Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Court rebuffs farmer who tangled with Tyson

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday turned down an appeal from a former Tennessee poultry farmer who sued Tyson Farms after losing his contract to raise their chickens.

The justices did not comment in turning away Alton Terry, who said Tyson cut him off because he helped organize area farmers and complained about the company’s practices. Lower courts had previously dismissed the lawsuit.

Terry, essentially, argued that he lost his contract to raise chickens on his 12-acre farm because he squawked too much.

Terry was a poultry farmer who brought together a group of area farmers and told them they had the right to complain about Tyson’s practices. He also raised concerns directly with Tyson, among the world’s largest meat companies.

Terry says Tyson and other big companies have too much sway over farmers, and federal courts also have bowed to agribusiness interests by setting too high a standard for the farmers to succeed in court.

He casts his fight as a “struggle between those who grow our food and those who process and market it.”

Tyson, a unit of Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, Inc., had urged the court to stay out of the lawsuit, arguing that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati properly dismissed it.

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company was not surprised at the high court’s action. Tyson denied Terry’s claims, “which we believe would have been ultimately disproven had the case gone to trial,” Mickelson said.

The 6th Circuit ruled that Terry not only had to show that he was harmed by Tyson actions, but also that the company diminished competition by ending Terry’s contract and sending a signal to other farmers. Terry didn’t even claim anticompetitive behavior by Tyson, much less prove it, the court said.

Limits proposed

At an earlier stage in the case, the Bush administration’s Agriculture Department sided with Terry. Since Barack Obama became president, USDA has proposed rules that would limit the control chicken companies have over the farmers who raise birds for them and would make it easier for farmers to file suits under the 90-year-old Packers and Stockyards Act. The proposed changes would make clear that farmers don’t need to prove industry-wide anticompetitive behavior to sue under the act.

Last year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the law has not kept pace with the marketplace, where consolidation has strengthened the hand of the big companies in their dealings with farmers. “Our job is to make sure the playing field is level for producers,” Vilsack said.

USDA said it is reviewing the 61,000 comments it received about the proposed changes, including opposition from Tyson. The law “only prohibits those practices that harm competition,” Mickelson said.

Tyson has contracts with nearly 6,000 farmers to raise broiler chickens. Under the contracts, the company supplies the chicks, feed and know-how to get the birds up to a weight where they can be slaughtered. Growers are paid under a formula that measures weight gain in the birds relative to how much feed has been provided.

Terry bought his farm in 2001, but only after getting assurances from a Tyson manager that the farm he was buying had a first-rate reputation. He says he was led to believe that he would not need to make major investments in the poultry equipment anytime soon.

The following year, he said, he began to learn about problems other farmers were having with Tyson. After a while, he formed an association of area farmers and forwarded complaints about Tyson to USDA.

His conflict with Tyson came to a head after he was three times denied permission to watch his birds get weighed by the company, as he claims is his right under federal law and the contract.

By March 2005, less than four years after Terry bought the farm, Tyson told him it would no longer provide chicks. According to Terry, the company said it ended its arrangement with him because the farm needed costly equipment upgrades and his behavior had become confrontational.

But Terry said the real reasons for the termination were his efforts to organize the farmers and his complaints to USDA.

He filed suit in 2008.

After losing the Tyson contract, Terry tried to sell the farm but couldn’t, he said, because Tyson’s demand for expensive upgrades scared off potential buyers. Eventually he lost the farm to foreclosure.

The case is Terry v. Tyson Farms, 10-542.