Cornett: 'What Does the End of Beef Mean for Our Sense of Self?'

Minature Highland cattle, Bridge City, Texas
Minature Highland cattle, Bridge City, Texas
(Tiny Ass Ranch and Cattle Company)

I didn’t write that headline. The New York Times did.* In a story that went on to list the whole litany of the public’s faddish concerns about beef. Health concerns. Rain forest destruction. Methane. Animal rights.

Beef is the Kiev of foods, besieged on all fronts.

They—“the newspaper of record,” the harbinger of trends, are talking about us in the past tense. Kind of saying eating beef was just a macho thing, anyhow. Kind of like cock-fighting, I suppose.

And what are we talking about in the industry? Well, if we were Kiev, we’d be trying to take the guns away from each other. “Do it my way.” “No, no. Do it my way.”

First, I’d suggest the Times is a bit premature on the death of beef. Per capita consumption has, indeed, been declining for years, but there are lot more capitas, so to speak, so we’ve got the highest domestic beef demand and consumption in years. (I just sat through a tutorial on the matter.)

In this series, we’ve been talking about whether the government should make laws telling us how to market our cattle. But it could be Country of Origin. Breaking up packers. Cancelling the beef checkoff. We’d still be arguing, jockeying for position.

Judging by some of my recent feedback, we’re not even being polite to each other. We—the same cattlemen who tip their hats and call women ma’am and their elders sir and help each other work cattle and wave when they meet on the road—are just as bad about hiding behind a keyboard substituting insults for debate as the rest of the people on social media.

The “cowboy way” seems to have changed since I retired and the internet took over.

I want to bring that up because on the day I saw the story, I was at an Air B&B place in Bridge City, TX. Which, incidentally is run by a nice young couple who owns cows and have adopted three at-risk kids and raise them like farm kids. Chores galore, looked to me like. Including cleaning up behind visitors at the air b&b and trapping hogs and beavers and feeding smallish cows and donkeys and two horses. And making very sure the 4-wheelers don’t rust out. They’re not typical ranchers—their cows are miniature Scottish highlands. And they sell them as pets.

But what they’re doing with those kids—that’s what we should all be thinking about here. I have my doubts about the wisdom of asking Congress to mandate marketing methods, so I’ve been accused of being against “independent” producers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But there’s a line somewhere between “independent” and Elmer Kelton’s Charlie Flagg, shaking his fist at the skies because it wouldn’t rain.

Look. Food is food. If independent farmers aren’t producing it, the corporations will be producing it. Maybe in factories and green houses. But it will still be just food.

What family farms do that corporations can’t do is produce families. Not near as many as we used to. And I’m afraid that if the survivors don’t adjust to the times, there will be still fewer. There are just too many headwinds to keep just turning out bulls and gathering calves and expecting to prosper.

I wound up in Bridge City after spending a couple of engrossing days at the International Livestock Congress in Houston. It had been billed as having a lot about “sustainability” and like a lot of people, I wasn’t just real sure what that word means. I’m not sure I do now.  But it’s not about hugging trees. It’s about doing things most of us do—or know we should do—anyway. And adding some practices and documentation that may help us keep doing them. (In part, at least. I’m a student here, too.)

The speakers, one after another, had lists of harbingers out there. Of polls showing consumers are interested in where their food comes from and how it is made and how the cows are treated and how the land is treated. And, in case after case, of the corporations that stand between producers and consumers signaling that they want producers to provide that information so they can signal their virtue and make people feel comfortable buying from them. And they’re willing to pay….Oh wait. I almost said they’re willing to pay for it. That’s not clear to me. But they sure signal they won’t pay for anything else.

If that is all correct, there is a great bifurcation looming. You know how much the spread between large loads of uniform cattle and the jackpot twos and threes have changed the last 10 years? If these speakers were reading their tea leaves correctly, there will be a bunch more of it. We’ll either be fitting into the system or struggling. We can stand back and cuss the “guys with the sweetheart deals” or try to figure out a way to compete with them.

As I read some of the feedback, I have this vision of Elmer Kelton’s Charlie Flagg shaking his fist at the sky, cursing the lack of rain. (Oops, I already said that. I'm referencing "The Time It Never Rained.")

I’m not sure mandating cash trades will impede the evolution we need in value discovery. But it might. Are we sure that in a supply chain, we want to weld the first 15 or 50 percent of the links together?  Or should we maintain flexibility and let the free market do its thing? Are we sure that, in this modern, integrated, consolidated world, that we want to be about the only one selling our product like our great grandparents did?  Unless the trends turn soon, the pressures are just going to get stronger.

A big part of our problem is that different operations and people are so different. Our challenges are different. Our opportunities are different. Our goals are different. I mean, some of us sell pet cows for a living!

But we should all realize that our survival rests on that beef getting onto those plates. And, as consumer preferences change, we’re going to have to work with the people who understand them. Well, I don’t guess we have to work with them. We can ignore them until we get to work for them. Like chicken raisers do.

One of the speakers, one with a ton of experience at all levels of the industry (except barbecue joints. He has never run a barbecue joint.) said if he had a small cow herd and wanted to thrive in the future as he sees it, “I  would be working to get into some sort of alignment program with a feeder and establish that relationship throughout the value chain.”

That perked my ears up. Because the main reason I volunteered into this fire-ant bed of insults is I think we little guys need to get together and coordinate to act like big guys. Produce and sell cattle in uniform loads and larger lots. I know it’s hard. I can’t believe it’s not being done.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter. Again, it’s

*I set up a FaceBook page because NYT lets you get around the paywall on a FB page.


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