Culture of Acceptance

Today, I finish up my thoughts on diversity on our boards, as I shared them with folks at the USDA session on board diversity Wednesday night.

the little country church in the dell.

Acceptance. Encouragement. Support. Inspiration.

These words may describe a perfect utopia of creativity and growth. And, I believe, they could describe our agricultural organizations.

I believe as agriculture we simply must get better at nurturing a culture of acceptance to improve our future. And we must discourage closed-mindedness and exclusion.

Many years ago, practically everyone had a farm in the family. Because of this, most people had a common language, based on common experiences that they shared.

Today, the face of farming and ranching differs quite a bit from the past. Particularly in western states, farm workers become farm owners. Women play an increasingly substantial role in agriculture due to increased opportunity—be that on-the-ground production or agricultural business. The face of our consumer is changing as well.

This means that for agriculture to stay relevant, we must foster acceptance. We must listen. We must encourage. We must support. We must inspire all types of people.
Particularly when thinking about the future of our Beef Board, we must do these things to ensure that we have future visionaries to lead our organization forward.

On our boards, and truly in agriculture in general, we could benefit becoming more open-minded to those who are different from us and have diverse viewpoints. We could embrace new ideas with added enthusiasm.

My experience says that lack of acceptance may be a challenge for our new members. They may find it difficult to break into already-formed groups of old friends and colleagues. If we actively try to reach out to others, and encourage them, we grow stronger as an organization.

“As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence actually liberates others.” ~Marianne Williamson

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Diversity of Ideas

Last evening, I made a few remarks about diversity on our Research & Promotion Boards in conjunction with a USDA session on diversity. (Dd you know that there are 21 programs that we affectionately call “checkoffs” wherein food producers pool their dollars to do research and promotion?) From raspberries to watermelon to honey to soft lumber to beef to pork–these boards consist of volunteer producer leaders who direct the investment of their peers’ contributions. USDA gathered several of the board leaders (and a couple of staff) together for last night’s session, which gave many volunteer leaders from different agriculture backgrounds the opportunity to come together and discuss the meaning, culture and atmosphere surrounding diversity. I’ve noticed that words have different meanings and implications to different people. IMO, the best way to understand what someone else means by a certain word like “diversity” is to gather, listen and share. In fact, that’s one meaning of the word “diversity,” isn’t it–welcoming discussions and solutions fueled by myriad ideas, cultures and backgrounds.

I truly believe that two heads are better than one when it comes to vision and strategy. And two heads filled with different ideas, coming from different backgrounds and life experiences, are surely better than even 10 heads filled with exactly the same (or even highly similar) ideas. I’ve heard: if you cannot get something done with a committee of 25, then reduce the committee to 10. I unconditionally agree that fewer people often make decisions faster. However, despite our society’s love affair with hurry (hurry, hurry…ouch, that fleeting memory of orange in early February smarted for a moment), hustle and haste (or what I ironically call the ‘glorification of busy’), I submit that quality of decision matters a bit more than speed of decision. (Disclaimer: My advice is not all-encompassing. If you’re about to be hit by a monorail, then the speed with which you exit the track matters more than the quality or grace of your leap. Get off the rail! Gak!) As Tim Fargo said, “Progress and motion are not synonymous.” If, in our example, if you reduce the size of the committee simply to eliminate all who might not agree with you, your outcome (especially longer term) won’t hold up as well as if you welcome, and work to include, a diversity of ideas.

In short, diversity means different ideas, from differing voices, coming together to make a more dynamic, flexible and stronger end result. Diversity doesn’t mean (as USDA Deputy Secretary Harden pointed out last night) tokens or quotas.

Now that I’ve brought up hurry, hurry, (ouch…that smarted again…hopefully the memory will fade before next season) let’s talk about the first challenge I see to diversity on our boards, and that is time.

Service on the checkoff board takes time–traveling, attending meetings, reading business materials, participating in calls–it all takes time. Some R&P board officers may be away from home and business up to 200 days a year. More than 97 percent of farms are family owned, most of these family operated. On most farms, something critical happens every single day. By critical, I don’t mean it would be nice to get it done. (Like, ‘Yeah, we need to finish those TPS reports and reload the Swingline.’) On a farm, if it doesn’t get done, on time, something–be it plant or animal–could die.

