The Trouble with NCBA
Jul 13, 2009
By Steve Cornett
It is a sour time in the cattle business as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association prepares to gather for its midyear meeting in Denver this week. This economy bodes to keep beef demand—and, of course, cattle prices—low at the same time the federal government is on something of a stampede toward more expensive regulations concerning everything from the environment to energy to food safety, all financed with higher taxes.
I suppose I’ve been to every NCBA summer meeting since the mid-80s. I can’t think of a time when that was scarier with less cause for short-term optimism. Hard times make for interesting meetings, though. My favorite part of NCBA has always been the committee meetings, where you get to hear both from specialists and from producers with every shade of opinion you can imagine. That’s how a big-tent organization should work. It’s what is missing from the policy development process at places like R-Calf, where folks belong because they agree with the leadership on a couple of issues.
It is a messy way to make policy, all that debate, and nobody agrees with every decision. The founders of R-Calf dropped out of NCBA you’ll recall because votes didn’t go to suit them. That’s partly a result of personalities—you noticed that many of them were finally driven out of R-Calf and had to start yet another new organization because they couldn’t get along with themselves, either.
But they also had a point. These guys are downright convinced that beef imports and beef packers are driving them out of business. They’re wrong. They’ve got the blame placed wrong and thus advocate policies that will speed the industry’s decline, but it’s hard to blame them for starting their own movement. They weren’t all that outvoted on most of the issues that drove them away. Those were close votes. But they resulted in 100% NCBA policy.
If NCBA is to be the “umbrella” organization for the beef industry, it should devise a system that would respect minority opinion. If I thought, for instance, that NAFTA was the reason my calves are so cheap, you’d have to forgive me for not supporting an NCBA that is fully committed to free trade. If I were an Iowa corn farmer, you’d have to forgive me for resenting an NCBA that opposes federal ethanol subsidies.
So what if NCBA only adopted policy that is agreed upon by a supermajority? Maybe two-thirds? If you can’t get that supermajority on an issue, then drop it and concentrate on the issues in which do have an industry consensus. They could get consensus on things like estate taxes and public lands issues and animal rights. Put the lobbying team to work on those issues and don’t drive off half your members because 49% of them think you’re working against their best interests.
That way, the guys in South Dakota could support NCBA and work with Texas and Kansas feeders on 90% of the issues threatening them, and if they still want the government to save them from packers and Canucks, they could continue to pour money into R-Calf’s lawsuits. It wouldn’t take long before a separate group, devoted to free enterprise and sharing the NCBA majority’s distaste for government intervention would coalesce.
Let them fight over those issues separately. When it comes to the bread-and-butter issues, keep them all at the big table under the big umbrella.
NCBA leadership has been trying to find a way to keep everybody happy for years. They create segment councils. They reallocate votes. They add mail-in ballots. They’re trying again now. But so long as the association policy requires them to put 100% effort behind a 51% consensus, somebody is going to be unhappy—and that lack of a united front is killing the industry.
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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