Get to know Jim McAdams and you'll find his story is one of a classic American cattle rancher. Ranch-raised and ag college-educated, he returned to the ranch, then left for greener pastures — only to return to his roots. He again has a hand in the family operation located between Huntsville and Madisonville, TX.
McAdams uses those experiences not only to define himself, but branch out into the nation's cattle industry as he takes over leadership of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) this month.
While McAdams' family has been running cattle in Texas since the 1830s, his memories go back about 50 years to when his dad was in the steer business.
“When the steer business started playing out in the early 1960s my dad built a feedyard — at the same time he began switching the ranch over to cows and calves,” McAdams explains. “That's not a whole lot different story than thousands of other ranchers.”
The defining period in McAdams' life began in 1972 when he graduated from Texas A&M University and returned to the ranch. The family outfit was expanding its cow herd — leasing land to go with the 7,000-acre home place.
But, timing was not in his favor at the point when he was beginning to get his feet wet in the cow business.
“Like many others, I got caught in the wreck of 1974,” he explains. “I've been working the rest of my life to overcome that experience.”
McAdams eventually got straightened out and was able to buy the family cow herd and leased the ranchland from his family. In the early 1990s, he sold his cows “to reduce some debt load,” and moved to West Texas looking for land cheaper to lease. There he hooked up with former National Cattlemen's Association president, Dub Waltrip, who offered him a job managing Spade Ranches. That stint lasted 10 years.
Back closer to home
Just recently he's moved closer to home — Adkins, which is 35 miles southeast of San Antonio — so he could help his dad with the home ranch and be closer to where his wife, Molly, is employed. Today, he runs cattle in partnership with some other individuals. He balances that with what's essentially a full-time job leading NCBA.
“It gets kind of crazy at times,” McAdams says. “But, my concept of leadership is a team-building approach that brings in the collective wisdom of a lot of people into this business. It also spreads the workload around.”
The value of team-building with regard to NCBA, McAdams explains, is it provides the opportunity to make day-to-day decisions via consensus within the officer corps and among the senior staff — with policy direction provided by NCBA membership and affiliates.
“I need to make it clear that NCBA leadership and staff can't make policy,” he explains. “Our job is to carry out member-generated policy.”
In fact, he says he can't remember a time in his NCBA career that any decision made by the association didn't follow that process. “We as officers, and the staff, can't cut any deals with anyone, that's for sure.”
Sometimes though, when a crisis hits, like when the industry was gut-shot by the BSE case a year ago, the officers and staff have to be quick to recover and respond.
“Those times can be painful,” he adds. “But, it's a comfort to have a dedicated and experienced corps of officers with expertise in every phase our industry to get us through those tough times.”
State affiliates are vital
NCBA's state affiliates, he says, are vital to a strong national association — demonstrated by the BSE events of a year ago.
“In the scope of things, it's the state affiliates that define this association,” he says. “Without a strong partnership with the affiliates and a coalition among them, we can't even begin to respond those kinds of events.
“Even in quieter times, if we go to Capitol Hill, to the White House or to USDA, it's critical we have the full force and effect of the affiliates. It's absolutely the best way to get things accomplished,” he adds.
And these days, anytime you bring up the subject of state affiliates — and their grass roots cattlemen's issues into the conversation — the talk inevitably turns to the ideological split that's developed within the industry the past 10 years.
“We all know we're in a fight to preserve our businesses and lifestyles,” McAdams admits. “There's plenty of disagreement, though, about the tactics used to address those issues.”
And, there's no sense sweeping under the rug the perception by some ranchers and feeders that NCBA is not sensitive to “grass roots” cattlemen.
“We're committed, dedicated to, and charged with working on all the issues that impact our business and provide a foundation from which the cattle and beef industry can grow,” he says.
If any other organization wants to concentrate on the marketing and trade issues from whatever direction they feel is relevant, “so be it,” he says. “There's nothing NCBA can do about organizations with differing ideology.”
Meanwhile, he says, attention also needs to be paid to many other issues he believes all ranchers can agree on, no matter their ideology or political leanings. These include taxation, public lands, the environment, private property rights, endangered species, producer education and a host of others.
“NCBA has established a track record in Washington, D.C., and we have the trust and respect of enough politicians and agencies around the country to get the job done,” he explains. “And, you don't build those kinds of relationships overnight.”
No knee-jerk reactions
McAdams wants to hammer home to U.S. cattle producers that NCBA isn't in the back-pockets of the nation's meat packers or retailers. Unfortunately, with all the “spin-doctoring” going on, people are confused about who to trust.
