"Poultry companies are like the Mafia, but a little more refined," says Sylvia Tomlinson, the author of Plucked and Burned, a fictionalized exposé of the chicken industry.
She knows whereof she speaks. Tomlinson and her family lived on small farm in Oklahoma in the mid '80s, when the farming crisis had the whole community searching for better ways to make a buck. At the time, a large poultry company in the area was recruiting farmers to raise chickens, and many of the Tomlinsons' neighbors mortgaged their homes to build coops.
"We didn't get into the chicken business," says Tomlinson, who now lives in Victoria. "But we watched our neighbors get into it with great hope and enthusiasm. They thought, 'Boy, we're finally going to make a decent living.' But one by one, incidents of unfair treatment, and of living at the poverty level, took hold. That's the thing that propelled me to write this book."
Poultry Unlimited Farms, the villain in Plucked and Burned (referred to by locals as PU), isn't based on a particular company. "After researching," says Tomlinson, "I found out abuses that existed across the nation and made up a fictional composite." As the novel opens, a chicken grower is found hanging from a rope in his barn. The death is ruled a suicide, but the story's protagonist, Doug Blackwelder, can't accept that. He investigates and starts to unravel the facts about his friend's unsavory employer. The events, says Tomlinson, are based on true stories.
Tomlinson has worked a long list of grievances into her book. She claims poultry companies use an unfair payment system, deliver sick birds, shortchange growers on feed, fight their efforts to organize and punish them for speaking out. Having mortgaged their farms, the growers are at the mercy of the chicken companies. "For the most part," says Tomlinson, "the farmers feel like indentured servants."
But the author is still hopeful that poultry abuses will one day be checked. "This has been a long struggle, and every decade the situation has gotten worse," she says. "But you can't keep taking advantage of people and not expecting something to happen."