A really outstanding group of high school students stopped by the ranch on a nationwide tour last week. I was asked the question of whether I considered this a good time or bad time to get started in the beef industry.
Without much thought, I recited that 96% of the world’s population lives outside our borders, how capitalism and the middle class is growing at nearly an exponential rate, how supplies are tight, demand relatively strong, and how we’ve improved the marketing, quality and consistency of our product. I also mentioned I have faith in America, and that times will be very good for American agriculture when the overall economy turns around.
That’s when one of the kids asked about the potential downside.
My response even scared me a bit. It’s all dependent on the economy; we’re writing checks we can’t begin to cover. And, while we’ve benefitted from a growing middle class around the world, the U.S. seems to be moving away from the capitalism and free trade that created that growth.
Animal rights, animal welfare, the environment and food safety are still major concerns, and these movements are both well funded and growing. Some new USDA appointees are ignorant of the fact that apples grow on trees and corn has to be planted. Meanwhile, a growing percentage of Americans seem willing to accept a lower standard of living in an effort to save the planet from a perceived environmental demise. Science has largely been replaced by emotion and political correctness, and anyone who dares to raise questions is labeled as ignorant, greedy or simply amoral.
I still believe the glass is half full rather than half empty, but the inescapable point for this young group of potential beef entrepreneurs is that they’d better focus as much on the macroeconomic trends as the micro industry trends. They also better be far more active than their parents in the goings on in Washington D.C. and the formation of policies that affect their business environment. In addition, while membership in their national and state cattlemen’s groups used to simply be a prudent thing to do, that will no longer suffice if they plan to take this industry forward for their lifetime.
Despite the dilution of R-CALF, this industry still needs a strong cohesive voice led by an engaged and active grassroots membership. Dollars will play an ever-increasing role in the battle for public opinion and politicians’ ears; that means the industry must be committed to boosting the dollars it has historically spent on marketing and policy issues. The old model simply isn’t sufficient under the withering fire of our adversaries.
Until we as producers understand and embrace the significance of the battles being waged in D.C. and our state capitals, we will continue to see an erosion of our competitive position. We aren’t talking about a falling sky approach but a realistic and renewed understanding of the importance of public policy to our bottom line and the role we must play in this area.
We have some tremendous representatives working within our organizations on behalf of the U.S. beef industry, but our lack of financial and personal commitment is failing them. A little panic and urgency by cattlemen isn’t only justified but needed.
We all need to remember that while we get up every day with the goal of feeding God’s children, taking care of Mother Nature, and improving our competitiveness relative to other protein sources, others rise from bed with the singular goal of putting us out of business. To ignore this threat as just some ill-conceived attempt by a radical fringe isn’t only detrimental to the bottom line but the sustainability of this industry for the next generation.
OK, I’m stepping down off my soap box now, but I’m doing so to write a check for my dues to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and to clear my calendar for the Colorado Livestock Association convention. Instead of hesitating the next time a committee chairman calls and asks something of me, I’m getting mentally prepared to not only step up, but to jump up. That’s because this industry is worth protecting, and I want to give my kids the opportunity to be part of it if they so choose.