned by producers.

The contract system offers chicken producers a consistent supply of products and guarantees a market for farmers, announced Susan Schneider, director of the masters program in agricultural and food constitution at the University of Arkansas school of law.

Starting a chicken farm isnt cheap one chicken residence medians $250,000, and four mansions are recommended to achieve a basic grade of income. The startup cost sometimes necessitates farmers to mortgage their farms, Schneider said.

Any objective legal analysis would find the typical poultry contract to be one-sided by design, added Schneider.

Farmers also often find there are additional authorizations such as upgrading a chicken residence that werent included in the original contract. Vesting in those changes could necessitate farmers to take out new lends, and they often feel forced to comply or lose their simply customer.

The relationship between company and contract farmer has changed significantly over occasion, to the point that the farmers are treated as employees in many ways, without receiving any of the benefits, yet holding all the obligations and risk that independent contractors have, Lee said.

Mike Weaver, a poultry farmer in West Virginia, said his base pay hasnt changed since he entered the business in 2001.

As long as they keep us in debt we have to keep developing their chickens. They dont want farmers to pay off their farms, Weaver said.

Worth Sparkman, a spokesperson for Tyson Foods, said the contract system is transparent and offers long-term stability to farmers.

Our average contract farmer has been developing chickens for us for 15 times[ and] the compensation we support is set out clearly in contracts the farmers voluntarily enter into, announced Sparkman. The farmers are free to discuss the terms of their contracts with whomever they want, including other farmers, and are likewise free to switch to other chicken processors who operate in their area.

Unfair advantage?

Producers exert their force in other spaces, too. They rendered farmers with child chicks, feed and medication. A farmer generally has five weeks to create them, after which the chickens are collected and weighed at a processing plant.

The farmers are paid according to a so-called tournament system that pits farmers against one another. The farmer that produces the most sum of flesh with the least sum of feed comes out on top. A least efficient farmer will have money withheld from his base pay; that fund is then be used to pay the farmers that produced more meat.

The problem, say the farmers, is that winning or losing is beyond their power. For lesson, they must take the chicks supplied by their producers and are out of luck if they receive a large number of unhealthy chicks.

They say that if you work harder, youll work better, but thats a lie, announced Weaver. If you dont get good chicks and feed from them, theres no way you can make a good chicken out of it.

The poultry industry announces the tournament system is exhibition and ensures that the welfare of the chickens comes first.

The performance-based contract structure of modern poultry make was instinctively designed to put the well-being of the fowls as the most important ones, as incentives are given to farmers who heighten the healthiest fowls, take risks and work hard, announced Tom Super, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, a trade association. It incentivizes farmers to do their best, to compete, just like every other business in America or any other free market.

The new federal principles, opposed by lobbyists for the poultry industry, included criteria for ensuring a fair tournament system.

Its unclear whether the rules will take effect under the current administration. Republican members of Congress have generally resisted any effort to provide greater contract protections for poultry growers, announced Schneider, and she doesnt should be noted that changing.

The Republican-controlled Congress has limited USDAs efforts in the past, and I assume that this will carry over to the new Republican administration, announced Schneider. If so, I think that it is very likely that the new rules will be withdrawn, revised, or simply not enforced.

But Weaver said he and other farmers are optimistic that Trump will act in their best interests, because they are helped him get elected.

He claimed hes going to stand up for the little guy, thats why the farmers came out and voted for him and got him into agency, announced Weaver. These multinational companies have had path too much strength over agriculture for too long.

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