After repeatedly calling out the unfair labor practices and inhumane conditions rife in contract poultry farming, Mike Weaver left behind a 15-year career as a grower.
“My last flock of chickens went out January 8, 2019,” he said.
But his next move has surprised some of his neighbors in Fort Seybert, West Virginia. The 67-year-old isn’t giving up farming altogether but transitioning to growing hemp.
“I’ve been a CBD oil user for almost two years, and I’ve been researching it for a good while,” said Weaver, who has also served as the president of the advocacy group Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM). “I thought, ‘Maybe, I’ll repurpose my chicken houses and see if I can raise industrial hemp and purchase the equipment to extract the oil.’”
A former special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Weaver hopes to save water, hire more workers, and make exponentially more money growing hemp than he ever did as a contract grower for Pilgrim’s Pride, a subsidiary of meat company giant JBS.
Weaver belongs to a burgeoning movement of farmers shifting away from animal agriculture to crops of all kinds. And they’re getting help from unexpected quarters. The animal rights advocacy group Mercy for Animals (MFA) and vegan foods company Miyoko’s Creamery have recently announced programs to help farmers make a transition away from raising livestock. The groups say the shift benefits animals and the environment, while boosting farmers’ economic outlook.
As contract farmers struggle to stay financially afloat and concerns about animal agriculture’s role in climate change mount, MFA launched its Transfarmation Project in November to help farmers currently raising animals on a large scale grow crops such as hemp, mushrooms, and hydroponic lettuce instead. The group will include investors, engineers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers in an effort to provide alternatives. During the first phase of its fledgling project, MFA plans to help 10 yet-to-be named individuals leave factory farming behind.
“We decided to create a platform where we would have this conversation about our current factory farm system and how to get the people who want out involved in the plant-based space, whether it’s hemp or even solar and wind energy,” said MFA President Leah Garcés. “I’m not pretending that taking 10 farmers out of factory farming is going to end it, but we’re trying to work collaboratively and be constructive about creating new jobs for those who want them.”
As the MFA effort begins, Miyoko’s Creamery is gearing up to help one (also yet-to-be named) California dairy farmer make the move to plant agriculture next year. The company will use the farmer’s acreage for research and development efforts related to its vegan cheese and butter products. Miyoko’s will partner with Farm Sanctuary, an advocacy group, on this project, which it hopes to replicate on other farms.
“This is a worldwide movement,” said the company’s founder, Miyoko Schinner. She points to a recent report by a think tank called RethinkX that predicts that industrialized animal agriculture is going to collapse by 2035. “There will still be some high-end dairy, but it will be a very niche market. The trend will be more toward sustainable plant-based food,” she adds.
A Costly, but Beneficial, Transition
Mike Weaver, who will advise MFA on the Transfarmation Project and serve as a model for other farmers who make similar changes to their business models, believes that growing hemp instead of broiler chickens will be life-changing for him. He became a contract chicken farmer in hopes of supplementing his retirement income, but the endeavor was far from profitable. His highest net income raising chickens was just $7,000 in a year.
On the other hand, if he’s able to meet his goal of harvesting 1,000 cannabis plants monthly, he could earn $2 million, keeping 40 to 50 percent as his net income. Inundated with new farmers hoping to strike it rich, however, the hemp industry is an uncertain one, bringing profits to some and financial woes to others due to a lack of buyers and infrastructure to support this burgeoning market.
In contrast, the poultry industry has thrived for years—chicken remains America’s most popular meat—but farmers aren’t necessarily enjoying the benefits. As the wholesale price of chicken rose by 17.4 cents per pound from 1988 to 2016, the pay chicken farmers receive only improved by 2.5 cents per pound during the same period, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Chicken Council.
These growers also have little say in their contracts or ability to sue the companies that employ them, issues that led Weaver to exit the industry when his contract was up for renewal a year ago. He said he’s been retaliated against for his work with OCM, through which he has spoken out about the problems that contract chicken farmers endure, especially the base pay, which is inconsistent with the cost of raising chickens.
“I was tired of making the poultry industry rich,” Weaver said.
