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Articles from 2013 In January

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

Take on 'PR rock star' status (commentary)

Take on 'PR rock star' status (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, 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]

LAST week, I shared my thoughts on talk show host Oprah Winfrey's "vegan challenge" episode -- but without having watched the episode.

I based my commentary and observations purely on the reactions of others, including my friends and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter. My key premise came especially from the overwhelmingly positive response of my friend the "closet vegetarian" to the segment on beef production.

The segment featured a tour of a Cargill beef processing facility in Ft. Morgan, Colo., and wrapped up with an in-studio chat among Winfrey, foodie author and activist Michael Pollan and Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, general manager of the Cargill plant.

I'll be blunt: I had no intention of watching the show. I read people's pre-judgments of the show and its concept, heard some great reaction from my friend, wrote my column and thought all would be finished. Little did I know that my sister-in-law had other plans.

When I arrived at the family farm for a weekend retreat, the first words from her mouth were, "You have to watch this RIGHT NOW." She had recorded the episode, and she and my younger brother agreed that I had to see it for myself.

After watching the episode, I was shocked and amazed -- shocked, quite honestly, because Winfrey and reporter Lisa Ling did an outstanding job of presenting a fair and objective story about beef processing in this country, and amazed because it introduced me to Johnson-Hoffman, a woman I've come to describe as agriculture's "PR rock star."

Johnson-Hoffman led Ling's tour of the facility. That segment was outstanding, and the Cargill team provided a case study of how to successfully communicate with consumers and the media. Four words sum up the lesson for agriculture: transparency and shared values.

I was so impressed with the Cargill segment -- specifically Johnson-Hoffman's deft handling of Winfrey's questions and Pollan's commentary -- that I reached out to the company for an interview.

I spoke with Johnson-Hoffman and Cargill director of communications Mike Martin last week, and I encourage you to listen to the conversation because the lessons they shared with me are vital to the success of the meat-producing community.

Here are some of my own observations after talking with them:

* Cargill did the right thing by opening its doors to the biggest consumer audience on daytime television.

* Cargill's decision was not without risks. Martin, Johnson-Hoffman and the entire Cargill brand stood to suffer if Ling, Winfrey or some nameless television producer decided to turn the segment into a hit piece.

* On the farm and in the processing facility, our operations must reflect our core values: animal, employee and consumer well-being.

Twenty other processors turned down Winfrey's request for a tour. What do they have to hide? Each of us should "YouTube-proof" our operations by making sure we are doing everything to the best standards, not the lowest common denominator.

Cargill's PR rock star also demonstrated some valuable lessons for handling potentially volatile situations or discussions.

When Pollan attempted to give credit to the vegan lobby rather than the meat industry for investing in animal well-being, Johnson-Hoffman warmly replied, "That's a great example of how all of us who care about food and animals worked together to do a better job."

Rather than conceding Pollan's point or striking back, she chose to find common ground.

Johnson-Hoffman connected with Winfrey, she connected with Pollan and, most importantly, she connected with millions of moms, wives, sisters, daughters, men and consumers across the country. She did so by embracing the concepts of transparency and shared values.

When Ling asked about ground beef processing, Johnson-Hoffman concluded her explanation with a stellar line: "Then, we make it into the hamburgers my kids eat for dinner."

Note that she didn't refer to anyone else's children but her own. In other words, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer watching at home, the executives at Cargill don't feed your family one product and save the good stuff for themselves. We all eat the same food, drink the same water and breathe the same air. This is a critical point in many farm-related controversies.

By producing food in such a way that we have nothing to hide from our consumer customers and by seeking to understand values those consumers share with us -- like animal well-being and a tasty, wholesome food product -- we can all move toward "PR rock star" status. Taking on that challenge is everyone's responsibility.

Editor's Note: Listen to Andy Vance's interviews with Cargill's Nicole Johnson-Hoffman and Mike Martin about their "Oprah Winfrey Show" experience at www.Feedstuffs.com or www.FeedstuffsFoodLink.com.

