Contract poultry farmers subject of new documentary

Farmer Genell Pridgen described contract chicken farming with lyrics from the song “16 Tons,” popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford:

“You load 16 tons and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt ... I owe my soul to the company store.”

“He was talking about mining, but that’s what it is,” Pridgen said. She is a former contract chicken grower for the poultry industry, and one of the farmers interviewed in a new documentary called “Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print.” Most of the film was screened and then discussed during at workshop at the Come to the Table Conference held at the Durham Convention Center on Thursday.

Come to the Table convenes food, faith and farm advocates and this convention was called “Bridging Divides: Cultivating Food & Faith Connections.” The keynote speaker ws Jason Brown, the former NFL player turned farmer. Come to the Table is a project of Rural Advancement Foundation International, known as RAFI, and the North Carolina Council of Churches. It has funding from the Duke Endowment.

“Under Contract” co-director Sally Lee also spoke at the workshop, called “Fairness in Contract Poultry Production.” “Under Contract” is a RAFI film. It premiered in New York in February, she said, and the first North Carolina full screening will be on April 7 at Chatham Mills in Pittsboro, where RAFI is also based. The screening at Come to the Table was shortened for time. The full version also includes a segment about poultry contract farming in India. The film is free for farmers and farmworkers to view via streaming or a download from RAFI.

The contract farming model of production in agriculture is expanding out of the chicken sector, Lee said in an interview before the workshop Thursday. It doesn’t really benefit the farmer, she said. Lee narrates the film as former contract poultry farmers are interviewed in multiple states. People’s eyes glaze over when you start talking about contracts, but it’s an essential shift in how we produce food, she said.

“The contracts are incredibly one-sided,” Lee said, and shifts the risk of farming to the farmers. There are several little things that can balance that contract between farmers and companies, she said.

“The big thing is we have to regulate the relationship between companies and farmers,” Lee said. “We need common sense regulations between one party that’s powerful and one that does not have that same kind of power.”

“Under Contract” features farmers in Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi and North Carolina who are former contract chicken growers for Tyson Foods, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride. Each tells their own story of how they became chicken farmers, the loans and expense of building chicken houses, and how the contracts with big companies means they had little control over how much money they made, competing to produce the most pounds of chicken with batches of chicks they didn’t control. Farmers who worked hard all their lives talked about barely breaking even and feeling like a failure when filing for bankruptcy.

Pridgen, a ninth generation farmer from Snow Hill, was a contract chicken grower for Perdue until 2005. Being a contract grower is becoming an employee on your own farm, Pridgen said. She said farmers don’t realize what they’re getting into when becoming contract farmers, and then become indebted without clearing much money a year.

Lee said it’s critically important to support independent farmers if you can. Pridgen said that buying local chicken from farmers’ markets is going to be more expensive because “when you’re buying from the individual farmer, you’re paying the real price of food.” Pridgen also encourages consumers to think about eating seasonally, and to think about how they spend money on food.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan

GO & DO:

WHAT: Screening of “Under Contract: Farmers and the Fine Print”

WHEN: 7 p.m. April 7

WHERE: Chatham Mills

480 Hillsboro St., Pittsboro

INFORMATION: Suggested donation of $5 to Rural Advancement Foundation International. Q&A session after the screening. RSVP to Farmers and farmworkers may view the film for free at