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Turkey farmers feeling squeeze

By Christine Haughney | 11/20/2017 10:00 AM EDT

With Megan Cassella, Catherine Boudreau and Maya Parthasarathy

TURKEY FARMERS FEEL PAIN FROM GIPSA: Days before Thanksgiving, some turkey growers are feeling the harsh effects of last month’s decision by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to pull out of the interim final GIPSA rule. Within hours of the USDA’s announcement, one Pennsylvania turkey integrator, Plainville Farms, presented its farmers with updated contracts that required farmers to make costly upgrades or accept pay cuts, your host reports.

How bad has it gotten for turkey farmers? In one case, the new contract may destroy the livelihood of at least one turkey farmer who is aiming to sell his business after this holiday season. “That was my retirement,” said Ike Horst, who is scheduled to close on the sale of his farm in Franklin County, which raises 22,000 organic turkeys a year, in January. Plainville is requiring Horst’s buyer to install upgrades including fans, tunnel ventilation and a stationary generator, if it wants to continue supplying to the company. It’s especially problematic in the coming colder months because farmers like Horst must relocate their turkeys during the renovations.

What the rules said: The interim final rule would have lowered the bar for producers of poultry and other livestock to sue the meatpacking or processing companies with which they have contracts. In addition, the agency said it would also not follow through on a proposed rule to shield contract growers from unfair practices. If the interim GIPSA rule had gone into effect, farmers like Horst potentially could have sued.

“We’re fairly convinced that if the secretary of Agriculture hadn’t done away with the GIPSA rules that we were trying to get implemented, the companies wouldn’t be doing things like this,” said Mike Weaver, a West Virginia poultry grower and president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, who has been contacted by Plainville’s turkey growers about their fears. “We think this has emboldened the companies to abuse the growers.”

The moves were only part of the broader changes taking place at USDA under Perdue. Last week, USDA quietly dissolved GIPSA as a standalone agency and made it part of the Agricultural Marketing Service. The agency also moved ahead with his controversial plan to transfer USDA’s Codex office from the department’s food safety agency to its newly created trade mission area – a decision that had opposed by food safety advocates and the FDA. The FDA now seems satisfied with modifications made, but it was not immediately clear whether Codex’s new setup would satisfy earlier concerns raised by food safety advocates or former USDA officials.

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