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Did a chicken company discriminate against black farmers?

In the U.S., most chicken is raised by farms contracting with a handful of large companies. It's a tight market with little competition. The chicken companies have enormous control over the operations of the farmers. The companies typically own the flocks, while the farmers own the land and equipment and do the work.

Currently, African-Americans make up about 1.3% of the nation's farmers. The Department of Agriculture reports that they tend to have significantly poorer, smaller farms than whites. That shouldn't be the case, as African-American farmers are entitled to equal treatment under the law.

Yet after an exposé by the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica in June, at least one black farmer has filed suit against a major chicken company, accusing it of discrimination and fraud. He claims that Koch Foods (no relation to conservative billionaire Charles Koch) intentionally denied him the opportunity to raise a contract flock.

The lawsuit, brought by Carlton Sanders, accuses Koch Foods of fraud and breach of contract, along with violations of the Civil Rights Act and another law prohibiting discrimination in the industry, the Packers and Stockyards Act.

"Koch and its employees acted illegally and unconscionably in a manner that prevented Sanders from growing chickens in a fair and profitable manner, subjecting Sanders to agricultural servitude, akin to the abuses subjected to Sanders's ancestors, who were slaves brought over from Africa against their will," reads the lawsuit. "All this conduct toward Plaintiff Sanders was due to his race."

Koch Foods vigorously denies discriminating against black farmers, but ProPublica found evidence from a USDA investigator that it may have.

Allegations include squeezing out, denying black farmers

According to the USDA, black farmers in Mississippi have sought contracts from Koch Foods about twice a year since 2005. Each was told either that their farm was located too far from the feed mill or that the company wasn't seeking new contracts.

Yet the USDA found that Koch Foods had contracts with at least 10 white farmers who lived further away than a black farmer who was turned away. And the company has recruited 165 farmers since 2005 - all white.

Carlton Sanders was lucky enough to have a contract with Koch Foods. He was one of four black farmers contracting with the company, until Koch cut him out by claiming he needed to make expensive renovations. No white farmers were required to make such renovations. Once Koch pulled out, he lost his farm.

When companies discriminate by race, the inequities of centuries are reinforced. Federal law prohibits race discrimination in most areas of interstate commerce, but some companies continue to operate in a racially discriminatory way. Sometimes, a lawsuit is necessary to hold bad actors to account.

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