Last week Lisa and I drove more than 1,800 miles roundtrip to Normal, Alabama to hear contract poultry growers share their plight with Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack at the DOJ/USDA’s second joint workshop dealing with competition and monopoly issues in the food and agricultural sectors.
The stories of abuse and intimidation we heard from farmers as they spoke to us in person and those that testified were appalling. Many poultry growers mentioned that the companies they grow for had personally threatened them or knew of fellow farmers who had been warned that even attending the government workshop would be enough for them to face retaliation. For farmers with a limited market to sell into, that represents a threat that could force them to lose their farm and the home they live in.
As one of the most vertically integrated sectors in agriculture today, the poultry industry is legendary for the abuses that it heaps on farmers, the animals and the environment alike. Many farms we spoke believe the Big Chicken corporations treat them no better than “indentured servants”.
Below is a roundup of some of the press following the poultry workshop:
DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton noted that poultry growers were frustrated with contracts and treatment, while DOJ’s Holder announces Ag antitrust / monopoly concerns are “a top priority”. (Farmers and rural residents across America are waiting for some proof).
“Frustrated contract poultry growers on Friday laid out a long list of what they see as systemic problems with poultry vertical integrators to Obama administration officials as USDA and the Department of Justice continue examining competition challenges and fairness in agriculture…
"As we work to answer this, and to understand why a growing number of American producers and farmers find it increasingly difficult to survive by doing what they have done for decades, I want to assure each of you that the Obama administration is committed to protecting competition vigorously," Holder told the crowd. "This is a top priority for today's Department of Justice.”
Associated Press Agribusiness writer Christopher Leonard noted Holder’s commitment as well:
"There is a new attitude in the antitrust division," Holder said. "Everyone should understand. There is no hesitancy on the part of this antitrust division, in this administration, to take action where we think it is needed. This antitrust division is open for business again.”
One poultry grower who testified was forced out of the poultry business when she refused to upgrade her buildings to meet the demands of her integrator, a common industry practice.
“Kay Doby, a former chicken farmer from North Carolina, said government intervention is long overdue. Companies lure farmers into borrowing money to build , then threaten to cancel their contracts if farmers complain about pay or refuse to invest more money to upgrade the buildings, she said.
"This system takes hardworking farmers and makes them indentured servants on their own land," Doby said. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard that our contract would be canceled if we did such and such."
Over at The Poultry Site, Vilsack’s promise to give farmers an “honest chance” was duly noted:
Mr. Vilsack said: "All players in the poultry industry deserve an honest chance at success, and that requires a fair, viable, and competitive marketplace. Today's conversation helped bring a better understanding of the issues impacting growers on a daily basis and provided an opportunity to openly discuss some of the ideas that have been raised to address these concerns."
While local Alabama reporter Paul Gattis, from the Huntsville Times picked up the DOJ’s Christine Varney’s promise to protect farmers from retaliation:
"I fully expect you will not experience retaliation," U.S. Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney told Staples in a voice almost challenging that response. Then she handed Staples a piece of paper.
"But if you do, call me at that number."
Even if Varney's statement may have been momentarily reassuring, many in rural America understand the long reach of agribusiness and their regular disregard for laws, contracts and even decency, as dozens of poultry growers testified. It's not like these integrators are known for acting like gentlemen, which is why we're here in the first place.
An end to the fear and intimidation would be a good start.