The Impossible Case of Sonny Nguyen
When fear forces farmers into becoming their own obstacles.
by Angeline Gragasin
Just Food? Forum on Land Use, Rights, and Ecology
Harvard Law School
March 26, 2016
Manning, South Carolina. A serial killer is still on the loose. His victims: chickens. The suspect: a vengeful farmer. The motive: sabotage. Welcome to the world of industrial chicken, where fellow farmers cannibalize one another in fierce competition for corporate contracts.
Manning, South Carolina. A town like so many other small towns, USA. Quaint little rundown downtown, tree-lined Main Street. White man in a red truck, black man in a brown truck. Barber shop, luncheonette, photography studio, pharmacy. Thrift store, party decor, nail salon. City hall. Chamber of Commerce. Further out, a strip mall. ANYTIME FITNESS sign written in Atari-era typeface. General storefronts closed or closing. White truck, blue truck, green truck; the people of Manning locomote via pickup.
At the cafe, over watery coffee and a flat, greasy BLT, I overhear the kitchen gossip:
— Heck, kids can’t do their homework ain’t got no wifi! Supposed to give ones that ain’t, time to download at school. Whether or not they do…
— Sheesh. I just got wifi n TV n all that only two years ago. Shit’s expensive! Can’t afford it!
The Piggly Wiggly grocery store has no organic produce section. No Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. No vegan, no kosher, no gluten-free.
Folks here have no choice but the one they’re given.
Manning reminds me of my hometown of Racine, Wisconsin: Black, white, and brown folks all jumbled together in the most unlikely place:
The Middle of Nowhere.
The older Indian couple running the dingy Knight’s Inn off the highway speak with a British accent. I ask where they’re from, expecting to hear the name of a quaint rural town…
— What brought you here?
— OH! We’ve been here a long time!
A vague and cryptic non-answer. Everything about this place is peculiar.
On the way to Sonny’s, I pass the South Carolina Farm Service Agency (colloquially known as the FSA), right next to the Farm Insurance office. Squat little cinderblock houses, easy access to the highway. Nearby, farm and feed stores, gun stores, fireworks for sale. Every so often, a lone black man walks a long stretch of highway. One: old, with a cane. Another: young, waves his hands over his head at the oncoming traffic, a halfhearted attempt at hitchhiking. I want to stop but I don’t.
Sugar is the drug of choice. Everywhere I look, someone’s got a soda pop in hand. Sugar keeps folks fooled.
I found myself in Manning on assignment for a media startup that hired me to develop a documentary web series about food. My boss sent me there to track Sonny down and sign him up to participate as the star subject in our series pilot. I’d spoken with Sonny on the phone a couple weeks prior but lost touch after he stopped answering my calls. I’d initially gotten his phone number from Chris Leonard, the investigative reporter who broke the story in Bloomberg Businessweek.
I stumbled on this story browsing for articles to use as research for my show. The headline, “Who’s Murdering Thousands of Chickens in South Carolina?” caught my attention. It seemed strange that a headline would state something so obvious. Who’s murdering thousands of chickens? An industrial chicken manufacturer, that’s who!
I read on to learn about the midnight murders of February 17th, 2015 that left 320,000 chickens dead and four farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Someone had broken in, disabled the alarms — yes, these football field-sized chicken coops are equipped with sophisticated security systems — and turned off the fans.
One of the targets was a farmer named Hoangson Nguyen, who goes by the nickname “Sonny.”
That morning, Sonny arrived at the first of his twelve chicken houses. What did he find? 20,000 birds — dead. Dead from suffocation. Dead in the 122-degree heat.
[Sonny] is a typical chicken farmer: he owes the bank $2 million for his farm, and he doesn’t have enough money for health insurance. He lives paycheck-to-paycheck, or “flock-to-flock,” as they say in the business. The moment he saw the dead birds, [Sonny] knew he wouldn’t make any money this year. Whoever had killed these birds might very well have killed his farm. “I fell down right in front of the door,” he says. “I almost passed out.”
