The top 4 percent of farms account for 69 percent of U.S. farm sales, while the bottom 76 percent of farms make up a mere 3 percent of sales.
Halley Farm’s Successful Chicken-to-Hemp Transfarmation
At age 14, Texan Bo Halley began his career in chicken farming alongside his twin brother, Sam—they learned the ropes from their father. As growers for Pilgrim’s Pride, the Halleys raised six batches of chickens per year—192,000 birds per batch—for 30 years in 12 factory-style houses on their family farm in Cookville, Texas. But when faced with mounting financial and health troubles from chicken farming, Bo and Sam decided to give up raising birds for good.
They teamed up with their sister, Devvie Deany, and her partner, Evan Penhasi, to switch to growing hemp. With the support of Transfarmation, they have successfully completed their first hemp harvest and look forward to expanding their acreage next year.
“We knew we couldn’t keep contract farming animals but didn’t know where to turn for help—what could we do with 12 empty chicken houses? Although we had stopped raising chickens and were extremely thankful to finally be out of the business, we still had bills to pay and a leftover loan. … I’d farmed crops before, but I’d never grown hemp, so I was just expecting new challenges and new things. We just decided to get into it and start with an acre, and next year we’re planning to grow 40 acres.”
The family experienced years of financial hardship as contract poultry farmers for Pilgrim’s Pride. When they began raising chickens, they had to take out a large loan to build their chicken houses. Once the chicken farm was up and running, they hoped to make enough money to steadily pay off that loan. Unfortunately, the income from chicken farming proved to be unreliable. The Halleys faced many unexpected costs. The chickens that Pilgrim’s Pride gave them to raise often had a variety of health issues, and the family had to bear the financial burden when these birds died. They also had to deal with the cost of managing the tons of waste that the farm produced. These additional costs, combined with the operational expenses of the chicken farm, made paying off their debt extremely difficult.
As they finally came close to paying off their loans, they received a terrible blow from Pilgrim’s: If they wanted to keep their contract, the Halleys would have to make upgrades to their chicken houses—which would require them to take out additional hundreds of thousands in loans. The family was stuck in the “debt treadmill” of poultry farming, where farmers’ contracts with corporations can create a vicious cycle of debt that leads to financial insecurity and bankruptcy.
In addition to financial peril, Bo and Sam suffered injuries and health complications from working with chickens in the crowded houses. Even with masks, they felt unprotected from ammonia. On one occasion, Bo developed an infection from a chicken through a cut on his finger that landed him in the hospital for over nine days. The infection resulted in partial amputation of his finger.
These health and financial struggles terribly burdened the Halleys, who all felt trapped in the contract poultry system. They wanted to be free from the cycle of debt and the hazardous working conditions. After years of struggle and stress, the family decided that the farm was not a sustainable business and they had to give it up. Chicken farming was not worth all their hardship and suffering, which they had endured for long enough.
Having decided to stop chicken farming, Bo, Sam, Devvie, and Evan began researching and exploring other uses for the chicken houses. They soon learned about Transfarmation and the opportunity to grow hemp plants.
“When it became obvious that the business was not something that made financial sense, we decided to bite the bullet and eat the debt and shut down the chicken houses and look for a different option in order for the farm to make money, and most importantly, to find some sort of a long-term, viable business.”
The family worked with hemp consultants Tindakan Innovations to start their first acre of plants in July 2020, just weeks after getting in touch with Transfarmation. The crop thrived in the Northeast Texas climate, and in early October 2020, they harvested their first crop—having repurposed the chicken houses as space for storing and drying the hemp. The Halleys plan to use the chicken houses to set up their own processing and indoor growing facilities. This year, they aim to sell the hemp flower to the CBD oil market.
“When we [heard back from Transfarmation], we were so happy to have support from an organization dedicated to helping us transition. … Since our first phone call with them, we’ve known that they care and are invested in seeing us succeed. At every turn, people with expertise have been there to consult with, and someone from Transfarmation has checked in with us to make sure we have everything we need to succeed.”
Bo and Sam are thrilled to have found a type of farming that not only makes the ranch a viable source of income but in Bo’s words “feeds people’s souls … and gives us dignity when we look at those plants and realize that we’ve created something and grown something.” New feelings of motivation and pride from growing and harvesting the hemp plants have replaced the burden and frustration that Bo and Sam felt as contract chicken farmers.
“It’s been really great to see Bo and Sam go from very troubled, angry, and broken people while the chicken houses were here to just flourishing with joy working with the plants. It just melts your heart. There’s no other way to say it. How can you not love that? How can you not want to see that? How can you not want to see other people succeed or get out from underneath crushing circumstances and flourish and thrive? So really, it’s about helping them to do something different that they’ll carry on, that they’ll take on so that this 1,000-acre farm can be here for their children.”
The Halleys would recommend transitioning to growing plants to any poultry farmer, not simply for the better financial investment and payoff but for the heightened quality of life on the farm.
“Number one, don’t be afraid. I think fear holds us back from change, and we wind up getting stuck in something for months, for years, maybe for our entire lives, and we go through so much hardship and suffering that’s needless. If we just kick that fear to the side and be open to learning something new, and with the help of other farmers who’ve been through this before them, I would hope that other farmers would be open to change and open to growth and know that they’re not alone. They’re not alone. There are others who have felt that way before them, and we can all get through this together.”
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Forty-five percent of U.S. farmers have a negative net income. The median net poultry farm income was $13,140 in 2018, meaning half the poultry farmers in the country earned less than this amount.
Four percent of U.S. farms control 58 percent of farmland, while 13 percent of U.S. farms control 0.14 percent of farmland.
Fifty-five percent of poultry farms have debt, while 67.7 percent of dairy farms have debt.
Family farm Chapter 12 bankruptcies grew by almost 20 percent from 2018 to 2019. Ninety-five percent of dairy farms are family farms. There were 3,281 fewer dairy milk operations in 2019 than in 2018.