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Assessing the challenges contract poultry farmers face by leaving the industrial agriculture system


Featured image for the project, Assessing the challenges contract poultry farmers face by leaving the industrial agriculture system

Contract poultry farming sheds. Photo credit: Craig Watts.

Small poultry farmers are being exploited every day at the hands of the agribusiness giants who control today’s increasingly consolidated industrial agriculture system. To help farmers gain back their independence, it is critical to assess the financial and social challenges they face by leaving the industrial agriculture system. The project will provide a baseline for building tools and resources farmers can use to evaluate their financial situation and take action to leave the industrial agriculture system. The assessment will empower farmers in their decision making, as well as provide critical information for policy makers to assist the farmers’ transition.


About the Community and the Project

The industrial livestock agriculture system benefits no one except the corporate agribusinesses that put profits first. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have been shown to pollute the environment, impair public health, compromise animal welfare, and destroy the socioeconomic fabric of surrounding communities, often keeping the very people raising the animals in poverty. Production contract growers working within this system are commonly subjected to deception and manipulation, and there is very little legal recourse to protect contract growers from being subjected to these types of atrocities. At present, federal agriculture policy favors and protects the corporation.

Meanwhile, industry front groups like the National Chicken Council, National Pork Producer Council and Farm Bureau Federation are well funded, well messaged, and heavily supported by other agriculture interests, and therefore have ample resources to disseminate misleading narratives about the benefits of contract production growing. The scale of this messaging is massive, therefore the narrative shift that is needed is going to take enormous collaboration, buy-in, and funding.

Providing relevant education, resources, and support to production contract growers can help these producers transition out of or avoid going into contract production at all, ultimately disrupting the system. In time, this will help to reduce the pollution impacts on the environment, the harm to public health and quality of life of neighboring communities, and the animal welfare issues associated with these types of operations. This project will help SRAP better understand the effectiveness of its chosen outreach methods and will assist in identifying ways to modify and expand its work with partners and service providers to the benefit of producers and communities most impacted by the industrial agriculture system.

Contract growers are usually small farmers who work under a production contract to raise chickens for multinational corporations, oftentimes referred to as integrators. The majority of contract growers are concentrated in rural areas in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states. Poultry farmers often become contract growers under a false premise of keeping their independence while earning stable incomes. Under that promise, farmers take out multimillion dollar loans to build the infrastructure needed to operate under contract growing agreements and to meet the standards set by the corporations with whom they sign contracts. Though they are told they can expect to pay off their loans within 10 years, they are not informed of the many infrastructure improvements–often to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars–that they will need to regularly make to remain in good standing with the integrators. These farmers go deeper into debt trying to keep up with increasing integrator demands that require equipment and facility upgrades, while also receiving wages that are lower than expected. Some farmers end up losing their multigenerational farms through bankruptcy or are forced to sell their homes and farms to avoid the millions of dollars in debt they have accrued. Socially Responsible Agriculture Project (SRAP) is working to help small farmers understand what joining contract production entails and their rights, as well as assisting these growers in finding ways to transition out of the system and into more sustainable agriculture operations. The overall goal for SRAP’s Contract Grower Transition Program is to help producers succeed in exiting the contract grower system. In order to do this, we need to use a mutli-faceted approach including bringing on former or transitioning contract growers into the advocacy fold; identifying the problems that contract growers face and the system keeps them trapped; understanding the needs of contract growers and barriers they face; identifying legitimate alternatives to the system including those that help growers evaluate their current operations, finances, and needs; encouraging and educating service providers on the issues facing contract growers and the alternatives available to them; and changing the dominant messaging of factory farming.

SRAP would like to learn more about the financial and social barriers contract growers face when considering leaving the industrial agriculture system. Gathering information on financial and social barriers farmers face would help SRAP design a better program to assist farmers in transitioning out of contract production. With that information, farmers could gain an understanding of what it will take financially to transition out of the system and into a sustainable operation. In addition, understanding social barriers farmers face when leaving the industrial system will help SRAP to more effectively communicate, engage, and build trust with growers who are entrenched within the system.

The project will be part of a larger toolkit being created to assist contract growers who contact SRAP in need of assistance. We envision the development of a calculator to help current contract growers more clearly understand their potential financial situations and assess risks and benefits of entering and/or leaving the contract production system. Knowing how much financial assistance is needed for small farmers to transition out of contract growing, for instance, can help advocates to better educate and encourage policymakers to pass legislation that provides financial incentives and aid to farmers hoping to transition to sustainable systems and introduce and pass other policies to provide continual support for small, independent sustainable farmers hoping to enter local and regional food systems. Understanding the social barriers will help SRAP design outreach programs to better understand, connect with, and build trust with these farmers. The project will culminate in an analysis and information report that can be shared with the SRAP network and with their partners and policy makers. The information will help SRAP, farmers, and policymakers make more informed decisions that encourage transition out of contract production to sustainable agriculture that benefits farmers, rural communities, animals, public health, and the planet.

