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August 2010 Archive for Out to Pasture

RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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That Circular Firing Squad at DOJ Hearing

Aug 30, 2010

* The quote marks are around the word “hearing” because that’s more what they called this gathering than what it was. But the “hearing” hearers didn’t hang around to hear. They talked and left. So it was more of a “talking” than a “hearing.” Had I called it a talking you wouldn’t have known what I was talking about.

That was quite the eye-popper of a DOJ-USDA “hearing” * for some folks on each side of the chasm. It was as if we had all been transported into talk radio; as if somebody had told us that the louder we talked and the madder we seemed, the more persuasive we would be.

On the plane trip home, some of my cattle feeder friends’ eyes looked like Little Orphan Annie. “I had not,” one told me, “been exposed much to those R-Calf people before.”

I was live-blogging the thing as it happened, so I didn’t have time to absorb all of it. (I’m not sure we’ll do that again, by the way. At least I bet they get a better typist next time. I can’t imagine how court reporters do what they do.)

If anything good comes of the meeting, maybe it is that both sides were finally exposed to each other’s opinions, articulately and passionately delivered. After watching both sides’ pep rallies on Thursday, this reporter wasn’t a bit surprised. Without being negative toward our fellow people of the land, some of us spend so much time with people who think just like we think that we get to thinking not only does everybody else think like we think but that situation is only natural because we’re SO right that everybody agrees.

Except fools or knaves. Flat-earthers. 

Knowing each other as we do, we all probably agree that not many minds changed or even opened. It is as though our industry decisions are in the hands of talk radio.

That said, it probably won’t matter much, either way. USDA is going to do, or at least try to do, what President Obama wants. Whoever at USDA loaded those panels with so many from the packer-basher side knows where the powers-that-be want to go. They say the agriculture marketing system in broken. They think there are too many losers and that means, by definition, there are too many winners. They need more “balance.”

They want change, and they want these hearings to do just what they’re doing: provide the evidence of “grassroots support” they need to justify the measures they prefer.

One of the guys who supports the “status quo” told me at break that “we’re just here to say we tried. This will be settled in the courts. It’s hard to tell how much of the proposed rules will survive, and we were cautioned not to “prejudge” the final rule. Advocates on both sides expect some changes in the final rule.

It did seem that both sides agreed that whatever else happened, the concept of Value Based Marketing for beef must be preserved. It’s unclear how the Obama folks can do that and still accomplish what they want, given the fact that they seem to think agricultural competition should be something of a charity walk with everybody getting nice tans and a warm feeling inside rather than a race with winners and losers.

Secretary Vilsack doesn’t hide his goals. He wants to “rebuild rural America.” He wants to lure young farmers. He wants more small producers. He wants more farmers markets. More local produce. He and his fellow thinkers speak of “volume premiums” as if they were prima facie evil.

There were calls from the floor to “break up” the packing companies. There were a couple of people who suggested concentration at the retail level was the root of all the problems. There was no evidence the administration was seriously considering—or not considering—action on either front.

They just said that it’s “obvious the (marketing) system is broken” and they want to help.

** A “contract” is an agreement to receive, and pay, for cattle. An example of a contract would be what anybody but a fool would get from a packer before he invested eleventee-umpteen dollars in a pen of “natural” or “grassfed” cattle.
 

*** They’re right. We have more votes.

**** They don’t.

For one thing, they seem not to like contracts.** They’re asking for evidence that packers offer big producers contracts that aren’t available to smaller producers. They don’t think that is fair. I suppose next they’ll go after the fleet discounts that big trucking firms get; perhaps require suppliers to offer mom and pop grocers the same prices they offer Wal-Mart and Safeway; outlaw those un-American “value sized” packages of detergent and breakfast cereals.

Of course they’re not going to do that. They think agriculture is different than trucking or the rest of the industry.***

What we’re talking about, at the root, is what we want out of agriculture policy. Do we think agriculture should be designed for cheap food or for farmers who farm to live or farmers who live to farm? Should we strive for efficiency or the “justice” of a “more level playing field.” Washington has been trying to "Solomonize that baby" for decades.

