I’m an environmentalist. So when I think about our industrialized system of agriculture and the proliferation of mega-factory farms across the country, where giant companies like Perdue, Tyson, Smithfield and a handful of others dominate our increasingly fragile landscapes, my first thoughts go to the impacts on watersheds and airways. I tend to dwell on the unsustainability of hundreds of thousands of tons of chicken manure piled high in places like the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the Chesapeake Bay is dying, or the millions of gallons of fetid hog waste lying in lagoons all across the eastern part of North Carolina, overflowing into the Neuse River every time it rains. But the other night I was told a story about an equally dark side of our industrialized ag system, one where the ruin of our natural resources is matched every bit by the destruction of rural families and futures, where every day struggling farmers suffer rude awakenings from the American dream.
Back in 1987, Karen and Mitchell Crutchfield were living a quiet life in a 3 bedroom brick home near where the Arkansas River winds through the state of Arkansas. Their home was situated on 17 acres of farmland that was passed down to Karen by her grandfather. Mitchell had spent 16 years working as a towboat engineer on the Mississippi River.
Back then, the Crutchfields decided to take a shot with a business of their own. They weren’t looking for shortcuts to get rich quick, or ways to profit off the hard work of others. Karen and Mitchell weren’t hoping for fancy cars and big McMansions; theirs was a modest dream. They were going to be chicken farmers, knowing that it meant that they would have to struggle every day to pay their bills, but they could look forward to a simple and peaceful retirement some decades down the road.
The Crutchfields entered into a contract to raise chickens for Tyson Foods, an Arkansas chicken empire that is one of the largest industrial food producers in the world today, with profits in 2010 of $780 million. In the beginning, they mortgaged their debt-free home and land and took out big loans from the Farm Credit to build their first chicken houses. The Crutchfields were loyal to Tyson. They even purchased 3000 shares of the company’s stock so they could enjoy some small benefit from the massive profits that Tyson earns off the hard work of their contract growers. And for two and a half decades Karen and Mitchell Crutchfield played by all the rules.
Every time Tyson told them to upgrade the chicken houses or install new equipment or add structures, the Crutchfields complied, even though it meant taking out more loans just to keep up. And at the end of each flock, when Tyson came to pick up the birds that the Crutchfields had so carefully raised according to the company’s evolving standards, they only received about half the money they earned. The other half? Tyson sent that directly to the Farm Credit to pay off the rolling debt the Crutchfields had incurred to keep up with Tyson’s demands.
The money left over wasn’t enough to get by on. So the Crutchfields did what almost every poultry contract grower in the country does – they took on other jobs to make ends meet. At some points, Karen was working 3 jobs while Mitchell cared for Tyson’s birds. And even though it wasn’t fair that Tyson was paying the Crutchfields less than 5 cents per pound of chicken raised in their houses while charging $1.25 or more per pound at the grocery store, and despite the fact that the Crutchfields had to sell off all their 3000 shares of Tyson stocks over the years to survive, it was all okay because they were working towards the dream they started 25 years ago, when one day the Farm Credit loans would all be paid off and once again they’d be debt-free.
The Crutchfields were going to reach their goal three short years from now, when they would be in their mid 60’s. They were going to put off retirement until well past the age of 65 so they could spend their golden years with some small margin of comfort. But a year ago, their dream came crashing down. Not only did the Crutchfields get the rug pulled out from under them, they’re about to have their entire home and all their land yanked away.
Last year Tyson demanded yet another upgrade to the Crutchfields’ chicken houses. This time it was to install computerized ventilation equipment under Tyson’s “Premium House Mandate” program. The cost? According to the Crutchfields, somewhere around $250-300 thousand. Tyson told the Crutchfields that in exchange for the quarter of a million dollar upgrade, they would receive a raise of a penny per pound of chicken. A penny per pound for another $300,000 in debt – that’s a “raise” none of us could afford to accept.
Even so, in a desperate effort to hold onto at least a fragment of their dream while not putting themselves into a hole out of which they’d likely never be able to climb, the Crutchfields asked the Farm Credit for another loan to update only half of their six poultry houses. The Farm Credit refused, saying it was all or nothing. Daunted by the prospects of suddenly sinking another $300,000 deeper, the Crutches did what any responsible person would have done – they said no to more debt.
Last March, Tyson refused to renew the Crutchfields’ contract, abandoning them just a few years short of their finally being able to pay off their debts and after 25 years of loyal service. Tyson’s betrayal left them without any steady source of income to pay off the last three years of their Farm Credit loans. It seems that someone at Tyson didn’t read the “core values” listed on the company’s website, where they claim to “strive to be honorable” and “care about each other,” before they kicked the Crutchfields to the curb. And the curb is exactly where this farm family will end up because the Farm Credit is now foreclosing on their property. The foreclosure hearing is taking place in early December of this year, in time for the banks to take the Crutchfields’ home and land just as the Arkansas winter sets in.
Sadly, this tale should be the exception, but its not; it happens to small farmers on a regular basis all across the country, where big agribusinesses force their contract growers into massive debt while the companies reap huge profits. If you want to see who is destroying sustainable family farming in America, you don’t have to look any further than Tyson and Perdue and the other major meat producers. When you’re a poultry contract grower, there’s never any catching up. The dream you had when you started out stays just that – an elusive dream. The best that you can hope for is that it doesn’t turn into a horrible nightmare, as it has for the Crutchfields.