The 3,190-word report goes on to investigate the chain of events preceding and following the largest crime against industrial poultry farms in U.S. history. The local sheriff deduced that whoever done it had to have been in the business themselves — they knew how to hack the system and disable the alarms.
All of the birds were owned by Pilgrim’s Pride, America’s second-largest poultry company. Pilgrim’s Pride provides chicken to national retailers and restaurants including Wal-Mart, Publix, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Wendy’s. In 2009, it was purchased by JBS, today the largest meat corporation in the world. JBS is also one of the top four international food corporations, after Pepsico, Tyson, and Nestle. In 2015, JBS earned a gross annual revenue of $31 billion. Nearly $10 billion of those dollars came from Pilgrim’s Pride. Pilgrim’s is now a subsidiary of JBS. This means Sonny Nguyen is actually working for JBS, headquartered in São Paulo, Brazil. Does Sonny know this? I doubt it. Sonny doesn’t even have a copy of his contract. But I’ll get to that later.
The dead birds were worth about $1.7 million to Pilgrim’s, but it was the farmers who suffered the most financially from the attacks. Each lost about $10,000 for every house of chickens killed. For people living flock-to-flock, it was a potentially ruinous blow, and one that can be understood only within the peculiar and brutal economics of chicken farming. Companies such as Pilgrim’s force contract farmers to compete against one another for their pay. One farmer’s bonus is taken directly from his neighbor’s paycheck.
After talking with those who’d been attacked, the Sheriff’s deputies learned that farmer James Lowery had recently been fired from Pilgrim’s. Fired for underperformance, or low yield. A spokesman for Pilgrim’s claims Lowery had violated their animal welfare policies. Whatever the case, Lowery was fired. The Sheriff smelled a motive. He sought a court order to obtain Lowery’s cell phone records.
When they returned, they placed Lowery at the site of every farm that was hit at the time of the attack. Lowery was arrested and charged with eight counts of burglary and three counts of malicious injury to animals or property.
His defense lawyer argued this evidence was insufficient and the county judge dismissed the case.
So, where are we today? Federal investigators are still examining the incident. This whole story raises questions about the way farmers do business with the big meat companies. This is known as the tournament system.
In the tournament system, the company pits its farmers against one another to compete for their paychecks. Whoever delivers the fattest birds that week ranks at the top of the tournament, and lands a bonus. Whoever comes in last, takes a pay cut.
The farmers have no control over the health of the baby chicks, nor the quality of the feed the company delivers — the two main factors that determine the outcome of the tournament. The tournament is like a lottery. And while the feed-conversion gap between first and last place farmer is usually slim, the financial margins are huge. For a feed conversion difference of 3%, the pay gap can be as much as 10%.
Placing at the top or the bottom of the tournament can mean the difference between profit and bankruptcy. By discouraging collaboration and partnership, the system has a chilling effect on farmers’ relationships. [Sonny] says when Pilgrim’s farmers attend group meetings at the [Pilgrim’s] plant to get the latest news and updates from company officials, they tend to sit in stony silence.
Earlier I mentioned that Sonny is $2M in debt to the bank, and that this was typical of the average industrial poultry farmer — or “grower,” as the corporations refer to them. Chicken farmers aren’t farmers, they’re growers. And that’s because what they’re doing looks a lot less like chicken farming and a lot more like chicken-sitting. They don’t own the means of production. They tend the flock and take a cut of the profits — a very tiny cut. A sliver. So infinitesimal it might as well be a speck of dust compared to the great, billowing clouds of money they generate on behalf of the meat companies. So small, they can barely see it. So small, it might as well not even exist.
Just how did Sonny get into this whole mess?
