Chicken Farmers Join the Gig Economy

Tired of earning paultry sums, they're speaking out

Jess Powers Jan 30, 2017

Our industrialized agricultural system has led to dramatic changes in the way we eat. Americans consume three times more chicken today than they did in the 1960s, while the retail cost for chicken, adjusted for inflation, has decreased by nearly two-thirds. The Broiler Belt—which stretches from eastern Texas to Delaware — produced 8.69 billion broiler chickens in 2015, at a value of $28.7 billion.

Corporations own all aspects of production: feed, hatcheries, processing, branding. The three largest integrators — Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride and Perdue—control 60% of market share for poultry production. Yet, regulations to protect farmers and break up monopolies in the chicken industry have stalled.

Chicken farmers aren't the first group to come to mind when people consider the erosion of worker's rights. But many of the true costs of producing cheap chicken are hidden and as the poultry industry has become more consolidated, poultry farmers have lost control and negotiating power in their contracts. Farmers face instability, bankruptcy, emotional distress and retaliation for speaking out.

“This industry has a culture of intimidation and fear,” said Sally Lee, an advocate with the Rural Advancement Foundation International and co-director of Under Contract, a new film on the chicken industry that premieres at Anthology Film Archives on Wednesday.

It is virtually impossible for a farmer to enter the chicken market without entering into a production contract and receiving a hefty loan. Production contracts are agreements between agro-giants that own animals throughout production and the farmers who raise them. A chicken house — built to company specs — costs about $250,000 and can contain upwards of 34,000 chickens. Upgrades often require refinancing or bigger loans (the average farm has four houses). Farmers are responsible for infrastructure upkeep and manage the waste — manure, dead chickens — but taxpayers ultimately bear the burden of environmental damage and cleanup.

Through contracts, farmers assume the risks of raising the chicks under strict regulation by the companies. Lee compares the contract situation to Uber drivers and others in the gig economy. The businesses are “powerful enough to transfer risk to smaller partners who don't have negotiating power.” While banks and integrators enjoy profits, farmers face lopsided contracts and arbitrary payment schemes where some farmers earn more per pound of chicken than others depending upon byzantine performance standards — a system farmers refer to as the tournament. There is little or no transparency, oversight or dispute resolution.

In Under Contract, farmers describe inaccurate accounting, deliveries of bad feed or diseased chicks, facing unstable earnings and mounting debt. “Retaliation is hard to document and prove,” said Lee, but many farmers have had their contracts terminated after speaking out. Each agro-giant has its own monopolized territory, so procuring new contracts is difficult, if not impossible, for blacklisted farmers.  

Farmers are proud of their independence and hard work but by using their land — and their home — as collateral for loans to build an operation, they face the possibility of losing everything. The emotional toll can devastating. Farmers have the highest suicide rate of any industry in America.

In Under Contract, farmers share their heartbreaking stories with quiet dignity. Alton Terry, a former Tennessee poultry farmer, sued Tyson Foods for loss of income in 2009. First, the company refused to allow him to watch it weigh his chickens. Then, he alleges, he received a shipment of diseased chicks from Tyson. Infected with mycoplasma gallisepticum bacteria, the birds started dying off once they reached four or five-weeks-old.

As bankruptcy loomed, Terry worked in oil fields to finance his lawsuit.

“I was away from my family for seven months once,” Terry explains. “I did that for two and a half years. I should've been home for my family. My kids were going through hard times. It wasn't just a little sacrifice. It was huge.”

Due to loopholes in the World War I-era Packers and Stockyards Act and the Agricultural Fair Practices Act of 1967 protecting Tyson, Terry’s suit was dismissed. Tyson and their competitors are “corporations on steroids,” Terry argues. A rigged court system, large political campaign contributions and powerful players that move between the public and private sector are corroding our democracy.

“We have stepped away from enforcing anti-trust laws,” Lee says.

The authority to enforce fair practices in the livestock business falls to the USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Agency (GIPSA) which has proposed new protections for farmers from “unfair, discriminatory, and deceptive practices.” The Farmer Fair Practice Rules are supported by leading farm and livestock organizations but have languished in Congress, facing objections by industry lobbyists, and are currently stalled under congressional review.

A big concern of Lee’s: the agro-giants’ chicken rearing model is beginning spread to other forms of livestock like hogs and cattle. It is being adapted abroad, as well. (Farmers from India appear in Under Contract.) But Lee believes U.S. citizens are at a “moment of understanding an obligation to be engaged in legislative development and politics.”

“It's not enough to buy local food,” she said, urging consumers to call or write their representatives and voice support for the Farmer Fair Practice Rules.

Under Contract premieres February 1st at Anthology Film Archives (free, but register here). It will soon be available online for a fee, as well.

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