The Stokes family hadn’t an inkling of what Tyson Foods was planning. Things with the Arkansas-based company seemed to be going well. In fact, only a few weeks earlier, Tyson reps had asked Stokes to either up the sow numbers on his Dardanelle, Ark., operation or buy another farm. But late on a Sunday night last August, with a phone call that took scant seconds, things came unraveled.

“This guy called us up at 11 p.m. as he was driving home from some big meeting,” says Stokes. “I don’t do well right after waking up. It takes a few minutes for me to shake out the cobwebs. So my wife finally got me awake and told me this horrible news. It was like someone had died. A few minutes later, after I’d finally digested it, the phone started ringing off the hook.”

It seemed every Tyson pork producer began calling, commiserating in grief. Thus began a producer network of shared information, anger and depression – a network that continues to this day.

Getting in

When Stokes got into the pork producing business 13 years ago, he was told Tyson’s plan was to do in the pork industry what they’d done with poultry.

“They were going to be a vertical integrator, brand their own product and be in full control all the way from the farm to the kitchen table,” says Stokes.

Stokes’ association with Tyson actually goes back even further. After graduating from Arkansas Tech with a degree in agribusiness, Stokes interviewed with Tyson about a job. The company was interested in hiring him, but he was told a move to a different part of the state was necessary.

“The pork side of their business hadn’t started rolling in our region yet. And anyway, I’d gotten the degree in ag business because I wanted to be able to get a job around my hometown. The guy I was interviewing with asked if I’d ever thought about raising hogs. I hadn’t but I was open to anything so he gave me a proposal. My wife and I looked it over but, due to financing, we couldn’t do it. So I just got a job in the timber industry.”

A year or two later, the Tyson representative again approached Stokes about raising hogs.

“He was soliciting my work. My wife and I were newly married and, like a lot of young married couples, money was tight. But we were willing to work hard and were interested in moving up the financial ladder.”

Tyson in connection with an insurance company had a way to make it work. The insurance company (MetLife) financed start-up operations like Stokes’. To get into the pork producing business, the couple had to come up with around $6,000 and 10 acres of land.

“Well, that put a whole new spin on it. The possibilities excited us. We shortly got financing and started raising hogs for Tyson. They sold us on their vision, their drive. They claimed that we were all in this together, that we were a big family. And they continued that same theme up until the last day. They’d say, ‘you’re going to be able to be in the pork business as long as you want to be. Don’t worry about the debt.’”

Stokes had no previous experience as a hog farmer. That wasn’t a bother.

“Tyson’s folks said they didn’t want anyone with experience. Their philosophy was, ‘we want you to raise hogs our way. If you’ve got previous experience, you’ll try to raise them your way.’ That made sense, actually. So we built the farm, signed the Tyson contract, and went into production on April 17, 1990.”

In for the long haul

At first, Tyson’s pork business took baby steps.

Around 1994, Stokes says Tyson bought an old processing plant in Marshall, Mo. The company fixed it up and said they were going into hogs “big-time.” About a year later, the Missouri plant was traded to another company for some poultry operations.

“That was fine – they were still in pork. Even through the hog crash of 1998 (when pork prices plummeted to 9 cents per pound) they rode it out.”

Around 2000, Tyson came to their pork producers and said they could no longer pay for animals at the same level. The cut, says Stokes, was really a bonus/production cut. How much you lost depended on what your production was.

“We took something between a $12,000 and $15,000 hit. Some producers took up to just under $20,000. It wasn’t pleasant, but we hung in there. We believed in Tyson, believed what they were telling us.”

Then, in 2001, Tyson bought competitor IBP. That’s when everything seemed to be falling into place. All of the sudden, Tyson was the largest vehicle for pork processing in the world. This is what Stokes had been waiting and working 12 years for.

“We were fired up and ready to take on the world! The Tyson correspondence started coming in to us: ‘Get ready for the big expansion! It’s going to be great!’ This went on even through June of 2002. That month, I received a letter from Tyson asking me to buy another hog farm or to expand the capacity of my farm. Thank God I didn’t take them up on that.”

At that time, Stokes had about 325 sows – a medium-sized farm. Stokes’ operation was the first link in the modern pork-producing chain.

“We farrowed the pigs, weaned them and sent them on. Typically, the total time of a pig on the farm was seven to nine weeks. After that, Tyson came in and carried them to a finishing farm.”

When planting a new operation, Tyson typically offered either a 325-sow or a 520-sow set up. While the smaller operations take only a couple of people to run, the 520 sow operations took three to four workers.

