By Wenonah Hauter
Kathy Phillips, Assateague Coastkeeper and Executive Director, Assateague Coastal Trust. Photo by Meaghan Morgan-Puglisi.
Kathy Phillips is a real heroine. She’s standing up to Perdue, a company responsible for a large percentage of the pollution pouring into the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding waterways. Kathy is braving the anger and malice of a powerful corporation that wields power in her community. While all Maryland agriculture combined contributes only 0.35% to the state’s Gross Domestic Product, with chicken contributing only a fraction of that number, the poultry industry in particular wreaks havoc not only on the environment, but also on its contract growers. Contract growers earn on average less than $20,000 a year.
A single Perdue farm generates hundreds of tons of animal manure a year, far beyond what can ever be properly and responsibly used by contract growers to fertilize crops. As a result of all this excess waste, damaging amounts of nutrients and other pollutants are impacting the Bay and other waterways around the country.
Enter Kathy Philips. Kathy and her husband, Jeff, who has taught in Worcester County Maryland for more than 30 years, moved to the Eastern Shore from Silver Spring, Maryland in the late 1970’s. They were both surfers and wanted to spend their lives near the ocean that they love. Kathy directed the Eastern Surfing Association for 15 years. During this time she and Jeff, who is still an enthusiastic surfer, saw the Bay, as well as their local waterways, continue to deteriorate. As watersport enthusiasts, they spend much of their free time on waterways in Maryland, and they have seen first hand how the Chesapeake Bay, the largest and most productive estuary in the United States, is impacted by the onslaught of factory farm waste. Kathy’s particular focus has been on the Pocomoke River and water quality there. She’s worked tirelessly with the Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) to protect the Coastal Bays and the Pocomoke from agricultural pollution.
In 2010, Kathy stepped forward to be a plaintiff in the case brought by Waterkeeper Alliance against Perdue and one of its contract growers, Alan and Kristin Hudson. The suit seeks to put a stop to the pollution found pouring off the farm and hold Perdue liable for the discharges. For several decades, Perdue and other poultry industry integrators have been hiding behind the men and women who accept all of the risk for growing chickens, while Perdue sucks up the profits.
Unfortunately, throughout the nearly three years of litigation, Perdue has been using the contract grower involved in the suit as a “human shield.” Rather than taking responsibility for the chicken waste their business produces, they suck up the profits and hide behind their contract growers. Poultry-processing companies, known as integrators, ruthlessly control every step of chicken production from providing the chicks and feed to monitoring them on an almost daily basis. Contract abuses abound for the growers—Perdue, Tyson and the other integrators use production contracts to keep the cost of raising chickens low and to manage the supply of birds needed in the slaughter plants they own. The integrators don’t invest any capital in the factory farm facilities or equipment necessary for growing birds. Growers assume all of the debt and financial risk for building the warehouse-like barns, while Perdue walks away with the profits.
Perdue’s abuse of contract farmers goes beyond their refusal to take responsibility for their own waste. It goes to unconscionable contracts, economic inequity, inappropriate uses of drugs and horrendous working conditions. Perdue, and the other mega-meat companies like it, is the biggest threat to family farming in the United States and around the world.
When this case was filed in 2010 Perdue was enjoying $4.6 billion in sales while Alan Hudson, the contract grower involved in the litigation, was driving a school bus to make ends meet. If Perdue really cared about contract growers like the Hudsons, they’ve had the opportunity for almost three years now to stand up and say, “This is our waste and our problem.” Instead, they’ve chosen to once more hide behind the false guise of the family farmer and hold the Hudsons out as the only ones responsible for the mess created by Perdue’s own industrial chicken empire. Perdue owns the chickens, the feed, and the profits. The Hudsons, apparently, own Perdue’s waste—and Perdue is fighting hard to keep it that way.
We should all thank Kathy Philips for being brave enough to call Perdue out for their pollution of our waterways.