Fairness for Eastern Shore chicken farmers

Within the poultry industry, company dealings with the farmers they contract with have been one-sided for at least the past 20 years. It's been a long, hard battle for contract farmers to try to gain any fairness in that relationship; I can't count the times in those 20 years that I've traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak with our illustrious politicians about the issue.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) has the authority to write and publish rules to protect farmers from unfair and/or deceptive practices. In June 2010, the USDA set out with a mandate from Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill to do this very thing. It took over a year to get anything down on paper and allow public comments to be made. The USDA received more than 60,000 comments, most in favor of such a rule.

The proposed rule covers some longstanding problems. It would outlaw retaliation against farmers who speak out about the problems with their contracts or within the industry; create significant new requirements to protect the substantial investments that contract growers are required to make by their poultry companies, and make sure they are not forced into making unwise investments or retaliated against for not doing so; and ban the use of coercion or retaliation to force growers into upgrades.

Expecting a final rule to differ from the meat and poultry industry's visions, corporate agriculture jumped on the cronyism train to the U.S. House of Representatives. With visions of campaign contributions no doubt dancing in their heads, a majority of the House caved in to power and influence and stopped the USDA proposed GIPSA rule from being written and published. The House Appropriations Committee cut funding for it.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is a different story. The GIPSA rule came out of committee intact. It now goes to the Senate floor, where insiders are saying that we can expect an amendment from the floor to be introduced to kill the GIPSA rule.

It's no secret that contract poultry farmers are afraid to speak out about the issue for fear of having their contracts terminated. Some farmers were so afraid of company retaliation that they submitted their comments to GIPSA, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Senate anonymously. One would think that this is enough to convince politicians that there is definitely a problem.

This fear of speaking out is confounding. We have no problem sending our young men and women to war in other countries because of tyranny, yet we have tyrants bullying farmers by holding a contract over their heads. Ironically, most of our enlisted troops come from rural America, and many come from farms where their parents are afraid to speak out. That is an outrage and just plain wrong.

If there is any doubt that this does happen in our country, I can say that after raising chickens under contract for 23 years — and as evidenced in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Food, Inc." — my contract was terminated. This was done despite the fact that a few weeks before sending us the letter of contract termination, the very same poultry company awarded us with an "Outstanding Producer Award." This was allowed to happen simply because the poultry industry can do whatever it chooses to do, no matter the fairness or unfairness of its actions.

It's blatantly obvious that a handful of corporate types has more voice than thousands of farmers. We need to stop just writing history about the GIPSA rule and get it done. Farmers needed this rule in place 20 years ago. Although it may not be popular inside the Beltway to take a stand for the American farmer, it's time for our leaders to stop kowtowing to fistfuls of dollars and do what they were sent there to do.

It's up to Sens. Benjamin Cardin and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, along with Sens. Thomas Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, to take the lead in protecting the rights of farmers in this country and taking a stand for the American people.

Carole Morison is a poultry farmer in Pocomoke City. Her story was featured in the movie "Food, Inc." Her email is cmorison@verizon.net.

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