The plucking of the American chicken farmer

The Baltimore Sun

To Ed Probst, the poultry company's invitation sounded like the fulfillment of a dream: Come on down to Alabama and be a chicken farmer. Share the wealth. Be your own boss. Having scanned the horizon of America's poultry empire from the plains of Delmarva to the foothills of the Ozarks, Probst knew he'd need $250,000 just to get started. He'd be on call 24 hours a day. But he counted on succeeding the same way farmers had for centuries: Live off the land, pay your debts, then enjoy the fruits of independence.

So, in 1992 Probst sold his home in Pennsylvania and staked his family's future on four used chicken houses near the Alabama town of Luverne.

With his wife, Georgia, and their children pitching in, Probst began to turn around a once lackluster farm. But every year the poultry company - ConAgra - wanted more, eventually demanding that he install $200,000 worth of new equipment and sign away his right to sue if things went wrong.

Probst decided he'd had enough, and in 1996 he put his farm up for sale. He then got his last, harshest lesson: Without ConAgra's approval, his farm was virtually worthless. The company refused to offer a chicken-growing contract to any prospective buyer, and within three months the Probsts lost everything to foreclosure.

Only with the help of a collection by their Baptist church did they make it out of town, hauling their last possessions on a rented truck to a relative's house in San Angelo, Texas.

``They were toying with us, that's what they were doing,'' Probst said later. ``They make it look good, and it's so deceiving. And once they have you, once you sign that contract, either you grow chickens for them or you don't grow them at all.''

The ruination of the Probsts is an all too familiar tale among America's 30,000 contract chicken growers. Like Probst, they must invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in land and equipment just to get into the business. But once a farmer signs a contract to grow chickens, he finds himself at the bottom of a rigid pecking order, in which the poultry company controls his fortunes to the last detail.

Dictating much of that power today are the five largest companies - Tyson Foods, Gold Kist, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim's Pride and ConAgra - controlling more than half the business of this wealthy industry. Together they have transformed a barnyard byproduct into the cheap, plentiful centerpiece of the national diet.

But while the companies have been flourishing on Wall Street and extending their political reach to the White House, the growers have been increasingly beleaguered: The public denounces them as polluters whose chicken manure fouls waterways, while the poultry companies squeeze them ever tighter for profits. Formerly able to share in the bounty of an industry on the rise, they have become the land-owning serfs in an agricultural feudal system.

An eight-month Sun investigation across 13 states has found:

* A new chicken farmer today can expect an annual net income of only $8,160 - about half the poverty level for a family of four - until he has paid off the 15-year loan he took to get into the business, and even that estimate may be overly optimistic. Fewer than half of Delmarva's chicken farmers say they're making enough to meet expenses.

* Getting into the business is more expensive than ever, requiring an investment of about $257,000. In return, a farmer is saddled with round-the-clock responsibility, daily collecting dead birds by hand during strolls through dust and ankle-deep manure. A farmer battles heat waves, power outages and outbreaks of avian disease, and his every move is controlled by the vagaries of a contract that can be canceled virtually anytime, cutting income to zero.

* A chicken farmer's first big loan is almost never his last. Companies routinely require farmers to install expensive and sometimes unproved new equipment. The additional debt means most chicken houses aren't paid for until they've reached the age when productivity - and income - generally begin to decline.

* Some companies have systematically cheated growers at the place that matters most on payday - the scales where chickens are weighed. Class action lawsuits in four states uncovered evidence that such cheating went on for years. Yet law enforcement agencies launched no criminal probes.

* The chicken farmer has virtually no one in government to help him. The lone federal agency charged with protecting his interests has missed evidence of fraud. Even when empowered to investigate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration almost never produces tangible results. Despite fielding more than 1,000 complaints from chicken farmers, the agency has gone to court on their behalf only twice. The only resulting financial penalty: $477, paid by a small poultry company in South Carolina.

* The farmer's only proven defense against companies is the private lawsuit, which is rapidly being disarmed. Most poultry contracts now require farmers to sign away most rights to sue. Growers who refuse, such as Ed Probst, lose their contracts and their livelihoods.

* When chicken growers ask state legislatures for help, poultry companies almost invariably defeat them by threatening to move their plants and jobs elsewhere. The industry made similar threats in Maryland and Oklahoma when legislatures considered ways to curb pollution from chicken-manure runoff. The result: rules and penalties directed at farmers, not at companies.