Leaving the farm for a couple of days is tough. Heck, for our farmers and ranchers, leaving daylight hours to come inside and fire up your computer to participate in a conference call is tough. Truth is, time is a major challenge to getting a diversity of voices and ideas on our boards. Folks who serve often must use hired help, grown children or parents on the farm to cover for them when they’re gone. This limits those who can serve. I can tell you stories of board members I’ve worked with over the years, who have an interest in running for leadership positions, but they simply cannot spend the time away from their farms because they have nobody to help them with those everyday chores. My experience says that women have particular challenges in this area, because they may hold down both on-farm responsibilities and off-farm jobs, as well as manage most of the housework and child care. This limits their time even more severely.

At the Beef Board, one way we’ve tried to address the time challenge is through technology. We’ve incorporated our board communications and information into an online toolkit and blog so members may access information whenever, wherever. We’ve incorporated mobile technology into our sites. We’ve tried webinars rather than in-person meetings (frankly, with varying success…more on that in a minute). But these solutions themselves lead to another challenge, and that is technology access in rural areas.

I mentioned that we try to use advancing communications technology to help board members participate and fulfill their duties. However, lack of high-speed Internet access, as well as cell coverage in many rural areas, limits us severely. Smaller or disadvantaged farmers, or those who ranch in particularly remote areas, may not have adequate access. (Some of those folks I know only get snail mail a time or two a week!) One specific example: Last month, we put together a video detailing important consumer information in advance of our annual meeting. We thought we were giving board members an easier alternative to downloading, printing and reading paper versions. But, limited high-speed download and/or streaming capabilities prevented some board members from accessing or viewing the video. We continue to try webinars with 103 board members (and heroically refrain from strangling ourselves with our earbud cord in frustration through the burps, hiccups and slow slide refreshes–or is that just me?).

I realize that limited technology access is not a revelation to those with an interest in US rural development–many experts acknowledge this as a primary challenge to rural community health and growth in America. But technology also presents both a solution and a challenge to diversity of voices on our boards. It’s a national, as well as a very local, issue, and one that deserves increased attention federally. (Makes me wonder…if the Internet went out in Washington, DC, how long would it take federal government to make certain it came back online? Yet the issue of rural access drags on, and on…I’m allowed to opine here, remember, this is my blog!)

(Ahem. Brain. Focus.)

I’ve discussed both time and technology, and I’ll also discuss money. While the board reimburses members for direct expenses incurred while engaging in board business, we do not pay for lost opportunity costs while serving–like extra help needed on farm while folks are away, or lost income (or opportunity for income) from off-farm jobs. Also, I’ve heard some leaders say it’s difficult to comply with the documentation guidelines we require for reimbursement (like itemized receipts for meals, instead of simply a credit card receipt.) Leadership and staff tries to ease this situation–for example, we book and pay for hotels and airfares directly with an organizational account or credit card. When I’m with board members, I do my best to pay expenses and then handle reimbursement. However, we must remember that board members sometimes run a very tight ship–often with both time and budget constraints–and the documentation and wait time for reimbursement may be too much of a burden to bear. (A very special thank you to some of our board members, you know who you are, who choose to give not only service but don’t request reimbursement for their expenses…going above and way beyond.) Particularly the critical younger voices, (USDA data consistently show, not surprisingly, significantly higher debt-to-asset ratio for our younger farmers), so important to the future of agriculture and our board, or our disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, may have difficulty with the resources required to front the costs and request reimbursement.

Given these very real challenges, I’d like to say a loud and proud THANK YOU to the volunteers who serve on the Beef Board, and other volunteer R&P boards. It’s clear that your significant dedication and passion makes a huge difference for agriculture. I’m amazed and humbled by your service. (And now that I’ve re-read my post, I suspect your sense of dedication may even override your better judgment sometimes. Thank you especially for those crazy, wonderful, moments.)

