As Americans, we cherish our rights to speak freely, to assemble peacefully and to address our government representatives without fear of retaliation. But for tens of thousands of America's poultry farmers, those rights are under siege by the poultry companies that control much of their lives.
In May of 2010, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder traveled to Alabama for a hearing examining abuses and anticompetitive practices in the poultry industry.
Poultry farmers at this and similar events described a widespread culture of fear. Growers reported retaliation in the form of canceled contracts, substandard chicks and feed, unannounced audits, rigged prices and expensive upgrade requirements if they chose to speak publicly or to their congressional representatives, or to organize with fellow growers to defend their interests.
How can this be? The story of the modern poultry industry is one of corporate consolidation, where companies such as Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim's Pride and Koch Foods exert almost complete control over farmers. In 1977, the top four U.S. poultry processing companies had a combined 17 percent market share. By 2012, that number was 57 percent. Many areas have only one processing facility where farmers can deliver their chickens, creating localized monopolies.
This lack of competition means many growers have to accept whatever terms they are offered. Poultry processors can lure new growers to the industry with promises of a lucrative investment and an easy way to make a living. In these times of rural economic decline, it's an offer many rural residents cannot refuse.
But farmers cannot enter the poultry business without a contract. And to secure a contract requires an initial investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars at a minimum. Many farmers go as much as $1 million into debt to construct a vast complex of automated chicken houses that can each house tens of thousands of birds.
The company may show its hand only after the grower is on the hook for these costs: a take-it-or-leave-it contract that imposes significant costs and risks on growers and limits their ability to contest the deal or negotiate a better one in the future.
In such cases, everything is on the line for these growers; many have put up their homes and land as collateral on their loans. Such situations are not only exploited by the industry but also are part of its operating structure and can leave growers trapped in a cycle of debt and under the thumb of the poultry giants.
The result? The Agriculture Department estimates that growers earn about 34 cents for every chicken they raise, while poultry processing companies take in about $3.23 for the same bird. Under such a consolidated system, when local farmers are trapped in debt and intimidated from speaking out, the rights of free speech and assembly seem distant.
The good news is that we have laws on the books to protect these farmers. All we have to do is enforce them.
In the 2008 farm bill, Congress directed the USDA to develop rules to protect farmers from retaliation and stop deceptive and anticompetitive practices by processors. The USDA did as directed, using findings from the aforementioned workshops to develop strong rules protecting poultry growers' basic rights.
One of these rules prohibits industry retaliation "in response to the lawful expression, spoken or written, association, or action of a poultry grower." In other words, growers have the right to speak freely and peaceably assemble. Other provisions prohibit deceptive or anticompetitive practices.
The powerful meat lobby has pressured Congress year after year to block funding to enforce these rules. Today, farmers remain vulnerable to industry retaliation, discrimination and deception. A funding bill that would allow the USDA to protect farmers from these unfair practices has started to move in Congress, but the same powerful interests that stopped it before will not be far behind. Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents on this issue immediately.
The First Amendment guarantees that Congress shall make no law "abridging the freedom of speech, or . . .the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." The United States was built on these freedoms and Congress has a responsibility to protect them. Yet America's poultry growers are trapped in a system that punishes them for exercising these constitutional rights.
As one family farm supporter and one member of Congress - and foremost as two concerned Americans - we humbly submit that this system needs to change.
Willie Nelson is a musician and the president of Farm Aid. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, represents Ohio in the House of Representatives.