The Victim, The Villain, and the Great Debate…

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.

We aren't just farmers, we are entrepreneurs constantly searching for ways to keep our way of life sustainable...

I am a farmer, and I am most certainly  not a victim.  Rather, I am an entrepreneur constantly searching for ways to keep my way of life sustainable…

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.

I not only grow beef, but I also am a mom who cooks it to feed to her family...

I am not just a beef farmer, but I also am a mom who cooks that beef to feed to her family…

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.

The latest Tyson effort to ensure good animal welfare on the farm...

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.CPB_FINStripcut

I believe that together we bring integrity, innovation, and ultimately better food products to your table.

  • For more information on the history of Tyson Foods and pertinent facts about the company’s core values and market share please read the company’s fact book.
  • For an economic expert’s opinion on the market debate brought up in The Meat Racket, see Dr. Michael Dick’s perspective on Agriculture Proud.

14 Comments

Filed under A Farmer's View on Foodie Thoughts..., General

14 responses to “The Victim, The Villain, and the Great Debate…

  1. Warren

    Anne,
    I started reading your blog after your interview with the Farm Marketing Solutions podcast. I admit that I was challenged by the interview of a “feedlot” farmer, but it has been a broadening and enriching experience to understand your position and how the things you are doing are good and good intentioned.

    This book review has played upon the same string, as Chris may be an exaggeration of a position I may have had unconsciously before coming to your blog.

    I say all this only to add this to the discussion. It appears that both you and Mr. Leonard are working off of personal convictions (based on his comment) and both of you are trying to make things better. If you agree that intentions are good on both sides (which may be a big concession), than the discussion is not one of personality, but one of ideas.

    I am very interested in hearing your opposing perspective, but I think any argument is improved if you can see elements of truth in the opposing argument. Do you believe Mr. Leonard is dead wrong on all accounts, or are there some grains of truth that are worth highlighting? For example, is it true that vertical integration has reduced the farmers flexibility and made them highly dependent on the integrator (like Tyson)?

    • Hello Warren,

      First of all, thank you for reading and following. I really appreciate the time and effort that you are putting in to try and gain insight into the perspective of a “feed yard” farmer. I really enjoyed doing the pod cast with Farm Marketing Solutions and hope to get back east some day so that I can meet John and his family. I think that what he is doing is awesome and wish him much success.

      I very much agree that Mr. Leonard and I are working off of personal convictions. My problem is that I have serious concerns that he did not use balanced research while writing his book. He is not a food animal farmer, so he does not have first hand perspective on this issue. I also believe that he went searching for a few farmers who could give testimony to his predetermined hypothesis and ignored the feedback that was shared by the rest of us who thought differently.

      He and I talked about some of the same ideas that I have shared in my recent blog posts during the telephone interview that we had 14 months ago. None of that perspective is anywhere in the pages of the book. Essentially he ignored my “story” and school of thought because it did not fit in with his hypothesis. I don’t think that type of reporting has any integrity as I believe that the American public has a right to know all sides of the food production story so that they can make informed food choices and understand “where their food comes from”.

      You asked a very good question and I will do my best to answer it here—I am going to apologize up front that the answer will be lengthy.

      I believe that Mr. Leonard is Dead Wrong on the following counts:

      1. His depiction/description of rural American farming communities.
      2. His portrayal of farmers as uneducated victims.
      3. His statement that diversified farms no longer exist. (I live on one and the majority of my neighbors do too!)
      4. His view that food production was better in 1982 than it is today.
      5. His insinuation that lack of government regulation was the primary cause of the consolidation of the meat packing plants.
      6. His claim that increased federal government oversight will have a positive affect on the food production chain.

      There is a “grain of truth” in his concern for ensuring that a free market contest exists each week to determine the base value of meat commodities. This is a concern of beef farmers, and one that we are brainstorming within ourselves to get figured out. I can assure you; however, that no cattle farmer that I know wants to go back to the way it was in 1982 to fix the problem. Rather, we are looking forward to new ideas of how to maintain a fair market trade while also maintaining the tremendous gains that have been made in beef quality, food safety, and animal welfare since 1982. I am going to touch on this in more depth in my next blog post.