Volume:83 Issue:07

Stop spending so much time inside echo chamber (commentary)

Stop spending so much time inside echo chamber (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, 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]

LEGENDARY Chinese military strategist Sun-Tzu gave the advice: "Know your enemy as you know yourself."

Generals from Napoleon Bonaparte to Colin Powell have studied Sun-Tzu's Art of War and applied its principles to win battles and topple empires.

Read the pages of Feedstuffs or any popular agricultural publication, and you will readily realize that agriculture is embroiled in a war of its own. The challenge is fighting this war on two fronts: (1) on the field of common sense, sound science and best practices and (2) on the field of public perception.

Unfortunately for us, it seems we neither know our enemy nor truly know ourselves.

The full context of Sun-Tzu's advice on understanding the strengths, weaknesses and motives of one's enemy is that if you know your enemy as well as you know yourself, you might not endanger yourself in as many as 100 battles. If you know yourself but not your enemy, you'll win some and lose some. However, if you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you'll always be in danger.

Appling that concept to agriculture, consider the current challenges to farm policy, animal agriculture and our basic ability to do business in this industry. These challenges are many, complex and seemingly multiplying.

Perhaps our biggest challenge is that we spend far too much time in what pundits call the "echo chamber." Though typically a term used to chastise policy wonks for consuming only the media that reinforces their closely held beliefs (i.e., conservatives listening to Rush Limbaugh or liberals watching MSNBC), we have our own echo chamber in agriculture.

Consider how many different farm publications are out there. Most of us get dozens of papers and magazines ranging from Feedstuffs to our state farm association's newsletters. Likewise, we listen to farm radio, watch RFD-TV and visit farm-oriented web sites.

How often do we step out of the bubble and read or hear what others say or think about us?

During the recent debate over the Food Safety Modernization Act, I took a lot of time to read what the mainstream press had to say about farms and food safety. In so doing, I made previously avoided sources like The New York Times and The Huffington Post part of my daily news diet.

By intentionally exposing myself to writers and commentators I knew I would likely disagree with or be frustrated by, I found myself building a broader understanding of how consumers view us on the farm and what we do for a living.

Consider this: The majority of consumers still cherish farmers, but picture those farmers as the iconic couple from Grant Wood's "American Gothic." That image, though indelibly imprinted in the consumer's mind, is not the most accurate portrayal of our nation's professional food producers.

While we may all agree that consumers have a poor understanding of who we are and what we do, couldn't those consumers say the same thing about us? After all, don't we have our own distorted views of the consuming public as an ignorant mass of malcontents incapable of understanding basic aspects of food production?

I suggest that rather than redoubling our efforts to "educate" the public about food and farming, we do what the Obama Administration failed to do with the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Campaign," and that is to reconnect with our neighbors and customers. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture turned this brilliant concept into what I call the National Organic Outreach Initiative, the basic idea of Know Your Farmer is exactly what we need in American agriculture today.

Life, business and, now more than ever, farming are about relationships. Let's stop telling each other how great we are and focus on building more relationships with the American consumer.


Volume:83 Issue:01

Time will tell if UEP gambit pays off (commentary)

Time will tell if UEP gambit pays off (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]

THERE is no "I" in "team," and there is no "we" in "U.S. agriculture."

Consider that we generally think of agriculture as a monolith, a teeming mass of individuals of a similar socioeconomic background with similar careers, similar interests and similar ideas. Experience and simple logic reveal that this assumption, however, is patently false.

Let's face it, agriculture may be an industry and/or community defined by a common cause -- namely, producing food and other natural resources through the stewardship of the land and its bounty -- but our hopes, needs and desires are as different as the products of our efforts.

This is why we have both commodity-specific agricultural organizations like the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. and the National Corn Growers Assn. as well as general farm groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers' Union. This also explains why these various groups will be unified on any number of policy issues but then differ sharply on others.