We have one set of folks who raise cattle for money, who think of cattle as a business. And we have another set who believe the greater purpose of agriculture is living the bucolic life and raising good kids. And many of them think it’s a God-given right. Or at least one they inherited. Just about everybody in the cattle business has his heart in the latter. But for many, the brain is with that business thing. They like a little “lah” with their “moo” if you get the drift.

Cow people just aren’t all the same. We’ve got folks who build unattractive but practical metal barns to keep their equipment dry and their feed fresh, and we’ve got folks who repaint granddaddy’s old wood tack room year after year.

I’m not lying to you here: One of the biggest applause lines of the day was about getting back to the 1800s.

This division has been with us at least as far back as I’ve been watching. It has always been an uneasy détente. I remember my dad saying in the 50s that “any time you go to a bankrupt farmer’s auction, you’ll see a damn boat.”

And how many times have you heard producers grumble about greed when they talk about their more aggressive, successful neighbors? Not you, of course. Or me. But other guys do that.

Some of all that was on display at last week’s “hearing.”

Perhaps we’ve reached the point where the old détente is no longer salvageable. It sure felt that way Friday in Ft. Collins.

Maybe anybody wanting to understand the paradox of such seemingly similar people having such conflicting views should read Elmer Kelton’s “The Time it Never Rained,” with old rancher Charlie Flagg trying to come to grips with hard charging change, standing and shaking his fist at the future; at the choices.

Who’s to say what is right? Europe long ago decided to use the power of government to preserve rather than build. You drive that country and it’s well kept with lots of tree rows and flowers and old stone and mortar houses aged by vines and centuries. I love it. My dog could shoot post card pictures if she had a thumb. I wouldn’t mind my tax dollars going to support it. Moreover, I believe I would love to be a European farmer. With four-row equipment, cows who recognize their names and enough subsidies to keep the furrows from my brow.

On my first trip to Bavaria, among the folks we met was a dairy family. They had 18 Simmental milk cows and something like a half-section of good-looking, manicured farmland. There were two families living off that farm. And two Mercedes automobiles parked out front. It looked like I bet it looked in 1890, which is just where I want to live. (Okay, except with indoor plumbing and rubber tires on the wagons. And somebody to shovel the chicken coop.)

It takes lots of subsidies to make that possible. But it also takes lots of controls to make those subsidies politically palatable. Those two Bavarian families were sharing a house with their livestock. The government wouldn’t let them change anything--like building a new house or adding a satellite antenna. Not only do I want indoor plumbing, I don’t want Simmentals or even Jerseys at the foot of my bed.

(Things have changed some since that visit in the 1980s. On a more recent visit to Sweden, we stayed with a fellow who had abandoned his ancestral hog operation and invested in a modern confinement system. His complaints were about taxes and all the rules imposed by the government on environmental affairs. But he was still enjoying a nice living off a pretty small deal.)

It’s not fair to just dismiss that out of hand. There is much, just like Colorado’s governor told us last week, to be said for the impact of farming and farmers on the national soul. I know plenty of business people who prefer farm backgrounds when they hire. Go to these land grant universities and ask the professors who makes better students.

On the other hand, there is that old 4-minute mile paradigm. Nobody could do it until one guy did it and now everybody can do it. That’s how the American economy has always worked. It’s been a race. The winners get rewards.. And some of us lose and suffer. But we try harder because of it but we all do better than we would do without the challenge, and we call it “progress.”

What happens if we now have our government step in and say, “there are too many losers. We’ve got to “level the playing field so that everybody wins?”

It is that competitive race—applied to our vast natural resource base—that has allowed us to have so much that we’ve not had to fight over it. Our pie has always been bigger each year. That’s why we’re not a Mexico or a Venezuela or a Mogadishu.

The beef pie is no longer getting larger every year. It hasn’t since the early 1970s. The Obama Administration, unlike any administration since Jimmy Carter’s, seems convinced that the American pie will not get larger in the future and their policy leans toward cutting smaller pieces so that more people can have a share.

