|Delmarva Peninsula, Delaware,|
Maryland, and Virginia USA
Over the last 50 years, the US chicken processors (eg. Tyson, Perdue, etc.) have gotten bigger and stronger. Chicken went from family farm to mega factories.
Today, independent family farms still grow chickens, but on a scale thousands of times bigger than before. These farmers sell directly to the mega corp. chicken processors, or to integrators (an intermediary company who collects the chickens from many different farms, then delivers then to the major chicken processors).
All is not well in the US poultry system.
These chronic issues prompted the conducting of a survey for Demarva chicken growers. Prof. Tom Ilvento, Professor at the Food and Resource Economics Dept. of University of Delaware conducted a survey of Delmarva chicken growers in 1998, 16 years ago. The original survey data of chicken growers is presented in a summary report available on the Internet (see 1998 Survey of US Chicken Farmers, Delmarva ).
This report re-analyzes the survey data, asks some key questions, and seeks a 2014 follow up on progress achieved on these substantial issues during the last 16 years (from 1998 to 2014). See our previous Blog post Unhappy US Chicken Farmers ) for the source of the survey, and our improved analysis and measurement system for the survey results.
Q1: Dr. Ilvento's analysis of the 1998 survey data suggested that 73% of Delmarva chicken farmers were "satisfied".
I suggest that this analysis was simplistic and would tend to mis-direct people from an important issue.
By weighting the survey data, we find that the overall satisfaction score is just 22.65%; pretty dismal.
What has been done about this since 1998 (16 years ago)? Is it substantially better today?
A recent program on NPR suggests the 1998 problems are fossilized, chronic, and still not solved.
What should be done? When?
Q2: Having a light at the end of the tunnel is essential for staying the difficult path one might be on.
In this case, we have just 19.8% glimmer of light; not very much.
Based on this, I would suspect that many chicken farmers would become frustrated, disillusioned, depressed, or give up.
Has that occurred in the last 16 years?
What has been done? What should be done?
Q3: Walking on egg shells with a large, rich, and powerful organization, who has the power to make you or break you, is obviously stressful.
Trust and effective relationships depend upon open and honest communication.
With a score of just 24.7%, chicken farmers are more afraid and cautious, not trusting.
What have been the consequences of this daily fear over the last 16 years?
What has been done to improve the situation?
What more needs to be done?
Who will do it?
With the challenges in today's economy, the growing need for food that is more affordable, and the world-wide competition; all of these require trust, and clear, effective communication between everybody in the supply chain. To do otherwise is to encourage inefficiencies, and disaster.
Again, what has been done in the last 16 years to improve this situation?
Who will stand up and work towards a solution in this important area?
Q5: A 52% score here is the brightest star in the Delmarvian sky.
As this is the closest connection between the large processor and the independent farmer, it is most important that a good relationship exists, and excellent, unstrained communication occurs.
What was done in the hiring and training of the Flock Supervisors so as to ensure this occurred?
It is usually best to build from a centre of strength, working outwards towards the highest priority weakness; rather than the worse. If true in this case, this is the starting point.
What needs to be done so that the Flock Supervisor and the Chicken Farmer can start working together even more on one or more of these key, outstanding issues?
Q6: At -15%, this is the most negative response in all the survey questions.
It would seem that the farmers wanted to keep the strong, beneficial relationship they have with their respective Flock Supervisor, rather than needlessly switch on some arbitrary schedule.
Were the chicken farmers listened to?
If not, why not?
What has been learned from this in the last 16 years?
Q7: The Settlement Statement is a measurement and reporting tool. This is the end result of much hard work. It would seem reasonable that they would be assisted in fully understanding the Settlement Statement, as well as the reasons why that exist, are know, or can be estimated that support or cause the results reported here.
As a measurement tool, it should use the SMART method (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Timely). It also helps if the measurements are believable.
What has been done in this important issue? Have commitments been made to ensure all issues are resolved in the near future?
Q8: At a -12.7% score, the majority of chicken farmers are dis-satisfied with their income.
When income is considered, one must consider the risks taken, and the effort expended. Neither of these factors is included in this question.
In a related article about chicken farming in the Southern US, Grist said,
"Payment [of independent chicken farmers] is results-oriented, based on measures like total weight gain of the flock. It’s a system, says the United Food and Commercial Workers, that leaves 71 percent of growers earning below poverty-level wages."
However, the wording of this question may have prompted this negative response, or enhanced the negativity. Possible re-wording of the question would have produced different results.
Alternatively, the farmers may be economically abused by their powerful customers.
Has the situation resolved itself, or gotten even worse in the last 16 years?
What should be done now?
Q9: Garbage in, garbage out.
It is obvious that poor quality chicks will cause the US chicken farmer to have difficulties with FCR (Feed Conversion Ratios, ie. the amount of chicken feed required to get 1 kg. of weight gain), mortality rates, and disease resistance.
Some of the comments from the NPR program suggested that the mega corps started the farmers out with high quality chicks, then at some point, switched to inferior chicks (assumed to be a lower cost for the mega corp to purchase, thereby saving them money), but the farmer was hurt by the resulting poor performance that resulted.
