One voice from 765,000 mouths (commentary)

Published on: April 4, 2011

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at andy@andyvance.com.

IF I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times: Agriculture needs to speak with one voice.

For my corner of the industry, it's hard to speak with one voice when that voice is coming from 765,000 mouths.

Agriculture faces challenges every day, both from outside our industry and from within our own community. I saw some interesting statistical information recently that put one of our biggest challenges into perspective.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service reported that beef cow/calf production now occurs in every state. Nearly 765,000, or about 35% of the 2.2 million farms in the U.S., had a beef cow inventory in 2007. Most were small, part-time operations.

According to the study, roughly one-third of farms that raise beef animals had a beef cow inventory of fewer than 10 cows, more than half had fewer than 20 cows and nearly 80% had fewer than 50 cows.

The study had two interesting conclusions: First, many small operations are "rural residence farms" that specialize in beef cow/calf production, but income from off-farm sources exceeds income from the farm. Second, most beef cow/calf production occurs on large farms, but cow/calf production is not the primary enterprise for many of these operations.

It appears that I am one of the 50% of farms with fewer than 20 cows. So, if there are 765,000 of us in aggregate with beef cattle on our farms or ranches, how do we manage to speak with one voice?

Our membership organizations, while providing extremely valuable representation to Capitol Hill and elsewhere, certainly don't encompass all the disparate farmhands counted in this study.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA) -- the key industry organization -- doesn't boast membership numbers of even 5% of this total (though it certainly represents a significant amount of production when considering cattle numbers rather than rancher numbers).

The other ancillary beef organizations represent far fewer members still, and those groups, almost by definition, disagree with anything and everything NCBA says or does.

Herein lies the challenge to the wisdom that agriculture must "speak with one voice."

Vertically integrated segments like pork and poultry production seem to have it easier in that regard. If a poultry producer organization wants to stake a position on an issue, a series of phone calls can typically do the trick. Likewise, in the pork industry, a handful of key players can move the needle on an issue.

With those of us who enjoy raising cattle, though, how can we possibly get on the same page about anything?

If there's one thing I've learned over a decade of reporting on agriculture, it's that beef producers are fiercely independent.

Consider the debate over animal identification, for example. While the dairy, pork and poultry industries were largely on board with a strong federal animal disease traceback system, cattle producers fought the system with fervency and zeal.

The good news is that this is our culture and heritage. We are independent by nature, and this helps us maintain a vibrant, growing industry. We have a strong connection to the land, to the cattle and to the cattle people.

The flipside is that we have to recognize that a strength like independence can become a vulnerability if it turns into stubbornness. Resisting change simply for the sake of resisting change is not helpful.

One of the greatest movies in modern history is the classic "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." In the penultimate scene, Mr. Spock sacrifices his own life to save the crew and the ship and, in so doing, parts with this wisdom: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one."

Our challenge in the beef industry is recognizing when we are standing firmly on principle and when we are simply being bullheaded.

For the industry to continue growing and thriving in the face of adverse challenges and well-heeled enemies, we must maintain our independence while understanding that, sometimes, we must sacrifice our own selfish interests in the interest of the greater good of agriculture.

 

Volume:83 Issue:14

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