Craig Watts' patience has run out, and he's ready to do what he can to change the very system he knows so well.
Craig Watts is a chicken farmer from South Carolina who has raised broiler flocks for Perdue since 1992. Over the years, he has grown increasingly uncomfortable with the factory farming system, and has tried to change it from within by writing op-eds, testifying at a government hearing exploring unfair contract conditions, and talking occasionally to journalists and animal welfare advocates.
When that failed to work, he took a very courageous step. He invited Leah Garces of the animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming to come to his farm in order to see the conditions firsthand and film them professionally. That video, titled “Chicken farmer speaks out,” was released on YouTube last week and has received over a million views already.
Watts’ decision to speak out so publicly and to allow a film crew right into his chicken houses is unprecedented because of the control that big chicken companies like Perdue wield over their farmers. Most film footage of factory farming is shot by undercover activists and is of low quality by comparison. Watts took a big risk.
As Maryn McKenna reports for Wired:
For a farmer to admit to letting activists in — and to appear with them on camera, explain the contract conditions he is compelled to work in, and document the poor health of the birds he is sent — is unheard-of. (And, for Watts, almost certainly a breach of contract. It will be important to keep track of whether he experiences consequences from the company.)
In an interview with Salon’s Lindsay Abrams, Watts describes the sensation of going public as having an anvil lifted off his chest.
Losing a contract? I’m not worried about that. If the past is any indication of the future, I don’t want to do it. The thing is, though, I don’t have much debt. There are a lot of farmers who aren’t in this position, and that’s why they’re kind of quiet. If I’ve got to fall on the sword to make it better for the rest, so be it. Because we’re getting ready to change gears, and people are going to understand what we’re going through out here.
One major point in the film is that Watts’ chickens are raised and sold according to the USDA’s Process Verified program, which means that – in theory – they are cage free, fed an all-vegetarian diet, receive no animal by-products or antibiotics ever, and are considered humanely raised. (In October Perdue did agree to drop the “humanely raised” claim for its Harvestland broilers in order to settle lawsuits from the Humane Society.)
One look at the film, however, reveals heartbreaking conditions such as deformed chicks, bellies worn raw from contact with feces-saturated litter, heart and lungs and legs too weak to support the oversized breasts, and awful leg deformities. There’s nothing remotely humane, or even natural, about that.
“There’s a lot of flaws in the system. The consumer’s being hoodwinked. The farmer’s being jerked around.” Watts says the first thing he would do is get rid of the walls and let in sunshine and fresh air, which, bound by contract, he is not allowed to do. The chickens never see daylight except when being transported in and out of the house.
“It’s going to have to be a start-over. We’re past rewind here. This has gone too far.”