Chuck Stokes owns and operates Little Creek Hog Farms, in Greene County, N.C. He farms 650 acres, and has been a contract pork producer since 1987, finishing 90,000 pigs a year. He helped start Front Line Farmers in 1999 with his wife and four other couples. There are 150 dues-paying members.
Q Why did you start Front Line Farmers?
A We saw the need for a strong voice speaking out specifically and emphatically for North Carolina farm families who rely largely on hogs for their livelihood. We felt that many citizens, lawmakers and regulators had a mistaken belief that pork producers are environmentally irresponsible. We wanted to make it clear that most pork producers are not large companies. The state's swine industry includes hundreds of family farmers who choose to grow hogs on contract.
We were willing to invest our time and money to speak out and work to correct problems facing us. As we see it, our efforts complement those of the National Pork Producers Council and the North Carolina Pork Council.
Q What are your goals?
A To "put a face on pork production." To correct public, misperceptions about what we do. To attempt to correct problems in our operations and others that negatively affect neighbors and create a poor public image. To address unfair harassment of pork producers by environmental regulators and others. To work to improve communications between state and federal agencies and environmental groups, and show our willingness to work with them constructively.
Q What about dues, and how are they used?
A We have a $100 initiation fee and an escalating dues scale, based on the size of the pork operation. It runs from $200 for a farmer producing up to 10,000 hogs annually on up to $800 for one producing more than 40,000 head. Dues and voluntary contributions are used for printing our newsletter, postage, literature, radio advertising, legal fees and for recruiting members. All travel expenses are paid out of members' own pockets.
Q What can producers in a group like yours expect to accomplish?
A Based on our everyday, real-life experiences, we can speak for ourselves and our families on issues relating to pork production in a way that others cannot.
So far, our efforts have been mostly in the environmental arena – on immediate, pressing issues. By devoting time to serve on various panels and in other ways, we have been able to influence several iportant rule-making decisions and help assure fairness for farmers.
Through personal contacts – and extending invitations to visit our farms – we have established working relationships with several environmental groups and the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Q Any downsides to this type of group activity?
A It takes sincere, dedicated and willing individuals to put a lot into it – time, money and thousands of miles on personal cars and pickups. Officers spend a lot of time on the phone.
For the past 2 years, five or six of us have devoted much of our lives to Front Line Farmers. It takes a lot of time away from our families – fortunately they support us. It also cuts into time we spend on the farm, but our workers are competent and conscientious.
Board members need patience to develop and arrive at a consensus on policies. The fact that not everyone in the industry has been happy about what we are doing has been hard on all of us.
Q What would you do differently?
A We wouldn't change our approach or goals at all, but we would have started several years sooner. Time is running out on family farmers. If we don't look out for our immediate and long-range interests, no one else will.
Q Do producers in other states need to organize, too?
A Yes, definitely. We're convinced that all farmers need to defend themselves, not leave it up to others. We recognize that there is a place for professional association executives and experienced lobbyists, but there is nothing like effective, grassroots input by proactive, dedicated farmers.
U.S. farmers have two choices: Sit on the sidelines and watch, or participate proactively to defend our livelihood and future. It's that simple. Farmers in a few other states have shown an interest in what we are doing.
Q What advice can you offer others?
A Start with a core group of like-minded farmers willing to put in the time, effort and money to get it going and keep it going. Take a rifle approach. Define your goals sharply, concentrating on a few. Avoid dissipating your efforts by using a shotgun approach.