|I finally got around to watching "Food, Inc." I was floored to see what poultry producers actually go through. Is this really what's behind the chicken on my plate?|
Photo used by permission. © Patty O'Brien
Dear Farm Aid,
I finally got around to watching Food, Inc. I was floored to see what poultry producers actually go through. Is this really what's behind the chicken on my plate?
What makes "good food" good? For many, it's knowing where the food was grown, by whom and how. For instance, is it organic? Is it supporting the local community? Were animals treated well?
But most of us don't think about how the farmer was treated. We probably don't think about power, fairness or justice when we're roaming the grocery aisle or staring at a restaurant menu. And yet, the ability of family farmers to make a good living and have a fair shake in the marketplace has everything to do with the fate of our food, our environment, and our health.
As Farm Aid President Willie Nelson has said, "Our food system belongs in the hands of many family farmers, not under the control of a handful of corporations." Few U.S. farmers feel the squeeze as much as poultry growers. Their struggle mostly goes on silently, but the conditions they face in a marketplace dominated by huge corporations should leave a bad taste in your mouth.
The Poultry Powerhouses
Today the average American consumes 84 pounds of chicken each year, making it the most popular meat in the U.S. Not only is that a hefty bit of poultry—it's also more than twice the amount of chicken we ate 40 years ago.
Click to enlarge
Behind that growing appetite are some big changes in the poultry industry, where chicken products move from chick to chicken nugget. Since the 1950s, the number of chickens raised in the U.S. has skyrocketed by over 1,400 percent, while the number of poultry farmers has plummeted by 98 percent.
Today, the U.S. poultry industry is the most concentrated sector in our food system, not just in terms of the number of farms, but more importantly, with regard to corporate powerhouses who rule the roost. In fact, the top four poultry firms in the U.S.—Pilgrim's Pride, Tyson, Purdue, and Sanderson Farms—control almost 60% of the market. That scenario is bad enough for family poultry growers, but economists believe that at the local level, markets are much more concentrated, with most growers having only one or two buyers to sell to.
That leaves poultry growers, mostly located in the "Broiler Belt" (a region extending from eastern Texas up to the Delmarva Peninsula on the eastern seaboard) in a state of virtual bondage. We wish we were exaggerating. Check out this clip from Food Inc., to hear poultry grower Carole Morison give the scoop on the industry:
Life Under Contract
So how exactly do big corporations secure their power over farmers? In the poultry industry, the answer is contracts.
Click to enlarge
When the economy works properly, producers can sell their goods on an open market, having access to multiple buyers with whom they can negotiate the price they receive for their goods. But open, competitive markets for poultry products haven't existed in a long time. According to the USDA, in 1950, 95 percent of broiler producers were independent (broilers are chickens raised for meat consumption, while layers are those that are raised to lay eggs). Just five years later, independent growers accounted for only 10 percent of the industry, with most growers selling their goods under contract with a company, called an "integrator." That structure persists today.
Integrators own localized complexes that include feed mills, hatcheries, slaughter plants, and other processing facilities. They contract with local farmers to grow the birds to market weight, while they provide them with all the inputs to do so. So, while the farmer does the work of raising the birds, the birds themselves, their feed, their slaughtering and other elements of production are consolidated under a single company—a scenario called "vertical integration."
As integrators amassed power, their contracts, which once offered market stability for growers under mutually beneficial agreements, became the tools through which companies could exert their power and dictate strict management plans for how chickens are raised.
For one, in order to be considered for a contract, growers must build facilities needed to raise broilers. These houses often cost up to $300,000 each, and most integrators require a grower to have at least a few houses before signing a contract.
Click to enlarge So from the get-go, poultry growers are saddled with substantial debt. Most contracts last for the duration of just one flock (around six weeks), often with no commitment on the quantity of birds the integrator will purchase. Contracts are designed so that growers can be dropped with little warning, leaving them with towering debt and no place to sell their birds. What's worse, growers are often not allowed to consult with lawyers or business associates before signing a contract, and face a secretive and intimidating process, with little say over the prices they will receive.
For us eaters who want to vote with our forks, corporate power also squeezes alternative forms of poultry production. In the drive toward consolidation, independent slaughterhouses have been forced to close, leaving many independent farmers high and dry for getting their products to your plate. And because they own the slaughtering and processing plants, corporate poultry giants can dominate the market, often unwilling to handle products like organic eggs or pastured poultry. In many states, efforts are underway to allow farmers to do on-farm slaughtering, processing and sale of their livestock. But rebuilding this infrastructure will be a slow process, and it will need the support of eaters!
People Power: What Eaters Can Do
It's essential that we eaters not only clamor for better alternatives that support organic and sustainable farmers, but also speak up in support of poultry farmers caught in an unfair system.
