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Hey, Kids, Want To Work In Ag? Go To Law School

Hey, Kids, Want To Work In Ag? Go To Law School

I’ve known very few ranchers or horse trainers who dropped out of the business unless forced to do so by death or economics. They were involved in the business because they loved it; still, they would invariably try to talk a young person out of following in their footsteps. I guess it’s because those who love ranching realize it’s a hard life, and not everyone is cut out for its rigors and stress.

Make no mistake about it: production agriculture is a mature industry. It’s capital-intensive, structurally guaranteed to be relatively low margin over time, and a demanding and high-risk endeavor. What’s more, the current economics dictate that it’s a pursuit that will be dominated in the future by those who have the good fortune to inherit the legacy of the land, or who have substantial capital with which to enter the business.

No, agriculture isn’t a great field for young entrepreneurs. But, at the same time, the opportunities to support those who are in production agriculture seem to be growing exponentially.

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I have at least one kid who is contemplating law as a career, though I’m one of those who believe the world probably has more than enough lawyers. What I think we really need are more folks in production agriculture, but if you live close to an urban area or operate on public lands, you better have a lawyer on retainer. If you live in the West, where water is more valuable than oil, you know the value of having a good water lawyer. Yes, the business and profit prospects for agricultural lawyers certainly seem bright.

We used to live in a world where information and technology were out in the open, and everyone had access to them. Today, we have entered into the age of proprietary information and technology. A recent lawsuit between a private entity (Verified Beef and Leachman Cattle Co.) and a breed association (the American Simmental Association - ASA) is a prime example. Anyone involved in a cattle breed association, or genetics in general, is watching this case intently. If the private enterprise prevails, the system as we know it will fundamentally change, but the ramifications will reach well beyond the seedstock industry.

The case in a nutshell

In a nutshell, the private entity used numbers and EPDs produced by breed associations, put their twist to them, and came up with an easy-to-understand way of presenting that data on commercial cattle. Verified Beef's aim is to help producers capture more revenue for their cattle by providing the capability to describe their cattle’s genetic potential more accurately. Some breed associations decided to partner with Verified Beef on the concept, ASA chose not to.

The Verified Beef concept has been around for decades and the indexes and theories that went into the concept have been around even longer yet. It’s a great concept, and one that everyone’s talked about for decades – namely, the ability to transfer the genetic information of the cattle through the marketing system in a manner that doesn’t impede commerce and is considered reliable by buyers. This private company’s business model apparently does that, which means it not only has the potential to reap some good profits, but will help the industry move closer to the value-based model it’s long held as the ideal.

In my opinion, it’s a great concept, a good business, and something I think that truly adds value. Where it gets complicated is when it comes to proprietary information, patents, and precluding competition from entering the business place. Every business in the world understands the value of creating barriers of entry into their marketplace, and protecting intellectual property is vitally important in the information age.

This is kind of a complicated topic to explain. The best analogy I can think of is to use Certified Angus Beef (CAB) as an illustration. CAB was one of the first ventures to take the concept of branding a beef product, creat   extra value and make it viable from a business model standpoint. The lead position that CAB garnered by being first to the marketplace, and the program’s success in delivering on that model, have made the CAB program the undisputed king of branded-beef products.

If Verified Beef is able to execute its vision, it will likely be the market leader for years to come. However, it’s taken a unique approach relative to the marketplace in agriculture in that it’s tried to essentially patent the idea, thus precluding anyone from entering the marketplace. I think it would be similar to CAB claiming it came up with the idea of branding a beef product, and thus claiming that no other entity could do the same. As I said, we’re in a new era – an era of proprietary information and legal wrangling.

One thing I know for certain is that a lawyer specializing in dealing with proprietary information/technology issues in agriculture should have plenty of work in the years ahead. It isn’t necessarily a good thing, but in this new era we've entered, two of the largest breed associations in the country either are, or should be, putting aside significant dollars for the legal battles that are looming. I’m not sure the industry will benefit from this new and inevitable environment, but the lawyers certainly will do okay.

When I was a kid, my mom encouraged me to be an orthodontist. Naturally, being a teenager at that obstinate stage, I thought it was a horrible idea. So driving on the way home last night, when my kids were talking about their futures, I casually stated to them, "Whatever you do, don’t go into intellectual property issues and law." You never know, perhaps a little reverse psychology will work on them. 

Troy Marshall’s opinions are not necessarily those of or the Penton Farm Progress Group.


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