A new rule proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) would require chicken companies to be more transparent in how they deal with their contract farmers. The rule—which would force chicken companies to share how they calculate contractor pay—is part of a larger initiative to improve working conditions for contract farmers.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the meat industry is fighting back. Top U.S. chicken company Mountaire Farms was found distributing letters to its 1,100 contract farmers explaining why they should oppose the rule. The literature even included form letters to be submitted to the USDA. Steve Etka, policy director for Campaign for Contract Agriculture Reform, stated:
This rule is trying to bring more sunlight and transparency. Companies are pressuring growers to oppose efforts to give themselves more information.
Most farmers who raise chickens do so under contract with major meat companies, in a relationship some farmers call “indentured servitude.” They take on massive debt, often struggle to pay it off, and have little to no control over their operations.
Until now, the meat industry has been able to wield pay like a weapon, sometimes docking it without explanation. According to Reuters, not only can farmers be punished with lowered pay, but companies have the power to send them sick chicks or lower-quality feed. Farmers can also be rewarded for toeing the company line.
The USDA has already extended the deadline to comment on the rule by two weeks, partly because of whisperings that farmers are being coerced to oppose it. Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack shared in a statement:
There is fear throughout the meat and poultry industry, as we saw earlier this year at two separate Congressional hearings where witnesses did not testify due to concerns of retaliation.
Despite its best efforts, the powerful meat industry has not been successful at stopping all its contract farmers from speaking out. In 2016 Mike Weaver, a former contract chicken farmer for Pilgrim’s Pride in West Virginia, went public with his concerns about the industry. He later quit raising chickens and now uses his old chicken barns to grow industrial hemp, a business venture that will earn him more income than chicken farming did and employ four times as many people in a region desperate for new jobs.
Mercy For Animals is committed to helping contractors like Weaver not only speak out against this abusive industry but transition into growing plants. Farmers know the food and farming system better than anyone, and they are as eager as entrepreneurs, activists, and other changemakers to join in constructing a better food system. We believe they can and should be part of the change.
That’s why the Mercy For Animals Transfarmation project offers an avenue for farmers to become part of the solution and leave the problem behind. We aim to support farmers in transitioning out of industrial animal agriculture and into growing crops for human consumption. The result will be a better future for farmers and their families, consumers, animals, and the planet.
Cover Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur, We Animals