Saddled with debt and holding so little power, poultry growers have been reluctant to speak out against corporate abuses. When the federal government began investigating the poultry industry in 2010, it was very difficult to find farmers who would testify despite very real threats of retaliation. We're very lucky to be able to share the stories of three brave Farmer Hero families who have spoken out about their experiences.
The kicker is that we have the tools before us to protect farmers—the very first step to build a better, healthier, more sustainable poultry industry. A USDA agency called the Grain, Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) is charged with ensuring fair and competitive markets for meat and cereal growers. GIPSA has historically not had authority over the poultry industry, but Congress moved to remedy that in the 2008 Farm Bill. In 2012, USDA issued a rule outlining how it would carry out its expanded mission to protect poultry farmers. This represented a huge victory for thousands of poultry farmers. But corporate lobbyists quickly responded with well-funded efforts to repeal the rule. More recently, they succeeded in getting Congress to remove USDA's authority to enforce the GIPSA rule.
The GIPSA rule's future remains uncertain, so stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to support our poultry farmers and lay the groundwork for a better system! In the meantime, vote with your fork! Speak up when you're choosing poultry products at stores or restaurants. If they don't offer the kind of products you're looking for, ask them to! Tell them you're concerned about the conditions poultry farmers are forced to endure, and that your store/restaurants needs to ask for a better system.
Watch this video about Carole Morison, the contract poultry grower in the video above, talking about her switch to raising chickens outside the industrial contract poultry system:
Your thoughtful comments are encouraged. Farm Aid does not censor or refuse comments for content unless they are spam or a personal attack. All comments containing links will need to be manually approved to ensure they are not spam.blog comments powered byDisqus
A New Farm Economy Rises from Tobacco’s Ashes - August, 2014
10 Things the New Census of Agriculture Tells Us About Family Farmers and Our Food System - July 2014
How will the Keystone XL pipeline affect our farmers and farmland? - April, 2014
Parched: What the West shows us about our water future - March, 2014
What does Farm Aid do with the money that it raises at the annual concert? - October 2013
I live in New York and dairy farmers seem to be struggling. What can I do to help? - September 2013
I have heard horror stories about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico this year. How can farmers better support our waterways? - July 2013
I finally got around to watching "Food, Inc." I was floored to see what poultry producers actually go through. Is this really what's behind the chicken on my plate? - May 2013
Why is it so difficult for farmers to find affordable farmland these days? - March 2013
The PBS documentary about the Dust Bowl was amazing – what a disaster of epic proportions and a reminder of how important the soil is to our lives! How do today’s farmers care for the soil? - November 2012
The other day, I came across "grassfed beef" in the supermarket. Aren't all beef cattle fed grass? If not, what do they eat? Is this something I should feed my family? - October 2012
How do I find a university that values family farmers and the Good Food Movement? - September 2012
I'm a big supporter of organic agriculture, but some of my friends say it isn't a practical way to feed the world. Is that true? - August 2012
How does someone with no experience get into farming? - August 2012
How is climate change affecting family farmers? What are they doing about it? - April 2012
Is the USDA truly supporting local and regional agriculture? - March 2012
I'm concerned about the use of antibiotics in farm animals and would like to find antibiotic-free meat and poultry products. Any suggestions? - February 2012
How does the occupy movement relate to farmers? - January 2012
What can you tell me about family farm turkey? - November 2011
How will labeling genetically engineered food do anything for family farmers? - October 2011
Word is big cuts are in store for farmers in the upcoming Farm Bill. What is the Farm Bill and what will budget cuts mean for family farmers? - September 2011
I've been seeing a lot of farm plots spring up around the city. I didn't even realize people could farm in cities—how can I get involved in this! - August 2011
This year’s weather has been a nightmare and lots of farms in my area are struggling. What help is there available for farmers struck by disaster? - July 2011
I watched "Food, Inc." recently and was surprised by how animals were treated and meat was produced in America. This seems crazy to me. Why can’t we get meat from better sources? - June 2011
A lot of farmers in my area are leasing their land for hydraulic fracturing — is it good or bad? What do farmers say? - June 2011
What's a food hub? How can they help me? - April 2011
High farm prices are in the news — are farmers getting rich? - March 2011
I know the U.S. government just allowed a few new GE crops on the market — should I be worried? - February 2011
How can I find food from local farmers during the cold winter months? - January 2011
A year-in-review on corporate concentration in agriculture. - November 2010
Can you tell me about starting farm to school programs? I’m a farmer and I’d love to provide schools in my area with healthy food. - October 2010
No offense, but what has Farm Aid really done all these years aside from put on a good concert? - September 2010