Whew. Well. Where did all that rambling and ruminating come from? I thought good journalists didn’t do that.****

My only excuse is that “hearing” was quite the event. I’ve heard almost every one of the arguments before—many left on my answering machine after this or that column made this or that side angry—but not in such a mudslide. Watching that lawyer get applauded for being needlessly, cheap-shot, rude, and personally insulting during a debate struck a nerve. I expect that sort of behavior from trial lawyers and Jerry Springer audiences. But not from cattle people. I was ashamed of us.

It’s grassburr season at our place, so I spent much of the weekend in the Jefforsonian activity of hoing and thinking; wondering about what I witnessed last week.

I didn’t know where to start this post, and I don’t know where to end it.

There is so much to think about, besides the pablum and misinformation that consumed most of that “hearing.” All those politicians up there telling us they were “advocates for producers,” when it was so evident that there is no single “producer” interest to advocate. You pick your side in a deal like this. Call it big guy vs. little guy. Call it winners vs. losers. Call it haves and have-nots. Call it, as so many did, a circular firing squad. But, in the modern world, I’m thinking it’s more like oil and water.        

I’d like to hear just how much “repopulation” of rural communities the Willie Nelson lobby wants. My dad spent more of his youth talking to the rear end of a mule than he did school teachers. Is that where we want to go? Back to 80 acres per family? Who’s going to buy us Steve Jobs’ latest widgets?

We can, and should, repopulate rural America. But it won’t be around commercial agriculture. Modern agriculture, with all its technology, doesn’t need many people unless you want to put us out here like so many make-work WPA workers. There aren’t that many people who enjoy mule butts and sweat bees.

But that’s all so negative. I don’t disagree with where these guys wish they could take us. I’m just not sure it’s worth the price we’ll have to pay while they try.

But I am not the deepest thinker on the planet. Or in my home county, for that matter. Or, as my wife so often points out, even in my house. So maybe they’ll figure out how to get us there without one of the bloodbaths the South Americans euphemistically call “reforma de tierra.

Two Choirs, Two Tunes

Aug 27, 2010

Thursday went about like seasoned observers of cattle politics would expect.

First, economists and representative producers from the National Pork Producers Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association droned on for 3-plus hours about the reason beef marketing has evolved the way it has.

They talked about the studies commissioned by Congress. They talked about how they had used marketing arrangements to reduce their risk and improve their product.
It was all very convincing. The whole choir agreed that USDA and DOJ should lay off. But at the end, a reporter’s question put it all in perspective: You’ve been talking all day about theeconomic justification. But the other side will be talking about politics.

True enough. When they finally broke up, your reporter hiked promptly to the R-CALF/WORC/Food and Water Watch/Food workers union gathering at the Marriott where the choir was singing a very different tune.

The NCBA crowd of maybe 150, representing by your reporter’s estimate perhaps half of all the fed cattle in the country, offered up occasional applause. R-CALF was more like an old time revival. Bill Bullard gave a stem winder of a speech, telling the crowd of more like 500 or 600 that they would make history. Standing ovation. A lady from a farm social worker group in Missouri berated factory farms and vowed never to let the cattle industry get as concentrated as the hog industry. Standing ovation. A guy from the food workers union urged the “brothers and sisters” of the crowd to push for “justice.” Big ovation. A lady from Food and Water Watch had her own go at factory farms and blamed them for bad eggs and tainted meat. More clapping. Then they did another 2 plus hours of 2-minute open mike presentations.  And each speaker got a nice round of appreciation.

It was the difference in the crowd at a Texas Aggies game and one at, say, Harvard or somewhere else polite.

I didn’t sit through all of R-CALF’s presentations, but I heard only one argument that wasn’t received with the enthusiasm usually reserved for particularly comely grandchildren. The union guy said WalMart was the problem. He said that if you broke up all the packers and weakened their hand in dealing with giant retailers “they wouldn’t make it.”