* The companies have almost absolute power when growers like Probst try to sell their farms. Getting a contract to grow chickens is essential to potential buyers. Without one, a farm is virtually worthless and unsellable.

``They just gave us the runaround,'' said Celia English, 62, a ConAgra grower in Alabama who lost her 290-acre farm to foreclosure when the company refused to offer a contract to any prospective buyer.

``What they wanted to do is close down as many of us [older farms] as they could. ... I lost everything that I've ever had.''

The relationship between chicken farmers and their companies is equal only in terms of their financial stake. Both sides put up about half of the poultry industry's capital investment.

A company's investment - in factories, hatcheries, feed mills and employees - lets it compete freely for as much as it can earn in a marketplace that has proved very profitable.

The stock of Tyson Foods Inc., the biggest of the poultry companies, is worth nearly 200 times what it was 25 years ago, and its slower growth during the past several years is attributable mostly to the company's unsuccessful forays into the fish and pork businesses. Tyson has lost money only once, in 1994, and followed that with its best year, a profit of $219 million.

A farmer's investment in land, barns and equipment, however, buys him into a more restricted competition for a pool of money that has been largely predetermined by the companies. The farmer works within an artificial economy in which the most efficient farms earn the highest pay, while lesser performers earn barely enough to survive. And at all levels, incomes have stagnated. It is a system that guarantees that some farmers will fail, even if all are vigilant and efficient.

This imbalance of power begins and ends with a farmer's contract.

A company agrees to provide a farmer with day-old chicks and enough feed, medicine and advice to keep the birds growing during the six weeks until they're ready for the slaughterhouse. The farmer agrees to provide his time and effort, giving the birds enough food and water while keeping them at the right temperature, watching for disease and culling daily casualties.

But first he must build chicken houses, generally at least two at about $128,000 apiece. Being ``independent contractors,'' the farmers get neither a salary nor benefits. They do get a guaranteed price per pound for their birds, regardless of what happens to the prices on the open market for feed and chicken.

While this insulates them from the kinds of price shocks that recently have decimated hog farmers, none can survive for long on minimum pay, poultry economists say. Only by outperforming other chicken farmers in a flock-by-flock competition can growers hope to pay off their debts and make a living income.

The farmers compete when their birds go to the slaughterhouse. Basically, whoever produces the heaviest, healthiest chickens on the least feed gets the best rate of pay. But for every winner there's a loser, and growers who lose often enough also lose their contracts, whether they still owe money on their loans or not.

They can then try to sell their chicken houses, but if a buyer can't get a contract from a poultry company the seller can end up like Probst and English - in foreclosure.

Meanwhile, the processor simply signs up another grower and moves on, getting another new ``factory'' in the bargain.

Options for farmers only keep shrinking. Where there were once more than 1,000 poultry companies, about 50 remain - a core of tough, lean companies built by tough, unsparing men, such as Arthur and Frank Perdue, John and Don Tyson.

These companies say that their critics are a disgruntled minority, and that companies that cheat are the exception. Better communication, not better pay or fairer treatment, will make farmers happier, they say, and chicken farmers who don't make it simply aren't doing a good job.

Tyson spokesman Archie Schaffer is especially critical of chicken farmers who join the National Contract Poultry Growers Association, a 8-year-old growers' rights group. Every last one is a poor farmer, he said: ``All of them.''

In defense of paying out poverty-level incomes, executives say chicken farming was never intended to be a sole source of income, even if many farmers say that's exactly what companies led them to expect - 65 percent of Delmarva growers now call poultry their full-time business.

But ultimately the companies worry more about angering consumers than farmers, and lower payments to farmers mean lower prices at the supermarket.

``The American consumer definitely has an advantage here, and it's because the agriculture is so efficient,'' James A. Perdue, chief executive of Salisbury-based Perdue Farms Inc., said in an interview. ``But it's a very low-margin business. ... We measure profitability in half a cent a pound.''

And if the system is so awful and unfair, executives say, how come so many people are on waiting lists to build new chicken houses? Even if the pool of money for farmers is limited, farmers compete for their shares in a pure meritocracy, the companies say, a system that is quintessentially American: Whoever does best makes the most money.

Wrong, many farmers say, because key variables of success are beyond their control.

