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HUNTIN' DAYLIGHT -- SO, WHO'S ACCOUNTABLE?

by: Wes Ishmael

If Forest Gump was right, every day being like a box of chocolates in that you never know what you're going to get and whatnot, then the American people and its beef industry were forced to gnaw on some sour, gut-wrenching stuff the last couple of weeks.

First, some pinhead judge in South Dakota finally took time out of his obviously important schedule to grace the industry with a long awaited verdict regarding the constitutionality of the nation's $1 per head beef checkoff.

By now you know this judge delighted short-sighters everywhere by declaring the Beef Promotion and Research Act—which makes the checkoff possible—unconstitutional. He tossed a cherry on top of the sorry sundae by ordering a halt to checkoff collections beginning July 15.

Apparently there was no room for facts in the case: the majority of cattle producers have continued to support the checkoff ever since it began in 1987; each check-off dollar has returned better than $5 in everything from stabilized consumer demand, to new product development, to consumer education.

Nope, damn the cattle producers, the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA), the Western Organization of Resource Councils and several individual producers who filed the suit took it upon themselves to rob producers—in LMA's case—their very customers of something the majority of those producers say they want. Back when all this nonsense began LMA claimed all they wanted was the chance for producers to vote on the checkoff again—needless of course since the majority already expressed their approval of it in ongoing polls conducted by third party firms. Unable to get even 10 percent of beef producers to sign a petition asking for a new vote, LMA et. al. did what any self-respecting person would this day and age—go to court, file a suit, whine and cry to get your way, cost innocent people too much money in legal fees and too much lost opportunity.

“This ruling reverses the will of Congress. It's an attempt to stop an entire industry in its tracks and takes away the empowerment of nearly a million beef producers,” said J.D. Alexander, immediate past president of the Nebraska Cattlemen.

With that in mind, everyone from the Beef Board, which administers the check-off, to USDA, to NCBA is working to have an injunction issued against the halt of checkoff collections until the appeals process can take place. Perhaps by the time you read this that will have already happened.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice have promised to vigorously defend the beef checkoff,” said Wythe Willey, NCBA president. “We expect the Department of Justice to immediately initiate appeal procedures. The checkoff and its programs will continue while a request for stay is considered.”

In the meantime, LMA and the other plaintiffs will no doubt beat their chests about the sacred victory they have claimed for cattle producers everywhere. Undoubtedly, they will also rant and rail that there is something unconstitutional about the constitutional right of the industry to appeal the judge's decision.

Ask LMA Members What They're Doing

Whatever your personal belief on the checkoff—not who administers the program (the Beef Board) or the contractors enlisted to carry out specific checkoff programs (including NCBA)—here's a question every cattle producer should be posing to every LMA member in this country: Whether or not you personally agree with LMA's view on the checkoff, through your membership you are supporting their views, including the one to have the checkoff declared unconstitutional. So, you must have a sure-fire alternative in mind, another self-help program that costs no more than $1 per head, one that returns even more per dollar of investment than the current checkoff program has proven to return; tell us, what is your alternative? While you're at it, tell me what you've done differently in the last 20 years to help me, your customer, earn more money on the cattle I bring you to market?

Save your nickel. Yes, there are LMA members torn over the decision and their very membership in the organization, folks who want to do right by their customers. But they need to answer those questions, too.

If they do have some grand solution in mind, they've kept it wonderfully secret up to this point.

One Nation Under God

On a broader highway, but traveling the same pitiful direction, some goof in California exercised his rights as a U.S. citizen by suing for a change to this nation's Pledge of Allegiance—a pledge said goof has presumably never been asked to utter for better than three decades—because Heaven forbid (no pun intended), it includes the word, God. Separation of church and state being what it is, well that just won't do…

Worse, some other idiot judge, this one in San Francisco, agrees and declares the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional. While we're at it, why not change the flag, the national anthem and the constitution itself based on the whims of a few whiners rather than the majority of the people. Speaking of which, in the ensuing uproar we've all had a chance to see just how many of our fellow American—better than 85 percent--agree that the judge's decision is a travesty.

