Mercy for Animals, an animal welfare group, is hoping to partner with poultry growers to bring more humane conditions for chickens and better pay for the growers. (FRANK NIEMEIR/Staff)

Billboard campaign to take on Georgia chicken industry

An animal welfare group will try to bring north Georgia chicken farmers and chickens together for their common good.

Mercy for Animals plans to launch a billboard campaign north of Atlanta on Monday to solicit anonymous information from contract farmers for Tyson Foods. It will use the information to pressure the meat industry giant and restaurant customers for better pay for farmers and more humane conditions for the birds.

Mercy for Animals conducted a similar campaign in North Carolina against another food company, and it hopes the well-known tension between many chicken farmers and the companies they contract with will loosen lips about failings in the system.

The four billboards, in the heart of Georgia’s $456 million broiler industry, will include an electronic one in downtown Cumming. Georgia is the nation’s top producer of broilers, which are chickens raised for meat.

Tyson is a major player in Georgia. A spokesman said the company was unaware of the campaign, but said both its contractors and birds are important. It has implemented changes in recent years such as giving farmers the right to terminate their contracts at will, and it started an advisory council of farmers. Its animal welfare division started programs such as a video monitoring program for workers catching chickens and third-party audits of chicken houses.

“We greatly value the contribution of these farmers,” and believe ensuring the welfare of animals is an important ethical responsibility, said Worth Sparkman, a spokesman for the Arkansas-based company.

Leah Garcés of Decatur, president of Mercy for Animals, said chickens are packed densely in chicken houses with little space to move or sit and have no access to natural light, among other issues. The farmers work under unfair contract conditions that shift operational risks to them and their families, she said.

Mercy for Animals ran a North Carolina pressure campaign in 2014 targeting Perdue Farms that got some concessions from the agricultural giant, such as natural light and perches in chicken houses, and promises to listen more to farmers.

Garcés believes farmers also want more control over how they raise the chickens and believes her group working with and on behalf of farmers can bring changes. Farmers will be able to convey their concerns anonymously at chickieleaks.com.

“We want reform for the workers and the animals,” Garcés said. “We think collaborating would be a big step in the right direction.”

The relationship between contract growers and meat companies has been a field of discontent for decades. Meat producers help farmers get loans to build chicken houses by promising to contract with them. A multi-house operation can cost $1 million or more, which can take decades to pay off. The companies can later demand expensive upgrades to chicken houses, which produce more debt for the farmers.

The debt leaves farmers vulnerable, Garcés said. Once the farmers are indebted, the contracts offered are take it or leave it. Losing a contract could mean bankruptcy and losing their land, and contracting with another company may be difficult. That leaves farmers subject to the companies’ demands and pressures, farmers have complained.

Robert Taylor, a professor emeritus at Auburn University who studied the contract farming system for years, calls contract chicken farming “serfdom with a mortgage.” The system stabilizes meat prices the companies pay and shifts risks onto farmers, he said.

Farmers who balk or try to change the system have complained of retaliation, and say the meat companies pressure them to not organize. Some farmers from other states sued major producers in federal court in 2017 alleging the companies are conspiring to keep farmer pay low. The case is ongoing.

The defendants, including Tyson, strongly deny the allegations of the conspiracy.

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