Do Well, Do Good

Word map: Pennsylvania State University Student Centered Farm

I have been asked to post my Winter 2016 Management Report, so here it is…

What is social responsibility? We hear that phrase all the time in the media—but what does it really mean? Is it charitable giving? Is it employee development? Is it just a bunch of hooey?

Whatever you think of the definition, it is the truth that everyone in this room practices social responsibility, pretty much every day.

And I would bet that nearly everyone in this room believes that as a citizen, of the U.S. and of the world, each one of us has some responsibility to protect, and indeed to improve, those things that matter to all, or that we all share, and over which she or he has influence—humanity, community, environment, society, government.

And truly, who in agriculture has a better social responsibility story to tell than you? You may have mixed feelings about some of the personalities involved, but knowledgeable environmentalists like Allan Savory have noted for decades — well-managed beef cattle operations offer holistic health to the land, efficiently producing nutrient-dense food for our society through improvement of soil, encouragement of diverse grasslands and wildlife, and carbon sequestration.

Like Tom’s Shoes “One for One” campaign, beef has “Tons for One” value. With beef, you’re not just giving your family a nutritious meal, you’re supporting open space, clean air and water. You’re ensuring the animal that feeds you, never has to worry where its next meal is coming from, and has room to wander, either on grass or in maintained pens. (As an aside, it puzzles me that operations raising chickens in pens receive admiration and a premium, while operations raising cattle in pens get attacked by media and arsonists alike.) You’re giving deer, moose, mouse and grouse room to ramble. When you buy beef, you support an actualization of sustainable, socially responsible concepts Americans value, but don’t intimately understand.

The checkoff-funded lifecycle assessment indicates that we have achieved a 3 percent reduction in water use, a 2 percent reduction in energy use, a 10 percent improvement in water quality. These are the result of innovative thinking, of our use of technology, of efficiency.

But I keep looking through the windshield, thinking of the challenges ahead. Aren’t real solutions about much more than telling your current story — or even looking in the rearview mirror to defend what has been? What really matters is your future story, and the stories of your children and grandchildren. Because you have the power to improve and shape those stories.

After all, beef, and food, isn’t just YOUR industry, it is a public cause. And among us in the beef “cause” there are public and industry “Galahads”—and public and industry “Don Quixotes”. Many, many people care about the beef “cause”. That simply is the truth of where we are today. I know that I feel challenged daily, and even frustrated sometimes, by the demands and expectations that surround the production of food today. And I know you share that frustration. Goodness knows the expectations, and real challenges in food production are many, and growing. And it often seems like our support from society-at-large is shrinking.

Yet I know that each of you feels a social responsibility with regard to food production, because I have talked to you about it, visited with you about the civic and social issues for which you feel individual responsibility. Healthy, strong rural communities. A wholesome, safe food supply. You care about feeding our country, and feeding the world, more than many do. For example, the issue of food security is a complex global issue linked to economics, health, development, and trade. You may think it is only an issue for developing countries, and while USDA’s Economic Research Service says 86 percent of US households were food secure throughout 2014, a whopping 14 percent, or 17.4 million households, in America, were food insecure. Larger food, environment and community health issues such as this are critically important to you, your consumers, society as a whole. You actively work to address those concerns, and these concerns are shared with the rest of your beef community—your customers that purchase and process your cattle, and your consumers, the folks that cook and eat your product.

So…I know that you do, that voodoo that you do, making grass into nutritious, delicious food, out of your passion for the work, the land, the animals, but also, out of a sense of social responsibility to America and the world at large. And I am here to tell you that your consumer, particularly your largest, most powerful group of consumers, the millennials, share a strong sense of social responsibility with you.

A national poll taken about a year ago found that 9 out of 10 Americans still believe that social responsibilities like reporting a crime, understanding the national language, and serving on a jury are “very important.” The research indicated that millennials believe we must care for those around us, particularly through volunteer community service. In fact, that belief is much stronger in those under 30 years old today than it was three decades ago, and much stronger in this age group than in those folks who are more than 50 years old. This sense of responsibility to society is especially pronounced among young people, when it comes to social well-being in disadvantaged populations for core human needs like food, shelter, basic medical care and clothing.

 “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” –JFK

I ask you to take an introspective look at your assumptions and beliefs about social responsibility—because I believe this area offers tremendous opportunity for beef in particular—a unique opportunity even among other agricultural business due to the way we raise beef, and the positive impacts we have on environment and human nutrition.

