Incoming NCBA president Lynn Cornwell hopes his 25 years in "grass politics" can help foster unity among U.S. beef producers.
Lynn Cornwell has become a history student. He recognizes that even in the cattle business, history tends to repeat itself.
As he prepares to assume duties Feb. 3 as president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), Cornwell hopes to use what he knows about the past to bend the course of the future.
For example, turn-of-the-century ranchers in the U.S. fought wolf predation, high freight costs and meat packer concentration.
"Even in 1905, there were battles within the industry over imports and exports," says the 48-year-old Glasgow, MT rancher. "And we all know of the range wars in the West that had people shooting at each other over `public' grass and water."
About the same time, the new "stockyards" marketing concept began to take hold as the nation put wheels under the cattle herds. Not everyone was pleased with these changes. Railroads, though, made it easier to consolidate cattle in these new market locations, which also happened to be near the booming population centers.
Nearly 100 years ago, those combined issues - disturbingly similar to today's issues - ripped the cattle industry into contending factions.
"The old die-hard cattlemen's organizations were threatened by upstart groups that, fueled by discontent with the political status quo, sought their own agendas and tried to craft their own solutions," he says. "If you look at what's happening around the country today, you realize some things never change. I guess at some point, though, we have to learn how to keep from repeating the mistakes of the past."
Product Of A Family Operation Cornwell brings to NBCA and the U.S. cattle industry not only this insight but also 25 years of experience in "grass politics," as he likes to call it. Like his father and grandfather, he cut his political teeth on public lands issues in Montana - a natural for a young man from a ranch heavily dependent on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and state lands leases.
Later, Cornwell worked his way through various leadership positions in the Montana Stockgrowers Association. He also became involved with the Public Lands Council and the organization that's now the NCBA.
Cornwell never hesitates to credit his family and their support for his success in beef industry politics. He's proud of his family ranch heritage.
His grandfather started the ranch in 1892 with sheep and cattle. Today, Cornwell's dad Bill is active in the day-to-day management of the ranch. His wife Debby and son Cody help manage the feedyard business that was added to the ranch in 1993. Cornwell's twin brother Lee and younger brother Clay are also partners in Cornwell Ranches.
The Cornwells have another son, Kirk, who works for the Haythorn Ranch in Nebraska, and two daughters - Jamie, a Montana State University-Bozeman student, and Michelle Hoover who lives with her husband Chad in Big Timber, MT.
For those who have an image of NCBA presidents coming from "silver spoon" backgrounds, those who know the Cornwells know it's not necessarily the case.
Things were tough in the '80s for Cornwell and his wife, who along with thousands of other ranchers fought high interest rates, drought and low prices. To keep their heads above water, the couple cleaned highway rest areas at night. And, even with four kids to raise, Debby worked away from the home. They hauled water to cows, shipped cattle out of the country and pulled their way through some very hard times.
Cornwell hesitates to say just how many cows are run on the Cornwell Ranch. He prefers to say there's enough work to support almost 12 families. He promises that as NCBA president his first job is to represent the cow/calf producers of the nation.
"It's what we are all about here, and no one can say I don't always have the interests of the cow/calf operators at heart," he says.
Standing Ground For NCBA Cornwell is no stranger to complaints and controversy. It goes with speaking your mind, he says. "When you get into this kind of position, it seems that no matter what you say, there is someone out there who wants to tear the hide off you," he adds.
Cornwell knows that every time he stands before a group of cattlemen, he'll have to prove himself all over again. His job will be difficult, given the contention between the NCBA and the Livestock Marketing Association's (LMA) attempt to force a referendum on the beef checkoff.
But, Cornwell doesn't shy from standing his ground for NCBA, and he challenges the organization's detractors.
"There are a lot of vested interests in this industry," Cornwell says. "What do they do to put more money in people's pockets? If they haven't changed the way they're doing business in 40 or 50 years, I question whether they're doing anything to add value to the commodities they handle.
"In many cases, these interests are not producers. They're simply providing a service at a cost to those of us who do produce and who do add value," he continues. "Of course, we need these services, but they can't wave their flag too high and say they are the industry."
The beef industry is rapidly approaching the time when those who add value will survive; those who don't will fall by the wayside, he believes. "The `market' will decide who survives, not NCBA," he says.
Chasing The Consumer Dollar The future of the beef industry involves "adding value" to beef products at every step along the way, Cornwell says.
"We have to figure out a way to add value to the beef product at every phase of the production process," he says. "We as producers are just as responsible as anyone for the end product. We can no longer raise an `average' product and expect a premium for it."
He heard the old chant, however: "I ain't going to do it 'til somebody pays me for it."
"Well, we're coming to the day when you either get into a market or you don't - there will be little room in between.
"People need to accept that they can be part of something bigger, not just sellers of a commodity," he continues. "And, NCBA needs to continue providing the services the serious producers want from the organization."
But, Cornwell says the "quality" responsibility goes beyond the production level. It includes packers and retailers.
"Packers need to talk about selling food products and by-products, not just slaughtering animals," he says. "The packers need to figure out how to better source cattle and determine which cattle fit which niche. And as the industry moves away from a cash market, we need to look at ways to better connect what are now sometimes isolated segments of the industry."
True price discovery will involve retailers and packers working with producers for a steady flow of our production to the consumer, Cornwell says. "We're not going to survive if we continue beating each other up by always trying to be the ones buying low and selling high. It depends on trust and better cooperation between the segments, and that will take time and a lot of work."
Stepping Up To The Plate This development of trust and cooperation touches every part of the industry, Cornwell says. Lenders, for instance, need to do a better job of working with producers, by helping to educate them on marketing strategies and by lending with a mind open to the changes in the beef industry - especially with regard to value-based marketing.
He calls on the land grant university system to "modernize" and move from a production to a marketing mindset. And, the seedstock sector needs to become more involved.
Too much time has been wasted, he believes, in turf battles. With 85-plus cattle breeds in the U.S., the industry needs to study the commonality among breeds and how they can deliver genetic predictability and end-product consistency, he says.
Regardless of the problem - from public lands and private property rights to environmental regulations and international trade - Cornwell challenges producers to get involved at the local level.
"It all starts with the state organization. We all need to be involved in our industry and our fight for survival," he says.
Using Our Resources Cornwell promises to follow the policy wishes of the membership of NCBA. "Those who belong can bring anything they want to the table," he says. "All others should get on the train before it leaves the station and become a part of the solutions."
The independence of cattlemen across America has always been considered among the industry's greatest strengths, but it can also be the industry's worst enemy, he points out.
"With nearly a million cattle producers scattered across the country, there's no way everyone is going to think alike. But we can develop some common goals and still seek individual opportunities," he says.
Cornwell believes NCBA is up to the task of pulling the industry together - certainly better than any other time in the past century - especially for the foundation of the industry, the cow/calf producer.
Today 56% of the NCBA policy division board - the division that determines the policies of the organization - is made up of cow/calf operators. Cattle feeders comprise about 28% of the board. Packers and processors represent 1% of the board.
"NCBA represents a huge industry - with tremendous geographical and institutional diversity," Cornwell adds. "When you take on the job of representing that kind of an industry, especially when it's in an unprecedented state of change, you know you have your work cut out for you."
But, Cornwell is more excited than ever about the cattle industry.
"Today, we have more resources - in terms of human potential and natural resources - than ever in history," he says. "It's time to put them together and make the changes necessary to ensure a dynamic and profitable beef industry for the next 100 years."