“American agriculture is in a reactive position for the first time in human history,” explained Aubrey Bettencourt, California Water Alliance executive director, at the recent annual conference of the National Institute of Animal Agriculture. “For the first time, agricultural producers have to explain their role in society and why it’s important. For the first time, they must justify what they do.”
How many of us ever counted on that?
Bettencourt was talking about the nexus between water availability and the future of livestock agriculture, but it describes the root of many current challenges spawned by so few consumers who know so little about production agriculture.
The reality Bettencourt describes also underscores history’s sketchy reliability as a guidepost to the future.
For instance, plenty of folks were still buying corn ground and even shares in ethanol plants long after economic opportunity set sail because they couldn’t find enough confidence to stake a claim when it mattered ... until after the fact.
Likewise, Mother Nature and grass be damned, the industry never started expanding in earnest until this year, because few could foresee or have much confidence in just how fast and high cattle prices could go.
In both cases, no one ever saw anything like the confluence of factors that led to such boundless price extremes, and most likely won’t again. The world is too small, wealth too concentrated and emotion too capricious to count on history repeating itself exactly. Conversely, history offers plenty of lessons, along with a map highlighting dead-end destinations: places like Too Big to Fail and Too Small to Succeed.
For my money, history’s real value — the lessons to be had — come from the people who made it or are in the process of making it. It’s not so much what they did or are trying to accomplish, but how and why.
Take a look around at the next cattle meeting you go to. Chances are you’ll find a cadre of pioneers in this breed or that discipline. Modern cattle history is that brief.
I thought of it at a meeting this year when someone introduced a scientist who was in on the ground floor of developing implants. I thought of it last year when I met someone who pioneered the original concept of Certified Angus Beef. The first time I ever considered it was years after I had a chance to work for, and learn from, Dale F. Runnion and his wife, June, icons in the livestock publishing business.
I thought of it most recently when my good friend and longtime mentor, Joe Roybal, left his post as BEEF editor. He held the position for 23 years — only the second editor in the history of the publication. He was with BEEF a total of 30 years.
Odds are stacked against seeing an editor with that sort of institutional longevity ever again at a major national cattle publication. Livestock publishing history is that brief. The information age is shoving change that fast.
It reminds me of being shocked more than two decades ago when I heard Dave Nichols of Nichols Farms at Bridgeport, Iowa, tell a crowd of cattlemen that we’d never again see a national cow herd as large as we’d already witnessed in our lifetimes.
That’s the point.
History guarantees no future. It’s lessons learned from history, and more importantly, from those who made it, that increase the odds of success for those of us who come behind.
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