I've been thinking about this philosophical dichotomy since reading a rebuttal from Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers (UEP), an organization I took to task in my Jan. 2 column ("Don't Let Fox Roam Hen House"). My comments centered on my basic criticism of UEP's landmark agreement with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to lobby Congress for a federal standard on hen housing systems.

Gregory's rebuttal to my argument, appearing in this issue of Feedstuffs, is cogent, concise and well-reasoned. We opinion writers are known for reflection, though not necessarily for admitting that another writer has made a point worth comment; Gregory's letter is worth reading.

UEP had little choice but to adhere to the maxim, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." As he points out in the letter, fighting HSUS in California proved costly and fruitless. Numerous HSUS-sponsored/funded ballot measures across the country threatened to spawn a nightmare patchwork of animal care and housing standards for the egg industry -- a regulatory hodgepodge that could well have put egg farmers out of business.

My argument, since the infamous "Ohio Compromise" with HSUS, is that we need more Patton-like resolve toward HSUS and its radical animal rights agenda and less Chamberlain-esque appeasement. On this order, it does appear that the UEP experiment of working with HSUS is less about capitulating and more about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer.

By controlling the agenda on hen housing, UEP hopes to keep HSUS in check long enough for two things to happen: (1) for Congress to enact reasonable federal legislation that will supersede the mishmash of state regulations governing egg production while not putting farmers out of business and (2) for agriculture en masse to get its act together and figure out how to deal with the HSUS problem before its leadership achieves its goal of running all animal agriculture enterprises out of business.

This may not be a bad strategy, though it is necessary to remember that you eventually have to deal with your enemies.

I'm no less concerned now than before that getting Congress involved in livestock care is bad business, but I am willing to give UEP members the benefit of the doubt.

As Gregory points out, neither this intrepid columnist nor the numerous farm organizations that wrote to Congress urging them to ignore the HSUS-UEP legislation make our living producing eggs for the consumer. UEP members do. It has been more than a decade since I raised chickens, and my farm handled only 100 broilers at a time and only a handful of batches of those every summer.

The needs of the many may outweigh the needs of the few, to quote Mr. Spock. The collective outrage of the many in agriculture who don't like the idea of farmers cozying up to HSUS, however, probably doesn't seem all that important to the (relatively) few egg farmers concerned about staying in business and feeding their kids.

Those outside the egg industry will have to wait and see if UEP's gambit pays off or if our worst fears come to bear. These farmers -- our comrades in arms, in a sense -- are doing what they think is right for their family farms and enterprises; far be it for me to tell them to do otherwise.

There is no "we" in U.S. agriculture; there's just "US."

Volume:84 Issue:04

Winfrey's vegan challenge plays well for ag (commentary)

Winfrey's vegan challenge plays well for ag (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, 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]com.

ANIMAL agriculture enthusiasts spent a great deal of digital ink last week discussing multimedia mogul Oprah Winfrey's episode dedicated to how meat is processed and her subsequent "vegan challenge."

Let us establish two key facts. First, I did not watch the show. Second (and the root cause of fact number one), I am not a fan of Winfrey.

Winfrey challenged her crew -- 378 people in total -- to eat a vegan diet for a week. The crew members were encouraged to abandon any animal-derived protein at the behest of author and vegan activist Kathy Freston.

Here is the shocker of the day: I am in no way opposed to this latest affront to animal agriculture and my preferred diet of mass quantities of lean, animal-derived protein.

When I first heard about Winfrey's vegan stunt, my natural response included those little hairs on the back of my neck standing straight up. I am not a fan of hers and have been openly skeptical of her motives and cult-like following since the Texas beef debacle more than a decade ago. So, why am I now ambivalent to her shenanigans?

