by Ping-Ko Chiu
Chris, my uber driver, told me that he would help out at his friends farm during his off season. He said his friend is a contract chicken farmer for a national chicken farming company. I took the opportunity to ask him all about how contract farming works.
The chicken growing cycle is 58 days. At his friends farm, ninety thousand chicks get brought in. The chicks are not the yellow furry things we are used to seeing, they are coated in this green disinfectant and growth aiding liquid. It takes Chris, his friend, and their family one hour to dump all ninety thousand chicks into the farm from the truck that brought it. They literally just grab the crates and dump the chickens into the barn. The chicks immediately head for food and water. The food is placed on the floor and the water is through drink tubes above the chicks. They technically have the whole barn to roam but in reality, none of them really roam — they stay at the same spot for the entire 58 days. I asked if the first few days is the time of highest risk for these chicks and Chris told me that this is actually the lowest risk phase of contract chicken farming. These contract farming companies actually make sure these chicks survive the journey and into the farm. It is on the third week that the risk starts the ramp up. The floor can be too wet, covered in feces. There can be diseased or dead chickens that other chickens start to peck at or eat. His friend can check at night before closing and come back the next morning to find a big portion of the chickens sick because some had died during the night and others contracted the same disease. The sick chickens dont go to waste — they get sold for dog food. Parts of the barn is automated. The barn has a temperature control system that would keep the farm at no more than 2 degrees from the target. Up until the 58 day mark, the owner has to constantly monitor the chickens, feed them, clean the pen, isolate sick chickens, check on the automation equipments, and more. It is a demanding and risky job. Representatives from the contract farming company will come for inspections unannounced and farmers will get fined for sick chickens, improper maintenance of equipment, or inadequate environment. The company will provide the chicks and feed. The farmers have to cover the rest — water, electricity, barn, rent, flooring, cleaning supplies, etc. Chris’ friend and his family will work 7 days a week for the 58 days, then take two weeks to clean the barn and the equipment, replace the flooring, and take some vacation. The growing cycle repeats after that. His friend makes 30k USD for each growing cycle which is a little over two months including the time to cleanup and vacation. The pay is based on the chicken’s weight and they curve the pay so that farmers that grow bigger chickens get paid more. This means a yearly income of 180k USD for the contract farmer. It sounds substantial but Chris reminded me that his friend still has to pay for all of the things that the contract farming company doesn’t provide such as electricity, flooring, equipment, as well as the loan he took for the barn. So the actual take home amount isn’t that much. Chris didn’t tell me how much.
I asked Chris how he feels about this contract farming model. He reminisced about how he grew up on a farm as a kid and they had their own chickens, pigs, and vegetables. Nowadays, few people are doing that as more folks move out of the country and into cities. Sons and daughters of farmers become first generation college graduates and just dont come back to the farm anymore. Farming families that are still around buy the land and you start to have farms that are hundreds and thousands of acres. Demands for meat and produce increased but the amount of labors on the farm has decreased. He said contract farming is now the norm and he considers it inescapable.tags: Travel - Food