Imagine the farm that raised the chicken that produced the meat that sits in your sandwich: a few workers, thousands of birds, tens of thousands of pounds of white and dark meat, work that starts before dawn and ends after dusk, uncertain revenue, slim profits. There are thousands of these small farms in the United States, and they benefit from millions of dollars of taxpayer support each year.
Chicken is America’s favorite protein, after all. Family farms are one of its most prized institutions. And farming is tough business. According to one estimate, a new, hangar-like chicken house costs something like $300,000 to build, and more to maintain and upgrade. “A farmer has to invest over $1 million just to get set up—a lot of debt to carry when you’re paid on average between 5 cents and 6 cents per pound of chicken produced,” Sally Lee of the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA has found. Even when a chicken-growing operation is established, financial success is far from a sure thing. Given those realities—and given the American love for and support of the family farm—generous taxpayer subsidies seem not just sensible, but vital.
But a government report released this spring calls into question whether all those family chicken farms are really family chicken farms, and whether those taxpayer dollars might be better spent elsewhere. The Small Business Administration’s inspector general looked at poultry growers, and found that many of them are tied-and-bound contractors—so controlled by their agreements with giant food corporations that they no longer act like independent entities. Why offer them taxpayer support meant for the little guy?