Two reasons: First, while I admit that Winfrey has an extremely large and passionate following, most people are naturally geared toward a diet and lifestyle involving animal proteins. Look at the developing world: As incomes increase, people naturally desire "better food." In terms of energy and nutrient density, it is extremely difficult to top lean beef, pork, poultry and fish.

The second reason I am somewhat dismissive of this escapade is that I think one of our greatest weaknesses as a food-producing nation is our pride and ego. We are extremely proud of our agricultural heritage, and rightfully so. As farmers, ranchers or food processors, we tend to develop a bit of a hero complex. How many of us (me included) have a bumper sticker that says something to the effect: "Had a good meal today? Thank a farmer."

On the other hand, have you ever seen a bumper sticker that says, "Drive a car today? Thank a union member." Perhaps you used a cell phone today and thought, "Gee, I need to thank the phone company for that outstanding reception."

I admit to more than a little sarcasm in the last paragraph. I, like you, am extremely proud that I grew up on a small farm and still own a herd of cows. My lifestyle and career would be much different had I not grown up with cattle and the responsibilities of farm life.

Having said that, if we allow ourselves to react viscerally every time a talking head like Winfrey suggests an alternative diet, we weaken our position in the minds of consumers. When we rear up and protest the mere suggestion of a diet without animal-based foods, we increase the odds that a consumer will say, "Wait a minute, maybe there's something to all this vegan propaganda."

Most of us know far too little about our bodies and our diet. Even then, we typically understand far less than we actually know. My personal belief, based on my own academic research and consultation with certified physical trainers, is that a diet without animal-based foods is incomplete at best and potentially dangerous.

With that in mind, we need to continue opening our farms and food processing facilities to consumer inquiry and even scrutiny. As Cargill proved in the Winfrey segment last week, increasing our level of transparency with consumers increases our credibility. That type of political capital pays dividends when facing sworn enemies of food animal production.

As a postscript, one of my closest friends is an Winfrey fan (there's no accounting for taste, I suppose), and I often tease her about being what I call a "closet vegetarian." When I heard about the episode last week, I expected her to lay on a torrent of commentary and criticism about my meat eating and producing ways.

On the contrary, largely because of Cargill's openness with the Winfrey team, my friend walked away with an extremely favorable impression of meat production. She was particularly impressed with the steps taken in beef harvest to keep the cattle calm and treat them humanely throughout the handling process. The level of knowledge and understanding she exhibited about beef processing after watching the segment was extremely impressive for a layman.

If one person walked away with a positive impression of meat production, how many of the millions of Winfrey fans did the same?


Volume:83 Issue:06

Obama not acing every class, I guess (commentary)

Obama not acing every class, I guess (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]

IN its annual evaluation of the Administration, the leading animal rights lobbying organization handed President Barack Obama the lowest mark of his tenure, a grade of C- on "animal welfare issues."

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) reported that while it had graded Obama a B-student of the HSUS agenda in his first two years in office, his third year was a "subpar" performance.

"Despite campaign promises that he'd be strong on humane issues, the President has failed to pull together a coherent animal welfare strategy or to deliver any kind of message to our community of 20,000 animal protection organizations and millions of animal-loving Americans throughout the country," HSUS announced.

"His high-level appointees for the agencies that matter most to animal welfare -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- have made positive moves on a few fronts, but more often, they have left important policy matters incomplete or, worse, taken strongly adverse actions," HSUS added.

In other words, while his political critics take the President to task for positions they deem too radical, HSUS is taking shots at Obama for not being radical enough.

Before I get into HSUS's specific allegations against the Administration, let me say this: The average American has a skewed perception of what the President actually does and does not do, and this misconception of basic civics is fueled both by candidates' campaign promises and by activist propaganda like the HSUS "report card."

Take, for example, the common campaign rhetoric (from candidates of both parties) regarding action on the budget. A candidate might proclaim that he will balance the budget or increase spending in this area or that; such grandstanding almost ignores the fact that the President does not write the federal budget.

