Interview with 2015 Whistleblower of the Year Craig Watts - Part I
By the C|C Whistleblower Lawyer Team
Here is Part I of our interview with Whistleblower Insider’s 2015 Whistleblower of the Year winner — Perdue chicken farmer Craig Watts. After more than twenty years in the business, working on the farm his family has owned since the 1700s, Watts decided to speak out against what he saw as Perdue’s gross mistreatment of chickens. He invited animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming to come to his farm and document first-hand the sordid conditions in which the hundreds of thousands of Purdue chickens he raised each year exist. After spending months with Watts, Compassion in World Farming released a video exposing the horrid life of a Perdue chicken. Here is how Mr. Watts details first-hand his story from chicken farmer to whistleblower and his plans for what comes next.
Whistleblower Insider: Tell us a little about your background.
Craig Watts: I was raised here on this farm, my kids are fifth generation, which would make me fourth generation. There’s a part of the farm that actually has a land grant from the King of England in the 1700s so we’ve been here quite a while. I have only seen it once. My uncle keeps it in a glass box…he is the only one with a key (laughter).
Anyway, we just ran a small tobacco farm. I wound up going to college at what would have been 1984 to 1988. At that time, the farming climate was getting pretty bad and I went to work for a guy who I scouted crops for in the summertime in college. The company started doing small plot ag research. I was working out of Raleigh and we did work in Alabama, Colorado, Texas, and New Jersey, but I got a chance to come back and do a lot of work in North Carolina. And so actually I could do it on my father’s farm at the time. So when I got back home, I kind of got the bug to stay. I wanted to go back to the farm but there was nothing here for me.
That’s when the poultry companies came in, and I called it the courting phase or the recruiting phase or whatever you want to call it. It sounded like a good deal so I took the projections they gave me and took them to the accountant. I saw it wasn’t going to be a get rich quick deal, but once the debt was paid down it was going to be good enough. I went over to Farm Credit and that guy was a family friend and he just looked at me and said this might be the best thing that’s ever happened to farming in Robeson County. So that was two people I trusted, and they didn’t know any better. It’s not their fault. So I signed up. And I found out very quickly how all the glitter is not gold.
Whistleblower Insider: And was there a particular moment when you realized that you wanted to speak up or had this been building and you were considering it for a long time?
Craig Watts: Yeah, nothing ever got resolved, from 1992 until I canceled my contract two weeks ago. So it was just a steady building of things. I think the first big thing was in 1994 when I built the second set of [poultry] houses. Between 1992 and 1994 the company that I was doing the research contracting with went belly-up. So I built two more houses so that I could have some more income, and I could stay on the farm full time.
The first time I sold out with four [poultry] houses versus two houses, the money didn’t double and the expenses more than doubled. So I’m like “Ohhh crap.” That was kind of like the first moment that I realized, “UH OH.” But I’m knee deep in it then. I am $400,000 dollars in debt so I’m thinking eight more years, and I’d have the debt paid off, and a lot of these issues would go away.
But it didn’t go away because it’s a constant pushing to add new equipment to the houses.
It’s like getting on a debt treadmill, so you never really get it paid for and you always feel like you’re walking on eggshells, and the contract reads that they can cancel it at any time for any reason. So not much mutual obligation there, and they change [the farmer’s obligations] quite often.
I would say over the last ten years, it built mostly from just my specific issues until I saw a documentary called Sharecroppers. And Pilgrim’s Pride, which was a pretty big poultry company, shut down some plants in Texas and Louisiana. And in the documentary, once Pilgrim’s Pride got out of there, those [farmers] were sitting there with poultry houses and half-million dollar mortgages so they’re going to lose everything they got. There was a story or two about suicide and I thought, “wow yah know this just ain’t right.” At that moment I was like “I’ll do anything that I can do.” That was 2008 maybe, and that was kind of the catalyst. I took all of my concerns directly to Perdue.
Whistleblower Insider: I don’t know if this is even possible, but if you were to try to rank the injustices from an ethical standpoint: the treatment of the animals, the treatment of people like yourself, etc., was there any particular aspect that really stood out.
Craig Watts: I don’t think one thing could outweigh the other. It was a combination of things and by combining all those things; it was just the straw that broke my back. The treatment of the farmers and the serfdom aspect of it, naturally the animals and the overall unsanitary environment in which they are raised.