I emailed Chris, the Bloomberg reporter. I asked if he would be willing to put me in touch with Sonny. Within minutes after sending the email, my phone rang. It was Chris. He was concerned, and rightly so. Chris questioned me at length and in depth about my intentions and credentials. He wanted to know who I was and what I was after. I told him I was doing research for a documentary show. He asked what kind of show. He wanted to know if I was from a news network, because the last time he put a TV news producer in touch with a subject, they got the facts all wrong and twisted the story to make better television. I said I was definitely not from a news network, I wasn’t even a journalist. I was an independent filmmaker who’d been contracted to concept a show about food, and this is where my research had led me: to one Vietnamese farmer with two million debt dollars and 40,000 dead chickens in rural South Carolina. The story was so shocking on its own, it didn’t need manipulating to make it more compelling. All I wanted was to share it with a wider audience.
Chris went silent as he considered whether he could trust me to tell Sonny’s story…
Ok, do you have a pen? Here’s Sonny’s cell phone.
Chris made me promise to tread lightly around Sonny, who was suffering from depression after the attacks — something I would later learn is all too common among contract growers. Chris recommended I check out his book, THE MEAT RACKET: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business, for a crash course on the corporate meat monopoly and the sharecropping system that makes it possible. He wished me luck and asked to be updated in the event I was able to successfully get ahold of Sonny, who stopped answering his phone after the article was published.
On June 26, I dialed Sonny up and he answered after the second ring. The service was bad and his accent was thick — half American Southern, half Vietnamese — but I was able to keep the conversation going for over an hour.
Sonny Nguyen is a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant with two bachelors’ degrees and an unfinished master’s. He dropped out of school to help his wife’s family, who started the farm thinking it was a profitable business opportunity. Like many contract growers, they borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the bank to buy the land and build the infrastructure they needed to raise Pilgrim’s birds the Pilgrim’s way — that means building colossal, climate-controlled warehouses to house 20,000 birds apiece, indoors, with no access to grass or daylight. The company provides the chicks, the feed, and the medication needed in the very likely event the overcrowded animals get sick with disease. The farmer provides the acreage and cares for the flock according to company policy.
The company owns the tools. The company owns the plans. The company owns the product. The company owns the profits.
The farmer owns — well, he doesn’t quite own the land until he pays off his mortgage. The company owns and controls the entire operation, so it’s no wonder Sonny’s family found themselves drowning in debt. Back to my earlier question: just how did Sonny get into this whole mess?
On the phone, Sonny explained: he came home to lend a hand to a failing family business. He figured it would take a year at most to get them back on track, at which point he’d return to school to finish his master’s. If he could increase production within that year, he could pay off their debt faster and go back to school sooner. One year became two, two became three, and on and on until it became clear that Sonny wasn’t going back anytime soon. Sonny became a cog in a machine he couldn’t control.
I asked what happened after his farm was burgled and the article published. He moaned, and mumbled something about the FSA and DHEC — the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. I couldn’t make out exactly what he was getting at, but I could tell from his voice the news wasn’t good. Something about getting fined and having to pay even more money on top of the loss. Something about having to dispose of all those dead chickens.
I asked whether Pilgrim’s had compensated him for the loss of his flock, and he said no, they hadn’t. That week, with no birds to deliver, he placed dead last in the bi-weekly tournament. Pilgrim’s counted the murdered birds against him and docked his pay, even though they likely had been reimbursed by their insurance policy and could very well have passed this reimbursement along to Sonny.
But seeing as how the damage was done by an outside force — rather than the company itself — the company had no obligations to compensate an independent contractor who’d agreed to do business with the company, on the company’s terms, at his own risk.
I said, Sonny, there must be a clause in your contract that entitles you to some kind of remuneration in the event of a disaster? They can’t hold you liable for this! How can you be expected to suffer these losses when it isn’t your fault? What does it say in your contract?
And to this, Sonny replied, exasperated:
— I don’t have a contract!
— What do you mean you don’t have a contract? Didn’t you sign one?
— They won’t give me a copy. I keep asking and they never give it.
— But, Sonny, they have to give you a copy. It’s illegal to withhold it.
— I don’t have a copy. They won’t give me one.
I asked why he didn’t demand a copy of the contract, and he said that every time he pointed out inconsistencies in company policy or procedure, he was mysteriously visited and fined by the company itself, or the FSA or DHEC for violating some new regulation about which he’d previously never been bothered.