That didn’t merit any huzzas or whoopies. This crowd wasn’t there to deal with questions. They were there to hang some packers. It is good, as one speaker said, to keep your “focus.” And these folks were focused.

So, as self-appointed judge, I award the ribbon for calm, reasoned arguments to the NCBA crowd; but you have to love the enthusiasm at R-CALF and the bunch they bused in. They had darn near as many gold-shirted union members as NCBA had in their whole outfit. (Exaggeration, I admit. But there were lots of union people at this meeting of ranchers. And a lot of social workers, too. And, for that matter, a lot of females.) My guess is that, PR wise, they will win the day on Friday.

They have two things going for them. One is sheer numbers—and the word is that open-mike speakers will be chosen by lottery from applicants, so you can bet there will be more arguments favoring the new GIPSA rules than opposing—and another is that passion. And, by the way, put yourself in the shoes of a politician: Are you going to side with the winners, the guys who got rich in the current system, or the poor old cattle feeder from Minnesota who is “the fourth and last generation of farmers” and says packers cut him off because he wasn’t big enough.

And I’d assume they are pointing where the Administration wants to go, anyhow. At least they have fellow travelers. If you go to the website of R-CALF’s friends at Food and Water Watch you’re linked to the anti-beef Meatrix series and thence to the Website for Meatless Mondays, http://www.meatlessmonday.com/, where you’ll read all about how bad red meat is for you.

The NCBA talks would put a scare in you. These guys, the ones actually in the systems, the ones actually buying all those high priced feeder cattle, feel value based marketing itself is threatened by the pending regulation. They say that the proposals will drive the industry back to one-price, commodity trading, erase the incentives for improvement. They worry that the cost of extra record-keeping and the threat of litigation will prompt packers to concentrate further and faster.

Bill Bullard at R-CALF says that is all scare tactics.

We’ll watch today.

Herds of Cattlemen Converge on Ft. Collins

Aug 26, 2010

Just after noon today, there were more than 1,300 people registered for the big hearing on competition in agriculture and “more coming in all the time,” according to a spokesman at the host site Colorado State University. Your reporter is burrowed into a Ft. Collins motel room awaiting the first of two pre-hearing pep-rallies scheduled later today.

The plan—and this is more plan than promise because this particular reporter is not the most technologically adept member of the Farm Journal Media team—is to file occasional updates today and tomorrow from there—somebody with fewer years and more IQ points will scatter them in the inter-ether.       

So let’s look at what’s up. There are many, many cattle people headed this way. Buses full, in fact. NCBA and the National Pork Producers Council put out a call for their members to show up. There were several fitting that bill on the plane I road in from Amarillo this morning. More of the folks from cattle feeding country are expected tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the “family farm” outfits—led by R-Calf—are busing in their members from around the country. Most of the guys I rode in with would bend a reporter’s ear about the need to maintain freedom of choice in the cattle market. Most of those buses are filled with people who think otherwise.

So far, it seems the latter group is in the ascendancy. Judging by my mail, more of the anti-packers than the free market advocates are enthused enough about their cause to take action. They certainly have the support of Dudley Butler, the bossman at GIPSA. Or at least, the rule he has proposed indicates he sides more with those who believe more must be done to curb the power of meat processors.

I don’t know all the speakers the Administration’s organizers have lined up, so it will be interesting to see what unfolds. Here's a link to the agenda.

One group of Senators seems concerned about the way the agency sought participation and how the speakers were chosen—see the letter here—but some of the NCBA fans admit to being pleasantly surprised.

I’ll be honest with you. I expect more heat than light at this deal. But Pat Goggins—the Montana firebrand publisher who did as much as anybody to get this Civil War started—editorialized last week against killing value based marketing. That strikes some as a sign the proposed rule goes too far for even the committed.

Maybe we’ll get to sense some walk-back from the administration. Many believe that Eric Holder and Christine Varney were taken aback by the tone of House Agriculture Committee democrats when the latter group accused Mr. Butler of trying to “write legislation” with the proposed regulations. The, perhaps wistful, thinking among free marketers is that they had been sold the idea that there was universal support among “farmers” for such far-reaching legislation.

