By Mike Weaver Published April 27, 2017
I am a chicken farmer in West Virginia. I’ve been a farmer all my life and have raised chickens for almost 15 years under contract. I am writing this open letter to you because farmers and ranchers need your help badly.
I voted for you and supported your campaign. I know several of my friends and neighboring farmers did the same. In your campaign you said you would work to support hard working, independent American businesses, and that you would listen to what rural Americans really need. This week, you expressed support for American dairy farmers and criticized Canadian trade practices that hurt them—poultry farmers need the same focus, and swift action.
Right now, we need your help. Earlier this month, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) dealt a crippling blow to small American farmers by delaying the implementation of its “Farmer Fair Practice Rules” by 180 days. These rules, if implemented on schedule, would have helped independent farmers like me and my friends challenge the abusive and unfair contracts imposed by industrial poultry companies.
As farmers, with families who depend on us, we are dismayed by the move and we’re calling on President Trump to make good on his campaign pledge—to drain the swamp of Big meat lobbyists who continue to cut bad deals that hurt rural economies and families.
In our industry, multi-national corporations are routinely taking advantage of hard working American farmers. Companies use unfair pay systems like tournament payment, which works like a rigged lottery, forcing farmers to ruthlessly compete against each other for part of a fixed pool of money. Under this system farmers have to pay for the company’s mistakes, such as providing low-quality feed or chicks. Corporations also force farmers to make expensive upgrades when they’re already hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, by threatening to take away their contract if they don’t comply.
Corporate lawyers argue that farmers should not even be able to defend themselves in court. In other industries, if someone fraudulently causes you tens of thousands of dollars in damages, you can take them to court and get a fair trial. But in our industry, we would not only have to prove that they harmed our business, but we have to prove that what they did to us impacted competition in the entire industry and every other poultry grower nationwide. In other words it sets an impossible burden of proof, which means we can’t hold companies accountable for abusing independent farmers.
As far back as 1984 and before, farmers and ranchers have been meeting with USDA and Congress seeking fair treatment by the poultry integrators and meat packers, grain buyers and dairy coops to no avail. Due to the unbridled influence of Big Ag on Capitol Hill and USDA for the past 30+ years, all of the issues those farmers back then were working to change remain the same today. The system is very unfairly weighted in favor of the giant multi-national corporations that control agriculture in this country and the world.
In 2010 we had great hopes as USDA and Department of Justice (DOJ) had organized what they called “workshops” around the country on beef, grain, poultry, and most agriculture production. The last one was held in Washington D.C. being on competition in agriculture and the farmer share of the food dollar. Emphasis was placed on contract production and vertical integration of the various agricultural sectors as well as the farmer share of the food dollar.
In part as a result of those meetings, and following an unprecedented outpouring of over 60,000 comments that USDA received on the original rules, the new Farmer Fair Practice Rules were put out by the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) at the end of 2016. They were intended to “level the playing field” for farmers and essentially force the companies to treat farmers and ranchers as the true partners in agricultural production that they indeed are or at least should be.
As farmers we aren’t looking to be made millionaires or force companies into unreasonable obligations, we are just looking for honesty and fair treatment. But after all the work that has been done, and all the farmers who have spoken out for over 15 years, nothing has changed. Mr. President, farmers need the same attention and focus you’ve shown to coal miners and factory workers.
We are asking you to take this opportunity to listen to American farmers and not just the Big Ag lobbyists. USDA needs to implement the Farmer Fair Practice Rules, which are common sense regulations and protections all Americans want when dealing with multi-national corporations. Farmers and ranchers need and deserve these protections under the law because the companies have demonstrated that they will continue their abuse until you take a stand.
If you care about your food being produced by an American family farmer, a farmer who cares about what he produces and has a true affinity for the land and animals and crops he raises, then you have a responsibility to do the right thing and implement the Farmer Fair Practice Rules.
Mike Weaver is a farmer and President of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias, which represents broiler, pullet, egg producers and turkey growers in West Virginia and Virginia.