Sonny would later reveal that the DHEC had suspiciously fined him $20,000 for the necessary and inevitable act of disposing of the dead birds. Whereas the other farmers who’d been attacked were allowed to incinerate their victims, or bury them outside, Sonny was required to bury his inside his empty warehouses. DHEC claimed this was because Sonny’s farm was surrounded by environmentally-sensitive wetlands — though Sonny points out that the previous owner of his land was able to excavate and bury all he liked and was never questioned or fined.
Moreover, he had to wait for the corpses to decompose completely before Pilgrim’s would deliver more flocks, putting a hold on his income stream. These stringent and costly regulations were applied and enforced upon Sonny and Sonny alone, adding to his paranoia and reluctance to insist on the contract, or as he saw it, “cause trouble.”
But even before I traveled to Manning, where Sonny would confide these details and more, I could already tell he was in way over his head, with nobody to turn to, except maybe me.
Sonny seemed doomed to live a life of modern-day slavery. It would take something on the scale of a deus ex machina to intervene.
When the conversation came to an end, we exchanged vows: I told him I would help in any way I could, and he swore to God he would never, ever let his children go into the chicken business.
As soon as I got off the phone, I rang Chris with the update. Chris was relieved to hear Sonny was alive, but disappointed to discover he’d been denied a copy of his contract. I was shocked. Chris wasn’t. Read the book, he said. Chapter 1 is all about the chicken business. It’s all there.
I read the book. Chris was right. Sonny wasn’t the first chicken grower to experience this unjust corporate backlash. He probably wouldn’t be the last. But what could be done? Pushing Sonny to whistleblow without a thorough understanding of the consequences seemed unethical and exploitative. It would put him and his family even more at risk of racking up fines, and possibly even losing their contract and main source of income. (His extended family also works in several nail salons throughout the region, to supplement their earnings).
You might suppose Pilgrim’s would think twice about cutting off an otherwise rule-abiding, well-performing grower, but the truth is, he needs them more than they need him. Were they to cancel his contract, the only party to suffer in this circumstance is Sonny. The company would barely feel a hit. Were Sonny forced to declare bankruptcy, his farm would be seized, assets liquidated, and debt repaid by the FSA.
That’s right: if a farmer defaults on his bank loans, the FSA steps in and bails out — not the farmer — but the bank. And that’s because Sonny’s loans are guaranteed by the FSA. It’s actually a win for the bank if he loses his contract. Critical thinkers out there might suspect the bank actually wants him to default on that $2M loan.
I racked my brain for what to do. I thought to introduce him to Carole Morison, a former contract chicken grower and whistleblower in Maryland. You may be familiar with Carole from her appearance in the Oscar-nominated documentary film Food, Inc., as the only farmer who allowed the filmmakers to bring their cameras into her operation, and who shortly afterward was fired by Perdue. Carole was able to successfully emancipate herself from the sharecropping system and start over as an independent, pasture-raised egg farmer with the help of a successful crowdfunding campaign on Barnraiser, the farmer’s Kickstarter.
I thought she could offer Sonny an alternative perspective, as well as camaraderie and practical advice. I contacted her and explained the situation, and asked if she’d be willing to chat with Sonny, which of course she was. Carole was very gracious and sympathetic and offered to help in any way she could. I was excited to share the news with Sonny. Carole’s bravery and resilience made her an icon of sustainable agriculture, and I was sure putting them in touch would empower Sonny to speak up.
On July 3rd, I texted Sonny. He responded:
Ok. I will contact u about this after this holiday. Thank you.
A week went by. Then another. I took the initiative to ring him myself, and followed up with several texts and voicemails. I could tell he was reading and ignoring them; he has read receipts activated on his text messages. With each passing week, my boss was growing more and more concerned I was losing the story. On August 4th, she sent me down to South Carolina to scout it out, see whether or not I had scared him away for good, or could find a way to get him to talk on camera.
