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Turkey at $1.38 a Pound Sounds Great. Until You Think about What That Means

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's CAFO's vs. Free Range page, Health Issues page and our Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

In Wisconsin, you can buy a Butterball turkey for $1.38 per pound, reports Nami Moon Farms, on its blog. That's about $16.50 for a 12-pound bird-a Thanksgiving main course for eight, plus "ample leftovers." The Nami Moon folks calculate that if they tried to compete with Butterball on price in the their pasture-based turkey system, they'd lose $36.44 per bird-representing a loss of $1,822 for the 50 birds they raise.

Now, a conventional economist would likely conclude from this information that Butterball represents the height of industrial efficiency, while Nami Moon is an anachronism. But the low price  doesn't just reflect efficiency. It also, as the veteran agriculture reporter Christopher Leonard showed in a Friday Washington Post op-ed, reveals power-specifically, the power to exploit farmers.

"Just four corporations-Cargill, Hormel, Butterball and Farbest Foods-produce more than half of the turkey in the United States, a level of concentration unthinkable just a few decades ago," Leonard writes. Leonard writes that the Big Turkey operates on the chicken industry's model. Here's how it works.

Here is what modern poultry farming looks like: A farmer will borrow several hundred thousand dollars (or in some cases millions) to build industrial barns where the birds will be raised. The birds themselves are never bought or sold on an open market; a poultry company delivers chicks to the farm and picks them up about six weeks later when the birds are big enough to slaughter. Farmers are kept on short-term contracts with the big poultry companies and live in fear that they'll be dropped.         


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