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Chicken is now America's most popular meat. The industry has been getting a lot of scrutiny about how the chickens are treated and how many antibiotics are used, but this morning we're going to look at the business of raising chickens, something called contract farming. Critics say it leaves farmers powerless and in debt. The companies say it's a fair deal that delivers affordable food to consumers.

NPR's Dan Charles went to North Carolina to see how contract farming works.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Practically all the chickens that we eat grew up in a house like this one on the border between North and South Carolina. It's 500 feet long, dimly lit. I can barely see the far end. There are 30,000 little chicks scuffling around on the floor.

CRAIG WATTS: These are 12 days old.

CHARLES: Craig Watts is raising these birds for the company Perdue Farms. Perdue owns the chickens. It also supplies the feed. Watts is being paid to fatten them up. About a month from now, a Perdue truck will carry them away when they're up to market weight.

WATTS: Four pounds, four and a quarter, something like that.

CHARLES: Then, Watts will clean out this barn and wait for Perdue to deliver another flock. How much he gets paid gets a little complicated. It depends on what's called a tournament. Critics say it's more like a lottery. Here's how it works. The companies set an average price that they will pay all their farmers, in this case five cents per pound of chicken.

But some farmers will get more than that, others less, depending on how their flocks performed, how much weight they gained, compared to how much feed they ate. Watts has to wait for Perdue to tell him how his birds did.

WATTS: It's like that test you took in school. You kind of want to know what you made, but you really don't. It's kind of that feeling.

CHARLES: The farmers are ranked based on their performance like teams in a basketball league. And a farmer at the top of the rankings can get paid up to 50 percent more per pound of chicken delivered than the one at the bottom.

WATTS: The pie doesn't change. It's who gets the bigger slice or the smaller slice.

CHARLES: This is contract farming. It's a foundation of the chicken industry, and Tom Vukina, an economist at North Carolina State University who's studied it, says that from an economic point of view, it's beautiful.

TOM VUKINA: It is really brilliant.

CHARLES: Vukina says contract farming solves problems like how do you make sure workers do a good job even when you can't watch what they do. How do you convince independent contractors to invest in new and better equipment? These are problems that economists have tried to solve with complex theories.

VUKINA: This thing has phenomenal theoretically correct design features that they came up with knowing absolutely nothing about contract theory. It's actually remarkable. It's totally mind-boggling.

CHARLES: The result is efficient production, Vukina says, and society as a whole is better off. But some people involved in contract farming say not everybody benefits. Benny Bunting used to raise chickens. Now he works for an organization devoted to farmers' rights called the Rural Advancement Foundation International.

BENNY BUNTING: It's at the expense of the farmer, because the farmer's not the one making money. The company is making money.

CHARLES: We're sitting in Bunting's home in the small town of Oak City, North Carolina. Across from us is a wall of shelves filled with thick binders. Each binder is labeled with the name of a farm family that ended up deeply in debt.

BUNTING: That's every one of them is a person's life, you know. And the thing about my job is, most times, I meet people at the lowest time of their life, you know, when they're in financial problems. That's what this represents.

CHARLES: Many of those farmers raised chickens. Bunting says they discovered too late that raising chickens is a raw deal. Let me show you why, he says. He pulls out a brochure that the poultry company, Sanderson Farms, passed out while recruiting new farmers a few years ago. The cover shows some brand-new chicken houses.

BUNTING: This is really neat. I mean they're showing really neat houses. That's professional.

CHARLES: Turn the page and you see how much you can earn in one year with four big chicken houses.

BUNTING: $222,856.

CHARLES: If you're a farmer, Bunting says, here's what you're thinking.

BUNTING: I'm going to make that, but I'm going to get a bonus on top of that. Because I'm going to be the top grower. I'm getting a million dollar chance here and I can really do well. And that's the perception. Everyone thinks they're going to be, you know, in the top percentile.

CHARLES: The brochure does lay out some costs. The big one is you have to borrow a million dollars to build the chicken houses. But even after payments on those loans, the brochure shows the farmer clearing 60 grand year in profits.

BUNTING: That looks really good.

CHARLES: Then you get into the business, Bunting says, and you discover there are expenses the brochure didn't really mention - repairs, equipment, labor. They can eat up your profit. And remember that tournament payment system? This not Lake Woebegone. Half of the farmers will be below average. They'll earn less than the numbers in that brochure, maybe a lot less.

BUNTING: The way this system will pay is, I mean we just went over it. Half of them are going to be in that category where they can't service that debt.

CHARLES: Craig Watts, the farmer in North Carolina, says the really unfair thing about this is whether you end up at the top or the bottom is really out of your control. It depends on what birds the company sends you.

WATTS: I've been a good grower, I've been a bad grower, and I've been every point in-between grower, and I'm the same guy doing the same thing. I'm the only thing constant on that farm.

CHARLES: But once you've borrowed all that money, he says, you're stuck, because the loans are secured by the land on your farm, or your home.

WATTS: We have ties to the land, and they exploit that also, 'cause, you know, we're going to do whatever it takes not to lose our farm.

CHARLES: There's one more aspect of the system beyond the simple arithmetic of income and expenses that makes many farmers angry. It's the feeling that this is not a deal between equals. Here's Benny Bunting, the farmer rights activist.

BUNTING: We've got to bite our tongue and do what they say, or you know, face the consequences of being bankrupt.

CHARLES: The chicken companies, for their part, say the contracts they offer farmers are, in fact, fair. William Roenigk, a senior vice president at the Chicken Council, an industry group, says the fact is, contract farming has been around for 50 years now. Farmers know how it works and new farmers still want to sign up.

WILLIAM ROENIGK: If this was not a good overall contractual relationship, why would farmers who are not in the chicken business want to get into the chicken business?

CHARLES: Charles Postles has raised chickens for 30 years in Milford, Delaware. He says it has been a good business and he has no problem with the tournament payment system.

CHARLES POSTLES: It encourages producers to be efficient and to be vigilant in their management. I think that's a fair system.

CHARLES: It's really hard to know how many contract farmers agree with Postles. In one survey of poultry farmers in Delaware, three-quarters of those who responded were satisfied with their arrangement. But more than half also said companies will retaliate if we raise concerns. And many farmers didn't respond to the survey.

Complaints have been common enough that several years ago the Obama administration proposed new rules to address them. The rules were supposed to give contract farmers more predictable minimum pay and a better chance of getting compensation if a company treated them unfairly. The chicken industry lobbied hard against those rules and succeeded in blocking most of them from going into effect.

In fact, contract farming is still expanding. It's now the way that most pork is produced too. Dan Charles, NPR News.

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