Big Poultry Companies Say They Love Family Farms—So Why Don’t They Show It?

A proposed Maryland law shows why we could all stand to become more aware of the plight of the nation’s contract chicken growers.
(Photo: Edwin Remsberg/Getty Images)
Feb 16, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Poultry giant Tyson touts its commitment to America’s “independent family farmers,” and rival Perdue devotes an entire Web page to its network of “small farm families who truly appreciate wholesome food.” No doubt, if you know anything about the poultry industry, you long ago learned to cast a wary eye on the big poultry companies’ penchant for painting their factory-farmed products as having been raised by Old MacDonald. But even the most conscientious among us might be surprised to learn just how bad it is to be a contract grower for one of those poultry companies.

Legislation introduced this week in Maryland, one of the nation’s leading poultry-producing states, seeks to change that. The Farmers’ Rights Act would go a long way toward addressing some of the more egregious contract-labor problems in the poultry industry, but its successful passage and implementation is probably a long shot. The powerful poultry industry has blocked the implementation of similar protections at the federal level for years.

What Tyson characterizes as “independent family farmers” raising its chickens is described quite differently by former contract growers and farm advocates. According to Farm Aid, poultry farmers bound by onerous contracts to companies such as Tyson and Perdue “are all but serfs in a feudal economic system.” Even as Tyson tosses around what sound like generous numbers—“We paid more than 11,000 farmers more than $15.4 billion for cattle, hogs, and to grow chickens”—the truth is that the industry is downright stingy when it comes to paying a living wage. Contract growers have reportedly not seen an effective raise in more than two decades, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimating that growers are paid, on average, a paltry 34 cents for each chicken they raise.

Related: Big Poultry Isn’t Just Terrible for Chickens—It Treats Farmers Poorly Too

So it’s no wonder that 71 percent of growers who don’t have a second job are forced to subsist below the poverty line, according to Food & Water Watch. The proposed Maryland law, says Michele Merkel, codirector of the group’s Food & Water Justice program, “would give chicken growers the kinds of basic protections many of us take for granted in our own workplaces.”

For example? How about not being required to borrow tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of dollars to make expensive upgrades to facilities only to be left holding the bag when a corporate giant like Tyson declines to renew your contract without cause? Or being subject to a kind of blanket confidentiality clause that prohibits open discussion of the contract, working conditions, or other work-related issues?

In short, Farm Aid’s description of the system in which contract growers raise birds for the big poultry companies as “feudal” seems pretty accurate. Compared with 1977, when the top four poultry-processing companies in the U.S. only had a combined 17-percent market share, today they control 57 percent of the market. That rampant consolidation has led to “localized monopolies” in many poultry-producing states, with the corporations owning the chickens, feed, transportation, and processing systems—allowing companies to essentially pay pennies on the pound to their much-publicized “family farmers” to raise the birds in facilities paid for by those same farmers.

Because a family can’t get a contract without shelling out big bucks to build the sort of industrial-scale facilities the poultry companies demand, they typically enter the business saddled with tremendous debt—only to find that there’s no such thing as job security. Poultry giants can cancel a grower’s contract at any time, for any reason, with little or no warning. If a grower wants to keep paying back all those bank loans, it’s typically best to keep quiet and refrain from agitating for better working conditions. It doesn’t seem to be an accident that when growers do speak out—as the likes of Carole Morison from the film Food, Inc. and Craig Watts have done—their relationships with the industry have strained and often broken.

In an era when we’ve become ever more aware of the injustices of our modern food system—whether the dismal lack of fair pay for fast-food workers or the abysmal living conditions of chickens and other livestock—it seems we’ve forgotten this human element. We’d do well to add these farmers—the same “family farmers” the poultry companies love to celebrate in PR material but don’t want to give a fair shake—to that list for the oft-hidden but nevertheless equally outrageous treatment they endure. All the more reason to go both local and independent in addition to organic when it comes to shopping for poultry.