So long, Butler (commentary)

So long, Butler (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, public speaker, commentator and entrepreneur who most recently led the broadcast team at Agri Broadcast Network and is an active member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. Vance grew up on a farm in Hillsboro, Ohio, and raises registered Shorthorn cattle and breeding stock. Vance's web site, "The Angle," is andyvance.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]

THE announcement that J. Dudley Butler would resign as administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) drew a range of responses as wide as you could imagine for a midlevel agency bureaucrat.

To hear the mainstream media tell the tale, a hardworking, kindhearted, well-meaning, loyal, faithful, crusading public servant is being run out of Washington, D.C., by a vengeful cartel of meat packers and livestock industry lobbyists.

I posted the news on Facebook, for example, and the first comment was literally, "Good riddance!"

National Public Radio (NPR) correspondent Frank Morris, on the other hand, painted the news as a tragedy on a grand scale, using the headline, "Antitrust Official Gets Stampeded By Big Beef." Really?

Exactly why was this agency administrator so polarizing? It is worth noting that, within the meat and livestock community, Butler was often referred to as the "fox guarding the henhouse" due to his storied (or sordid, depending on whom you ask) career as a litigator fighting "big ag" or "big meat" interests on behalf of the "little guy."

His official biography on USDA's website explains that Butler spent three decades in private practice as an attorney, certified mediator and arbitrator "focused on farm- and ranch-related disputes as well as other agriculture arbitrations and mediations and disputes."

Morris put it much more plainly, saying, "A lawyer with experience suing poultry processors, Butler took over (GIPSA) determined to make litigation against packers easier."

Apparently, it didn't take a big-city lawyer to figure out that Butler came to USDA with an agenda.

In fact, Morris' lament in a fairly one-sided piece of pseudo-journalism (in fairness to NPR, the story did appear on its food blog but also ran as part of the network's heralded "All Things Considered" series) appears to be that Butler wasn't successful in cramming his agenda down the collective throat of the meat production community.

Morris wrote that Butler "was part of a cadre of high-level bureaucrats charged to expose and fight agribusiness monopolies. In fact, he was the last of that group. Butler set out to change the cattle industry. But he ran into many hurdles, not least of which was fierce opposition from meatpackers, who exert a lot of influence in Washington, D.C."

Morris does allow that critics of Butler's infamous GIPSA competition rule point to the benefits of the modern system of livestock procurement, namely a consistent supply of cattle for packers, a guaranteed market for producers and a reward system based on quality and efficiency. It's the "little guy," however, who suffers in this extremely efficient system, the reporter insisted.

Relying on the tried and true script of industry malcontents like Bill Bullard of R-CALF USA and Fred Stokes of the Organization for Competitive Markets, Morris reiterated that the vertical integration experienced in the poultry and pork industries in the latter half of the 20th century is likely to occur in the beef industry without Butler-style intervention.

So, without actually saying so, Morris leaves the reader with a sense that Butler, unable to accomplish the bold revolution he had envisioned as the meat industry's top regulator, is taking his kickball and going home. Or, more sinisterly, after removing "big beef's" Caesarian daggers from his tired carcass, Butler had no choice but to retire, because who can stand such a high level of stress and pressure for very long?

I met Butler once when visiting USDA with a group of cattle producers a few years back. He came across as a good-ol' boy at first, but the longer the meeting went on, the more rankled he appeared. It was clear that he had few admirers in a room full of Stetson hat- and Justin boot-wearing cowboys.

So, to answer why Butler was so polarizing, for me, it became obvious not from watching that meeting with Butler and the producers but from sitting in on the next meeting with USDA Chief Economist Joe Glauber, the top economic mind in the department. Glauber made it very clear that GIPSA had neither asked for nor wanted a thorough economic impact analysis of the competition rule and that USDA economists thought that was an extremely bad idea.

Without openly disparaging his USDA colleague, Glauber left the cowboys with the impression that Butler was running roughshod across the fiscal countryside of agriculture and that the GIPSA rule had a host of unintended consequences that would be very bad for business and for everyone associated with that business.

When an organization's chief economist thinks something is a bad idea, I tend to listen. When an organization chooses to dismiss that economist's counsel out of hand, I understand that the choice to do so is based not on sound principle but on an agenda and personal interest.

It has been said that the true measure of a man's intelligence is how much he agrees with you. In the sad tale of the now former GIPSA administrator, Butler was apparently in a class all by himself.

Volume:84 Issue:05

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