6 questions for poultry farmer Mike Weaver
Tell us a little about yourself. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you end up doing it?
I’m a farmer now, I raise broiler chickens for Pilgrim’s Pride and Angus beef cattle. I’m a retired Federal agent for US Fish and Wildlife Enforcement and before that I was a state wildlife enforcement officer. In ‘01 I bought my poultry farm, it was turkeys, I did that for about 3 years, and then I converted to broiler chickens. I’m president of Contract Poultry Growers of the Virginias and also president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, which is a national family farmer advocate group.
We have another farm in the next valley from where our poultry farm is, and we wanted to buy some more land and preferably a bigger piece. At the time poultry was a good business to get into that would allow us the funds to buy a bit more property, so we did. But unfortunately for us, things haven’t changed since then especially pay-wise for farmers. The only pay increase we’ve had in the 14 years I’ve been raising chickens was one that just recently came out that was 6/10 of a cent per pound. And we’re going on almost 20 years, actually other growers tell me, since there has been an increase in base pay for farmers. At the same time Pilgrims just announced the last quarter their net profits was almost $3 billion. To give you some more background on how they abuse farmers, in 2015-2016 they paid their stockholders $2.2 billion in dividends. That’s not only wrong, its shameful to treat the farmers that way who make all that money for them and not give the farmers fair treatment.
How does contract farming affect the whole food system?
To really understand it you have to start at the beginning. The way the poultry companies have it set up is they go into economically depressed areas like ours and misrepresent at best and lie at worst about the revenue poultry will generate. They talk them (farmers) into building a facility to raise their chickens that today costs about $1.5 million dollars, and once they get them talked into doing that and farmers are in that much debt their choices are take what they give you or lose your home and your farm. Most farmers like me have to put their home and farm up for collateral to borrow that much money. That’s the situation, and they do it a lot of places around the country.
We’ve gone to Congress and tried to get things changed, to make it illegal for them to do these kinds of things, but Big Ag essentially owns Congress. That’s another shameful situation.
It has a huge impact on rural America. The way these companies have it set up, and it’s not just poultry, it’s beef and pork, they’re all doing it, and the overall effect is they are drawing all the wealth out of our rural communities and sending it to Wall Street. If they were sharing with farmers the way they should be, you know, we buy pickup trucks and hardware, and everything else locally and spread the wealth around on the local level, but the way they’re sucking all the revenue out of the system it’s going to Wall Street and the fat cats in Congress. That’s how they buy their way in to run everything. Another result is that our kids have to go to the city to get a job further decimating rural America.
What’s the kind of central challenge that you’re focusing on in your advocacy to address what’s happening?
We’re trying to get the word out to the American public and inform them of what’s going on in the situation. We firmly believe that if the American public is better informed of these kinds of things I’m telling you about, and what’s going on, they will get behind us and use their votes to get rid of some of these politicians that are in the back pocket of Big Agriculture. That’s one of the main things we’re doing. We’re using social media, trying to push the word out every way that we can. Another movement we have going on through the Organization for Competitive Markets is to get all the ag sectors together. We’ve been battling these things for years in our own little corner, and we make some headway here and there but we make one step forward and get knocked back two steps, so we’re trying to get people together from all the different ag sectors to pool resources on every level and make more of a difference.
Organization for Competitive Markets is 20 years old and bringing together dairy, beef, pork, poultry, and everybody we can involved in agriculture to work on a national strategy and to pool our resources to effect some change in the way the system is now. We can’t out-buy Big Ag, they have too much money and there is no way we can outspend them. So we are going to try to organize the voters to vote the politicians out who are in their back pockets and hopefully change things.
Do you have any stake in the upcoming Farm Bill or other federal and state policies? If so, what are the specific pieces you’re concerned about or want to see action on?
They’re debating the bill right now in Congress, one of the things we’re trying to do is get some legislation introduced to reform check off systems. People who aren’t familiar with that, that is the money paid in for every cow or hog that is sold and there are some 30 check offs, even apples to strawberries and cotton, all kinds of things. Big Ag has taken over the Board of Directors and USDA that administers the check off system, and are effectively taking the money farmers are required to pay in by law and using it against the farmers and to the best interests of the companies. Seeing the money is sent to promote the meatpackers and poultry integrators and not the family farmers, although we’re paying the bill. We got an amendment introduced to force some more transparency and accountability in the check off system and it’s being debated on the floor this morning, if you know anybody that can help us on that call them up and tell them to vote in favor of amendment number 24. It will start using our money more effectively to promote family farmers over Big Ag. (Editorial note: the amendment was withdrawn and did not pass.)
We’re also opposed to changing the amount on subsidies. Big Ag wants to let farmers making half a million dollars a year to get taxpayer subsidies and we need to get that stopped. My understanding is the limit on it right now is $125k annually, if you make that much on your farm you can’t receive the subsidy and that’s the way it ought to stay, that’s plenty. If you netted a half million on your farm crop production you could still be subsidized with taxpayer money, well that’s a bunch of bull that ought to be stopped.
You’ve been doing this awhile, are there any lessons you learned along the way you want to share?
Encourage people to organize. There are a lot of little small efforts out here that win a small battle occasionally, but we are never going to win the war unless we all get together, and I call it gang up on the bastards in Big Ag. That’s the only way we’re going to be effective. I encourage people to do that. People can go to our webpage at competitivemarkets.com and we have a wealth of information about what we’re working on, what’s going on, and how they can help. Join up, we need your support!
Anything else you want folks to know?
If folks have any influence on Department of Justice contact them and let them know the approval of the Monsanto-Bayer merger needs to be controlled as much as possible to assist family farmers. We’re really concerned it is going to drive up prices for farmers and not help anybody but Big Ag again. We’d like to have stopped it but that doesn’t look possible. If Department of Justice can introduce enough restrictions on them hopefully we can keep it controlled to some extent.
Learn more about contract farming in this excellent piece by John Oliver.