By Susie Crutchfield, regional representative, Contract Grower Transition Program, SRAP
In 1987, my husband and I signed a contract with Tyson Foods to raise factory farm chickens in Johnson County, Arkansas. We took out a loan from the bank for $175,000 and wagered our family land to get into the chicken business.
We soon learned the business was not what we thought it would be. The poultry industry uses a pay scheme called the “tournament” system to compensate growers. The system works by pitting growers 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, it’s an unfair and discouraging way for growers to earn a living.
In 2010, we received a letter from Tyson that said we either had to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars more into the farm for updates—or be shut down.
We knew that if we didn’t make the upgrades, we could be paid even less per pound in the tournament system than those with newer chicken houses.
It was devastating news.
We were just three years away from finally being able to pay off the debt we took on to get into the business. Meeting Tyson’s demands, which included $300,000 to upgrade the chicken barns, would have set us back financially for two more decades.
Instead of looking ahead to retirement, we would have been struggling to pay the bank for the rest of our lives. That wasn’t an option for us, so we said “no” to the upgrades and were shut down two years later.
On December 4, 2012, we filed bankruptcy. We were just one hour from losing our farm, which had been in our family for more than 70 years.
We met in court the next day to face the creditor who had started the process to take our farm. Fortunately, by filing chapter 12 bankruptcy—which is designed to help farmers in financial crises—we were able to work with the courts to create a repayment plan to repay our debts.
It’s been more than a decade and we are still repaying our loans.
Our experience raising chickens under contract in the industrial model was not a positive one. But in many ways we are grateful because we get to help other farmers in similar situations, many of whom lost their family farms.
Today, as a regional representative for Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP), I help educate farmers about the harms of the integrated model by providing personal stories of oppression, debt, and our fight to save our family from the clutches of big corporate integrators.
SRAP’s Contract Grower Transition 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.