Mike John has come up through the ranks, and he's now on the brink of holding the most influential spot on the U.S. cattle industry stage. Early next month, the Huntsville, MO, cowman becomes president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) during the 2006 Cattle Industry Annual Convention and Trade Show in Denver, CO.
It's John's chance to steward the U.S. cattle along a path blazed by others — hopefully making a few marks of his own along the way. He knows he doesn't have to go it alone, and has faith in the people traveling with him.
“The members are NCBA's lifeblood,” John says, adding that grassroots NCBA members drive policy — and he's very passionate about including every NCBA member in the policy-making and education process of the nation's cattle and beef business.
“We have an incredibly high level of integrity in the way we make our decisions,” he explains. “We're all about addressing the beef industry's issues — and protecting the industry from government intrusion or other interference that might make us less profitable or run us off the land.”
His vision is based on members' ability to adapt to change and continually work on making the cattle industry profitable for everyone involved.
“You need freedom to do so — freedom to employ your resources, freedom to choose how you market your production,” he adds. “And, you need somebody to protect you from people who want to challenge your freedom.”
His vision is also for an industry that speaks with one voice — that takes the small number of producers inhabiting the industry and maximizes their ability to effect proactive policies and regulations.
“I wouldn't have put myself in this position if I didn't believe there's a great future in this industry,” John adds. “Yet, it won't happen if we don't stay engaged and participate every step of the way.”
John knows he faces a plethora of contentious attitudes and misunderstandings as he approaches his year at the helm of NCBA. And, he's quick to stand up to those who come to him with pointed questions and preconceived ideas about the organization, its policies, processes and initiatives.
Contention: NCBA is run by meat packers working in concert with large and “non-independent” cattle feeders.
John: That contention is not based on fact. Under the governance structure of NCBA, approximately 60% of the board members are independent cow-calf producers, while 35% are feeders, backgrounders and stockers. The remaining 5% are split among processors, purveyors, retailers and importers. And, those 5% aren't there because they want to drive NCBA policy; in fact, they can't. They're involved because they have a vested interest in the success and growth of the cattle and beef industry as a whole.
Contention: NCBA policy always supports initiatives and programs that enhance big business, here and abroad, at the expense of small- and medium-sized U.S. cattle producers.
John: Nothing could be further from the truth. The discussions on subjects like captive supplies, country-of-origin labeling (COOL), grid marketing or alliances are never about the small guy vs. big business. If you believe those initiatives are packer-driven, then you've probably never participated in the policy process developed by producers who want to expand their own choices and opportunities in this industry.
NCBA members continually seek to enhance the free-enterprise system. That means limiting government intrusion in our businesses and giving producers a choice to participate in a system providing them the most return on their investment. It's always been that way, and will continue to be the emphasis of NCBA's policy process.
For example, if COOL can benefit people who want to develop it and profit from it, then it's the right way to go. There's nothing wrong with the concept; it's just that the COOL law passed in the last farm bill was a hideous instrument. It added costs that weren't shared equally with all competitive proteins, and couldn't realistically promise any return to producers.
It's a shame it became a political tool that weakened the unity needed in other areas such as environmental regulations and the endangered species problems all producers face.
Contention: NCBA is pushing for the globalization of the beef industry and supports trade policy that perpetuates the beef and cattle imports that are putting U.S. cattlemen out of business every day.
John: I'm convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that the new frontier in the beef industry lies outside the borders of this country. When you look at what can be gained by exporting products that don't have a lot of value in this country, including offal products and variety meats, it makes absolutely no sense to limit our opportunities.
We also have some very high-quality, and therefore high-value, beef products that consumers around the world desperately want. We don't live in a vacuum — and we're facing intense competition from other proteins and other beef-exporting countries. We produce the best beef in the world and deserve the chance to compete fairly in the world marketplace.
But, it's a fact of life we're going to have to import in order to export. Obstructing the negotiation process is not the way to assure fair access, but participating constructively in the process has proven beneficial many times. The beauty of our system, though, is that we can export higher-value products and import low-value products. If we weren't able to trade, I think we'd see a wider price spread between higher-quality and lower-value cuts, and overall it would drop the net value of beef in the country.
