Why chicken farmers feel henpecked

Carole Morison sometimes feels that she's treated like one of the 700,000 chickens she raises each year for Perdue Farms Inc.

The poultry processing industry calibrates the income for Ms. Morison and other contract farmers as rigorously as it regulates a chicken's breeding, feeding, and supermarket arrival time.

Morison's yield from her farm in Pocomoke City, Md. is usually no more than, well, chicken feed. In a good year, poultry farmers, most of whom operate on contract with a poultry processor, pocket a 3 percent return. On average, their annual profits total $12,000, according to a 1995 Louisiana Tech survey.

Straining under a big mortgage, Morison and her husband - a former flock supervisor for Perdue - have found jobs in town. "We've taken full-time jobs off the farm so that we can raise chickens for Perdue," says Morison, shaking her head.

The commercial poultry industry exemplifies the hard-driving efficiency of US agriculture. It churns out one of the highest-value meats ever to be mass produced.

But the nation's huge poultry processors maintain a tight grip on contract farmers. The corporations provide farmers with chicks, feed, and medicine. The farmers provide everything else: water, land, chicken houses, electricity, equipment, and labor.

The National Contract Poultry Growers Association estimates that farmers pony up half of the industry's investment capital. They also assume most of the risk: If alive, a chicken belongs to the processor; if dead, the farmer.

And the farmer has little if no say over pay. The processor tallies the total yield in pounds from a farm and sets the price it pays per pound. A region's dominant chicken processors keep farmers in line by avoiding those who raise chickens for a rival company, farmers say.

The industry "has farmers strapped financially," says Morison. Company managers, she adds, "hold the contract over a farmer's head and say, 'You do as you're told, keep your mouth shut, be a good little farmer and get the job done.' "

The industry denies it unfairly treats farmers. The farmers voluntarily sign their contracts and may bring grievances before the processors according to set procedures. "It's like any other business," says David Wylie, an attorney for the National Broiler Council: "a contract [poultry] grower has the option to grow chickens or not grow chickens."

A foul market for chickens in the past several months has especially hurt farms. High corn prices and a glut of chickens hurt industry returns in 1996 and 1997. This year, corn is cheaper. But a slump in demand from overseas buyers like Russia, the No. 1 importer of US chicken, has crimped profits.

The US Department of Agriculture says average chicken prices this quarter could fall 13 percent from the third quarter of this year.

Chicken farmers feel the pinch. On the Delmarva Peninsula, their numbers have fallen 7 percent in the past two years to less than 2,600. This is "a trend that is alarming" and unprecedented, said Jim Perdue, chairman of the family poultry company, at a recent address at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

Most chicken farmers are dissatisfied with their income and fear retaliation if they question the pay and production numbers set by management, according to a recent survey. "You don't have to scratch very far to find" resentment, says Thomas Ilvento, a University of Delaware associate professor who ran the survey.

Farmers are trying to find a toehold against management. Proposed legislation would protect their right to form cooperatives. Also, the US Department of Agriculture has agreed to expand its oversight of the industry.

But even with tough laws and enforcement, the poultry industry would still rule the roost in many rural areas.

The industry "has tremendous economic power," says Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Public Justice Center in Baltimore, Md. "So it has tremendous influence over contract farmers, lawmakers, workers, environmental issues - virtually everything it touches."

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