      Relative to your direct question regarding vertical integration: every occurrence has both positive and negative tradeoffs. I believe that you need to weigh the positives against the negatives to see if a system is beneficial or harmful. There are a couple of tremendous positives for farmers involved in a vertically integrated system.

      The first is a significant reduction of risk. By owning both the birds and the feed, Tyson has taken upon themselves a huge amount of the inherent “risk” associated with being a chicken farmer. In essence, they have taken those market risks off of the farmer and absorbed it themselves. Today’s markets are incredibly volatile so this is a big positive. The result of that change in bird/feed ownership is a reduction in farmer flexibility and an increase in the “closeness” of the relationship between the farmer and the packing plant. In short, in order to get rid of unwanted risk—the farmer losses some of his independence and must work more closely with the packing plant.

      The second positive is an increase in efficiency in the growth of the meat. Being either integrated or collaborative allows for better teamwork which leads to better animal care, lower animal stress, and a resulting better growth efficiency. Again, the consequence is that the farmer is required to work more closely with the packing plant.

      I don’t know if you have read the book or not, but (as an animal caregiver) I found significant flaws in Mr. Leonard’s recounting of “chicken farmer stories”. Many of the dramatic stories that he told of chicken farmers who had bird health problems just didn’t make any sense to me. There appeared to me to be huge holes in the stories relative to biosecurity (bird health), and facility care. The way that he reported the incidences just didn’t sound right and leads me to assume that the stories held little, if any, integrity.

      I also personally feel that a payment system that rewards good facilities and good animal care is both necessary and appropriate. Good facilities and good care lead to healthier and more efficient animals — that is what we want. So, the fact that Tyson has a system that rewards this makes absolute sense from an environmental, animal welfare, and business perspective. I disagree with Mr. Leonard that this type of payment system is “unfair” or “wrong”. To me it is absolutely the right thing as it drives innovation and improvement.

      I have gone on a long time here, so I will stop writing. I encourage you to send me more questions if you have them. I am happy to try and answer them. I am going to try and share some more details relative to cattle marketing in my next blog post. Thank you again for both reading and reaching out with questions. I really appreciate it.

      Best,
      Anne

  2. Dee

    Anne,
    I have read that feedlots are filthy, disease-riddled places where cattle live miserable lives and since my only knowledge of raising cattle is on pasture, I could assume those stories are true, but because I know that similar exaggerated claims are made about poultry farms, I don’t. Yet you, as someone who has never been a poultry farmer, make broad assumptions and say that the stories in Mr. Leonard’s book held little if any integrity.

    Walk a mile in my shoes before you assume you know the truth. As a poultry farmer under contract I can assure you that the stories sound all too familiar.

    Believe me, poultry farmers have market risks. When the market fluctuates production is cut by reducing numbers of chickens processed. This translates into less income on the farm. At my farm in particular production cuts mean an income reduction of around 25% of yearly income, so don’t try to tell me I don’t have a market risk.

    While the bird health problems in the book may not “make sense” to you, I can promise you these things happen and sick chicks have nothing to do with farm biosecurity or facility care. I have received chicks straight from the hatchery that were sick. One flock smelled like rotten eggs which probably meant that one or more eggs exploded in the incubator spewing bacteria. Those chickens were a nightmare of problems from start to finish. I have had numerous flocks where many chicks were unable to walk by the time they were three days old and I would have to cull hundreds of chickens because they couldn’t walk. Breeder flocks are now being vaccinated for the disease that was causing this problem. Several years ago many farms were receiving sick chicks and after many months the problem was traced back to contamination from the machine the hatchery uses to inject vaccine into the eggs. Don’t assume that all problems can be prevented with farm biosecurity and facility care, because they cannot.

    While the chicken companies sell it that way, the payment system does not reward good facilities and good animal care. My poultry houses fully meet every specification for the highest base pay for the company I am contracted with so they should meet the definition of “good facilities”. Every flock of chickens that comes through my farm receives the same quality of care. While my flocks generally finish on the top side of the settlement, I have also had flocks on the bottom side. If you throw out all the farms that place on the bottom side and take all the farms that finish on the top side in any particular week and place them all together the next flock half of them will finish on the bottom side. It’s the way the system works.

