Gary Voogt, a seedstock producer from Marne, MI, takes over as president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) this month. And he's guaranteed a year teeming with industry challenges.
Among them is a financial crisis that not only threatens beef demand both domestically and globally, but could put the spurs to more rapid consolidation in the U.S. cattle business. Then there's the shrinking pool of dollars available to counter the competitive proteins and the deep pockets of reinvigorated anti-meat groups. Plus, NCBA is in a transition phase with six-year CEO Terry Stokes stepping down the end of this month.
Voogt, pronounced with a long “o” (and the “g” if you're Dutch enough), chuckles as he says his position reminds him of a spin on a supposed ancient Chinese curse: “May you ‘live' in interesting times” to “May you ‘serve' in interesting times.” While the sentiment sounds benign, “interesting” in the context of this particular proverb is said to actually mean “dangerous” or “turbulent.”
Analyze, adapt, advance
What with all the challenges facing U.S. agriculture's largest segment, “turbulent” is certainly apropos, but the long-time industry volunteer says he's very much looking ahead to the coming year. And his approach is the “Triple A” plan — analyze, adapt and advance.
It's a logical approach for Voogt, an engineering graduate of Michigan Technological University, who is both a cattleman and a registered professional engineer. In July 2007, he retired after a 41-year career as owner and CEO of a consulting engineering company, but the closing of that door just opened a more full-time involvement in his other job — the cattle business.
Voogt says he's always practiced two professions. “I always worked the farm as a second job; I never considered myself a hobbyist.”
Balancing the two wasn't always easy, he adds.
“Sometimes, I'd change clothes five times in a single day. I'd do chores in the morning, go to work with tie and white shirt, come home at the end of the day to quickly AI some cows, then dress again to attend a township meeting. When I got home from that, it was chores before bed.”
He and wife Shirley have five children, all born to the rural lifestyle, three of whom are active in its operation. They also have 10 grandchildren. The Voogts sell registered Angus seedstock, “mainly bulls, but some heifers; we also carry 100 registered cows all the time. For this part of the country, that's a large purebred operation,” he says.
They operate on 170 acres, rent additional acreage and farm 325 acres of pasture and hay. They purchase grain for the young stock, but are self-sufficient for hay and pasture, which is saying a lot given their 180-day feeding season.
The Voogts market their bulls through test stations in Michigan and Indiana, and the test station they operate on their farm.
Voogt isn't a country kid by birth. He was born in nearby Grand Rapids; his parents were factory workers. He and Shirley purchased the farm 42 years ago — “with no down payment and no money,” he says — and continued to add to it through the years.
He says his love of the land and livestock came with a part-time college job doing farm chores, but thinks he actually inherited his love for the business and lifestyle from his grandfather, who was a cattle dealer. “He died before I was born, but I figure I've got some of his love of agriculture down deep in my DNA,” Voogt says.
And he's lived it both professionally and as a volunteer. He's a past president of the Michigan Cattlemen's Association (MCA) and a 35-year member, as well as a past chairman, of the Michigan Beef Industry Commission.
Voogt has represented Michigan as an NCBA director for 20 years. He served as chairman of the Federation of State Beef Councils in 2007, and held numerous other posts with NCBA, the checkoff and the U.S. Meat Export Federation. He also found time to serve on local school and church boards and held public office as his township's treasurer.
His operation is located 20 miles from Grand Rapids and 30 miles from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. “We have two seasons here — same as the Michigan State University colors — green and white,” he jokes. Not that he'll likely get to see as much of home in the coming year. He anticipates he'll be traveling at least 200 days performing his duties on behalf of America's cattle producers during his year as president.
“As an engineer I've been trained to sort out the things I can do something about, and those I can't. We can't do anything about the national economy or the election results, but we will spend time on the things we can do something about.”
So he says he'll apply his engineering principles: figure out the problem, analyze the options and decide on a plan and execute.
“As an organization, we'll analyze all our incomes and expenses, adapt to reality and devise a good plan. We'll then advance to grow the business based on our analysis and our selected plan to make NCBA a stronger organization,” he says.
While the economy will be a challenge, Voogt says another concern is a shrinking industry.
“Our national herd has gone from 46 million cows to 32 million, and the number of beef producers from 1 million 20 years ago to 700,000 today. Despite that shrinkage, beef production has grown, which attests to our better efficiency,” he says. But fewer producers mean a smaller industry voice, and fewer cattle mean fewer dollars for industry promotion and research.
“Despite fewer dollars for NCBA and for the checkoff, believe me when I say that our programs will meet the challenges facing us. But the budget constraints mean we probably won't meet the expectations of all the people, so our members will come first,” he says.
A new administration in Washington is another issue. “NCBA decided well before the elections to be available to both camps to answer any questions about food production. President-elect Obama was particularly open to us and we've been meeting with his transition team,” Voogt says.
But, he adds, the challenge in the future isn't just over beef production but food production in general. “This country has to make sure it leaves room for food production. We can't become dependent on foreign sources. Our job will be to tell the story of food, and to explain to consumers, regulators, legislators and the administration about the vital role that food production plays in this country.”
Shrinking checkoff revenues due to fewer cattle also present the industry with promotional and competitive challenges. “As an industry, we have to enhance the assessment. But until that job gets done, we'll operate on what we have,” Voogt says.
Globally, Voogt calls free trade a priority; preserving the North American Free Trade Agreement is one component. “We must continue to treat our fellow Americans — Canada and Mexico — as fellow cattlemen and neighbors.”
While the challenges facing U.S. cattlemen over the coming year are great, Voogt says he's invigorated by the “great, great people” willing to volunteer their time on behalf of preserving and building a better industry.
“Every producer has different concerns and circumstances. Every producer says he lives in the best part of the world. Underneath, they're all good, solid Americans and hardworking family people. Working with these folks is the best part of the job and I look forward to getting to it.”