There is the varying quality of the chicks themselves - maybe you'll get a weak flock while your neighbor gets a strong one. There are the feed deliveries, weighed at the feed mill but not at your farm, leaving plenty of room for mistrust. And there is the weighing of your birds, with each delay at the farm and factory costing you poundage.

There also is the pay system, complicated and controlled by companies. For example, USDA's Packers and Stockyards has been investigating the way Perdue pays its growers - in some cases, excluding some poor performers from the rankings in a way that can cost others money.

``I got sucked into this thing thinking I had some control over my own destiny, and I don't have any,'' said a fuming Jerry Wunder, 52, of Westover, who has grown chickens for Perdue on his Shore farm since 1988. ``I'm two years behind on my taxes. My lender threatened to foreclose on my farm. They assure you, if you work hard you can't help but be successful. But now you've got the Wal-Marting of agriculture. When I started, Frank Perdue was worth $200 million. Now he's [worth more than $800 million], and I don't begrudge him that. But at whose expense?''

It is not the work itself that farmers dislike - in a 1997 poll of 1,344 Delmarva chicken farmers, 73.5 percent were at least somewhat satisfied with the job they'd chosen, even if fewer than half would recommend it to others. But ask them about the steps of the process and their mistrust shows: 43 percent don't trust their company's feed delivery weights, 41 percent don't trust the figures in their pay statements, 57 percent believe their company will retaliate if they raise concerns.

Other segments of the agriculture business seem to like the poultry industry's system, known as ``vertical integration.'' Hog farming is headed toward the same start-to-finish controls. So is the beef industry. Companies dealing with more specialized grains are dabbling with variations.

``This is not just about chicken,'' said Randi Roth, executive director of the nonprofit Farmers' Legal Action Group in Minnesota. ``This is the incubator to see if we can do this with all of agriculture.''

It is impossible to say how many chicken farmers drop by the wayside each year by losing their contracts, succumbing to debt or giving up. Companies either don't keep track of such numbers or won't reveal them, and no government agency keeps tabs.

But financial reports, sworn testimony, government documents and hundreds of interviews with farmers, lenders, regulators and former company employees paint a picture at odds with the poultry industry's portrait of relative happiness and well-being. It is one in which, increasingly, growers are too indebted to quit and too weak and intimidated to fight back.

A business is born

To see how much the chicken business has changed, journey to within a few miles of where it began. Head to Bishopville, just south of the Delaware line in Maryland. The crossroads town is so enveloped by the mills, plants, labs, hatcheries and farms of the poultry industry that the local fire department tests its siren daily, lest chickens grow unaccustomed to the noise. Weekly tests caused lethal stampedes.

On Hatchery Road you'll find Jean and William Bunting. At age 67, Jean is from America's first family of poultry farming. Not only have she and William, 69, tended chicken houses for 47 years, but her mother, Cecile Steele, started the chicken for meat business in 1923.

Eggs were the main object of the poultry business then. The meat was an expensive byproduct, a dinner-table luxury that made ``a chicken in every pot'' such an appealing slogan for Herbert Hoover's presidential campaign.

Steele, who lived just up the road in Ocean View, Del., got started by mistake. She ordered 50 egg layers and got 500, so she put them in a piano crate, then a shed. She scattered feed for 18 weeks, then sold them for about $600 in a year when a new Ford cost $380.

It was a providential time for a windfall. The strawberry business that had once saved Delmarva agriculture was dying, and when the Steeles ordered 1,000 more chickens and bought a new car, the neighbors took notice.

In the coming decades, so would thousands of farmers throughout the country looking for a better way to squeeze a living from thin, weary soil, including a Salisbury egg farmer named Arthur Perdue. Chickens caught on especially in the South, where poultry offered relief from the war with the boll weevil, the ravaging pest of cotton.

From there, technology and big business took charge.

Crossbreeding developed bigger and faster-growing birds. Science juiced up the feed. And in the 1950s, companies began taking control of all aspects of the operation, hatching the birds and milling the feed.

Most farmers liked the ``vertical integration'' because the companies absorbed the price shocks of the feed and chicken. There were hundreds of firms to choose from, and with Americans eating more chicken every year the demand for growers kept rising.

Down-home entrepreneurs such as Don Tyson, Lonnie ``Bo'' Pilgrim and Arthur Perdue's son, Frank, rode the wave all the way to the top.

