ack in 2001, Alton Terry, his wife and two young children were living in San Jose, California, but they dreamed of a quieter, more rural life. Terry’s grandparents had been farmers, and that inspired him to move his family to Shelbyville, Tennessee, to start a chicken farm.
Like the majority of chicken farmers in the US, Terry entered into an exclusive contract with a big producer, Tyson Foods. “The first couple of years we didn’t have any problems,” said Terry, “but then Tyson started asking us to put in extra equipment that we had to pay for.”
Terry had taken out a $500,000 loan to build the chicken houses on his farm, and he wasn’t willing to fork out more money for equipment that he said wasn’t necessary, including extra feed bins and upgrades to the chicken houses.
“If we are independent contractors, then why does the company have the right to tell us what equipment to use?” said Terry. “We were independent in name only when it benefited the company.”
Terry claims Tyson retaliated by giving him sick chicks. In 2005, Tyson didn’t renew Terry’s contract. Finding another big customer was difficult because Tyson was the only chicken company in the area.
Terry sued Tyson in 2008, alleging the company canceled his contract because he rallied farmers in the area to lodge complaints about the company with their congressional representatives and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA); he said Tyson mistreated him with tactics such as weighing his birds incorrectly while not allowing him to watch the weigh-in, a violation of USDA rules.
He lost the case in 2010 after a federal judge declared that the law required him to show that Tyson’s actions had crippled competition for the entire poultry industry, not just him. The court ordered Terry to pay Tyson nearly $30,000 in legal fees. He was forced to declare bankruptcy.
“We lost the farm, our house, our horses and our dogs,” said Terry, who now works as a handyman and carpenter.
Seven years later, a set of federal rules
has emerged that aims to strengthen protection for farmers. But the new rules, drawn up in the final days of the Obama administration, are in limbo. The Trump administration suspended the enactment of any new federal rules for two months after inauguration, and just last week, the USDA announced that the new rules would remain on hold
for another six months.
The new rules – a culmination of decades of effort by farmers and their advocates – would no longer require farmers to prove harm to competition within the industry owned largely by a handful of producers. The four largest chicken producers in the country, which include Tyson Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride, control more than half of the chicken market and 57% of the turkey market, according to the USDA.
“It’s really a story of unchecked corporate concentration,” said Sally Lee, who works at family farmer advocacy nonprofit Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA and co-director of Under Contract, a documentary about farmers who suffered severe financial losses and emotional toll from what they said was unfair treatment by big chicken producers. “There are a few companies that control the market so they can exercise extreme power over farmers trying to work with them.”