Perdue chicken farmer Craig Watts in his front yard (portrait by Justin Schmitz)
On a cold December morning, Craig Watts met me in the driveway of the farmhouse that his great-grandfather had built in North Carolina more than a century ago. His family has been working on this land for much longer, perhaps hundreds of years, but as Watts led me into his house, it was clear that something had gone wrong in his two decades as a chicken farmer. He sat down in an easy chair surrounded by a whirlwind of legal paperwork and held up the book he was currently reading,
The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
The previous day he'd asked to cancel our interview as I was driving to North Carolina to meet him. His lawyers had advised him to stop talking to the press. I told him that I thought it was important that he keep speaking, that the story wasn't over yet. He snapped back, "It ain't a story, man—it's my life. Try to keep that in mind."
At 7 PM on December 3, a video had been released detailing the conditions on Watts's farm, timed to coincide with the publication of an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times criticizing the treatment depicted in the video. What viewers saw were the essential conditions of conventional chicken farming in the United States: a dark, dim house packed with tens of thousands of white-feathered chickens bred to rapidly grow massive breasts. Their legs unable to support the weight, many spend their lives sitting in their own shit, their breasts growing red, sore, and bare of feathers. For anyone acquainted with the standards of industrial farming, this shouldn't have been anything new.
What was unique about the video is Watts himself, the man who owns the farm, standing in front of the camera and saying, "I can't speak for a chicken—all I can say is what I observe. No, they're not happy. And they're definitely not healthy." Rather than a grainy exposé produced by trespassing, ski-masked vegans, here was the chicken farmer himself saying the conditions of his own farm are wrong. The video went viral.
Like the vast majority of chicken farmers in this country, Watts is a contract farmer, which means he owns chicken houses and equipment and works by contract for Perdue, which provides the chickens and the feed. His producer agreement with Perdue dictates everything about how the chickens are raised—from accepting whatever number of chicks Perdue decides to deliver down to how Watts should operate his ventilation fans. In other words, even if Watts wanted to change how his farm is run, his hands are tied.
For Watts, at least, the system doesn't make sense. He said his payments, which hover around five cents per pound of chicken, have never been enough to keep him out of a debt cycle of equipment repair, maintenance, and upgrades. His frustration and complaints, built up over years, largely went unheard or unheeded.
"I had issues from a farmer's standpoint—grinding out debt, and that sort of thing—but I didn't think about animal welfare too much," he said. Then he happened to see a commercial for Perdue chicken on television. In the video, Jim Perdue, the company's chairman and third-generation leader, walks through a clean, uncrowded chicken house with full-grown birds while talking about "doing the right thing" and "raising chickens humanely."
"They show that picture of the farm, and I know that's nothing like what I see everyday," Watts said. "My bullshit detector is just going
ding, ding, ding. That's the biggest bunch of bullshit I've ever seen. At that point, it becomes a moral dilemma. If I sit on it, I'm just an enabler."
Last spring, Watts had been introduced to a charming, impassioned animal-welfare activist named Leah Garces. Who introduced them? Neither Watts nor Garces will say. Garces is the US director of Compassion in World Farming; her job is, essentially, to advocate against the conditions of places likes Watts's farm. She came to his house and met his wife and family. They became friends, and when Garces asked him to open the doors to his farm for her cameras, he eventually agreed. In short, Watts decided to become a whistle-blower.
Many chicken farmers working for Perdue pack upward of 30,000 birds into windowless warehouses. Photo by Raegan Hodge/Compassion in World Farming
Garces filmed at Watts's farm over a period of months and helped put him in touch with media heavyweights like Kristof at the Times, Maryn McKenna at Wired, and producers at Fusion TV, who are apparently working on a documentary about Watts that will air in 2015. The unlikely alliance between Watts and Garces is, one might imagine, Perdue's worst nightmare. Without Garces, Watts is a just a funny farmer out in the country, listing his complaints without anyone to listen to him. Without Watts, Garces is just another activist leveling claims at a secretive industry.
When the video was released, Watts expected to lose his contract with Perdue. In the end, that's part of the reason he agreed to talk with me on that December morning. "I might end up with half a million in unusable assets," he told me. "But I got to be able to sleep at night." The law firm that agreed to represent Watts pro bono—they also happen to be on the counsel team for Edward Snowden—had advised him to expect the worst.
When farm conditions like the ones in Watts's video are revealed, parent companies like Perdue are usually quick to denounce the farm as a bad apple and end the producer's contract. In a statement released shortly after the video, Perdue said, "The conditions shown in this farmer's poultry house do not reflect Perdue's standards for how our chickens are raised." This is curious, because according to documents shared with me dating to as recent as July 2014, Perdue inspectors were telling Watts to "keep up the good work."
On the subject of Watts's contract, Perdue was surprisingly silent. In the weeks following the video release, inspectors had been showing up at his farm unannounced. "I've had more inspections in the past three weeks than I've had in years," Watts said. The assumption was they were building some kind of case against him, some way to discredit him, but they weren't telling him anything.
Perdue was scheduled to pick up Watts's chickens for slaughter the day after I arrived. He invited me to check out what he thought might be his last flock. Inside the house were birds crowded wing to wing, the air thick with ammonia. It was indistinguishable from the conditions in the video.
This chicken has a raw underside from constant contact with feces-ridden litter. Photo by Leah Garces/Compassion in World Farming
Down at our feet, Watts noticed a bird limping, her genetically
deformed legs unable to bear the weight of her breasts. These are the
types of birds that Perdue says Watts has a moral responsibility to
cull, to end their miserable life. Watts demonstrated the recommended
method: He picked the bird up and twisted her head like the cap on a
bottle of beer. For one, at least, life was over. The rest of the
miserable flock had to wait for tomorrow to die.
I asked Watts if he ever expected to have chickens on his farm again.
"Well, that's the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, isn't it?" he asked back.
Sometime around the turn of the year, Perdue answered it. They were mandating that Watts be retrained in biosecurity and animal welfare and that his chicken houses be inspected multiple times a week. In other words, they said he could keep his contract if he wanted, but they'd be keeping a close eye on him.
When I asked Perdue why they didn't fire Watts, spokesperson Julie DeYoung replied, "What was portrayed in the video is in contrast to our observations during our on-farm audits and the farm's performance history... Our increased attention is not for purposes of retaliation, but to ensure that Perdue's poultry are being cared for properly in an acceptable environment."
Maybe it was the high-powered law firm. Maybe it was the fact that Perdue had told Watts to "keep up the good work" at the same time Garces was filming her exposé. Something saved Watts's job, whether he wanted it or not. "I think they weighed the risk," Watts said. "There probably would've been a hellstorm if they had."
Whatever Perdue's reason, Watts accepted their offer to keep his contract, and by the time you read this his farm will be full of Perdue chickens once again. How long that will last is uncertain. It's a surprising choice, perhaps, for a guy who seems so fed up with Perdue's policies, but Watts may be beginning to realize the power of staying within the company. "If [the system] is going to be changed," Watts said, "it is going to be changed from the inside."