Stokes works tirelessly to help Mississsippi farm families

2/28/2006

By Ron Barham

Special to the Advocate

Fred Stokes has always seemed like a man on a mission.

Raised on a small farm in Kemper County, he joined the Army at 17 in 1952 and served in the Korean conflict and two tours in Vietnam. At the time, Kemper County boasted more than 1,100 small, diversified farms, typically 40-50 acres. Eighty percent of the county population said they were farmers.

Retiring after 20 years in the military, Stokes returned home to a world he hardly recognized. Gone were the neighbor families, the proud little schools, close-knit communities and an entire social system. The erosion continued so that today there are only two full-time farm families in Kemper County. Big timber companies and a few poultry factory farms are the scene now. Gone also are a way of life and a close kinship with the Creator and creation.

Active in Porterville United Methodist Church, Stokes stands in the long line of Methodist emphasis on vital piety and redeeming social concerns. His business card reads, “Working to build a new food system that provides high quality, trustworthy food at fair prices, profits for U.S. food producers and food security for our nation.” He is the lay member of Annual Conference from his charge.

Not mired in nostalgia, Stokes has kept up with innovations and improvements in equipment, technology, farming practices and modern developments in general. He speaks with authority and passion about globalization, agricultural concentration and other economic and political policies which affect us all. He can talk the language of corporate executives, cowhands, civic clubs, university researchers and producer folks who work with the soil, the animals and the crops.

Stokes acknowledges that life is good for him. “I have two grandsons and a good fishing hole — I am blessed — but I care about the generations to come and what unbridled capitalism, bottom-line principles and nice-sounding things like ‘globalization’ are doing to us; a greater threat than communism ever was,” he said.

Stokes notes the apathy of many farmers regarding free trade, globalization and corporate farming. Add the average consumer’s interest only in the low price and seeming disinterest in where food comes from or who grows or harvests it, and one can see what Stokes faces.

Stokes carries with him copies of position papers, conference speeches and an active who’s who list of people he knows who bring, economic, sociological, academic and research data to enlighten rural and food policy. He readily warns about “captive supply,” which happens when corporations own an increasing percentage of the resource in timber, poultry, produce and cattle. His concern is for the impact on both values and God’s children.

Several states have instituted programs to educate the public on the environmental and other hidden costs of low-cost food. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Americans spend only 9 percent of their income on food, the lowest percentage in the world.

Increasingly, responsible and health-conscious people are rediscovering the many benefits of buying locally and cooking with seasonally available produce.

“Differentiated food products” are growing in popularity. These include grass-finished beef, antibiotic-free meats, vine-ripe and picked-today vegetables, regional specialties and free-range meats.

Another trend is for a family to pay a local farmer in advance to deliver a box of seasonally appropriate fresh produce each month. The corporate model demands a uniform, long shelf-life product. Differentiated foods recognize the unique attributes of a local region and the people who partner with the Earth.

In February, Stokes traveled to Washington to visit legislators and agencies and push COOL (Country Of Origin Labeling). Stokes said that U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), former chair of the Agriculture Committee, has said it will cost too much.

Stokes responds, “Opposition to Country Of Origin Labeling for food is morally indefensible. Look at your shirt label and tell me it’s OK to have clothes with COOL but not the food you eat.”

Stokes has developed a reputation as an informed, outspoken critic of current agricultural policy and is not warmly greeted in some places. He has testified in congressional hearings and stood up to corporations. Championing the increasingly disenfranchised, he can laugh at what his wife calls his “campaign to save the world.”

However, he is serious about shining the light on and sounding the alarm against what he believes comes with seemingly progressive trends. Stokes is a familiar face in board rooms, corporate offices, legislative halls, church conferences and stockholder meetings. He cares deeply, and misses no chance to speak of awareness and hope about where he believes we are headed.

Stokes is responsible for the creation of a rural ministries emphasis in the Mississippi Conference. He brought a resolution on the farm crisis to Annual Conference a few years ago and his impassioned plea for the church’s role in rural life has awakened a wide interest.

Barham is executive director of Wood Institute in Mathiston, resourcing rural and small membership churches.