WASHINGTON, Dec. 7, 2016 - A new documentary doesn’t exactly paint a rosy picture of life as a contract chicken farmer, but some of these poultry producers remain optimistic about possible improvements and help from a new administration.
The documentary – Under Contract – profiles a handful of farmers who are either currently in the contract farming business or have given up and left it behind, and none of them have good things to say about the system. They say it centralizes power and profit to the “integrators” – the poultry companies – and often shortchanges the growers.
“The problem here is every other agricultural industry in the area in which I live is controlled by the grower themselves,” Paul Brown, a former Tyson contract grower from Mississippi, told Agri-Pulse at a screening of the film Monday night in Washington. “I think personally, after living through that, the poultry grower himself needs to have the power of his product just as he would if he were raising cattle, corn, or soybeans.”
Growers say the arrangement – the integrators provide the chicks and other inputs, while the growers provide the facilities and the labor – can leave them vulnerable, especially when most of the contracts only last about 60 days. For example, companies can require facility improvements at the cost to the grower yet with little or no increase in base pay.
Craig Watts was a contract grower for Perdue in North Carolina for 24 years, but he grew frustrated with the business model and called it quits.
“I didn’t see any future in something there was never a past to,” Watts told Agri-Pulse. “The image and reality are very far apart.”
But the parties with a stake in the documentary are hopeful that President-elect Donald Trump could be on their side. In particular, they’re hoping Trump’s promised regulatory overhaul will spare pending rulemaking from the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA).
“We’re just asking for fair treatment,” Mike Weaver, a West Virginia contract grower who heads a pair of groups interested in this issue, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. They say that rule – which is expected to be released before Trump takes office – would allow for more open communication about the contract farming system without the fear of retaliation. Right now, growers who speak up say they are punished by receiving lower quality feed, less healthy birds, retaliatory inspections, and other tactics.
“I think there are a lot of folks in rural America that are believing fairness as a fundamental principle is something this president-elect campaigned for,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said at the event. “I think around this issue, a lot of us might expect maybe we’ll have a friend. We’ll see.” The screening was organized by the National Farmers Union, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, and Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA.
Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, disagreed with the documentary’s portrayal of the industry. He said the film portrays “a handful of farmers who do not speak on behalf of the vast majority of chicken farmers who are happy and prosper raising chickens in partnership with chicken companies.”
“The proposed GIPSA rules, which they are promoting, would impose rigid, one-size-fits-all requirements on chicken growing contracts that would stifle innovation, lead to higher costs for consumers and force the best farmers getting out of the chicken business,” Super said. “Most of all, some of these provisions would have a detrimental impact on the welfare of the birds by eliminating competition and the incentive to provide the best care possible on the farm.”
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