Make no mistake, these opportunities translate into improved economic sustainability for us–shared social responsibility that makes great business sense.

Many organizations have learned that cutting-edge innovation and competitive advantage can result from weaving social and environmental considerations into business strategy from the beginning. I honestly believe that the winning companies of this century will be those who prove with their actions that they can be profitable and increase social value—those that both do well, and do good.” — Carly Fiorina, while at HP

A current Harvard Business Review article on what will make businesses successful into the near future, says businesses must ensure that they contribute positively to the system while receiving benefits sufficient to justify participation.

HBR warns: Companies that fail to create value for key stakeholders in the broader system will be marginalized

A robust business into the future, HBR says, must have leaders who ensure that the company is sufficiently diverse along three dimensions: people, ideas and endeavors.

Doing well and doing good. Well-executed social responsibility and sustainability efforts create economic value for businesses in ways that also create value for society.

Win-win situations.

Long-term, sustainable business operations.

Integrating social responsibility tenets within business decisions results in both economic value for the product or organization as well as increased value for society, and the individual consumers in it. But the incorporation of such elements, often means a completely transformed way of thinking about the business model, with an eye toward increased economic viability through betterment of social value.

Think of it this way: caring for the environment, the water, the grass, the air, and the animals, increasing production efficiency improving land and the larger environment, results in economic viability for your operations and fulfills the social requirements of the members of our food community on the eating side. Business decisions, in the checkoff and at home, that always consider the needs of both ends of the food community spectrum result in greater marketability and greater profitability.

This isn’t about a section of the budget that deals with responsible, sustainable decisions, it’s about a thought process that considers a responsible, sustainable future in every business decision. Social responsibility isn’t just a charitable act, or solely philanthropic. It is both self-interested and societally interested at the same time, assuring your own economic, social and environmental viability well into the future by way of assuring social sustainability. This may be a central shift in our way of thinking about some of the projects, some of the efforts, we fund.  But a shift that pays dividends—to your operations, to the beef community and to society as a whole.

Our founding fathers knew the value well. George Washington said, “I know of no pursuit in which more real and important services can be rendered to any country than by improving its agriculture, its breed of useful animals, and other branches of a husbandman’s cares.”

And Benjamin Franklin: “There seem to be but three ways for a nation to acquire wealth. The first is by war…The second by commerce…The third by agriculture, the only honest way, wherein man receives a real increase of the seed thrown into the ground, in a kind of continual miracle.”

The checkoff, and the industry, has made progress. We continue to get better at focusing our efforts holistically. We now have the Consumer Trust Committee dedicated to building the trust, and the bridges, between the producer of our beef and the eaters of our beef—to me, this committee represents a major checkoff program focus on the responsibility that we, and our society, share with regard to food. Our Long Range Plan mentions trust repeatedly. I mentioned our lifecycle assessment–our checkoff has been investing in sustainability research and benchmarking in the form of lifecycle assessment for several years now, to understand how we can become even better at fulfilling our end of the commitment we have to society. These are critical, and strategic, ways that the checkoff is moving into the future of responsible business as envisioned by both us, and our consumers. Social responsibility also includes things like consumer engagement and producer-level animal health and welfare standards and practices, including programs such as Beef Quality Assurance and extensive consumer education programs – with consumers directly, with restaurant and other foodservice operators, with butchers and retailers, with processors, with a full range of physicians and other health influencers. And we continue to grow our Masters of Beef Advocacy program, which helps prepare producers like each of you to meet social responsibilities through transparency and active listening to consumers, adapting where necessary, then sharing with those consumers how you help meet their needs, and the needs of their families and communities, including consumer and community health and safety. These are all pointed toward constant change and improvement of our management practices and our communications.

Last year I mentioned to you that I believed we needed to advance a fundamental change in our relationship with our customers. I said society has evolved, and consumers are seeking a more direct relationship with the way their food is produced and what they put into their bodies. We will not succeed into the future unless we continue to include them in our beef community. I believe we are doing a good job of engaging and telling, thereby better including our consumers. But I believe it is time for that next logical step toward a tighter relationship with consumers—and that step lies within our ability to learn, and change.

