(Washington, DC) – Government Accountability Project (GAP) client and contract chicken farmer Eric Hedrick delivered more than 60,000 petition signatures to Capitol Hill yesterday as part of an effort to shed light on the poultry industry’s abusive practices.
The largest single-owner producer in West Virginia, Eric has been a contract grower for Pilgrim’s Pride (the second largest poultry producer in the country) for 10 years. For the last six years, Eric has risked his livelihood to bring attention to the abuses he’s witnessed and been subject to as part of the contract farmer system.
“A GIPSA rider that the chicken industry and its lobbyists are trying to sneak through Congress would defund protections, making farmers even more vulnerable,” said Amanda Hitt, Director of GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign. “Without whistleblowers like Eric Hedrick, the public wouldn’t be informed about what’s really going on in the poultry industry. Without basic safeguards, farmers can’t effectively relay injustices that are bad for growers, animals, and consumers alike. Keeping GIPSA funded means more integrity in the food system.”
GAP, along with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), joined Eric to deliver his petition urging Congress to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Agency) to finalize rules to protect the rights of contract farmers like himself.
“I took a major risk in coming forward. Most farmers in my situation are afraid to speak out against injustices and company wrongdoing because the poultry industry and its lobby are so powerful,” said Eric. “Contract farmers should be able to make a living without fear of company retaliation. I have funneled my life savings and my kids’ life savings into our farm just to stay afloat.”
Contract farmers work in a system where they are responsible for the health and quality of the birds they raise, but they don’t own them. In Eric’s case, Pilgrim’s Pride owns the chickens he raises, sets the terms for how they’re raised, decides which inputs will be provided by whom, and determines how he will be paid. Under this system, the farmer owns everything that costs money (the chicken houses, the land, and the equipment), while the corporate integrator owns what makes money – the chickens. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 96 percent of chickens produced in the United States are raised under such contract provisions.
“For nearly a century contract farmers have worked without the basic rights you and I take for granted, like the right to speak freely against unjust practices, the right to trial by jury, or the right to be told how your pay is calculated,” said Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director at NSAC. “Congress needs to allow the USDA’s GIPSA to finally move forward with rules that would level the playing field for contract farmers. They can’t wait another 100 years.”
On April 19, 2016, the House Agriculture Appropriations Committee passed its appropriations package for fiscal year 2017. The bill included an amendment (“the GIPSA rider”) from Representative Andy Harris (R-MD), which would prevent GIPSA from finalizing rules to protect farmers, leaving power consolidated with the big chicken corporations.
In the coming weeks, the Senate is poised to pass its own version of the bill. GAP and fellow farmer advocates have been working overtime to ensure it does not contain any language that would prevent GIPSA from moving forward.
On March 17, 2016, several appropriations committee members, including the Ranking Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittees, voiced their support for finalizing the GIPSA rules in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. The appropriators noted, “while regulation should be limited in the marketplace, it is critical that the playing field be level,” and urged the Secretary to finalize the rules.
“Support from legislators is critical if we want to protect farmers,” said Eric. “I want to thank all the members of the House and Senate who signed the letter, including Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, whose offices I was grateful to visit with today. I can only hope that the rest of their colleagues will join them in standing up for the rights of America’s contract farmers.”
Contact: Amanda Hitt, Food Integrity Campaign Director
Phone: 202.457.0034, ext. 159
Contact: Sarah Damian, Communications Manager
Phone: 202.457.0034, ext. 130
The Food Integrity Campaign is a program of the Government Accountability Project (GAP), the nation’s leading whistleblower protection organization. Through litigating whistleblower cases, publicizing concerns and developing legal reforms, the organization’s mission is to protect the public interest by promoting government and corporate accountability. Founded in 1977, GAP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
The Food Integrity Campaign is proud to work with its coalition partners the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA) on this effort to protect contract farmers.