Midnight under a starlit summer sky and the North Carolina countryside is alive with the buzz of cicadas and the low blow-horn of distant bullfrogs. I’m in a Chevrolet four-wheel drive nestled unobtrusively amongst the sheds of a poultry farm. As we wait patiently for something to happen, it has all the hallmarks of a bizarrely memorable night; keeping out of sight so we wouldn’t be seen by workers; reacting to unexpected sounds or flickers of distant headlights. But despite the subversive feel, there was no fear of being caught by an angry farm owner; he was sitting right beside me in the driving seat.
I first met Craig Watts earlier that day to get a rare glimpse inside America’s poultry industry. It’s big business here in North Carolina, the fourth biggest ‘broiler’ chicken state in the USA, churning out 785 million birds a year worth $3 billion. I arrived with Compassion in World Farming’s US director, Leah Garcés, to find Watt’s aboard a bright orange mower cutting the grass round his white clapboard homestead. He was ruggedly handsome in sleeveless t-shirt and dungarees, thick greying hair and engaging brown eyes.
Watts married Amelia, his childhood sweetheart, in his twenties and went into chicken farming because he wanted to be his own boss. However, he quickly found out he was anything but. Now 48 years old and with two young sons and a daughter, he farms chickens, lots of them, on contract to one of America’s biggest poultry processing companies.
Like an army of contract growers across the country, Watts has been running on the debt treadmill to stand still. He invested around half a million dollars in four state-of-the-art buildings like long, low-slung warehouses for raising meat chickens. Watts provides the sheds, land and labour, the contractor company provides the chicks, the feed and specifies how they should be reared.
It was a unique chance to see the kind of conditions that all too often lie behind labels like “all natural” in grocery stores across the US. Watts beckoned us out of the blinding midday sun and into the dusty gloom of the chicken shed where a caustic feeling of ammonia-ridden air hit the back of my throat. My eyes adjusted to focus on the carpet of white motionless birds that stretched away, covering every available inch of what seemed like a 20,000 square foot corridor with whirring giant fans at each end. “I told you, a sea of white”, he quipped.
In this video, Chicken Factory Farmer Speaks Out, you can see what we saw; the effects of hothouse rearing, where the birds have been genetically selected to grow super-fast and fed a rich diet in intensive conditions.
I asked him what he sees as the future of the industry; “I think it’s almost going to have to be a start over. I think we’re past the rewind button here. I think this has gone too far.”
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