Next month, George Swan will climb a handful of steps to a podium in Charlotte, NC. There, he'll receive the gavel and authority for his term as 1999 president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA).
Those steps will be few in number but the resting place will be the most challenging of any this 48-year-old Rogerson, ID, rancher has undertaken in his 15 years of volunteerism on behalf of the U.S. beef cattle industry.
* Virtually all segments are unprofitable.
* The mandatory $1 per head checkoff is under assault.
* Consumer demand for beef products continues to lag.
* And the industry is torn with internal bickering over many issues.
It's the right job for this big-framed, strong-jawed, crisp-talking rancher from the high-desert plateaus of Idaho and Nevada. Swan's conviction is that in unity there is strength. His friends and colleagues know him as a committed consensus builder. Swan pledges to make sure the producers know what's going on and that their voice is heard. "My commitment," he says, "is to the producer."
Commitment And Involvement His fondest memories, Swan says, are the daily treks by horseback he made as a youth growing up on the family ranch in Utah. In those days, he cherished the long talks he had with his dad and his four siblings as the young family rode out to move cattle or fix fence. Today, he enjoys doing the same thing with his family on the sprawling ranch that borders two states - Idaho and Nevada.
"They're the greatest experiences of my life, just listening and getting the opportunity to really know and learn from my dad. He was a firm believer that you never ask anyone to do something you wouldn't do yourself," Swan says.
His dad cited Teddy Roosevelt a lot. Swan uses one of those quotes in his speeches today:
"Every man owes a part of his time and money to the industry in which he's engaged. And, no man has the moral right to withhold support from an organization that is trying to improve conditions within its own sphere."
George says the quote epitomizes the calling that his dad, the late Bill Swan, answered. Bill served as president of the National Cattlemen's Association (NCA) in 1981 and was an advisory board member for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) under four different U.S. secretaries of the Interior. He passed away in 1997.
When George Swan assumes his office, he and his father will be only the second father-son team to serve as presidents in the 101-year history of the national cattlemen's organization.
It's a responsibility that Swan sees as both humbling and exhilarating. "It scares me a bit when I think of the great people who have held this job before me," he says. "The magnitude of what they dealt with, their sacrifices. I hope I have what it takes."
Proactive And Prepared Swan prides himself on being proactive and prepared. He's also committed. Those who know him call him a straight-talking, dedicated and objective person who's good at building consensus.
"He's solid, a real people person. There's not a lot of ego there," says Arizona's Don Butler, 1986 NCA president and a long-time friend of both George and his dad.
"I think greatly of George. I've known him since 1985 and his dad since the 1960s," Butler says. "There are a lot of similarities between them. Bill was a strong, tough leader. George is the same. He's quiet. He's not out to make a name for himself. He sees problems and his natural tendency is to solve it by pulling people together. He has a darn good head and he calls a spade a spade."
Others, like Jay Wardell, vice-president for NCBA's Center for Administration, see Swan's personal strengths leading to "bold" initiatives in the coming year.
"He isn't afraid to tackle tough jobs and he has a bulldog mentality and a persistence to see a task through to the end. He'll be a strong leader," Wardell says.
Those traits will be needed during Swan's term as he assumes leadership of an industry beset with internal bickering and tough economic times.
"In this kind of volunteer work, you learn a lot by baptism of fire," Swan says. "But I've had the advantage of the wise counsel of a lot of folks who have gone before me. And I'll have the help of other dedicated volunteers and folks out in the country."
Bound To Idaho Swan has spent virtually all his life in the border area of Idaho, Nevada and Utah. His family's been involved in agriculture for more than 150 years.
At the age of 14 he left home to board during his high school years in Kaysville, UT, a small community between Odgen and Salt Lake City. In 1968, he left the ranch again to attend the University of Utah on a full-ride football scholarship. There, he picked up a degree in business management and met his wife Becky. They were married in 1973.
At the age of 27, the Swans decided to investigate opportunities off the ranch. "Leaving the ranch was the hardest thing I've ever done," Swan says. "But I had to know for myself and Becky whether ranching was the life for us."
