My last post about Waterkeeper Alliance vs. Perdue and Allen and Kristin Hudson brought out many issues associated with the case. The saga continues………..
The lawsuit is about pollutants finding their way to drainage ditches surrounding a chicken CAFO owned by the Hudson’s into a tributary of the Pocomoke River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. It also questions ownership and responsibility of the waste discharged from the farm naming Perdue as the legal owner of the chickens that produce the waste.
On November 17, 2011 both sides in the case filed a motion for summary judgment and in doing so many legal documents in the case were made available to the public. Public perusal of these court records brings to light many other issues.
It’s hard for me to decide which of the other issues to start with.
Independent contractor status is a good place to begin. Contract poultry growers (chicken farmers) are classified as independent contractors by the companies they contract with to raise company owned chickens. The job of the farmer is to receive company chickens and raise them to a marketable age – PERIOD.
Not to put the chicken before the egg we have to look at where these contract chickens originate. It’s a complex web to untangle and there are many company steps involved before ever getting to the chicks placed on farms and grown. What is known is that the company designs, through genetic selection and engineering, what the final chicken will be. When placed on contract farms, the farmer has no choice or idea about the genetics, performance in growing of the chicken, or how much manure that chicken will produce.
Prior to chicks being placed on contract farms feed is delivered to the farm. This feed is formulated, mixed and delivered by the company. Feed ingredients are unknown to the famer and are a closely guarded secret claimed by companies to be a “trade secret”. The amount of feed delivered to the farm is unverifiable by the farmer and (s)he has to accept on “good faith” that the feed is what the company says it is. There are no options for contract farmers to acquire feed from another source because the contracts stipulate that feed comes from the company. This feed delivery process continues throughout the entire life cycle of the flock.
I have to insert here a few facts about the feed. Most people don’t understand that feed ingredient’s such as antibiotics/antimicrobials and arsenic isn’t the farmer’s choice to use or not use. This pertains to animal by-products in feed as well. Everything that goes into feed is decided by the chicken company and must be accepted and used by the farmer. Should a farmer decide to acquire feed from another source the farmer’s contract will be terminated.
The chicks delivered to contract farms derive from company owned hatcheries where the eggs are hatched into chicks. During the process at the company hatchery certain procedures could be performed such as in ovo injections of vaccines and antibiotics. In ovo is a process of injecting eggs before hatching and it’s anyone’s guess as to what is injected. Another company secret of which the farmer has no control over!
It could be assumed that the independent contractor, the farmer, comes into play once the chicks are on the farm for growing. That theory might hold water if the company only delivered the chicks and disappeared out of the raising process and returned to pick up the grown chickens for processing.
Throughout the flock company employees routinely come to the farm and manage the methods in which the farmer is raising the chickens. Court documents in the lawsuit revealed a company employee went so far as to leaving written instructions saying “need to work on these things ASAP’ and then listing things to be done. Some “notes” left by Perdue gave deadlines on work to be done and many notes referred to telling the farmer to do “heavy culling” (kill many chickens). If that is not telling the farmer what work to do, I’m at a loss to say what it is!
Other notes revealed that a Perdue employee set or adjusted equipment within the chicken house, moved fans around, culled chickens, and preformed many other tasks required in raising the chickens to a marketable age. These things are the job of the independent contractor not a company employee.
Again, I have to stop here and raise a question. Suppose some disaster should occur inside the chicken house because of the Perdue employee making a mistake in equipment adjustments such as ventilation and all of the chickens die (smother) – who would be responsible for the disaster? It’s my guess the blame would be laid at the farmer’s feet and income loss would be the farmer’s bitter pill to swallow. Having been a contract farmer I say this with ease because everything is always the farmers fault according to the company and there is no recourse for the farmer.
Reading court documents revealed that Perdue routinely performed farm operations inside of the chicken houses. It’s argued that the Perdue employee and Mr. Hudson had an understanding about this. The only time that I’m aware of the company coming on the farm, performing the daily tasks of the farmer, and caring for the flock would be if the company declared that the farmer was not doing his job and that the company was taking over. There is a clause in the contract that says that the company has the right to do that. However there are no supporting documents that say that Perdue made any such declaration or decision to take over the raising of the chickens on the Hudson farm.
Farmers have argued for a very long time that they aren’t independent contractors in their relationship with chicken companies. Independent – somebody or something that is free from control, dependence, or interference. Looking over court documents it’s clear that Perdue has some other definition of “independent”.
I remember a time in the early 1990’s Perdue declared all of its chicken catchers to be independent contractors. In the late 1990’s a lawsuit was filed against the company claiming that the chicken catchers were employees of the company not independent contractors. The lawsuit prevailed and a Federal Court found in favor of the chicken catcher’s. If memory serves me correctly, the court found Perdue willful in dealings with the chicken catchers.
Might Perdue also be willful in dealings with contract farmers?