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Now, Can We Take A Step Back?

The big meeting in Fort Collins last Friday went pretty much according to script, with both viewpoints on the proposed GIPSA rules being stated and restated. It would be interesting to know if there was a single person in attendance who changed their position as a result of the

The big meeting in Fort Collins last Friday went pretty much according to script, with both viewpoints on the proposed GIPSA rules being stated and restated. It would be interesting to know if there was a single person in attendance who changed their position as a result of the proceedings.

With absolutely no scientific backing to this statement, I would guess that the number of people who changed their position would be far less than 1/10th of 1%. Certainly, those with power, whether it be USDA or cattlemen’s organizations, had their mind made up coming in. If anything, they had their opinions confirmed rather than challenged.

You can count me in that category, too. I wrote prior to the meeting that I thought this meeting would be looked back upon on as a colossal waste of time and energy, that it would do nothing to address real issues like building beef demand, and that the meeting was a sideshow despite the fact these proposed GIPSA rules and their effects are important and promise to shape our industry in a very substantive way. My position hasn’t changed.

Max Thornsberry, R-CALF USA president, blogged this week that Steve Cornett, Greg Henderson, Joe Roybal, myself, and other ag media types who wrote disparaging comments about the Fort Collins meeting should be fired. He categorized these writings as attempts to deemphasize the meeting. He claims these opinions were disrespectful to those who believe these proposed rules provide a necessary solution to industry woes, and that the industry publications are only giving credence to the majority viewpoint.

I called Thornsberry and we actually had a good conversation. Certainly, much like the GIPSA meeting in general, we have vastly different philosophical viewpoints that will likely never be reconciled. However, I believe we came away understanding that while we disagree strongly on the outcomes of the proposals, we generally share some common goals.

For one, we agree that the industry does have some major problems that need addressing – a contracting industry and falling beef demand are two. Unfortunately, we have vastly different views on how to address those issues, primarily because we don’t agree on the causes.

Thus, it’s not surprising that our solutions would differ; after all, we are addressing different problems. It’s akin to a pair of doctors diagnosing an illness. One says diabetes, the other cancer. Those doctors may also disagree on the proper treatment, but the treatment options are largely irrelevant if there is no agreement on the diagnosis. As long as the industry continues to fight over the cause of the symptoms, we will disagree on the cure.

Perhaps Thornsberry is correct that the industry is consolidating and contracting because of the shift away from a commodity marketing system, and that alternative marketing arrangements (AMAs) are either providing unfair advantages to certain entities or putting downward pressure on overall prices. In turn, perhaps I’m correct that these AMAs have allowed producers to mitigate risk and differentiate their products, thus creating and capturing additional value. Our industry's problems relating to profitability and sustainability won't be fixed by halting the trends in how we market cattle but rather by stopping the erosion in beef demand.

Both Thornsberry and I want a fair marketing environment, and we both say we want it to be “open and competitive.” However, I venture that our definitions of these words probably differ.

We have different world views and I’m not so naïve to believe that we would ever agree on certain issues. Still, I’m a perpetual optimist and believe that if forced to sit down across the table, we could over time find some common ground.

I also think that any casual observer understands this industry division and antagonism is counterproductive. All we have to do is take a look at the embarrassing actions that have occurred recently over the checkoff, and it becomes obvious that when differing political agendas take priority over the good of the industry, we all suffer.

While I consider the actions by the executive committee of the Beef Board to be so politically motivated as to justify a “fire them all” approach, I doubt that firing all the industry’s leadership, USDA appointees, industry staff personal and journalists is truly realistic.

The truth is that we must come to grips with the fact that we’ll always have some discord. It’s also true that our industry can’t afford a civil war when it faces such formidable external challenges.

Abraham Lincoln once said that a divided house cannot stand. We need to put an end to our civil war and focus our efforts on the significant external threats we face. This won’t be accomplished through spectacles like the meeting in Fort Collins or radio debates designed to influence the uncommitted. It also won’t be accomplished through forced reconciliation.

If we could put Obama and Reagan in the same room, they wouldn’t find much to agree on, but I’m hopeful they could agree to at least have the debates and the votes within a political process to reach some reconciliation. That’s what we need now.