Anytime a setback happens, the first instinct is to rebuild quickly. If a tornado takes down a barn, the first impulse is to start building a new barn. After all, a barn is a pretty vital component to an operation.
However, we all realize that it doesn’t make sense to rebuild the exact same barn. Certainly, there were probably good reasons the barn was built the way it was, but things change. Perhaps the tractor is 6 feet wider than the tractor it was built for. The hayloft may be unnecessary as small bales have been replaced by large squares or perhaps the crowding tub was an obvious choice as the builders had never heard of a Bud Box or double alley at the time it was built.
NCBA has a chance to build a new barn now that it is in the market for a new CEO. NCBA’s structure and vision have changed over time, even if its mission has not. The merger between the old NCA and the National Livestock and Meat Board may have created a much more efficient organization in some regards, but the vast majority of those benefits were accrued on the checkoff or demand-building side of the equation. The policy side has been under both direct and indirect attack ever since.
It is a challenge to have a grassroots organization that is nimble and able to respond quickly. Certainly, it makes sense that policy starts at the county level, then moves up through the state associations and eventually becomes national policy. Yet, it typically takes this process well over a year to create national policy. The rank-and-file membership at times feels that it is a difficult and cumbersome process to get its voice heard on a timely basis.
NCBA’s brand may be as strong as ever in Washington D.C., but in the countryside, it has been under constant attack since the merger and the result has not been positive. Those who lean toward believing that government should pay a bigger role in the economy, who are anti-trade and anti-free market felt their voice was not being heard and many have gone elsewhere.
Policies and politics
Very few of those who are involved in NCBA question that the association’s policies reflect the majority of its membership, which are overwhelmingly cow-calf producers. But for those who are not active in their local, state or national organizations, there is a misconception that NCBA is geared toward bigger entities and producers.
I have asked those who espouse that train of thought, literally hundreds of times, what policies help big producers and harm little producers, and I’ve never gotten a coherent answer. As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all ships. Indeed, a stronger, healthier, more profitable and more consumer-friendly industry is in the best interest of everyone.
But economies of scale are a factor and that’s not to say that bigger players may benefit over smaller players if a certain policy is enacted. And we all know that, at times, the various segments have conflicting or competing interests. However, they rarely appear on the policy side of the equation and instead tend to play out on the economic fronts. Policy tends to be oriented toward creating or maintaining a level playing field, and toward reducing or preventing unnecessary costs.
So, even if the naysayers can’t point to any policies that harm one segment to the benefit of another, and despite the fact that small cow-calf producers outnumber large producers and players from the other segments by considerable margins and therefore have the potential to swing the votes, those who are not involved with NCBA believe there is a problem, so there is a problem even if it is strictly one of faulty perceptions.
Those who have been involved with NCBA over the years understand how the committee process and structure evolved, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. The same can be said from a structural standpoint, which makes the case that NCBA should take some time and evaluate not only what type of individual they want to head up the organization, but perhaps more importantly, what is the best way to align staff and leadership to better achieve its goals.
These are not easy questions. NCBA is a large organization and it is membership driven, which means that NCBA must not only be responsive and inclusive to its state affiliates, but also to the rank and file members. Having the policy and checkoff side combined and yet separate adds to the complexity and the unwieldiness of the entire process.
However, the benefits of that arrangement may far outweigh the costs, and the efficiencies and savings for producers have been significant. But the current system can best be described as cumbersome. We ask the CEO to divide management between policy and checkoff responsibilities, we ask him or her to be a people person, we ask that person to be the face and voice of the operation, we want them to communicate internally with our constituencies and affiliates and also externally with all the organizations that affect our industry. We ask the CEO to understand both the internal and external politics as well.
There is something to be said for having someone with broad association management experience, strong business acumen and proven business and political skills, but I’d be in the camp that would argue that the individual also needs to know and have experienced the production side of the business.
Many people would point to all the recent victories and all the key policy areas that are in play and argue that the industry cannot afford to lose any momentum; that it cannot afford to spend too much time getting bogged down with internal structuring discussions.
However, there is a growing chorus of people who are arguing that NCBA is at a critical crossroads, that the need for it to improve its effectiveness has never been greater. Now is the perfect time to look hard at the structure of the organization and make sure we find the right individual and put that person in the right structure to make sure that NCBA is an effective, nimble, and responsive voice for its members and the industry.
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