Obama's Game of Chicken

The untold story of how the administration tried to stand up to big agricultural companies on behalf of independent farmers, and lost.
November/ December 2012 |
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In May 2010, Garry Staples left his chicken farm in Steele, Alabama, to take part in a historic hearing in Normal, an hour and a half away.

The decision to go wasn’t easy. The big processing companies that farmers rely on for their livelihood had made it known that even attending one of these hearings, much less speaking out at one, could mean trouble. For a chicken farmer, that’s no trivial thing. Getting on a processing company’s bad side can deal a serious blow to a farmer’s income—and even lose him the farm entirely. Still, Staples, a former Special Forces commander, and a number of other farmers decided to risk it. Many felt it was their only chance to talk directly to some of the highest-ranking officials in the country, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, about the abusive practices now common in their industry. It was a chance, finally, to get some relief.

Staples and other farmers described a system that is worse in certain respects than sharecropping. It works like this: to do business nowadays, most chicken farmers need to contract with a processing company. The company delivers them feed and chicks, which farmers raise into full-size birds. The same company then buys those same birds back when they are full grown. The problem is that the big processing company is usually the only game in town. So it can—and usually does—call all the shots, dictating everything from what facilities a farmer builds on his farm to the price he receives for his full-size chickens.

As Staples explained, a processing company can require a farmer to assume substantial debt to pay for new chicken houses, tailored to the company’s exact specifications. Staples said he himself had borrowed $1.5 million. Then the company will offer that same farmer a sixty-day contract that can be changed or terminated by the company for any reason at any time. If a farmer gets fed up with the chronic uncertainty and tries to negotiate better terms, the company can punish him by sending lousy feed or sickly chicks, thereby depressing his earnings. Or the company can simply undercount the full-grown chickens’ weight. Whatever the particular abuse, because there are now so few processing companies—often only one or two in a farmer’s geographic area—there’s little way out of the cycle. For many chicken farmers in America, the only real option is to accept the terms, even if those terms are slowly driving them out of business. And even if those terms keep them from publicly speaking their minds.

Staples told the crowd at the hearing that he feared that Pilgrim’s Pride, the processing company with which he contracts, might punish him for voicing his troubles. Later, Christine Varney, the government’s chief antitrust regulator at the time, who was sitting in front of an American flag, spoke up. “Mr. Staples, let me say, I fully expect you will not experience retaliation by virtue of your presence here today,” she said, handing him a piece of paper with her phone number on it. “But if you do, you call me.” The hearing erupted into applause.

The message seemed to be clear: the highest brass in the Obama administration was listening closely to how America’s independent farmers are pushed around by big companies, and they were no longer going to tolerate it.

For the next seven months, Holder, Vilsack, Varney, and other officials from the Departments of Justice and Agriculture toured the country, hearing from more farmers and rural advocates. Along the way, they learned about concentration in the seed, pig, cattle, and dairy industries, as well as in poultry. During this same period, the USDA also worked on revising and updating the main law that regulates the livestock industries to prevent many of the unfair and deceptive practices that now threaten the dignity and survival of farmers and ranchers. From dairy farms in Wisconsin to cattle ranches in Montana, hopes soared.

But today, two years on, almost nothing has changed. Big processing companies remain free to treat independent poultry, cattle, and dairy producers largely as they please. “You had farmer after farmer after farmer telling the same story, basically pleading for help, and absolutely nothing has come of it,” said Craig Watts, a poultry farmer from Fairmont, North Carolina, who drove 512 miles to attend the hearing in Alabama. Staples agreed. “We had really thought something might change.”

Read the full article in The Washington Monthly or by downloading here.