In 1999, The Baltimore Sun ran a three-part series on the poultry industry. It told the stories of farmers caught up in the abusive contracts and paralyzing debt that have become 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.
A long-time member of RAFI’s staff, Benny Bunting, was interviewed for the article, and his story featured prominently in the series. Benny has now served as RAFI’s Lead Farm Advocate for more than two decades. He signed his first contract with a poultry company, Perdue, in 1976. He recalls the marketing campaigns that frequently aired around that time: ‘part-time work for full-time pay,’ the poultry companies promised.
The article describes Bunting’s grievances with Perdue that began in 1981, among them how despite having healthy chickens that gained weight, their “feed conversion” rate was continually considered “below par.” When he refused to sign a new contract until Perdue provided an explanation for the problem, the company terminated his contract.
Bunting would soon take a stand against industry abuse, but it would be nearly four years until he discovered the evidence that would lead to resolution in his own case. The article put it this way, “Every now and then, a grower stands up to a poultry company. Probst did it in Alabama and paid for it with his home. In Oak City, N.C., Benny Bunting stood up to Perdue, and his case shows the levers of power that a company can pull when battling a grower.” (The full article can be accessed online here.)
The Poultry Industry Then and Now
According to a recent article in Choices Magazine, the broiler industry has become considerably more concentrated since 1999, with the industry’s top four firms concentration ratio increasing from 45.6% in 1999 to 57.9% in 2013, a reflection of how much control a handful of firms has over the industry. The increase of industry concentration has been paired with an ongoing decrease in the number of contract growers. Approximately the same number of birds are being grown but by a comparatively smaller workforce.
Sadly, many things haven’t changed in the years since “The Plucking of the American Chicken Farmer” was published, and farmers still often find themselves exploited by industry contracts. As the article noted, “It is impossible to say how many chicken farmers drop by the wayside each year by losing their contracts, succumbing to debt or giving up. Companies either don’t keep track of such numbers or won’t reveal them, and no government agency keeps tabs. But financial reports, sworn testimony, government documents and hundreds of interviews with farmers, lenders, regulators and former company employees paint a picture at odds with the poultry industry’s portrait of relative happiness and well-being. It is one in which, increasingly, growers are too indebted to quit and too weak and intimidated to fight back.”
Looking back, “The Plucking of the American Chicken Farmer” was significant not only because it offered a glimpse into a side of food production that too few were aware of, but because it was released at a time when organizations were beginning to come together to challenge the abuse of power by the poultry companies. As Mary Clouse, then Director of RAFI’s Contract Agriculture Project, reflected in 1999: “There is hope in the countryside now that other citizen groups are standing with the farmers and plant workers for justice. Those in power who insist on looking the other way; those who are now beholden to whatever company promises jobs at any price; those who think it’s best to contract with farmers when those contracts will eventually ruin the farmers, the farms, the land and the water in rural areas; and the poultry companies, which have muscled their way into a total stranglehold on the justice and legislative systems, may soon be forced to make some major changes.”
Today, RAFI’s staff continue to work on issues related to contract production, which has become a dominant form of production within the American poultry industry. Learn more about our work for fairness in contract agriculture and policy reform: http://rafiusa.org/programs/contract-agriculture-reform/
In February 2014, NPR ran a story that also featured RAFI’s Benny Bunting, “The System Supplying America’s Chickens Pits Farmer Vs. Farmer.”
About the Authors
Jean Willoughby serves as Project Director for the Agricultural Reinvestment Fund at RAFI, which provides grants to innovative and entrepreneurial farmers. She also works closely with program staff on initiatives related to farm advocacy, cooperative development, and risk management. She recently assisted with establishing RAFI’s new Center for Rural Cooperative and Farm Enterprise Development. Jean attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT and holds BA in Sociology.
Hayes Simpson serves as RAFI’s Communications Coordinator. She has a background in journalism, nonprofit communications, and agricultural production. Hayes holds a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication from UNC-Chapel Hill and an AAS degree in Sustainable Agriculture from Central Carolina Community College (Pittsboro, NC).