Former Tyson Growers Face Drastic Decision: Make Costly Upgrades or Lose Everything

Former Tyson Growers Face Drastic Decision: Make Costly Upgrades or Lose Everything

  • Heather Decker

Tyson closed plants in Arkansas, Missouri, and Indiana. The ripple effect that followed affected over 2,000 workers and farmers whose contracts were canceled without warning. Many of these farmers are now forced to consider pricey infrastructure changes to transition their farms.

“Right now I’m scared to death. I’m scared I’m gonna lose everything.”

—Timothy Bundren, a former Tyson farmer, to Investigate Midwest

Some of the processing plants were bought by Cal-Maine, the world’s biggest egg company. Cal-Maine then recruited some former Tyson contract farmers. For others, the cost of transitioning to laying hens was a nonstarter.

Can farm transitions use existing infrastructure? 

This empty, industrial chicken barn is from one of Transfarmation's farm transitions.

Chicken houses are built to stringent standards set by each corporation. These standards often don’t translate from one company to the next. For example, a farm transition from meat to egg production requires replacing the dirt floors in the barns with concrete and installing expensive nesting systems, among other costly renovations.

One farmer said his farm transition would have cost nearly $3 million.

The contract system works exactly how it was designed to—keeping farmers beholden to the corporations. 

“It’s not like you can buy 300,000 chickens on your own and put them in (barns) and find a market.”

—Jonathan Morrow, a former Tyson farmer, to Investigate Midwest

Farm transitions require significant “nest egg” investment

Some farmers considered farm transitions for egg-laying giant Cal-Maine but were shocked to find out the cost of such infrastructure changes.

In March 2024, Cal-Maine completed the acquisition of Tyson’s former broiler processing plant, hatchery, and feed mill in Dexter, Missouri. This news came after an announcement the previous December that they would invest $13 million to convert these facilities and in turn create 96 jobs. But the investment dollars stop there, shy of ever reaching farmers. Additionally, the number of jobs created are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the ones lost. 

"While I welcome Cal-Maine's investment in Dexter, it does not right the wrongs of Tyson or guarantee new jobs for the more than 2,000 Missourians now out of one." 

—U.S. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, in a statement to Reuters

Cal-Maine declined to estimate how much money would be required to convert former Tyson houses to their requirements. Farmer Preston Arnold estimated the cost to be at least $550,000 per barn. His farm has four barns, so he would need over $2 million in investments to even begin a contract. 

Arnold built a brand-new barn to the tune of $500,000 and invested significantly in upgrading his existing barns over the past two years. “Had I known that there was even talk about (closure), I wouldn’t have (upgraded or built new barns),” he told Investigate Midwest.

“If something doesn’t happen in the way of [a Farm Service Agency] debt relief plan or some new legislation, then we’re going to lose everything that we’ve worked our lives for.”

—Preston Arnold, former Tyson contract grower, to Investigate Midwest

Lawsuits allege Tyson bears some responsibility

A distressed, downtrodden farmer sits in the grass with his head down. He is silhouetted beside his barn against a sunset sky.

For many of the contracted farmers, the news was a big blindside. Farmers claim to have been told that if they did a good job, the company was “not going anywhere.”

Two lawsuits filed by four Missouri contract growers claim Tyson planned to shut down the Dexter facility for at least a year. In spite of these plans, they allege Tyson continued encouraging contract growers to take out loans and upgrade their infrastructure. One farmer even claims he was “verbally promised” years of steady pay from Tyson. “They told me point blank that as long as I grow decent birds and do my job, they would keep me in birds long enough to pay my loan off.”

One of the two lawsuits settled out of court for an undisclosed amount of money. The other is still pending.

“We were not free to seek out other business opportunities on the open market and could only perform this service for the Tyson Companies. As such, we are not in ‘business’ for ourselves but were exclusively servants of Tyson.”

—Eric Kessler, former contract grower, in a signed affidavit from the settled lawsuit.

Transfarmation: A viable alternative to industrial animal agriculture

The Transfarmation Team sits beside Tom Lim, one of our farmers. His farm transition took him from chickens to mushrooms.

So what comes next? The Transfarmation Project® is proud to offer farmers a viable alternative to industrial animal agriculture. 

The Atlantic explains: “The plan is to help agricultural workers move away from cruel forms of production to kind ones. And the effort comes amid mounting evidence that the poultry-farming system has become torturous not just for the birds involved, but the people.”

We work with farmers, local technical consultants, and research universities to design new, replicable agricultural models that show how factory farms can transition to successful, profitable, sustainable, and compassionate plant-focused farming to co-create a new food future.