Congress, in fact, is charged with writing the budget, and while the President does play a role, the midterm elections are typically more effective in charting the course of fiscal events in this country, e.g., the 1994 "Contract with America."

A number of the issues tackled in the HSUS report card are, in fact, legislative matters. Also, while the President must sign bills into law, as Obama did with the so-called "agriculture spending bill that cleared the way for horse slaughter plants to open on U.S. soil," legislation is written by Congress.

The basic civics lesson aside, let's look at the big issues Obama "failed" to advance on HSUS's behalf. The aforementioned spending bill was of particular note because it contained provisions dealing with processing horses for overseas meat consumption.

This is an area where the animal rights folks have consistently ignored reality. By eliminating a venue where owners could humanely dispose of horses that reached the end of their useful life, the radicals actually created severely inhumane conditions for unwanted horses and animals the owners could no longer care for.

Obama's apparent inaction on this issue perplexed HSUS's Wayne Pacelle and company, who said, "As a U.S. senator, Obama co-sponsored legislation to ban horse slaughter, but he's made no definitive pronouncements on the issue as President."

I guess he was too busy worrying about the state of the economy or ongoing military engagements in the war on terror ... you know, trivial stuff compared to the animal rights agenda.

HSUS said the federal government continues to "harm" horses through the Bureau of Land Management's handling of the wild horse and burro population in the West. Arguing, in essence, that the bureau should stop managing these "free-roaming populations," HSUS said the President's allowance of status quo is the wrong move.

The well-heeled animal rights lobby also took shots at the agriculture secretary, saying, "Secretary Tom Vilsack has been entirely silent on the July 2011 accord reached by HSUS and the United Egg Producers to jointly seek federal legislation to phase out barren battery cages, to prohibit other inhumane practices at egg farms and to set up a national egg labeling program to give consumers more information about housing practices."

There's no reason for Vilsack to stake out a position on this issue. The "accord" suggests federal legislation -- the realm of Congress, not USDA.

Further, HSUS claims that "despite record profits for agribusiness, (the federal government) gave tens of millions in handouts to the pork industry without requiring any industry reforms for animal welfare, manure management or reduction in non-therapeutic use of antibiotics."

Really? Claiming that this falls under the area of "agribusiness subsidies," the organization criticized USDA food programs for "buying up surplus pork as a direct subsidy to the industry, even though producers have been experiencing record profits."

The report card also takes shots at the Administration for its handling of predator control issues in the West, criticizing "an agency program that kills wildlife as a subsidy for private ranchers and other special interests and has failed to shift the focus of its resources to non-lethal alternatives that can be more effective."

Read the report. You may or may not support the Obama Administration, but you should at least be aware of the items on the HSUS agenda, which is the most powerful animal rights lobbying organization in the world. This report card explains a lot about its biggest target: us.

Volume:84 Issue:03

Non-farming consumer: Friend or foe? (commentary)

Non-farming consumer: Friend or foe? (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, 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]

WE spend a lot of time talking about the animal rights movement, anti-agriculture activists and various challenges facing food animal production in modern western society.

In so doing, we typically frame the discussion in an "us versus them" manner. We do so with good reason, of course, because it is both easy and typically accurate.

When discussing The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Mercy for Animals or a dozen other bad actors in the crusade against modern meat consumption and production, it is difficult to consider the opposition as anything but the enemy. One of my friends once described HSUS as "radical anti-meat terrorists."

How does the conversation change when the "opposition" is actually a close friend, co-worker or colleague?

I am convinced that the previous question is one of the biggest reasons folks in and around Ohio bristled at the "compromise" between agricultural groups and HSUS last year. Farmers and supporters of Ohio's Issue 2 initiative in 2009 felt "betrayed" by the key agriculture leaders who brokered the deal to avoid a costly HSUS-led ballot measure.

Many of us likely know someone in our inner circle who might not support our commitment to consumption of animal-based proteins to the same degree. In my own sphere of influence, one of my closest friends offers many a blood pressure-escalating comment, question or anecdote challenging my closely held beliefs and assumptions. This particular friend loves animals, and in that, we have something in common. The difference, of course, is best illustrated by a recent anecdote involving culling.

One of my cows, a female in the middle of her productive life expectancy, aborted late in her last gestation. A wise producer once told me an open cow costs money, and I strongly considered sending her to town. When the situation came up in conversation with my friend, she was shocked that I would consider selling this cow because of her failure to calve.

Ultimately, after consulting with the rest of my management team (my dad and little brother, my herdsmen), we decided her pedigree and past production warranted another effort before making the decision to cull.

The experience of having my management decisions questioned by a trusted non-farm friend illustrated for me a large challenge for the less than 2% of the population involved in production agriculture: People who disagree with, or lack an understanding of, basic farm practices and procedures are not necessarily the enemy.

Last week, I wrote about escaping the "echo chamber" and letting people outside our own philosophy breech our defenses. Upon further reflection and personal experience, I encourage you to take it one more step and think about how what we do on the farm looks, sounds and feels to our close friends and cohorts off the farm. Ignore the perspective of the enemy for a moment, and consider the perspective of those closest to you who might be the most ignorant.

One of my first experiences "educating" my friends came from hiring a graphic designer to build my first web site as a farm broadcaster. The designer, who had built dozens of exceptional web sites, had zero experience with agriculture and food production.

At one of our first meetings, he noticed on my desk a sire catalog from a prominent artificial insemination (AI) company and inquired what I was reading. As I explained the concept of AI and the "bull book," my friend offered some hilarious observations. Among my favorites was the notion of the book being the "Victoria's Secret catalog for cows" and of Select Sires being a "sperm bank for bovines."

In many cases, the adage "if you're not with me, you're against me" holds true. In the case of relating to and communicating with consumers about agricultural issues, however, we cannot afford to be quite so cavalier or condescending.


Volume:83 Issue:02

Let real legislative work begin (commentary)

Let real legislative work begin (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, 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]

LAST week, the Senate Agriculture Committee held its first hearing under newly minted chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.); likewise, the House Agriculture Committee, under the new leadership of chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.), held a series of hearings in recent days discussing various issues confronting farmers and food producers.

With one congressional election firmly behind us and the next at least a year away, the work of the legislature finally can commence. The challenges lawmakers face are staggering. The midterm election, like the two previous cycles, cemented the reality that American taxpayers are displeased with their elected representation and, therefore, with the direction of the nation's legislative and regulatory agenda.

Early indications are that a divided government yields robust discussions on critical issues, but the curse of the ruling class is far from cured simply by shuffling chairmanships and committee rosters.

As policy watchers and prognosticators handicap some of the issues the 112th Congress is most likely to face, we know the farm bill will be among them. Likewise, we know the immediate budget battle will be hard fought and fraught with perilous decision-making.

On that front, the battle has just begun. President Barack Obama released his fiscal 2011 budget proposal -- a $3.69 trillion effort. Herein lies the first challenge for the new Congress: Voters spoke fairly clearly on the issue of government spending and tax policy, yet  the President proposed a budget, according to the New York Times, some $90 billion LARGER than last year's.

See a problem?

Naturally, the Republicans and Democrats lined up on their respective sides of the political aisle and commenced firing shots at one another for various reasons, each side blaming the other for the woes of the budgetary conundrum of the Republic.

For agriculture specifically, the budget calls for a 2.5% reduction in funding for the Commodity Credit Corp., a 3.9% cut to research and educational programming, an 11.1% cut to administration, a 6.9% drop in funding for animal and plant health inspection programs and a 3.3% cut in extension funding.

For the most part, these percentages sound fairly modest, and some program areas did see budget increases under the proposal.

