Hoping to Change the Industry, a Factory Farmer Opens His Barn Doors

By Maryn McKenna 12.04.14 Permalink

A few months ago, reporting on farm antibiotic use, I met a North Carolina farmer named Craig Watts. Craig lives in a small town near the South Carolina line where his forebears have been since the Carolinas were a British colony, and for more than 20 years, he has raised broiler chickens for Perdue Farms.

Watts went into chicken farming because, where he lives, there were not many alternatives. His parents and relatives had been row-crop farmers, but after the tobacco economy began to collapse, that looked like not a great way to make a living. Out of college, he began working as a field technician for an agricultural-chemicals company, but he disliked cubicle life and wanted to get back outside. When an advance man for Perdue came calling, showing spreadsheets of how lucrative chicken farming might be, he decided to give it a try.

It worked for him at first; he said that he was, intermittently, a top earner in the slaughterhouse complex that buys his chickens. But over the years, he chafed at the economic conditions the vertically integrated business imposed on farmers, who always seemed to get the raw end of the deal, and he grew increasingly uncomfortable with what intensive farming did to the chickens themselves. He began speaking out: first writing op-eds, then testifying at a government hearing exploring unfair contract conditions, and then talking to advocates and journalists.

And now he has taken his boldest step yet — really an extraordinary one, given the closed-door nature of most corporate farming: He has made a video, in cooperation with the animal-welfare group Compassion in World Farming, in which he escorts cameras into his broiler barns.

The video is a collaboration with Leah Garces, Compassion’s US director (who introduced me to Watts last summer). They appear onscreen together, walking through his broiler flock, discussing the strict company rules he operates under, and examining the sad condition of his birds:  leg deformities, ulcerated bellies from barn litter soaked with urine, chicks too frail to eat or stand.

It is difficult to watch, but it is essential to view because it is so unusual. When we see video from inside intensive meat production, it is almost always something that was shot covertly by activists working undercover, trying to document conditions that consumers would not otherwise see. For a farmer to admit to letting activists in —  and to appear with them on camera, explain the contract conditions he is compelled to work in, and document the poor health of the birds he is sent — is unheard-of. (And, for Watts, almost certainly a breach of contract. It will be important to keep track of whether he experiences consequences from the company.)

“This stuff is not as advertised,” Watts says in the video. “There’s a lot of flaws in the system. The consumer is being hoodwinked. The farmer’s being jerked around.”

Farmer Craig Watts. original: video by Compassion in World Farming

Farmer Craig Watts. Screenshot: video by Compassion in World Farming

Because I write so much about antibiotic use on farming, it is important to say that Watts’ farm is not, now, an antibiotics-using farm, though it was in the past. (As I covered earlier, almost all of Perdue went antibiotic-free last summer.) What he represents, instead, is a conviction among people examining livestock raising that removing antibiotics from meat production is not enough. After that is accomplished, animal welfare, and the economic conditions that farmers are forced to live under, need attention as well. (For more on those issues: The ASPCA began a campaign on broiler welfare, “The Truth About Chicken,” a year ago, and the Pew Charitable Trusts have released two reports on the broiler industry, here on environmental damage and here on economic unfairness.)

One of the key points of the video is that Watts’s chicken is sold under a USDA program called “Process Verified,” in which the agency says it confirms that broilers are raised to a number of standards, including “humanely” — which, from the conditions in the video, seems untrue. It slots into work that Garces and Compassion were already doing with the Better Chicken initiative, which challenges supermarkets to buy only chicken that is humanely raised.

In October, Perdue agreed as part of the settlement of a suit brought by the Humane Society of the United States that it would no longer use the “humane” claim on one specific label. In a statement, Compassion said that is not enough:

Americans think they are buying chickens raised in idyllic pasture when the meat is labeled “natural”.  But what they are actually buying are chickens raised on a bed of feces-filled litter that hasn’t been change for years. They are buying chickens bred to get so big, so fast they can’t stand on their own two feet. They are buying chickens raised in dimly lit warehouses, who never see the light of day except when coming from the hatchery or heading to slaughter. With an image of green pastures in their mind, shoppers are picking up a package of chicken from a factory farm.

