RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Setting Up Farmers' Hell

It's said that the Eskimos have at least 15 words for "snow," an indication of the ubiquity of the substance and its importance in the culture. Head off toward the endless horizon with the wrong kind of equipment and you just won't survive.

Americans should have at least that many words for "farmer." One word meaning "industrial commodities farmer" and another for "farmer's market farmer," a word for farmers on the prairie, and a different one for farmers in the hills. We need a word for the South American rural poor who grow our food and another for the citrus co-op member, one for the landowner and one for the laborer, and on and on.

With only one word for farmer, we get the image of old McDonald on his trusty, rusty red tractor chugging toward his red barn with a load of corn for the chickens. And the industry plays on that image to make us think our food comes from someone trustworthy, rustic, sunburned, and smiling.

If we had more words to describe farmers, we'd certainly have a category for the contract grower raising chickens or hogs for the large corporations. These folks are usually harvested by the corporations from the ranks of independent farmers who need a steady source of income. Maybe they're the folks who couldn't make it on the small acreage, bought some more, then some new equipment, and acquired too much debt.

Or maybe they're the kids just starting out, with limited credit and dreams of owning their own land. The corporation salesmen flash big money, drive big cars, and make big promises. If you sign with us, they say, and build the buildings we've designed, we'll supply you with chicks or hogs to raise and sell back to us. We'll guarantee your prices. We'll even have our trucks deliver the feed and chemicals you'll need for our system.

You just supply the land and labor. When you pay your place off, you'll be sitting pretty.

The plan sounds even more credible when you find out that the federal government is even guaranteeing loans to build the steel barns and equipment for these giant confinement operations, or CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations.)

But the farmers never get their places paid off. Instead, the corporations write contracts with loopholes, and demand frequent, expensive upgrades on the buildings. My neighbor, who signed to raise hogs for one of the biggest, asked at a neighborhood meeting, "Why did my lawyer let me sign that contract?"

Sylvia Tomlinson has written a novel that takes the reader into the world of chicken contract farmers. Plucked and Burned is a murder mystery set in a neighborhood where opportunities are limited to chicken contract farming and introduces us to the lives of America's most marginalized farmers.

In this book, corporate men cheat, lie, break in to barns and homes and drive contractors to bankruptcy and suicide. They deliver unhealthy chicks or spoiled feed to contractors who make trouble. Their chemicals, delivered straight to the barns, are unmarked so that contractors -- never mind consumers -- have no idea what substances are present on their places.

Tomlinson's story shows these corporations to be so mean, rough, and, yes, violent, that I had to ask for confirmation from some friends, Gaylord and Tajuana Stocks, who are former contractors. I caught them between hospital visits. They lost their farm when Gaylord entered his barn after it was chemically treated and the chemicals triggered a heart condition and almost killed him. His health was ruined.

When I asked if they'd like me to keep their names anonymous, the Stocks said no. Despite their losses, they're still standing up for family farmers and their neighbors in the contract business. Here's what they said:

"We have seen and experienced many of the stories depicted in Sylvia's book, such as being 'cut off' for standing up to service personnel and corporate management; for daring to say 'no! I cannot and will not borrow additional money to "upgrade" my poultry operation.' We suffered in many ways, financially, mentally, and physically for refusing to bend to company threats by receiving poor quality chickens, feed, medications and chemicals harmful to humans if dispensed within short periods of one another.

"We have friends whose operations were 'shut down' because they, too, refused to bend to the expensive up-grades as 'Con' Agra deemed necessary. Each time management changed, so did the specifications for growing chickens. Many of our friends have been forced into bankruptcy and have lost their farms and homes because the company decided they were 'poor managers.' Some were 'top' growers prior to opting not to up-grade. We have seen the physical and mental health of many growers deteriorate due to pressure exerted by integrators."

Tomlinson's book shines some light on the business that robbed the Stocks of their farm and Gaylord's health. An introduction into the farming system from Hell, it's well worth the read.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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