Tyson places new demands on growers
BERRYVILLE -- Some poultry growers under contract with Tyson Foods are not happy with the new rules and regulations that were handed down by the poultry giant this week.
Darrell Williams, a Tyson poultry grower since 1975, said he plans to shut down his operation rather than comply with what he calls "more stringent" requirements.
"I have two houses now and I've decided not to do the upgrades," he said. "I'll shut down my houses instead."
He was one of 230 contract poultry producers summoned to special "grower meetings" at the county fairgrounds Wednesday on short notice.
Darrell said he has around 28,000 birds in his two houses right now and they have another five weeks to go. He expects to continue growing birds for Tyson until his current contract expires in June.
"I always made some money," he said. "There have been ups and downs and sometimes I make more money than other times.
"I'm at an age where I'm ready to retire, but I didn't plan on it this quick."
The houses sit on property that has been in his family for generations, he said, so they will remain in his care -- occupied or not.
Another grower who spoke up was Glenn Williams who said he received a call at 8:45 a.m. Wednesday advising him of the meetings that day at the fairgrounds.
Glenn, a Tyson poultry grower for 24 years, said he had five houses at one time. In 2006-07 he spent $250,000 retrofitting those five houses with cool cells, solid side walls, black out curtains and a computerized control system.
He sold three of those houses, he said, to get out from under the debt he incurred retrofitting.
"Once done, I was glad of the retrofit," he admitted, "as far as labor was concerned."
Glenn said he's in the business for the long haul but he's troubled by the changes being made.
"I made the commitment when I retrofitted," he said. "I can understand the company's viewpoint to stay profitable and the measures to be taken. But I wish the growers were informed on the front end."
At Wednesday's meeting, Glenn said all growers had to sign an addendum to their contracts agreeing to grow seven pound birds instead of eight-pounders.
That means less money for the growers, he said, especially those who set their houses up to accommodate the larger birds.
In addition, the "lay-out time" between flocks was increased to 26 days, he said.
"It was as few as four or five days, and generally eight to 10 days," he explained. "Most growers prefer an eight-to-10 day layout.
"It looks like this will cause us to have four flocks a year instead of five. That's less income."
There are new tasks to be accomplished between flocks, he said, which again translates to more money spent by the grower and less income.
Besides growing birds for Tyson, Glenn runs a cattle operation on his acreage south of Berryville. He volunteers with the Carroll County Community Foundation, sits on the Carroll County Farm Bureau board of directors, and serves in an advisory position with Arvest Bank in Berryville.
As a community-minded citizen, Glenn said he is concerned for his fellow growers.
"One of my main concerns is for those who have newer houses," he said. "They asked at the meeting if their cash flow, produced by the smaller birds, would be enough to pay their bills. No one answered them. They spent $225,000 to $250,000 to build each house, anticipating eight pound birds."
What troubles him the most, he said, is the way Tyson is treating its growers.
"Before, it was an advisory partnership," he said. "Now, we are being told. It feels like the company doesn't need our product -- that they don't care if we grow."
As an example, he said at the meeting they were told the addendums must be signed before they could expect a new flock of birds.
The day before, Glenn said he was told that the new inspections that were ordered, to be conducted on a "flock-to-flock" basis, would determine the fate of his next flock.
"My ranking is 13th out of 271 growers," he said. "I feel like my background shows I don't have to have that stress put on me -- to say I may or may not receive birds. That bothered me.
"In defense of Tyson, in the past, growing has allowed me to maintain a cash flow. It's not all been bad. But it is strenuous, hard work. Then to hear that kind of statement, that you may or may not receive birds -- rather than a 'thank you,' that does not sit well with me."