It’s About the Journey

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In my last post, I talked about opportunity. In 2013, I had the opportunity to go to Japan and Taiwan as an Eisenhower Fellow. Many of my posts on this blog document the flow of ideas and thoughts this experience generated in me. I met new people, I ate new things (LOTS of new things), I even wore new things (I’m on my way to traditional baths in this photo–a wonderfully relaxing experience). My Eisenhower Fellowship truly changed my life and my POV. If you are in agriculture, you may have what it takes to be an Eisenhower Fellow–you’ll never know unless you try. The 2015 application period is open now. I encourage you to explore it further. After all, life is a journey, not a destination (thanks, Ralph).

“I tramp a perpetual journey.”
― Walt WhitmanSong of Myself

Project Cowherd 2020

Castle Rock in the foreground, Pikes Peak in the background.

On many weekend days, I enjoy a spectacular view from my chair at the breakfast table. Our home, situated on top of a hill, offers views of Pikes Peak, with Castle Rock in the foreground, that take my breath away. The crystal clear air shimmers with bright sunlight. (I feel just like Yertle the Turtle with this view.)

Yertle the Turtle

I’ve heard because Colorado has low humidity, the air is clearer than in other parts of the country. The bright sun coupled with intensely clear air make me glad I am alive. 

But then, if I were somewhere else, with another spectacular view, I would also feel blessed, wouldn’t I? After all, if your view clouds over–you may not be aware that anything is blurring your clear line of sight.

Our vision is like that. Our lives are like that. Blurred and blocked and fettered by our experiences and our prejudices, our inability to imagine things that have potential gets in our way. That is why expanding ourselves helps our world grow, and paves the way for imagination too. 

(Truth is, Pikes Peak MAY be the most beautiful mountain in the world. But until I’ve seen the Alps, I’m withholding judgment.)

Bear with me. This is my unique and individual (ok, some would say weird) way of introducing my topic–the cowherd in 2020

When my son was young, I used to encourage him, saying “Almost no decision cannot be undone later. Do what you think is right.”

But what I didn’t tell him was that there are opportunities that only come once. Some only come once in a lifetime. If you don’t have the vision and the courage to take them when they come, you lose them. Forever. 

What if I told you that beef producers (indeed the entire beef business) has one of those huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, right this very minute? 

An opportunity so big, that we may never get this chance again. An opportunity with so much potential, it could change our business forever. 

It is the chance to rebuild our cowherd, reset our future, reform our beef supply.

With cow numbers so low, and herd expansion shivering on the brink of fruition, we have an unmatched opportunity to determine our own future. 

What if every commercial cattleman and woman, dedicated him or herself to Project Cowherd 2020–an aggressive, genetic improvement plan for the future of our business? What if we called upon our business partners, feeders, processors, extension agents, seekstock suppliers, to help us to do just that? How much progress could be made?

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I’ll bet you my friend Don Schiefelbein would say A LOT. (I’m cheating here, because I’ve heard him say something similar, without the cool name Project Cowherd 2020, on several occasions!)

It’s about you, envisioning how your herd could work best for you, and for the beef consumer, in 2020. If you asked your buyer how your cattle did on the rail, what would you want to hear? What would your calves’ feed efficiency look like? How would your cows perform in your environment? Dream big. Build (or rebuild) your perfect herd for 2020 by beginning with the end in mind.  

What if EVERY producer started today? I believe if a majority of us dedicate ourselves to Project Cowherd 2020 this year, we have the opportunity of a lifetime.

I’m not blowing sunshine up your skirt here. Our national herd is very small. While we rebuild, we have enormous potential for improvement–if we rebuild consciously and carefully. 90% of successful innovation is timing. By 2020 our cowherd could be the best it’s been in history–with the potential for optimum production efficiency, enhanced business sustainability and practices, improved consistency and consumer acceptability, optimal diversity of beef offerings to satisfy everyone’s demands. Or it could look about the same as it did 10 years ago. Your choice. 

A Chinese proverb says: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today. (Has anyone mentioned to you how much beef China is going to want by 2020?)

It’s a big dream, a wildly important goal. But also one that is completely achievable with dedication, and clear vision. Would you rather write your destiny, or sit still and see what others do for (or to) you? Does we have what it takes to write our own destiny? I guess we shall see…and sooner rather than later. 