The wondrous privilege of living in a democracy is that you pretty well have the right to believe, say and do anything you want, no matter how ridiculous, as long as its legal or until you get caught.

Last I knew, though, the power of democracy comes in the fact that the majority is supposed to rule. So, what happened?

The majority of cattle producers support the nation's check-off, yet a barrelful of self-serving individuals with apparently more money than sense can get what the majority wants declared unconstitutional.

Likewise, the majority of Americans overwhelmingly approve the nation's Pledge of Allegiance as is, but one squeaky wheel is able to overturn the wishes of the majority.

Whatever happened to: if you don't agree with the majority, and if you can't change the opinion of the majority, then either accept it, or just leave and go somewhere else where your obvious brilliance will surely be more appreciated.

Same goes for the beef industry. Lots of folks spent lots of time and money getting a checkoff put in place to begin with, trying the first time in 1973 and finally getting it done in 1987. Then in a few short years, the court system allows the mass minority to take it away from us. Feel free to be angry. You should be.

What's It Take?

Perhaps the saddest part of all of this, on both counts, is that so many resources have to be squandered defending what the majority decided long ago and still supports today, rather than using those same resources to make constructive changes.

For instance, current supply and demand fundamentals have us with more beef tonnage than demand these days. Equity has gushed from the cattle feeding industry during the past five years. Barring some cataclysmic change, there's every reason to believe the nation's cowherd will have to continue its liquidation in order to find a sustainable profit equilibrium.

Instead of addressing facts like these, though, too many—at least the most vocal minority—chase ghosts looking for someone to pin blame on, rather than demand accountability of themselves.

Just consider current events. Recently there was the Johnson Amendment—thankfully struck from the current farm bill—which would have prohibited packers from owning cattle more than 14 days ahead of harvest. On the surface, that seems swell, except that ultimately it would likely wind up forcing prices lower than higher, not just on cattle, but on the capital infrastructure of the industry.

But it was so easy. Hmmm…we're not making any money, must be the packers' fault. Sure…look at these captive supplies…yeah that's the problem…get rid of them and life is rosy…that's the ticket, let's go after the packer, the retailer, the feeder, anybody but ourselves.

Guess what, it's all been done before. If you're old enough, you probably remember the price wreck of 1973 like it was yesterday. In a nutshell, Nixon imposed a temporary price freeze on beef. Some producers held their calves back from market, and some feedlots held their harvest cattle back until the freeze was lifted. They then flooded the market with all of that extra tonnage and prices jetted south, boom. Of course, that had to be somebody else's fault. A bunch of lawsuits were filed against packers and retailers and no wrongdoing was ever uncovered.

Remember the next several years after that, coupled with escalating inflation and interest rates? Charlie Ball reminds us in his must-read book, Building the Beef Industry, that by 1977 an organization called the American Agriculture Movement declared that unless American farmers and ranchers were guaranteed 100 percent parity for their production from this country—or another one, they didn't much care—the nation's farmers and ranchers would go on strike until their demands were met. Ultimately, about all that came out of their revolutionary idea to hold the nation's consumers hostage, besides wasted time and resource, was that the media had some fun covering AAM members running oceans of diesel through their tractors as they converged on the nation's capital in their tractorcades.

Like some folks today, some of them then chose to repeat history rather than step up to the plate and actually make it.

Tom Field, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University recently addressed a group of cattle producers banding together to try some truly innovative things. Along the way he quoted a Hereford breeder in Australia who told him: “The seedstock producer's responsibility is to help his customers be more profitable, not the other way around.”

Take out seedstock producer, insert commercial producer, cattle feeder or packer and the message is the same. If you're in business, the only way you stay in business is by helping your customer stay in business, not by trying to take away what he wants and needs to survive.

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