By: Austin Snedden
Those of us who are producers in the agriculture industry are blessed to have some of the best colleagues in the world. In general, we are a hardworking, humble, and honest bunch who have no problem making a deal on a handshake or trusting someone’s intentions or motives. Many of us have been humbled by weather or markets, or just flat out mistakes. There are usually no corners to cut in farming or ranching, and that makes most of us that stick with it pretty hardworking and honest. Farmers and ranchers have generational knowledge of their trade that is unmatched in any other industry. While not exclusive to agriculture, these attributes are all positive and have made some folks lend the term “salt of the earth”to us in agriculture. The only downside to these outstanding traits is that many folks who are this honest and forthright assume others are the same way. As a result, they can fall victim to the motives of people with an alternative agenda.
We all know that the best hay isn’t baled by the guy who needs a probe to tell him when to stop baling; just as we know the best cattle aren’t picked by a stock show judge or EPDs.Yet, all the experts and academia would tell us that is the best way to make hay or cattle. The agriculture industry is definitely not averse to innovation—from high tech GPS-guided farm equipment, to embryo transfer and sexed semen in cattle. Even so, the time-honored generational knowledge of knowing the right conditions for making hay and knowing good cattle is invaluable, even if all aspects can be measured or documented. I would encourage people to be open to innovation, but also know the motive and balance it takes against time-proven performance. Be open to experts, but try to discern their motives, and realize that you are most likely an expert and balance that against your trial and error—and the trial and error of generations gone by.
In the cattle industry we got hoodwinked by “experts”that many in on our industry thought had our best intentions in hand. In 1986, the experts told cattlemen that we needed to start our own self-help program, and so a dollar per head checkoff was passed through Congress stating that producers would have to pay upon every sale. In 1996, the experts of the then National Cattlemen’s Association (NCA) used fear of lost market share to chicken and pork to convince members to vote on consolidating the association with the packing industry (of which the primary players also processed chicken and pork) to supposedly increase leverage. As a 14 year old kid at that convention in San Antonio with my grandparents, I didn’t know much, but I knew there were some industry wide issues where this would be beneficial.However, I also knew that cattle producers were losing their singular voice. The merger passed by an overwhelming majority, (774 out of 903) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) was born. The experts and academia pointed to this being progress and the right thing to do.There were only a few sage folks who had looked at history that gave cautionary advice as to what this could become.
Now you had the group of producers that wanted to sell their product for the highest they could, represented by the same group that wanted to buy that same product for the lowest they could, not a match made in heaven, but a match made by a lot of trusting, honest people who respected the “experts.” One voluntary group like this alone does not wreak havoc on an industry, but one group (NCBA) that becomes the primary contractor of the mandatory Checkoff dollars can speak with a loud voice—a loud voice that has been the mouthpiece of the packing industry and meat importers. Less than 5% of U.S. cattle producers are members of the NCBA, yet all of us pay into the checkoff which makes up to 75% of the NCBA annual budget.
The largest producer-only cattlemen’s group, R-CALF, started in 1998. Since then it has been very effective, despite R-CALF’s funding only coming from voluntary dues and contributions. However, they lack the booming voice and influence exerted by the NCBA, which is funded by the compulsory Checkoff we all pay. The U.S. cattle industry saw a brief moment of hope when Congress imposed country of origin labeling (COOL) for beef from 2008 to 2015, despite the protestation of the NCBA.Domestic cattle prices rose, and imported cattle and beef diminished as consumers spoke with their wallets. During this time of higher prices, the NCBA and Check-off took credit for these premiums while at the same time working to eliminate COOL in Congress. NCBA lobbied with a loud voice funded by the mandatory Checkoff against COOL, and Congress,assuming that NCBA spoke for the over 95% of producers that are not NCBA members, repealed it. Subsequently, since the elimination of COOL, cattle prices have flat lined.Meanwhile, packer margins are at all-time highs, retail beef prices remain near record highs, and imports of cattle and beef are at all-time highs. To add insult to an already injured industry, NCBA offered no complaint to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) rules that now allow a steer to be imported today, processed tomorrow, and then labeled “product of U.S.A.” According to USDA data, since the beginning of the “self-help”mandatory Beef Checkoff in 1986, and the subsequent merger of NCA/NCBA merger in 1996, the U.S. cattle industry has lost over 400,000 beef producers, and over 25 million head of beef cows. While not completely due to NCBA and the Checkoff, the reduced amount of people ranching today is partly due to trusting the “experts”and academia in 1986 and 1996, and giving up the singular voice of the U.S. cattlemen in favor of what would later become the voice of generic international beef.
The first national cattlemen’s convention was held in 1898 and was called the National Stock Growers Convention. The primary issues on the table were packer concentration, and public lands ranching. 120 years later and the issues are still the same. Sure, our day to day operations look very different, and we have taken advantage of a lot of progress in technology, but packer concentration and public lands are still our most compelling issues. We trusted the “experts”in 1986 and 1996 and are right back to the issues that are ancestors faced in 1898. The future is not bleak for U.S. cattle producers despite what I just said; we are progressive and efficient in our practices, not to mention a resourceful gritty bunch who have the generational knowledge and experience to keep going. I would encourage you, before you jump in with what the “experts”say, trust your instincts, lean on your generational knowledge, and realize the “expert”may not be as humble as you are.