The plan is to help agricultural workers move away from cruel forms of production to kind ones. And the effort comes amid mounting evidence that the poultry-farming system has become torturous not just for the birds involved, but the people.
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Chickens and turkeys raised for eggs and meat live nasty, brutish, and short lives—a fact that has long been known to animal-welfare advocates and farmers, if not the omnivorous public. Breeding is a major reason. Birds destined for grocery stores and fast-food outlets are franken-creatures that balloon in size at a metastatic rate: If people grew as fast as a broiler chicken did, they would weigh nearly 700 pounds by the time they were two months old. These overgrown chickens and turkeys do not act much like chickens and turkeys at all. Many spend their lives standing in filth, their bodies ammonia-scarred, their organs strained, their bones broken.
The system that breaks their bones is a model of industrial efficiency—and that is where the problems for the farmers come in, too. A century ago, most farmers ran independent businesses. They built their barns and chicken houses to their own specifications. They bought animals, supplies, and feed from a range of suppliers. They contracted with slaughterhouses and processors to get their birds to market.
Today, the industry is dominated by just a handful of vertically integrated companies, known as integrators. These mega-producers, such as Tyson and Perdue, contract with farmers to raise their birds for them. The farmers take on loans to build warehouses to the precise specifications of the integrators. They raise the birds according to the precise specifications of the integrators. And finally, they are compensated according to how well the integrators judge their performance.
This efficiency has led to plentiful, cheap meat and eggs. But it has immiserated the farmers. They have little say in how they run their own farms, acting primarily as functionaries. They have little way to differentiate their products or improve their margins. They take on significant financial risk, with contract chicken farmers working off $5.2 billion in debt as of 2011.
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As a result of those dynamics, nearly three-quarters of contract growers live below the poverty line, living hand-to-mouth and flock-to-flock. One study found that average-sized operators lose money two years out of every three. And many contract growers find it impossible to get out of contract growing, given that their farms are purpose-built and heavily leveraged.
Eric Hedrick knows how wrong things can go. The contract grower has a dozen chicken houses sitting empty, and is contemplating walking away from them. “It’s a rigged system,” he told me. “You have no control over anything. You’re blamed for everything.”