Posted May 22, 2016 at 10:04 PM Updated May 22, 2016 at 11:06 PM
By Steve Tarter
Journal Star city of Peoria reporter
Fred Stokes called the other day. He wanted to let the press know that he’s still working to promote the cause of independent ranchers in this country.
Stokes brings up the beef checkoff issue. That’s where $1 from every head of cattle sold goes to a promotional fund operated by the Washington, D.C-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the group that represents the mainstream beef industry.
Independent ranchers like Stokes believe the beef industry shouldn’t be controlled by a handful of large packers who they see as behind the NCBA.
Stokes believes that checkoff funds that topped $80 million last year went to support an effort that toppled country-of-origin labeling. "Cattlemen are funding their own demise," he said.
Others have weighed in on the beef debate. Mike Callicrate, the president of the Nebraska-based Organization for Competitive Markets, a group that Stokes helped form in 1998, said he doesn’t want cattlemen "working as serfs on their own land for the benefit of the big three packers."
Bill Bullard, who heads R-CALF USA, a Billings, Mont.-based group that represents ranchers, also opposes the beef checkoff. "Despite what we know to be clear evidence about the high quality of beef raised by individual U.S. cattlemen, we are being taxed to promote a message that beef raised without the strict standards used by our members is the same as all other beef, a message we do not support and do not agree with," he said.
As an example of a promotion paid for by the NCBA, R-CALF charges that checkoff money was used to fund an advertising campaign for a fast-food chain to promote a product which could contain beef from 41 different countries.
The NCBA says that checkoff dollars are simply invested in programs "to increase consumer demand for beef and create opportunities to enhance producer profitability."
At 81, Stokes isn’t giving up the fight, despite being unable to stir the U.S. Department of Agriculture or federal legislators to act on behalf of small independents.
After 20 years of service in the U.S. Army, Stokes retired as a major in 1972. He started up a little ranch in his native Mississippi before getting involved in OCM, an organization he said "seeks to restore competition in the ag marketplace."
As a veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, Stokes is no stranger to adversity. He also downplays his role in trying to bring some measure of fairness to the American marketplace. "My role in this thing is to call and harass folks," he said.
Stokes is still involved in his cattle business in Mississippi but he’s clearly frustrated from seeing the balance of power swing to the corporate side. "Independent family agriculture is disappearing from the face of the Earth. I don’t know if the American people care anymore," he said.
"I’m old, tired and frustrated. I can say that I lived in America’s heyday. I’m thankful for that but we sure screwed up this country for our children," said Stokes, who’s still out there calling and harassing folks.
"I’m hopeful but it’s hard," he said.