Last week I hopped on the Trailways bus from Rosendale, NY to attend the NYC premier of a disturbing new film about large scale chicken farming at Anthology Film Archives. Before the film, I met co-directors Marcello Cappellazi and Sally Lee, the young forces of light that directed "Under Contract: Farmers and The Fine Print". I was also introduced to Mike Weaver from West Virginia who is President of the Contract Poultry Growers Association. He is also a contract chicken farmer for Pligrim's Pride which is one of the largest chicken producers in the United States.
Other farmers, including Paul Brown from Lena, Mississippi, were in attendance at the black box theater located in the East Village. They traveled to the Big Apple to inform the public of just what is going on in the world of chicken production. The film revolves around eight or so chicken farmers who believe they were, self admittedly, duped into signing draconian contracts to grow chickens for vertically integrated companies. The film's premise is that these farmers have been virtually enslaved by debt that has left them, literally, living in poverty while producing tons of meat shipped off to others.
Even before the film screened, one could sense upon meeting the filmmakers and the subjects of the film that this was not just a movie premiere for them, this was their life. They were there to expose what they considered a most shameful situation in our supermarket midst. Their objective, to try to change laws so future farmers get a fair shake from conglomerates. Large companies like Tyson, Perdue and Pilgrim's Pride control the majority of chicken farming, processing and marketing. The stories of the farmers raising the chickens are heartbreaking, some driven to suicide and forced into bankruptcy, while almost $30 Billion is generated by the industry.
Picture Courtesy RAFI-USA
Scott Marlo, Executive Director of Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), the producer of the film, delivered a passionate opening talk. He noted that "the film was not just about chickens, but a structure of agriculture that is terribly exploitative to humans and animals." Marlo explained how RAFI-USA sprang from the National Sharecroppers Fund in the 1930s and advocates today for farmers both large and small, some with 2 acres, some with 2 thousand acres. Most shocking to hear was his emphasis on the "risk these farmers were taking for speaking out and how courageous they were to face retaliation."
Isn't it mind blowing to discover that we still live in a society where corporations are allowed to run rough shod over human rights? Do we care that the large powerful companies can deceive, lie and manipulate markets so that no matter the human or environmental costs they can still make a huge profit?? Are we really surprised that these kinds of contracts still exist in the world of big agriculture???
Hey, just take a good look at the Fracking Industry as you enjoy the current bounteous era of American oil production. Delve a bit into the nuances and learn about the deceptive practices and contracts that lured naïve landowners to sign on the dotted line. Or, perhaps, take a good hard look at the millions of minimum wage earners keeping the fast food industry humming along as the conglomerates that own them, including your soon to be spanking new Secretary of Labor, lobby against affordable health care, refusing to pay these hard workers a living wage.
Fortunately, contract chicken farmers have made some progress soliciting help from the Federal Government. Most unfortunately, further progress is questionable given the new administration now ensconced in Washington, D.C.
Bloomberg reported in an excellent article "Trump Must Choose Between Farmers and Big Meat" that: "Among the final actions of the Obama administration were new rules making it easier for chicken farmers—who exist inside a commercial vise constructed by agribusiness—to sue the companies for anti-competitive behavior. The big meat lobbying firms oppose any new rules, and now that the Trump administration has frozen all regulations, it’s unclear if those protections will ever take effect."
Picture of Marcello Cappellazzi and Sally Lee, co-directors of : "Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print." They co-wrote the film with Jean Willoughby.
Personally, next time I bite into a piece of fried chicken or devour a chicken tarragon wrap from Trader Joe's, it will be hard not to think about what it took to put something so affordable and tasty on my plate. I thought about this the day after the screening. Before checking out of the Hotel Wellington at 55th and 7th, I ran across the street to get a coffee and BluePrint Organic juice. The clerk was super friendly. I recognized how lucky I was to be there at that moment, how fortunate to live the life that I lead. I gladly tipped the young clerk, thinking, why should coffee servers and counter workers not get tips? Why should so many live in a world without minimum wage? Why should the millions of people who grow and process our food be treated like indentured servants? Who is watching their backs if not the customers they serve???
As I crossed the street back to the Hotel Wellington, I could see Central Park a few blocks north. Well dressed commuters glided by on blue Citibikes. The words of West Virginia contract chicken farmer Eric Hedrick, featured in "Under Contract", haunted me. By the way, Eric is now a former contract chicken farmer for Pligrim's Pride. What he said about challenging the abusive system he was ensnared in, no matter the cost, lingers: