The Family Farm

FredStokes

Fred Stokes I am Fred Stokes from Porterville, Mississippi. I am happy and honored to be a participant in this conference. Ralph Nader is one of my heroes and the epitome of unselfish commitment to worthy causes.

I was born on a small diversified family farm in Kemper County Mississippi, the home of the late Senator John C. Stennis. After spending some 20 years in the Army, I retired and returned to my home country to get rich in the cattle business.

I borrowed lots of money and invested in cattle at the top of the market. When President Nixon removed his wage and price freeze in 1973, the cattle market went down to 30% of its former high. I suddenly found myself owing more that the value of everything I owned. During those dark years of owing bills that I couldn’t pay, I spent a great deal of time trying to figure things out. I finally concluded that the game was rigged, a conclusion that seems to be shared by a couple of current presidential candidates.

For the past thirty years I have devoted myself to unrigging the game; without a great deal of success. But I have come to some opinions that I would like to share, with the hope that you in the press might give these matters some attention and help folks better understand this ominous situation.

The family farm is rapidly disappearing and being replaced by a structure that is concentrated, vertically aligned, corporate controlled and largely global in nature. I believe this new system bodes ill for independent farmers and ranchers, rural America, the environment, humane treatment of farm animals and our national food security.

Folks want to become farmers and ranchers in the belief that they would have more independence and freedom. But Independent family agriculture is rapidly giving way to contract agriculture, which I see as a feudal order.

A writer friend of mine wrote: in this new agriculture, everyone works for the man, they are tractor drivers for Cargill and Hog house janitors for Smithfield. The companies don’t own farms, they own farmers.

This is a system that works well for the big agribusiness companies but not so well for farmers and eaters. The farmer must service the mortgage and do the work but gets his marching orders from the corporate integrator who also decides his level of compensation. This approach was pioneered by the poultry companies but has now been adopted by the pork industry. This arrangement has become known as “chickenization”. It looms as the prospective future model for all of American agriculture.

Chickenization is being driven by a cabal that includes big agribusiness, certain so called farm organizations that are actually fronts for agribusiness, bought folks on Capitol Hill, USDA and perhaps other governmental agencies.

I would like to use my limited time to focus on a recent event that I think illustrates this pretty well.

On April 19th, the House Appropriation Committee approved by voice vote the $21.3 billion budget for the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Tucked away in the 217 pages where 34 pages which would effectively exempt the various checkoff funds from being access through the Freedom of Information Act. This action was prompted at the behest of 14 of these so-called farm organizations and their friends. Those who are compelled to pay more than $500 million a year to promote the various farm commodities, would be precluded from accessing particulars as to how their money was spent.

Prominent among these 14 was the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, an organization that has a mere 3% of beef checkoff payers as members, but contends to be the voice of the industry. It derives more than 80% of its total revenues from the beef checkoff fund.

In 2010 the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) retained the Clifton Gunderson firm to conduct an audit of the beef checkoff fund. Agri-Pulse magazine reported; “CBB is “extremely” troubled by the results of the audit of NCBA’s handling of checkoff funds”

The audit uncovered gross misappropriations and other irregularities amounting to more than $200,000; — after looking at the equivalent of only nine days activity. The CBB President and CEO were promptly forced out of office for their audacity in initiating this embarrassing audit.

An uproar by cattlemen who are compelled to provide the some $80 million per year for the program, resulted in the USDA Inspector General initiating an audit in February of 2011. The investigative portion of the audit was concluded in December of that year but the final report was delayed until the spring of 2013, amidst rampant speculation regarding the findings. The audit report completely ignored the previous in-house audit findings and effectively exonerated NCBA of any wrongdoing. It was widely viewed as a cover-up!

The Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) promptly filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all material related to the audit. After protracted foot-dragging and obfuscation by USDA OIG, OCM filed litigation to compel release of the material.

A year and a half has now passed and USDA OIG is still stonewalling and stalling. We still do not have the investigator’s report or the 3000 pages of drafts of the 17 page audit report. However, OCM continues to apply pressure to secure the material. We believe we have drawn a fair and impartial judge and that we will ultimately prevail.

It is our belief that this is the reason for this blatant and devious action by the House Appropriations Committee. We are convinced that there is a scandal here and they want to keep a lid on it.

NCBA has received about a billion dollars over the years from these beef checkoff funds and has been awarded the contract year after year irrespective of a fundamental conflict of interest. The USDA Secretary is fully aware of the situation and has the authority to summarily remedy this conflict, but has repeatedly declined to act.

NCBA, enabled by checkoff funds has successfully defeated the effort to re-invigorated the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 (known as the producers protection act), brought suit to forestall implementation of Country of Origin Labeling for beef and was ultimately successful in repeal of this portion of COOL and generally supported the interests of meat packers against those of checkoff payers.

Through the beef checkoff program, beef producers are being compelled to fund the demise of their way of life.

I see these promotion programs generally as abusive, corrupt and half-billion dollar per year scams. There is now desperate action by a host of folks who are benefitting from diverting these mandatorily collected funds, to avoid transparency and preserve their gravy train. While this is certainly not the only example of corruption out there, it is a significant and glaring one; and I urgently ask that you in the press give this matter your careful scrutiny.


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