Thursday, July 2, 2015

07/01/2015 at 9:32am

Chicken farmer Mike Weaver is president of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias.

Humanely raised. Cruelty free. Human-antibiotic free.

Over the last year, we’ve heard a half-dozen major players in the poultry industry announce their intentions to change production methods because of concerns over human health and animal welfare. Most recently, for example, Walmart said it intends to purchase only “humanely raised” chickens.

While ag corporations, animal-rights groups, and health advocates have been in the media commenting on the changes, there’s one set of voices we’ve heard little from:


Mike Weaver of Pendleton County in eatsern West Virginia, is a commercial chicken grower and president of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias.

Weaver contracts with Pilgrim’s food, which is owned by JBS, the largest meat producer in the world. Pilgrim’s supplies Weaver and growers like him with chicks and feed. The growers are independent contractors. They provide their own land, houses, and equipment to raise chicks to slaughter weight. The mature chickens go back to the poultry “integrator,” and growers get paid on a “tournament” system, which ranks growers’ performance and pays them accordingly. That’s the way nearly all commercial chicken production in the United States works, unless you buy poultry at the farm gate.

We asked Weaver how the push for changes in chicken production will affect small, commercial farmers.


Daily Yonder: Changes in how poultry is raised could mean an increase in production costs. How do you think poultry integrators like Pilgrims, Perdue, and Tyson will pay for this?

Mike Weaver: I’m sure the companies are going to try to throw as much of that cost off on us [growers] as they can. You mind what I’m saying. [Companies] will go to the growers and they will say, “Well, we have to do this antibiotic free.” That means growers aren’t going to be able to produce as many birds in each chicken house, so we need to [build more] housing. And to some of the companies, they will say, “If you don’t agree to build an additional house, we’re going to terminate you as a grower. You’re not going to get chickens anymore.” They will trick them into doing it. And some people will do it.

One of the reasons I speak out is that I don’t have to have their money to make a living. But a lot of us do. They are living chicken check to chicken check.

The reason I emphasize the treatment of the farmers is because that directly relates to how the chickens are raised. When it comes to what can be done to change the growing arrangement, the best thing they could do is start treating farmers better.  The way farmers are treated should be illegal.

How are farmers treated?

Let me give you a really good example. When you go to KFC and buy a 12-piece chicken meal, that runs anywhere from 28 to 30 bucks. Out of that, KFC keeps about 22 dollars. The integrator, which is the poultry company KFC bought the chicken from, gets 5 to 6 dollars of that. And the grower who spent at least six weeks raising that chicken gets 30 cents. Now tell me how that’s fair.

And you pile that on top of the fact that it’s been going on 20 years since we’ve had an increase in base pay. That says a lot about the industry and what they think of farmers and how we are being abused by the big companies.

Back in the winter, Pilgrim [the company Weaver raises chicks for] paid their stockholders a 1.5 billion dollar dividend. ... Now what does that tell you about the kind of money they are making, and not spending a penny on increasing pay for growers. And the growers are the ones who make that money for them. To make that kind of money and then the growers not get an increase in base pay, considering how long it has been since they’ve had one. Now tell me what kind of business sense that is.

If you don’t like the way your chicken company treats you, why don’t you negotiate better terms or raise chicks for a different company?

Well, I would if I had the choice, but I don’t. They are the only integrator in town. They have a compact between themselves that they don’t steal each other’s growers. It happens some, but they don’t do it much.

Photo by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME 1st District), farmer Mike Weaver, advocate Benny Bunting, and author Chris Leonard participate in a briefing for congressional staff and press to raise the awareness about anti-competitive practices in livestock farming.

We have no say in our contracts. It’s take it or leave it. They bring you a contract. If you sign it, you continue to grow chickens. If you don’t, you’re terminated.

There’s very few of us out there who don’t have to have that chicken check. And the companies abuse that terribly. They will go to growers who they know can’t possibly be close to paying off their mortgage – or even when they are close to paying off their mortgage – they will go growers and say, “Well, you’ve got to make improvements here.” And force them to go back into debt so that they can continue to control them. That’s part of their master plan is to keep growers in debt so that they’ve got to keep growing their chickens.

06/30/2015 at 2:49pm


Video courtesy of Appalshop

“My husband, when he was sick, he asked us to not let them. And you know we are going to respect that wish, ain’t we? What kind of people would we be if we didn’t?”
Elizabeth Wooten in the documentary, On Our Own Land

In 1989 Appalshop Films won the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism. The prize was for a public television documentary, On Our Own Land, about the practice of strip mining coal under the authority of deeds written before strip mining coal was invented. Local landowners had little or no recourse in the courts.

Anne Lewis produced and directed the program, and I was the executive producer, meaning I helped raise the money and talked to people when there was trouble. A lot of talented folks worked on the show. In New York they gave us a silver baton with an engraved quotation about television that was once spoken by newsman Edward R. Murrow: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it's nothing but wires and lights in a box.”

