An organization headed in part by a Pendleton County farmer has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for rolling back rules that would have given contract farmers more legal muscle against the meat companies they work for.
It’s not the first time Mike Weaver, who raises chickens under contract for poultry giant Pilgrim’s Pride on his farm near Fort Seybert, has called out issues in the contract farming business. He said speaking out has proven costly.
“It’s definitely affected my income,” said Weaver, who also serves as president of the agriculture advocacy group Organization for Competitive Markets. “I was the highest-ranked grower many times a year, but then a switch flipped and I was at the bottom.”
Contract poultry farming is a system that has been in place for decades. A farmer signs under contract with a company to raise a specific type of chicken. The company provides the feed and the chickens, while the farmer provides the housing and labor. When the chickens are ready, they are transported to a company plant for processing.
A contract farmer’s pay is based on a term system, Weaver said, meaning growers compete with each other to get as much chicken processed as possible. This also means contract farmers need the necessary legal protection to make sure the company doesn’t burn them if they speak out or complain, according to Weaver.
That’s why the Organization for Competitive Markets sued the USDA and Secretary Sonny Perdue in the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis for withdrawing the “Farmer Fair Practices Rule.”
The rule was passed late in the Obama administration and never took effect. If it did, it would lower the bar for farmers to sue the meat companies they are under contract with.
Currently, without the rule, a farmer has to show the entire industry was harmed by a company’s wrongdoing for a lawsuit to hold up in court. The rule, if implemented, would allow a farmer to show he or she alone was affected.
“It’s an essential rule, because it would’ve implemented a fair playing field,” Weaver said. “Now, to bring legal action against a company, I have to prove it damaged every other poultry grower in the nation. All 40,000 have to be damaged by whatever [the company] did to me.”
Meat companies and groups backing them maintain that a lower bar for legal action would prove costly for the industry, hurting consumers in the process.
Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said the rule would cost companies more than $1 billion, in addition to “hundreds of millions in legal costs,” and that then-President Barack Obama’s administration passed the rule in the midnight hour, before he left office.
Super said the “vast majority” of contract farmers are happy with their relationship with their respective poultry companies.
“It’s enabled small family farmers to expand their operations when, otherwise, they would have to get out of agriculture altogether,” Super said. “There are thousands of people on waiting lists to get on a chicken-farming contract.”
But for Weaver, it’s high time for a change in the current contract farming system. Farmers need more say in their contracts, and base pay needs to catch up with current industry costs to raise chickens, he said.
Another Pendleton County farmer, Eric Hedrick, has also worked as a contract chicken farmer for Pilgrim’s Pride. He echoed Weaver’s complaints as part of the documentary “Under Contract.”
“I think the biggest thing that has let us down is the government,” he said in the documentary. “Because once you get to that level, it’s politicized. … It has nothing to do with what’s right or what’s wrong for the growers.”
Pilgrim’s Pride, which has a poultry plant in Moorefield, did not respond to a request for comment. Weaver estimated the company has contracts with about 220 chicken growers in the state.
Under the direction of Secretary Kent Leonhardt, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture has shifted to a more private sector-oriented approach to farming in the state. In an interview, Leonhardt declined to take a position on the lawsuit but said it came as the result of higher consumer expectations.
“Consumers are demanding cheap, affordable, abundant food,” he said. “It’s pitting the producer against the processing side. It’s a shame we have that in this country.”
Leonhardt said giving contract farmers more legal strength “sounds good on the surface,” but he added that he isn’t knowledgeable enough on the lawsuit to give a precise answer one way or the other.
A contract farmer speaking out against his or her company can lead to retaliation, said Leslie Randall of Green Gate Farm in Shepherdstown.
“I don’t know any [contract farmers] in this area, and even if I did know, I don’t know if they’d be allowed to talk,” she said.
Green Gate Farm isn’t under contract with any meat company. Randall’s farm instead relies on a Community-Supported Agriculture program, along with farmers markets and a few wholesale deals, to keep afloat. Those interested invest in the farm and receive a weekly share of vegetables.
CSAs and farmers markets are more popular ways of doing business for Jefferson County farmers than working under a contract, according to Randall. She said young farmers are more aware of downsides that could come with contract farming than their predecessors.
“It doesn’t usually work out in the farmer’s favor,” she said of the contract system.
Randall said it doesn’t make sense for the USDA to roll back the Farmer Fair Practices Rule, adding that farmers need more say in their dealings with meat companies.
Leonhardt’s decision to sit on the fence is disappointing to Randall.
“Why wouldn’t you want to support farmers having more rights and being able to stand up for themselves, which this rule would have done?” she said.
Weaver said he thinks Leonhardt wants to stick to West Virginia-specific issues, letting national issues play out as they may.
“I think [Leonhardt’s] heart is in the right place, but he’s busy enough handling things going on in West Virginia,” Weaver said.
The Democracy Forward Foundation, which is representing the Organization for Competitive Markets in the case, expects a hearing in the spring.