Garces and Watts plan to continue working together to highlight the need for humane practices. I asked how how she felt about partnering with someone who, until now, represents everything she had worked against. Here’s what she told me:

The first time I drove to meet Craig in late spring, I was the most nervous I’ve even been in my whole life. Filmmaker Raegan Hodge was with me, and we discussed most of the 5 hour drive what we would do if we were presented with an ambush. In my head, it was entirely possible that a bunch of chicken farmers with pitchforks were waiting for us.

But here’s when I knew Craig was the real deal.  From the very first time he let me into the first chicken warehouse, he referred, to the birds as “he” or “she,” and never, not once, as “it.” He sees them as the individuals they are. This is when I knew I had found a kindred spirit.

We are about as unlikely of partners as they come. But I can tell you I’ve never met anyone so serious about, and so capable of, making this industry a fairer and more humane one.

Christopher Leonard
After Going Public, Perdue Farmer Faces Disciplinary Action

Perdue Farms launched an audit of one of its chicken farmers Wednesday, just hours after he voiced public concerns about the welfare of the company’s animals.

Farmer Craig Watts took the unusual step recently of allowing a film crew to tour his industrial chicken farm in rural North Carolina, where he raises birds under contract for Perdue. Watts also gave an on-the-record interview to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, in which Watts said that Perdue’s claim that it treats animals humanely “couldn’t get any further from the truth.”

Just hours after Kristof’s column was published Wednesday, Perdue employees arrived at Watts’ farm and informed him that he was the subject on an internal animal welfare audit. If he fails the audit, the company could cancel his contract and effectively put him out of business.

Watts said the audit appears to be direct retaliation for speaking out.

“I just didn’t expect it this quick,” Watts said. “That’s a potential contract-yanker.”

Perdue spokeswoman Julie DeYoung said today the audit was not retaliation for Watts’ public comments, but that it was related to the video that was shot on his farm.

The video was released in tandem with Kristof’s article by an activist group called Compassion in World Farming, which seeks better treatment for industrial livestock. The film captured images of birds panting because they were overheated, birds with bellies that were reddened and de-feathered from sitting too long on a bed of chicken litter, and a bird with deformed or broken leg hobbling around the chicken house.

“What we saw on the video was very concerning, suggesting to us that the birds were not well taken care of,” DeYoung said. “So it’s very appropriate for us to go and see for ourselves what is going on.”

Watts and Perdue seem to disagree on who bears responsibility for the disturbing condition of the chickens. Watts claims that the birds’ reddened bellies and panting are natural symptoms of Perdue’s business plan to cram as many animals as possible into each barn. Perdue claims that Watts is to blame because he isn’t tending the animals well enough. If he could cool the chicken house by using large fans, for example, the birds would stop panting, DeYoung said.

The disagreement highlights the fraught relationship between modern contract farmers and the nation’s biggest meat companies. Farmers like Watts borrow millions of dollars to build large factory farms, but they never actually own the birds they raise. Instead, they sign a contract with companies like Perdue, which deliver the live birds and pay the farmer to raise them. The companies also deliver chicken feed and send veterinarians by the farm to check on the birds and administer drugs if needed.

Farmers like Watts have little freedom in choosing how to raise their chickens, and they have no control over the kind of bird that is delivered to their farm. Chicken farmers live in perpetual fear that companies will cancel their contracts, so they rarely speak with reporters.

DeYoung said she doesn’t know the results of Wednesday’s audit. If a farmer fails the audit, the company can prescribe corrective steps, or it can take disciplinary action including cancelling the farmer’s contract.

Watts said he doesn’t regret speaking out. He has been raising birds for Perdue since the early 1990s, and has become fed up with a relationship that he characterizes as exploitative.

“Everybody’s got a tipping point. And I am just there,” he said.

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