By Craig Watts, Contract Grower Transition Program director, SRAP
Having been raised on a small tobacco farm in southeastern North Carolina, I appreciated the tranquility of being in nature and the sense of freedom that comes with living on the land. However, it wasn’t until I moved away and experienced life from the inside of an airport that I started longing for a return to life on the farm.
I began to explore my options, which turned out to be limited. It was the early 1990s and the farm economy was shaky at best, still recovering from the crisis of the 1980s—the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.
Purchasing expensive farm equipment to grow row crops on our small acreage didn’t make sense. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t knowledgeable about alternative farming methods. So, when I saw an ad in the local newspaper looking for people to raise chickens to supply a new processing facility, I thought to myself, “this is the perfect fit.”
We need “a few smart birds to raise our birds,” said the ad.
I can raise birds, I thought. This will allow me to move back to my family farm and earn a living on my land and on my terms. I had a dream and that included making a good living to support my family on our family land.
There were red flags from the start. But my desire to get back to the farm quashed any concerns I had about signing a contract with the poultry industry. Looking back, I now realize it was a momentary lapse of reason that would haunt me for the next two decades.
After signing a contract with the poultry industry, I learned hard and fast I was an expendable resource in a corporate agriculture model designed to reap huge profits at the expense of farmers, animals, and the environment.
The contract I signed with Perdue Farms was written by the integrator and for the integrator. It was subject to change and could be terminated with little or no notice. 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. I was responsible for financing the buildings and equipment and managing the manure.
To start the operation, I had to use my family’s farmland, which has been in the family since the 1700s, as collateral to secure a $200,000 loan to build two chicken barns.
The chickens are raised in poor, crowded conditions and have an extremely low quality of life. The chicks are bred to grow unnaturally fast, which causes all sorts of health problems.
I didn’t like it, but I was trapped. I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. One wrong move, and I could lose it all. Needless to say, I had many sleepless nights where I laid awake wondering how I got myself into this mess and how I was going to get out.
My expenses were outpacing my income and I was in a contract that prevented good-faith bargaining. My income was being randomized by company inputs I had no control over.
Contract growers are compensated through a pay scheme called the “tournament” system. Integrators pit growers (who are often friends or neighbors) against each other to compete for the price they will be paid. The growers who come out on top get a bonus—but the bonus isn’t paid by the integrator. Instead, it comes out of the paycheck of the bottom-ranked growers. In short, the scheme is an unfair and discouraging way for growers to earn a living.
Realizing I had been lied to, I began to despise the model. Being a contract grower wasn’t a good deal. I had zero control over an unethical business that was being run on my land and it wasn’t providing a livable income to support my family. It put us into so much debt we had to consider bankruptcy.
I started talking to other growers about their situation. It turned out they were also struggling, both emotionally and financially.
Fed up with the industrial agriculture model, I grew increasingly vocal about the imbalance of power between contract growers and integrators.
Eventually, I allowed an animal welfare organization to come in and film the conditions in my chicken barns to show the public what raising birds in the industrial model really looked like.
That didn’t go over well with the industry.
They tried to smear my reputation as a grower and accused me of failing to adhere to their rules. But my track record with the integrator showed otherwise.
Integrators use a “six-flock average” to rate a grower’s performance. The six-flock is a benchmark to determine if you’re a “good” or “bad” grower.
My six-flock was well above average. I even finished second in the tournament for the last flock I raised before leaving the business. So, on paper, I was one of their best—and I had the documentation to prove it.
I woke up one morning in 2016 and decided enough was enough. They say the best predictor of the future is the past, and considering I had gone nowhere trying to earn a living raising chickens under contract, I decided to leave the business.
I was still in debt when I broke my contract, so I quickly began the process of repurposing my barns. The buildings growers are required to finance and construct are single-use facilities designed solely for raising a lot of chickens at one time.
It took several years of planning and collaboration, but with help from The Transfarmation Project, I started growing gourmet mushrooms.
I also joined Socially Responsible Agriculture Project in 2016, where I currently serve as director of the Contract Grower Transition Program. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to use my experience as a former contract grower to advocate for other farmers struggling in the industrial agriculture system.
The program supports contract growers hoping to exit the industry and provides 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.