When competing against his fellow chicken growers for Piedmont Poultry, farmer Lloyd West played by the rules, and for years it did nothing but cost him money.

Eventually he found out why. Some of the other farmers were cheating - falsely reporting lower costs to make themselves look more efficient. Their paychecks rose while his went down - and Piedmont was looking the other way. So, West and other honest farmers secretly called in investigators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Had the farmers been Piedmont employees complaining about unfair wages, they could have taken their grievances to the Department of Labor. Had they been consumers worried about price-fixing, the Department of Justice might have stepped in. If the farmers had been growing cattle instead of chickens, USDA would have had the power to punish company wrongdoing.

Instead, West and his friends soon found out how alone a chicken farmer is in the wilderness of government regulation. From the moment he signs a contract, he is virtually unprotected.

In West's case, investigators confirmed that farmers were cheating. But Piedmont avoided punishment by promising that the practice would stop.

Meanwhile, in the time it took to complete the investigation, West's farm continued to do so poorly that he lost his contract and, with it, the career he loved. He eventually sold the Ramseur, N.C., farm. For all that, he couldn't find out the results of the investigation until his congressman intervened.

``Now what kind of justice is that?'' he asked, still provoked to violent sobs by memories of the experience. ``I loved growing those damn chickens.''

What happened to West is a familiar story across 13 states, where contract chicken farmers have found it largely futile to seek redress for industry practices they say have cost them hard-earned pay and imperiled their farms.

In an eight-month investigation, The Sun found that federal investigators nearly always leave chicken growers like West to fight their battles alone.

Among the findings:

* USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration, charged with overseeing the chicken industry's relationship with contract farmers, lacks the manpower and money to investigate allegations of cheating and other unfairness. Even after a recent expansion, it has only about seven full-time investigators to cover the nation's 30,000 chicken farmers.

* The agency lacks legal authority. It must refer cases of potential law-breaking to the Justice Department and persuade lawyers preoccupied with other crimes to look into farming infractions. That's not the case in the beef or pork industries, where the agency can take the initiative in levying fines and halting industry misconduct.

* USDA has overlooked evidence of overt cheating by large companies such as ConAgra - evidence unearthed in private lawsuits brought by growers. In the few cases when USDA has documented wrongdoing and pursued penalties, punishment has been minor. In 1996, an investigation of a South Carolina poultry company accused of cheating at the scales and trying to cover it up resulted in the company paying $477 in court costs while admitting no misconduct.

The situation is frustrating not only to the chicken farmers, but also to the watchdogs.

``We're still trying to get administrative authority over the poultry companies,'' said James R. Baker, the Stetson-wearing chief of Packers and Stockyards and a former poultry lender from the heart of Arkansas chicken country. ``We have the responsibility and not the authority.''

That means his investigators must find another way to accomplish their mission. They call it ``voluntary compliance,'' a policy that leaves good corporate behavior up to the companies.

That, in turn, leaves the growers virtually at the mercy of a shrinking number of large corporations that set the rules for the ways farmers compete for pay.

In presiding over this competition, the companies control the quality of the chicks the farmers receive, their feed, what equipment farmers use and the scales on which the birds are weighed.

The companies also write the nonnegotiable contracts that strictly control every level of a farmer's operation. And, as West found out, the companies can cancel the contracts at almost any time.