My name is Rudy Howell, and I am a poultry farmer in North Carolina. My wife and I raised chickens for a major poultry company for over 25 years—that is, until they terminated me for telling the truth about how this industry hurts workers, animals, and the environment. Years of being a top producer and never having had a single disciplinary action against me, and still they sent me packing for speaking up about the consequences of corporate influence in the food industry.
Utterly discouraged by inaction from my company and regulators, I brought in videographers to discuss public health concerns, animal welfare, and unfair business practices I and my fellow farmers endured at the hands of poultry industry. It was shortly after the scenes from the video of my chicken house were published that I was given my walking papers.
Well, I am not about to stay quiet.
Currently, only a handful of corporations control our food from farm to fork. Over the past 50 years, fewer and fewer multinational agribusiness corporations have come to control more and more of our food system, shutting out local and family farmers in the process. With unchecked power, companies have standardized exploitative practices that are harmful to farmers, to rural communities, to the animals themselves and to our environment. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
I’m not the only farmer they did this to, and there are countless others too afraid to talk for fear the poultry companies will do them the same. This system pits farmer against farmer, with the lowest performing paying the bonus of the top performer. The system operates to keep farmers from talking with each other and sharing information. Their dark-money ties and big-shot lobbyists have done a hell of a job keeping farmers like me quiet and consumers like you blissfully unaware.
That’s why I was so pleased to see things finally starting to change earlier this summer in the antitrust Executive Order Promoting Competition in the American Economy that President Biden signed, but the USDA and Congress must ensure that family farmers are part of the solution by updating the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA) to address the treatment of livestock and poultry farmers by meatpackers, swine contractors, and poultry companies. These reforms are long overdue, and it is critical that we move as expeditiously as possible to complete this rulemaking process.
Concentration of corporate power has contributed to a host of problems such as racial inequity, climate change, rural degradation, animal cruelty, and worker/farmer exploitation. Recently, the administration took an important first step in showing its commitment to increasing competition across the agriculture sector and rectifying the situation. The Department of Agriculture announced that it was going to improve the Packers and Stockyards Act to protect farmers of color from discrimination, assure that farmers can associate freely and that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation, and improve court access for farmers who wish to bring lawsuits against industry bad actors—but it must have congressional support to enact truly meaningful change.
When companies have this much power, they can cut corners and bend the rules in their favor, even at the expense of farmers, rural communities, workers, our environment, and consumers. In this David-and-Goliath dynamic, good people could lose everything if they speak out against unsafe practices, corruption, and injustice. For the safety and sustainability of our food system, we must break the culture of fear and retaliation in industrial agriculture. Farmers need a #FairShake. Sign my petition if you agree!