Chris Leonard joined our discussion on Sunday commenting on Setting the Stage. He stated,
“Farmers and ranchers are clearly the heroes of this book, as any casual reader will quickly be able to determine.”
As I read his remark it occurred to me how varied our perspectives are, as I failed to find a hero amongst his hundreds of pages of rhetoric. Perhaps there were moments of personifying farmers and ranchers as victims, but I found the negative underlying tone of the book incapable of creating a hero. As with any story that depicts a victim, the author must also define a villain.
The past thirty plus years have seen a tremendous amount of change in the way that meat gets from the farm to the grocery store. Consolidation occurred as a search for economic sustainability advanced all across the food production chain. Tight margins, volatile markets, increased government regulations, new food safety standards and variable weather all came together to create a complex set of challenges that taxed even the most seasoned entrepreneurs.
Mr. Leonard argues that the resulting consolidation has crippled both the farmer and rural America. He believes that the integration and collaboration resulting from greater merging at the packing plant level has negatively affected market trade. In particular, he casts Tyson Foods as his villain. He writes:
“People didn’t see the radical transformation that was taking place on American Farms, but the benefit invisibly accrued to their food budgets with each pound of Tyson chicken, beef, and pork they brought home. But this benefit wasn’t free. Consumers got savings up front, but they paid for it over time. Essentially, consumers traded away the U.S. farming system in order to get the up-front savings from industrial meat. Each new Tyson farm, and each new Tyson meat factory, ate away at the fabric of a profitable sector of Middle America’s economy.”
Chris Leonard, The Meat Racket
In my opinion, the modern food production system is not made up of victims and villains. Rather, those of us that remain in 2014 are a testimony that teamwork, innovation, and tenacity can lead to a system that grants consumers a varied choice of safe foods at an affordable price. The U.S. farming system still exists; it simply has changed to meet evolving consumer expectations.
Vertical integration now predominantly exists in the poultry industry, while more collaborative relationships between farmers and packing plants in both the pork and beef industries have slowly begun to take the place of the traditionally contentious relationships of the past. While this does create a new normal, I do not look upon it with a pejorative lens.
These types of new relationships allow for increased food safety measures all across the animal’s lifespan, as well as the ability to work together to attain improved animal welfare. They allow for innovative farmers to be rewarded for higher quality meat and better farming practices; and they create a mechanism for the farmer to better connect with his/her customers. The result drives innovation and team work which benefits all Americans.
On a personal note, I have gotten to know many of the executives and managers on the Tyson team over the past year as I have served on Tyson’s 3rd Party Animal Well-being committee for their Farm Check program. I have found that these people share many of the same priorities and aspirations as I do. We are driven individuals who work passionately toward the end goal of producing safe and affordable food. We do not always agree, but there is a level of respect that permeates our relationship. I know that I learn from them, and I certainly hope that they benefit from my contributions.
I believe that together we bring integrity, innovation, and ultimately better food products to your table.