We’re re-posting this inspiring story, originally from May 2016, with an update (at the bottom) about Paula’s progress transitioning from contract poultry to independence as an aquaponics grower.
When Paula Boles called 1-800-FARM-AID in January 2015, she was feeling pretty desperate. As contract poultry growers for Tyson in North Carolina, Paula and her husband, Dale, were struggling to get ahead on their farm bills, and they were looking for resources to get out of the business.
The Boles began raising poultry in 2002, after taking over the farm from Paula’s father-in-law. At first, the Boles tried to raise cattle and fruit trees, but they didn’t earn enough to pay the property taxes on the farm. They began looking into other options, and they thought that chicken farming would be a good life. Paula explains, “The contract with Tyson makes it look like you will really make a lot of money when the construction loan is paid off.” But that never really happened.
For the first five years, Paula and her husband both worked full time jobs off the farm. According to Paula, they would be in the chicken houses at 4 a.m. each day to do the necessary chores, and then they would be back in the houses late at night. When this became too much to handle, Dale quit his job to raise the chickens full time. Despite the energy and resources they put in to raising chickens, Tyson kept asking them to take on more debt to complete facility improvements. “Tyson kept cutting back on things they subsidized, requiring more expense from us and demanding more, newer, updated equipment. It just kept getting worse and worse,” Paula recollects. As a result, they were always behind on their household bills, and Paula felt like an “indentured servant.” She started working a second job on the weekend to cover household expenses. The money they earned from the chickens went back into the chicken facilities, with nothing left over.
After talking to Farm Aid’s Farm Advocate, Paula reached out to farm organizations in North Carolina to research her options. She said that connecting with other organizations and farmers made her realize, “We would never be able to prosper as long as we continued growing contract chickens.”
Paula raised her last chicken flock in May 2015 and sent a courageous letter to Tyson requesting to cancel her contract. When they accepted her cancellation, she breathed a sigh of relief and got to work on her new business venture.
“We would never be able to prosper as long as we continued growing contract chickens.”
After 13 years raising chickens, Paula and her husband decided to convert their chicken houses to greenhouses, and their plan is to specialize in aquaponics. They plan to sell their vegetables, fruit and fish at farmers’ markets, to restaurants, and to wholesale distributors. Through the list of contacts Farm Aid gave Paula, she found out about agriculture grants in her state, and she was awarded a grant from the WNC AgOptions/Tobacco Reinvestment Fund program. “The application was a tedious process because we had to develop a business plan, with a mission statement and short term and long term goals,” Paula says. “However, this proved to be a beneficial process and we are well on our way to beginning a new business!”
Because Paula’s husband worked in construction before becoming a farmer, he is able to do most of the renovations himself. They are reusing the lights, water lines, fans, heaters, generator, and computer system from their chicken houses for their new venture. Paula explains, “We are even taking down the feed silos, cutting them apart, placing pond liners inside, and using those as the fish tanks.” Paula continues to find people who can be helpful in completing the transition. She works closely with her county extension agents, and she recently attended a Farmer’s Business Conference, which expanded her network of resources.
Paula is still in the process of creating a fully functioning aquaponics system, which refers to any system that combines conventional aquaculture (raising aquatic animals such as snails, fish, crayfish or prawns in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. Paula is working out some of the logistics, but already people have expressed interest in purchasing the fish she’ll raise. She has enclosed 100 feet of a chicken house as a “research and development section,” where she experiments with growing techniques. Agricultural technicians were concerned that the beams of the chicken house would block the necessary light to raise fish or vegetables, so Paula painted all the beams white to maximize the light.
“There is a lot of interest in natural, healthy, locally grown food and I believe that this business will help our families, neighborhoods, and communities thrive, which gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment.”
Her research plants, which are now “growing like they’re on steroids,” prove that there is sufficient light to move forward with her project. Paula’s experiments also make her a valuable resource for other farmers trying to transition out of contract poultry. Farm Aid recently connected another grower interested in aquaponics to Paula so they could share ideas and resources with each other.
As they work to get their new business up and running, Paula works full time. She spends her lunch hour working on their sales and marketing plan, and her nights on her computer focusing on the finances. Dale takes construction jobs when he can, but spends 6-7 days a week on the greenhouse. They currently raise field vegetables to earn some income from a summer harvest, which will be used to purchase the additional supplies they need for the greenhouses. While it’s not always easy, Paula believes that the greenhouses will make the land more valuable than the chicken houses. She says, “There is a lot of interest in natural, healthy, locally grown food and I believe that this business will help our families, neighborhoods, and communities thrive, which gives us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. We are glad to be able to keep the family farm and hope to preserve the land that was entrusted to us, and leave a legacy for our sons and grandson.”
**UPDATE February 2017**
We’ve kept in touch with Paula as she has continued her transition into aquaculture. This month she let us know that she received a second grant from the WNC AgOptions/Tobacco Reinvestment Fund program. With this money, Paula will be able to purchase the blueprints she needs to fully complete her aquaculture system. She has continued to experiment with different crops in the greenhouses, and she’s currently picking approximately 80 pounds of cherry tomatoes that are going to a newly established customer base. When Paula let us know the good news, she exclaimed, “It’s been a long road and I just wanted to let you know that the help and encouragement we have received from you, and folks like yourself, have helped us keep our chin up and to keep pushing forward.”Learn more about our direct work with farmers, like Farm Aid's farm advocate program.
We spoke with other contract poultry growers. Read about them in “Life Under Contract: Poultry Farming in Arkansas.”
Read our Farmer Hero profile of Craig Watts, another North Carolina farmer working to expose the unfair contract poultry system.