Poultry Farmer Stands Up for Contract Growers

Jamie Johansen

Eric Hedrick, contract poultry farmer, joined with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) to deliver his petition, signed by 62,346 concerned advocates, urging Congress to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to finalize rules protecting the rights of contract farmers like himself.

“I took a major risk in coming forward: most farmers in my situation are afraid to speak out against company wrongdoing because the poultry industry and its lobby are so powerful,” said Hedrick. “But I believe farms should be able to stand good for themselves, contract farmers should be able to make a living without fear of company retaliation. I have funneled my life savings and my kids’ life savings into our farm just to stay afloat. This is not a hobby operation, this is my full-time job, my only job.”

Contract farmers are responsible for the health and quality of the animals they raise, but they don’t own them. Pilgrim’s Pride owns Hedrick’s chickens, sets the terms for how they’re raised, decides which inputs will be provided by whom, and determines how he will be paid. Under this system, the farmer owns everything that costs money (the chicken houses, the land, and the equipment), while the corporate integrator owns what makes money – the chickens. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 96% of chickens produced in the United States are raised under such contract provisions.

“Under the current system, contract farmers work without the basic rights you and I take for granted – like the right to speak freely against unjust practices, the right to trial by jury, or the right to be told how your pay is calculated,” said Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director at NSAC. Congress needs to allow the USDA’s Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Agency (GIPSA) to finally move forward with rules that would ensure fair treatment and a level playing field in the contract industry; farmers shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”

On April 19, 2016 the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee passed their appropriations package for fiscal year (FY) 2017. The bill included an amendment (“the GIPSA rider”) from Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) – which barely squeaked through passage by a one-vote margin – that prevents GIPSA from finalizing rules to protect farmers; leaving power consolidated with the big chicken corporations. In the coming weeks, the Senate is poised to pass their own version of the bill, and farmer advocates have been working overtime to ensure it does not contain any language that would prevent the GIPSA rules from moving forward.

“GIPSA is the only recourse these farmers have,” said Sally Lee, Project Director at RAFI-USA. GIPSA’s role is to be the referee, to prevent deceptive and abusive practices. But a referee has to have rules to enforce. These are common sense rules that can protect farmers’ basic rights, and they are long overdue.”

Recently, several appropriations committee members, including the Ranking Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees, voiced their support for finalizing the GIPSA rules in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The appropriators noted that “while regulation should be limited in the marketplace, it is critical that the playing field be level”, and urged the Secretary to finalize the rules.

“Support from legislators is critical if we want to protect farmers,” said Hedrick. “I want to thank all the members of the House and Senate who signed the letter – including Senators Jon Tester and Marcy Kaptur, whose offices I was grateful to visit with today. Hopefully the rest of their colleagues will join them in standing up for the rights of contract farmers.”

NSAC stands with Mr. Hedrick, with RAFI-USA, GAP, and scores of farmer advocates across the country in support of finalizing the GIPSA rules. We urge Congress and the public to listen to the stories of farmers like Eric, who have been victims of the contract industry, and ask them to stand with us against opaque, anti-farmer business practices.

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