Faces & Visions of the Food Movement: Fred Stokes

Thomas F. “Fred” Stokes was born and raised on a small diversified family farm in Kemper County, Mississippi. At the age of 17 he enlisted in the Army and later completed Infantry Officers Candidate School and received a commission. His 20 years of military service included two tours in Vietnam. He retired in 1972 as a Major. He returned to Mississippi and has been involved in the cattle business and active in agricultural and rural life issues ever since. Fred is deeply concerned about the disappearance of the family farm and ranch and the decay in rural America and is widely known as an outspoken critic of U. S. farm and trade policy. He was instrumental in founding Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) and Coalition for a Prosperous America (CPA). He currently serves as the Executive Director of OCM and on the board of CPA. He and his wife of 50 plus years live on their small cattle farm in East Central Mississippi.

What issues have you been focused on?

Our issue is making the marketplace a fair game as it affects farmers and ranchers in rural America. Over the years competition has disappeared and prices come from the corporate boardroom rather than a dynamic market in consideration of supply and demand. The game is rigged to the benefit of large corporations and the detriment of the family farmer and rancher.

What inspires you to do this work?

I was born and raised on a diversified family farm. By reasonable standards we were poor but everyone else was the same. It was a good life. There was a culture and fraternity that I think is worth saving. We’re losing our family farms and replacing it with a corporate model that’s detrimental to our national interests and the heritage of our country.

What’s your overall vision?

It may be more a dream than a vision. My hope is that we can restore competition by prompting government to exercise their authority under the law and break up some of these monopolies and cartels, so the little people have a chance. The big corporations set the price and it’s never enough for the small farmer or rancher. Please understand my vision is not in restoring the Little House on the Prairie, a ridiculous romantic notion, but in restoring a rural family life with swing sets, families and school buses and all the things that go with a rural culture. I think it’s a vital part of the fabric of our country.

Who’s in your community?

I live in rural Mississippi in a county that is large geographically and sparsely populated with about 10 thousand people. We are a majority black county and most of the people here live in small communities or on a farm but make their living someplace else or survive on government transfer payments. That’s what’s happened to agriculture over the years, farms don’t provide a living, people have to go elsewhere for that. I consider myself and my wife very fortunate. We have a half mile square block of land that has a house lot, a lake and wild game and garden and privacy. I’m retired from the military and she’s a retired civil servant so we have the benefit of living the lifestyle of a farm without having to make a living on the farm.

What are your commitments?

My commitment is to try to unscrew the world that my generation has really fouled up for my grandkids and failing getting that result; have them know we made a good faith effort.

What are your goals?

I want to see rising expectations return as the norm, rather than declining expectations. I want to see job opportunities and markets that are fair. I want trade that is fair and balanced rather than a negative situation where we have China holding massive debt and leverage over our country and impacting our sovereignty. I want an America much like the one I had the privilege of living in which is rapidly disappearing.

What does change look like to you?

There have been so many changes already. For one, while we still bill ourselves as the global superpower and preeminent military and economic power on the globe, it is very clear we’re on a slide downhill and sometime in the not too distant future we will be displaced from that dominance. It’s also clear our children and grandchildren had their hopes and aspirations diminished by the all-consuming greed and indifference that has gripped my generation.

I’m not absolutely confident we can pull it off. But I want to re-industrialize our country and re-establish many things that were the heart of our country in the past. I want to focus on people and quality of life rather than the greed and bottom line thinking I see out there that repulses me. We all want to be prosperous and successful but we’ve gone too far and we need to regain our footing. This relationship between employers and employees has gotten all out of whack. The gap between the wealthy and not so wealthy is out of proportion. The poor having an opportunity to become middle class is diminishing. All the trend lines I see take us over a cliff.

Reversing the trends, that’s exactly what I want to do.

Regarding the practicalities of enacting change, what planning is involved? What kind of outreach?

Obviously our government is going to have to play a big role in this. So we try to in any number of ways, not just lobbying, to influence public policy and the actions of our government so we can have these outcomes. We want the marketplace to be fair instead of systematically shortchanging those who grow and produce things. We want balanced and fair trade so we don’t continually run massive deficits in trade. We want a balanced budget instead of carrying on like a bunch of drunken sailors. What I see is that people don’t factor into the equation anymore. It’s about efficiency and there’s a prevailing view about economy and efficiency of scale. So we’re eliminating small businesses and the market is dominated by global and transnational corporations run by CEOs that are ruthless men obsessed with the bottom line. One of the ways to affect the bottom line is to short change and mistreat the employees. And, that’s different from the past.

