Chicken fat is big business. And not only for large-scale poultry processors such as Pilgrim's Pride, ConAgra and Tyson's Foods. Texas Governor George W. Bush's largest-single campaign contributer in 1992 was poultry magnate Bo Pilgrim, who served as Bush's finance chairman and stuffed more than $50,000 into Bush's campaign fund.

But while Pilgrim and Bush are feasting on fowl, contract poultry growers--the farmers who actually raise the chickens for the large processing companies--complain that they have been victims of unfair labor practices and price fixing in a market controlled by 40 companies nationwide. Stacks of sworn testimony from poultry growers around the country were submitted as testimony during the debate on the 1995 Farm Bill. And at least three poultry growers who were under financial strains have committed suicide recently.

Contract poultry growers say they are held in virtual bondage to the poultry companies after being suckered in with big talk and false promises of the money that can be made as a grower. But they soon learn that contract growing means the contract protects the poultry integrator, such as Pilgrim's, while the grower is left with virtually no protection at all.

The poultry growers were asking Congress for an outlet to complain about unfair trade practices, similar to the Stockyards and Packers bureau in place for cattle and hog producers.

A Texas Department of Agriculture study commissioned under then-commissioner Jim Hightower and released in 1991 showed that Pilgrim's Pride was one of the poorest paying in terms of contracts for chick grow-out among Texas integrators. The study showed that growers for Pilgrim averaged less than $600 per house, while those contracted with Tyson's Foods could expect to earn about $4,800 per house.

Poultry integrators, such as Pilgrim's, operate under a "vertical integration" system. The integrator provides the chicks, feed and drugs to the grower, but the grower must supply houses that meet the company's specifications. The grower is then paid on the basis of the weight of the birds at time of pick up. However, the grower is given only short contracts, usually somewhere in the neighborhood of seven weeks, or the time it takes to grow a flock. If, at the end of the contract period, the grower falls into disfavor, the company may decide not to place anymore chickens with the grower and there is virtually nothing the grower can do.

Growers complained to Congress that they are in a "Catch 22"--if they complain about contracts they face retaliation and fear the loss of their family farms.

Lyndon Fenton, an Arkansas-based grower for Pilgrim's Pride, testified that when he was attempting to sell his chicken houses, Pilgrim's scuttled the sale by refusing to contract with Fenton or his prospective buyers. "It's been almost three years since this nightmare started," Fenton wrote in his testimony. "I am being foreclosed on because I was not able to keep up my payments on the chicken houses without any chickens in them and unable to pay them off because of Pilgrim's refusal to let me sell them."

Larry and Wanda Coleman, Pilgrim's growers based in Mount Vernon, Texas, said in a sworn statement that their trouble with Pilgrim's began after they questioned a weight receipt which had been written in pencil rather than stamped by the scale. After confronting the supervisor about the low weight and the hand-written receipt, the Coleman's say they started receiving sick birds from Pilgrim's, and that Pilgrim's eventually cut them off altogether. An investigator with the Packers and Stockyard bureau told them that if they received 15 flocks of sick chickens in a row, the company was doing it on purpose, the Coleman's wrote. Their only recourse at that point was to file a lawsuit.

During this time, the Coleman's had joined the National Contract Poultry Grower's Association, a union for poultry growers. They said they were hassled by supervisors and that bird weights were tampered with on at least four occasions. The Colemans said that even though they complained to Packers & Stockyard, it took a year for their complaint to be investigated--long enough for the company to straighten its act up.

"We have absolutely no say in anything concerning the chickens," the Coleman's wrote in their testimony. "Since we started growing chickens in 1984, our debt has gone from $134,000 to $230,000, and we haven't had a solid contract. The company can do anything they want and if we don't go along, we will be shut off ... their tactics are comparable to the mafia. It's either do as they say, or else."

While contract growers are struggling just to keep their farms out of foreclosure, poultry companies are reaping record profits. Tony DeShazo, a contract grower for Pilgrim's Pride's DeQueen, Arkansas, plant, told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette last year that if something isn't done soon about contract pricing, the growers will go under. DeShazo said he was paid 4.2 cents per pound for his broiler chickens, less than 20 cents per bird.

