There’s a point above the headquarters of Philip Ellis’ ranch that gives a good view of sunrise over the Wyoming prairie. It’s a place Ellis goes to early in the morning every July 4 just to sit, contemplate and reflect on what it means to be part of what he considers the best business in the world.
Later, Ellis will join the rest of his family, and the rest of the nation, as they celebrate the far-thinking men who founded the greatest country the world has ever seen. But as the sunrise breaks the horizon, Ellis takes time to reflect on the 125 years that his family has been part of the Wyoming landscape, and the changes that have occurred in the Western range ranching business.
What he sees is good
Ellis will step into the top volunteer job for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) when the annual national Cattle Industry Convention draws to a close in early February. He brings a solid background in ranching with him as he takes the reins from Texas cattleman Bob McCan to lead the beef industry’s largest membership organization for the coming year.
He also brings a healthy dose of optimism for the beef business.
Ellis’ great-grandfather left the Midwest in the 1880s and came to Wyoming as a teenager to be an open-range cowboy. He soon bought land and settled on Bear Creek near the town of Chugwater, about 40 miles north of Cheyenne.
Ellis is a fifth-generation rancher in southeast Wyoming, and the third generation to operate the ranch he’s on now. His grand uncle, Earl Marsh, moved up the creek a ways and started his own operation. Ellis’ father, Bill, had been helping on the ranch since the age of 11, and Marsh brought him in as a partner after he came back from World War II.
That began a legacy that continues today, with Ellis’ nephew now in charge of the day-to-day operations of the ranch, freeing Ellis to devote the time necessary to be an effective NCBA volunteer leader, while continuing the Marsh and Ellis Ranch as a successful cattle operation.
And while he may now spend much of his time in Washington, D.C., and points in between, his boots are still firmly planted on the Wyoming prairie. “I grew up with the beef cattle industry as it developed in Wyoming on the short-grass prairie,” he says. “So we have a long history of ranching, cattle and horses.”
Ellis’ ranching legacy was born during the open-range days of the old West. But the West changed, ranching changed, and the Ellis family changed with it. “We worked for 50 years in the seedstock Hereford business,” Ellis recalls. “But in my time in managing the ranch operation, we have settled into a Hereford-Red Angus cross cow-calf and yearling operation. We sell long yearlings to feedlots in Colorado, and we also source bred heifers for local ranchers.”
And the Ellis family has a long history of supporting the organizations that support those who produce beef. “Going back in the records, we can find back 100 years where we’ve always supported the Wyoming Stock Growers Association [WSGA] and the national associations,” he says.
This is the history and legacy that Ellis brings with him as he steps up to lead NCBA in 2015. While his family has always been strong and loyal members of both state and national cattlemen’s associations, he’s the first to get involved as a volunteer leader.
Ellis graduated from the University of Wyoming in the early 1970s with the knowledge and desire to take his place in Wyoming’s range cattle business. But then came what many still refer to simply as “the wreck.”
That made a big impression on the young, freshly minted stockman. It was a painful lesson on the fact that the beef business is a part of a much larger economy. And events in faraway places where people think differently, like Washington, D.C., can have profound effects at the ranch gate. It’s a lesson he’s never forgotten.
“That wreck was prompted by government interference in the economy and a misunderstanding, I think, of the free market and how it applies to the beef cattle industry,” he says. “That led me to appreciate how we need an advocate for our industry, because outside and political influences can certainly make a difference.”
That wreck also led him to a 10-year career in agricultural lending before he could return to day-to-day management of the operation. But that off-ranch exposure to the larger world of agriculture served him well. He learned how to deal with people, manage multiple projects and see the larger picture that exists beyond the fences that delineate the boundaries of his ranch.
So he got active. He stepped up within the ranks of WSGA, serving on various committees and in the officer rotation before being elected as president a decade ago.
His leadership at the state level revolved largely around an issue that affects everyone who ranches in the West — federal, state and private property.
“Private property issues, state and federal land issues, affect all of us who use resources, but especially in Wyoming where we have federal, state and private land. All those land issues required, at least in my mind, to get active in the state association so we could have an advocate for our use of the land,” Ellis says.
His WSGA involvement led to positions on several NCBA committees and its board of directors. He was then elected Region 5 vice president, which includes Wyoming and the Northwest, before graduating to vice chairman and then chairman of the NCBA Policy Division.
That exposure to the wide array of issues NCBA tackles each year simply spurred him further. While land use may be the principal issue for Wyoming ranchers, it has to elbow its way into line with an incredible diversity of issues that, on a national and global scale, affect beef producers and the beef business. All of which need an advocate to keep the beef business moving in a positive direction.
Ellis is ready for the challenge. He wants to advocate on behalf of all beef producers, and build enthusiasm for beef products and NCBA. But he’s not going into his year as president with rose-tinted eyewear. His many years as a leader on the policy side of the business ensure he’s fully aware of the many contentious issues confronting beef producers.
“We’re going to continue to deal with an activist government as we go through the last two years of our current administration,” he says. “We’ll be dealing with more executive orders and rulemaking.”
During the coming year, he hopes agriculture can rein in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to widen the definition of “Waters of the U.S.” He also wants a resolution regarding mandatory country-of-origin labeling.
He’s confident that can happen. “We have a top-notch staff in Washington. That’s why I appreciate being a member of NCBA when I’m out on the ranch and have an opportunity to participate as part of the leadership,” he says.
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But Ellis is quick to cite positive signs for the industry as well, particularly given the results of the November elections. One of those is trade.
“I’m a promoter and optimist about the beef industry as a global protein. I think we have an opportunity to move forward on Trade Promotion Authority,” which would give the U.S. more flexibility in negotiating trade agreements, he says.
And he’s hopeful that the Trans Pacific Partnership can be finalized in 2015, which holds the potential of opening up more export markets for U.S. beef, most notably to China.
“So I’m pretty optimistic. And sometimes that’s hard for ranchers, especially those my age who have been through the ups and downs of the business. But I am encouraged with the beef industry, and encourage young people to get into it,” he says.
And he sees plenty of enthusiasm for agriculture among the millennial generation as they embark on their lives and careers. “As I travel about and talk to people, a lot of them are choosing agriculture and beef cattle,” and they’re “not from the industry like a lot of us who grew up in it,” he observes. That, he thinks, is a very good trend.
Ellis says two things motivate him. “One is the fact that there’s nothing people like better to eat than a steak. And we’re raising the best protein, in my mind, for our families in our country and around the world.”
And then there’s saddling a horse on a crisp, cool fall morning. “Even though I grew up in the industry, I love it. I think that’s one thing that motivates me, saddling a horse on a cool September morning and gathering those yearlings to ship. That’s my favorite day of the year. What I do is provide food, and I think that’s a good deal.”
He’s most excited by the future and the possibilities it promises. “It’s fascinating how the beef industry evolved from the days of the open range and the Longhorns that came up to Wyoming to the kind of work we do now on the ranch with crossbreeding, using EPDs and other technologies. We need to always be relevant in reinventing ourselves, even with a historic and important industry like the beef cattle industry,” he says.
Ellis brings all that with him as he takes the reins at NCBA and throws his saddle on a bronc that can sometimes blow up at the darndest things.
“My background from the range cattle industry is riding for the brand,” he says.
“I know we use that a lot, but I think a president can lead the advocacy, ride for the brand for NCBA. If we band together, work together, we can get more done advocating for our families and our cattle, all up and down the chain, as we provide protein for the consumer."
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