    • Hi Dee,

      You are correct that I am not a poultry farmer, so I appreciate you offering first hand input on the topic. I have met and visited with poultry farmers that supply Tyson, but as you pointed out, that is not the same as being one myself.

      It appears to me that a poultry farm that does not own the birds and feed would be reasonably similar to a commercial cattle feed yard that does not own the cattle– taking care of the animals and preparing them to go to the packing plant for the ranchers and investors that own the cattle. I agree that in that case there is still the risk of not having a full facility in order to cover capitol costs. It is like having a hotel that is not full. You have all of the upkeep costs etc, but lack the income that comes from occupancy. This risk of capacity is, however, not the same as having open risk in the market for everything—the hotel, its occupants, and also what you are going to feed them. I believe that there is less risk in the vertical integration set up for the farmer because volatile costs of feed as well as the price of the animals has been taken out of the equation. That was my point in the above comment—if that is not accurate, please correct me and accept my apology.

      As for herd health–my comment relative to that was in regard to stories in the book where the author stated that huge numbers of birds were dying and then as soon as those animals were shipped that the houses were immediately refilled without any mention of cleaning. I know that there are standard practices for cleaning bird houses, and I would think that if a significant disease event were occurring then the houses would be cleaned prior to the next set of birds coming in–hence my comment about biosecurity. In addition, I found the author’s stories to be inconsistent regarding how the farmer dealt with the illnesses. For instance, in one story the farmer was told to turn up the heat to warm the birds but then at the same time opened the windows to let cooler air in. The plans for dealing with the health event were contrary and just plain didn’t make any sense. I also was confused by the author talking about “field veterinarians”—in one sense he talks about them like they were DVMs, but then another time he talks about their lack of formal training. Again, the inconsistencies in description just didn’t make sense. It made me think that the author did not understand the system.

      I found many many inconsistencies in the book — in the chicken stories as mentioned above — in the author’s descriptions of pork farming — in the author’s descriptions of feed yards and cattle markets. All of those inconsistencies led me to feel that the book lacked integrity—hence my above comment relative to “integrity”.

      I sell my cattle on a “grid basis” where I receive premiums and discounts on the meat depending on its quality and how it compares with other animals shipped that week. For that reason, the description of how farmers were compensated made sense to me. In addition, I would think that chicken gain efficiency would be as important to Tyson (since they own the birds/feed) as it is to me (as the person who owns the cattle and the feed) so I can see why it would be important to have a payment system that rewards good performance and care.

      Again, I appreciate your insight and welcome any other thoughts that you might have. As I stated in one of my earlier blog posts, I do not believe that the food production system that we currently have is perfect. There are many things that we can do differently to improve. All that being said, I took exception to the negative portrayal of agriculture and rural America in the book. I also take exception to a reporter writing a book that lacks balance; and I can personally attest to the fact that the beef industry that he portrayed is not the one that I participate in.

      Best,
      Anne

  3. Warren

    Anne,

    Thank you very much for taking the time to write all that out. I hope it is helpful to more than just myself. I will need to read it a couple of times to really digest it (so much meat, as it were). BTW, I have not read the book, just going off of what I am reading on your blog.

    I’m going to muse awhile, then consider some other questions.

  4. Dee

    Anne,
    Your assessment of the risk is correct. It’s irritating when people dismiss the fact that growers do have a share of market risk.

    There are things that have to be done between flocks and there is always down time between flocks. No one ships one flock and immediately receives a new one. Not mentioning cleaning doesn’t mean no cleaning was done, but I better understand now why you mentioned biosecurity.

    The story where the farmer was told to turn the heat up and also let more air in is a perfect example of the often conflicting “help” that service techs offer to poultry farmers. Unless whatever problem you may experience with a flock of chickens is blatantly obvious, service techs often guess at what is needed. I have had conflicting advice as have most poultry farmers I have talked with. I have tried to educate myself as much as possible and tend to follow my gut and do what I think is best and more often than not ignore the “helpful advice”. It’s worked well for me for 10 years, but many growers do exactly what the service tech tells them to do regardless of how foolish some of it is.