I really want to get local meats, but they don't seem to be available. Why is that? - August 2010
Answering reader questions with our report, "Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-Centered Food Systems" - July 2010
I just read an article that anticipates 200 dairies will go under in my state by the end of 2010. Why are dairy farmers in so much trouble right now? - June 2010
How is credit affecting family farmers right now? - May 2010
What exactly is a family farm? How does it differ from a factory farm? - April 2010
What's up with food safety? Could new laws hurt family farmers? - March 2010
How can a food system that offers so much variety be constricting consumer choice? - February 2010
I keep hearing about "concentration" in farming. What does that mean and how does it affect me? - January 2010
What’s Farm Aid’s grant program all about? Where does all the money go? - December 2009
Why are you thankful for family farmers? The Farm Aid staff responds. - November 2009
What are some ways people can get involved in farm activism? - October 2009
I've been seeing a lot of interest lately in seed saving. It seems like a lot of work, why bother? - September 2009
Are factory farms still a threat to America’s family farmers? - August 2009
Do you have any tips for how to fit a farmers market into my busy life? - July 2009
What’s the best way to get more farm fresh food into my child’s school cafeteria? - June 2009
How do I get involved in the dairy crisis at the grassroots level? - May 2009
How can we fix the food safety system without hurting family farmers? - April 2009
How exactly are GE crops regulated? And how can I be sure that I am protected? - March 2009
Dairy farmers are struggling for survival right now - why? - February 2009
Is there a reason why Farm Aid doesn’t grant more to individual farmers? - January 2009
How is the credit crisis affecting farmers and agriculture in America? - December 2008
What does the change in administration mean for family farmers? - November 2008
Where do John McCain and Barack Obama stand on agricultural issues? - October 2008
Does Farm Aid know of any programs that help young people start their own farm? - September 2008
Just how does Farm Aid decide where to host the show each year? - August 2008
Laura looks back on three years answering your questions - July 2008
I try to buy local and from family farmers whenever possible. Why is it so hard to find meat from area farmers? - June 2008
How do you decide who is and isn’t a family farmer? How many family farmers are there in the United States? - May 2008
I see raw milk from time to time at my local grocery, some folks say it’s good –others say its dangerous- what’s the deal? - April 2008
I seem to be spending more and more at the grocery store these days. Is it true that corn prices and ethanol are making my food cost more? - March 2008
I feel like I used to see a lot more in the news about GMOs. I haven’t managed to keep up to date and now I’m not really even sure what’s out there. Could you give me a little update on GMOs? - February 2008
What’s going on with the Farm Bill? Didn’t it pass recently? Is there anything good for family farmers in it? - January 2008
What do farmers do in the winter? - December 2007
What are you serving for Thanksgiving? - November 2007
How did Farm Aid replace the typical concert foods at Farm Aid 2007 and what were the criteria? - October 2007
What do Farm Aid folks do during the winter? - September 2007
Can you suggest some ways to drink locally or seasonally? - August 2007
Is it legal and humane to keep chickens in the city? - July 2007
Is it possible to compost in the city? - June 2007
Should everyone who wants to lessen their impact on the environment consider giving up meat? - May 2007
Can you suggest farm related activities for kids to do? - April 2007
Am I supporting family farmers when I purchase a product labeled organic? - March 2007
Can you help me simplify my food shopping in a way that still supports my values? - February 2007
What New Year's resolutions can I make that will support family farmers? - January 2007
How does Farm Aid help family farmers, where does the money go? - December 2006
How can I find a family farm turkey for Thanksgiving? - November 2006
Is it possible to shop locally on a budget? - October 2006
Why can't I get any of this "delicious food from family farmers" at the Farm Aid concert? - September 2006
Do you have any advice for developing classroom activities involving good food? - August 2006
Who are the farmers in the United States? - July 2006
What kind of work is Farm Aid doing with biodiesel? - June 2006
When will tomatoes be available in farmers markets? - May 2006
Are factory farm birds safer than outdoor birds? - April 2006
Could you tell me a little about the food in New Orleans today? Can you even get local foods in the city? - March 2006
What is biodynamic farming? - February 2006
Why do different companies promote different kinds of pasteurization for milk? - January 2006
How can I eat seasonally year-round if nothing is growing in my area? - December 2005
With all of the devastating elements that farmers have to face, who can help them when a disaster comes? - November 2005
Why is it so hard to find fresh, locally grown produce in my area of Staten Island, NY? - October 2005
What is a "family farm food system"? - June 2005
How can I find a farm near me? - May 2005
What does April on the farm mean in different states? - April 2005
Who are the corporate players in the meat industry? - March 2005
What questions can I ask my grocer? - February 2005
An Introduction to Ask Laura - January 2005
What is grass roots organizing? - August 2005
Where does school food come from? - July 2005