Whether it is a mistaken unjustified impression, or solidly based in fact, either way, the farmer feels cornered and at the mercy of the mega corp who contracted him. Either way, this can create a dysfunctional relationship, loss of trust, and hard feelings.
What is a farmer to do if they start to feel this way, but are up to their eyeballs in debt from previously meeting the never ending improvements in the farming practices and "state of the art" equipment? Abandoning the mega corp will surely cause the farmer's bankruptcy and loss of the family farm, yet a minor frustration or inconvenience to the mega corp.
Is there solid evidence to confirm or deny this impression about chick quality? If none exists, even after another 16 years since this survey was done, we have to wonder why?
Q10: This is the strongest negative feeling of all the survey questions.
It appears that the chicken farmers realize that as bad as the chicken mega corp. are, insidious and inflexible government intervention via regulation is even worse.
In the NPR show, a number of farmers commented about other statutes and regulations against predatory practices by the mega corps, yet the courts are unwilling to enforce them.
Perhaps the US farmers have seen or heard of their Canadian cousins and their government regulations, and would rather fight on through rugged individualism, rather than start down the crazy road of Supply Management or excessive and restrictive government regulation.
Can the system be improved so as to provide the farmers a level playing field, and prevent the abuse of power against the chicken farmer?
A chicken processor in the Southern US went bankrupt, prompting Congress to request additional regulations to "protect" farmers. In Nov. 2010, the Delmarva Chicken Growers Committee responded and lobbied against the proposed regulations.
Q11A: The survey asked for the farmer's ideas for other programs and services that might help. The formation of a "Growers Committee".
Delmarva Poultry Justice AllianceIn 1995 Jim Lewis, an Episcopal minister, was investigating at-risk people living in the Delmarva area. Rev. Lewis found that people in the at-risk population had
one thing in common: some connection to the poultry
In 1995 Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal minister, was investigating at- risk people living in the Delmarva area. Rev. Lewis found that people in the at-risk population had one thing in common: some connection to the poultry industry. He helped form the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance ("DPJA"). Did DPJA help prompt the development of this survey in 1998?
The need and success of DPJA eventually lead to the formation of the National Poultry Justice Alliance ("NPJA"). Both of these organizations did many good works to help with social justice for chicken farmers, catchers, and workers in chicken processing plants. Unfortunately, it appears that neither of these groups exist today.
Today, a Grower's Committee exists under the wing of Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. As of Dec. 2013, the Growers Committee was lobbying against the planned phosphorous regulations to protect against land and water pollution.
Did all of these fairness and social justice issues get resolved to the satisfaction of the US chicken farmers? Alternatively, perhaps these social justice movements were infiltrated, high jacked, and disemboweled by the mega corps.
Q11B: The chicken growers tend to get little feedback on their performance, they just get a cheque and a number of deductions removed with little explanation. The grower has to trust the mega corp. Ask too many questions, and this may be your last contract with that integrator, and/or the mega corp who buys from that integrator.
It is obvious from the response from this question, chicken farmers want objective, unbiased, verifiable data associated with their inputs (chicks, feed, drugs, etc.), the work performed by the farmer, and the resulting flock of chickens that were removed from the farm when fully grown.
As long as there is an direct opportunity for gain from fudging the data, there will be doubt, and the potential for abuse.
Did the situation significantly improve in the last 16 years?
Q11C: Nobody's perfect, same for chicken farmers. If each farmer has a reasonable opportunity to learn and improve over time, everybody gains. We need to maximize learning and the rate of continuous improvement, and minimize risks.
There seems to have been great interest in a program to help chicken farmers to overcome unsatisfactory performance. A common database of best practices is often found to help. Forums for chicken farmers to meet and freely share ideas could also be done.
Has this occurred? If not, why not?
Q11D: In addition to education (see below, Question 11E), do new entrants have the ability to get the necessary funding?
Contract growers invest 50% of all the capital needed to grow chickens. Grower’s return on that capital investment is typically less than 3%, while the mega corp. enjoys profits of 33% net return.
When you have a balanced business relationship, those who take the risk and make the investments typically get the majority of the benefits derived from success. That doesn't appear to be the case for Delmarva chicken farmers vs. their mega corp. customers.
What should be done, if anything?
Q11E: Learning to become a chicken farmer isn't easy.
Due to the highly competitive nature of the business, you can ill afford expensive mistakes, nor waste a moment. There are thousands of details that must be taken care of; miss one, and it can quickly lead to a disaster for your chickens, or your bank account.
If you are unable to attract new blood into the industry, each year the old gang of veterans gets older, wiser, die, move away, frustrated, or some other problem that causes them to leave the industry. This will eventually result in super concentration of ownership, and/or the death of the industry as the next generation chooses to stay away from the chronic abuse and unfair treatment.
In addition to education, do new entrants have the ability to get the necessary funding?
Today, University of Maryland School of Extension offers a course for new and existing poultry farmers. Is this enough?
- No system is perfect, not even in the USA.
- We need to listen to all sides of the issue, and treat everybody fairly, especially the weaker party and minorities. It's the right thing to do. It's what we would want if the roles were reversed.
- Canada doesn't want nor need a US-style chicken production system. We have enough difficulties without adding that burden.
- Using the challenges inside the US chicken production system as sufficient reasons for keeping Canada's current Supply Management system is a fallacious Straw Man argument.