It might sound dramatic to compare chicken farmers to indentured servants, but that's the kind of language invoked by several former poultry contract farmers.
Genell Pridgen, a ninth-generation farmer from Snow Hill, North Carolina, likens the experience to being "a serf on your own land." Paul Brown, a stoic former contract chicken farmer in Lena, Mississippi, expresses a similar feeling of being trapped.
"You may cut the grass and you may make some decisions, so in essence it may feel as if you have control, but at the end of the day, you are bound to a contract," he says. "Once you get into this industry, and you have one million invested in a chicken farm, there's not a lot of other things that you can use a chicken farm for other than to grow chickens."
A new documentary film produced in part by Pittsboro-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) explores the sense of desperation that many chicken farmers experience. Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print delves into the semi-invisible lives of the people who raise 97 percent of the chicken consumed in this country, explaining how a handful of poultry companies take advantage of the farmers they rely on. RAFI hosts a free screening April 7 at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro at seven p.m.
Last month, RAFI program director and filmmaker Sally Lee screened excerpts of the film at the Durham Convention Center as part of the organization's annual food justice conference. Now that I've seen the film and heard Lee and Pridgen field audience questions, the parallels to serfdom don't seem as exaggerated.
Under Contract masterfully illustrates how companies like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, and Pilgrim's Pride exploit a startling power imbalance in the industry. Companies like these are known as "integrators" because they own and control virtually all aspects of the vertically integrated chicken industry, save for raising the birds, a task that's contracted out to avoid risk, according to one of the experts in the film.
Most contractors—or "growers"—opt in, lured by the supposed independence and financial payoff, but in doing so they assume massive debt in start-up costs. Absent any bargaining power, farmers in the film detail the instability of being a grower. Pridgen's family farm almost went belly up when Perdue decided to unceremoniously dump hundreds of chicken houses in North Carolina. When Tyson Foods insisted on costly upgrades at Karen and Mitchell Crutchfield's chicken houses, the farming couple decided they couldn't shoulder the additional debt and later declared bankruptcy.
Growers describe a payment system that penalizes them for myriad issues out of their control, where small or sickly chicks provided by integrators hamper farmers' ability to turn a profit. And since growers are generally clumped around an integrator, Lee said, it's difficult for them to switch companies.
Valerie Ruddle, a grower for Pilgrim's Pride, describes the volatility well—she's earned as much as $30,000 and as little as $13,000 for a flock, though she needs at least $21,000 to break even.
Growers lack meaningful recourse, as Under Contract highlights with the case of Alton Terry, a Tennessean who unsuccessfully sued an integrator for alleged unfair treatment and financial retaliation. In one of the film's many heart-wrenching moments, Terry grows quiet and admits he attempted suicide.
In another scene, farmer Josie Brown breaks down as she describes her family's decision to put their farm up for sale.
"These chicken companies make millions and millions of dollars off of us," she says. "We're just here to fill their pockets, and when they don't have a need for us, we're done, and we're pretty much thrown out like the garbage."
The industry isn't contained to the U.S.—a portion of the film not shown at the conference depicts how the same companies are expanding to India—and the contract model extends beyond chicken farming. While more chicken growers are in debt than their peers in other markets, the arrangement has spread to various aspects of food production, including strawberries.
Under Contract ends with a call to action, echoed on RAFI's website, inviting viewers to advocate for protections for contract chicken farmers. But as former North Carolina grower Craig Watts argues in the film, more than the disempowerment and debt of chicken farmers are at stake.
"This is food," Watts says. "It affects us all."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cooped Up."