KEMPER COUNTY, Miss. -- A Mississippi cattle producer believes there is a better way for producers to capture increased profits for the commodities they produce, and he's trying to recruit others to his way of thinking.
Fred Stokes of Kemper County, Miss., wants to see producers make more money by selling directly to those consumers who are willing to pay a little more for a direct farm-to-table product that has been produced "naturally."
"I'm trying to keep the private, independent, self-respecting farmer on his farm and in his community, with an integrated farmer-controlled structure that gives him a fair market slice of the pie," Stokes says. "What I don't propose is that we add value to the commodities we produce, and then give that added value to someone else."
Stokes envisions his "Family Farm Food" concept as a producer-controlled structure that would market a line of differentiated "natural" food products to a niche group of consumers. And while he'd like to start with locally produced beef products, Stokes says the concept could eventually be applied to all food agriculture, including dairy, shrimp, and row crop commodities.
"There is a significant and rapidly growing market for foods that people are comfortable with, as opposed to the pig-in-a-poke that emanates from the new global marketplace," he says. "At the same time, farmers are getting an ever-decreasing share of the food dollar but experience escalating production costs. Family farms are rapidly disappearing and being replaced by factory farms and foreign production. As farm families are forced off the land, our rural communities become ghost towns and the countryside becomes a slum."
While he's quick to admit that he doesn't have all of the answers, Stokes says he has been diligently crafting this specific concept for the past four years and has pushed the general idea for about 20 years. "I don't have all the answers, but I come to this debate with probable cause," he says.
As much as one-third of the total food market is concerned about a "natural" food supply, he says.
Stokes proposes producing and labeling Mississippi beef products as natural, rather than organic. "Organic is a straight jacket with too many constraints. We accept science, and we don't want to re-invent the Little House on the Prairie. We're simply talking about not using hormone implants because they reduce intramuscular fat and marbling, and there are too many health questions as yet unanswered about hormone supplements."
He says, "There are thousands of mothers out there who want to know a great deal more about the food they are feeding their children, and how it is being handled. There is a significant and rapidly growing market of people who simply do not trust our current food supply."
And, Stokes says, there is money to be made from consumers' perception of the available food supply.
He proposes producing cattle of strained genetics and producing them "naturally," under a common brand that is quality controlled from start to finish. That means using no hormone implants and no sub-therapeutic antibiotics. "We would treat any illnesses that crop up, but we wouldn't give growth hormones to the cattle," he says.
Under his plan, producers would also steer away from any perceived negative qualities of certain cattle breeds, such as the meat tenderness quality issue that is sometimes associated with Brahma-crosses, and would bypass the conventional sale barn auction system.
The beef produced through Stokes' vertically integrated system would be processed with a "natural," patented meat-rinsing technology, which aids in the development of lactic acid, a powerful microbial, and increases shelf life.
"There are always going to be people that are totally price driven, but there is also a growing market of people who will pay extra money for a natural, quality product they can trust is what you say it is," Stokes says. "We would probably need an additional 10 percent profit margin to make up for the cattle's slower growth from a lack of growth hormones."
According to Stokes' estimates, retail margins can reach $800 to $900 per head of cattle, and about one-half of the price for each unit of milk is retail margin.
"Retail margins are the largest component of the food dollar. Every year the farmer's share of the food dollar has gotten smaller, but pickup trucks, barbed wire and fertilizer have gotten more expensive. The producer has been squeezed from top to bottom," Stokes says. "Are responsible people totally blind to these trends, or do they simply not care? By every indicator there is a wreck at the end of this road."
Stokes says his concept was never intended to make big bucks for the few people at the center, but rather as something that could be put in place, tweaked, adjusted, and then replicated. "I want to build a template for selling agricultural products in a way that serves the interests of the producers, rather than making undue profits for the few transnational corporations that now have firm control of the world's food supply," he says.
However, he hasn't had much luck in securing funding for his producer-controlled natural foods concept. His request to the Mississippi Land, Water and Timber Resource Board for $250,000 in matching funds for a federal grant was recently rejected. Stokes' production and distribution structure built of farmers, for the benefit of farmers, currently consists of six Mississippi cattle producers.
Start-up funds, he says, are necessary to complete the required research, market test products, develop promotional material, and develop a plan for the program's implementation.
Stokes operates a cow-calf operation in Kemper County, Miss., and specializes in Senepol cattle.