By anyone’s estimation, the U.S. cattle and beef supply chain has been stress-tested to its limits in the past two years. Fires, floods, pandemics, hackings, labor shortages, backlogs, transportation woes, and sky-high input prices have all taken their toll on our ability to recover from what was already a tough stretch in the bottoms of the cattle cycle. To add insult to injury, these challenges have played out to the advantage of our partners at the end of the supply chain, with the packing and retail sectors reaping huge profits on the backs of our producers’ blood, sweat, and tears.
Seemingly every new challenge has meant a price retreat for cattlemen and women and a windfall for those selling beef. Rightfully so, this struggle has captured the hearts and attention of many cattle industry champions on Capitol Hill. Expressing a desire to “do something” has become a required statement for any politician when addressing producers, ag media, and beef consumers. The real challenge, however, has been for our industry to determine what exactly that “something” is. We’re all seeking solutions that will restore leverage to the supply side of the equation and increase opportunities for smaller producers who haven’t felt like they can compete in this market--all while avoiding the market-distorting unintended consequences of too much government intervention into a free market.
One thing we know for sure, at this point in the debate, is that nobody – absolutely nobody – has a lock on the simple answer to this problem. The first thing you learn in this industry is to be wary of anyone who confidently tells you that all cattlemen agree with their position on an issue. I can guarantee you that person hasn’t talked to enough cattlemen.
The reality is that we have a spectrum of approaches on how to recapture the market high ground ranging from “get out of the way and let the market work,” to “give us more information so we can compete,” to “government control of the market is our only hope.” While these views will likely never fully align, we do have some much-needed clarity on the majority opinion after several years of exhaustive national debate. Following the NCBA convention in Houston, Texas, and American Farm Bureau Federation’s meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, earlier this year, it is clear that the majority of this industry agrees that we should “do something,” and, importantly, that something should not include government mandates on cattle marketing methods.
Typically, when the two largest national trade associations representing U.S. beef cattle producers are resoundingly aligned in opposition to a government mandate, that would provide awfully clear direction to our friends on Capitol Hill about the best path forward. Unfortunately, in today’s choose-your-own-facts environment, it has only further fueled division, both inside the cattle industry family, and on the Hill. Things have gotten so bad that some respected senators have gone so far as to publicly say that any group that disagrees with their stated position is clearly corrupt, disingenuous, or under the sway of a vast conspiracy. It is a sad day in Washington, D.C., when these same offices who refer to the Senate as the world’s greatest deliberative body, willingly contribute to our nation’s deepening distrust of government. They do so by further calling into question the competency and integrity of other members, established legitimate stakeholders, and Congressional staff who don’t “fall in line” behind their preferred position. Let me state clearly for the record that top-down, Washington-knows-better attitudes like that are the reason nobody trusts this town. It’s insulting to the tens-of-thousands of real cattle producers who participate in our policy processes, and it’s placing egos and political power above what’s best for the industry.
This nonsense needs to stop today. Our industry has far too many challenges to spend another year or two or three debating an issue that the entirety of academia, the vast majority of producers, and the largest ag organizations in the country all oppose. Mandates aren’t the solution and it’s time to recognize that. There are a host of transparency items that have surfaced during this effort that are broadly supported. Now is the time to embrace those and move forward with a package that we all know would pass both chambers with broad bipartisan support – including a cattle contract library, daily formula base price reporting, more timely carcass weight reporting, 14-day delivery, expanded opportunities for small packing plants, labor reform and more.
It's essential that we move forward because we have many other issues to address. Trade has been one of the only bright spots in the past two years for our industry. Congress must get serious about engaging with the Biden Administration on this critical issue and ensuring that we continue to expand markets for our products. The United States produces the highest quality beef in the world, and we do it with the lowest environmental footprint. U.S. cattle producers have a delicious, nutrient-dense solution to climate change and food insecurity just waiting to expand into new international markets. We need Congress to push the president to engage and we need Trade Promotion Authority to help get it done.
We also have a crippling labor shortage in American agriculture. We need a commonsense solution to our long-term labor needs and we need it now. Efforts to reform the ag labor space, thus far, have been inadequate to the task and have failed to recognize that the largest labor need for US cattle producers is in the packing sector. We must establish a plan to secure more year-round skilled labor to keep the supply chain moving and we must do it now.
The U.S. cattle industry stands ready to work with members of Congress who want to help us. We are eternally grateful for the efforts of many to address problems over the past few difficult years, but that help must begin with listening to and understanding the needs of the cattle producers you seek to help. Not the loudest in the room, but the majority.
It’s time to move forward. It’s time to address real issues. In other words, it’s time to “do something.”
Ethan Lane leads NCBA’s Washington office as the Vice President of Government Affairs. He is a fifth generation Arizonan with more than two decades of experience in natural resources, land use issues, and advocacy on behalf of the cattle industry. Prior to his current role, he was the Executive Director for the Public Lands Council.
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