That is not, obviously, the case and the question is whether this format will allow that fact to become clear to the very busy, very-outsider folks from DOJ.

It’s possible there would be more political cost than profit for the Administration in pursuing the full package of regulations as proposed. It’s not like Holder and Varney don’t have some low-hanging fruit they could pluck to placate the packer haters. They could always announce they’re going to forbid JBS from buying McIlhaney on the grounds that would be too much packer ownership.

In terms of sating bloodlust, that would be like tossing a drumstick to a pride of lions, but it might offer a useful political distraction for an administration that could use a few distractions.
On the other hand, this administration is committed to “fundamental change.” Dudley Butler and these proposed regulations have codified a bit of exactly that. It seems like the administration these days is trying to, as the national pundits call it, “energize the base” and you can bet these regulations are doing that for the agricultural segment of the anticorporatists.

More information to look at:

The letter Senators sent earlier this week questioning the reliability of this hearing.

 

 

Cattlemen Shouting Into the Wind 

Aug 23, 2010

The upcoming USDA-DOJ hearing, scheduled this week in Fort Collins, Col., bodes to be more fun than a chicken fight.

And probably louder.

From a recent R-Calf missive, we learn that buses and car pools have been organized in, at least, North Dakota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Washington, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi and Utah.

We might assume that the “representative sampling” represented by those attendees will favor more governmentwell control of the packing industry. And, I suspect it will be vocal.

At the same time, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Association are begging their members to show up as well, and plan a pre-hearing press conference, confab, and the night before — with free grub— to get their message out as well.

NCBA does not favor more governmentwell control of the packing industry.

(I know “governmentwell” is not a word. But it should be. We’ve got too many well-intentioned government efforts underway these days for it not to be. For purposes of this post, it shall be.)

Your reporter is being dispatched to the hearing and will report, for Beef Today and Top Producer , as objectively as his college training and 40 years of journalism experience require him to be. That is how it should be. This will prove a crossroads for the industry and it should be approached with an open mind. You have only to read Dr. Max Thornsberry’s accompanying editorial (How GIPSA’s Competition Rule Disrupts the Packers’ Plan to Control the Cattle Supply Chain) to see there are some compelling arguments as to why the governmentwell should step in to protect the poor old helpless cattle feeder from himself. Oops, I meant protect cattle feeders from “packers bearing contracts.”

On the other hand, there are arguments to be made on the other side of the issue. And that’s the sort of thing an opinion blog is free to tackle.

Today, let’s just consider the basis for all the anti-packer rhetoric we hear. Let us sum it up with this quote, also from R-Calf, in appealing for supporters to attend the Ft. Collins hearing: This is Rural America’s greatest opportunity to begin reversing the unacceptable decline we’re all experiencing in our country communities, and all it takes is for every concerned citizen to be there.

Now, if you can look around your neighborhood and honestly testify that packer concentration and captive supplies are responsible for a significant percentage of the decline in your rural community, please let me know. I’d like to see it.

The decline in our communities is the result of many other factors. I would argue that farm programs—CRP and support programs that promise modest profits for very efficient operations and losses for less efficient operations—have had more to do with that. And let’s remember that consolidation has not been limited to agriculture. Mom-and-pop everythings have disappeared the last 30 years.

Better highways and better cars have contributed to the growth of regional cities at the expense of smaller towns. Farmers have fewer kids, and those kids have more attractive opportunities in town. Technology has made large scale agriculture more profitable, and its expense has limited its use to smaller operations.

There are a lot of reasons that a big cow operation can produce beef cheaper than I can. They have scale. They have management expertise. They don’t have to trailer-haul their cattle to the nearest auction to let some order buyer scalp them so he can buy a newer BMW.

