This Film Blows The Doors Off The Chicken-Farming Industry

Under Contract is a new documentary that delivers the first feature-length look into the controversial and widespread practice of contract farming in the American poultry industry. Filmmakers Sally Lee and Marcello Cappellazi interview chicken growers for meat processing giants Perdue, Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride to see how once-promising deals with Big Food turned into a vicious cycle that led to hundreds of thousands — if not millions — in debt for the farmers.

The domestic poultry market has exploded into a $30 billion a year industry, with Americans eating three times more chicken than they did in 1960, according to the film. Its high nutritional value, low cost and widespread availability has made it the most popular meat in the country. To meet the demand, a handful of poultry production corporations hold 97 percent of the market, leaving independent farmers struggling to compete with prices as low as $1.50 per pound. As a result, these corporations offer lucrative-sounding contracts to rural farmers to handle the least-profitable part of a vertically integrated business: raising chicks to adulthood. Contract farmers receive chicks, feed and medicine from integrators every growing cycle and raise them to maturity. These adult "broiler" chickens are picked up by the integrators for processing, and the cycle starts over again.

It sounds like a sweet deal for an experienced farmer, but the film suggests that a different story unfolds. Lee's interviewees report widespread abuses from integrators, not limited to a "tournament" system that fixes the price of poultry so that farmers must compete for the largest paycheck. The larger someone else's check, the smaller another's will be, and it's impossible to predict how much money will be earned from any given flock. What's worse, many integrators provide growers with diseased chicks, short them on feed and don't pay for litter disposal, resulting in higher expenses, less pay and environmental liability. Finally, integrators' requirement of costly upgrades to chicken houses, including installation and maintenance of monitoring machines and software, takes a huge chunk out of farmers' profits. If they don't make the upgrades, farmers are in violation of an iron-clad contract that could cause them to lose their business and land.

This model is so profitable for companies that it's even been exported abroad, most notably to the booming poultry industry in India, where the film crew travels to interview Indian growers on their experiences.

Awareness of this issue has grown as the plight of the chicken farmer persists, with TV host and comedian John Oliver dedicating a segment of Last Week Tonight to these exploitative practices. The 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. touched briefly upon the topic of contract-farmed poultry, largely because no farmers would allow them to film in their chicken houses out of fear of retaliation. Under Contract director Sally Lee contacted 36 chicken farmers to be interviewed for the film, with only 12 agreeing (some anonymously). Disclosing or discussing the details of a contract is forbidden by integrators and can result in termination and legal action. Even those who sign petitions urging the USDA to intervene don't use their real names, for fear that their livelihoods could be at stake.

We spoke with Sally Lee after the February 2 NYC premiere of Under Contract about her experiences filming the documentary.

I couldn't help but notice throughout the film that many of your subjects seemed on the verge of tears during interviews. What was it like emotionally for you to speak with them? 

For most farmers I've met, farming isn't just a job or a career; it's their identity and family legacy. Losing the family farm is a deeply traumatic experience. I knew that going into this project, but the courage that these farmers showed in being willing to tell their story and share their pain so honestly on film, risking retaliation in many cases, was truly humbling.

I would add some context — I was doing research for my economics thesis at the same time and had a lot of data to collect. So we generally spent multiple days with the farmers we met; we got to know them and their families. So when we got to those tough moments in the interviews, we were usually on the verge of tears, too.

What was the most surprising revelation you had during your trip to India?

We were actually in India researching drought-resistant rice varieties. So the biggest revelation I had was when Marcello picked up a newspaper in Bangalore and found out that Tyson had opened a processing plant nearby. We found a real connection between the struggles farmers we were working with in Arkansas were facing and similar stories from farmers in Karnataka. That's when it became really apparent to me that this flawed model of food production was a global issue, that this was about corporate control versus farmers rights worldwide.

Is part of the reason contract chicken-growing is booming in India because fewer citizens are remaining vegetarian for religious reasons?

Dr. Chidananada [in the film] from University of Bangalore explained his analysis of why to us. There is certainly a cultural shift — more people are starting to eat meat and especially younger people — but also there is a growing middle class that is able to buy meat more often. At the same time they are transitioning from open markets that sold live chickens and butchered them on the spot for customers to supermarkets that also sell processed and packaged foods. Tyson's interest in particular is in the processed and frozen products, and the growing number of fast food restaurants popping up.

In the film, Mississippi poultry grower Clarence Leverette mentions that local catfish farmers are beginning to face the same ordeal. Are there any other common ingredients that are starting to fall prey to this model?

Many. Because at the core, the "chickenization" of an industry is about corporations seizing power and profits from independent farmers through fine print. Seeds are another example of this happening — it isn't exactly the same relationship, but seeds are increasingly corporate property instead of farmer-owned and -produced, and GMO contracts reveal the same unbalanced power dynamics that put farmers at a huge disadvantage and make them dependent on one company.

Watch the trailer below and sign up for the mailing list to see when the film is coming to a city near you.