“We went with the smaller operation because, at the time, we had to do all the labor. We went out on a limb financially and had to do most of the work ourselves. But we were young and one of the assets of being young is you can use that as collateral: ‘C’mon, Mr. Financer, let me have this farm! I’m going to do all the labor myself, and I’ll make it work!’ And maybe it was against the odds but we did make it work.”

Breaking ties

The late-night phone calls still grate, says Stokes.

“You’d think a large corporation would have figured out how to finagle its meeting schedule or called us in or something in order to avoid those calls. We’d worked for Tyson for over 12 years and had built up strong friendships. They should have done us the kindness of at least telling us face-to-face.

“I’m not an executive, but there seems to be 100 better ways to handle this than the one they chose. Tyson is the largest protein supplier in the world. Maybe they got that way by strictly being ruthless and how they treated all of us is just an example of that.

“They simply told us that they were quitting the pork business and the details would be filled in at a later date. That’s it. Click.”

Shortly after, the producers held a meeting. All agreed that there was one thing they had to do.

“Everyone was beyond angry, but we had to continue the good care of our animals. My first reaction after the call was, ‘To heck with this. I’m not taking care of Tyson’s pigs after they did this to me. What’s the point?’ But I quickly realized that the animals needed my care. It wasn’t their fault that Tyson pulled this stunt.

“Everyone agreed with that. We made a pact of sorts to keep the pigs in our care in top condition. I even continued to (artificially inseminate) the sows. Oddly, Tyson continued to bring me semen, and I kept using it. Why, I don’t know.”

Tyson started scheduling meetings with individual producers the next week. Each producer was given 20 or 30 minutes of face-time.

“They had a lonely room rented in a motel here. You walked in and there were three guys sitting on one side of a desk. They just told us how it was going down.”

Tight-knit

“Farming is the only industry I know where participants compete like the dickens but, at the same time, fight like hell for each other.

“If a farmer’s combine blows up in the middle of harvest and rain is on the way, his neighbor is going to do everything he can to help. That’s true even though when they both get to the elevator they’re competitors.”

Because of shared misery, all the ex-Tyson pork producers were tighter than ever. All were working the phones, letting each other know what was going on. But the company divorce started in confusion and continued that way, says Stokes.

“Here’s what those in the first one-on-one meetings were told by Tyson: ‘We’re coming on your farm and are removing some of your marketable feeder pigs and then we’re going to destroy the remaining animals. Here is an agreement that you must sign. It states that you will receive money in exchange for not suing us, not talking to the press and some other things.’ The money was nothing. It was a pittance that wouldn’t pay for anything.”

Stokes and many of his producer friends refused Tyson’s settlement deals. Instead, they filed suit.

But the animals were Tyson’s. The producers had no legal right to stop Tyson from doing what they wanted with the swine.

Finally, a Tyson representative called Stokes and said they’d pick the animals up the next day. Stokes said if there were any papers to be signed, they needed to come to the house. He refused to be on the farm or help them load the animals.

“I didn’t want to be there. I was scared I might say something that I’d regret later. I had built my family’s future around this, we’d put our blood, sweat and tears into it. It was like a marriage that ended badly. It was like having a spouse – who you’d had happy times with for years – who suddenly comes into the house, packs their bags and walks out. It was absolutely lonely and frustrating.”

All gone

“So, one morning, four or five big trucks rolled onto my farm along with pickups and trailers. They took pigs, they took feeders, they took supplies, and they took the ‘Tyson’ signs down. When they left later that day, there was no evidence a Tyson operation had ever been there. That was their right, but it was strange. It took me 12 years to build it all up and it was gone in a couple of hours. I can’t tell you how bizarre that felt.”

Stokes has a waste lagoon that will cost between $35,000 and $50,000 to shut down and meet EPA specifications. On a larger operation, shutting down a lagoon can run over $100,000. Tyson, in their last offer, offered Stokes a “tiny fraction” of what it would cost to clean up.

His dream isn’t all that was lost, insists Stokes. People he once considered friends abandoned him.

“Apparently, all Tyson people have severed ties with us. Over the 12 years we were with the company, we fostered some close personal friendships with Tyson reps. But I guess with the demise of the pork section, the friendships died too. I really wish that wasn’t the case.”

Stokes ran into such a person at a recent Arkansas Tech football game. “I saw a Tyson rep in the Tech bookshop. In truth, I’m upset about this but not to the point of taking it out on old friends. I figured he’d feel the same, and I walked over to talk with him, just shoot the bull.

“He reacted as if I’d pulled a gun on him. He had this look – you know, like a wild animal trapped in the corner. He had merchandise in his hands that he was waiting to pay for. He literally put the stuff down right there and bee-lined for the door.

Spokesmen for Tyson declined to comment on this story, citing pending litigation.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com