Agricultural Leadership Series: Profiling Farmer Leaders

Tyler Whitley, Case Manager for RAFI’s Contract Agriculture Reform Program, had the opportunity to interview NC poultry farmer, Reid Phifer, about what inspired him to tell his story about contract farming in the American Poultry Industry. Reid has contributed to numerous media publications, and is a long-time advisor to RAFI. Most recently, Reid was featured in Episode 4 of Netflix’s new series “Rotten.” Rotten premiered  in 2018, and is a documentary series focusing on corruption in the food supply chain.

Reid Phifer has been farming for more than 40 years. Born in Monroe, North Carolina, farming has been a time-honored profession for the Phifer family. Reid’s grandfather farmed cotton, his father grew row crops, and today Reid carries on their legacy.  Reid started out farming row crops, primarily corn, wheat, and soybeans, and later diversified into poultry. He raised his first flock of turkeys more than 30 years ago and has been raising contract broilers for the past 20 years. Today, Reid takes great satisfaction from the hard work he puts into raising his animals. He strives to ensure they have the best possible care and takes great pride in producing chicken that he would happily serve on his family’s table.

Long Hours, Low Pay

While he does enjoy raising chickens, there are many aspects of contract farming Reid does not like. He does not like the low-wages, the long hours, and the financial risk that comes with contract poultry farming. “We earn low wages, yet have to make million dollar investments to raise contract poultry,” he says. Poultry farmers are also required to be “on-call” 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, year round. “Profits” are generally very slim for poultry farmers, if they earn a profit at all. For many chicken farmers, what sounds like a promising opportunity to work hard and achieve the American Dream, can turn into a nightmare of debt due to unpredictable income.

What the General Public Should Know

Reid’s love of farming, and the contrasting frustration he feels towards the treatment of farmers in this industry, motivated him to appear in Episode 4 of Netflix’s new series “Rotten.” In Episode 4, titled “Big Bird,” Reid explains many of the complexities of modern contract chicken farming. He says that his hope is for the general public to see this series and think more about American farmers and how their food is produced. When asked what he really wanted the general public to take away from the episode, Reid replied:

“Consumers are being manipulated by media & advertising campaigns. Antibiotic-free, hormone-free, and “farmer friendly” advertising campaigns mislead the general public about what is going on in their food system. These campaigns convince consumers to pay higher prices for chicken, which only increases company profits. Those increased profits are not passed on to the farmers. Many farmers do not earn enough to even save for retirement.”

RAFI believes more stories like Reid’s need to be told. At RAFI, we know that the way we produce our food has an impact on all of us – especially on the farmers and workers who produce it, the communities that are their support system, and the many families that depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. It is critical that more people hear the voices that make up our food system. RAFI works to create markets and craft policies that support a just and equitable food system, and we could not do this work without the courage and knowledge of farmer leaders like Reid Phifer. Thank you, Reid, for telling your story.

If you are a farmer who wishes to share your story or to discuss contract poultry farming, please contact Tyler Whitley at 919-621-0534 or email at [email protected]. RAFI will profile a farmer leader each month, so that you get a glimpse of what has inspired each of them to take the lead on agricultural issues.

Media publications featuring Reid Phifer

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