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My Conversation With CBB Chair Tom Jones

Tom Jones is the chair of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) and is happy to discuss the industry, the CBB and any questions about issues that have arisen since January of this year. Our recent conversation was a pleasant one; one of those conversations that make you wonder how the industry can – from time to time – waste so much time in internal battles.

The conversation began with a stating of the obvious – the checkoff (and building beef demand) is an effort the industry has and should be able to rally around. That’s because raising beef demand helps all producers equally, regardless of size, location or positions on industry issues.

We didn’t spend much time discussing all the issues over breaches of ethics (see “The Checkoff – Apologies Issued; Let’s Move On” elsewhere in this newsletter). And, while it’s important to discuss how we got in the current position, it’s also important that the industry quickly return its focus to where we need to go.

Jones began by saying he was proud of the CBB and the vital role he feels it plays in serving a diverse industry; he said he was proud to serve with a group of people so passionate about the industry. He also expressed concerns about the role of the CBB and whether people would trust them to make the decisions they are charged with making.

He emphasized that part of the CBB’s role was to work for the betterment of the entire industry and not any single organization. And, he stated his firm conviction that the checkoff was a very good program that can become a truly great program, and that everyone is committed to ensuring that the Beef Act and Order are maintained.

Jones also made it clear that he believed mistakes had been made by both sides. He says it’s important that people obey the rules and not continue to argue over them. He also he stressed that the work of the checkoff has continued to move forward, and the internal struggles were never allowed to hinder the important work of building beef demand.

When asked about moving forward, he talked of the importance of a national program with all actions open and transparent in order to allow all producers to trust the checkoff. The perception of the checkoff in the country, he says, is vital for the checkoff to prosper. He doesn’t believe any of these issues have damaged the checkoff as yet, citing recent producer approval ratings that were at some of the highest levels experienced.

Jones says he’s committed to working for the benefit of the industry and for all producers to feel that they are represented. He says the U.S. beef industry is a wide, complex and changing industry; it’s imperative that all producers feel that they are represented and their voices heard. He explains that the CBB doesn’t represent any specific organization or policy group and its charge is to make sure everyone is treated equally and ensure the industry acts in a unified manner.

He also expressed concern over the rhetoric and vitriolic tone of the debate. Jones rejected the notion that policy issues drove the move to separate the Federation of State Beef Councils from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA); he says CBB’s focus has to be on building confidence in the checkoff by assuring compliance and by creating a program that producers are not only proud of but willing to maintain.

I had hoped we could get Tom’s perspective on how we got to the place we are today, and without question there will be some long lasting disagreement on both sides.

Certainly, there were areas where we will probably always agree to disagree, and I had difficulties trying to get my mind wrapped around the concept that building beef demand was something that divided producers. With far more good ideas than dollars, smart people will always disagree on directions to take, but I still believe most of the opposition to the checkoff and the relationship with NCBA has little to do with compliance, input or issues of equity, but rest with differences over policy.

Certainly, reality is a distant second to perception when it comes to marketing any product, and without question Jones says there is a challenge separating NCBA’s policy side from the checkoff side. Unquestionably, that’s the problem the industry has been struggling with, he says – how one manages the efficiencies and logic of working together to spend checkoff dollars more effectively and efficiently under one coordinated plan, and yet keep policy separate. Jones underscored that the firewall cannot be broken or breached.

Obviously, the tens of letters written by state beef councils and cattlemen groups have done a tremendous job of making it clear that producers want to focus on building demand and move beyond the internal fighting. That pressure has sent an unequivocal message to the leadership of both the CBB and NCBA that they will be held accountable to do just that. Recent history makes one wonder whether that is possible, but I have to believe both sides when they convey their desire to look toward a better future instead of the troubles of the past.

I can’t help but be optimistic, though nobody is so naïve to believe that we’ll all be holding hands in song overnight; anytime you get a group of cattlemen together, you will have strong differences of opinion and certitude that their position is right. As is always the case, focusing on the common good, common goals, higher priorities, shared vision and values will keep those differences from becoming insurmountable.

The irony of all this is that everyone believes in ensuring equality and fairness, in being transparent and inclusive, and the importance of CBB in maintaining producer confidence. Everyone also recognizes that NCBA will continue to be the primary contractor because it was created in the merger to create the infrastructure to build demand; plus, NCBA has done a tremendous job in accomplishing that. Everyone I’ve talked to understands what must happen; disagreements on how to get there shouldn’t lead to crippling internal power struggles.

It’s probably hard for all of us to understand, but perhaps even harder for us independent-minded cattlemen, that compromising doesn’t equate to losing.