When asked what she thought could be done to remedy the economic crisis many poultry farmers now face, Sylvia Tomlinson had few suggestions beyond dissuading future farmers from entering the field. “I don’t know… I would love for them to find Jesus,” she said with little hope in her voice. Amid much applause, a farmer in the crowd retorted, “Jesus’ll have to find them!”
The farmers and families who make up the North Carolina Contract Poultry Growers Association are good people. They feed you as soon as you walk into one of their meetings, they shake your hand as sincerely as one would an old friend, and, for the most part, they speak in a manner that is as much polite and knowledgeable as it is blunt and lacking any presumption. The NC-CPGA meeting held in June was no exception. The Moore County Agricultural Extension building in Carthage hosted an ample selection of poultry farmers who came out because they wanted to hear a woman speak–Tomlinson, author of a recent expose on the contract poultry business, Plucked and Burned (RedBud Publishing, 2003).
Tomlinson and her husband farmed and ranched for years, but never became involved with the contract poultry business. Yet many of their neighbors and friends were not so fortunate, and Tomlinson saw people close to her suffer a multitude of hardships. Her new work, though fiction, is based on their stories, and has been heralded by contract poultry growers across the nation.
A grower who wishes to remain anonymous has said of it, “If you don’t grow chickens, it’s a great story; if you do grow chickens, it’s your story.” And so it seems. A poultry farmer in attendance, well past retirement age, commented that Tomlinson’s book had struck a chord with him–a sentiment echoed throughout the group. His life-long experience with contract poultry farming, beginning in his early childhood, had left him past 65 and financially unable to stop farming: “I seen [the] landlord come to my daddy… and we wouldn’t have nothing left.”
So what, exactly, is it that these companies do? According to Tomlinson and the harrowing details of her novel, they will stop at nothing to increase their profits. Perhaps this is none too surprising as far as the ethics of big business go; however, Tomlinson maintains that the occurrence of such things as the deprivation of retirement possibilities for the elderly, malicious destruction of chicken houses, people losing their homes, their savings and their lives are commonplace within the poultry business world. She asserts that the real evil of the poultry game is that it is founded primarily on a lie.
Companies advertise fast, easy money–big returns for only a minimal investment from the growers. In reality, Tomlinson states (and this is courtesy of a professor of economics at Auburn) that the growers put up more than 50 percent of the cost of poultry farming, only to collect 1-2 percent of the end profit. The company, however, receives between 25-30 percent. One of the farmers at this summer’s meeting wondered how he could let the public know that while consumers are paying between $5 and $8 for one package of chicken breasts, he is “lucky to get 30 cents on a whole chicken.”
Tomlinson’s mission now is simply to get the word out about Plucked and Burned and, by doing so, alert the public of the position of contract poultry growers in the U.S. –one she has likened in previous speaking engagements to that of indentured servants. Tomlinson encourages growers to become involved with their local associations, such as the NC-CPGA, to educate possible future growers about the abuses received at the hands of big business poultry, and to let the public know more about what they are buying and how it affects farmers and their families.
When heading north out of the town of Carthage, a sign as wide and as tall as the side of an 18-wheeler warns you: “And He hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth…, Acts 17:26”–an appropriate expression of unity for a situation such as this. With an ever-dwindling population of farmers in this country, it is important to remember that how those men and women are treated affects all of us, especially in a state in which poultry is the second largest commodity behind swine (North Carolina has approximately 4,000 chicken farms). Vegetarians and meat-eaters may disagree as to whether a chicken should have to die for a human being, but it is likely we would all agree that no human should have to die for cheaper chickens or bigger profits.