craig watts in chicken house
Photo © Fusion TV

Blog | January 18, 2017

Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print, a brutally honest look at contract poultry

by Farm Aid Guest Blogger

We’re proud to have helped our friends at the Rural Advancement Foundation International with the roll out of the new film, Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print. This film tells the stories of contract farmers. Below is a guest post from Craig Watts, a poultry grower from North Carolina. We first met Craig in 2014 when we asked him to share his compelling story about the poultry industry at our Farm Aid 2014 press event in Raleigh, NC.

In September 2014, on the Farm Aid stage in Raleigh, NC, Scott Marlow of RAFI-USA made the statement, “If you want to know the plan corporate agriculture has for our farms and food, look no further than the poultry industry.”  That plan is to exploit farmers and workers, externalize as much cost and pollution as possible, and (at all cost) protecting or defending an image that is very far from reality. On that stage, on that day, the veil had been lifted.

Being a contract poultry farmer at the time, I was more than familiar with the abuses farmers endure to raise birds under contract for a large integrator (company). For the better part of three decades, many dedicated folks worked tirelessly to curb these abuses. These labors seemed to be on the path to being rewarded in the 2008 Farm Bill. Congress had instructed the USDA to address the imbalance of power that existed between the farmer and the company they raised birds for.

craig watts

It has been over eight years, and the industry has fought any effort at reform with all the clout they have–and up until now have succeeded. However, since that day on the Farm Aid stage, the poultry industry has been under more scrutiny than ever before. The industry’s voice, once the most powerful, is losing its dominance.

“There is no cop on the beat protecting farmers’ interests, despite how integral they are to the business.”

This past Monday, I had the privilege of joining some staff of RAFI-USA, contract farmers from several states, and many others to attend a screening of the documentary Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print.  I was even more privileged to be included in the documentary film itself.

The story being told is a brutally honest, though compassionate, look at what can and has happened to farmers who raise poultry under contract for companies such as Tyson, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride. One-sided contracts, the leverage of debt and absence of competition make for an arrangement where the farmer becomes an indentured servant, or maybe worse given the capital expenditures they’re forced to make. There is no cop on the beat protecting farmers’ interests, despite how integral they are to the business.

All is not doom though. The documentary shows two farmers raising livestock, including chickens, independent of big packers and integrators. Just last month, the USDA finally issued rules to address farmer protections in this kind of contractual relationship. And RAFI-USA is a huge bank of resources for those who want to get involved, whether you are a consumer, policymaker or farmer.

In a perfect world, a documentary like this should not even need to be made. Our world, however, is far from perfect. In this imperfect world, specifically the world farmers live in, I am glad there are organizations like RAFI-USA and Farm Aid on the front lines. Farmers should be able to run their own businesses, not follow orders given in a boardroom 1,000 miles away. Losing the fight for farmer’s independence is not an option.

Learn more about Under Contract Read about Farmer Hero, Craig Watts

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