My View From The Country

Tradition Bound Or Tradition Anchored?

It’s often said that tradition is this industry’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

I love the traditional lifestyle that comes with ranching. The independence, the work ethic, the adherence to a code, and the rigid and yet nonjudgmental view of the world are things I identify with. I also marvel at the people in this business – who they are and what they represent are of hero caliber to me. And they are what I aspire to be.

I’ve had the opportunity of attending other professional gatherings, from teachers to doctors, all professions that do an invaluable service, but I’ve never found the passion and love at least in a nearly universal sense as it relates to agriculture. It’s often said that most doctors want to be ranchers, but few ranchers want to be doctors.

We’ve all probably been asked at one point to write our own epitaph. I’d be happy with “husband, father and rancher.”

I love the traditions of our business, from the chant of an auctioneer, to the feel of a good horse under you, to the thrill of the sight of young calves and greening grass in the spring. Tradition makes our industry unique and special, but it also sets it apart. In that regard, tradition is one of our greatest strengths. 

This week, a very progressive producer raised the question to me of why this industry worships tradition to the extent that it deals harshly with those who practice outside-of-the-box thinking. I’m not sure I agree with that statement totally. Without question there is a negative to being tradition-bound, and I suppose one could argue that such a philosophy can make us less responsive to new concepts.

History, however, tells us about the virtues of being somewhat tradition bound as well. Most of the leading business gurus talk about the virtue of making mistakes, of feedback loops and the like. I love the concept and understand the virtue, but mistakes in our business carry with them a very hefty price, whether it be the length of our production cycle, the length of our generation interval, or the fact that many mistakes are carried forward and never able to be fully rectified. Just one year of bad bull selection, for instance, can affect you for 15 years. And that’s a relatively minor mistake.

So we adhere to tradition as it represents the collective wisdom of many generations and it helps us to avoid fateful mistakes. Also, the fact that we’re in a highly competitive commodity business means margins are small. It also means that those who survive in such a rapidly consolidating business are by definition very comfortable with the game’s current rules, thus leaving them resistant to change.

Those who typically drive change are those who need to rewrite the rule book in some way; in our business, those people are typically out of business before they can effect much change. I’d argue that this dynamic makes change slow, but it doesn’t preclude it. In fact, new technologies and new ideas from branded products, to grid marketing, etc., may take longer to enjoy widespread industry acceptance, but if they pass the test of time they are pretty well universally adopted as well.

Perhaps that’s why it’s said that tradition is this industry’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness.

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What's My View From The Country?

As a fulltime rancher, opinion contribur 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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