Frank Perdue turned his father's egg and feed operations into a huge meat business that became the largest U.S. broiler company by the late 1960s. Masking a shy nature, he knocked on doors to sign up his friends and neighbors as contract growers by the dozen.

In the 1970s, he did the unthinkable - gave the anonymous chicken a brand name and a slogan. He was his own best pitchman, making fun of himself in television ads and suffering comparisons of his sharp features to a chicken's.

Twelve hundred miles away, in northwestern Arkansas, Don Tyson was building a fiefdom in Springdale, where his father, John, got started by hauling chickens on a flatbed trailer.

Tyson also stamped his name on the product, and his company outgrew Perdue's. Along the way he befriended his state's ambitious young governor, Bill Clinton. Their fortunes rose in tandem.

As the young giants of poultry grew, they shaved costs as they went, penny by penny. It never seemed to hurt growers, because for years there were plenty of competing companies to choose from. With chicken overtaking first pork and then beef as America's preferred meat, the companies always needed more farmers.

Tom Shelton, then in charge of Perdue's growers, lamented in 1974 that when he recruited Delmarva farmers he'd sometimes find representatives of four other companies waiting in the driveway when he left.

Shelton, now the head of Case Farms, speaks these days of an ``overcapacity'' of growers. Not only have mergers and consolidations winnowed the field of companies, but America's appetite for chicken has leveled off and exports have slumped.

As the industry grew, Cecile Steele's 14-by-14-foot coops gave way to 40-by-500-foot automated superstructures, where 28,000 birds at a time grow to twice the size of hers on half the feed in a third of the time.

About the only things that haven't kept pace with these leaps of progress, says Steele's daughter, Jean Bunting, are grower profits. Farmers now pay $5 per bird to build a chicken house, compared with $1 a bird 20 years ago, but their incomes have become the industry's most easily controllable cost.

``We haven't made a bit more money than we did 10 or 15 years ago,'' Bunting lamented. ``I wish my mother could see what they've done to the chicken industry. They have put the farmer all the way to the bottom.''

Promises beckon

Then why do so many people still want in? Why does every company boast of its waiting list of prospective growers? One reason is the cheery promotional ads and optimistic income projections that companies produce - emphasizing the gross pay, not the net.

A recent Perdue newspaper ad mentioned a possible minimum annual gross income of more than $26,500, one ``you can't get from crops or livestock.'' A grower quoted on Tyson's World Wide Web site gushes, ``This is the best job I've ever had, and I've had some good jobs.''

A shorter, catchier slogan caught David Mayer's attention when he was visiting North Carolina in June 1979.

`` 'Invest in part-time work for full-time pay,' `` Mayer recalled reading. ``I was thinking I might look into something like that.''

In those days, Mayer was running three fitness centers in Richmond, Va. He was looking to sell them and move his family south. He met with a Perdue representative.

``He said to me, 'Let me tell you something. If you just put out a little effort, you're going to beat average [pay] every time,' `` Mayer said. ``They had a very sophisticated sales presentation - 'We're going to be in business together. As we grow, so will you.' ... He told me that if I had a chicken house, all I needed was a wheelbarrow and a pitchfork.''

Mayer soon found out he also needed a tractor, a front-end loader and other expensive equipment. ``Once I'd signed that promissory note,'' he said, ``it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. ... Initially it was, 'This [job] is all you need.' Then it became, 'Listen, we never intended for this to be your full-time job.' ``

Now, at age 43, Mayer works under a huge burden of debt on his chicken farm in Hobgood, N.C., even though he generally finishes toward the top of the pay settlement rankings. He wonders whether he'll ever earn the independence he sought when he entered the business.

``They say they absorb all the risks,'' he said. ``But in fact we risk everything - the farm, our homes. If the market is hurt tomorrow, it won't affect Frank Perdue's lifestyle a bit, but they might not put chickens in my house tomorrow.''

Mayer's nonfarming background indicates the pressure the industry was under in the 1970s and '80s to find new growers. Their broadened recruiting began attracting a whole new breed of contractor - doctors and lawyers, business people and retired military officers.

``There were a large number of farmers who began to see this as their primary means of income,'' said Tom Smith, former chief executive of Wayne Farms. ``In many cases, [growers] were far down the road before they realized they'd bitten off more than they could chew, and by that time they were deep in debt.''

