Few people who have grasped the reins as president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) have come to the job with a preparation as deep as that of Wythe Willey, a Cedar Rapids, IA, producer.
For starters, Willey, who will assume the presidency this month, grew up on a farm/ranch in Jackson County, IA. Today, he oversees that same operation, which includes seed-stock, cow/calf and cattle feeding elements. As a member and two-term president (1995-96) of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association (ICA), he's learned much about the meatpacking and retailing sides of the business while serving as point person in the ICA's effort to attract a state-of-the-art beef packing facility to Iowa.
Beyond that, however, how many of his NCBA predecessors have a law degree, served a decade as chief of staff to a state governor, worked for a U.S. senator and argued cases before the state Supreme Court?
It's that background and depth of experience, coupled with a boundless respect for the cattle business and its lifestyle, his supporters say, that will make the 59-year-old Willey an effective advocate general for the nation's cattle producers.
“He's a natural leader,” says Dave Petty, owner and operator of the 400-head Iowa River Ranch in Union, IA. “Wythe builds a team and then allows that team to work. He brings out the best in people, and his strength is his ability to get two sides together on an issue.”
Petty, who served as a board member during Willey's term as ICA president before serving his own two years as president in 1999-2000, says Willey's talents of negotiation are another strength.
“That negotiating ability will serve him well in the coming year as he tries to bring together the various factions of the industry,” he adds.
Glenn Rowe, who was ICA president in 1998 and worked with Willey on various boards and committees over the past dozen years or so, concurs. The cow/calf and feedlot operator from Lorimor lauds Willey's working style.
“He's down-to-earth and hardworking, competent and confident. He's very approachable and can mix with anyone, ” Rowe says. “NCBA should feel very lucky to have him as its new president.”
For his part, Willey sees the industry he's about to lead as a healthy, vibrant one, but one beset with challenges.
“If I were a stock broker and characterizing the U.S. beef industry, I'd call it a good investment for a person willing to take risk,” Willey says. “It's not a conservative investment.”
Willey sees the biggest issues of his coming term as maintaining a strong consumer demand for beef and building association membership in order for the industry to have the clout and cohesiveness needed to work even more effectively on a national scale.
“Third, I want to continue to get our volunteer leadership and staff in a position, and with the ability and assets needed, to respond to the challenges ahead,” Willey says.
His biggest overall goal, he says, is to continue to have the beef industry make progress within itself.
“NCBA has to be a big tent. We need to try to get profit shared throughout the industry, and we need to fight disunity. We need to remember who the real competition is. It's chicken, other meats and meat replacements,” he says.
When Willey looks at the coming year, he says he likes what he sees. Demand is up. The administration in Washington, D.C., is more amicable and respectful of rural needs. He views the fact that big players, like Smithfield and Tyson, investing heavily in the industry as a positive sign that great potential is ahead. And particularly in the wake of Sept. 11, he likes the fact that Americans are returning to more basic values that better embrace the concepts of family and family farms.
Compared to most of his predecessors, Willey comes to NCBA's point position with already somewhat of a national presence. In 1994, he initiated legal action on behalf of a group of cattlemen against federal meat inspection requirements that allowed poultry to gain as much as 9% water during processing while red meat was allowed to gain none.
Willey contended that the inequity allowed the poultry industry to sell more than 2 billion lbs. of added water at poultry prices to consumers in 1994 alone. In 1997, the U.S. Federal District Court Judge Ronald Longstaff agreed and directed the U.S. secretary of agriculture to issue new regulations.
“There's a lot more equality now,” Willey says. “I think we can say with confidence that we've shut down the back door to USDA for the poultry industry.”
That crusade for fairness was vintage Willey, says Roger Stuber, a Bowman, ND, rancher and former NCBA president.
“He did it quietly and effectively. His strong leadership and quiet passion got positive results,” Stuber says. “He's got a lot of courage of his own convictions and his working style demands a lot of respect.”
First, A Cattle Person
Willey says he wants the NCBA president's job because he likes spending time with cattle people. He calls the cattle business his “first love” and his family's biggest investment. He says his greatest success is his family — his wife Susan, who he calls Hollywood (her maiden name), and five children ranging in age from 31 to 12.
He also adheres to a viewpoint frequently espoused by the late George Swan, 1999 NCBA president from Rogerson, ID, who passed away last year.
“George used to say that we all have an obligation to give something back to our industry. I not only believe that but firmly believe the cattle industry is the real answer to the environmental challenges in this country, as well as those challenges faced by the family farm,” Willey says.
He sees a healthy and viable beef industry as the backbone of a healthy and viable rural America. He wants to work to promote that.
The checkoff — “I'm confident we'll keep our marketing arm. The checkoff has such a good record and so much general support by cattlemen that I can't see us getting rid of it.
“The controversy will ultimately be resolved in Washington, D.C., in one of two places — either the U.S. Supreme Court or the Congress.”
The farm bill — “Most of all, I just hope they don't do anything to harm the industry and raise our costs of doing business. They need to pay attention to the unforeseen costs of legislation. We need to be careful that we don't regulate the backbone of small family farms and ranches out of existence with environmental regulations or anything else.
“I also think beef producers should have an equal chance at cost sharing to what the crops people receive in the environmental area.”
Consolidation — “My biggest concern is the consolidation at the retail level, the lack of competition there and the real control that certain retailers appear to have. Right now, I think we have fairly healthy competition among the packers, and we have pretty forward-looking leadership in most of our packing industry.”
Industry organizations — “Generally, all organizational activity on behalf of our industry is good, but some are a lot better than others.”
Industry unity — “People need to ride to the top of the mountain and look at the whole industry. Get the big picture.
“The viable industry I see in the future is one in which a cattleman has a lot of options. He can sell private treaty or at public auction. He can retain ownership or put his cattle into an alliance. And, that goes all the way up and down the chain.”