What is poultry contract farming really like in the US?

A Film Review on Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print

Image by Marcello Cappellazzi

Image by Marcello Cappellazzi

After watching the documentary Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print directed by Marcello Cappellazzi and Sally Lee, I was shocked at how little I really knew about our modernized poultry system. This documentary dives into the shocking relationship contract farmers have with large poultry companies across the United States. Under Contract tells the story of these farmers and the lives they face because of the deceiving and misguiding contracts they have signed on with companies such as Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, and Pilgrim’s Pride. In the U.S. alone, 97% of the chicken produced is raised by family farmers under contract with large companies. These farmers often face unfair challenges such as lifetime debt and bankruptcy because of the confusing and often deceitful fine print of the contracts with these companies.

Image by Marcello Cappellazzi

Image by Marcello Cappellazzi

So what is it really like farming under contract? Less than 1% of chickens in the US actually come from independent farms. 25,000 farmers producing 50 billion chickens a year, this totals up to $30 billion worth of meat.  The film interviews various former contract farmers to shed light on their stories. According to them, a fair contract would normally mean financial stability, a steady income, and rewards. In today’s system, these contracts only spiral farmers into either mounting debt, which they may never be able to pay off, or hanging on the edge of bankruptcy.

When you are a contract farmer, the contracts they sign can legally bind them to companies controlling everything from feeding, water, lighting, medicines, vaccines, pest control, and housing. They essentially are owned by the poultry companies, which are called integrators. The company owns and controls every decision. The farm itself is the least profitable, so companies instead decide to control every other aspect of the farm without actually owning the farm.

These former employees explain in the film that when you are signing contracts you receive all these brochures and estimates on how much they will be making per flock of chickens and you may think you’re getting into the right business financially. Well you quickly realize, the companies don’t mention all of their hidden costs and the misleading tournament system used to pay farmers. Farmers will most likely have to take out large loans to start their farms thinking they will make that money back once they sell their chickens but contractors won’t pay farmers enough to pay their bills or raise their chickens.  The typical poultry farmer in the US owes between $500,000 to $2 million on their farms and they are living paycheck to paycheck. Most farmers who can’t pay their loans will have to file for bankruptcy.

Tournament is a system contractors use to pay farmers by making them compete to produce the largest amount of chickens at the lowest expense for the company.  Most chicken farmers don’t even know how much their next paycheck will be. In this system, the only ones making money are the companies at the expense of the farmers. Not to mention if the farmers receive a bad batch of chickens from the companies’ incubated chicken eggs, any setbacks are never taken into account. This only sets the farmer further back down the line for little to no incentives for a bad flock.

Image sourced from Under Contract Viewer's Guide

Image sourced from Under Contract Viewer's Guide

Under Contract then touches on how the system is so rigged, that the federal government won’t even stand up to these millionaire companies. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) is the only administration that can policy these poultry companies. For the past 6 years the poultry industry has lobbied millions of dollars to congress to put a stop to any efforts this agency has made to enforce regulations protecting farmers.

Not only is this happening in the US but we are now seeing this industrialized and integrated chicken farm contract system being implemented in other parts of the world. In India, farmers are starting to realize that this system only takes advantage of them and fills the pockets of the large companies.

Under Contract  exposes the dangers of these contract systems and how worldwide, the role of the farmer is changing. The biggest disappointment in all of this is the government because now it has become a political issue. For politicians, it’s not about equal farmer’s rights and healthy food for the best interest of the public; it’s now about how much money will you funnel into their political campaign?

I believe this is a great informational and eye-opening documentary because once consumers and farmers voice their concerns and opinions together against this unfair and unjust contract system, we can truly demand change for the way our food is produced. With so much unknown after Trump’s election, it’s our responsibility to demand an honest and transparent food system by voting with our forks and using our voices.  These companies need to be held accountable for their lies and deceits they continue to lay on farmers just trying to get by.

Image from Under Contract

Image from Under Contract