He has already begun raising hemp plants and extracting their oil; he’ll soon be ready to start selling his product for $50 an ounce. But converting his chicken farm into a hemp farm has required a sizeable investment of time and money.
Weaver has had to learn about growing cannabis both outdoors and indoors, the latter of which has proven a challenge. He’s grown four generations of indoor plants and says that he sees improvement with each cycle. While hemp allows him to cut his water use in half, he has spent $300,000 to turn his barns into a hospitable environment for cannabis. He’s taken out loans, used his retirement income, and his wife’s salary as a schoolteacher to make that happen.
“It’s not cheap to get into it,” he said. “But there’s less labor, and it’s more fun than picking up dead chickens every day. I miss them like a toothache.”
Garcés, who met Weaver in 2016 as part of a documentary she was involved in about the struggles of chicken farmers, acknowledges that it can be cost-prohibitive for many farmers to shift from one kind of agriculture to another. And it’s still unclear how exactly the group plans to help farmers with these costs.
“I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I do plan to bring really smart people on board who do know,” she said. “There could be debt forgiveness or [crowdfunded] donations given to these farmers.”
In March, Mercy for Animals will hold an incubator event during which experts will devise ways to help the first round of interested farmers approach the logistics. Garcés said that many of these growers never really wanted a career in factory farming but became involved in the industry because they needed a job or lived on family land they didn’t want to abandon.
“Most farmers do not want to be in the warehouse picking up dead chickens,” she said. “We could just say ‘I don’t care,’ but there’s a deeper thing here. Rural America is the fabric of our country and an important part of our history and our culture. There is a real need to do something constructive.”
The End of Conventional Dairy?
While chicken farmers tend to be underpaid in an industry that’s still very much in demand, the milk industry is suffering. On January 6, Borden Dairy Co., one of the nation’s oldest, filed for bankruptcy because it could not afford its debt load and pension obligations, CNN reported. It’s the second large dairy co-op to file for bankruptcy since November, when Dean Foods filed in the wake of a growing trend: Fewer Americans are drinking cow’s milk. Sales of the product dropped by $15 billion from 2015 to 2019. As a result, small and mid-sized farmers are selling out, moving away, and even taking their own lives in the face of insurmountable financial woes.
And while plant-based milk sales have been on the rise (the nascent oat milk market alone grew by 636 percent to $53 million over the past year), it’s not as simple as a wholesale move away from dairy, since the cheese and yogurt markets have remained solid, and demand for niche milk products—such as lactose-free and flavored whole milk—are on the rise. Some analysts have pointed instead to factors such as: private equity firms buying dairy companies, mega-dairies crippling their smaller counterparts, and the lack of supply management policies in the industry.
Some dairy farmers have already transitioned to plant-based agriculture, however. In October, California’s oldest dairy farm, Giacomazzi Dairy, closed down after 125 years to grow almonds instead. Owner Dino Giacomazzi explained the farm was making the shift because of how difficult it’s been to make money in conventional dairy. Three years earlier, Elmhurst Dairy in New York shut down its dairy plant and shifted to offering vegan, nut-based milk instead of cow’s milk.
Such news stories make Miyoko Schinner even more confident in her efforts. When her company selects its initial farmer, they’ll provide financial resources and technical expertise to make the shift and enter into a contractual agreement with the farm. (The company has not disclosed how much funding it will ll shell out to help the farmer it chooses.)
“The writing’s on the wall,” Schinner said of the dairy industry. “People are struggling in contracts with large milk producers and can’t get out. We’d like to find a way to get someone out of debt.”
Farm Sanctuary co-founder Gene Baur said that, with this project, Miyoko’s could “set an example for others.” He calls the transition from animal to plant agriculture part of an ongoing evolution of society and economy.
“Ultimately when you look at animal products, they’re very inefficient,” he said. “They use enormous amounts of land and resources. It’s a lot more efficient to grow plants based on the season than dairy.” Baur also acknowledged that some farmers may resent efforts to get them to swap animal agriculture for its plant-based counterpart.
