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Pour yourself a cup of coffee and read through the musings of events in the beef cattle industry as they unfold during the COVID-19 pandemic.
May 11, 2020
Let’s pretend you and I are sitting down for a cup of coffee in the mainstreet cafe, like the old days, when folks gathered together to swap lives, play cards and talk farming. If you’ve been reading this blog since it started in 2008, we are basically friends by now, right? But even if you’re new to the blog, we can still shoot the breeze and talk straight to one another.
We might disagree from time to time, but I'm certain we can agree that we are passionate about the beef business, even if we draw different conclusions about what’s happening in our industry and how we can solve what ails us. I respect your passion and I hope you recognize that same passion in me. We love this business; now how do we keep ranchers on the land and beef on the dinner table?
COVID-19 has unveiled some important themes that need to be unpacked, understood and put back together in order for us to continue to feed our local communities and provide for our hungry consumers around the world.
On that end, here are a few initial thoughts on some hot topics from your fellow friend and beef cattle producer who is currently “social distancing” on my ranch in rural South Dakota…
1. Fragility of our food system. Meat packing plant closures have highlighted the fragility of our food production system. This bottleneck in processing has caused temporary meat shortages and forced some hog and poultry producers to euthanize their animals.
Yet, before we throw the baby out with the bath water, we cannot deny that economies of scale exist for a reason. These large packing facilities allow for efficiencies in labor, cost, time and energy required to get beef from our remote ranches to customers in downtown Denver or around the world to places like Tokyo, Japan. We need these plants to be up and running, without question.
Yet, there’s a delicate balance here between worker health and getting beef to the grocery store, and I’m cognizant of the risks of COVID-19 exposure with so many people working in a tight facility. However, I’m encouraged by recent reports where even though there have been meatpacking outbreaks, a large percentage are asymptomatic with few hospitalizations needed.
2. Local beef and the Prime Act. We have seen a renaissance of consumers wanting to purchase direct from producers. This is excellent in meeting a local need, and small-town butchers are suddenly in very high demand with calendars booked for the rest of 2020. Ranchers who have gone this route are now earning premium prices while making personal connections with their customers.
This is worth celebrating, and to encourage more of this in the future, I’m in favor of the PRIME ACT, despite the fears of some that this would cause food safety issues down the road. I believe Mom and Pop shops can do the job and do it well, but even as popularity of the local movement surges, let’s keep in mind that there’s no way for small processors to work through the volume of beef required to feed the planet.
In a nutshell, we need both large and small processors to exist and to meet the demands of our various customers. For the small to have a standing chance, we need to advocate rolling back needless regulations that make marketing beef locally so incredibly difficult. Oh, and by the way, selling locally is a great chance to put voluntary country-of-origin labeling to work in your favor!
I’ve seen plenty of producers on social media marketing halves and quarters of beef that are 100% products of the USA. It’s been pretty cool to see these folks stepping up in the marketing department and filling a void during a global pandemic, all while earning a premium for a value-added product. I love it!
3. Mandatory country-of-origin labeling (MCOOL). We’ve also seen a greater push for MCOOL labeling to market beef that is born, raised and slaughtered here in the United States. For example, a producer-driven petition has earned hundreds of thousands of signatures since its launch at the end of April. With this drive to deliver a message Washington, D.C., there seems to be an underlying smear-campaign happening about the safety and wholesomeness of beef. I do fear for the future impacts on consumer perception and trust of conventional beef in the grocery stores, because of these underlying comments that plant seeds of doubt about our product.
Many have asked my views on this polarizing topic. Here's the deal - while I would love to see USA stickers on all beef sold, I also know that we don’t live in an isolated bubble, and in a global marketplace, we import lean beef trimmings to meet our demand while exporting premium products for our customers around the world. This adds value to the beef carcass, and you can read more about imports and exports by clicking here.
Believe me, I’m a proud patriot and a proud producer of American beef, but I must say, a sticker is not a silver bullet to save the American rancher. If passed, there will be massive tariffs, increased beef prices for U.S. beef, and basically a welcome mat for imported beef to be the “budget-friendly” choice at the grocery store. Just google how much shrimp is imported and sold into the U.S. as a clue.
Are consumers really willing to pay a premium for U.S. beef? Many of them already do when they pick up a product that has a voluntary label on it. Maybe more consumers will care about COOL in the post COVID-19 era, but previous runs at it have proved that ultimately price and quality, not origin, is king at the meat case. Be careful what you wish for when you ask the government to “fix” things for you. How well is that working in the case of this pandemic? Is Uncle Sam taking good care of us? I’m not so certain of that.
