By Jacqui Fatka
Former contract poultry farmer Craig Watts made headlines when he teamed up with Compassion in World Farming USA to expose issues he faced, from receiving sick chicks to animal welfare conditions to carrying the full financial burden of maintaining and upgrading facilities. In 2016, his contract was terminated by the poultry company he had served long term, and today’s he’s trying to ensure that farmers have government protection against retaliation from companies.
“As American farmers, we deserve better than this,” Watts said during a press conference calling for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finalize its Farmer Fair Practices Rule, also known as the GIPSA rule. “The government is the last resort, but farmers need basic protections from being retaliated against.”
He said this is why the rules are so important. All of the inputs companies provide are not equal to its growers. “These rules protect against this,” Watts said. “Farmers need a fighting chance.”
Watts said the Packers & Stockyards Act was passed in 1921, and it just needs to be enforced. He and others called on USDA to do its job and ensure that farmers’ basic rights are protected to change the trend in the poultry industry and give farmers freedom again.
The GIPSA rule was created under the Obama Administration as a clarification of the Packers & Stockyards Act required under the 2008 farm bill. It was withdrawn by the Trump Administration in 2017, but USDA announced that it would re-examine the rule this summer.
“Corporate bullying, intimidation and a mafia-like mentality have taken control of the chicken industry,” said Anthony Grigsby, an Alabama law enforcement officer turned poultry grower and his wife Christy, whose family has raised chickens for three generations. “In 2019, as a result of retaliation for speaking out, we had to file for bankruptcy. Like many other farmers, we’ve lost everything: our farm, our family home and the house where we planned to spend our retirement.”
In a pre-conference meeting with USDA, farmers and advocates doubled down on the need for strong safeguards for farmers, animals and consumers. “Government has failed to do its job,” said Joe Maxwell, president of the Organization for Competitive Markets.
According to Amanda Hitt, whistleblower attorney with the Food Integrity Campaign, the goal of the new coalition Stand With Farm Families is to urge USDA to resurrect and add specific protections to its Farmer Fair Practices Rule. The coalition is asking to see six protections in USDA’s upcoming rule:
* Stand With Farm Families said the rule must ensure that industry practices do not infringe on farmers’ freedom of speech. Any change in payment based on a farmer-producer’s public statements or failure to make a public statement, especially to government officials, should be clearly defined as undue preference and, therefore, illegal under the Packers & Stockyards Act.
* Producer pay should be based solely on issues within the producer’s control, and differences in payment between producers based on issues outside of the producer’s control is defined as undue preference. This specifically includes performance resulting from inputs supplied by the integrator, the coalition said.
* Packers and poultry processors have been allowed to develop “common practices” that should be considered violations of the undue preference provision of the Packers & Stockyards Act. The rule MUST NOT simply accept as lawful these current common practices of the packing and processing industry, Stand With Farm Families emphasized. Even “common practices” must be evaluated for potentially creating undue preference.
* The criteria established by the rule must be detailed and specific enough to ensure that a finding of a violation will be made under factual scenarios.
* Because of the different types of vertical integration across poultry, hog and cattle sectors, one set of criteria will not adequately address undue preferences in all livestock sectors. Therefore, criteria will be needed that address production relationships where the processor owns the animals during the production phase, with separate criteria that address livestock sectors where producers own the livestock prior to slaughter.
* Finally, regulations must establish different sets of criteria for analyzing different aspects of the dealings between packers/processors and livestock producers/farmers, which may lead to undue preferences.
According to USDA, a draft rule will be released sometime this summer, followed by a 60-day public comment period.