The Planted Row: ‘Rotten’ exposes producers’ challenges

Stan Wise Farm Forum Editor
Farm Forum

Most of the people in agriculture that I know have a sharp ear out for anyone saying anything against how they produce their food and are quick to set any naysayers straight. As someone who was raised on the farm, it’s a point of view that I understand very well.

So, when I heard about the new Netflix documentary series “Rotten,” which claims to “travel deep into the heart of the food supply chain and reveal unsavory truths,” I was concerned. I was certain the series would attack the American farmer, so I watched it with my wife.

I was pleasantly surprised. The only negative thing said about a farmer concerns an organic dairy farmer who sells raw milk that has made some people very sick in California. That dairy farmer was allowed to explain his side of the story in the same episode.

In most other instances, “Rotten” focuses on ways the global food distribution system is corrupt and takes advantage of America’s consumers and producers — especially the smaller ones.

I learned how China is driving American honey producers out of business, despite the increasing demand for honey. China was caught diluting honey with cheap substitutes like rice syrup. This syrup can be very difficult to detect. In response, the U.S. imposed a heavy tariff on Chinese honey.

That’s no big deal to Chinese honey exporters. They simply ship it to other Asian countries, stick a new label on it, put it on a different ship, and send it to America. The Chinese avoid the tariff, and it’s very hard to catch them in the act.

The American honey producers, on the other hand, are suffering from colony collapse disorder. They can lose 50 percent of their bees in a year, and they can’t compete with the cheap, diluted Chinese honey flooding the market.

Sometimes, forces inside our own country can make life difficult for growers.

“Rotten” also looks at the poultry industry in which growers don’t own any of the birds they raise. Instead, the chickens and their feed are owned by meat packers, and local growers with chicken houses provide the labor and conditions necessary for the chicks to grow. When the packers pick up the grown broilers, they know the weight of the birds and exactly how much feed they were given. They use these numbers to determine a feed conversion ratio for each batch of broilers.

All the growers in an area are grouped into a pool, and their feed conversion ratios are compared. The top half of growers with the best conversion rates are given bonuses in their pay. Those bonuses are deducted from the pay given to the bottom half of growers with the worst conversion rates.

The lives and operations of poultry growers are determined by large corporations who have the power to send them inferior chicks or inferior feed. Those growers are basically employees of the packers in all but name, but they are forced to compete with one another for the best pay. If the packers are ever displeased, they can simply decide to no longer work with a grower who has taken on the debt to build and maintain expensive chicken houses.

If you’re noticing a theme here, it’s that the people who are doing the hard work of American agriculture are at the mercy of the very people getting rich off their labors.

I encourage you to watch “Rotten.” There’s a good chance you could learn something new about the food industry. I already knew a lot of the things discussed in the series, but I didn’t know it all. Perhaps if more people are aware of the difficulties faced by American ag producers, we can get some policies that help make the lives of farmers and ranchers a little bit easier.