Written by Jessie Palatucci
UCC Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security Liaison
Americans eat a lot of chicken and one might expect that farmers who raise chickens are making a good living. But actually most of them aren’t. The only set of consistent records on the economics of contract poultry production reports that in the last 13 years, the average annual return for a farmer with five poultry houses is a loss of $9,668. How is it possible that the people who produce our food could be at risk of going hungry?
Contract poultry growers own their land and their chicken houses, while the company they produce for owns the chickens, feed, and processing plants. Contract poultry growers currently have no control over the forces that affect their lives. There is no assurance of accountability, transparency, or equity for the tens of thousands of producers farming under contract.
But contract farmers are not defenseless against the large companies for which they produce. They have RAFI-USA, the Rural Advancement Foundation International to help them; RAFI traces its heritage to the National Sharecroppers' Fund, which was founded in the 1930's and led by Dr. Frank Porter Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other distinguished Americans. And they have UCC member Becky Ceartas, RAFI’s Program Director for Contract Agriculture Reform who works to bring fairness to the agricultural contracting system for contract poultry growers who struggle to support their families and maintain their farms.
Becky is a member of the United Church of Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rev. Wallace Ryan Kuriowa, then of Justice and Witness Ministries, spoke at her church some years ago and encouraged her to apply for a Neighbors in Need grant to help fund RAFI’s work toward fairness and justice in contract agriculture. She did, and over time she has collaborated closely with UCC members and national staff, working to shed light on the challenges faced by people who put food on our tables.
Becky continues to work for systemic justice on behalf of small and mid-sized farmers throughout the country. She recently helped with a grassroots effort JWM led to mobilize UCC activists to advocate for a proposed USDA rule ensuring that poultry and other contract farmers are treated fairly and paid justly. At Becky’s urging, JWM also signed a letter to Congress this year along with 189 other national and regional groups in support of better protections for contract poultry and livestock growers.
We give thanks for her ministry. The world needs more Becky Ceartases.