We know, from growing our touch points and engaging our community, that we share a passion with our consumers about food and social issues surrounding food.  The secret to our survival as a center-of-the-plate item in worldwide diets relies on our ability to answer critical questions. How can we focus more on creative and innovative solutions to challenges, and less on defending the way things are? How can we step out fearlessly to tackle sticky issues in our industry head-on? How can we enlarge the scope of factors we consider in our business decisions? How can we courageously embrace change, and the future, even if it means setting aside some of the ways we currently do business in favor of future gains? How can we turn information into improved strategic thinking, about future linkages between your business, the betterment of society and the desires of consumers? How can we embrace our own dedication to our economic sustainability, the viability of our environment for our children’s children and the responsibility we already feel to feed Americans and beyond, to make every decision, a sustainable, responsible, viable-into-the-future decision?

We must work to keep a holistic way of thinking on equitable footing with economic factors in every decision we make on behalf of the checkoff. This is the way of the future for businesses that hit targets on all three measures of sustainability—economic, social and environmental. Our ability to broaden our thinking will determine our level of success with our marketplace, and our success in passing our business, and our resources, along to the next generation.

So what is my call to action, for you today?

Be brave and thoughtful when faced with frightening challenges.

Don’t mistake disagreement, or even passionate, constructive discussion for combat.

Use your powers, of consideration, of dollars, of your critical role in society, for the good of all.

Consciously refrain from automatic “us against them” responses.

And most of all, remember that as checkoff leaders, you are a driving and influential force in the sustainable future of the beef industry.  You can effect change. You can make a difference.

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Unlocking Value Through Innovation

Innovation Change Unlocks Value March Blog

Make no mistake, despite some vocal minority voices that say otherwise–people want to eat beef.  The latest beef demand numbers say plenty, with the All Fresh Beef Demand Index having increased an astounding 13 percent year-on-year during the fourth quarter of 2014. 13 percent – that’s the largest year-over-year increase in any quarter since 1990 – 25 years. Of course, the beef checkoff can’t take credit for the entire growth in beef demand – but our community is realizing this growth despite our tight supply in recent years, which points to growing consumer preference for our product and, according to economist Glynn Tonsor, “strong consumer loyalty to beef.” In fact, demand for beef has increased in 18 of the last 19 quarters through December 2014. And for the full year in 2014, beef demand increased 7 percent – the best growth we’ve since 2004 and the second-best since 1990.

Looking at one area where the beef checkoff focuses on innovation, the NPD Group – a global information company – reported recently that a total of 9 billion servings of burgers landed in U.S. restaurant and foodservice tables in 2014 – up 3 percent from 2013. This was in sharp contrast to overall sandwich servings for the year, which dipped by 2 percent – or 201 million servings. Burgers lead the sandwich segment, and that’s no accident. The checkoff worked closely with restaurant personnel nationwide to help create many of the burger options you see on restaurant menus today. Because we have asked consumers what they want – with market and product research at the base of every checkoff program – we may assist chefs and restaurant owners in understanding and fulfilling beef community desires. Because of this, today’s burger is much more than a bun-wrapped patty. Instead, beef burgers are a discriminating and purely individual selection from hundreds of creative options, including burger bars where folks can put their sandwich together just as they like it. Some people (like me) still want a simple, perfectly grilled beef patty, topped with Wisconsin cheddar, lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup and mustard. But given the high price of beef, you can understand why many folks feel like their burger experience is more valuable when they get the exact combination of flavors that delight their palate. And we aim to please.

As I mentioned earlier, research forms the base of virtually all beef checkoff programs. That includes market research to keep in touch with our consumers’ demands and product innovation research to keep making improvements and changes to meet those demands. Let me give you a couple of examples of the important connection between research, product innovation, and a blended beef community. Think about breakfast – a meal that in which beef has been largely absent. Our market research tells us that consumers want beef at breakfast, too. So the checkoff’s Beef Innovations Group and culinary team worked through a coordinated product development initiative to help chefs and restaurateurs bring beef products to the breakfast table, developing recipes for breakfast beef burritos, beef and egg breakfast mugs, basic country beef breakfast sausage, beef bacon, steak and eggs breakfast tacos, and beef breakfast pizza, to name a few. Once perfected, we also distribute recipe innovations to consumers through the digital platforms where they say they want to receive their beef information. We rely heavily on partnerships where restaurant of retail partners invest as much as $60 to every checkoff dollar. It’s a win-win-win for farmers and ranchers, restaurants and retailers, and the customers who love beef–a.k.a. the beef community.

So can we celebrate the win? Absolutely. But what we cannot do, is rest.

