Midwest Center hosts first dinner and docs

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Claire Hettinger is the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  Have a story idea, question or tip? Reach her at claire.hettinger@investigatemidwest.org

Farmers, chicken enthusiasts and community members came together to eat dinner and watch a documentary at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting’s event Dinner and Docs held June 18 The City Center in Champaign, Illinois. 

The documentary was a Netflix film called “Rotten: Big Bird,” which shows “the ruthlessly efficient world of chicken production pits vulnerable growers against each other and leaves them open to vicious acts of sabotage,” according to Netflix.

Dininer and Docs on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

A panel discussion followed the film and included farmers Mitch Cave, Chad Wallace and Pat Titus, as well as the filmmaker Ted Gesing via video chat. It was led by Professor Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. 

A question and answer session with the panel allowed the audience to ask questions about the chicken industry and the film. People asked about industry standards and the future of chicken farms. They also asked about the best way to eat healthier chicken from smaller farms. 

Cave, Wallace and Titus run smaller-scale operations and are privately owned. They do not contract with big companies. Because of this, they have more control over their farms and the ability to grow fewer animals in different ways. 

For example, Wallace is an organic hog farmer, and Cave raises his chickens free range. 

But Cave said he understands not everyone can grow chickens like he does. 

“You’ll never be at that scale of corporations,” he said. “I can never grow enough chickens.” 

For some farmers, this alternative method is the way to make money. Cave and Wallace both sell their products at farmer’s markets as a way to make a profit. They also sell to individuals. 

And for others, like the farmers in the film, they farm at an industrial scale as a way to make money. It requires farmers to take out millions of dollars in loans to support and build such large operations. 

Experts predict that chicken will be the most popular meat by the end of 2020, according to the film. In order to keep up with demand, farmers say they need to double their yield by 2050.

In the United States, there are 32,751 chicken farms and they produce almost nine billion chickens a year, according to the 2017 U.S. Agriculture Census. In Illinois, there are 509 farms which produce 200,000 chickens, according to the census.

Four big agriculture Big Ag companies, Tyson, Sanderson Farms, Perdue and Pilgrim’s Pride, own the majority of the market. The film focuses on Pilgrim’s Pride, which is majority-owned by Brazilian beef conglomerate JBS SA.

The panel discussed how the movie was made and the information shared.  Gesing shared some behind the scenes information about finding sources and portraying the industry accurately. 

During the discussion, Wallace said the film caused a stir among his customers. He said the film made people want to eat differently.

“Your movie helped my sales,” he said.

Dininer and Docs on Tuesday, June 18, 2019. photo by Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Dinner and docs events are held by different media organizations throughout the country to highlight various issues and bring communities together.

The event was presented in partnership with PEN America's Press Freedom Incentive Fund, an initiative that aims to invigorate local communities with ideas, information, questions, and discourse around press freedom defense; Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit, online news outlet covering agribusiness through investigative and enterprise reporting; Illinois Humanities, private 501(c)(3) state-level affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and works to build dialogue across all sectors of society to examine issues important to democracy in strategically selected topical focus areas; Knight Chair of Investigative and Enterprise Reporting, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

Claire Hettinger is the 2019 Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellow for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.  Have a story idea, question or tip? Reach her at claire.hettinger@investigatemidwest.org