Friday, April 23, 2010

CUESA Feature on Carole Morrison

I had to post this great interview with Carole because inquiring minds wanted to know: What happened to the chicken farmer in Food Inc. after she lost her contract with Perdue for speaking out against industrial chicken farming?

About CUESA: The Center for Urban Education of Sustainable Agriculture, not only manages one of the most infamous farmers markets in the country - The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market - but this organization hosts sustainable food and farming programming in the Ferry Building as well as putting together their great newsletter each and every week. You can sign up for it by going to their website.

From the Belly of the Beast: An Interview with Food Inc.'s Carole Morrison

If you've seen Food, Inc., you may remember watching Carole Morison walk through her chicken house gathering a handful of sickly, lifeless birds to dispose of. It's a chilling scene, and one that occurred almost daily over the two decades Carole and her husband were contract farmers for Perdue. By the time Food Inc. was made, the Morisons had decided to end their contract with the company and Carole was in a rare position to act as a whistle blower. In the film, she described the harsh conditions for the animals and the people involved in such contracts and shed light on an industry often shrouded in secrecy. Earlier this week, Carole spoke on CUESA's Inside the Hen House panel with Norman and Aimee Gunsell of Mountain Ranch Organically Grown. After the panel, Carole answered a few questions for us.

CUESA: By now, many of our readers will have seen you discuss breaking the contract with Perdue in Food Inc. What happened on the farm next?

Carole Morison: Since we quit raising chickens we’ve been leasing the land to someone else who grows corn and soybeans. Perdue wanted us to upgrade our facility, which would have cost us $150,000, but we didn’t, so we’re not in the debt we would have been. We’re down to 14 acres. And we’re trying to figure out exactly what we want to do next.

CUESA: You had raised chickens for 23 years; that must have been a huge transition.

CM: Yeah, my husband has been in it all his life. The land we’re on was part of his family’s original home farm. By the time the contract ended, we both had jobs off the farm, so we were used to getting up early and every day was filled with work.

CUESA: You’re still involved as an activist, trying to help folks who are stuck in contracts with big poultry companies. What kind of changes are you advocating for?

CM: Agriculture has changed so much. Contracts are really at the forefront, not just with poultry, but with most all [industrial] farming.

It’s a dictated policy as to how your farm is run, what you do, how you feed your chickens. For instance going out to buy feed from a source other than the company you contract with — that’s cause for violation of the contract. You have to take what they give you. It’s the same with everything. It’s like the coal mine and the company store, totally controlled. It really has nothing to do with the farmer’s performance anymore. It's more or less the performance of the company’s inputs — the poults or day-old chicks, the feed, medicine, etc.

There are new proposed guidelines that the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA) is supposed to release for contract farmers. The hope is that this will level the playing field a little. We’re currently working off the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921.
CUESA: What are your thoughts on the recent effort to position people who are proponents of sustainable food as “anti-farmer”?

CM: I’ve definitely noticed that and I’d say that’s probably the number one battle plan of industrial agriculture. It has been their way for a long time. Within the poultry industry they also pit farmer against worker; it’s divide and conquer.

The fact is these big companies took the farmer out of the equation a long time ago. Now the farmer is trying to take back what was rightfully theirs to begin with. But I do understand the pride folks have, when they’ve put their whole life into this work. Nobody wants to admit that they’re wrong. But I don’t see [the sustainable food movement] as disrespect for the farmer. I view it more along the lines of people finally recognizing what the farmer is stuck in.

CUESA: You're in a position to act as a bridge between several kinds of people. How did you get here?

CM: My first foray into the activism world came through an environmental group — and at that point it was like mixing oil and water. It was a Chesapeake Bay group. I went to one of their press conferences prepared to do battle. And a few comments they made kind of hit home. Something called Pfiesteria had caused large algae blooms in the Bay. It was caused by run-off from poultry manure and it created massive fish kills. The press at the time positioned the farmers against environmentalists and fishermen.

(Alexis Koefoed of Soulfood Farm and Carole Morrison in photo.)

But at one point the environmentalists made it clear that they didn’t understand how it all worked. They needed our help and I thought, “if it’s this easy to talk to environmentalists, how bad can anybody else be?” So I think if we all want to survive through what is going on with agriculture, we’re all going to have to give an inch.

CUESA: You’ve been in the Bay Area all week; what will you take back with you?

CM: One of the things I hear from contract poultry farmers I work with is: how can we manage this enormous debt, cut back on the amount we’re producing, and still survive?

I’d had a hard time envisioning how that might be done. Then I spent time on Alexis Koefoed's Soul Food Farm and now I know it’s possible. Their rotational grazing system is great. And it was just mind-boggling for me to see chickens running around outside. We used to raise 54,000 chickens every seven weeks. Even if we’d cut that in half it could have made a big difference in terms of the environmental impact. And heck, with what the farmers are making under contract — an average of four cents a pound — how much worse can it be?

I’ve also learned that [changing the system] will take more than separate groups working on separate issues. At the panel, so many good ideas came up — like nonprofit investing in meat-processing infrastructure, for instance. I thought maybe we can throw all these ideas together and come up with a different system! So I have a good feeling about it. I’m beginning to think I just might see it in my lifetime.


  1. Tom Terry wrote to say that his comment wouldn't post. Here it is!

    Thanks Tom!

    When these big companies break the protections farmers have in the Packers and Stockyards Act, they get comparative advantages with which they drive honest competitors (honest with the farmer) out of business or drive their profits so low that they are bought out (think Goldkist being bought by Pilgrim's Pride).

    Most people who look into this issue know that it is these big agribusinesses who break the law, spend boookoos of money on politicians, and try to infiltrate every group that stands against their interests (like the NCBA-National Cattleman's Beef Association). They take over the organizations and run them for their interests while abusing the family farmer. Yes, these things are illegal, but the courts have opted to make excuses for these meat packers instead of holding them accountable after the farmers/cattlemen win in the jury trials. Real people get it.

    Most family farmers are glad to make the connection back with the people eating their food. It is the economics of farming and the corporations who break the laws of the land so they can have competitive advantage that are the problem. In Morrison's poultry industry, "efficiency" is the only mantra those who have little understanding of economics push. Unfortunately, as the movie, Food Inc., points out, that "efficiency" isn't real. These companies externalize the real costs so they can be the "most efficient". It often ends up making society pay more than the real costs, just as the farmers have found out and the Chesapeake Bay activists found out.

    We have to break this corporate grasp on our democracy. It ran the economy in the ground for the robber barons of years past and history is just repeating itself. The people running this country, the politicians, judges, and financiers, should know this stuff but they make the public pay when they don't follow the laws that came into being because of these economic abuses.

  2. you don't know how much I've wondered about Carole! I seriously thought about sending her money, simply for doing us the favor of telling the truth. I cried for her, b/c this battle for sustainability is not just about the environment, or about the animals, it's about us. We're driving human beings into the dirt the way our 'methods' work & it's sinful, utterly sinful. thank goodness she's seeing changes...

  3. Thank you for this! I wondered about Carole's fate after Food, Inc. I'm so grateful that she spoke up and helped educate the nation about what's going on behind the scenes in food production. That kind of courage and strength is what we need more of!

  4. from one Morrison farm girl to another - WAY TO GO CAROLE!