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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

Read the latest blog from Steve Cornett.

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.

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COMMENTS (2 Comments)

An extremely well-written summation of the circular "talking." I, too, believe rural America needs to be repopulated but I don't believe American society is willing to allow it to be done in your cited "Bavarian-style" example. Regressing agriculture to an "earlier but simpler time" with more emphasis on locally grown food from more and smaller farmers certainly sounds attractive . I just don't think that's socially or economically practical. I'm trying to figure our how many "local" farmers will be needed -- and where the farmground will come from -- to create the volume of locally grown foodstuffs needed to feed the more than 8 million folks living in New York City or the 4 million in Chicago -- or wherever.

10:30 AM Aug 30th
Vines_N_Cattle - GEARY, OK
Steve, I'd pay real money to see, hear, read your thoughts from a tour of Joel Salatin's farm in Virginia. That European feel you speak of, zero subsidies, and a seven figure income.
10:18 AM Aug 30th

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