From the Podium

This post, and the potential for future posts, dedicated to Joan and Father Justin, who reminded me (repeatedly–I am slow sometimes) that when God gives you a gift, He intends for you to (at least attempt) to give it away. 

Since yesterday at 10:00, I’ve had several folks contact me and ask me to publish the remarks I gave at #CIC14. I’ve attempted to remember just what I said, and so here is a version that I’ve edited a bit for length. Of course, I reserve the right to have edited anything that caused my inner self to say “GAK@(*$)*!!” when it came out of my mouth yesterday. You may not know that this happens fairly regularly, although not as much as it used to three years ago. Perhaps you’ve had this experience–if so, please let me know that others do it too. I’ll feel so much better. 

Cooperation. Working together toward the same end–for common, mutual, benefit. Sam Walton said the secret to success was ‘working together.’ Apparently Mr. Walton was both a minimalist and a dreamer. Alexander Graham Bell said: “Great discovering and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds.” Indeed, we can find one successful leader after another reminding us that the key to bringing any organization or undertaking to improvement is cooperation.

So, while it seems a frivolous or fluffy thing to say (and it is easy to SAY and much harder to DO), for the beef industry and the Beef Checkoff Program, it’s a necessity and one that requires each of us to take a breath, give up on being right every time, and roll up our sleeves for the greater good.

By working together with beef councils, contractors, beef trade organizations and by coordinating our efforts with the entire chain of those who touch an animal or animal product, we get the best beef we are capable of. (Or for that matter, the best ideas, the best of anything, really).

Further, I submit that through the power of cooperation, we get results that are measurable.

My focus of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the Beef Checkoff Program is on key metrics associated with management. Those key metrics are what I would like to share with you. Today, I’ve chosen three key measures, out of several we use on a regular basis. But this year, right now, these three stand out as some of the most important ones we have.

1. Producer Approval and Awareness of the Beef Checkoff Program

The first of those metrics is producer awareness and approval of the checkoff program, which we measure bi-annually. Results of our latest Producer Attitude Survey, completed just a few weeks ago, suggest that we are on the right track. For example:

  • At 91% name awareness among producers of the beef checkoff program is very high and on the rise
  • AT 78% the beef checkoff program has the highest level of producer support in 21 years
  • 80% of producers believe the checkoff contributes positively to consumer demand for beef
  • 79% say the checkoff does a good job of representing their interests
2. Financial and Management 
Each year, the Beef Board undergoes an external, independent, financial audit. Since the beginning of the Beef Checkoff Program, no external audit has found any evidence that CBB was not in compliance with the Act & Order or the AMS Investment Policy. In fact, during the last four years, the auditors have not only issued unqualified opinions, but also have not  recommended any changes in CBB policies or procedures. We have made substantive and important changes on our own, in the quest for continual improvement.
In December, we received the results of a USDA AMS management review of the Beef Board–the first ever in our history. That comprehensive management review, which covered not only financial performance but also many other areas of our management, had no findings. In fact, at the conclusion of the review, AMS commended us for excellence in operations.
In early 2013, the Office of Inspector General at USDA published an audit report of AMS and the Beef Board. That review (sorry, can’t link to the original report, they’ve replaced it now for reasons you’ll soon learn) found no evidence of the complaints that spawned it and affirmed that the Beef Board was in complete compliance with the governing legislation. Then (just as we had finished our sigh of relief that the two-year ordeal was over and we could get back to 100% promotion, research and education), OIG announced that additional complaints had caused it to initiate an additional review of the first review under the Data Quality Act. The revised report, issued about a week ago, reinforced the results of the original report.
(Still with me?!? Amazing!)
All this to say that producer investors (remember, no federal tax dollars are used in the Beef Checkoff Program, only monies invested directly by beef farmers and ranchers) can be reassured by key metrics over the past two years and longer, including: 1) the OIG audit 2) the audit of the OIG audit 3) the AMS management review 4) CBB’s “clean” external audits and 5) our continued commitment to continuous improvement.
I don’t really know of another beef industry org that has been more painstakingly audited over the past two years than the Beef Board, but these repeated examinations and investigations provide a body of independent and collaborated evidence.
3. Consumer Willingness to Pay for Beef

