Revolve is an integrated communication media agency, bridging the gap between politics and public, science and society. They joined the project as Media Partners and will be instrumental in helping us share our findings and the stories of the farmers.
Revolve also published in a previous issue an article by Sally Lee on pig farming and the threats that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations pose to the environment, the animals and the people.
RAFI is a Media Partner in the production of Under Contract, and is in fact the original source of inspiration for the project. Sally Lee worked at RAFI from 2008 – 2012, where she learned about the realities of poultry production, and witnessed the trauma experienced by farmers in NC when their contracts were suddenly cut-off, or when they faced the extreme debt and bankruptcy.
“The Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA’s mission is to cultivate markets, policies, and communities that sustain thriving, socially just, and environmentally sound family farms. RAFI works nationally and internationally, focusing on North Carolina and the southeastern United States. RAFI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in Pittsboro, North Carolina and incorporated in 1990.”
- Empowering farmers by providing criticalinformation on the long-range impact of contracting in the poultry
- Developing and promoting state and federalreforms to protect the rights of individual contract farmers and farmer-controlled cooperatives
- Supporting active, farmer-controlled associations that can reduce the isolation and vulnerability of individual contract growers
- Educating consumers about market consolidation, vertical integration, and what they mean for the farmers and farms that produce their food
- Providing analysis and technical assistance for viable market alternatives
“To say that the poultry contract takes the risk out of production is a bunch of baloney.”
Robert Taylor is an Agricultural Economist at Auburn University in Alabama. And he is a tremendously valuable resource for poultry farmers in America. Among the voices in the academic realm of economics, he is one of the few who writes about the practical experience of farmers in poultry contracts, instead of relying on theoretical models or industry approved data.
We stopped in Auburn and had a long chat with Taylor. He explained the more complicated aspects of the contract system to us in economic terms, starting with the rapid increase in concentration. As companies merged and the control of the marketplace rested in fewer and fewer hands, a monopsonistic marketplace evolved. This means that producers in an area now often have only one buyer to sell their chickens to. Without the power of farmer choice, companies gained the power of control over contract terms.
He also gave us a wonderful explanation of tournament payment, a tricky system used to determine the paychecks of contract farmers. We are saving these details for a later update when we can put together a longer film for the explanation – look for that soon!
“Farmers see that the consequence of this integration is the loss of control at the farm level, the loss of prosperity at the farm level, and the concentration of power. When you say ‘chickenization’ in rural America, it’s shorthand for a system of power… where farmers are really like sharecroppers.”
Christopher Leonard is the author of The Meat Racket. As a former national agribusiness reporter for the Associated Press, Leonard has spent over a decade following the growth of big meat and investigating its impacts. He has interviewed hundreds of farmers over the years and has seen first-hand how the contract system for raising chickens evolved into what it is today.
We met Chris at his current post, as a Schmidt Fellow at New America in DC. We basically challenged him to summarize the history and impacts of the poultry industry in two hours. The result was a fascinating interview that summed up many of the complexities and harsh realities of chicken production that we have seen in the past month.
An especially interesting connection he makes in this interview, is the direct impact that corporate concentration has on farmers. If only 3 companies control the vast majority of the meat market for chickens, that creates a huge power imbalance between them and the farmers that grow for them. The rights and negotiating power of the farmers is reduced to almost nothing, creating a power dynamic like the sharecropping system of the south.
Check out the video for more details!
“The good lord created a shark. And a shark has two things that it does, swims and eats. A corporation has two things that it’s supposed to do – make money, and keep their stockholders happy. I know enough about a shark that I’m not going to get in my swimming pool with one, and I know enough about these corporations that I’m not going to do business with them.”
Dudley Butler is the man who used to run the federal agency tasked with regulating the major meat producing industries, including poultry. As the previous head of GIPSA (Grain Inspectors Packers and Stockyards Act), he has seen the realities of the chicken business. And he has also seen the obstacles that come along with any attempt to enforce regulations or improve protections for farmers through legislation.