However, here's the news flash: The President does not write the budget. Despite the annual exercise of the chief executive submitting his proposal to Congress, the nation's founders placed the responsibility for managing our fiscal house in the hands of the legislative body.

That means for the next several days and weeks, groups ranging from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the carpenter's union will lobby members of Congress to restore, alter or enhance funding to suit their given needs and wants.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that farmers and ranchers develop and maintain a relationship and dialogue with the elected class. These members are, by and large, removed from food production at least by a generation, and the number of us actively producing the nation's daily bread is a finite number.

At the same time, it is critical to remember that we can't assume exemption from the budgetary ax. If we ask elected leaders to trim the federal budget and deal with the massive deficits built during this Administration, we can't have the mentality of "Cut the budget ... except for my pet program!"

Agriculture makes up a relatively small proportion of the federal budget, and entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare have to be dealt with responsibly rather than ignored.

Even so, as farmers are often presumed to be fiscally conservative, it's time to walk the walk, not just talk a good game.

Volume:83 Issue:08

Is HSUS playing pretend? (commentary)

Is HSUS playing pretend? (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]

LAST week, HumaneWatch.org, a division of the Center for Consumer Freedom, asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to open an investigation into the fund-raising tactics of The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) because more than 120 complaints regarding those practices have been filed with FTC since December 2011.

HSUS president and chief executive officer Wayne Pacelle and company were not happy with this request, to put it mildly.

According to HumaneWatch, most of the complaints center on HSUS advertising that misleads people into believing that HSUS is an umbrella group for local pet shelters and channels contributions to them. In actuality, critics claim, HSUS records show that barely 1% of donations are sent to those shelters.

In other words, FTC should investigate a large-scale case of the classic bait and switch.

It is easy to see why people in our professional community dislike HSUS. The organization is extremely well-funded, fairly well-respected (compared to the radical arm of the animal rights apparatus like Mercy for Animals or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and, in recent years, very successful at advancing its agenda.

Moreover, the notion that many consumers believe HSUS is some type of national organization representing local animal shelters is extremely frustrating to those in the know about the group's true agenda and activities.

The HSUS mission -- "celebrating animals, confronting cruelty" -- is one thing most of us in agriculture have in common with the well-heeled activist group. I, for one, am whole-heartedly in favor of celebrating animals at every turn and aggressively stamping out animal cruelty wherever it exists.

Our major source of contention with the group, it seems, is the definition of what, exactly, constitutes cruelty. To me, housing laying hens in reasonably sized cages with plenty of food, water and ventilation so those hens can profitably produce eggs that will, in turn, feed my family is perfectly acceptable.

HSUS, however, successfully convinced California voters in 2008 that the way many farms accomplished that basic task was cruel to the hens.

Much has changed in the interceding four years, not the least of which is HSUS's agreement with the United Egg Producers last year acknowledging that enriched colony housing is an acceptable method of facilitating egg production.

The question rankling supporters of the HumaneWatch movement is: Why should HSUS be allowed to raise funds under the guise of using those funds to aid animal shelters while actually spending those funds to wage multimillion-dollar political campaigns like Prop 2 in California?

It is not an unreasonable question. Pacelle responded to the request for an FTC investigation by saying that HumaneWatch was "off the mark -- off by miles." Perhaps it is, but only FTC can truly determine if HSUS is using inappropriate fund-raising tactics to purposefully mislead donors into supporting a radical animal rights agenda.

To me, this much is clear: HSUS spends a great deal of its resources on activities in the legislative and political arenas. After waging numerous state ballot initiatives in states like California, Florida, Arizona and Ohio over the past 15 years, the group is perhaps the most successful lobbying and political organization in the country. Its track record is impressive, to say the least.

Now, after succeeding in advancing its agenda in several states, HSUS has convinced at least one major agricultural organization to join it in advancing at least part of its agenda at the federal level. That, in and of itself, is a far cry from raising money to save pitiful puppies and doe-eyed kittens.