On the way to Sonny’s, I see a huge logging operation on the property across the road. They’re clearing the neighboring forest — dozens of tall timbers, flatbed trucks carving deep tracks in the soft mud. I turn into the opposite driveway and crawl up the gravel path toward the house, passing a large, manmade pond. The small ranch house, with its gray brick façade, looks under construction. An old minivan is parked outside the garage. A young woman rifles inside through the open door. I park my rental car and approach. I know it’s his wife.
I ask to speak to Sonny. She says he’s not there. I ask again, holding up my cell phone. “I tried calling him. He won’t pick up!” Again she says no. “Can you call him for me on your phone? Tell him it’s the filmmaker from New York. He knows who I am.” She finally gives in and dials her cell, informing Sonny in Vietnamese. “He’s at the chicken house, he’s coming now.”
Sonny drives up to meet me from the opposite end of his property, his car trailing dust and rocks and the smell of chicken manure. He wears a camo print jumpsuit, brown beanie, and a huge smile. He looks about 35. We shake hands and sit on upside-down buckets outside the garage. We talk for an hour. He uses a rock to draw in the dirt, outlining the schematics of his farm before and after the attacks.
I ask how he ended up with two farms — one behind the house, and another a ways away down the road. Turns out, a few years ago, another Pilgrim’s chicken grower knocked on their door in the middle of the night, also Vietnamese, forlorn and very behind on his bank payments. He wept uncontrollably as he begged his neighbors to put them out of their misery and buy their farm at an extreme discount. Sonny took pity and agreed, expanding his operation by nine more houses.
After a while, a young black man approaches; I introduce myself, offering my hand, but he smiles and refuses, looking to Sonny for further instruction. Sonny gives directives, then turns to me and says, “That’s my farmhand. Good man. Hardworking.” I ask how many people are helping him care for his 240,000 chickens? The answer is: one. Sonny can’t afford to hire another farmhand, so he does it all himself. “But my brother is coming from Vietnam in September!” He adds, “But I won’t tell the company. I don’t want them to know anything about me. I don’t want any more trouble.”
I ask again about putting him in touch with Carole Morison, and he shakes his head no. He doesn’t want to reform, he just wants out. He never wanted to go into chicken farming in the first place.
I’d initially thought he could sell the farm to a cooperative of conscious, young farmers who have the energy to flip the operation on its head. Start over as a diversified farm; maybe run a crowdsource campaign to dig Sonny out of debt. But Carole already explained to me why that could never happen in a place like Manning: the only USDA-approved slaughterhouses for poultry south of the Mason-Dixon line are owned by the big meat companies. And corporate abattoirs only service corporate birds. This is why Carole had shifted from raising slaughter hens to producing pasture-raised eggs.
There’s no way to get pastured birds to market without going through a USDA-approved slaughterhouse. There’s no way to transform an industrial poultry growing operation back to a sustainable, independent chicken farm. So — scratch that one off the list.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sonny confesses his despair and repeats his pledge to protect his children and grandchildren from following his footsteps. I press him about the missing contract, and he murmurs, “it’s not right, it’s not right.” I agree, and ask if he’d be willing to talk on camera about all this, and he answers, “wait until I get a copy of my contract.”
I ask if he’s tried asking other Pilgrim’s growers to help and he says he’s given up on that; his neighbors are already reluctant to talk to each other, much less company management. I ask if he’s tried asking a lawyer, and he says he can’t afford a lawyer. I’m going in circles, trying to find a solution.
He thanks me for my efforts and invites me inside the house, where his wife and two small children are waiting. I ask to use the bathroom, and he shows me the way. When I return to the kitchen, Sonny is generously stuffing a plastic bag with Vietnamese candies; he smiles and insists I take some snacks for the road. This friendly gesture is almost more than I can handle. Before I go, I ask if he would rather I stop calling and leave him alone, and he says no.
After I got home to New York, and it was clear I wasn’t getting Sonny on camera any time soon, my boss made me shift gears and focus on developing another story for our show. But I couldn’t just forget about him and move on. I had to do something. Even if that something had nothing to do with my assignment or job.
