By Michael Diaz, regional representative, Contract Grower Transition Program, SRAP
My wife and I have always dreamed of owning a family farm. Having grown up around farming, I developed a special relationship with the land. My uncle owned a small family farm where he grew produce and raised cows, chickens, and goats.
We wanted to share that same experience with our children, giving them the opportunity to grow up outdoors while also being a part of something that gave back to the community. We raised our children to understand the value of hard work and dedication and believed owning our own farm could help cement those values.
It took some planning and several years of saving, but we managed to come up with enough money using the sale of our home to make a down payment on 50 acres of land with four chicken barns in St. Matthews, South Carolina.
Although we knew little about chicken farming, we felt confident we were investing in a business that would build generational wealth for our family. But less than 90 days into our contract with the poultry industry, we realized we had been lied to.
The contract we signed, with Pilgrim’s Pride, was written by the integrator and for the integrator. It was subject to change and could be terminated with little or no notice. They essentially had free access to our checkbook in that if we were told to make an expensive upgrade, we had to do it or get cut off and lose our contract.
We were forced to spend our money the way they told us to, or face having our contract canceled and be left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt.
The integrator controls the entire process start to finish. They control the number and condition of the chicks delivered and their feed and veterinary supplies. When the birds are ready for slaughter, the integrator picks them up. They control production at every stage.
While the integrator owns the birds (the one thing that increases in value), the contract grower is responsible for everything that decreases in value. We were responsible for financing the buildings and equipment and managing the manure.
We realized raising chickens under contract in the industrial model was a huge mistake. We felt like we had our backs against the wall with no way out. This was not the dream we had pictured.
Despite having sacrificed nearly everything we had to purchase the farm, we knew we had to get out. Demands from the integrator to make expensive upgrades forced us to decide whether to take out another loan—on top of the original mortgage—or leave the business.
After five years, we chose to leave the business. We sold the farm at a huge loss, but our integrity was intact. In the end, we lost our entire life savings, our home, and our faith in American agriculture.
Fortunately, we are now able to use our experience to help others in similar situations. In 2020,
I joined Socially Responsible Agriculture Project as a regional representative for the Contract Grower Transition Program where I use my personal experience to educate farmers and communities about the harms of corporate farming.
We provide insight into how corporations profit on financially trapping contract farmers and offer resources to prevent others from becoming trapped in the system.
If you’re thinking about getting into the poultry business and have questions, or are a contract grower in need of help, contact us today.
For more than 20 years, SRAP has served as a mobilizing force to help communities protect themselves from the damages caused by industrial livestock operations and to advocate for a food system built on regenerative practices, justice, democracy, and resilience. Learn more at sraproject.org