Kevin Kester is sitting around a lot more than he’s used to. But don’t misunderstand — he’s not kicked back in whatever chair he’s planted in. Not at all.
Whether it be the chair in his office at the ranch in California; his chairs at the NCBA offices in Denver and Washington, D.C., presiding over a meeting; in the hot seat giving testimony before one of many House and Senate committees; talking about cattle industry concerns with one of the many government agencies that have regulatory influence over cattle producers; or in an airplane traveling somewhere around the world, Kester is always leaning forward.
That’s the only direction he knows — leaning forward, moving ahead.
Meet Kevin Kester, the incoming 2018 president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
Kester is the fifth generation to ranch on California’s Central Coast. “Our ranch is located near a small community called Parkfield, population 18,” he says. “I’m not sure where all 18 people are at, but that’s what the sign says.”
Bear Valley Ranch is about 50 miles inland from the coast and is primarily a cow-calf outfit. Kester buys stockers as the market and forage allow, and the operation also has several winegrape vineyards. That allows the family to diversify the operation and take advantage of the unique climate, which is ideal for grape growing as well as cattle production. The vineyards are a separate operation; there’s no direct connection between the grapes and the cattle, other than Kester’s firmly held conviction that there’s nothing better than a good glass of cabernet and a great steak for dinner.
The ranch is in a remote part of California, which is not what most envision when they think of the California coast. “That’s a perception I hear all the time,” he says. “California is about, rounded off, 100 million acres. Out of that 100 million acres, close to 35 million are still grazing ground.” Take away the major population centers of the Los Angeles basin and the Bay Area of San Francisco and Oakland, “the people in the rest of the state, for the most part, aren’t much different from the people in the Midwest.”
Kester will find that cross-country connection valuable as he undertakes the head elected position of NCBA at a very fruitful time for advancing the beef industry’s agenda.
And that agenda is indeed lengthy. As this is being written, the House and Senate both passed tax reform bills. Then, a conference committee will hammer out a final tax reform package.
It’s possible a final tax reform bill could be done by the end of the year, Kester says, but he’s doubtful. It’s possible, though, that tax reform will be a done deal by the time he takes office in early February at the Cattle Industry Convention in Phoenix. If tax reform is still hanging fire, Kester says that will be his top priority.
While there are many provisions of tax reform that concern NCBA, the estate or death tax is top of the list. That’s something Kester knows all too much about.
“Unfortunately, I’ve had lengthy experience with the death tax. When my grandfather passed away in the early 1990s, it created a taxable event,” he says. “For more than 10 years, my family fought really hard and struggled. We had to find ways to pay off about a $2 million bill to the federal government for estate taxes. We did accomplish that over a 10-year period, and worked really hard at doing that.”
When a family business has to do that, however, it affects more than just the business: not being able to hire enough employees or reinvest in the business, he says. It puts a stress on families and pulls resources away from small communities.
“Our local communities don’t get the economic benefit of a family business spending money in the community. But also, on a personal level, it really affects the family — the sacrifices our children made, my wife and myself. All those things really add up.”
Other issues that loom large for NCBA are the ongoing debate over the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) regulations, as well as trade and the upcoming debate on the 2018 Farm Bill, among many others.
Regarding WOTUS, Kester says NCBA is working very well with President Donald Trump’s administration and the U.S. EPA. “So I’m very optimistic that we can come up with a definition that gets implemented that will not harm ranchers and farmers across this nation.”
Then there’s trade. “I hope the NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] negotiations are still in place [when he takes office], and I think they will be. That will be a top priority, to make sure agriculture, and specifically the beef industry, is not harmed by anything the administration might do regarding NAFTA. Currently we have zero tariffs and zero barriers to Canada and Mexico, two of our largest beef trading partners — so we want to make sure we don’t get harmed in that endeavor.”
Another front-burner issue for Kester and NCBA is encouraging the Trump administration to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Japan. “Japan is our No. 1 destination for U.S. beef,” he says, with close to $1.7 billion in value as 2017 closes the books. But Australia is building cattle numbers and enjoys a significant tariff advantage over the U.S. In fact, in 2018, the Aussies will have a 14% to 15% tariff advantage over U.S. beef. “So that’s a priority for me as well as everybody on the NCBA staff in Washington.”
Looking ahead at the farm bill debate, he says NCBA will have several priorities — encouraging the U.S. to develop a vaccine bank for foot-and-mouth disease, and working for a strong research title and a strong conservation title. “The cattle industry is woefully behind, in my opinion and that of a lot of others, on research dollars to keep us in modern times, and up to date on research going forward to keep us healthy and sustainable for the future.”