Former Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Lewis R. Riley, who grows chickens for Perdue in Parsonsburg, recalled the peak years of that period on the Eastern Shore, 12 to 15 years ago.

``There were people who came in and thought they would build three or four chicken houses and it would be the most wonderful thing in the world,'' Riley said. ``The industry was being promoted this way by companies, that this could interpreted it as utopia.''

James Rushing, live production manager for Lady Forest Farms in Mississippi, as much as admitted in a sworn deposition this year that he'd made empty promises in his sales pitch.

Reminded that he'd told a grower, whose contract was later canceled, that he'd have a contract ``as long as he grew a good bird,'' Rushing answered, ``If you buy a new car, the salesman might tell you it might last you a lifetime, but would you believe that?''

Banks and other lenders were virtually forced into a cheerleader's role in this process, especially in regions where poultry loans became a major part of their business.

So, even under the tighter economies for farmers today, ``If somebody has a contract to grow chickens and they qualify, we'll loan to them, [even] knowing the farmer doesn't have a real good shake,'' said Don Davis, a Winder, Ga., chicken grower who also is a board member of North Georgia Farm Credit.

An insider speaks

Occasionally, someone inside the poultry industry, whether a serviceman who supervises growers or a manager in the plant offices, will talk candidly about the high-pressure nature of their business, and how, eventually, that pressure can crush the farms at the bottom of the production chain.

Ken Trew decided to talk after he got cancer. The former live haul manager at ConAgra's Dalton, Ga., plant, was a witness in the weight-cheating lawsuit by the plant's growers, and in an interview last spring he talked of the troubles he saw daily in his industry until his retirement in 1992.

Wheezing and weak, Trew would pause for long stretches between observations. He died a month after the interview.

Even when ConAgra wasn't tampering with scales or arbitrarily deducting weight from a farmer's load of chickens, Trew said, the company would let the birds sit on the trucks for hours, to lose pounds to dehydration before the weigh-in.

The trucks would ``come in [from the farms] at 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning, and not weigh them until about 2 p.m.,'' he said. ``You're talking about losing anywhere from 1,800 to 2,000 pounds per truckload, and sometimes in the summertime they'd lose more than that.''

When growers would ask him if that sort of thing was going on, he'd lie for the company. ``I'd say, 'I guess they're doing the best they can.' Really I never did feel good about it. I was really close to some of those growers.''

Trew also talked of stressful monthly management meetings at the plant, lasting all day.

``They'd tell me, 'Do better,' every month, even though you were the best the month before, putting pressure on you all the time. And of course you'd put pressure on your own [service] people, and you'd have turnover all the ``Some of them [in management] would say, 'Hey, you need to get rid of this man.' And he'd be a good grower to me and close to town. But maybe the field man didn't like him, or maybe he'd given the office manager a bad time. And maybe he'd only have two bad batches [of chickens], and they'd say, 'Let's get rid of him.' ``

Sometimes, talk would turn to the subject of the hatchery and of which farmers would get the best and worst chicks.

``A lot of times, one grower would get nothing but bad chickens,'' Trew said.

The only times the company took pains to place an extra good flock, he said, were when the company was delivering birds to growers for other companies, because ``if you sent them a bad bunch with bad mortality, you'd have to pay [the other company] for it, but if it was just one of your growers, he took care of it.''

Opponents in high places

Every now and then, a grower stands up to a poultry company. Probst did it in Alabama and paid for it with his home. In Oak City, N.C., Benny Bunting stood up to Perdue, and his case shows the levers of power that a company can pull when battling a grower.

It is a 21-year saga in which Bunting only recently discovered the ultimate price of his defiance.

Bunting, the sort of independent-minded tinkerer who builds his own equipment, does his own research and always seems to have another question for whoever happens to be his boss, signed his first Perdue contract in 1976. But by late 1981, his paychecks were suffering.

His chickens were healthy and gained weight just as fast as they were supposed to. Yet, their ``feed conversion'' - the rate at which chickens convert feed to weight - was below par.

He figured that the company must be misweighing his birds or his feed, and he refused to sign a new contract until Perdue got to the bottom of the problem.

Perdue cut off his contract.

He then sought the help of North Carolina Assistant Attorney General John F. Maddrey, who believed Bunting was protected by the state's Business Opportunity Sales Act. Maddrey said so in a stern letter to Perdue, demanding Bunting's reinstatement. But a few weeks later, Maddrey dropped the case.

