The 1970’s saw many positive developments for the environment, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and other such regulations. These developments, however, were countered by increasing vertical consolidation in the agriculture sector. Big farms became bigger, and small farms disappeared. In the broiler and meat-packing industry, this meant that all of the smaller hatcheries began to get bought out by large meat processing corporations (http://www.gracelinks.org/blog/7744/new-film-exposes-unfairness-and-risks-in-the-contract-farmi?utm_source=GRACE+Newsletter&utm_campaign=f9e6bcbdcf-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_01_27&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_d8918a9897-f9e6bcbdcf-119808721). This was the beginning of the contract farming cycle that continues to this day.
Contract farmers raise the chickens and do all of the work to get them ready for processing, but they don’t own the chickens. The farmer has to pay for the facilities, the feed, the waste management, and much more; the processing corporation escapes all of that risk by putting in on the farmer in the fine print of the contract that they are made to sign in order to start business with the corporation. A chicken house costs roughly $300,000 to build, and in order to meet the volume requirements of the corporations the average contract farmer needs to build an average of 14 chicken houses (http://rafiusa.org/blog/what-debt-in-chicken-farming-says-about-american-agriculture/). Many farmers end up mortgaging their house, their land, and even their personal belongings in order to get enough money to build the necessary facilities for complying with the corporations’ specifications (http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/farmer-fair-practice-rules/?utm_source=roundup&utm_medium=email). Each year, the farmers are also required to build new facilities to comply with updates in the corporations’ regulatory frameworks; this means that they are often forced to refinance and take out a larger loan. With no hope of ever repaying their loans or getting out of the cycle of debt that they soon find themselves in, most farmers are unable to back out. (Go to this link – http://rafiusa.org/blog/what-debt-in-chicken-farming-says-about-american-agriculture/ – for a helpful infographic about how the entire process works).
The farmers also have no say in the price they get for their poultry, so corporations will often drop prices just before they buy chickens in order to save money. The price scale is based on the size of the chickens that are grown. It is basically a tournament system that ranks farmers against others in their area in terms of productivity, chicken size, and meat quality. And to top it all off, the bird size isn’t even determined by the farmer – it is determined by the genetic structures of the birds, which are dictated by the corporations who breed them. The farmers are therefore being graded on a scale they can’t control based on factors they can’t know (http://www.gracelinks.org/blog/7744/new-film-exposes-unfairness-and-risks-in-the-contract-farmi?utm_source=GRACE+Newsletter&utm_campaign=f9e6bcbdcf-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_01_27&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_d8918a9897-f9e6bcbdcf-119808721). They no agency or power to pursue justice against such instances, and even when they do speak out they are often dropped by the corporation or denied delivery of new chickens. Their massive debt burdens mean that they are unable to pay for private legal counsel, and most pro bono lawyers are unable to tackle such a massive issue without having extremely deep pockets.
The environmental effects of contract farming can be seen in the waste production and disposal processes. The massive facilities that are required to hold thousands of chickens create enormous amounts of waste in the form of manure. As with the CAFO’s that were discussed in one of my earlier posts, the waste is stored in large outdoor holding tanks. (It is interesting to note that broiler corporations are eager to invest in larger facilities but could care less about improving their abysmal waste management processes). Before too long, seepage through groundwater or overflow through surface water leads to the contamination of local water sources (http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/problems/factory-farming-food-safety). This, in turn, becomes not just an environmental problem but also a social justice issue, because it affects the water quality of the populations around these CAFO’s and contract farms. Since such operations are almost always in very rural, poor regions, environmental and social injustice are closely-related byproducts of such waste runoff.
What about the legal issues involved in contract farming? Hasn’t anyone been able to get ahold of one of these contracts and examine it? In fact, processing corporations such as Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Koch Foods, and Tyson Foods have carefully covered their tracks so that no one can access their facilities or read their contracts. As with CAFO’s, these corporations almost always forbid video or photographic footage to be taken in their facilities, which is a classic instance of an “ag-gag” rule (http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2016/05/perdue-chicken-c0ntract-farmer-clause-photos-video). This obviously begs the question: “What do Perdue and these other corporations have to hide?”
The Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing three proposed rules from USDA that would go a long way toward protecting small contract farmers and rural communities from abuse by large poultry processing corporations (http://sustainableagriculture.net/blog/farmer-fair-practice-rules/?utm_source=roundup&utm_medium=email). These rules would only require a farmer to prove that he or she has been treated unfairly in order to secure a legal remedy. This is significant, since the current regulations require them to prove that they have been treated unfairly and prove that the corporations’ actions created their competitive disadvantage. As you might imagine, this standard is almost impossible to prove in practically any circumstance and can be easily colored by the corporations’ lawyers in a way that dismisses nearly every single complaint (https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2016/12/14/usda-announces-farmer-fair-practices-rules-clarifications-industry).
Another bit of somewhat-hopeful news comes from the passage of a new set of rules from the USDA that amends the Packers and Stockyards Act in order to end abusive practices in the meat industry. These new rules were passed because the Packers and Stockyards Act was simply unenforceable. The hope is that the new set of rules will make it possible to enforce the rule and secure justice for contract farmers. However, these rules have yet to be legitimately enforced and are lacking the political clout required in order to effectuate more than a negligible amount of change. More recent developments suggest that they may be temporarily frozen or even removed from consideration (http://civileats.com/2017/09/18/why-the-organic-industry-is-suing-the-usda-over-animal-welfare/).