Growing chicken is big business. So why are many farmers forced into debt that they cannot repay?

Craig Watts describes himself as a “recovering poultry farmer”.

In 1992, he saw an ad in a newspaper looking for farmers to raise chicks to chickens ready for slaughter, and he considered the option. He already had a long-standing family farm in North Carolina, but he would still have to invest a lot of money up front: $ 200,000 to build two massive barns that would house thousands of chicks. As he remembers, a representative of a large poultry company came to convince him and promised him positive cash flow, profits to reimburse buildings and a lot of support.

“These are the three biggest lies I’ve ever heard,” he says.

Watts quickly found himself in debt. His contracts were short and in order to continue securing them he often had to make expensive upgrades which only added to his debt burden.

He was paid according to a tournament system. There was a basic wage rate, but the company would take the weight of its birds, look at the amount of grain the chickens ate and a few other factors, and rank its performance against all other farmers in the area at using an algorithm that he did not have access to. The highest ranked farmers earned more and the lowest ranked farmers earned less.

The National Chicken Council, a trade association representing the interests of the chicken industry to Congress and federal agencies, defends this system, saying he rewards farmers for their high performance and inspires them. But Craig was a very successful farmer and he was still frustrated with the system. He says it was difficult to control his performance because he had no control over the feed or the chicks he had. He even documented cases where he received very sick chicks.

And he had few options. For many years, Craig recalls, there was only one poultry business in his area, so he couldn’t try to get a better deal elsewhere.

So in 2010, Craig Watts decided to fight back, even though speaking out potentially put him in financial jeopardy. He would participate in a workshop series that the Justice Department held under the Obama administration to collect evidence on the problems associated with contract farming.

On this episode of the Perfect future Podcast, Watts and Leah Douglas, reporter for the Food and Environment Reporting Network, explain the arguments that were made in these workshops, the hopes they raised in farmers like Watts – and why they ultimately failed to make a big difference. Subscribe to Perfect future podcast on Apple podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stapler, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Further reading

  • In his book The meat racket, Christopher Leonard describes the problems associated with contract poultry farming in much more depth and reviews the history of the practice.
  • Leah Douglas and Christopher Leonard also did a recent and in-depth investigation on issues related to the treatment of farmers by the US chicken industry.
  • You can watch the public DOJ workshops for yourself or read the transcripts, all available here.
  • The National Chicken Council has has compiled an FAQ which rejects claims that poultry farmers have problems

This podcast is made possible with the support of Animal charity assessors. They research and promote the most effective ways to help animals.

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