There are things I can do to offset some of those factors, though. I can feed my own calves at a commercial feedlot. It might not make money every year, but year-in, year-out, it will. Especially compared to jackpotting the things at a sale barn so that three or four middlemen can take a cut.

Fortunately, I can, by feeding them at a feedyard with marketing access and expertise I can realize the full value of the cattle through value-added programs that require cooperation between the feedyard and the packer. Fortunately, I know that if some of my cattle don’t fit the packer’s needs, he will be able to sell them to another packer who does need them.

At the moment, sure, it might not pay. That’s because the feeders who understand the market are bidding me more for my calves than I think they’re worth.

And we want to stop that because?

Why do we want to limit my options by putting shackles on the folks who sell the beef I produce? To keep them from making so much money? Even though, over time, their increased productivity has reduced their margins?

Or just to keep them from “chickenizing” the beef industry?

The chicken outfit commissioned a study last year that you chickenization phobics should consider. (Read it here). I’ll admit it’s commissioned by the chickenizers themselves, so I know the Dr. Maxes among us won’t give it much credence. But the USDA numbers should be credible enough for even them.

In general, producer numbers have been declining rapidly in animal agriculture for many years. However, the chicken industry has been somewhat of an exception. According to USDA Agricultural Census data the number of farming operations selling broiler chickens was virtually unchanged from 1987 to 200. Farm operations selling hogs declined from 238,819 to 74,789 over that same period. Operations selling fed cattle declined from 190,008 in 1987 to 76,396 in 2007.”

If the real meat business model is so vastly superior to poultry’s, why are their producers holding steady while ours go out of business? Has the poultry model or the beef model contributed more to the “unacceptable decline we’re all experiencing in our country communities?”

We’re not going to cure an illness we’ve misdiagnosed. If we can keep governmentwell out of it as much as possible, we’ll adjust. We’ve got the freedom now to do that.

I just don’t see why so many people want to change that in the ill-fated hope it will somehow reverse population losses in their neighborhoods. They seem, to me, to be shouting into the wind. When you do that, you have to shout REALLY LOUD.

I bet there’s some of that very kind of shouting at Ft. Collins next week.
 

Do-gooder Dogma

Aug 20, 2010

Darn I wish I’d done the math to write this blog from the New York Times: Math Lessons for Locavores.

This is common sense stuff you already knew, probably. But you should read it now and remember it for when you’re talking to your more trendy friends.

My favorite quote to appear in the Times in many fed cattle turns: “But the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas.”

Artisan Beef: A Small Target

Aug 08, 2010

What is that makes people who write beef books, even friendly beef books, feel they must dis the way it’s produced?

Knowing that many of us are looking for alternative markets, I have been meaning to get around to reviewing a couple of such books for a while and here we are.

The more recent of the two is Mark Schatzker’s  “Steak—One man’s search for the world’s tastiest piece of beef. Its predecessor is the 2008 “Raising Steaks—The life and times of American Beef” by Betty Fussell.

I would suggest any student of the beef industry read both. But do so with a dash of salt.  Or other steak seasoning, of course. You can find the books at Amazon.com
Both of these authors are steak lovers. They speak lovingly of the sort of steak they like. But they are both steak snobs, much too sophisticated to enjoy a simple corn fed Porterhouse from Morton’s.

These folks want every steak to be an adventure and they’ve got the bucks to pay for it. Lucky them.

Both provide long, mostly accurate if imperfect, histories and descriptions of the beef industry and cattle production. They both visit with beef scientists and come away unconvinced that beef scientists know what they’re researching about and end in the thrall of niche, grass-fed beef producers with beef to sell and beliefs as evidence of the merits.

Both tell us that feedlots smell bad. Both report on visits with Temple Grandin and both grudgingly admit that—as Schatzker quotes Ms. Grandin, the cattle “aren’t unhappy” in feed pens.

Both seem a little distrustful of commercial beef production, but neither attacks it outright. Except for the way fed beef tastes, of course.

