When John Queen was a high school freshman in Waynesville, NC, what he lacked in punishing mass as a 5½-ft., 140-lb. running back he made up for in enthusiasm for the team experience. A backup player, Queen's big chance to realize his Friday night dreams of slicing through the defense toward pay-dirt glory came when the starting running back was injured, vaulting Queen into a likely playing spot that weekend.
Anticipating that weekend's game, Queen recalls it was a heady week of practice, particularly on Wednesday when his dad showed up unexpectedly.
“He stood there for five minutes, and I could see him motioning me to come over. I went over, expecting some good advice. Instead, he told me a frost was coming that night and I needed to change clothes and get home to help him pick green, row-crop tomatoes,” Queen says. “Well, one thing I never did was tell my daddy, ‘no.’ So I went home and never got to play in that football game, but it instilled a work ethic in me I've never forgotten, and I do love to work to this day.”
Queen describes the event as one of those painful learning experiences that gain perspective with time. The story illustrates both the importance that team pursuits have always held for him and full dedication to the job at hand.
It isn't that he's a reluctant leader, but Queen, who assumes his duties next month as president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA), says riding at the head of one of America's most powerful ag commodity groups was never his quest. This cattleman from the mountains of western North Carolina, however, says he found himself — after a lifelong history of volunteerism — with the opportunity to advocate for smaller operators like himself.
“I'm just a small producer from a community of small producers, and I want them to know they're as important as any other operator,” Queen says.
Experience in all segments
A third-generation producer who grew up 30 miles west of Asheville and 24 miles east of the Tennessee line, Queen has been involved as a cow-calf producer, auction-barn owner, feeder and grazer. Today, he's an order buyer, backgrounder and owner of Southeast Livestock Exchange, a video-telemarketing company in the Southeast.
“I've loved this industry from childhood. I got my influence from trailing my dad and granddad, both of whom loved cattle and the land. They instilled in me the values of hard work, honesty and love of the land and cattle,” Queen says.
When Queen takes the gavel, he'll be just the third president hailing from the Southeast in the organization's 108-year history. In person, he exudes all the charm traditionally associated with his Southern roots. A warm and calming personality, he has a soft-spoken manner that's measured and precise. One on one, he provides fulsome and honest answers, occasionally accompanied by a polite request that the asides be kept off the public record, lest someone be embarrassed.
“John's a straight shooter. Whatever he tells you is what it really is,” says Glenn Rogers, DVM, of Ft. Worth, TX, who first met Queen almost 15 years ago while a beef cattle clinician at North Carolina State University. “He's a very astute cattleman and manager, who runs probably the best-managed backgrounding operation I've ever worked with, not only in North Carolina but anywhere.”
Richard Winter, general manager of the feedlot division for Friona Industries, Amarillo, TX, has worked with Queen since the early 1990s. He says he's always been impressed with Queen's working style and trustworthiness.
“I've bought cattle from him; preconditioned cattle with him; and received cattle for customers that have been bought, handled and preconditioned by him. His cattle are exactly as described every time, which is refreshing in our business,” Winter says.
He cites Queen's very strong basic knowledge of animal husbandry and the cattle business, along with his willingness to learn and consider alternatives, as strengths that will serve him well in his new duties as NCBA leader.
“As a leader, I think he understands and appreciates the diversity within NCBA and the difference in needs of the various segments. He'll be able to represent the whole cross-section of NCBA membership because of his knowledge and exposure to the business,” Winter says.
Queen assumes his role as the U.S. beef industry's point person at a politically watershed time. With Democrats having won control of both houses of Congress in the November elections, Queen's administration will be working with a legislative leadership expected to have a decidedly less business-oriented agenda than in at least the last decade.
For one thing, incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) represents a Congressional district without a single acre in ag commodity production, Queen says. It's just one indicator that the 110th Congress is likely to turn more to social concerns, such as increasing the minimum wage, and away from such industry-favored, hot-button issues as repeal of the Death Tax and permanent tax cuts.
What's more, the new leadership of the House and Senate ag committees have histories indicative of more populist leanings. For instance, Tom Harkin (D-IA), who will head the Senate Ag Committee, has been a champion of controls on packer feeding and forward contracting of cattle.
Meanwhile, his counterpart on the House Ag Committee, Collin Peterson (D-MN), has voiced his support for mandatory country-of-origin labeling, and has been a vocal critic of USDA's handling of high-profile programs such as the National Animal Identification System.
While Queen acknowledges the philosophical turn in Washington, he isn't sobered by it. “I'm a North Carolina Democrat myself,” he says. “We've had Democratic administrations and legislatures before, and this industry accomplished a lot. NCBA has always had friends on both sides of the aisle.”
What will be more important, he says, is that the industry speaks with a multitude of voices lending their timbre to a unified message.
