Mississippi chicken farmers protest proposed pay cut they say is tied to merger

When Sanderson Farms announced a base pay cut for its growers throughout Mississippi in early August, farmers claimed it was an effort to undercut wages in the wake of a merger between Sanderson and Wayne Farms, another major producer in the state, as Marcia Brown reports in FERN’s latest story, produced with The Capitol Forum.

News of the proposed cut, which amounted to 9-percent per flock (not counting bonuses or penalties), “came two days after Cargill Inc., the global food company, and Continental Grain Co., a major food and agriculture investor, announced a $4.5 billion agreement to acquire Sanderson Farms. The move would effectively merge Sanderson, Mississippi’s only Fortune 1000 company, and Wayne Farms, a poultry company owned by Continental, which also has a significant presence in the state. The deal would give Sanderson and Wayne Farms 15 percent of the U.S. poultry market and would increase market share of the top three chicken processors to over 51 percent. It is scheduled to close as soon as the end of the year.”

Farmers representing 45 farms formed the Mississippi Poultry Growers Alliance, and compiled a list of demands for Sanderson. In addition to reversing the pay cut, the farmers want more transparency, better working conditions, cost of living increases and an end to the tournament system.

Trina McClendon, one of the leaders of the group, emphasized that the alliance is about more than the pay cut; it’s also about improving the standard of living for farmers and making the work viable. A 2014 survey found that among farmers whose sole income is raising chickens, 71 percent live below the poverty line. And Trina thinks it’s only gotten worse in the intervening years.

By going public, Trina and the other farmers are taking a significant risk. Historically, poultry growers who complain experience retaliation, often losing their contracts. (With that in mind, the McClendons are represented by lawyers at the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit that protects whistleblowers.) Among the farmers’ demands was a call to stop fear tactics. “Growers are indebted to the bank and are forced to bow to Sanderson because they can lose everything they own,” the alliance farmers wrote.