We had the chance to interview Butler in Mississippi, and we learned about the power of the poultry lobby. For example, Butler explained the recent and unfortunate gutting of the GIPSA administration by Congress. Basically, when the 2014 Farm Bill process ended, the final bill included new protections for farmers to be enforced by GIPSA. (For more info on the 2014 Farm Bill visit RAFI’s website: http://rafiusa.org/blog/2014-farm-bill-gipsa/) Two in particular were upsetting to companies:
1) A clause making it illegal for companies to retaliate against farmers
2) A requirement that companies to give at least 90 days notice to farmers before cutting off their contracts
Butler explained how the poultry industry was able to exert incredible power over Congress to get around these new rules. In the appropriations process, in which Congress designates a budget for legislative goals, they gutted GIPSA leaving almost no resources for the agency to work with.
Dudley pointed out that with no resources, there are no lawyers, researchers, and other trained staff who are knowledgeable or have the political will to pursue farmers’ cases. By organizing this “legislation by the purse strings,” the powerful chicken lobby has drained the capacities of the one agency farmers had to turn to for backup.
On our way to the US, we met with Philip Lymbery, Executive Director of Compassion in World Farming and author of the book Farmageddon when he was speaking at a conference in Milan.
We asked him about the transition of agriculture worldwide. He has traveled all over the world – to South America, North America, Europe, and extensively in China – while doing research for his book. He described a transition that isn’t necessarily surprising. Small farms disappearing, as industrial agricultural models move in.
But a significant point he made, is that this industrial model brings with it a lot of hidden expenses. One interesting point in Farmageddon is the hidden cost of “ghost acres.” A modern chicken house contains up to 30,000 or 40,000 chickens (and an average farm might have 4 or more houses). That many chickens need a lot of chicken feed. And chicken feed, which is made up mostly of grains like soybeans and corn, is often imported.
The point is that when we buy cheap chicken in the grocery store, we don’t usually think about the amount of acreage it took to produce all the feed to fatten that chicken. Lymbery points out that when animals eat grains, they convert the energy into meat – but not at a “1:1” ratio. In other words it will take a lot more than 1 lb of grain to generate 1 lb of meat. A lot of land that could be used to produce food for local communities or for human consumption is instead used to produce feed grains for export at low prices, and often under mono-cropping and chemical-laden conditions.
The environmental and food security costs that are implied in this trade off, are what Lymbery calls the costs of the “ghost acres.”
“We saw a global decline in the rights of farmers – to have a fair contract, the right to save seeds, to negotiate a good price in the marketplace, the right to organize… the right really to be an independent farmer.” – Michael Sligh, RAFI-USA.
In our week in NC, we spent quality time with farmer advocates at RAFI-USA who have invested their careers in pushing for policies, market development and agricultural research that will benefit farmers. Michael Sligh is the Director of the Just Foods Program at RAFI – he explained to us why RAFI got involved in the contract production issue – and why working on this is critical for American farmers and rural communities.
Our time at RAFI has been key for understanding the dynamics behind production contracts in the poultry industry, but it has come to an end. We left today to head South, to meet another important player in the quest for a fairer treatment of American farmers.
He’s Craig Watts, a chicken farmer that has been in the spotlight for many years after publicly speaking about the problems of industrial chicken production.
His story starts years back, when he first approached his integrator to point out the contradictions he experienced in his chicken houses (and paycheck), expecting some sort of explanation. Since his questions were not answered, turned to the media to raise public awareness, hoping to get the attention of the company. Over the years he has become a sort of celebrity in the poultry industry, but he is not done talking yet.
Today we interviewed him about the power imbalance between the industry and the farmer, in a system that keeps the farmers, their families and their chickens “under the thumb” of the companies.
To see more of Craig Watts and his story, click on the links below
Compassion in World Farming:
Scott Marlow, Executive Director of RAFI-USA, says it’s more than you think. In our first full day of filming, we got a look at the ways contract chicken production is subsidized – here’s just SOME of the stuff that’s not included in that supermarket ticket:
– taxpayer $ that goes toward university research for breeding chickens that get fatter faster, and technologies for production
– taxpayer $ for commodity programs (for grain subsidies) = cheap grains for livestock feed
– taxpayer $ behind gov. guaranteed loans that let the banks keep lending big for new chicken houses despite the risk
– taxpayer $ for cleanup of environmental damages from excess nutrient buildup and waste