“I'll be the first to tell you I don't agree with every policy on the NCBA books, probably no member does, but it got there the right way, the democratic way — by a majority vote of our members. That's the same way we elect our congressmen and run our country.
“And we need voices. If I take 50 buddies with 10 cows to see my Congressman, it means a lot more to that Congressman than one guy with 500 cows. Legislators listen to numbers, not cattle. Cows don't vote. It's one man, one vote. That's how democracy works and that's how the NCBA works,” he says.
Of particular concern in the coming year, Queen says, is the writing of the new farm bill.
“Incoming House Ag Committee Chairman Peterson has said he doesn't want to extend the 2002 farm bill; he wants to write the 2007 farm bill. We need everyone's help to accomplish the things we need for this industry in that 2007 farm bill. We need producer input,” he says.
“Given our national deficit, it will be a struggle for all of ag, and it appears to me this the perfect time for all of production agriculture to hold hands. We all have to give up a bit so we can all gain something,” Queen says.
Queen says in his role as NCBA president, he'll push for a task force to look into forming a coalition of production ag groups “to help us accomplish what we need in the next few years.
“We want to ensure the ag community as a whole doesn't have to take an unequal part in the coming deficit-reduction effort,” Queen says. “We want to see as little government intervention in our industry as possible. We want every individual to have the right to manage his land, water and resources as he sees fit. And we certainly want the ability or right to compete in the international marketplace.”
Culture of “oneness”
He sees NCBA's strength as its “culture of oneness,” where the grassroots drives and determines all association policy.
“All NCBA policy starts local and ends local. One man, one vote. Every member is equal in our organization. NCBA represents 108 years of producers coming together to build a better future for our children and protect our industry,” he says.
He says the association's overriding mission is to increase profit opportunities for every cattleman and beef producer in the U.S. by enhancing the business climate and increasing consumer demand.
“Our governance is member-driven, cattleman-controlled. We have about 27,000 NCBA members today; 93% of those are cow-calf operators, stockers and feeders. We have 64 state affiliate, breed and industry organization members who represent 230,000 other producers. Our board makeup is 61% cow-calf operators, 30% stockers and feeders, 7% are allied industry, 1½% dairy and veal, 1½% packer, and one sale barn operator.”
Queen says NCBA is driven by five goals:
Limited government. “We feel the least government involvement in our farming and ranching operations, the better off we are,” he says.
Freedom to choose your own business model. “That means every producer should have the right to choose how he sells his cattle, who he sells them to and when he sells them.”
Free, fair and reliable trade. “I'm talking about trade without high tariffs, where all trading countries abide by the same rules. And reliable trade means trading partners rely on honest and fair negotiation in resolving disputes.”
Consumer focus. “I know all of us are very independent and most of us feel that we are our own employer, that we have no one who tells us what to do. But the customer is our focus. They write our checks and we should never forget that.”
The individual's right to manage his land, water and resources.
A resonating message
It's a message that's resonating in the country, Queen says, as NCBA has seen an 8% increase in membership in the past year, and a 12% increase in membership dues. Of NCBA's 45 affiliates, 35 have increased membership in 2006. The eight states that comprise NCBA's Region 2, which is the Southeast, recorded a 75% increase in membership this year.
“NCBA is the only cattlemen's organization that represents every cattle producer in this country on each and every issue affecting their bottom line,” Queen says.
He says the past five years have seen the highest prices in the history of the U.S. beef industry, and the highest level of industry profitability.
“Were we lucky? No. We did this by increasing consumer demand by 25%. It was done by your checkoff dollars,” Queen says. But, he adds, the purchasing power of that $1/head has shrunk since the program's inception 20 years ago, and it's time to talk about checkoff enhancement.
“The Australians recently increased their checkoff from $2 to $5/head. The Canadians set aside somewhere between $80 and $100 million for the promotion of international trade,” Queen says. “We're operating on a 1985 budget in America today when it comes to advertising and promoting our product.”
It's imperative, he says, for the industry to join together to accomplish what needs to be done for the industry's future.
“The only true way to predict our future is to create it,” Queen says. “We can't live in the past forever. We've got to change as times change.”
“Has every candidate you ever voted for won a presidential race? What did you do when your candidate lost? Did you leave this country for four years? You stayed here and joined hands with the team that won to try to accomplish your common goals. It's the same with NCBA, and I welcome every producer to be a part of that process,” he says.
What he promises, he says, is a full and fair airing of all concerns, regardless of the size of the operation; and majority rule.
“I just want everyone to understand I'm one of them. I'm just an old dirt-kicking cowboy from western North Carolina who just loves this industry and hopes the day I die I'm moving cows or doing something with my cattle. I'm here to help each and every producer,” Queen says.