This article was co-published with The Clarion-Ledger.
Once or twice every year since 2005, a black farmer in Philadelphia, Mississippi, reached out to one of the country’s largest chicken companies about starting to work with it. The company, Koch Foods, said that the farmer was too far away and that it wasn’t taking on new growers, the farmer said in a sworn statement.
But an investigator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Koch Foods had contracts with 10 farmers who were farther away and that it proceeded to recruit 165 other farmers since 2005, all of them white.
This new evidence surfaced in a lawsuit filed by another black farmer in Mississippi who ProPublica wrote about in June. Koch Foods used to have contracts with four black farmers in Mississippi but cut off business with them, one by one. The last to go, Carlton Sanders, lost his farm after Koch Foods wanted him to make expensive renovations that weren’t required of any white farmers.
(The company’s name is pronounced “cook,” and it is not related to conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.)
After ProPublica’s article, Sanders found a lawyer, personal injury attorney Elizabeth Citrin of Daphne, Alabama. The lawsuit, filed in October in federal court in Jackson, Mississippi, accuses Koch Foods of fraud, breach of contract and violating the Civil Rights Act and the Packers and Stockyards Act, which regulates meat companies.
“Koch, and its employees, acted illegally and unconscionably in a manner that prevented [Carlton] Sanders from growing chickens in a fair and profitable manner, subjecting Sanders to agricultural servitude, akin to the abuses subjected to Sanders’s ancestors, who were slaves brought over from Africa against their will,” the lawsuit said. “All this conduct toward Plaintiff Sanders was due to his race.”
Koch Foods has not yet responded to the complaint in court. Its CEO, Joseph Grendys, declined to comment on the lawsuit or the other farmer who was refused a contract. “ONCE AGAIN I STATE KOCH FOODS, WHILE INVESTIGATED WAS NEVER CHARGED,” he said in an email.
In an earlier letter to ProPublica, Grendys denied discriminating against the black farmers in Mississippi. He said the company made multiple attempts to work with the farmers to keep their contracts. “If Koch had a bias against them for any reason,” Grendys wrote, “we would never have offered them contracts in the first place.”
But that is exactly what the farmer in Philadelphia said happened to him. The farmer’s name was redacted in the records obtained by ProPublica.
The farmer said Koch Foods told him he was “too far out” and it wasn’t accepting new growers. The USDA investigator calculated that his farm is a 58.8 mile drive from the feed mill, while Koch had contracts with 10 farmers who were farther away. A Koch employee also told the investigator in a 2013 interview that the company accepted growers as far away as 60 miles, according to the investigator’s notes.
The investigator also interviewed another black farmer who said he called Koch Foods about obtaining a contract and was repeatedly told that a representative would visit his farm, but no one ever came. He ended up having to sell his farm at a loss.
The affidavits from both farmers say they tried unsuccessfully to get contracts with other chicken companies in the area. Most chicken in the U.S. is grown on contracts with a handful of big companies. This system gives the companies sweeping control over farmers’ income and operations, while the farmers shoulder equipment costs and other risks.
African Americans lost the vast majority of their farmland during the 20th century and were excluded from government programs that benefited white farmers, contributing to the country’s racial wealth disparity. As of 2017, the latest available government data, just 1.3% of the country’s farmers were black, down slightly from 2012. On average, their farms were significantly smaller and poorer, according to USDA data.
Sanders visited Washington in July with a group organized by the Rural Advancement Foundation International to talk to lawmakers and USDA officials about strengthening enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act. The Trump administration stopped tougher rules on chicken companies from taking effect and reduced staff in the office conducting investigations like the one into Koch Foods’ treatment of Sanders.
“I have lost my home, my wife, my health, everything,” Sanders said at a press conference during the visit, choking back tears. “When a company has as much control like these chicken companies do, then they can virtually act as they want without fear of reproach.”
Koch Foods is privately held and supplies chicken, often sold under other brand names, to restaurants and retailers such as Burger King, Kroger and Walmart. One retailer, Foodtown, said it “made an independent decision” to stop carrying Koch Foods products. Other companies that Koch Foods’ website shows stocking its products didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Koch Foods’ facility in Morton, Mississippi, was among the sites raided by immigration authorities in August, part of the largest workplace sweep in decades. No company officials have been charged.