Sunday, June 10, 2001

Kermit and Marilyn Hancock can tell the state’s tobacco farmers a thing or two about the brave new world of contract farming.

They grow chickens instead of tobacco, but they know what it’s like to tie your livelihood to a contract you don’t control.
“When we started, this was great. But the longer we’re at it, they’ll give you a worse time,” Kermit Hancock said. “You don’t have any assurance if you spend a hundred thousand dollars or more that you can grow chickens.”

Certainty has never been the farming way. But at least a farmer with his own land had independence. No more.

“We’re not our own boss,” Marilyn Hancock said “And we don’t have the benefit of being an employee.”

You could hear the same story wherever farmers trade the whims of the open market for the guarantees of a contract. You could, but you probably won’t, because contracts come with an unspoken code of silence.

Privately, chicken farmers say that public complaints could cost them their contract. And so they don’t talk. “If I do, I’m scared that could come back to haunt me,” said one Wilkes County grower.

No say-so for farmers

Until this year, tobacco farmers sold their crop the same way their fathers and their grandfathers did, at a nearby auction house where buyers competed for the best leaf and farmers for the best price.

In bad years they had the federal price support system to fall back on. With luck, the good years made up for the bad.

But this year, most tobacco farmers traded in the old way for the new and signed contracts with the big cigarette companies.

“I have told them boys, ‘When you lose your open markets, you have no say-so,’” said the anonymous Wilkes chicken grower. “When you are under a contract where the company set a standard, that is what you live by.”

It’s not easy to find a chicken farmer willing to talk about the contract life. The extension agents and farm advocates who work with poultry growers say that silence is golden.

Beyond their openness, there’s nothing all that unusual about the Hancocks, unless you count the rare orchids that Marilyn Hancock grows for a hobby. They agreed to talk to me only because, as they said, they have nothing left to lose.

Fading auctioneer’s song

The Hancocks have been raising chickens in Jackson Creek, just east of Denton, for 30 years. In good years they might raise five or six flocks. That’s 180,000 chickens. They contract with a company in Atlanta called Gold Kist, the country’s second-largest chicken producer. Gold Kist prides itself on giving farmers a voice. But their spokesman never called me back.

The Hancocks say they expect to lose their contract in a year or two. They don’t want to invest $80,000 to upgrade their chicken houses with the new cooling systems that Gold Kist is requiring of its growers. The Hancocks are 61 and won’t be able to farm long enough to repay that kind of debt.

“I don’t have but a year or two anyway,” Kermit Hancock said “If one company cuts you off, you needn’t go looking for another company.”

Silence is an odd trait for a farmer. I’ve never met a timid tobacco farmer. They can be an ornery bunch, with gripes about the government or the latest health warnings, or even the cigarette companies that buy their crop.

Come harvest time, most of the region’s auction houses will fall silent. With contracts signed and the crop already sold, there’s no reason for an auctioneer’s steady song.

There’s security for tobacco farmers in a contract, I’m sure. But listen to the chicken farmers’ furtive talk and you wonder about the price.