Let me back up for a second, the last straw was what I thought was mislabeling, what was misbranding, deceptive advertising. I saw a commercial and it was a Purdue commercial with Jim Purdue driving down the road and he’s saying, “we’re going to be transparent.” And I’m like, “Huh?” And so he walks into his poultry house where there’s this beautiful house with brand new shavings on the floor, and the equipment is spotless. And I’m thinking that this is as far from the truth as you can possibly get. So that was kind of just when I decided to go ahead and bring the film crew in, and let’s educate the public a little bit.
Whistleblower Insider: So the first time you reached out with your concerns, you mention you went to management and they just dismissed it, or acted like they were taking it seriously but never did anything?
Craig Watts: Oh they would come out to my home and meet. They would break out the notebooks and write stuff down, but we never got any follow up. Not once. This went on for years. So I thought that was very disrespectful, considering the time I put into the industry and the money I had invested in it.
Whistleblower Insider: And when you first reached out to “Compassion,” how did that go?
Craig Watts: That was kind of a weird thing. I was working with a reporter, who I will leave nameless. Somehow [that reporter] was connected with Leah [from Compassion] for something. He connected with me, and he heard a lot of the same story just from a different angle. He called me and said “he has [Leah] in Atlanta and would you talk to her?” And I said, “yeah.”
So [Leah and I] talked on the phone a few times and she was like “can I bring my filmmaker to the farm,” and I said “sure.” That was during the time that the ag-gag laws were really the thing. And North Carolina had one proposed at the time, so she was a little confused as to why I would overtly invite her down here. Anyway, for both of us it worked out very well. Her organization was very small, I had never heard of them. And when I dealt with her, I dealt with the boss, so to speak. I didn’t have to deal with any of the baggage; I didn’t have to jump through any hoops. We told the story how it was. We opened the doors, and that’s how it was.
Whistleblower Insider: What happened next?
Craig Watts: We started filming in May of 2014. We filmed at the beginning of a flock. You’ll see some very strange issues there; just like some sick chicks and deformed chicks, just a lot of stuff that the public generally wouldn’t know about. Then at the end of a flock, you’ll start seeing the chicken stand up and take two steps and flop back down, that kind of stuff, deformity in the legs. You just never get through cleaning those birds up like you should because it just happens every day. It’s not like you can walk in on Monday and get every sick and deformed bird out of the house because you might get them all on Monday, but then Wednesday you’ll have some more.
Then we didn’t release the video until like December. I don’t really know what [Purdue] was thinking but when the video released, naturally the farmer is a bad apple and he’s not doing his job. They didn’t know which flock we filmed until after the fact. Well when they found out that that flock had been filmed in May, that flock was a top producing flock for that week, so that was as good as it got, which was what you saw [on the video]. So that kind of killed the bad apple argument.
Then they put me on some kind of, they called it a performance improvement plan, but I called it house arrest. And [Purdue] would come out two, three times a week and they wouldn’t find anything they haven’t found 100 times before. The molehills had become mountains. The locals made sure they had covered themselves. Nothing real concerning to me. They almost had to save face I guess. And then they released me in July. There wasn’t any kind of benchmark to get off of [the performance improvement plan]; I just got a letter in the mail one day that said, “you’re off of it.” Abruptly removing me from the plan didn’t make a lot of sense but that’s what they did.
Whistleblower Insider: And when the video was released, that was kind of when you became known to the public?
Craig Watts: Yeah, I had been working with some groups on some policy stuff so I had been in publications in print. As far as being really out there, yeah that was it. Because what I was saying in the print wouldn’t really hurt them. [Purdue] just didn’t want any filming in the houses. You know, that was kind of the last thing they want. It’s against the ag-gag laws. I mean that’s kind of what they are designed to do: to keep that out of the public eye, which is absolutely wrong. They should be more proactive that way and clean the damn thing up, you know?
Whistleblower Insider: Absolutely. Besides what you’ve mentioned, was there any other backlash or angry third parties that came your way?
Craig Watts: Naturally farmers were a little standoffish, not because they didn’t like me, it’s because of that environment; it’s a very negative environment. The perception of a lot of farmers is if they would have been seen with me, Perdue would put them on a “list.” They did not want to put themselves in a situation where they would be retaliated against or where their contract would be threatened. It was a little weird that I wasn’t seeing people that I was used to seeing a lot. And it wasn’t like they were mad at me, it was more self-preservation in their mind I guess. Actually I got attacked by the industry group or the media group but whoopity doo.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART II.