Blog | May 20, 2015

John Oliver on Big Chicken: What Poultry Growers Say

This Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver featured a segment where John devoted his keen wit, comedic chops and passion for political discourse to an issue near and dear to our hearts here at Farm Aid: the contract poultry industry and more precisely, the brave farmers who dare to speak out. (Please note that this segment features some adult language.)

The contract system is nearly universal in the poultry sector: in the U.S. 97% of our chickens are produced on contract farms. And behind the veil of sunny commercials and feel-good promotional content is a system completely rigged in the companies’ favor. Most poultry growers are required to take on massive amounts of debt to secure a contract, only to be left at the company’s mercy as they try to pay back their loans, often facing unfair market conditions, abusive practices and retaliation for speaking out in the process. As Oliver aptly summarizes:

“You (the farmer) own everything that costs money and we (the company) own everything that makes money.”

The pressure, both financial and emotional, pushes many farm families into poverty and can also push them over the edge as they try to escape the deep pain and stress from the industry, as mentioned in the video testimony of Kay Doby, a poultry grower from North Carolina.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the show’s live filming along with Scott Marlow, a dear friend from the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA) in North Carolina, with whom Farm Aid has worked on reforming the contract poultry industry for years. It was exciting and a whole lot of fun, but the gravity of the farmers’ plight was not lost on us. It was truly emotional to see the faces of good friends and colleagues, including many poultry growers, flash before our eyes on the big screen as John Oliver wove the story together.

John Oliver

Alicia Harvie, Farm Aid & Scott Marlow, RAFI-USA, at the studio.

What Farmers Say

In fact, I checked in with a few of our farmer friends to share what the piece meant to them, knowing that while we’ve worked hard to tell their stories, their fight has perhaps never seen a stage as big as this one. Craig Watts, a Perdue poultry grower from North Carolina said:

When I describe the poultry business to outsiders a lot of times I say ‘this is getting funny, but there ain’t nobody laughing.’ John Oliver made that statement into a television segment. I want the general public to know that when you see the term ‘Representative’ there’s a very high probability it isn’t the general public they are representing.

Next, I spoke with Mike Weaver. He’s a poultry grower in West Virginia who is also President and co-founder of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias and had this to say about the show and advice on what our readers can do:

If I had John Oliver here right now I’d kiss him!  John accomplished as much in that show as we have in our grower association in the past several years combined.  That was by far the best national TV exposure we have ever received that outline all of the biggest problems poultry growers are facing in dealing with the poultry companies.  We can’t thank him enough.

As far as what your members can do they can help us keep this in the public eye.  Send the link to the show out to everyone on their email list and ask them to watch and to send it to everyone on their email list.  And ask them to call their congressmen and senators and tell them that the treatment poultry growers are receiving from the companies is wrong and must be changed.  Tell them if their elected representatives want a grower to talk to about these issues to give them my number 304-249-5347 or let me know and I’ll gladly go to DC and meet with them personally.

A Call to Action

Perhaps most impressive was the show’s coverage of an important political battle still roiling in Washington D.C.. Oliver’s footage captured the testimony of poultry growers at public workshops hosted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). We worked with several of those growers and knew of many more who were too terrified to speak out or were blatantly intimidated into staying silent.

What were those poultry growers asking for? Quite simply, for federal rules to protect them from retaliation from the corporate titans and provide fair contract terms.

Those rules from the USDA, called the “GIPSA” rules, were authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill. They represent a huge win earned over a decades’ long battle, but have been systematically defunded or blocked by corporate lobbying. We’ve attended countless meetings with members of Congress and the administration to prevent lawmakers from caving and I’d be lying if said it wasn’t a tough go. While the video calls out Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack in particular, corporate poultry giants have bought out several other members of Congress and pressured the Administration to block enforcement of these protections, as with the example of voting down of the Kaptur amendment last year.

Which brings us to what you can do.  And that is to hold our elected officials accountable. Farm Aid is still waiting for additional details, so stay tuned for important votes in the House and the Senate over the next few weeks where we can preserve these farmer protection rules. We’ll invite you to Take Action with Farm Aid soon!

And in the meantime, we invite you to examine the following breakdown of how Representatives voted on the Kaptur amendment to protect contract growers from retaliation. Thankfully, Rep. Kaptur called for a roll-call vote on May 29, 2014, where members of Congress must publicly state their position. Marcy and 19 other members of the full Appropriations Committee voted with farmers — and 29 voted against them.

Voting YES:

  • Sanford Bishop (D-GA)
  • Rosa De Lauro (D-CT)
  • Sam Farr (D-CA)
  • Chaka Fattah (D-PA)
  • Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE)
  • Mike Honda (D-CA)
  • Marcy Kaptur (D-OH)
  • Barbara Lee (D-CA)
  • Nita Lowey (D-NY)
  • Betty McCollum (D-MN)
  • Jim Moran (D-VA)
  • Chellie Pingree (D-ME)
  • David Price (D-NC)
  • Mike Quigley (D-IL)
  • Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA)
  • Tim Ryan (D-OH)
  • Adam Schiff (D-CA)
  • Jose Serrano (D-NY)
  • Pete Visclosky (D-IN)
  • Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL)

Voting NO:

  • Robert Aderholt (R-AL)
  • Mark Amodei (R-NV)
  • Ken Calvert (R-CA)
  • John Carter (R-TX)
  • Tom Cole (R-OK)
  • Ander Crenshaw (R-FL)
  • Henry Cuellar (D-TX)
  • John Culberson (R-TX)
  • Charlie Dent R-PA)
  • Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL)
  • Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN)
  • Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ)
  • Kay Granger (R-TX)
  • Tom Graves (R-CA)
  • Andy Harris (R-MD)
  • Jaime Herrerra Beutler (R-WA)
  • David Joyce (R-OH)
  • Jack Kingston (R-GA)
  • Tom Latham (R-IA)
  • Alan Nunnelee (R-MS)
  • Bill Owens (R-NY)
  • Martha Roby (R-AL)
  • Hal Rogers (R-KY)
  • Tom Rooney (R-FL)
  • Michael Simpson (R-ID)
  • Chris Stewart (R-UT)
  • David Valadao (R-CA)
  • Steve Womack (R-AR)
  • Kevin Yoder (R-KS)

by Alicia Harvie


Connect with us