Annapolis – Maryland chicken growers will benefit from important new protections if the General Assembly passes a bill introduced today by Senator Richard Madaleno and Delegate Mary Washington. The Farmers’ Rights Act protects contract growers in Maryland from the often abusive practices of giant poultry companies by putting forth a set of guaranteed grower’s rights, while prohibiting many of the abusive practices that force contract growers into poor working conditions and leave them with a tremendous amount of debt.
“There are some fundamental changes needed in Maryland’s current food production sector,” said Senator Richard Madaleno. “For too long these big poultry companies have operated in the state with little to no accountability for their unfair practices, whether it’s polluting the Bay or taking advantage of our struggling farmers. It’s time we shift the burden off farmers’ backs and hold the big poultry companies accountable.”
Poultry companies in the Eastern Shore have benefited for several decades from an inequitable system in which they own and control all aspects of production. They own the birds, control their diets and feeding schedule and determine when the birds are to be picked up for processing. These powerful corporations dictate the unfair contracts that force chicken growers to shoulder most of the risk of doing business. For example, these contracts frequently require growers to borrow money for expensive upgrades to their operations that could take many years to pay off, even though the contract might last only a few weeks with no guarantee of renewal.
“The Big Chicken industry is driven by greed, not concern for the farmers,” said Carole Morison, an ex-Perdue grower. “But retaliation and discrimination against growers who speak out about abuses in the industry prevents growers from standing up for their rights and fighting for fairer contract terms.”
“Maryland’s legislators should support the Farmers’ Rights Act to protect the people who we rely on for our food,” said Delegate Mary Washington. “The bill takes important steps to address the economic disparity between growers and poultry companies by providing important, sensible contract protections for farmers. Without these protections, Maryland’s poultry growers will not be treated with the dignity and fairness they deserve.”
The Farmers’ Rights Act would ensure fair contracts between growers and integrators and bring transparency to otherwise hidden clauses and guidelines. The bill would also allow contract growers to openly discuss their contracts, working conditions, and other work-related issues, while prohibiting the common “tournament” system of pay that enables poultry companies to punish growers who speak out against it. In addition, the bill would require the poultry companies to reimburse the growers for contractually required upgrades if the companies terminate the contracts without cause.
“The Farmers’ Rights Act would begin to repair a shameful system. It’s a system that keeps 71 percent of growers who don’t have second jobs living below the poverty line while Big Chicken reaps billions of dollars in sales,” said Michele Merkel, Co-director of Food & Water Justice, a project of Food & Water Watch. “This law would give chicken growers the kinds of basic protections many of us take for granted in our own workplaces.”
Food & Water Watch champions healthy food and clean water for all. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.
Contact: Sandra Lupien, 510-681-3171; slupien(at)foodandwaterwatch(dot)org.