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Jim Cooper

Taking a stand, losing the farm

ENTERPRISE, Ala. - In this rural town with the can-do name, the ugliness began with a showdown. In late 1995, 39 chicken farmers decided to say no to ConAgra, the nation's fifth largest poultry processor.

The farmers said the company's new contract was unfair and a ticket to the poorhouse. Local bankers agreed. Emboldened by unity and the security of their farms - which they could sell if the going got rough - the farmers refused to sign.

They might as well have challenged a tank squadron with pitchforks.

In the year that followed, ConAgra defied or intimidated nearly every institution that usually calls the shots in small-town America. The bankers surrendered. The local...