Modern livestock production is a highly competitive, low-margin business. These are conditions that lead to concentration and consolidation, and force successful producers to be fierce early adopters of new technologies. Successful producers in this paradigm tend to get bigger. Generally, increasing size or scale leads to more efficiency, more cattle per employee and other economies of scale.
The Internet has been a big factor in reshaping how we do business in agriculture, with more and more of our inputs being purchased over more open and transparent markets. The problem is that such changes, which serve to remove us from dealing with each other directly, also have gradually eroded our sense of community.
Sure, neighbors are still critical components of rural America. But barn raisings and brandings aren’t as common as they once were. The tug of war between the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and R-CALF was also a game changer. Producers no longer debate and vote; if you don’t get your way, you bolt the system, form your own club and then set to demonize those who don’t agree with you.
The result is personal attacks on both the messengers and the message you don’t agree with. Few would have thought it possible, but the cattle industry is in some ways even more partisan than Washington, D.C.
Certainly, there have always been demagogs in both groups, but despite the vitriol, Democrats and Republicans have remained in the same system and even occasionally work together to get something done.
This industry finds itself in a very dangerous situation, one where anyone holding a disparate position is treated as an enemy. Even worse, in my opinion, is that many issues aren’t even honestly debated, as the facts can’t even be agreed upon and people refuse to even hear the other side’s views. Instead, they reject them out of hand based on the affiliation of that individual. The result has been more polarization, more politics and less compromise.
I’ve always been amazed at how a liberal icon like James Carville and a conservative counterpart like Mary Matalin could stay married having such opposing world views, but they manage it obviously through mutual respect. One of the things that makes our industry so special is the “code” or values and beliefs that are embodied in it. Perhaps we sometimes forget that for 99.99% of the people the code still exists, it just is a little harder to find.
Instead of waving at that neighbor this week as you hurry down your dirt road, pull into the drive and talk for a few moments. The great irony of all our technology, from our cattle equipment to the Internet, is that it actually allows us to be less connected to our friends and neighbors instead of more.