Tag Archives: industrial farming

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.

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Meat Racket Communities…

“In 1931 Springdale was a tiny crosshatch of streets populated by modest houses and small stores.  Even eighty years later, the architecture of Springdale is utilitarian, and it speaks to a meager past where the greatest economic ambition was to put food on the table and little else.  Today, the tallest buildings downtown are the grain silos, and the commercial strip downtown is a squat roof of one-and two-story rectangular buildings that look as though they were designed by architects who felt that tilting their heads upward was overly presumptuous.”

Chris Leonard, The Meat Racket

The above quote appears in the second chapter of The Meat Racket.  I think that it does a nice job of illustrating the author’s tone relative to portraying rural America.  This tone is reiterated throughout the book in descriptions of towns ranging across the Midwest from Arkansas to Kansas.  These caricatures are often followed by a commentary on how large agricultural businesses (most especially Tyson Foods) are destroying the character of rural towns.

Home to about 4000 people, and proudly marked on a local grain elevator---the tallest building in town...

Home to about 4000 people, and proudly marked on a local grain elevator—the tallest building in town…

While Springdale, Arkansas is 604 miles from Cozad, Nebraska the appearance of my town seems to structurally fit Mr. Leonard’s above description.  From the crosshatch of streets with modest homes and small stores to our grain elevators and downtown buildings, the looks of Cozad speak to the universal pragmatic nature of a farming community.

The Meat Racket’s surface description captures the physical anatomy of rural America, and intertwines it with the author’s supercilious undertone.  However, this superficial recounting missed what I believe is the most important component of small town America.

They are both the heart and future of our community...

We unite to support each and every one of them because they are our heart and our future…

Mr. Leonard, when you described our small towns you missed the core—you missed the heart—it is not in the architectural makeup of our buildings, but rather in the compassion and faith of our people.  Our community sustains because of teamwork and “home town pride” and I found that no where in your book.

When they "Win the Day" on the court, they bring both hope and pride to our towns as their hard work and faith determines our sustainability...

When they “Win the Day” on the court, they bring both hope and pride to our towns as their hard work and tenacity contributes to our sustainability…

  • I believe that the true heart of rural communities is our youth.  Recognizing this, our citizens bind together to nurture our young people, and in return, the younger generation sparks optimism and creates an ongoing sustainability for the town.
  • The agricultural businesses that are the pulse of our towns invest not only in local farmers and the economy but also encourage their employees to volunteer within the community.
  • There is a quiet pride that lives in the members of a small town, a sense of teamwork and loyalty that transcends cultural and socioeconomic boundaries.  This phenomenon is stronger than any one company and is the driving force of day to day life.

    They don't just work on the court and in the classroom, but they also take part in the family farming businesses that are the pulse of Nebraska's economy...

    Our youth don’t just work on the court and in the classroom, but they also take part in the family farming businesses that are the core of Nebraska’s vibrant economy…

Although structurally my rural community fits the author’s description, apart from this physical description, I can find no other accurate representations in the book.  Our town does not depend on one large company to tenuously hold onto survival.  Rather, we are a myriad of compassionate individuals who pool our talents in order to create a caring community atmosphere all while working to ensure a sustainable economic environment for our farms and businesses.

Rural Americans do not need a patronizing investigative reporter to inaccurately portray our towns in order to build momentum for increased government regulation of food production.  What we need is the faith and trust of our urban customers, and their willingness to believe that farmers, alongside our packing plant partners, raise food with integrity. 

Small town communities evolve over time just as farming and food production do — some people will choose a rural lifestyle and others will not.  That ability to choose is one that makes America special.  The best decision that I made in my adult life was to move to a small community in Nebraska and learn to be a farmer.

“Even in 2012, there is a sense that somehow, without small towns and rural communities, America has lost a piece of itself, even though most people today would never want to actually live on a farm or in a rural community.”

Chris Leonard: Chapter 2, The Meat Racket

I made the choice to be a farmer and have successfully made my life in rural America...

 I am living proof that there are still Americans who choose to make their lives in small town America.  My town of Cozad (along with many other rural communities) are testimony to the fact that rural America offers a unique life style that still appeals to some Americans.  Farmers are proud of what we offer to our country, and hope that our urban counterparts realize that we care about both them and the food choices that they make at the grocery store.

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Setting the Stage…

I first learned of Chris Leonard about 14 months ago when he called me for a phone interview.  He was writing an article and we had a lengthy visit discussing cattle marketing, modern beef production, and the use of beta agonists.

It became clear during our conversation that we neither shared the same perspective nor approached the politics of beef farming from the same angle, but I viewed the interview as a learning experience.  When I later learned that Mr. Leonard had written a book, I deemed reading it as a necessary intellectual exercise.

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My goal is to provide good care so that this animal will achieve it’s utmost potential thereby growing great tasting beef all while using the natural resource of my farm wisely…

I have never believed that my job as a beef farmer ended when my animals were loaded onto the truck to leave the feed yard.  I recognize that my packing plant and its customers (grocery stores, restaurants, and ultimately each of you) are my partners in beef production.  With every decision that we make, we create both the economic market and the fundamental family beef eating experience.

Each one of us plays a role...

Each one of us plays a role…

The relationships that farmers have with both their rural communities and their packing plant partners are varied depending on their individual goals and resources as well as the type of food animals that they raise.   As with just about anything in our lives, all of these relationships are dynamic:  growing and evolving over time.

The idea of change can be both frightening and challenging, but it is the reality and often actually leads to improvement.  When I look at the modifications that I have made on my cattle farm in the last decade, I see positive progress.  Marked improvements in both animal welfare and beef quality offer the promise of sustainability for both my farm and my beef customers.

Good care and good nutrition makes for comfortable animals and great tasting beef...

Good care and good nutrition makes for comfortable animals and great tasting beef…

Chris Leonard stated publically this week that he believes the perfect outcome for modern food production would be to revert to the system of raising food animals as it was in 1982.  As a beef farmer, I believe that this would be detrimental to the welfare of the animals, my farm; and also the quality, safety, and cost of the food products that they provide.

From Beef Quality Assurance to Progressive Beef: My farm has made enormously positive advancements since 1982...

From Beef Quality Assurance in the 1990’s to Progressive Beef in 2013: My farm has made enormously positive advancements since 1982…

Suggesting such a goal tells me that Chris does not hold an in depth understanding of what I do every day as a farmer.  Further supporting this notion is the following quote that appears in the Prologue of the book:

The agriculture sector is one of the richest, most productive moneymaking machines in American life.  After all, a lot of the business simply involves sitting around and letting plants grow and letting animals get fat.  Mother Nature does the heavy lifting.  Then the farmer harvests the plants, kills the animals, and watches the money roll in.”

Chris Leonard, The Meat Racket

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