Finally a chance of free speech for U.S. factory farmers living in poverty

Today, the House appropriations agriculture subcommittee will vote on whether a rule to protect farmers can be included in this year’s budget request.

Boring. Or is it?

The rule—if passed—will mean that for the first time in a long time, the 27,000 American chicken farmers who produce the nine billion chickens that feed you every year, may be able to speak out against the companies they work for without fear of retribution.

Earlier this year, Fusion Investigates followed North Carolina chicken farmer Craig Watts as he spoke out about the industry’s alleged unfair pay and production practices. Our documentary, Cock Fight, revealed a system that not only treats the birds badly, but also those who raise and grow them.

“It’s time for this industry to have what I call a ‘Come to Jesus’ moment,” Watts told Fusion. “Farmers can’t take it anymore.”

Many chicken farmers are poor. A Pew Charitable Trusts study revealed that 71% of U.S. farmers who rely solely on chickens for their income live on or below the poverty line. But farmers are scared to speak out. “If we speak out, they hit us where they know it will hurt,” one farmer told Fusion. “They’ll take away our chickens, cut our contracts, cut our pay.”

The cruel truth is that the companies can. They have the power. The meat industry has become increasingly consolidated. With $2 trillion annual sales, its influence is mighty. Meanwhile, farmers find themselves with little control over their livelihoods, languishing in debt.

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“I’m a slave on my own land,” said Watts. Earlier this year he filed a complaint against the company he contracts for, accusing it of intimidation after he spoke out about the conditions he was made to raise chickens in.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says the average large-scale farm is over one million dollars in debt. Chicken and livestock farmers make up the biggest percentage of those in serious debt. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, contract growers’ total debt amounted to $5.2 billion, or 22 percent of their total assets, in 2011.

And that’s where the vote comes in.

In 2010, after extensive consultation with stakeholders and farmers, the USDA developed a set of rules to protect farmers from industry abuses like deceptive financial practices and retaliation. The idea was to correct market imbalances. One of the proposed rules even explicitly prohibited retaliation “in response to the lawful expression, spoken or written association, or action of a poultry grower.”

But the industry went in hard, and the rules didn’t go through. In 2010 alone, the five biggest meat companies spent nearly $9 million dollars on lobbying, according to the Senate’s lobbying records.

So the rules exist, but they sit on a shelf going off like a chicken in the sun, and consequently farmers have little protection.

Until now.

This is the first time, since 2011, the appropriations sub committee has let the rules through to the full committee for a vote. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who is on the committee, calls the vote “landmark.”

“I urge my colleagues to build on the subcommittee’s leadership today in support of these basic rights,” she said.

There’s still a long way to go, but it’s a baby chicken step toward real First Amendment rights for farmers.

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