We need to take a very thoughtful, disciplined approach to the future of the beef community, too.  We are in a unique position to offer a certain experiential value to our customers that separates us from other proteins. We have unmatched equity in the area of creating food experiences to meet our customers’ search for those experiences, not simply chow or belly fill. Serving up these experiences will require that we continue to nurture and grow the trust we have gained in our beef and agriculture community by providing truth, transparency and value. By pleasantly surprising and delighting our customers constantly. By pushing beyond the status quo and reinventing the beef experience, even when we are experiencing tremendous success in demand. Especially when we are experiencing tremendous success.

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”  ~Henry Ford

The Gift

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Many people think of Christmas as the season for giving, but the truth is, giving spans all seasons. American volunteers have an enormous impact on the health and well-being of communities worldwide, be they agricultural, faith, or your own hometown or neighborhood — to the tune of 7.9 billion hours of volunteer service that added $175 billion to the U.S. economy in 2012.

Still, farmers and ranchers, particularly those in the beef business, stand out when it comes to giving to others: While one in four Americans volunteers time to causes about which they are passionate, nearly 50 percent of cattlemen and women do. Knowing them as well as I do, that doesn’t surprise me, but reminds me again how blessed I am to have such dedicated folks on my Board and across agriculture. These givers help define the future of rural communities where they live by maintaining strong family ties, giving back through time and money, providing leadership and spurring economic growth.

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Looking deeper into the general study of American volunteers, I notice that volunteer rates differ among age groups—and maybe not exactly as I would have expected. The volunteer rate of Generation Xers (that’s me!) has trended upward during the last 11 years, increasing nearly 5.5 percentage points. Volunteering among teenagers (ages 16-19) also has trended positively during recent years, up nearly 3 percentage points since 2007. When it comes to hours spent volunteering, volunteers ages 65 and older spent a median of 90 hours on volunteer activities in 2012, the highest among any age group, and far above the 50 median annual hours served by the general volunteer population.

And giving gives you back. A 2013 study found that volunteering may improve your mental health and help you live longer. Researchers found evidence that volunteers had lower levels of depression, increased life satisfaction and enhanced well-being (without pharmaceuticals….yay!!!).

Given all this, I cannot help but revisit a thought I’ve had several times over the past few years (and I know that others have the same question): beyond individual giving, what is the role of organizations and companies in giving, to improve communities and society? Individual efforts result in major personal returns. Do organizational efforts amplify those returns? And, like the mental health, satisfaction and engagement benefits individuals clearly enjoy, does a giving organization also grow stronger, healthier and more resilient to organizational stressors? I suspect so.

I recently read a blurb in the magazine Associations Now (the membership magazine of the American Society of Association Executives). In it, a highly successful CEO of a trade association in Washington, DC reflected back on many years of service, in preparation for her retirement. She mentioned that a program of volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, spearheaded and organized for many years by the association, was one of the primary sources of member engagement, and fulfillment–aside from the main purpose of the trade association itself. She credited that volunteering program with teamwork, a sense of accomplishment and dedication that bled into all other areas within the association.

For example, (I’m thinking out loud here, always dangerous in a public setting, but I’m feeling mellow) if the organization I manage began an opportunity to volunteer at local food banks twice a year in whatever town our Board meeting is held, what would that do for the organization and Board relationships and functionHominy 12 2014 blog? Would it bring us closer? Make us more effective? Help us communicate better? (Would I be standing there alone in a shelter in downtown San Antonio, holding a 3-year-old can of hominy in one hand and potted meat in the other, wondering what happened to everyone?)

I strongly believe that healthy organizations must not only be willing to change, but must seek out positive change. Stagnant organizations produce stagnant results–a strategy for organizational growth and change is a strategy for the future. We must be responsive to customers, we must accurately predict the market, we must grow our products responsibly and carefully. But my question centers on something different: inclusion of an element heretofore outside of the realm of a traditional business plan. The simple concept that giving, gives back.

(Slightly related author’s note: I highly recommend Adam Grant’s book Give and Take if you haven’t been picking up what I’m laying down so far…and you want to. If you’re bored by this post, enter “hominy” in your search engine and let me know exactly what it is, as I’ve always wondered if it’s a seed, bean, legume, starch or what? I usually whip up some beef posole at some point during the winter months, so any help would be appreciated.)

If you know of research on the effect of an organizational giving effort (and I don’t mean development, or cash gifts. I mean a program of service, spearheaded by an organization, apart from its governance structure), could you share that with me?

I’m clearly in reflective mode as this year closes (reflection is an excellent indoor activity, since the weather today is ‘freeze your boogers’ coldand if you don’t know what that means, you’ve never taken a deep breath at -10 degrees).