“While some people are always going to believe in conspiracy theories, one of the tactics of this association is to build coalitions so all segments of the beef industry better understand each other,” he explains. “In doing so, we can better avoid the adversarial relationships that have damaged all segments of the industry in the past.”
These relationships allow for knowledge-based decisions as opposed to knee-jerk reactions based on innuendo and misguided ideology.
“It's working,” McAdams says. “By having a dialog with packers and retailers, we can carry out what the NCBA membership directs us to do.”
And, he says, two-thirds of NCBA membership — and the board of directors — come from the cow-calf, feeder and stocker sectors.
“And, if that majority doesn't have a dialog with the other segments — whether it's your local auction market owner or a feedlot operator, let alone a packer or retailer — how can you ever hope to know the impact of your decisions at the production or marketing levels before it's too late?” he asks.
McAdams wants to do what he can to unite the industry in areas where opposing forces can agree. He points to December 2003 when the U.S. beef industry faced its worst enemy in 30 years.
“When threatened by the BSE case in Washington state, we spoke with one voice using the resources we had accumulated,” he says. “We didn't come through unscathed — and there's still a lot of work to do. But, the fact we're still here and growing stronger every day is a great story about what the industry can do when it works together.”
McAdams is more optimistic about the cattle industry now than anytime since he learned his first real-life definition of tough times back in the early 1970s.
“We've seen what we can do when we pull together. We've seen what we can overcome,” he says. “We know if we do the right things, consumers will come back to beef. Our fate is in our hands.”
A quick look at Jim McAdams
Currently lives in Adkins, TX, with his wife, Molly, and son, John Kohl. Another son, Will, is a senior at Texas A&M University (TAMU).
A native of Huntsville, TX, where his family settled in the 1830s.
A 1972 TAMU graduate with a degree in agricultural economics.
Ran his family's ranch in Walker and Madison counties until 1992.
Served in leadership positions with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
Served on NCBA's Budget Committee, vice chair of the Policy Division, chairman of the Property Rights/Environmental Management Committee.
Past president of Cattle-Fax.
A founding member of Rancher's Renaissance.
A director of the Texas Livestock Market Association.
Past director of National Finance Credit Corporation.
Chosen as the 1990 Man of the Year by the Texas Agriculture Extension Service.
Awarded the Bill Clements Memorial Award in 1990 for outstanding service to East Texas agriculture.
Served as manager of Spade Ranches in Texas and New Mexico from 1993-2003.
Received the 1998 National Integrated Resource Management Achievement Award for his work developing the Standardized Performance Analysis Program.
Some issues on Jim McAdams' mind
The checkoff: “The industry needs a self-help program — some means of helping us do a better job of satisfying the consumer. The checkoff is the single best thing that's happened to this industry.
“We were losing demand for 20 years — and we've corrected that loss of demand with the checkoff — and what's incredible is we're still growing demand.”
Trade: “Globalization and the expansion of international trade is a train we can't stop. The key is to do business with people who honor what they say. We need to make sure our government makes deals that are honored by other countries.
“There can't be a global marketplace with Third-World rules, though. We've got to be very vigilant that the rules are fair and enforceable. We have to make sure we don't have regulations that inhibit our ability to compete.”
Value-based marketing: “Brands are a guarantee the producer is delivering on a set of specifications. The packers and retailers are the conduit.
“Brand expectations lead to specifications, which lead to differentiation. Many will forge their own niches. We'll never have all beef ‘branded.’ There will be ‘least-cost’ operators who won't need the premiums and market outlets associated with brands.
“We'll have brands competing for position in the marketplace — and that competition is good for consumers, good for the growth of the U.S. beef industry and good for our competitive position in the international marketplace.”
Traceability and ID: “It will become reality, but it must be market-, not government-driven. It should start with protecting the health of our national cattle herd, but doesn't need to stop with that.
“There will be costs to ID — but not being able to provide trace-back and trace-forward will cost us more. We should consider trace-back as a part of accountability.
“If you're not accountable, in many cases you're going to be denied market access.”
Country-of-origin labeling (COOL): “We all see the value in being able to identify and market a U.S.-labeled product. But, COOL needs to be market-driven. Animal ID will make labeling easier.
“It doesn't make sense to be for COOL and against animal ID. It makes more sense to be for ID as it's something that can be used on the ranch or in the feedyard for production management and efficiency as well as accomplishing traceability.
“There are two barriers to a successful COOL program: One is being able to ID a product efficiently and cost-effectively from the farm gate to the kill floor. Another is to have a system in place to maintain and guarantee product identity from the kill floor through the multi-tiers of a processing operation.”