At the Cattle Industry Convention in Denver last week, plenty of opportunities and challenges were discussed. Regardless of the seriousness and weight of the issue, however, there was a pervading feeling of optimism because the industry has a contingency plan for just about everything it faces. Sadly, there was one notable exception, and that was the ongoing feud between the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the executive committee of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.
The tension was palatable from the very beginning, as the issue raised its ugly head in the opening session; and it was the topic that dominated conversations in the hallways. Ironically, however, it was the one issue that cattlemen really didn’t address at the convention.
Truly explaining all the issues that brought us to our current point would literally be a novel-sized project, but let me provide a couple of analogies that I think help put things in perspective.
First, the checkoff is like that talented horse that not only looks beautiful but can lock on and literally eat up a cow – one of the best horses you’ve ever ridden. Yet, it has the unfortunate habit of coming unglued and planting you on your head every once in a while. One moment you love it, the next you wonder if it’s worth the misery.
According to surveys of cattlemen, the checkoff’s popularity remains strong. In fact, the latest survey of producer attitudes toward the program, released last week, found that 75% of respondents to the national survey approve of the program. That’s the highest level since 1994.
Still, a lot of people are completely frustrated by a structure that has increasingly made it clear that this isn’t a producer program, it’s a USDA program. And, the USDA is driven by political agendas not necessarily in line with the majority of cattle producers.
The second analogy is marriage and divorce. If one is to have a happy marriage, it takes both sides working together toward a common goal. That means compromise and occasionally forgiveness. However, divorce is often a one-sided affair; if one side truly wants it, there’s nothing the other side can do.
NCBA was created to eliminate duplication of effort and expenditures, and to magnify the effect of the checkoff by producing a coordinated approach. The merger has been hugely successful in that regard – doing more with less, as declining numbers and inflation have ravaged the buying power of the checkoff.
But, the merger created some issues, as well. The heated debates over mandatory country-of-origin labeling, free trade and the GIPSA rule reflect a significant disconnect between segments of our industry. While most will point to the size of operation as a driver in this discord, I believe it really has more to do with differences in world views.
For the life of me, I don’t understand the argument that what is good for a producer with 500 cows is bad for a 25-head operator or vice versa. We all want a competitive and fair business environment, growth in beef demand, proactive issue management, expanding markets, and opportunities to succeed.
Rather, I see size as a populist tool used to divide (following in the long tradition of class warfare) rather than unite to serve political aims. I can understand that those who want to return to a totally commodity-based system will have certain irreconcilable differences with those who wish to embrace a value-added system, but those issues are minor in the scope of things.
What was frustrating about last week’s meeting was that all producers –both on the policy side and the checkoff side – want to move forward. Producer after producer echoed incredible frustration over the current dynamic. They’re fed up with the political gamesmanship. Certainly a certain amount of tension is unavoidable, but the industry loses if everyone doesn’t work together.
How did we get to this point? Perhaps the democratic structures of both organizations were too cumbersome and the diversity of views and majority viewpoints somehow got relegated to the sideline. But cattlemen have made it clear on both the policy side and the checkoff side that the industry has too much at stake and there’s too much value on the line to continue on the path we’re on. We’ve also learned, however, that making the two sides play fair and together is easier said than done.
Sadly, many people now are talking about the need for a referendum on the checkoff, not only to address the need for additional funding to help build beef demand but to address governance issues. I don’t support the voluntary checkoff concept, but that’s where we’re heading if we don’t fix our internal bickering.
The bottom line is that our industry needs leaders to step forward and fix this issue. Perhaps some of the problems are structural by nature, and those must be addressed. But many of the problems are personal in nature and they must be addressed, too.
We must build beef demand and we must improve the marketing, regulatory and legislative environments in which producers operate. And it’s time we move forward and stop shooting ourselves in the foot.