My View From The Country

Are You Running In A Pack Or A Flock?

The rugged individualism fostered by a life in production agriculture explains a lot of the industry’s failure at productive internal dialogue.

People in agriculture always have tended to be rugged individualists with an attitude of self-reliance. That’s likely borne out of necessity; after all, in agriculture, you tend to be isolated. Outside of family members or an occasional neighbor or hired hand, if something is going to get done, generally you have to do it yourself.

Of course, the world of smartphones has made it a lot easier to communicate today. But when it comes to performing the daily routines of production agriculture, we tend to fend for ourselves. I think this rugged individualism explains a lot of the industry’s failure at productive internal dialogue.

Somewhere along the line, we grew intolerant of anyone with a difference of opinion. I recently picked up an article about six retiring U.S. senators this week who, in their closing speeches, took to the floor to decry the lack of bipartisanship and compromise in government. My first impulse was to agree, but these same politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) who were lamenting the lack of bipartisanship had voting records that indicated they were as partisan as any other of their colleagues.

Of course, bipartisanship and compromise often mean that the other side is expected to give in. We see the same sentiments at work in our industry. On one hand, there are folks who believe that: “If you don’t agree with me, I’ll just quit and start my own group.” On the other, there are folks who condemn those who disagree with them as communists, atheists, or tools of the packer conspiracy.

Being a lone wolf isn't viable

Given the difficulties our industry faces, and what it will take to overcome them, being a lone wolf isn’t a viable option in today’s world; we compete in a global marketplace. Still, we’re proud of our heritage of being fierce individualists – absolute in our positions and unwilling to compromise.

As a result, we tend to segregate ourselves based on our world views. These rugged individuals tend to find themselves surrounded by people with similar beliefs and views, with the goal of the group being largely to validate the dominant thinking, whether it is based on fact or fiction. 

As the saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together.” Of course, we all know that people joining together is the best way to address an issue. The difference is whether that group is a flock or a pack.

For instance, I’ve tried herding ducks individually; it’s nearly impossible. But if you can get them together and just kind of push them in the direction you want them to go, they more or less will go with the flow of the group. Yes, they will scatter and go back and forth, but they are calmed by the comfort of the flock.

That’s not unlike humans, who find comfort in associating with those with whom they share beliefs, validate their existence, and are reasonably sure that they will do nothing to challenge the world as they see it. It doesn’t matter whether times are tough, or times are good, the flock believes its best chances lie in remaining in the flock.

Today’s Internet and “new media” make it far easier to join a flock than in the days before these media existed. It just wasn’t as easy to organize and communicate in those days. Today, you can listen to, read and interact with any narrow slice of people who share your beliefs. The leaders of a flock can even make up facts and propagate totally unfounded claims because there is no one to challenge them. Sure, they are challenged by outside forces, but the flock tends to view anyone outside the flock as suspicious.

The flock vs. the pack

Flocking, if I can call it that, is what leads to the fall of most businesses, industries and even countries. It’s the element that allowed the rise of totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany, various religious cults, and even much of the populism that has befallen our country from time to time regardless of sound economic principles and facts. The one thing that flocking does is provide flock members with comfort; they don’t know where they’re heading, and they’re not positively influencing their environment, but the pressure of having to think for themselves is largely removed. Joining a flock is usually a bad thing, because it encourages its members to just accept whatever the group speak is.

People will come together, it is a necessity, but they do not have to become a member of flock; instead, they can join a pack. Members of a pack don’t lose their individuality or ability to think on their own; in fact, it’s encouraged, and initiative and individual thought and actions are still rewarded.

Packs exist because the members share common goals, and everyone can benefit by working together rather than by themselves. A single wolf might be able to bring down a 1,500-lb. elk, but not without monumental effort fraught with danger. However, a pack can hunt and survive much more easily. Working together as a unit, the pack remains aware of its surroundings (the outside environment), and all the different worldviews opinions and facts. They know they can prosper by understanding the conditions and environment as they truly are, and react accordingly.

They work together to achieve common goals, but they succeed by understanding the circumstances better than anyone, and by retaining their individualism, initiative and ability to be open-minded and think outside of any group mentality. Any rancher can tell you a lone wolf can be a problem, but a pack is a force that must be reckoned with.  

Society will always produce the occasional lone wolf, or solitary eagle. But, in general, we are served by working together. The question is whether you decide to join a flock or a pack; after all, picking one over the other will determine to a large extent whether you are the hunter or the hunted. Both provide security, but it’s a false security for members of a flock.

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

Rex (not verified)
on Dec 14, 2012

I am totally dependent on everyother cattleman in the country for demand for my beef. If someone has a tough steak, they might not be in the mood when my cattle hit the market. We are all still paying for one downer cow at Hallmark Packing in California a decade ago.
Please take Beef Quality Assurance training. So far, 90% of us still haven't. It's a lot more than shots in the neck and check the withdrawl time on the antibiotic.

Rosemary (not verified)
on Dec 15, 2012

I agree. BQA gives our industry the credibility it deserves for the proper and humane handling of cattle. The sooner every rancher cops on and functions as a postive member of the pack/herd, the quicker we can regain that consumer demand. Tell Nancy to check her email :)

W.E. (not verified)
on Dec 14, 2012

Our cattle belong to herds. Most Americans--especially cattlemen--initially tended to be herd animals too. A herd is different from both a flock and a pack, as it generally offers the opportunity for both co-operation / mutual protection, and initiative / individualism. If you watch a herd of cows and calves, for example, it is common to find an older cow that serves as a baby-sitter or caretaker with a big group of calves clustered nearby, while the other mama cows are out foraging or looking for fresh grass. Herds may sometimes follow bad leaders, but more often, the members look out for themselves first rather than flocking after some fool who is willing to jump over a cliff. People are better off banding together in a herd or than joining either a flock (followers who tend to be passive) or a pack (whose members tend to be mutual aggressors). Packs can do a lot of unforeseen damage. Packs were the order of the day during the Gold Rush of 1849, and the land rush of homesteaders around 1900, for example. After the onslaught of television, people began to join flocks. Unfortunately, for a few decades now, more and more cattlemen have tended to leave the herd to join the flock most influenced by advertising, promotion and propaganda.

Gene Schriefer (not verified)
on Dec 15, 2012

Excellent allegory Troy, in using the predator/prey relationship. Packs cannot exist without flocks, or they'd starve for lack of prey.

It appears the appropriate ratio of predator to prey is about 1% to 99%.

Charlie Kraus (not verified)
on Dec 18, 2012

In 1776 Adam Smith published "The Wealth of Nations". He mentioned ag producers. He noted that unlike industrial workers, farm workers perform tasks that are numerous and seasonal, creating people with a broad array of skills and knowledge. He further noted that unlike industrial workers, the materials, tools, and working conditions of farm workers are so varied and unpredictable that farm workers must become skilled in sound and independent judgement.

It should be recognized that, short of complete industrialization, agriculture will always produce knowledgeable, capable, independent, free thinkers that will always prove a thorn in the side of those who would have agriculturists think and act collectively.

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contributor Troy Marshall brings a unique perspective on how consumer and political trends affect livestock production.

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Troy Marshall

Troy Marshall is a multi-generational rancher who grew up in Wheatland, WY, and obtained an Equine Science/Animal Science degree from Colorado State University where he competed on both the livestock...

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