ENTERPRISE, Ala. - In this rural town with the can-do name, the ugliness began with a showdown. In late 1995, 39 chicken farmers decided to say no to ConAgra, the nation's fifth largest poultry processor.

The farmers said the company's new contract was unfair and a ticket to the poorhouse. Local bankers agreed. Emboldened by unity and the security of their farms - which they could sell if the going got rough - the farmers refused to sign.

They might as well have challenged a tank squadron with pitchforks.

In the year that followed, ConAgra defied or intimidated nearly every institution that usually calls the shots in small-town America. The bankers surrendered. The local newspaper softened its punches. Government regulators watched but did nothing, prompting one state investigator to quit in exasperation. Real estate agents sensed a raw deal but fearfully kept their mouths shut. A leader of the Chamber of Commerce served briefly as a company spy.

So, the showdown of '95 quickly turned into the rout of '96. Of the 39 growers who first stood up to the company, 20 quickly caved in and signed the contract they despised. The other 19 tried to sell their farms, but ConAgra undermined every offer to buy.

For some that meant disaster, and the casualty list is still growing - on Jan. 7, Tom Greene become the third farmer to lose his land to foreclosure.

The saga of Enterprise is a graphic example of how U.S. chicken farmers have become serfs in a feudal system ruled by the nation's largest poultry processors. Investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in hopes of becoming independent business people, contract poultry farmers are increasingly shackled by the demands of giant corporations.

What happened in Enterprise can befall virtually any chicken farmer who challenges the system, because ConAgra achieved its extraordinary results with the most ordinary of weapons. Not only are the company's tactics commonplace in the poultry industry, they routinely go unpunished by government regulators.

``It's wrong that things like that could happen in America, that a company could have that kind of power,'' said SouthTrust Bank loan officer Theresa Ward, who handled mortgages for several of the holdout farmers. ``I think they really set out to intentionally punish those people. ... It is a heartbreaking thing to watch people lose their farms.''

Greene lost his 53 days ago - four chicken houses and 77 acres. Celia English lost 290 acres and four generations of family heritage in a 1997 foreclosure. At age 62, she now tends the public fishing lake in the town of Elba, living in a state-owned home that comes with the job.

Ed Probst and his family lost their home and farm, too, leaving for Texas with little more than their furniture.

Two other farmers sold their chicken houses at salvage prices. Four eventually signed with other poultry firms in the region, but only after their chicken houses sat empty for two years, incurring huge losses. Several of the rest are saddled with debts they'll be paying for decades for chicken houses they'll never again use.

Among the people who tried to help the farmers make a stand, only a few lawyers have remained committed to the cause. Their pending lawsuit on the farmers' behalf could be the last of its kind - ConAgra's new contract forces farmers to settle future disputes by arbitration instead.

Jim Cooper, a ConAgra vice president, said when the suit was filed, ``We would never attempt to interfere with someone selling their farm.''

And Blake Lovette, who recently took over as president of ConAgra Poultry, vigorously defended the company in an interview.

``This company is dedicated to doing a better job of communicating and providing growers with tools and management systems that allow them to become more comfortable with us as a company,'' Lovette said. ``They run a very fine company [at ConAgra]. Always have. I just would not in any way paint a general picture that ConAgra has a poor reputation with its growers.''

Nor does the company have any trouble attracting new growers, despite the high cost of building a chicken house. ConAgra moved quickly to replace the 19 who fell by the wayside.

Federal regulators wasted little time in moving on, too. After looking into complaints lodged by the holdout farmers, they concluded that, by their rules, ConAgra did nothing wrong.

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