Today, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would terminate the Interim Final Farmer Fair Practice Rule that was set to go into effect October 19th. Farmers have been calling out to USDA for over a decade to hold big business in livestock industries accountable for unfair, deceptive, and abusive practices. This action today is a step in the wrong direction for rural America, siding with Big Meat and against farmers.
Ninety-seven percent of the chicken we eat is produced by a farmer under contract with a big chicken company. In 2015, people consumed 112,000,000 metric tons of chicken globally. That’s an unfathomable quantity. So here’s one way to visualize it: That amounts the weight of two-thirds of all the cars on the road today in the United States—in chickens.
Poultry farmers are a major contributor to the statistics on rising debt levels in American farming. The contracts they have with Big Chicken companies are also the premiere model for production contract agriculture, which is spreading across agricultural industries. As other agricultural industries move in this direction, they are systematically exposing more farmers to higher stakes in debt related risks.
The current combination of rising farm debt with decreasing farm income means that farmers are facing a financial squeeze, and that should raise serious red flags about the health and sustainability of our agricultural system.
In 1999, The Baltimore Sun ran a three-part series on the poultry industry and the farmers caught up in the abusive contracts and paralyzing debt that have since become all too common in contract poultry production. The series began with “The Plucking of the American Chicken Farmer,” which detailed the ruination of poultry farmers and pinpointed how some major companies were even cheating their growers. Collectively, the series presented 10 months of investigative work conducted by reporters Dan Fesperman and Kate Shatzkin.
In NPR’s story, RAFI Lead Farm Advocate Benny Bunting says, “The thing about my job is, most times, I meet people at the lowest time in their life, when they're in financial problems. That's what this represents.”
"Farmers who speak up risk everything they own. Industry retaliation is well documented,” says RAFI Executive Director Scott Marlow. “The price of cheap chicken is the exploitation of people, land and animals."
We can cheer the fact that the Farm Bill negotiators rejected the intense pressure from poultry companies and meatpackers to roll back key protections that require them to use fair business practices in their dealings with farmers.