The Congress had blocked rules designed to protect farmers from abusive contracting and marketing practices since 2011. But last December, Congress finally allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to move forward on these protections, and now farmers are wondering what the heck is taking so long.
About a decade ago, farm and food advocates united to protect livestock farmers from unfair treatment by the biggest meatpackers and poultry companies. The 2008 farm bill contained a fleet of long overdue reforms that would have curbed some of the unfair, abusive and deceptive practices that had become widespread in the industry. But these protections have been mired in legislative and bureaucratic bickering and delay for the entirety of the Obama administration.
Poultry Contract Growers Suffer From Unfair Contracts
Chicken farmers have it the worst. The poultry sector is dominated by a few companies that control every step of chicken production — from chicks to cutlets. Farmers that raise chickens (known as growers) don’t even own the birds they fatten for the processors. They perform this service under often unfair and always one-sided contracts. The companies have powerful leverage because most growers are burdened by overwhelming debt on the chicken houses required by the companies.
But if growers speak out about unfair or abusive contracts, sometimes the companies just delay the delivery of chicks or deliver less healthy chicks, or even cancel the contract altogether. Growers cannot keep their farms afloat without birds or with sick birds and so few farmers are willing to risk economically catastrophic retaliation. The situation is so bleak that last week, Maryland state legislators introduced a bill, the Farmers Rights Act, to address the abuse of contract growers in the state.
Craig Watts: An Advocate for Poultry Growers
North Carolina grower Craig Watts was one of Perdue’s top growers in his area, but he spoke out against the serfdom conditions of contract farming. I’ve worked with Craig since 2010 to try and implement strong contract protections for chicken growers. As he became more vocal in exposing the abuses in the contract poultry system, his relationship with Perdue became increasingly strained.
He is a powerful advocate for contract growers — with a generous and sharp sense of humor. Eventually, Craig took the story of the plight of contract chicken growers and chickens beyond the halls of Congress directly to the public and that is when Perdue got really got mad. Perdue essentially put him on probation and began visiting Craig’s farm almost every single day.
As he became more vocal in exposing the abuses in the contract poultry system, his relationship with Perdue became increasingly strained.
In 2015, Craig filed a whistleblower protection suit against Perdue. Last week, a law firm that represents whistleblowers named Craig “whistleblower of the year” for standing up for contract chicken growers. A huge shout out to Craig from everyone at Food & Water Watch!
One Solution: The GIPSA Rules
Stories like Craig’s highlighted and publicized the widespread but largely unknown unfair treatment of poultry growers. And that brings us back to the Washington battle over commonsense contract protections for chicken growers.
The Republican Congress blocked these protections for years by prohibiting the USDA from finalizing the 2008 Farm Bill regulations to protect farmers (known as the GIPSA rules). Last year, HBO’s John Oliver shamed Congress into letting USDA finally put some protections in place for farmers.
The shaming appeared to work. Last December, the Congress finally removed the handcuffs and allowed the USDA to finalize these languishing rules. Now the USDA has a chance to finalize them, but there isn’t a moment to lose.
But unless the USDA quickly finalizes these vital protections it will be too late. Although these rules have languished for the past six years, the White House if prohibited from “rushing” regulations through in the last few months of the presidential term. The window to complete unfinished regulatory business is rapidly closing.
Send a message to the White House today to urge USDA to finish the job it started back in 2008.
Farm, rural and food advocates have been pushing for a decade to implement these contract reforms. Now the Obama administration must expeditiously finalize strong protections for farmers. Send a message to the White House today to urge USDA to finish the job it started back in 2008.