Timeline and Milestones

Dates                                                         Milestone

November – December 2022            Project Scoping

January – March 2023                           Find and match a scientist

April 2022                                                   Introduce scientist to the project

May – November 2023                       Collect and analyze data

November- January 2024                Finalize and publish findings on the SRAP sites

Project Team

Community Leads

Sherri Dugger, SRAP Executive Director

With nearly two decades of experience editing magazines and books, Sherri Dugger now puts her media and public relations experience to work in the agriculture field. Prior to joining SRAP, Sherri served in executive director roles at Women, Food and Agriculture Network and Indiana Farmers Union. She also has served as a policy and communications consultant for American Grassfed Association, as a Midwest outreach consultant for Earthjustice, and as a rural affairs consultant for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). A supporter of local and regional food systems, environmental sustainability, humane animal agriculture, and diversified, regenerative farming, she frequently advocates for rural communities at the Indiana Statehouse and on Capitol Hill. She enjoys life on a small farm in Spencer, Indiana, with her husband, Randy, and their dogs, cats, donkeys, goats, alpacas, chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, and honeybees.

Craig Watts, SRAP Field Operations Team Director

Craig is a former contract chicken grower for poultry giant Perdue. He made headlines when he teamed up with Compassion in World Farming USA to expose animal issues rampant throughout the company’s operations. Craig’s story has been featured in the New York Times and on Tonight with John Oliver. He has been outspoken about the power of giant meat companies, giving testimony on Capitol Hill and sharing his story on the Farm Aid stage with musicians Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Willie Nelson. Craig was named Whistleblower Insider’s “2015 Whistleblower of the Year.”


Karen “Susie” Crutchfield, Regional Representative, Contract Grower Transition Program

Susie and her husband Mitchell were contract growers for Tyson for 25 years, until the demands of the poultry integrator pushed them out of business in 2012. As part of SRAP’s Contract Grower Transition Program, Susie educates farmers about the harms of the integrated model by providing personal stories of oppression, debt, and her fight to save her family from the clutches of big corporate integrators. Susie grew up in a farm family and currently owns Granny Creek Farm with Mitchell in Arkansas; they are still fighting to keep their farm alive. They sell timber from the farm currently and hope to add cattle soon. Susie and Mitchell are both passionate about helping others trapped by big poultry because they know what it’s like to have their lives disrupted by the impacts of vertical integration in industrial agriculture.

Michael Diaz; Regional Representative, Contract Grower Transition Program

Michael is a former contract grower for big poultry integrators Pilgrim’s Pride and Amicks. Personal experience gives Michael insight into how corporations make profits by financially trapping contract farmers. As part of SRAP’s Contract Grower Transition Program, Michael educates farmers and communities about the harms of corporate farming. Michael aims to help farmers still trapped in the contract grower system so they can find ways to help themselves financially and adopt socially responsible agricultural practices. As a high school teacher, Michael is an able and experienced educator and is passionate about the fight for change in an industry controlled by giants. Michael is married with four boys and lives in South Carolina. Prior to getting into education, farming, and activism, Michael was a contractor overseeing residential and commercial projects from start to finish.


Community Science Fellow

Adrianna Trusiack headshot

Adrianna Trusiak

Adrianna is a research coordinator at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) based at Michigan State University. She supports research projects studying sustainable biomass production and processing for biofuel production. Trusiak is also the point-of-contact for GLBRC’s outreach activities at Michigan State University, including the summer undergraduate research program. She holds a Ph.D. in water geochemistry from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor’s Earth and Environmental Sciences department. Prior to her work at GLBRC, Trusiak participated in the Arctic Long Term Ecological Research program at Toolik Field Station, AK where she studied impacts of climate change on the arctic carbon cycling. Adrianna is excited about joining the Thriving Earth Exchange Program and bridging the gap between scientists and the public by applying scientific solutions to address pressing environmental issues. Outside of work, Adrianna enjoys traveling, hiking, running, and teaching new tricks to her dog.

Scientist Wanted

We seek two scientific experts with complementary expertise to tackle this diverse and interdisciplinary project, with focal areas in economic modeling and social science.

General Desired Skills and Qualifications :

  • Respect and some knowledge of agricultural communities
  • No connection with industrial agriculture entities or corporations
  • Experience and/or desire to participate in community education, outreach, and engagement
  • Strong listening and collaboration skills
  • Willingness to connect science to local concerns

Specific skills and qualifications desired from each expert are as follows:

Economic modeler

  • Expertise in economic modeling
  • Experience with cost-benefit analysis
  • Understanding of industrial agriculture and/or farming communities and food systems

Social Scientist/Anthropologist

  • Expertise in farmer-industry interaction
  • Expertise in human-environment interactions
  • Understanding of industrial agriculture and/or farming communities and food systems

Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact to which they can contribute as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.

Interested in volunteering as a scientist? Apply now!

Collaborating Organization(s)

All community leads are part of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.