Starting in the 1950s, the poultry industry started undergoing massive consolidation, acquiring separate parts of the supply chain under single companies. This singularly owned supply chain is known as vertical integration, where a company like Tyson owns the chickens, the feed, the processing facilities, and products sold in your grocery store. Vertical integration then spread to the hog industry and is now creeping into the cattle sector. These corporations acquire all profitable aspects of the supply chain and leave farmers with debt and liability. That’s why one of our founding programs was the Contract Ag. Reform program, a program that fought to reform contract farming in the poultry sector.
During the 30-year history of this program, our work improved the everyday situation of contract chicken growers. However, the march of consolidation continued. Today, 98% of all chicken is raised under contract and the top four companies control the majority of the rest of the agriculture sector: 85% of all cattle, 85% of all corn seed, 76% of all soybean seed, and 70% of all hogs.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light for the general public the problems with the corporate-dominated agricultural system. The pandemic also forced us to stop and examine the history of our work in the program. While fighting to reform the contract agriculture system has improved the daily lives of farmers, those improvements have been outweighed by the negative effects of continued corporate consolidation of power.
After close consultation with farmers in our network, we decided to broaden the focus of the program and how we work while still focusing on the livestock and poultry sector.