Only good comes from reflection. (Right?!?)

“Dreaming isn’t as simple as it sounds. On the contrary, it can be quite dangerous.” ~Paulo Coelho

Subsidies and Food Security

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I’ve been to Australia. (That’s me hiding behind the woman in the blue top. No really, it is!)

Before I went, I thought Montana was “big country.” Not that Montana isn’t (incredibly beautiful) big country, but Australia redefines the meaning.

This trip was yet another opportunity offered to me by the Eisenhower Fellowship program. (If you know an outstanding farmer or rancher between the ages of 35 and 45, please tell them about the program. It’s a fantastic opportunity.) Because of my Fellowship, the Nuffield International Farming Scholars Program invited me to come down under and participate in the annual Contemporary Scholars Conference, held in Sydney and Canberra this year.

Big ideas for agriculture in a big country.

Surrounded by about 60 outstanding young farmers from all over the world (The Netherlands, India, UK, Ireland, France, Brazil, China, Indonesia to name a few), the richness of discussion (as you can imagine) humbled me (and, truthfully, made me realize just how ethnocentric I may be—a very good thing for my worldview). Poverty and hunger, efficiency and stewardship, a definition of sustainability, all these topics came up for debate.

You (all 12 of you that read this blog! Thanks Dad!) may be subjected to the residual thoughts from this experience for quite a while. That’s a fair disclaimer, I think.

Have you ever had two concepts that you previously believed lived independent lives suddenly crash together in your brain and form a connection completely new to you? (No? Well, that’s bit awkward for me, then. Ah well. Not the first time.) In one of my first posts to this site, I named it the Shiver of Coalescence. Well, guess what?! Oops, it happened again.

The two concepts bouncing around my brain, now linked with a flexible thought-wire, are subsidies (how’s that for a loaded word?) and food security.

Prior to March 1, I knew very little about EU subsidies for agriculture, other than the offhanded, sardonic comments from others (who, in retrospect, frankly knew about as much the topic as I did). I learned a LOT (but not nearly all there is to know—it is, as they say, complicated) about the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, a policy undergoing fairly significant change as we speak. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to explain (or defend, or for that matter, attack) it in this space. Not only am I too ignorant, I’m also too cowardly.

Learning more about debate on CAP, listening to various farmers from various EU member countries, and other countries, and thinking about my own friends in the US, set me to wondering (a dangerous pass time I try only to engage in on Saturdays).

What is the role of farmer supports in global food security, availability, affordability?

Quite a few people in my acquaintance aggressively ascribe to free markets. My trouble is, every time I ask them what that means, I get a different answer. Since I’m a big fan of precise communication (insofar as it exists) I’ve often dug further, trying to understand the concept.

Some people believe disaster relief for farmers fits rationally into free market agriculture, while some say natural disasters and the chaos they cause are all part of a free market. These ideologically pure folks might argue that a system shock such as hurricane Katrina or the devastating blizzard in the Dakotas comes as a natural part of free markets and the elimination of farms and farmers due to those shocks is just part of doing business in a free market. Others would argue that this may cause citizens to lose livelihoods, or even to go hungry, and this would not be acceptable. While some say grazing on public lands constitutes price supports, some get really, really red in the face when they hear that (like I’m-afraid-they’re-going-to-have-a-stroke-red-in-the-face.) And so on. (And on.)

I believe every government has certain responsibilities for feeding its citizens. Among these: food security, availability, and (in countries blessed enough to think about it) affordability. These responsibilities demand attention to resilience in the food system, including environmental, social, and economic factors.

Food comes from farming. Farming is an inherently risky business.

So what is the responsibility of governments, and the responsibility of private individuals or corporations, to assure this resiliency in our global food system? Or, to bring it close to home, what responsibility do we have to feed people–in our hometown, in our country, in our world? What is the right balance between independent, free markets and food security and sustainability?

Even though I’ve always considered myself a free market devotee, I’ve recently begun to think that while this creed may work in widgets, feeding people—whether in the food deserts of the U.S. or on a global scale—just isn’t that simple.

But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.” ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

“You can’t have a world where 50 percent of the people are dieting, and 50 percent of the people are starving, if you want stability.” ~John Shelby Spong

For those who have been reading this space all along (bless your hearts), here are some beautiful Australian mangoes at the vegetable market in Sydney. Very good. But…remember the mangoes I had in Taiwan? I do. Mmmmm.

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.