For most people who are opposed to the HSUS agenda, the biggest bone of contention is the shadiness of the HSUS enterprise.

Farmers are no-nonsense, straight-shooting folks. If you are a lobbying organization bent on spending millions of donor dollars to advance a radical animal rights agenda, so be it. Just don't convince my neighbors to fund you by pretending to be something you're not.

Volume:84 Issue:07

HSUS sets sights on farms of all sizes (commentary)

HSUS sets sights on farms of all sizes (commentary)

*Andy Vance is an agricultural journalist, 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]

LEGENDARY military strategist Sun-Tsu, so often co-opted into '80s business reading material, built his strategy around the basic premise that you must know your enemy to truly defeat him.

For that reason -- and to keep my blood pressure from ever dipping into the "normal" range -- I read a blog by Wayne Pacelle, the chief executive officer/chief lobbyist/spokesmodel for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

This $200 million humane (in name only) activist lobbying group raises funds by working the long con that it is somehow engaged in helping animals. In so doing, it raises hundreds of millions of dollars annually that it, in turn, spends on lobbying and political activities to force Americans into a radical vegan lifestyle devoid of any animal-derived proteins or products.

While it typically denies this fanatical end goal, if you read Pacelle's blog regularly, he frequently slips up and says what he actually means.

HSUS first ventured into the arena of ballot initiative political campaigns in Florida in 2002. The effort -- to end the use of gestation stalls on hog farms -- was, for this "sophisticated political organization" (Pacelle's own description of HSUS), equivalent to sticking its toe in the shallow end of the pool.

In a multi-state, multi-year strategy, the organization has worked step by step and state by state to drive modern agriculture and farm families out of business and to drive up the cost of meat, milk and eggs in the hopes of lowering (or, perhaps, eliminating) demand for those products.

Don't just take my word for it, though.

Pacelle himself said of the Florida initiative, "When voters approved it, it was the first restriction on a severe confinement practice in the U.S. Now, eight years later, it has achieved its principal purpose: It kept giant hog factory farms from colonizing Florida, as they did three decades ago in North Carolina."

So, in Pacelle's own words, the purpose wasn't to save the pigs; the "principle purpose" of HSUS was to keep hog farms out of Florida in the first place.

Some will jump to Pacelle's defense and point out that he specifically said "giant factory farms." The problem with that faulty logic is twofold. First, there is no plausible or meaningful definition of giant factory farm, and second, it assumes that factories are bad in the first place.

To understand what I mean, you have to first reject the premise of Pacelle's statement: that factories are bad. After all, Pacelle is telling you that factory farms are bad, but let's consider this: If a major manufacturer like Honda, General Motors or Proctor & Gamble wanted to build a plant near your town, what would happen?

Community leaders would roll out the red carpet, local or state development officers would work on tax abatements and incentives and folks would jump up and down at the opportunity for more jobs! Factories produce goods and services that we, as consumers, need or want while generating economic activity and creating wealth for workers and shareholders.

In Pacelle's invective-filled context, however, we are supposed to believe that if a farm is large enough to earn the "factory" smear, it no longer produces food but instead produces evil filth and pollution.

The problem, of course, is that the U.S. needs all farmers to produce enough food to feed 100 million additional Americans expected to live on the planet 40 years from now.

Livestock care or environmental stewardship is size neutral. Some of the largest farmers I know are the best at both, and some of the smallest I know are among the worst. Likewise, undercover activists looking for a fight can find isolated examples of the obverse.

The problem lies in the generalization needed to smear an enemy. By branding all "factory" farms as animal abusers or polluters, Pacelle sets up a straw man to earn your disgust so he can con you into giving him your donation -- or your vote.

Make no mistake, however, about what Pacelle actually believes. HSUS works to achieve its "principle purpose": to run livestock farmers of all stripes out of business.


Volume:83 Issue:09