    I have never heard of a “field veterinarian” and will agree that his description was confusing. Although I have never the vet (who is a DVM), I have been told the company I’m contracted with has one. There are “field service men” or “service tech” employees that are assigned to specific farms to visit each week who may or may not have any prior experience or education in poultry. I, rightly or wrongly, assumed that the farmers he spoke with called their service tech a field vet. I know from speaking to farmers areas other than where I live that farmers in different areas refer to these service employees by different terms.

    As I said, the pay system is touted as based on performance, but in reality it is not. I have had flocks finish from first to last and I am the same person, with the same poultry houses, doing the same things. The only things that change are the quality of the chicks and feed, things I have no control over. Raising a flock of good quality chicks is a walk in the park compared with raising a flock of bad quality chicks which will work you to death and penalize your income.

    The next time you have an opportunity to talk with some of the Tyson poultry farmers, ask them when was the last time they had a raise in base pay that wasn’t tied to them making additional investments in their poultry houses. It very rarely happens. There are rumors the company I contract with is going to offer a raise in base pay for the first time in 7 years. In order to get that “raise” I will have to invest around $4000 per poultry house. Because of increased input costs in the last 7 years and the cost of paying back the money I will have to borrow to get the “raise” I will be no better off financially. The reality of poultry farm income is that is stagnates. The National Chicken Council has a report on the website chickenroost.com by Michael Dick titled “Concentration and Competition in the Poultry Industry” where he states that between 2004 and 2008 poultry farm expenses increased 35% while income increased. 32%. I can assure you things have only worsened since. then.

    • Hi Dee,

      I appreciate you mentioning the link to the chickenroost. I found the website very interesting. I am including the exact link to the vertical integration information here so that other interested readers can access it: http://www.chickenroost.com/vertical-integration/ and http://www.chickenroost.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Poultry-Panel-Testimony.pdf.

      I also appreciate your insight relative to house cleaning and “field veterinarians”. I have two thoughts relative to this: 1. The author’s lack of clarity in his writing and his facts distorts the discussion, and 2. I think he paints a misleading story that will lead to most people (who are non-farmers) to likely get an unnecessarily pejorative picture of both farmers and packing plant processors. I did notice on the chickenroost website the following data:

      According to a University of Delaware Extension Service study:

      73% of farmers were satisfied with their business as poultry growers;
      75% were satisfied with their relationship with the companies;
      The vast majority, almost nine out of 10 chicken growers (89%) stated they had a good relationship with their company flock supervisor, and that their flock supervisors help them become better growers.

      That data would lead me to believe that the majority of chicken farmers view their relationships positively.

      Your thoughts relative to margins and profitability (and those mentioned by Dr. Dick in the document that you suggested) sound familiar to me. They likely sound familiar to any farmer. Our margins are tight with costs of growing food increasing sometimes faster than what we are paid for our products/services. I agree that this is problematic, but I would suggest that these slim margins exist for our packing plant partners as well (Dr. Dick’s research suggests this as well).

      Honestly, there are days when I wonder why Matt and I have chosen to be farmers because we could likely be much more economically profitable if we chose another life path. However, the bottom line is that I love what I do and I love the rural community that I live in. After being a cattle farmer for almost 20 years, I have grown to love it so much that I am willing to continue to take on the financial risk that comes along with it. Because I want to sustain my lifestyle as a farmer, I am constantly looking for ways to mitigate this risk and allow my farm to continue to prosper despite all of the challenges. I am thankful that the cost of living in rural America is much less than urban counterparts because that helps to balance the bottom line.

      At a very basic level, I believe that the market works. It isn’t perfect, but I cannot imagine that involving more federal government oversight would have a positive impact. The bottom line is that I choose to make decisions and establish relationships with marketing partners (both on the cow-calf side and the packing plant side) instead of having the government try to come in and do that for me. That is a philosophical / political stance, but that is how I look at it. At this core level, I disagree with the author.

