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The back page: April 2014

A Message Worth Repeating


March 18, 2014
By Roy Maxwell

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This is my final piece as the principal contributor to The Back Page. When I was invited a year ago to write the column, I accepted, but explained that I couldn’t do it for more than a year because of other commitments.

So, what should my final article be about? Reflecting upon my 16 years of managing communications for Chicken Farmers of Ontario (CFO), I decided to write about Bob Lakey, who very sadly passed away about ten years ago. Bob became a great friend and, if this column reads like a tribute, that is OK with me and I am sure it will be just fine with anyone who met Bob or heard him speak about the American poultry industry, trade and supply management.

In 1991 or ‘92, I suggested to the CFO that we should develop contacts with American chicken farmers and try to find someone who would be willing to speak at CFO’s Annual Meeting. I needed somebody “real” who could speak farmer-to-farmer and who would not suffer stage fright when speaking to 500 people in a big Toronto hotel. The person I found was Bob Lakey who lived in Adona, Arkansas, which is about an hour outside of Little Rock.

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My journey into the world of American chicken farming began at a three-day long clandestine meeting of the National Contract Poultry Growers’ Association. It was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, someplace in Alabama. That is where I met chicken farmers from across the country, including Bob Lakey. The meeting was clandestine because the farmers did not want any “integrators” to sneak into the meeting and recognize disgruntled growers. Should that happen, the farmers feared losing their contract, knowing full well that once an integrator “cuts off” a grower, no other company will touch him. It was literally by invitation only.

At one point, I was invited to go to the front of the hall to speak about supply management because they were very interested in hearing me explain how farmers in Canada made a good living growing chickens. About five minutes into my supply management talk, I suddenly stopped and said: “It just hit me. I know why your situation is so bleak. You don’t own the food you produce. You have nothing to sell and that is why you have no power.” Nobody argued with me.

The next day, I invited Bob to come to Canada. He thought I was kidding, but I wasn’t, and he accepted my invitation. When he arrived, we asked if he would like to go to the top of the CN tower or see Niagara Falls. In his distinct southern accent, he graciously declined the offers and said he would much rather visit some chicken farms, which we did.  He was shocked at what he saw and asked me if I had staged visits to four or five of the nicest farms.

Bob visited Canada several times and always delivered a powerful message and one that bears repeating,

Here are some excerpts from his speech to a full house at the 1995 CFO Annual Meeting in Toronto. Everybody wanted to hear his compelling story about life in the chicken business from an American perspective. It’s my pleasure to end The Back Page with words from Bob Lakey – the man from Arkansas.

“We need legislation designed specifically to give effective protection to poultry growers in their dealings with the integrators. Contract growing is not going to go away in the United States. I believe that we will continue to grow birds that we don’t own. That is why we need legislation that would make our contracts with the integrators true contracts. Today, we have no say in those contracts. We have to sign them or lose our farms. They are not contracts between two partners. They are ultimatums.

“My chicken houses produce six flocks per year with 20,000 birds per flock. At the end of the year, after I have made my mortgage payments, paid the utilities and covered other business costs, and I allow absolutely nothing for my labor, I can expect to net about $4,000. That is $4,000 net per house, per year. So, with my three houses, I could expect to net $12,000 a year.

“I sincerely hope that you are successful in Canada in your battle to maintain effective tariffs on chicken, because if you are not, you will end up like me in a real hurry. I doubt very much if any of you would want to trade places. I wouldn’t wish our situation on my worst enemy, and I sure wouldn’t wish it on you people, who I consider to be my good friends.”

 


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