Cliff Butler, Pilgrim Pride's chief financial officer, insisted in the article that contract growers are also sharing in the poultry industry's prosperity. By the third quarter of 1994, Pilgrim's Pride net income rose 209 percent for the year, the article stated. By contrast, the company offered the contract grower only a 0.1-cent raise in pay.

"We have no say in the pay we get, none whatsoever," DeShazo said in the article. "They bring you the contract and you sign it or they have nothing to do with you. We want to be able to negotiate our own contract." But thus far, poultry companies reportedly have been unwilling to negotiate contracts, insisting that the contract poultry growing business is low risk since the integrator provides the chicks, feed and drugs.

But tell that to the many farmers in the southeast who are daily losing their farms, homes, and in some cases, even their lives because of the hold the integrator has on them.

Since September, growers in Maryland, Alabama and North Carolina have committed suicide and one in Kentucky has attempted it. Mary Clouse, editor of the Poultry Grower News said they chose such a desparate move when they could see no light at the end of their tunnels. "These folks live with hopelessness, low pay, servitude and huge debt," Clouse said. "The company holds all the cards."

One processor, WLRFoods, has become so alarmed at the apparent trend that it has set up a counseling program for its growers in North Carolina, where disease has cut turkey flocks by as much as two-thirds and threatened farms, said John Morrison, National Contract Poultry Growers Association executive director.

Last summer the poultry industry recognized that there was an overproduction of birds, leading ConAgra, the nation's second largest poultry producer, to be the first to attempt to reduce the number of birds. According to Morrison, ConAgra attempted to reduce the number of birds by reducing the number of farms. "ConAgra had a meeting and asked each of their servicemen to select 10 of their oldest farms for termination," Morrison said. "A couple of the servicemen quit.

Growers found out and went to everyone in the state of Alabama whose attention they could get--the legislature, commissioner of agriculture. They brought public pressure down on ConAgra, who then denied that the meeting ever took place. But tape recordings were available to document that it did, indeed, happen."

But ConAgra would soon receive another huge break--Hurricane Opal. The hurricane caused extensive damage to many poultry houses, requiring substantial repairs. "ConAgra seized on the opportunity to create fewer growers by coming out with new housing specifications, a Class-A type house, which for most producers, would have cost about $50,000 per house to bring them up to spec," Morrison said. "It was just a ruse to get rid of the old farms. But it backfired. It brought down the ire of the bankers. It removed the collateral the bankers had on the farm loans. What equity the farmers had just evaporated."

With public pressure and the ire of the banks on ConAgra, the company had to do something to put the burden back on the grower. ConAgra stumbled on a plan to revise their grow-out contract, a contract which would incorporate arbitration. Arbitration had proved to be detrimental to the small farmer in the past, partly because the cost of arbitration is placed on the farmer.

The farmers recognized the pitfalls of the proposed agreement and initially refused to sign the new contract. "But ConAgra began to intimidate the farmers, giving them a deadline to sign," Morrison said. "They created a new mandate that if you didn't have new contract signed by Jan 15, the contract would be terminated and placed on the waiting list and if ConAgra ever needed new growers, they'd look at waiting list."

Out of 170 growers ConAgra was trying to foist this new agreement on, about 40-50 refused to sign, Morrison said, "Because they would be giving up their constitutional right to have disputes settled by a jury of their peers." Many of the farmers protested at the local courthouse steps, carrying American flags.

ConAgra is no stranger to controversy or lawsuits. In 1991, ConAgra was sued for cheating their growers out of weigh-out pay by using false weights. ConAgra lost and was forced to pay its growers some $17 million.

"This was fresh on the growers mind," Morrison said. "The law must be changed because to these giant corporations $10, $15, $20 million dollars here and there is just a cost of doing business. It's miniscule in terms of their overall earnings.

ConAgra is currently defending themselves in another class-action suit in Georgia, accused once again of cheating farmers by using false weights.

"If these large companies are willing to cheat their own growers like they do," Morrison said, "then I wonder what they are doing to the consumer?"

Meanwhile, the Farm Bill has proceeded, absent provision for enforcement of poultry producers' complaints.

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