January’s OSU Food Demand Survey data indicate that consumer willingness to pay more for steak increased 7.6%, and willingness to pay for burger remained stable. While we do see static in these data from month-to-month, this made me scratch my head, and then cheer. If consumers continue to be willing to pay higher prices that our low supply situation and their own preference for our product dictate, this is a strong demonstration of the value they see in beef–both in home and at the restaurant. Checkoff market research indicate that the supply situation has caused a pullback in meals eaten at home. Remember, in a low supply situation, we have to see the pullback somewhere.
But beef remains strong in foodservice. So strong, in fact, that current data indicate beef represents the largest volume increase of any protein at foodservice–despite a shrinking supply.
Frankly, I expected to see more of a shift away from beef with higher prices. But, consider the following:
  • Consumers still get relatively inexpensive burgers at foodservice.
  • Consumers like the “quality guarantee” they get at restaurants. “Better to have a chef prepare that high-priced steak.”
  • Consumers love to celebrate with beef–and that often happens at a restaurant.
Recently, I saw a story in the media with a headline about chicken consumption passing beef consumption for the first time in 100 years. Then, the author went on to explain it with myriad reasons for reductions in beef consumption like nutrition and fat and production and…Now, don’t get me wrong, the beef people must continue to improve on all aspects important to consumers like nutrition and fat and production and…In fact, in a recent Twitter discussion, Glynn Tonsor from K-State may have said it best–the entire beef community must continue to work together to align beef offerings closely with the desires of our consumers. In the end, this is cooperation and success.
But the truth is, we simply could not be seeing an increase in consumer consumption right now. It is impossible. We don’t have enough beef in the market — due to those factors farmers and ranchers know so well–drought being perhaps the most heart-wrenching of them. So that author of this article, I fear, just didn’t understand the marketplace well enough, and like the Greeks of old, made up an explanation for something s/he didn’t understand.
All of this to tell you that demand for beef increased 2% in 2013. Despite a lot of folks trying to make it so, consumers aren’t ashamed to love beef. And have the intelligence to separate facts from hype.
It is with innovation and creativity that we may bring tremendous opportunity for our organization and our businesses to fruition in 2014. These opportunities ripen and prosper when we incorporate a diversity of ideas and work together–from consumer to beef farmer families. Ninety percent of innovation is timing. I believe this organization and this program is ripe for innovation this year. Decision we make will affect our business and our stewardship for years to come. Imagination plus innovation equals goal realization.

Celebrate Differences

On my last day in Taiwan, I’m building on a previous post (Dewa Mata) in which I made some observations about the Japanese market for U.S. beef–here are some similar observations for the second part of my Fellowship trip. Will this be my last post? I’m not sure…I guess we shall see if the muse stays with me…

Safety is the price of entry (part deux)

At risk of sounding like a broken record, if safety is important in Japan, it is even more important in Taiwan (is that possible?). With an influential news media (dare I say the media here have a more sensitive hair-trigger than at home?), we can’t afford to give either politics or media a chance to tank the market. We know we do it right–we know we have the most stringent safety standards in the world. We know that the checkoff, in partnership with industry partners, makes significant investments in beef safety every single year. Let’s not take our eye off the ball (and remember to encourage our partners as well) to tell the story of our impeccable, continuing efforts on the beef safety front.

We’re baaaack

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Young Taiwanese love U.S. beef. Generally, they have fewer issues with eating beef than their elders (with respect to religion or husbandry as I’ve mentioned here before). Our job here (given what I’ve said above) will be to prove how yummy we are, especially when compared to pork, and build consumers the confidence to add more beef servings to their diet. And, as the CEO of the Beef Board, I’m allowed to say it out loud–in this market, pork=Goliath and beef=David. Pork is traditional, well-understood, well-loved. We know what we have to offer. We need to load up the slingshot and fire away.

Beef Can Be Mature and JIT here too

I’ve heard a LOT about wet and dry aging since I arrived. A noticeable trend in both retail and foodservice, it plays well with our need to ship product. However, the best steakhouses have product air shipped in a couple of days, then dry age it from 21 to 45 days onsite. They tell me discerning consumers pay for the waste, the hassle and the process. Good news for U.S. beef. Perhaps a dry aging movement would work well in Japan, if we associate it with the “mature” or “right time” concept mentioned before in this space.