He signed on with a Minnesota-based feed company and worked a region that included Minneapolis, MN; Lennox, SD; and McCook, NE.
"I didn't have much experience in the outside world at that point, and it was a real eye opener," Swan says. "I learned a lot in the Midwest and High Plains working with cow/calf producers, feeders and hog operations. It only took me a year, though, to reconfirm what we really already knew - our place was on the ranch."
Today, the Swans have four children - son George Jr., or "Hutch," is 21; daughters Jenny, Ali and Caitie are 19, 15 and 13, respectively. All actively work on the ranch, carrying their share alongside the adults.
"I've raised my kids the same way my folks raised me and I'm thankful every day of my life for this lifestyle. I have complete confidence in my kids. Becky has instilled in them a great work ethic and strong family and religious values."
Today, the House Creek Ranch consists of 1,600-1,700 commercial cows running on 17,000 deeded acres and another 68,000 acres of federal BLM and Forest Service permits.
It's tough country, consisting of semiarid high-plateau desert with elevations that go from 4,000 ft. to 8,500. With precipitation varying from 8 inches annually on one end of the ranch to 20-25 on the other, it presents some diverse challenges in managing cattle, Swan says.
Early YCC Tour Attendee Swan cut his teeth in the national organization when he attended one of the first NCA Young Cattlemen's Conference (YCC) tours in 1985. The tour annually takes young cattle producers on an intensive, six-day, multi-city orientation and briefing of industry issues and organizations.
The trip was a watershed event for Swan. "YCC really opened my eyes. I learned the industry is much bigger than my ranch; that folks of all sectors and states may have dissimilar operations but similar concerns. I learned that there's so much diversity in this business that we really need to pull together for the betterment of all of us."
Over the next 13 years, he assumed increasingly tougher assignments within Idaho and in national cattle organizations. He logged impressive service in the areas of animal health and identification, membership and federal lands.
"It's been a long haul, but I figure that I've got one more good year left in me. I hope that what I've learned over that time I can put to use for the good of the industry and the people at the grassroots level all the way through the other segments of the industry," he says.
He's itching to get started, yet respectful of the immense challenges facing and dividing his industry.
"In the policy area, we'll have a strong agenda to present the 106th U.S. Congress," he says. "Environment is at the top. That includes air and water, land use, the Endangered Species Act, etc.
"We also have a charge and obligation to cattlemen to continue on tax relief. I want us to work to repeal the estate/death tax and reduce capital gains.
"Food safety is another continuing concern. We must have programs that continue to show and tell consumers that our product is safe and wholesome. We have to continue to get the word out about our great record on reducing the incidence of food-borne illness and the great vehicles we are implementing - things like HACCP - to improve on that record," Swan says.
In addition, the industry needs to continue to spur new product development, Swan says, to get those products with ease, convenience and flavor that consumers want.
"We also must continue to educate classrooms and parents about the tremendous nutritional profile of our products," he adds.
The only way these consumer steps can be accomplished is via the beef checkoff, Swan believes. "I can't emphasize the importance of the checkoff enough," he adds.
"Where would we be without product development, without promotion, without adding value? Where would we be without getting our message to the human health segment? It takes a national effort with checkoff dollars to put that message out there. We have to work out our differences, and I'm willing to sit down and talk - anytime anywhere."
Trade issues will also be at the forefront of his administration, Swan says. He'll push for "fast track" authority for the U.S. President on negotiating trade agreements. He'll also work to iron out border concerns regarding Canada and Mexico.
The mood of the cattle industry should be buoyed soon by more favorable market prices, Swan says. But, even beyond that, he wants to focus on improvements by more grassroots involvement.
"My administration will be grassroots directed and we'll be looking to the producers in the country for guidance."
The 1999 agenda, Swan says, will be focused in four areas - commitment to the producer, stabilizing demand for beef products, consolidation of industry organizations for greater efficiency, and a stronger partnership between the grassroots and various industry groups and organizations.