The true star of the documentary was Elizabeth Wooten. She could illuminate and inspire. Elizabeth died last week at 91. She was from Bulan, Kentucky, what people might call a wide spot in the road. And, full disclosure, she was my babysitter for a while when I was growing up, meaning that she worked as a maid in my home. She ironed clothes, kept house, stopped my brother and me from maiming each other while the parents were at work. Our family was not well-off. You did not need to be to have help. My dad made a hundred dollars a week at the furniture store, my mom far less as an assistant lab technician at the hospital. Mrs. Wooten made far less than that. In the 1960s, maybe $20 a week, less than a buck an hour.

06/29/2015 at 5:10pm

USDA Economic Research ServiceDarker areas receive more philanthropic grants per capita than lighter areas. Although urban areas receive more funding on average, some notable rural areas stand out in the map: Western North Carolina; parts of New England and Maine;  Colorado; and Oregon.

Whichever way you slice it, rural communities aren’t getting a proportionate share of foundation grants compared to the relative size of the rural population, a new report says.

Researchers found that rural communities, which accounted for 19 percent of U.S. population in 2010, received only about 6 to 7 percent of foundation grants awarded from 2005 to 2010.

The federal study also found that over the same time period, grants from large foundations to organizations based in rural areas came to about $88 per capita. Organizations in metropolitan areas received foundation support at twice that per capita rate, the report said.

 “This suggests an urban focus in foundation grants,” writes John L. Pender in a study conducted for the USDA Economic Research Service.

The study expands on previous work by Nonprofit Quarterly’s Rick Cohen that has tracked philanthropic investment in rural development. The new USDA study examines grants in all types of funding – not just development.

Determining how much foundation money is going into rural work is not an easy proposition, Pender writes. The study used three methods:

  • Measuring the size of grants going to organizations located in rural areas.
  • Adding to those rural-based grants money that went to urban organizations that appear to be doing rural work.
  • And taking random samples of grants to study geographic and programmatic distribution of grant funding.

The primary data for the study was grant reports of the nation’s 1,200 to 1,400 largest foundations, which are tracked by the private Foundation Center.

Each method yielded similar results, and in each case the share of grants going to rural work “is much less than the rural share of the U.S. population,” Pender writes.

U.S. foundations gave approximately $2.2 to $2.5 billion for the benefit of rural areas in 2010, the study says.

Though those dollars are small compared to public investment in rural projects, private philanthropy is an important part of the rural funding mix. Private grants can affect the impact of public programs, Pender writes.

Private philanthropy is also important because of equity, Pender writes.

06/27/2015 at 3:24pm

Photo via Getty Images Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Editor's note: This article is part a series of stories by InsideClimate News reporters exploring the future of the coal industry, Coal's Long Goodbye: Dispatches From the War on Carbon.

A massive $3 billion package to help struggling coal communities transition to a new economy is sitting unappropriated in the Republican-led Congress. And lawmakers are saying little—at least publicly—about if and how they ever plan to support it.

As part of the budget proposal released in February, the White House rolled out the POWER+ plan to support towns and communities struggling to cope with the decline in coal production and use. The initiative provides coal country with an influx of cash to reclaim abandoned mines, provide job training to miners, reform health and pension funds and invest in carbon capture technology.

But in the four months since the White House announced the plan, leaders in Congress have not addressed it in any detail.

"What is unusual is that it seems senators and representatives from the area have not shown more interest," said Thom Kay, legislative associate for the Appalachian Voices, an environmental group based in North Carolina. "It's very tough to pass something that's pretty major through the budget by trying to do it last minute."

Long the backbone of Appalachia, coal has been in a steady decline since 2000, with the dwindling supplies of easy-to-access coal, a surge in natural gas production and a slew of environmental regulations.

In recent years, coal mines and coal-burning power plants have shuttered, leaving thousands out of work. Since 2008 coal employment in the countryhas decreased by about 12,000 jobs, a 13 percent decline. At the same time, poverty rates in parts of Appalachia are some of the highest in the country, leading the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency, to declare almost a tenth of all counties in the area distressed this year.

"Part of the problem we have is we had very little economic diversification. In coal communities it’s been a mono economy of coal and not a lot else," said Chris Porter at Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, a non-profit based in Kentucky. "Having an influx of several billion dollars to really work to build a lot of diverse development strategies would be an enormous boost to take our region into the post coal economy."

06/25/2015 at 8:21pm

All photos by Nic Persinger “Sutton, West Virginia.” This single cross caught my eye one trip home in Sutton, WV while making my series 'few things are certain.' My endless question of the existence of God throughout my life is something that always seems to find its way into my photographs.

Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background. 
Nic Persinger: I grew up in a secluded West Virginia town called Richwood. It is surrounded on all sides by mountains and is right on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest. In many ways, it's a stereotypical Appalachian small town—one stoplight, too many churches for the dwindling population, impoverished—but it's also home to me and it's where most of my family still resides. It's eccentric and full of eccentrics—and there's no place more important to me.

“Papaw.” This is my Papaw. I took this photograph from the backseat of my uncle's 1967 Olds Cutlass Wagon during our week-long road trip to Wisconsin and back. That week was something out of a movie and is a story best told over a glass of bourbon. I sure do miss him.

DY: Where do you live now?
NP: Once I finished high school, I left West Virginia for college at the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, DC. About 4 years ago I moved to Morgantown, West Virginia with my wife, and I have been here ever since. It's sometimes a little sleepy for our liking but we've grown pretty fond of the area. It's not much like the West Virginia I knew growing up, but it's a happy medium between my upbringing and bigger cities. I can easily drive to DC, and Pittsburgh is just a stone's throw North. But in turn, I can also escape to the woods and hollers in no time at all traveling South.

“Taylor.” I've always been drawn to people and light. This is my friend Taylor outside of our first apartment in Morgantown, WV one fall night a few years ago. I've always enjoyed photographing my close friends throughout our lives—or at least the length of our friendships.

DY: On your website, you write that you document the back roads of the rural south.  Why are you drawn to photographing these places?
NP: My longing for home has always been a part of me ever since I left. I go back and photograph people and places that echo memories, whether mine or others'. Lately I've become kind of strict about only making photographs in West Virginia. I'm not entirely sure why I'm compelled by that, but I like it. I've also noticed that recently, I'm drawn to places worn with use by people but where no one exists any longer. To be honest, I'm not sure I've lived enough to know exactly what pulls me back again and again. It's something I think about daily, but sometimes it's good not knowing the answer.

06/25/2015 at 2:12am

“The Internet is NOT the Answer” by Andrew Keen. c.2015, Atlantic Monthly Press. $25.00 / $31.50 Canada. 288 pages  


That’s your computer now, and thus your productivity and probably your mood. You can’t get anything done, can’t check Facebook, can’t even surf the web for funny pictures of cats. What did you do with your time before you got a computer?  Good question but, according to Andrew Keen, “The Internet is NOT the Answer.”

Spend a few minutes with just about anybody these days and eventually, the conversation will turn to something someone’s seen online. There’s a reason for that: more than three billion people, world-wide, use the internet. Researchers think that there’ll be 50 billion “smart” devices on the planet within the next five years.

That’s all good, right?  All that connection, enhanced control, communication?  We’ve made our lives better and more efficient.

Or not: while it’s true that online companies have made many a billionaire, that wealth is largely concentrated, Keen says, within a small group of people (mostly men), and near one major city. Those online entities have badly hurt the economy in that area, and they’ve badly hurt the economy in yours.

The reason, he says, is that the internet has killed jobs. Books you bought on Amazon, the lawn mower you got on eBay, the shoes you got from Zappos were all purchased with money you didn’t spend locally with local employers. Pictures posted on Instagram are no longer printed. The message you Facebooked wasn’t mailed.

Furthermore, says Keen, we’ve become unpaid employees of many of these high-tech corporations. Google, for instance, becomes better every time we look something up – but with each click, we do the work that enhances their product, both in function and for investors. We also aren’t compensated for our personal data, which they mine and sell.

06/24/2015 at 2:00am

The population growth in rural counties that depend on tourists and retirees isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still a bright spot compared to other rural population trends, a new analysis by the USDA Economic Research Service shows.

As the Daily Yonder has reported, nonmetropolitan counties overall have lost population for the fourth straight year. But some types of rural counties managed to add population rather than lose it. We’ve already reported on how larger rural counties – ones that have cities of between 10,000 and 50,000 residents – grew in population last year.

The new ERS analysis by John Cromartie looks at other geographic factors in rural population change from 2010 to 2014. He finds that factors that used to contribute to population growth for rural counties aren’t as strong as they used to be.

Urban population size, metro proximity, attractive scenery, and recreation potential have historically contributed to nonmetro population growth. For the time being at least, their influence has weakened. Over the last 4 years, suburban and exurban population growth has contracted considerably—for the first time since World War II—affecting not only outlying metro counties but nonmetro counties adjacent to metro areas as well.

The analysis looks at nonmetropolitan population change by “county type”:

  • “Recreation” counties have lots of exceptional natural amenities like lakes, mountains, and rivers (think Park County, Wyoming, the home of Yellowstone National Park, or of counties along the Upper Great Lakes in parts of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota).
  • “Farming” counties are like they sound – counties where agriculture is the dominant economic force.
  • “Manufacturing” counties, where factories still make up a good portion of the economic activity.
  • And “Other” counties, which don’t match one of the other categories.

The analysis found that recreation counties were the only type of rural county to show any appreciable growth in 2010-2014.