Photo by Taila Lewis.

The little guy wins out in legal dispute

By Leisa Boley Hellwarth

I’m pretty sure our Border Collies know the Old Testament story of David and Goliath. Why else would two dogs, who each weigh maybe 60 pounds dripping wet, herd a farm full of cows weighing over 1,800 pounds a piece?

            David was the youngest son of Jesse’s 12 boys. He was kept behind when the other brothers went to fight the Philistine army that had gathered for battle. David ended up at the battlefield when his father sent him to get an update from the front line. David found the two armies gathered on opposite sides of a deep valley. For 40 days, the Philistine giant, Goliath, who was over nine feet tall, had ridiculed the Israelis and their God and called them to fight. Because of his size and demeanor, the Israelis, including King Saul, were afraid. In fact, King Saul thought Goliath was too big to fight. David thought he was too big to miss. 

            Instead of returning to Jesse with the news, David went to King Saul and offered to fight Goliath. He declined the king’s offer of armor but went carrying a slingshot and five smooth stones.

            Goliath, armed with a sword and spear, laughed at David, a simple shepherd boy. David was likely somewhere between the ages of 15 to 19, at the time.

            David responded that he came in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel. David put a rock in his sling and swung. The rock sank into Goliath’s forehead, and he fell. David then picked up Goliath’s sword and used it to kill Goliath and cut off his head. David’s victory over Goliath is the ultimate story of the victorious underdog. Size does not matter, but heart, courage and commitment do.

            A recent development in a federal case, filed in 2017 in the Eastern District of Oklahoma. is a modern day legal version. Instead of smooth stones, the underdog used a lawyer. My husband thinks the stones would have been easier to work with, but I digress. A group of U.S. chicken farmers sued the country’s biggest poultry processors for allegedly conspiring to depress their pay.

            This fall,Tyson and Perdue agreed to pay nearly $36 million to settle the claims against them in Haff Poultry, Inc. v. Tyson, a class action. This is a type of lawsuit where one of the parties is a group of people who are represented collectively by a member or members of that group. Not only are Tyson and Perdue paying out a significant amount, they are also committed to helping the plaintiffs in their battle against the other defendant companies, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms and Koch Foods. The defendants in this lawsuit comprise over 60% of broiler grow-out services in the U.S.

            Tyson and Perdue insist they did nothing wrong and have asserted defenses to the claims against them. Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms and Koch Foods deny the claims made by plaintiffs. 

            The lead plaintiff is Haff Poultry, Inc., who is owned by Steve Haff, his wife, and his father-in-law. Haff began providing broiler grow-out services for Hudson (a vertical poultry integrator) in Oklahoma in 1996. Haff borrowed $365,000 to build four broiler houses to Hudson’s specifications. When Tyson purchased Hudson, Haff became a grower for Tyson. Tyson demanded Haff make further investments into broiler houses. Hoff borrowed or spent another $250,000 making these improvements to its broiler houses because Tyson threatened to not deliver broilers for Haff to raise unless they did so. Haff would not have been able to make ends meet with Tyson’s compensation, and so Haff ran a separate and profitable cattle-raising operation at the same time. In October 2015, Haff quit providing broiler grow-out services. After 19 years as a contractor with Tyson and $615,000 in required investments, Haff was left with four broiler houses, that have no value other than raising broilers, and $130,000 in lingering debt.

            Other named plaintiffs describe similar situations with other chicken integrators in other states. In the complaint, the attorney for the plaintiffs refers to these companies as a “cartel.”  

            The plaintiffs allege the companies conspired to suppress wages by agreeing not to hire a grower from another company, a policy known as “no poaching.” This is contrary to the way a competitive market works where you would go out and try to attract the best labor you could have.

            The plaintiffs claim the chicken companies use Agri Stats, a data website to share compensation data and suppress wages. Agri Stats, located in Fort Wayne, Indiana, provides a channel by which the individual chicken companies can avoid competing with one another, according to James MacDonald, Agricultural Economics Professor at the University of Maryland.

            The plaintiffs assert that the actions of the cartel were designed to keep broiler farmers, as author Christopher Leonard noted in The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business, in a state of indebted servitude, living like modern-day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy.

            On Feb. 18, 2022 the court has a hearing scheduled on whether to approve the proposed settlement. According to recent research the settlement is not likely to change the alleged wage suppression. A series of studies at Purdue University show it’s less expensive for companies to continue price fixing and pay fines and settlements instead of reforming their practices.

            I remind our Border Collies every morning at 5 a.m., when they head out to herd the milking string to the parlor, if there is a Goliath in front of you, that means there’s a David inside of you.

Leisa Boley Hellwarth is a dairy farmer and an attorney. She represents farmers throughout Ohio from her office near Celina. Her office number is 419-586-1072. 

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One comment

  1. Great article – thanks.

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