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.