Squeezing Farmers in the Poultry Capital of the World
Today, Americans consume an average of 91 pounds (41 kilograms) of chicken annually, up from 28 pounds (13 kg) in 1960 (National Chicken Council, 2017). This growth was achieved through industry concentration and the transformation of farming. Between 1950 and 2007, the number of poultry farms decreased from 1.6 million to 27,000, even as chicken production increased from 580 million to 9 billion birds raised per year (Pew Environment Group, 2011, p. 6). The average chicken farm now raises over 330,000 birds annually, as compared to 363 birds in 1950, with nearly all production under contract (Chrisman, 2016).
Monica Gisolfi’s The Takeover: Chicken Farming and the Roots of American Agribusiness documents the poultry industry’s “silent revolution” in upcountry Georgia. This revolution provided the model for contemporary forms of capital-intensive industrial agriculture. Popular narratives depict the rapid transformation of poultry production from small “yard flocks” to today’s multibillion-dollar industry, as the result of the work of so-called “innovators” and “pioneers” like Jesse Jewell and John Tyson. Gisolfi paints a more critical picture, documenting the legacy of the cotton crop-lien system, discriminatory federal policies, and the industry’s growth and consolidation through quasivertical integration. The result has been abundant profits for companies like Tyson, Purdue, and Pilgrim’s Pride at the expense of contract growers and rural livelihoods. Industrial poultry’s growth has exacerbated social inequalities and ecological degradation while simultaneously setting the blueprint for the expansion of industrial agriculture globally.
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