Our Product Offering Works

In my closing post about Japan, I mentioned the trend of “Just for Japan” products. I believe (due to a growing “Westernization” of Taiwan) the products we offer our domestic consumers work well here, with the caveat that consumers here are more familiar with pork, and need education about the many ways to cook beef. And, like chefs at home, white tablecloth chefs here crave creative ideas to offer the discerning palates.

U.S. First, Company Brands Second

Even though we’re feeling the love, we still have some work to do to solidify our relationship with Taiwan’s younger consumers — to tell them about the product attributes of U.S. beef, to teach them about different cuts and appropriate ways to prepare beef. IMO, the Taiwan retail market is not as ripe for a brand bustout as Japan. However, I did hear in multiple foodservice meetings that restaurants need differentiation (read: brands) to compete in this HIGHLY competitive environment (particularly in Taipei). Opportunity exists for different production methods (natural, organic, grass-fed, and whatever else we can think of to differentiate), different product claims and creative ideas in Taiwan. Calling all beef entrepreneurs–come on out to Taiwan (but get ready to study and learn about how to do business in Asia. If you’re ethnocentric, you needn’t apply).

Taiwan Loves Baseball

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At the Elephants and Lions game last Tuesday night. Let me tell you, between the fan band, the horns, the drums and the yellow cone knocker thingies, this place has some enthusiastic baseball fans!

…and American ball player Manny Rimerez. Huh? It’s not as random as you may think. Taiwan loves American sport–particularly baseball and basketball. They admire American athletes (and athletes here at home). In the U.S., the checkoff funded “power of protein” concept pays dividends to encourage consumers’ love for beef. The health and nutrition message, coupled with images of strength and power, as the checkoff is doing at home, would work well here, with Taiwan’s youth, who are health conscious, more willing to turn to food (instead of supplements) to get the nutrients they need, and have a tradition of Chinese medicine (which teaches about the power of nutrients in food) to fall back on. The Power of Protein–call me crazy, but I think a campaign extension opportunity in Taiwan. The messaging would be slightly different (it’s not the same here, remember what I’ve said before about having the in-country expertise), but I think it has “legs.”

Convenience

People work long hours here, and many women go to the office every day too–especially in Taipei. Convenience plays an important role here–just like in Japan (and the U.S. I’m sensing a trend…)

Packaging Matters

Like Japan, packaging matters. But here, I mean ANY packaging. Many Taiwanese shop for meat hanging from a hook in an open-air wet market (it is the traditional way of marketing pork and chicken). Elder consumers want to touch and smell for freshness. Young consumers, however, don’t have time (or interest?), and go to supermarkets. Again, we have opportunity with younger consumers here. Some creative shopkeepers now sell meat in temperature-controlled cases, in independent shops close to wet markets–taking advantage of the close-to-home location of the markets.

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Disclaimer: This blog and the thoughts on it are my own flights of fancy. They don’t represent the views of the beef checkoff, CBB, the Operating Committee, or USMEF. I’m so glad the checkoff has in-country experts who know these markets and work on behalf of producers every day.

Random Photo of the Day:

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A quick game of “Name that Meat” anyone? I’ll give you a hint: the long ones are tongues. Thank you Lord, for international markets.

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Heeey…wait a minute? You talkin’ about me?!?

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Snot soup? Booger bologna? Nosh a nostril? Schnoz sandwich? Loogie lasagne?

Catch you back in the states, dear reader!

The Circle

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The circle does not contain any part of the U.S.–in fact, it does not contain any part of the North or South American continents. The circle is mostly water. And it contains the least populated country in the world (Mongolia). Additionally, the circle contains very little arable land, compared to other parts of the world, meaning the vast number of people within it need reliable, safe sources of nutritious food.

Why is this important to U.S. agriculture? It’s not, really. Unless you want to grow your market, make yourself and your industry or commodity more profitable, or become a larger part of a global economy. Or you dream of feeding the world.