Some Poultry Farmers Say Companies Play Hardball
Posted March 7, 2001 6:00 a.m. EST
RALEIGH — Raising poultry in North Carolina is big business, but some farmers say they are being plucked by the hand that feeds them.
The poultry industry is enjoying good times these days, having the highest consumption of all the major meats. It is the biggest farm business in the state, enjoying cash receipts of nearly $1.5 billion dollars each year.
Most poultry growers have signed contracts with large companies, which some say keeps them isolated, vulnerable and in debt.
Many growers say they like the job, but not the way the contracts are written and handled.
"What we have now is a once-sided contract," one farmer said under the condition of anonymity. "If you don't like the contract and you want to change something in the contract, you may as well forget it, becuase it is not going to happen."
Farmers invest about $130,000 per chicken house, and they plan to pay it off in about 15 years. Growers say they can seldom pay off the investment because the companies demand that they spend more money to upgrade their houses for birds that may not come.
State Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps is looking for ways to bring the two sides together and find answers outside of governmental intervention.
"They are under extreme pressures that other businesses don't face," Phipps said. "When they have a six-week flock and they get a loan for $100,000 on such a short-term contract, I don't know what other business sector of our economy would do such a thing."
There are bills being proposed on the state and federal level to help contract growers. Phipps says that she wants general contract protections, like those that regular business owners have, but are not provided to contract growers.
As the industry operates now, some growers regret the day they started.
"If you've got money to invest, invest it some somewhere other than being a poultry grower," the anonymous farmer said.
Two poultry companies contacted for this story never returned WRAL's phone calls.