What projects are affiliated with yours?

Reforming the Beef Checkoff Program [PDF] is one of our highest priorities. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is the prime contractor and has hijacked and perverted the program. The program generates some $80 billion a year. We want an accounting and reform of that program. They have used these funds, in my view, for an agenda diametrically opposed to the interests of the people funding the program. A performance review revealed blatant abuses and we were influential in prompting a U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Inspector General audit.

We’re also looking at global fertilizer cartels. They are in a position to exact what they want from people who have to have fertilizer to continue farming.

We’re working on a piece of legislation passed in 1921 which governs the markets and competition pertaining to livestock. The law has been perverted and abused. There are new rules being put forth by USDA that would restore it to its original intent if they are ultimately finalized.

The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance is another burr under our saddle. The members are not farmers or ranchers, they are big business people who support the industrial agriculture model. They have appropriated the good name of farmers and ranchers as a stalking horse for their agenda. They are also tapping into our checkoff money from cattle, soybeans and other crops to sell industrial agriculture to the consuming public. If successful, this would be the demise of the family farm.

What projects and people have you got your eye on or are you impressed by?

I’m a registered Republican, but I am heartened somewhat by the present administration. I was very impressed with USDA Secretary Vilsack and his precise insights into the problems of family agriculture as he expressed them at several of five workshops I attended.

Christine Varney is the Chief of the antitrust division of the U. S. Department of Justice. I’ve previously referred to her as Teddy Roosevelt in a skirt. She made very strong pronouncements about addressing the antitrust abuses that have affected agriculture. It has been two years now and I haven’t seen any heads come down the aisle. So, I’m a little less enamored at the moment.

Of course these folks have political bosses and the mission of those bosses is to get re-elected.

The more I learn and the more I see the more cynical I become.

Where do you see the state of agriculture/food policy in the next 5-10 years? Is real policy change a possibility?

The chances of the trends being reversed is slim. Concentration and vertical integration are a deadly combination. The poultry industry is a great example. Some years back there was a scheme introduced by Tyson, Purdue and the other big poultry companies that induced farmers to build chicken houses for about $200,000 each. And farmers go into debt to do it. The poultry companies give them baby chickens and the feed and the farmer has a mortgage and does the bidding of the integrator. The integrator can sever the contract at will and the farmer has no way to service the mortgage; so it’s a powerful tool the integrator holds.

The chicken model was the first and the hog industry went the same way almost overnight. There’s two markets out there: a cash market and contract market. The contract market is inherently indenturing for the producer. It’s sold under the guise of being efficient, but maybe that’s just for the integrator, not the producer.

That trend to get very big and to vertically integrate is well along and I fear will carry the day in the future. Cattle aren’t so far down that line but it’s on the way. The market is getting thinner and smaller and easier to integrate. The cattle business is by far the largest sector of agriculture in America, I hope we can reform it so there are independent cattle ranchers in the future.

I served 20 years in the service and two tours in Vietnam and went to OCS and received a commission. I took an oath to protect the public from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I think the enemy to my kids and grandchildren is domestic… the Wall Street bandits and large corporations bent on nothing but bottom line profits to the detriment of the future and security of the country.

Globalization in my opinion is a very bad idea.

What does the food movement need to do, be or have to be more effective?

We’re a nonprofit and we’re handicapped. We don’t have K Street attorneys and it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that the politicians on Capital Hill go with the money. These massive campaign contributions make them vote a certain way and take certain positions on the issues. Money carries the day. I’m sad to say that, but that’s my belief. We do the best we can, try to appeal to their sense of decency and fair play and many times they say nice words and such back; but their vote, most of the time, is contrary to that. Big business interests prevail and frankly I’m burning out. I’m getting frustrated and tired knowing that I’m right and yet seeing the people motivated by greed and indifferent about the future of the county and their kids and have that behavior prevail.

We need money. But it’s not everything. It’s not a good way to keep score in life.

What would you want to be your last meal on earth?

My two favorite dishes are steak and seafood. Maybe a nice, big, greasy, well-marbled medium-rare rib eye with an abalone cutlet.

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