Nicolette Hahn Niman, doesn’t necessarily see plant-based agriculture as more beneficial to the planet than animal agriculture. Niman is a former environmental lawyer and Marin County, California, rancher who has raised cattle, goats, and turkey with her husband Bill Niman, and authored the books Righteous Porkchop and Defending Beef.
“The more diversified your operation is, the more it benefits the soil, plants, and wildlife,” Niman said. “The premise of sustainable food production is diversification. So, to me, whether someone’s raising plants or animals isn’t relevant, it’s really about how it’s being done.”
Niman said that any agricultural operation needs to move toward a model that reflects how nature functions, and to do so involves using animals. By pressing seeds into the soil with their hooves, clipping vegetation with their teeth, and enriching the soil with their manure, animals improve soil health, Niman said.
“I’m not pro or con someone converting their dairy or their chicken operation to a crop operation,” she explained. “That said, I don’t see that [the shift to solely growing crops] is an ecological plus.”
Andrew Gunther, executive director of A Greener World, which oversees the standards for the Animal Welfare Approved certification, one of nation’s strictest welfare labels, also expressed skepticism about the assumption that plant-based agriculture is inherently better for the environment.
“What is better for our planet is soil health,” Gunther said. “Good soils produce better food and store more carbon. And animals need to be treated well. You need to respect them as partners within a diverse system. Our system is broken. It’s a series of monocrops.”
He added that crops like soybeans, an ingredient commonly found in plant-based meat and milk alternatives, have been found to contain residue from pesticides (if not grown organically).
On the other hand, he said, the group doesn’t defend all animal agriculture either. “We support sustainable, high-welfare agriculture, and the system has to be designed with animals in mind.”
Baur, meanwhile, insists that the goal of the plant-based agriculture movement is to help farmers adapt to a changing society and an environment under threat.
“The goal is to help farmers with new opportunities,” he said. “Change is constant. It used to be that we would get oil from whales. When kerosene was developed, that shifted. Horses were routinely used for transportation; the automobile replaced horses.”
Processing Facilities for Plant-Based Protein
As Miyoko’s Creamery and Mercy for Animals prepare to help animal farmers switch to crops, Rebellyous Foods, a plant-based chicken startup in Seattle, hopes to give poultry workers the chance to work in animal-free processing plants.
“When it comes to chicken processing facilities, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) just said it was one of the most dangerous jobs in America,” said Christie Lagally, Rebellyous’s CEO and founder. “There are repetitive stress injuries. You’re on your feet all day; it’s a very rough job. At Rebellyous, our processing has no chicken, no blood, no chopping heads and feet off,” she added.
Having just opened its first production facility in West Seattle, Rebellyous is a very young startup, with just a handful of production workers. In the next two years, however, Lagally anticipates opening the company’s first flagship facility, followed by others across the country that will standardize a system for making plant-based meat. Rebellyous also aims to convert chicken processing facilities into plant-based ones.
She explained that the company can swap out the gear used in the chicken plants with Rebellyous’ equipment. “We can make some modifications for running electricity and water,” she said. “It’s very adaptable, moving from one type of production to another. We could create more jobs and a safer ecosystem for towns, since their wastewater system wouldn’t have blood and feathers in it.”
A former aerospace engineer, Lagally’s concerns about climate change inspired her to start Rebellyous, which sells plant-based chicken nuggets, patties, and strips. She said that plant-based protein sales make up just “a fifth of the 5 billion pounds of animal meats,” and she wants to see that change. “We need to bring these volumes up to meaningful levels to actually impact climate change,” she said. “We’re still at the beginning stages of this very nascent industry.”
Lagally also aims to raise awareness about animal welfare in agriculture. She wants consumers to demand higher standards for their food, ones that don’t include the inhumane treatment of animals. Her goal, she said, is simple: “To replace every one of the jobs at every chicken facility.”
Top photo: NRCS conservationist Dan Durham, left, with Stephen Becklund, manager of the J Bar L Ranch near Twin Bridges, Montana. (Photo CC-licensed by NRCS Montana)