RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The Con of Cons

Don't try to con a con, so the saying goes. That is, unless you're a con-glomerate.

ConAgra's the biggest, and they're conning con-sumers into thinking that there's still choice at the supermarket. In fact, the choice is an illusion, tricky as a shell game.

Take your Thanksgiving dinner, for example. Chances are, ConAgra oiled, salted, sugared, watered and whipped everything on your table from the turkey (Butterball) to the whipped cream (Reddi-wip). ConAgra made your Brown 'N Serve rolls and extruded the margarine into your tub of Parkay, Blue Bonnet, Fleischmann's, or Chiffon. That's right, they're all ConAgra. Same with Touch of Butter or Move Over Butter.

While some ConAgra brand names were developed in their own kitchens, others were regional names owned by companies ConAgra bought out. Building on our trust in brands we knew something about, ConAgra used familiar formulas and packaging to continue the myth that we're buying from our neighbors. According to their annual report, ConAgra's top 25 brands "each have annual retail sales exceeding $100 million." That's a lot of con-venience dinners.

Also according to their annual report, "Team ConAgra is thousands of people individually and collectively committed to winning. A win in our book is premium returns for our shareholders ... " With branches in 34 countries, the Team's earnings are growing 14.6 percent per year. "Our mission," says the report, "is increasing shareholder value."

That's a generous mission on the part of the Team, and to check it out I called someone who raises poultry for the big Con. "How're things on the Team?" I asked. "Winning or losing?"

For those who raise the birds, being on the ConAgra team is a lose-lose game. After investing close to a million dollars on poultry houses to raise chickens or turkeys for Banquet, Healthy Choice or some other ConAgra brand, contractors find returns so puny they qualify to collect food stamps. Here's how it works:

A farmer with a piece of land and a good credit rating becomes tired of the uncertainty of the farm life. After all, a farmer is subject to all kinds of uncertainty, from bad weather to a poor market. So he looks around for something he can bank on. A sure thing.

At this point, the con-tract agent enters the picture. This person may be from ConAgra, Cargill, Land O'Lakes or one of the others. The story is the same. You, Dear Farmer, supply the animal buildings, built to our specifications, we'll arrange the financing. The corporation's "integrator" supplies the birds, the feed, and the system to guarantee you a good return. That way, you get to stay on the land, pay off your buildings, and retire with the place paid off.

With a stroke of the pen, the farmer becomes a contract farmer, or contractor. The buildings go up, the animals arrive, and the rude truth raises its ugly head. A contractor has absolutely no control over income. From the time the contract was signed, the contractor's finances were in the control of the corporation and the lender. The contractor's income is paid on a "flock to flock" basis, dependent on flocks delivered by the integrator. Here are the top ten cons for life of a contract farmer:

Con #10: Because contractors are paid according to the weight gain of the animals, if birds aren't delivered on time and buildings sit empty, the contractor loses income. Contractors can raise six flocks per year, but often they are only delivered five flocks.

Con #9: When the birds are delivered, the contractor has no way of choosing the birds or controlling whether they come from vigorous hens or inbred stock. And, there's the matter of counting the animals. If the corporation says they delivered 20,000 birds, but in fact they only sent 19,800, the contractor loses.

Con #8: If the birds become sick, even poisoned by something in the corporate feed, it's the contractor's fault. The contractor has no control over the things in the corporation's mix of grains, medications, and growth concoctions.

Con #7: Contractors don't even know whether feed comes to their place from the field mill or whether it was returned to the corporation from another contractor's bin, where it might have gotten moldy. If feed is delivered to two or three places by the same truck, it's anyone's guess whether the deliveries are even. The slighted contractor loses.

Con #6: When birds die before maturity, the birds automatically revert from the corporation's ownership to the contractor. The contractor loses that potential income and must also figure out how to dispose of the carcasses.

Con #5: When the houses are cleaned, manure disposal is a problem. When the neighbors complain and the corporations try a new experiment to mask odors -- like adding alum to the bedding -- the contractor pays for the experiment. If the experiment doesn't work, and if the resulting litter ruins the fields where it is spread, the contractor loses.

Con #4: When the birds are finally mature, a crew comes to load them into trucks to be delivered at the slaughterhouse. Some birds are killed, bruised, or mangled in the catching. Some are suffocated in the trucks. Some die during the journey. The contractor is paid only for live delivery.

And consider all those trucks, coming and going from all the contractor's places. Trucks bring feed, or chicks, or picking up birds for the slaughter. When there are mysterious die-offs, contractors can't help but wonder if the trucks are spreading disease.

Con #3: When the flock is raised and it's time for pick up, but the truck's late and the birds are held past their prime, the contractor still has to feed them but he gets less gain. This smaller gain is called "reduced feed conversion."

Con #2: At the end of the cycle, if all goes well, the contractor's check is mailed to the bank where it goes to pay off the loan. If there's any left, the remainder is credited to the family bank account. Often, the income is small enough that families qualify for food stamps.

And here's the biggest con in the big Con's game: If the system fails entirely, and there is a catastrophic loss, the company is compensated through insurance or tax write-off, because the company owns the birds. The media calls this "relief to family farmers."

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

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