In May 2010, Garry Staples left his chicken farm in Steele, Alabama, to take part in a historic hearing in Normal, an hour and a half away.

The decision to go wasn’t easy. The big processing companies that farmers rely on for their livelihood had made it known that even attending one of these hearings, much less speaking out at one, could mean trouble. For a chicken farmer, that’s no trivial thing. Getting on a processing company’s bad side can deal a serious blow to a farmer’s income—and even lose him the farm entirely. Still, Staples, a former Special Forces commander, and a number of other farmers decided to risk it. Many felt it was their only chance to talk directly to some of the highest-ranking officials in the country, including Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, about the abusive practices now common in their industry. It was a chance, finally, to get some relief.

Staples and other farmers described a system that is worse in certain respects than sharecropping. It works like this: to do business nowadays, most chicken farmers need to contract with a processing company. The company delivers them feed and chicks, which farmers raise into full-size birds. The same company then buys those same birds back when they are full grown. The problem is that the big processing company is usually the only game in town. So it can—and usually does—call all the shots, dictating everything from what facilities a farmer builds on his farm to the price he receives for his full-size chickens.