Thousands of Birds Killed, Farmer Livelihoods Jeopardized by Cooks Venture Closure

Thousands of Birds Killed, Farmer Livelihoods Jeopardized by Cooks Venture Closure

  • Heather Decker

At 5:30 a.m., Leslie Harp’s chicken house received 72,000 chickens from Cooks Venture, Harp’s contracted integrator. Two hours later, she got a call that the company would be shutting down, leaving her with tens of thousands of birds and no plan for them.

Eleven days later, Harp was informed that all the birds would be “depopulated” the next day—suffocated in foam inside her chicken houses. Harp asked if she could keep the birds to raise with the resources she already had but was denied:

We didn’t feel like we had an option to really, I guess, stand up and say, ‘No, you’re not coming out here,’ because we were still under contract with this company. And these were technically still their birds at that point in time … and the state of Arkansas came out and foamed our chickens and smothered them and killed all. I had 72,000 birds from our chicken houses at that point in time. And they killed off 72,000 of them.

—Leslie Harp, Empty Pockets Ranch

A group of chickens in a barn not too dissimilar to a chicken house for Cooks Venture farmers.

Cooks Venture’s closing was unexpected, and Harp, who told KARK News that the company owed her over $31,000, is now at risk of losing her farm. Hers aren’t the only feathers ruffled by the sudden closure—Cooks Venture had contracts with dozens of farmers in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and the company’s belated communication is a hallmark among them. 

Dustin Maybee, another former contract farmer for Cooks Venture, is also at risk of losing his farm. “It’s not just me, there’s a lot of people involved. I don’t know everybody’s financial situation but I’m sure this hurt everybody substantially, especially those like me that had just started. This was my second flock.” 

Maybee was “shocked” to learn of the closing, after he had asked on several occasions whether things were OK and was repeatedly promised by Cooks Venture that things were fine. Eddie Todd, president of the Mo-Ark Poultry Growers Association and incoming president of Arkansas Farmers Union, told a group of over 50 affected farmers: “This thing stinks to high heaven. There was nothing to lead anybody to believe the company was in trouble.”

A chicken looks curiously into the camera. She's standing in a barn that is similar to one Cooks Venture might have used.

In the weeks after Cooks Venture shuttered its doors, over a million birds suffocated in foam in their houses. Farmers were left without contracts, with barns constructed or redesigned specifically to Cooks Venture’s standards, which greatly differ from those of other corporations. One farmer explains how he had been “shut off” from Tyson and had altered his chicken houses with doors so he could let his birds outside as part of Cooks Venture’s “free range” promise. Now, without either corporation, he’s left with little hope to stay afloat. 

According to the USDA, about 85% of chickens are raised under contract. So many chicken farmers could lose their livelihoods at any time, be left with significant debt, and have no way to service it. One farmer, Lance Logan, describes the financial struggle in altering his infrastructure after Cooks Venture shut down: 

I talked to my banker and they’re not loaning on poultry right now. They’re scared of it. Unless you’ve got a good banker, they’re going to close the door in your face.

Additionally, a new USDA transparency rule reveals that corporations won’t even guarantee farmers enough birds for their operations to be financially viable. This type of strain has real and sometimes devastating consequences. According to the National Rural Health Association, farmers are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. 

Corporations keep showing us that they don’t care about farmers, their families and communities, or animals. They will always prioritize their bottom line. 

The Transfarmation Project is proud to be a lifeline for farmers in these difficult situations and to work directly with them to help build a better food system.