I meet with my friend Ann Marie Rubin, an environmental attorney with Agrarian Trust, a project dedicated to supporting land access to next generation farmers. I give her the scoop and she forwards to me to the Project Coordinator at Rural Advancement Foundation International (also known as RAFI). I call and they immediately put Benny Bunting on the line.
Benny Bunting is a former chicken grower and RAFI’s lead farm advocate. Benny is a self-taught authority on federal, state, and local farm policies who mentors struggling farmers through times of economic crisis and social injustice. He also represents farmers in the National Appeals Division of the USDA (also known as NAD), a system whereby farmers can rep other farmers in their claims against the USDA. Verdicts made through NAD are reviewable and enforceable by United States district courts.
I tell Benny about DHEC singling Sonny out for costly fines relating to the attacks, and he says it sounds like he might also be the victim of racial discrimination, on top of everything else. He says he often works with Southeast Asian farmers who buy properties that are overvalued by the bank; properties that are already underwater, and maybe the bank’s already burned through the white farmer, so now they go after the immigrant farmer, who’s relatively less experienced, and maybe a bit naive about the true value of the property. It wouldn’t surprise him if the same had happened to Sonny.
Benny has a million questions for me, and I barely have any answers for him. He wants to know the name of Sonny’s bank; the exact number of chickens he’s raising; the last time he’d seen a copy of the contract. All sorts of details I had failed to extract on my visit. He says he’s willing and able to help, but Sonny has to be the one to pick up the phone and call. In order for RAFI to advocate on his behalf, he has to fill out a release form authorizing access to his FSA and bank records.
I call Sonny to relay the news — but he doesn’t pick up.
I send voicemails and text messages. I see he is reading my texts, but not responding. I recruit friends to translate my messages into Vietnamese, thinking maybe that would help gain his trust and communication. Still nothing. Weeks go by and I diligently continue texting him, he continues to read and reply with silence.
The last time I heard from Sonny:
Early on last summer, when I’d just begun researching the Southern American foodscape — and before I’d learned about Food Inc.’s Carole Morison — I read about a small, organic family farm in Manning, the only one as far as I could tell. They’d installed a solar system and established a CSA. I gave them a call, wondering whether they also raised chickens. At that time, I’d wanted to put Sonny in touch with a local independent poultry farmer (I didn’t yet know this simply did not exist). Turns out they didn’t raise hens, only vegetables, and very few at that. But I’d had a nice conversation with the farmer, an older woman named May Jones, who ran the entire four acre operation by herself.
In September, a month after my trip to Manning, I called May and explained the situation. I asked if she was willing to visit Sonny in person to relay the message about RAFI. She agreed, and drove out to his farm to talk, face-to-face. May reported back that she met with him for over an hour, and they discussed the benefits of contacting RAFI. Sonny was more concerned with the risks.
She said he seemed very concerned that, were he to call RAFI for help, Pilgrim’s would discover their involvement and retaliate. He was worried they were monitoring his calls. She offered to let him call from her phone, right then and there, but he refused. She said he seemed very depressed and dispirited, as if he had already given up and couldn’t be convinced otherwise. She said it broke her heart to hear his resignation and defeat. It broke mine too.
How’s his health? I asked.
Not too good. She said. Sonny seemed very stressed, was paying out of pocket to see his doctor because he still can’t afford health insurance. He really ought to just quit, but he’s got three mouths to feed on top of his own.
My last question, before getting off the phone: May, do you think he wants me to just leave him alone already? Stop bothering him?
No. She said. He wanted me to tell you he appreciates your effort, and does not want to be left alone.
This story was originally presented as a live talk at the Just Food? Forum on Land Use, Rights, and Ecology at Harvard Law School on March 26, 2016. Special Thanks: Christopher Leonard, Chris Green, Cynthia Hanson, Michael Lyons, Dylan Pasture, Ann Marie Rubin, Jean Willoughby, May Jones, and Yusef Audeh.