If you’ve seen Food, Inc., you may remember watching Carole Morison walk through her chicken house gathering a handful of sickly and lifeless birds. It’s a chilling scene, and one that she tells the documentary’s audience occurred almost daily over the two decades she and her husband were contract farmers for Perdue. By the time the film was made, the Morisons had decided to end their contract with the company and Carole was in a rare position to act as a whistle blower. In exacting detail she described the harsh conditions for the animals and the people involved in such contracts and shed light on an industry often shrouded in secrecy. Now a consultant focused on local food systems, Carole visited the Bay Area recently to speak on several food and farming panels, including one held by the Center for urban Education for Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) called Inside the Hen House. My interview with her follows:
Twilight Greenaway: By now, many of our readers will have seen you discuss breaking the contract you had with Perdue in Food Inc. What happened on the farm next?
Carole Morison: Since we quit raising chickens we’ve been leasing the land to someone else who grows corn and soybeans. Perdue wanted us to upgrade our facility, which would have cost us $150,000, but we didn’t, so we’re not in the debt we would have been. We’re down to 14 acres. And we’re trying to figure out exactly what it is we want to do next.
TG: You had raised chickens for 23 years; that must have been a huge transition.
CM: Yeah, my husband has been in it all his life. The land we’re on was part of his family’s original home farm. By the time the contract ended, we both had jobs off the farm, so we were used to getting up early and every day was filled with work. So yeah, it was a large transition in a lot of ways.
TG: You’re still involved as an activist, trying to help folks who are stuck in contracts with big poultry companies. What kind of changes are you advocating for?
CM: Agriculture has changed so much. Contracts are really at the forefront, not just with poultry, but with most all [industrial] farming. It’s a dictated policy as to how your farm is run, what you do, how you feed your chickens. For instance going out to buy feed from a source other than the company you contract with — that’s cause for violation of the contract. You have to take what they give you. It’s the same with everything. It’s like the coal mine and the company store, totally controlled. It really has nothing to do with the farmer’s performance anymore. It’s more or less the performance of the company’s inputs (the poults, or day-old chicks, the feed, medicine, etc). There are new proposed guidelines that the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) is supposed to release. The hope is that this will level the playing field for contract farming. We’re currently working off the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921.
TG: So why would anyone enter the poultry business at this point?
CM: There’s this idea that if you get just bigger, it’ll get better. If you ever manage to pay off that debt — but you don’t pay it off because they don’t want you to. In our case, they kept demanding we make upgrades. In the chicken belt – from our area in Maryland down through the South – the only new people getting into the business have it handed down through the family, or they tend to be immigrant farmers willing to take the risk. And let’s just say there are people who get into it and learn really quickly that it was not what they thought it was going to be.
TG: What are your thoughts on the recent effort to position people who are proponents of sustainable food as “anti-farmer” because they oppose the methods of conventional farming?
CM: I’ve definitely noticed that and I’d say that’s probably the number one battle plan of industrial agriculture. It has been their way for a long time. Within the poultry industry they also pit farmer against worker; it’s divide and conquer. The fact is these big companies took the farmer out of the equation a long time ago. Now the farmer is trying to take back what was rightfully theirs to begin with. But I do understand the pride folks have, when they’ve put their whole life into this work. Nobody wants to admit that they’re wrong. But I don’t see [the sustainable food movement] as disrespect for the farmer. I view it more along the lines of people finally recognizing what the farmer is stuck in.
TG: You’re in a position to act as a bridge between several kinds of people. How did you get here?
CM: My first foray into the activism world came through an environmental group — and at that point it was like mixing oil and water. It was a Chesapeake Bay group. I went to one of their press conferences prepared to do battle. And a few comments they made kind of hit home. Something called Pfiesteria had caused large algae blooms in the Bay. It was caused by run-off from poultry manure and it caused massive fish kills. The press at the time positioned the farmers against environmentalists and fishermen. But at one point the environmentalists made it clear that they didn’t understand how it all worked. They needed our help and I thought, “if it’s this easy to talk to environmentalists, how bad can anybody else be?” So I think if we all want to survive through what is going on with agriculture, we’re all going to have to give an inch.
TG: Would any of your three kids be interested in getting involved if you were to start farming again in a different way?
CM: Our son would love to be in farming; but the closest he can get to it right now is working at a farm supply store. He’s where he is now because we made him do it. We said, “you’re getting off the farm.” We did not want him to continue the downward spiral. I think we’re seeing that in a lot of our generation of farmers. They’re just not there.
TG: You’ve been in the Bay Area all week; what will you take back with you?
CM: One of the things I hear from contract poultry farmers I work with is: how can we manage this enormous debt, cut back on the amount we’re producing, and still survive? I’d had a hard time envisioning how that might be done. Then I spent time on Alexis Koefoed’s Soul Food Farm and now I know it’s possible. Their rotational grazing system is great. And it was just mind-boggling for me to see chickens running around. We used to raise 54,000 chickens every seven weeks. And even if we’d cut that in half, it could have made a big difference in terms of the environmental impact. And heck, with what the farmers are making under contract — an average of four cents a pound — how much worse can it be? I’ve also learned that [changing the system] will take more than separate groups working on separate issues. At the panel I spoke on the other night, so many good ideas came up — like nonprofit investing in meat-processing infrastructure, for instance. I thought maybe we can throw all these ideas together and come up with a different system! So I have a good feeling about it. I’m beginning to think I just might see it in my lifetime.