Regardless of which chair he’s sitting in, there are several things that keep Kester on the edge of his seat. In his early years, it was the responsibility of being the fifth generation to run an operation first founded in 1867. When he shouldered that responsibility some 30 years ago, his main motivation was simply not to mess it up. “I take pride in representing a multigenerational ranching family, and I don’t want to be the generation that blows it,” he says.
It’s safe to say, as he shoulders the profound responsibility of representing the nation’s beef business, that those factors will motivate him as NCBA president as well.
When Kester graduated from Cal Poly (University) in San Luis Obispo with a degree in ag management, his grandparents weren’t ready for him to come back to the ranch. So he embarked on a journey that gave him a varied and strong foundation when he did return to the operation.
He worked as a police officer and deputy sheriff for several years. During his time in law enforcement, he attained a degree in real estate management and became a real estate broker. “Those real estate transactions and training are a real benefit for the things I’ve had to do with our ranch,” he says. Experience in negotiating contracts and understanding the ins and outs of expanding the ranch through buying land have served him well over the years.
What’s more, his family owned an old-fashioned mercantile store for 75 years, and he was president of that corporation for a while. The experience in running a retail business has been valuable as Kester looks beyond his own fences to understand and appreciate the challenges and needs of the entire beef business.
Path to the top
“I took what I call a very traditional path to where I ended up as president of NCBA,” he says. After he took over the ranch, friends and other ranchers in the area encouraged him to get involved with his local cattlemen’s association. “So I did and got on some committees. Then I was nominated and elected to the board of the San Luis Obispo County Cattlemen’s Association. It’s the largest county cattlemen’s association in the state of California.”
That position put him on the board of the California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA), where he served on several statewide committees. Recognizing his leadership potential, ranchers involved with CCA encouraged him to consider running for a state leadership position, which he did. “I got elected and moved up through the ranks over six years and was California Cattlemen’s president for two years, 2011 and 2012.”
During his time with CCA, he represented California on the NCBA board on the policy division side. Leaders there recognized his potential as well and he chaired several NCBA policy committees before being asked to throw his name in the hat as a NCBA officer.
“So I put my name is as vice chair of the policy division of NCBA. The next year, I was the chair of the policy division. Then I put my name in the hat and was fortunate to get nominated as vice president of NCBA.” For 2017, he served as president-elect and will take the reins as president in 2018.
While it was a traditional path to the top, the schooling he received, beginning at the local level and moving up through the ranks, keeps him grounded. “The experiences with the different committees throughout that whole process gave me a really well-rounded background to where I am today.”
Kester sees a bright future for the beef business and NCBA. But he doesn’t dismiss the challenges, either. One of those is keeping and bringing young producers into the business. “That is top of mind for a lot of us, in addition to the many issues we face every day,” he says.
His advice to high school and college students looking for a future in production agriculture is to be active in their local, state and even national cattlemen’s associations, “because that’s where you network and that’s where you’re exposed to all the challenges on a political level, regulatory level and interacting with other ranchers and farmers who have experience. By being engaged at all those levels, it will give young folks the networking to where they can figure out where their interests are and what it’s going to take to get started.”
But he says his generation has plenty of responsibility, too. It’s likely they got some good advice, and maybe some training, when they got started — and now it’s time to give back. “I would encourage established ranchers to mentor young people, too.”
But at the end of the day, after a young person takes the correct steps to get involved, financing is always going to be the big challenge. “So we have to come up with better solutions from the financial end of it to allow the young folks who have the energy and desire to be farmers and ranchers. We have to do something from my generation to help that process along.”
Back at the ranch
Being from California, Kester is all too aware of the challenges of staying in business. That’s why he doesn’t take the responsibility of his position with NCBA lightly, and it’s why he is willing to spend days and weeks on the road, away from the ranch, working on behalf of all cattle producers in the country.
But the work back home still needs to get done. The Kester ranch is a family operation, and in his absence, his wife, June, and children Kayleen and Kody take up the slack to keep the ranch humming. Their third child, Kara, is a junior in college.
“All three of my kids, and especially my wife, take care of the ranch while I’m on the road for the cattle industry. That’s what allows me to do what I do. Words can’t express how much I appreciate the backing from June and the kids that I get.”
It is for his family, as well as every other ranching family in the country, that Kester volunteers not only the countless hours and countless miles, but also his time and talent, to ensure the beef business remains strong and sustainable.
Rest assured he will work hard to ensure that happens.