Collective bargaining. Now there’s a term you don’t hear much in North Carolina, with our right-to-work law (or as labor calls it, right-to-work-cheap law). All the more unusual, then, to hear it used in a crowd of farmers at the N.C. State Fairgrounds, in the Gov. James B. Hunt Horse Complex of all places. True, it was a guy from Michigan, but he was talking about how the conservative apple growers there got together to negotiate a minimum price for their crop with the big juice companies and other buyers. “Think about it,” he said. “You need somebody to represent you.”

Tar Heel chicken growers are thinking about it. A week ago, we talked about small farmers who find themselves virtual serfs to the Perdues, Tyson Foods and other big poultry corporations under the one-sided system known as “contract farming” (see “Growing Pains,” Feb. 7). The farmers have hundreds of thousands of dollars sunk into huge, specially equipped barns. But unless the corporations supply them with chicks, those barns are useless. By pushing the farmers to invest in more barns, and bigger barns, and cutting them off if they don’t, the corporations assure that excess production facilities always exist–and they always have the upper hand.

The question was whether the growers would show up at the Fairgrounds for a “public forum” organized by, among others, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and new Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps. Answer: Yes. More than 200 did, anyway, forcing a quick reshuffle out of the meeting room at the horse complex and over to the indoor arena, where a stage was rolled in and set on the dirt. “This is the best turnout we’ve had in a long time,” said David Mayer, head of the Eastern N.C. Contract Poultry Growers Association, “and I think a lot of that is because of this lady sitting right over there”–meaning Phipps.

The immediate subject of the forum was the Producer Protection Act, a model bill drafted last year in Iowa and now looking for backers in state legislatures around the country. The bill, aka “the farmers’ bill of rights,” is designed to strengthen the individual grower’s position against big agribusiness whether the contract is for chickens, apples, hogs or–the newest contract crop–tobacco. When someone asked if there were tobacco farmers in the crowd, by the way, about two dozen hands went up.

Phipps is for the bill and will be pushing its enactment in the General Assembly this term. She said she will listen to “the integrators,” as the ag corporations are known, on the details. “But my hope is to represent the small family farmer. If I can’t do that, then I shouldn’t be the commissioner of agriculture.”

But Tom Butler, the apple guy, told the growers the real test is whether they will stand up to the industry together. Michigan’s apple growers started organizing in 1963, and when the processing companies tried to crack down, “the men stayed and worked the fields, and the women took their children in their strollers and went and picketed the processing plants.” By 1975, the growers had a law that not only protected their right to bargain collectively on price but also gave their association a percentage to support a paid employee–him.

“You have to have strong associations to represent you,” Butler said. “If you don’t, you’re putting the cart before the horse, and the best law in the world won’t help.”