Contention: NCBA is just arrogantly trying to own and profit from animal ID.
John: NCBA has acted with integrity on the animal ID issue. We have approached this issue in exactly the same way we approach any issue that could have an effect on the beef industry.
Our membership debated and then created policy directing a new commission to look into providing a solution for disease tracebility that met the conditions of our policy on animal ID.
These conditions include confidentiality for producers and the ability for state animal health authorities to access the data under the exact same terms outlined in the U.S. Animal Identification Plan.
We are confident that the vendor selected through an extensive process is the best choice, and already many of the programs that currently collect the appropriate individual animal data are either participating in the beta test or have asked to do so. Once the entities that have a genuine interest in promoting a successful private database are identified, they will form the consortium that will own and manage the data repository — not NCBA.
Not only are we not going to make any money from this effort, we have no mechanism to regain any of our expenditures accumulated to date — which have been extensive.
Contention: The beef checkoff costs cattle producers a lot of money — some of whom don't agree with the messages and policies — and no one should be ordered to pay into it.
John: The Act and Order helps every single beef producer in the U.S — and everybody who plays, pays. The goal was to increase beef demand — a function of price and consumption — 6% by 2005. Since 1997, beef demand has increased 28%. It's an incredible success story from an industry working every day to promote, protect and serve itself.
The primary benefit to U.S. producers is that consumers everywhere are exposed to messages informing them beef is safe, wholesome, nutritious, and can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.
Case in point is that through all the BSE controversy, U.S. consumers never lost faith in beef. In fact, one of the largest spikes in demand came during the first quarter of 2004, immediately following the BSE case in Washington. That means consumers never lost faith in what ranchers are doing out in the country, nor in the beef products in the meat case or on the dining table.
Let me add that the retailers and food service industries invest very heavily in our industry through their own promotion, product and consumer research and food safety activities. There's no question their financial participation throughout the production chain, on their own, is adding value to beef and enhancing demand.
Contention: NCBA is an elitist organization of the rich and well-to-do. It's not a place where average cowmen can comfortably participate, politically or socially.
John: Anyone who thinks along those lines hasn't been to a national convention or a meeting of their local or state affiliates. I know there are people from very small operations who sit next to someone who may control tens-of-thousands of head of cattle. Those two peoples' voices carry the same weight in NCBA policy discussions. The only way to limit the participation of smaller producers is for them not to show up and rub shoulders — politically or socially — and find out how much they really do have in common with others throughout the industry.
Virtually every piece of NCBA policy starts from discussions and resolutions developed at the local level. The ideas generated locally usually flow through state affiliates. Then, producers with experience and expertise in those specific areas carry the resolutions to NCBA. They get input and help from staff with expertise in a broad range of subject matters.
There's plenty of opportunity for debate on the issue. In addition, every effort is made before the meeting to gather the pertinent information to assure informed debate.
I'll be the first to admit that while some ideas make it, a lot don't. You can't assume that just because you pay dues and participate in the process you're going to win, but you can be assured your participation will be valued equally. We're a democratic, grass-roots organization that takes our policies very seriously and pursues them aggressively once they're in the books.
Michael E. John is manager of John Ranch, Inc., a commercial cow-calf growing and retained ownership operation supporting a family. Since 2000, he's also been director of MFA Health Track Beef Alliance based in Columbia, MO, a feeder cattle source and process verification program.
John, 47, is a 1980 graduate of Kansas State University in animal science.
He's president-elect of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and has served as chairman of the Membership and Association Services Committee and group chair of Industry and Producer Services. He has represented NCBA on the Meat Export Federation.
He's past-president of the Missouri Beef Industry Council, and still serves on the board of directors. He was also president of the Missouri Cattlemen's Association, and a board member and scholarship chair of the Missouri Cattlemen's Foundation.
He currently lives in Huntsville, MO, with wife Dara and children Hayley, Hunter and Paden.