In 2014, we met Craig Watts, a poultry grower in Fairmont, North Carolina. His story was so compelling we invited him to speak at our Farm Aid 2014 press event in Raleigh, NC. Craig joined Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Neil Young and Dave Matthews on stage to talk about the poultry industry. He did a terrific job, though he claimed to be nervous among so many celebrities. Little did he know that he would turn out to be a celebrity himself, featured in newspapers and on TV all over the country!
It had all started back in 1992, when Craig Watts got into the poultry business. He put up four chicken houses and signed a contract with Perdue, the third largest poultry integrator in the United States. With a business degree and land that’s been in his family for 200 years, the road ahead looked to be smooth and prosperous. Craig’s wife Amelia is a teacher, and being a chicken farmer had the additional benefit of allowing Craig to be a stay-at-home dad to their three children—a role he loves.
In 24 years, Craig has been a consistent good performer and has been named top producer many times. But behind the “Top Grower” hats he received and Perdue’s marketing campaigns boasting about happy farmers, healthy chickens and transparency, the reality was that Craig felt like a serf on his own land. As is the case in the contract poultry system, Perdue owned the chickens, delivered the chicken feed, and told Craig exactly what to do to raise the best flocks. Craig, on the other hand, owned the massive debt, the chicken houses, and the mountains of waste the chickens produced.
“I truly believe how you treat your animals reveals your true character. It didn’t sit right with me that these birds were labeled ‘humanely raised,’ I had to speak out.”
Like nearly every contract chicken farmer, he was promised a good living but in truth, Craig was raising chickens just to pay off the farm debt that never seemed to decrease. “We’re just making enough to try to get by. I get paid 5 cents a pound! A few cents more per pound would make a tremendous difference for a farmer, but the companies don’t invest in their farmers.”
Craig has been outspoken about the power of giant meat companies, giving testimony on Capitol Hill and sharing his story on the Farm Aid stage. In spite of the risks, he’s stood up against the onerous contracts poultry processors force on farmers and the cycle of debt they put them in—first through the mortgage to build the chicken houses, then through required technological upgrades that require farmers to take on more loans.
In addition to the negative impacts on his own life, Craig didn’t feel like he was raising the best flocks. He explains, “We are contractually bound to farm this way. The contract handcuffs me from making changes that would really matter, like being able to open the windows in the chicken house, giving them access to the outdoors, and more space.”
In the summer of 2014, Craig made an unlikely alliance with an animal welfare organization, Compassion in World Farming–an entity he might have once deemed an enemy. When the film they made came out in December 2014, the world found out what happens behind the closed doors of poultry houses. Soon Craig—and the truth about chicken farming–was featured in national media, including the New York Times and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. “It turns out we actually have a lot in common,” he says of the partnership with Compassion in World Farming. “We both want to reform the system. I truly believe how you treat your animals reveals your true character. It didn’t sit right with me that these birds were labeled ‘humanely raised,’ I had to speak out.”
Rather than heeding Craig’s concerns, Perdue took the low road with repeated attempts to intimidate and discredit him. After never having had a complaint filed against him, inspectors started showing up every day for surprise audits. In response, Craig launched a complaint against Perdue for whistleblower retaliation, the first case and filing of its kind in the United States. Craig’s truth-telling effort has paved the way for others to speak out against a system that aims to manipulate, control, and silence farmers.
To kick off 2016, Craig was named Whistleblower of the Year, by a law firm specializing in whistleblower cases, for opening the doors to his poultry houses. His act of bravery brings transparency to an industry that enforces silence through bullying and retaliation against any farmer who speaks out. And he finally got out of the contract chicken business.
Craig sent in his letter of resignation and has picked up seasonal work so he and his family can get by. He has plans to finally be an independent farmer, making his own decisions on his own land for the first time since he became a farmer. Through his years of activism, he’s met hundreds of farmers, some of whom have also left the business and made use of their chicken houses for other crops. Craig wants to repurpose his chicken houses for greenhouses and aquaponics. He’s learning how other former poultry growers have done that, including Farmer Hero Paula Boles. But first, he has to finish paying the houses off. He’s almost there… and when he makes that final payment, at least one of those houses will be torn down, for the mental solace it will offer and the reminder that he is finally free.
As far as advice to all of us who eat chicken, Craig says, “You make a choice three times a day what sort of meal you will eat. Consumers can, and do, make a difference. Public pressure is going to change this system. Farmers and the government aren’t going to be able to make the changes on their own. The only way is for the public to apply the pressure.”
As for himself, Craig isn’t going to stop applying pressure either. He’s still waiting to hear how his case against Perdue will be determined, and he’s in touch with farmers and factory farm organizers across the country to help them in their own battles. We can’t wait to see what Craig does next—we know he’s going to keep raising the iron curtain (as he calls the secrecy of the chicken industry) and raising hell in the great tradition of so many farmers before him!
Watch our video profile of Craig Watts and Kay Doby (a former contract poultry grower who repurposed her chicken houses as a barn for her goat herd) that played on-stage at Farm Aid 2014:
We spoke with other contract poultry growers. Read about them in “Life Under Contract: Poultry Farming in Arkansas.”