There are two well-known Tysons in the world and both fight for money. Which of the two battles more viciously depends on whom you're talking to. Evander Holyfield could justifiably point to a ragged left ear and claim the Tyson he knows is bad news personified — that there is none worse. But an ear isn't the only thing that can be chewed up and spit out and pugilists can be found in the boardroom. Just ask Keith Stokes about what happened to his family's dreams and security.
The Stokes family — like their Tyson pork-producing comrades — hadn't an inkling of what Tyson Foods, Inc., 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 increase the sow numbers on his Dardanelle, Ark.-area operation or buy another farm. But late on a Sunday night last August, with a phone call that took scant seconds, things went to hell.
“I go to bed early and get up early. So my wife took the call from a Tyson rep's cell phone. 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: they were shutting down the pork business. 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.
When Stokes got into the pork-producing business some 13 years ago, he was told Tyson's plan was to do in the pork industry what it had 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.
A Tyson representative actually 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.
“The possibilities excited us. We shortly got financing and started raising hogs for Tyson. They sold us on their vision, their drive, and — it sounds ridiculous now — their claims 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 long haul
At first, Tyson's pork business took baby steps and the producers rode every wave brought on by the markets. In 2001, Tyson bought competitor IBP and became the largest supplier of protein in the world. 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 well over a decade 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 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.”
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 guess it's just an example of their lack of concern for us….
“In that late-night call, 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 infamous phone calls, 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.”
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.”
Farming is tight-knit, says Stokes. “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.
“That was fine. I couldn't stop them from killing the pigs. But it was my property and if they wanted to kill the pigs, I planned on having a video camera to record what went on. I wasn't about to let that happen on my property without taping it.”
Part of the problem that added to confusion was that, “from my meeting with Tyson up to the point when they finally arrived to get the hogs, all kinds of plans were floated by them. Every day we got up wondering what we'd be told that day. We didn't even know when they'd show up to collect the pigs.”
Finally, a Tyson representative called Stokes and said they'd pick the animals up the next day. Stokes, having changed his mind about videotaping the “tear down,” 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.”
“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, 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 — poof! — gone in a couple of hours. I can't tell you how bizarre that felt.”
Many of the producers were left in heavy debt (contract farmers often borrow between $150,000 and $750,000 to start an operation) and saddled with empty hog barns that are unusable for anything else.
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 its 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. This is all beyond sad, man, way beyond.”
Ruling favors ex-Tyson pork producers
FOLLOWING A Feb. 21 court ruling, and barring any successful appeal, the lawsuit brought by ex-Tyson pork producers in Arkansas will go to trial.
In a key finding, Pope County Circuit Court Judge Ken Coker Jr. ruled against a Tyson Food, Inc., argument that contracts signed by all the producers bound them to arbitration. Observers say that the trial is still months, if not years, away.
The approximately 100 former Tyson producers involved in the suit claim the company failed to deliver on promises and made false and misleading statements regarding their commitments to the pork business. Because of Tyson's false claims, the producers say, they are now saddled with oppressive debt. They are seeking undetermined damages.