JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A longtime Mississippi farmer is concerned about the livelihoods of countless chicken growers statewide after Peco Foods announced the closure of three plants statewide.
Plants in Brooksville, Canton, and Philadelphia will shut down by June.
The company, with 7,000 employees across Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas, says it’s “repositioning” to align with “economic conditions,” but 60-year-old Joseph Tynes is uneasy about the impact this will have on his fellow farmers.
“They’re gonna lose their land and the houses they sit on,” Tynes said. “They’re gonna belly up.”
Joseph Tynes has never contracted with Peco Foods but has been in the industry for more than 40 years and claims to be one of the first farmers to build a commercial chicken house in Mississippi.
Tynes said his fellow chicken growers easily stand to lose millions of dollars, if not everything.
“One chicken house cost between $800,000 to $900,000 and most farmers have several houses,” Tynes said.
Tynes recently retired from the business with four chicken houses that produced about 90,000 chickens every 8 weeks or so.
“They brought me those chicks at one day old...you have to heat the houses up to 90 degrees, you’ve gotta grow them anywhere from 6 weeks to 8 weeks. They bring you an 18-wheeler load of feed,” Tynes recalls. “Then, they truck them back to the plant to process to go on the market on the shelves in the supermarket.”
Despite being an independent contractor with commercial chicken houses, Tynes said it was always clear who the real boss was.
“They want your head on a chopping block. You got to do what they say. They’re always coming out with upgrades, whether it’s the computer system, or feeder lines or drinker lines,” he added. “It may cost you $50k a house for one upgrade and if you don’t wanna do it, they won’t bring you birds.”
While most of Mississippi’s economy was shut down because of COVID-19, chicken plant employees continued to go to work at their essential jobs.
Prior to the pandemic, the 83-year company was targeted in one of the largest workplace immigration raids in the U.S. in the past decade.
The U.S. Labor Department found they failed to pay minimum wage and overtime to their workers, but employees were paid after the investigation.
“The Fair Labor Standards Act requires that wages are due on the regular payday for the pay period covered,” said Eric R. Lucero, U.S. Department of Labor. “A violation was cited when the employer failed to pay final paychecks to multiple workers resulting in minimum wage and overtime violations. The employer agreed to comply and has paid the back wages.”
Peco Foods wouldn’t say if the pandemic or raid influenced this move, but only that, “this repositioning takes industry trends into account, shifting production based on customer feedback and consumer habits.”
Peco Foods said resources will be invested in ramping up services in their West Point, Mississippi, facility and adding operations in Sebastopol, Mississippi, and Pocahontas, Arkansas. The company says those locations have the capability to expand, “value-added product lines and meet rising demands for customer-driven, innovative foods.”
The company says Mississippi employees have been given the opportunity to work with the company at another location, but they were tight-lipped about the fate of local farmers who raise the chicken that’s kept the company afloat for three decades here.
“Our live operations are spearheaded by some of the best in the industry, which has already been putting plans into motion to minimize the impact on our contract producers, grain farmers, hatcheries, catchers, and drivers as much as possible.”
Peco Foods notified farmers on January 7 and said they plan to “honor existing contracts as they were written,” but one Mississippi farmer fears what will happen afterward.
“All the farmers put together they have invested more money on their farm than Peco has in their company, and they could lose it all,” Tynes said.