Going into this month's National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) annual convention, Terry Stokes knows he has his work cut out for him. As NCBA's CEO, the job of overseeing the nation's largest ag trade convention and indoor trade show may seem like enough to keep a man busy.
While that show must go on, some of the most contentious issues ever to face the cattle industry — specifically, the debate over Canadian cattle and beef imports — are demanding the lion's share of Stokes' attention. In fact, to say the acrimony over Canadian trade has dominated his time during the month leading up to convention is an understatement.
Still, there's more than international trade on NCBA's plate as it heads into San Antonio, and as it comes out of those deliberations and begins meeting the challenges of a new Congress and a revamped administration in Washington D.C. BEEF met up with Stokes to talk about his role and responsibilities — and the direction of NCBA in dealing with the plethora of topics swirling around the cattle industry.
BEEF: We know you're inundated with debate over USDA's Canada trade rules, but let's talk about your overall marching orders — the other important issues facing the cattle industry as we launch into a new Congressional year. Can you give us your shopping list of the most critical issues you'll be addressing over the next year?
Stokes: Our top priority is to normalize our international beef trade and restore the $175/fed animal harvested that our industry has been losing as a result of the trade bans we've suffered since late December 2003.
Beyond that, we're moving forward to implement an industry-driven and industry-governed approach to animal ID that protects our producers from inappropriate use of ID-related information. It needs to be one that gives government appropriate access to information necessary to protect our national cattle herd and minimizes the cost to producers.
The other key to an ID program is to foster value-added opportunities that may come to producers as a result of animal ID. A lot of those opportunities exist today.
Then as a new Farm Bill is written, we're working to ensure there's funding for infrastructure that enhances the opportunities for cattlemen — including maintenance of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) — and that we have adequate funding for important research projects ranging from food safety to environmental issues.
We also need to continue moving forward in addressing key federal lands issues that affect cattlemen who ranch on public lands — including endangered species reform.
Not to be lost in everything else that's going on is tax reform and permanent repeal of the Death Tax.
BEEF: What does the decision of the NCBA political action committee to endorse President Bush mean to your lobbying efforts?
Stokes: The impact to our industry is huge. If you look at the priorities we've outlined and the manner in which they need to be addressed, this administration is aligned, for the most part, with the philosophy, values and beliefs of our cattlemen. This includes limited government involvement in our business, the protection of an individual's choice in the way he or she manages the land, water and other natural resources — and the opportunity to compete fairly in a global marketplace.
The bottom line is it gives us channels of communication that we may not have had access to had we not endorsed the president. It was the right thing to do — especially when you look at the alternative.
BEEF: Has anyone within the administration — including the President — expressed their gratitude for the support the cattlemen exhibited?
Stokes: In late December, NCBA president Jan Lyons and her husband attended a dinner at the White House held to show President Bush's appreciation to his strongest supporters. Jan sat next Mrs. Bush at the dinner.
BEEF: Did the defeat of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD) impact the lobbying efforts of NCBA?
Stokes: If you look at the positions NCBA has had on many issues over the last few years, our primary opposition in the Senate was Daschle. Clearly it is a benefit for us to have John Thune now in that position. Does Thune agree with everything we do? Absolutely not. But, there's clearly more opportunity to get the things we want through Thune than there was through Daschle.
BEEF: How do you convince cattlemen who believe otherwise that NCBA is fighting for their best interests?
Stokes: We're there, we're engaged and we're effective in achieving results based on the values and positions cattlemen have outlined for us while representing them in Washington, D.C.
BEEF: Specifically, how do you convince detractors NCBA isn't in lockstep with big meat packers and retailers?
Stokes: We can clearly illustrate — and we do on a daily basis — the results we've chalked up for our cattlemen. And, our work has not been for the benefit of packers and retailers. Sure, we work with other industry organizations — including the American Meat Institute, National Feed Industry Association, National Restaurant Association and others. We do this because we no longer have a Congress that represents rural America — we have a Congress that represents urban America.
If anyone has questions about what we do and who we represent, read our policy; come to a meeting, look at who debates the issues, who votes at our annual membership meeting, who sits on our board of directors and who sends in the mail-in ballots to establish our positions. It's cattlemen. It's whom we've represented for 108 years. I'm very passionate about whom we represent and whom I report to as an NCBA staff person.
BEEF: What do you want to say about the checkoff?
Stokes: The checkoff has been very instrumental in building beef demand. It's a program that's put dollars back into producers' pockets. Whatever happens in the U.S. Supreme Court, producers across this country are committed to a self-help program to promote their product.
BEEF: What differentiates you from the other industry organizations?
Stokes: The key thing is our officer corps. If you look at who has led this organization since 1997 — we've had six cow-calf producers and two cattle feeders. That's who provides leadership.
We have a geographically diverse representation and a process that elects officers annually. The top three officers today are all cow-calf producers. We are a cattlemen's organization.
A closer look at Terry Stokes
Terry Stokes was named CEO of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association on March 7, 2002. He joined NCBA as chief financial officer in 1996, and was named executive vice president of finance and operations in 1999. NCBA has an annual budget of $65 million and a staff of approximately 130 people in its Denver, Chicago and Washington, D.C., offices.
Prior to his tenure at NCBA, Stokes worked for the Texas Beef Council for 3½ years. During this time, he served as food service programs manager, chief financial officer, and executive vice president. He's a graduate of Angelo State University with a degree in animal agriculture. He has an MBA with emphasis in operations management and managerial accounting from the University of Texas-Austin.
A Texas native, Stokes' career spans all segments of the cattle and beef industry, including cow-calf, feeding and packing. He currently partners with his brother-in-law in a stocker operation in South Texas. He and his wife, Beverley, have two children — Whitney and Ryan.