Mark Schatzker—regular readers will recall our recent exchange and my vow to finally review his book—provides the liveliest read because he is such a writer and so into the work of it all. You’ll laugh out loud a time or two. Too bad he starts out by telling us how bland generic beef is—after sampling it in tourist traps—and complaining about the smell of feed yards.

That bit of bias—I mean what did he expect? Ice cream?—colors the rest of the book. From there, he’s off to Argentina and Japan and Europe, finding beef more to his liking every time he steps off the plane.

My wife and some friends drag me occasionally to California wine country, and through the years I’ve learned that there are a lot of variables in wine. I lack the palate and training—or, for that matter, the interest—to discern and describe all the subtleties. But I, as they say, know what I like.

And that generally runs like $90 a bottle, which is about $87 more than I like it.

Schatzker and Ms. Fussell both crawl all over the wine analogy when they discuss beef. I’ve eaten wheat pasture beef. I’ve eaten South American grass-fed beef. I’ve tried European beef. I’ve had all grades of U.S. beef. I am ready to admit that background has a big impact and there is some insipid steak in the nation’s meat cases and eateries.

I have no reason to demur when Mark quotes one of his European interviews saying grass-fed beef “is like wine. There are hundreds of flavors. You never know what the next one is going to bring, and that makes steak exciting. It makes me wonder what I’m going to have tonight.”

Fine. If you’re into adventure. Which some people are.

These books skim across an emerged trend among well-to-do eaters. A small industry has sprung up around “artisan” beef tastings. Not surprisingly, you’ll find several of them in that

Napa-Sonoma wine country. Carrie Oliver’s “Oliver Ranch” isn’t a ranch at all. Ms. Oliver has simply found a series of small beef marketers and can overnight some of their products as a sampler “taste package” so that you or I can throw a taste-testing party for a few of our hoity-toity friends.

Maybe throw in a few wines, some sea salts. A couple of cheeses with odd names and odors. I mean bouquets. You can find her at  http://www.oliverranch.com/shopcontent.asp?type=tasterspack.

That is great. It sounds like fun. It helps give a few cattle producers an alternative market, albeit with a carbon footprint about the size of Delaware.

Still, I have to whine a bit when Ms. Fussell asserts that “What the (beef) industry attributes to consumer wants is what the industry wants to produce: cheap beef.”

Listen, guys. That oaky and fruity appellation stuff is nice, but we have a living to make out here. And a lot of people to feed. You may be able to enjoy the best Fed Ex offers, but most people can’t. Even if we could all agree on what constitutes “best.”

Taste test after taste test tells us that well-marbled fed beef has universal appeal. It is also affordable. Most beef will continue to aim at the most common—not the least--common denominator. At least as long as it is—unlike those nice wines—a dietary mainstay and the biggest sector in American agriculture.

Not to argue there’s anything wrong with approaching beef as an aventure culinaire. There is that sliver of the population that constitutes a market for some niche producers. It will never be a big market, but neither is the high-end wine business and the latter, at least, is lucrative.

So if you are among that minority of beef consumers willing to pay whatever it takes—in money and shopping time--to find gourmet beef and wine, get busy hunting it. There are dozens of niche marketers out there, just as there are dozens of wine makers. Sample them all. Find what you like and open your wallet.

But I think, and most of the people I know think, beef is pretty darned good. Yes, we get one every now and then that isn’t as great as the others.

That said, both of these books are worth the read, just for the beef business background. Ms. Fussell even wanders off into beef industry politics without apparently understanding much of it. (She, not shockingly, seems to side with those who deplore technology and generic beef production. She stops just short of predicting a mad cow epidemic and universal food poisoning. But that’s all to be expected. You can’t sell books without being politically correct.)

Anyhow, as you work through these, leaven their message with a visit over at the Sustainable Beef Resource Center at www.sustainablebeef.org. There, you’ll find the facts and stats to show just how important all this corn and new technology is in helping provide affordable food to a growing population.

There’s a place for fine wines, awful smelling cheeses and specialty beef. But it will never be a big market. If you’re inclined to aim for it as a producer, aim carefully.

It’s a small target.  

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