Hoping to Change the Industry, a Factory Farmer Opens His Barn Doors

This post has been updated; read to the end.)

A few months ago, reporting on farm antibiotic use, I met a North Carolina farmer named Craig Watts. Craig lives in a small town near the South Carolina line where his forebears have been since the Carolinas were a British colony, and for more than 20 years, he has raised broiler chickens for Perdue Farms.

Watts went into chicken farming because, where he lives, there were not many alternatives. His parents and relatives had been row-crop farmers, but after the tobacco economy began to collapse, that looked like not a great way to make a living. Out of college, he began working as a field technician for an agricultural-chemicals company, but he disliked cubicle life and wanted to get back outside. When an advance man for Perdue came calling, showing spreadsheets of how lucrative chicken farming might be, he decided to give it a try.

It worked for him at first; he said that he was, intermittently, a top earner in the slaughterhouse complex that buys his chickens. But over the years, he chafed at the economic conditions the vertically integrated business imposed on farmers, who always seemed to get the raw end of the deal, and he grew increasingly uncomfortable with what intensive farming did to the chickens themselves. He began speaking out: first writing op-eds, then testifying at a government hearing exploring unfair contract conditions, and then talking to advocates and journalists.

And now he has taken his boldest step yet — really an extraordinary one, given the closed-door nature of most corporate farming: He has made a video, in cooperation with the animal-welfare group Compassion in World Farming, in which he escorts cameras into his broiler barns.

The video is a collaboration with Leah Garces, Compassion’s US director (who introduced me to Watts last summer). They appear onscreen together, walking through his broiler flock, discussing the strict company rules he operates under, and examining the sad condition of his birds:  leg deformities, ulcerated bellies from barn litter soaked with urine, chicks too frail to eat or stand.

It is difficult to watch, but it is essential to view because it is so unusual. When we see video from inside intensive meat production, it is almost always something that was shot covertly by activists working undercover, trying to document conditions that consumers would not otherwise see. For a farmer to admit to letting activists in —  and to appear with them on camera, explain the contract conditions he is compelled to work in, and document the poor health of the birds he is sent — is unheard-of. (And, for Watts, almost certainly a breach of contract. It will be important to keep track of whether he experiences consequences from the company.)

“This stuff is not as advertised,” Watts says in the video. “There’s a lot of flaws in the system. The consumer is being hoodwinked. The farmer’s being jerked around.”

Farmer Craig Watts. original: video by Compassion in World Farming

Farmer Craig Watts. Screenshot: video by Compassion in World Farming

Because I write so much about antibiotic use in farming, it is important to say that Watts’ farm is not, now, an antibiotics-using farm, though it was in the past. (As I covered earlier, almost all of Perdue went antibiotic-free last summer.) What he represents, instead, is a conviction among people examining livestock raising that removing antibiotics from meat production is not enough. After that is accomplished, animal welfare, and the economic conditions that farmers are forced to live under, need attention as well. (For more on those issues: The ASPCA began a campaign on broiler welfare, “The Truth About Chicken,” a year ago, and the Pew Charitable Trusts have released two reports on the broiler industry, here on environmental damage and here on economic unfairness.)

One of the key points of the video is that Watts’s chicken is sold under a USDA program called “Process Verified,” in which the agency says it confirms that broilers are raised to a number of standards, including “humanely” — which, from the conditions in the video, seems untrue. It slots into work that Garces and Compassion were already doing with the Better Chicken initiative, which challenges supermarkets to buy only chicken that is humanely raised.

In October, Perdue agreed as part of the settlement of a suit brought by the Humane Society of the United States that it would no longer use the “humane” claim on one specific label. In a statement, Compassion said that is not enough:

Americans think they are buying chickens raised in idyllic pasture when the meat is labeled “natural”.  But what they are actually buying are chickens raised on a bed of feces-filled litter that hasn’t been change for years. They are buying chickens bred to get so big, so fast they can’t stand on their own two feet. They are buying chickens raised in dimly lit warehouses, who never see the light of day except when coming from the hatchery or heading to slaughter. With an image of green pastures in their mind, shoppers are picking up a package of chicken from a factory farm.

Garces and Watts plan to continue working together to highlight the need for humane practices. I asked how how she felt about partnering with someone who, until now, represents everything she had worked against. Here’s what she told me:

The first time I drove to meet Craig in late spring, I was the most nervous I’ve even been in my whole life. Filmmaker Raegan Hodge was with me, and we discussed most of the 5 hour drive what we would do if we were presented with an ambush. In my head, it was entirely possible that a bunch of chicken farmers with pitchforks were waiting for us.

But here’s when I knew Craig was the real deal.  From the very first time he let me into the first chicken warehouse, he referred, to the birds as “he” or “she,” and never, not once, as “it.” He sees them as the individuals they are. This is when I knew I had found a kindred spirit.

We are about as unlikely of partners as they come. But I can tell you I’ve never met anyone so serious about, and so capable of, making this industry a fairer and more humane one.

Update: The National Chicken Council has responded to the video in a statement. The statement, attributed to Tom Super, vice president of communications, references a column today by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof on the video. Key quote:

The conditions described in the New York Times article, and shown in the accompanying video, are not an accurate representation of the health and welfare of today’s broiler chickens. Nor are they indicative of the many Perdue farms that I have personally visited.

The U.S. national broiler flock is incredibly healthy – mortality and condemnation rates for broilers, the most sensitive indicators of the health and well-being of any flock, are at historic lows. Improved nutrition, breeding, genetics, veterinary attention and technology, which include optimum growing conditions within climate-controlled barns, allow chickens to naturally reach market weight quickly– all without the use of hormones or steroids.

All of the issues raised in this article and video are cases of mismanagement that could have been easily and humanely addressed to prevent bird suffering.

Update 2: Craig Watts has confirmed to me that he was visited today by representatives of Perdue performing an “animal welfare audit.” The implication is that the conditions highlighted in the video are not systemic to the system, but are down to his fault as a farmer. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.


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