4. Trump throws the hammer down. That being said, in conjunction with this rising "Product of the USA” movement, it is evident that President Donald Trump understands that meat production and food security is a matter of national security. In addition to invoking the Defense Production Act to keep meatpackers humming, Trump has also called for the Department of Justice to investigate price fixing, market manipulation, corruption of the Big Four packers.
If corruption exists, yes, let’s absolutely expose it and make our markets fair for individual ranchers. However, since we are still waiting on the results of the investigation from the Tyson fire in Kansas last year, I’m afraid producers are in for a long wait ahead before we hear of any collusion or market manipulation. Keep the pressure on.
5. World Trade Organization. As the explosive and divisive debates by ranchers on social media over MCOOL, packers and more continue, it seems to me that any time disaster strikes, that’s when these heated discussions really escalate. There’s a vast political gap between the two opposing sides, and it can honestly just wear a person thin trying to wade through the rhetoric on both sides.
This is disheartening, and as I’ve said in previous blog posts, perhaps we need to address the system that has made it so difficult for individual ranchers to keep afloat. Did the U.S. beef industry get a raw deal from the World Trade Organization (WTO) when they deemed MCOOL as a violation of our trade agreements? Perhaps.
And if that’s the case, then note that a few weeks ago in a press conference, President Trump vowed that when he’s done with defunding and dismantling the World Health Organization, he’s going to go after the WTO next. We could be operating under a new set of trade rules in the near future, so the playbook we’ve been following for years could get thrown in the burn barrel in the post-COVID-19 era. Let’s take a close look at our trade deals, which Trump has already been actively doing, and let’s see how to get a better deal for America’s beef producers.
6. We have a shared enemy - animal rights and environmental extremists. I don’t know if these activist groups all sat in on the same Zoom call, but they seem to be working swiftly and with great coordinated gusto during this pandemic. Never let a crisis go to waste, am I right?
Yesterday, I gave you eight examples of how activists are working to run you out of business. While we fight to keep our cattle fed and maintain our family legacies, these clowns are attacking us at every angle. And just to note, because I’ve spoken out about this in the last couple of weeks, they have really ramped up the level of harassment directed toward me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. They don’t like being called out, and now that we are awake, we’ve got to push back.
Tomorrow I will address how Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren are coming after feedlots and auction barns with their Farm System Reform Act. I’ve seen this touted by many agricultural groups on Facebook as a good thing, but beware of these strange bedfellows.
These individuals are certainly not the champions our industry needs to save the American rancher. Don’t fall for the trap.
7. Fighting for our freedom to farm, to work, to live & to support our communities. We need patriots to stand up and speak out to protect our rights as citizens. Even as many of our legislators urge our society to be totally reliant on the government and not return to normal anytime soon (until a microchip and vaccine are created), I want to urge individual ranching families and business owners to continue to fight for our rights to work, to earn a living, to provide for our family, to keep ourselves safe, and to support other small business owners in our communities.
The tragic loss of life due to COVID-19 is one we’ll continue to grapple with, but the skyrocketing rates of unemployment, shuttered businesses, suicides, bankruptcies, foreclosures, and other effects are, in my mind, far more dangerous and deadly than this virus. Support your local feed stores, gas stations, churches, floral shops, movie theaters, restaurants and other small businesses any way you can.
The Walmarts of the world shouldn’t be the only place we can gather, visit and purchase goods in this country. Right now, the only real winners I see are the politicians and the big box stores. It’s up to us to save small town rural America.
Also, this isn't an exhaustive list of things I would like to discuss with you. There are other topics I could tackle, such as sustainability, the beef checkoff and more, but I'm out coffee and time, so I'll save those for another day. Hopefully, these nuggets give you some things to mull over as you decide for yourself where you stand on these many issues.
As I close, I will admit that I've been somewhat timid lately in vocalizing some of these things that have been on my heart and mind since this pandemic took off, mostly because words and intent can be misinterpreted, and we seem to live in a “cancel” culture where individual voices are suppressed if they deviate from current societal mantra. But it would be disingenuous and against my principles if I continue to stay silent on some of these important matters.
Read through these points and feel free to aggressively knock them down and tear them apart; that seems to be par for the course these days. However, I’m going to keep fighting for what I believe in, and I’m going to base my fight on facts, not fear; science, not emotion; and a firm grip on reality, even when much of what we are being presented in the news is outright fallacy and propaganda.
It’s easy to get sucked into the madness and hysteria as this war against an “invisible enemy” rages on, but let’s keep in mind, our fellow citizens and fellow beef producers are not that enemy. But hey, what do I know? I’m just a ranch mom hoping to get through this pandemic in one piece.
My friends, thanks for the coffee chat. Remember to be kind, be firm and be well.
The opinions of Amanda Radke are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or Farm Progress.
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