      Again, I appreciate you offering insight. Your comments have inspired some personal learning and growth. I still maintain my stance on the book, but I have enjoyed having your ideas be a part of the discussion.

      Best,
      Anne

  5. Ann, I admire you and your ability to take on the tough situations/topics. Your poise, fairness, and directness is to be admired. Those of us who know you, know you are all about animal welfare and great animal care. Keep up the good work 🙂

    • Thank you, Kim. I appreciate it! I still have a blog post rolling around in my mind on cattle marketing and how I choose to participate in the system, but I spent all weekend at my girls’ basketball and volleyball tournaments so I never got a chance to write it—-sometime this week maybe my thoughts will find their way onto my computer!

      I hope that you are well. We had another snatch of winter over the weekend with below zero lows but there is a rumor that spring may be coming sometime 🙂

      Best,
      Anne

      • We have had more snow off and on as well. We had one nice day and then a really bad win storm that knocked over some trees, part of our fence, and threw stuff all around. 😦 I hope you and the family are doing well and the Volleyball tournament went well… love the volleyball 😉

      • Crazy wind days are not my favorite either—no fun having things damaged…Hope that you have everything put back together!

        We are headed to Seward early in the morning for another volleyball tournament for Megan 🙂 Do you still play for fun? I love to swim and it is a great stress release for me now that I am retired 🙂 I think that it is great to have a “life sport”…

        Take care,
        Anne

      • Yep, I play for fun when I can. I used to swim and play basketball (among other sports) as well and enjoyed that too. Good luck to Megan 🙂

        Have fun,
        Kim

  6. Dee

    Anne,

    I’m glad you found the site interesting, but sad that you can so totally disregard information presented by Mr.Leonard yet readily accept information from the NCC. There is more data in the survey that the NCC chose not to share and you can see the summary of all the data here. http://udel.edu/~ilvento/SUMMARY.PDF

    I realize that any type of farming is a low margin business. The complaint from poultry growers is not that we thought raising chickens would make us rich, but that we thought the income from raising those chickens would at least cover the expenses. When you continually have to rely on income from other sources to pay for expenses for the chicken houses something is very wrong.

    I promise you, whether you want to believe it or not, things are ugly for many, many poultry growers.

    .

    • Hi Dee,,

      I will read your new link posted here in the next few days. I have been swamped so have not had a chance to look at it. I agree with your thought process that if your income does not cover the expenses that something is wrong and needs fixed.

      Agreeing with that thought does not require that I also agree with the tone, cross-species argument, and suggestion for an across the board increase in government regulation that the book depicts. I don’t believe that cross-species federal government regulations are effective, and the GIPSA bill that he referred to would have been highly detrimental to my cattle farm which focuses on growing high quality (highly marbled) cattle whose beef is more valuable.

      The book tried to make the argument that the pork and the beef industries operated in the same manner as the chicken industry and that just isn’t accurate. Although there are likely some similarities cross species, neither of those systems is completely vertically integrated across the animal’s lifetime like the chicken industry–the cattle industry in particular is very different than the vertically integrated chicken system as most animals change ownership multiple times in their lives. The author’s sweeping generalizations across food animal production and his inaccurate descriptions of rural America left me not likely to believe the rest of what was in the book either. If his depictions relative to chicken farmers were at all accurate, then he should have just stuck to those ideas and not bridged into other topics. You might be angry that I don’t agree with the book because I am not a chicken farmer, but I can assure you that I am equally as angry that Mr. Leonard depicted rural America and my cattle farm completely inaccurately.

      I am planning to write another blog post talking about cattle marketing, but I spent the weekend at my girls’ basketball and volleyball tournaments so I did not get a new blog post written. It may be a week before I get a chance to sit down and write it, but it will come up sometime soon. You asked me in your first comment to “walk a mile in your shoes”, and I would ask that you also “walk a mile in mine”. We likely share many of the same thoughts even though we are having a hard time finding common ground relative to the book.

      Best,
      Anne

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