Bunting called to find out why. ``And [Maddrey] said, 'I will tell you this and deny it any other time it's ever brought up.' He said, 'When your [state] representative has lunch with my boss, and my boss comes in and says I will have no further correspondence with you or with Perdue, then I have to do what I'm told.' ``

Maddrey indeed denies the conversation, but said, ``I do recall Perdue retained the services of a very competent lawyer, Mr. [Stephen] Burch, who met with the upper echelons of the attorney general's office. At some point, Burch got Harrington involved.''

That would be state Sen. J. J. ``Monk'' Harrington, who was Bunting's senator but also represented Perdue, his district's biggest employer.

``Harrington may have gotten in touch with Edmisten,'' Maddrey said.

That would be North Carolina Attorney General Rufus Edmisten, Maddrey's boss.

Bunting sued Perdue in December 1982 in federal court, seeking relief under, among other statutes, the Business Opportunity Sales Act. A month later, Harrington introduced a bill to exempt Perdue from the act. It passed unanimously.

Bunting's suit, meanwhile, was going nowhere. A judge threw out most of it as one year passed, then another. In the meantime, Bunting was doing some detective work. He'd heard that some Perdue feed-truck drivers had been fired a while back and wondered whether they'd been caught stealing feed - his, perhaps, which would explain his earlier slump.

In late 1985 Bunting tracked down a series of cases investigated by sheriff's deputies and Perdue's Jim McCauley, an investigator from Salisbury. Local court records show that the thefts of Perdue feed involved 10 people - including at least six Perdue employees - and stretched back to May 1982, suggesting that Perdue had begun investigating not long after Bunting complained.

Bunting's attorney, David Duffus, asked to take a deposition from McCauley. According to a witness that day, the Perdue investigator read from his notes that Bunting's feed had indeed been stolen. The feed of other growers had been stolen, too.

Perdue attorneys immediately secured a court order to keep anyone else from finding out, then settled Bunting's case two weeks later with a confidential agreement.

Bunting began growing chickens again under a contract in the name of his father, Wiley B. Bunting Sr. A Perdue service person advised him to keep the arrangement that way until later, when tensions eased.

Bunting never did switch the contract to his own name, and last year that suddenly mattered. That's when his son Jason decided to buy a neighbor's used chicken houses at a bargain price. Perdue listed the needed improvements, and the Buntings went to work, hoping to soon have a contract in hand.

Then word came down that the deal was on hold. Bunting was mystified until April 3, when a letter arrived from Perdue complex manager Rod Flagg. It was addressed to Bunting's father. There would be no contract for Jason, the letter said, nor for anybody else except him, the eldest Bunting, because, ``Perdue Farms refuses to have a contractual relationship with Wiley B. [Benny] Bunting Jr. or any successors, heirs or assigns of Benny Bunting Jr.''

Perdue officials say they're simply abiding by the terms of their original, confidential settlement with Bunting, according to spokesman Richard C. Auletta. That settlement barred further dealings with Bunting and his ``heirs or assigns,'' Auletta said.

Not true, said attorney Clay Fulcher, now handling Bunting's case. The agreement only said that the company and Bunting himself would ``go their separate ways.'' If the company can't deal with any potential heirs or assigns, he said, then how could it have continued its contract with Bunting's father?

``It looks like a blacklist to me,'' said Bunting, still pondering his next move.

High cost of escape

As expensive as it is to get into the business, it can be even more costly to get out.

Probst found out when he tried to sell his chicken farm in Alabama in 1996. No potential buyer could get a contract to grow chickens with any of the poultry companies in the area.

It is a problem that worries all growers who want out. Companies have become more selective than ever in choosing new growers, and almost always prefer new farms to used ones.

Drive across Delmarva today, and for every lot with a set of long gleaming chicken houses and a big tidy home there seems to be another with old or abandoned chicken houses, staved-in places with torn curtains and bowed walls, open to the breeze and the songbirds.

Jean and William Bunting have one like that, even if it's not nearly as outdated as the coop her mother, Cecile Steele, built in 1923, now a museum piece in Delaware.

Theirs, more than 30 years old, has little if any resale value. But it is free and clear of debt, meaning the Buntings can resort to chicken farming's most elemental means of escape.

``We're selling whatever anybody wants out of it,'' Jean said.

And then?

``We're going to burn it.''

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