No such thing as 'accidental' rancher (commentary)

No such thing as 'accidental' rancher (commentary)

TWO of my favorite newspaper headlines from the past will always be: "Man Hunting Neighbors' Lost Sheep," and "Officials Declare Swine Flew Over."

If you are in the livestock business, the mental images created by these two headlines are amusing.

Busy schedules and technology have changed the way most people read the news. Instead of sitting down with a cup of coffee and reading the details in a print newspaper or magazine, readers today are more likely to peruse the daily headlines on their computers and smartphones.

Maybe that's why, when reading this New York Times headline, "An Accidental Cattle Ranch Points the Way to Sustainable Farming," the television sitcom "Green Acres" came to mind. Hopefully, most readers do not remember the farming calamities that Mr. Douglas and his New York-loving wife faced on their "accidental" farm.

Being a rancher is not an accident; it's a career choice that is oftentimes backed by several generations of experience. It is a labor- and capital-intensive business that focuses on animal health, the environment, animal quality, efficiency and profitability. In other words, the focus is on sustainability.

It is not an accident that a rancher is up in the middle of the night checking cows during calving season or exhausting all options in the middle of a raging blizzard trying to check on the herd. Ranchers do these things because they want their business to remain stable and sustainable. Their passion for livestock production and the environment is not supported by their off-the-farm jobs; it is their career.

The New York Times piece caught the eye of many colleagues in the livestock industry, and not because they read just the headlines. They were genuinely concerned that their business was misrepresented and that they would once again be forced to take time out of their busy schedules to set the record straight.

For years, ranching has been a sustainable industry in this country. Pasture, water and land management are the primary factors behind successful ranching businesses. Ranchers take great pride in the heritage and success of their operations to produce safe, healthy and affordable food for consumers.

The people who raise animals for food understand choice and consumer preference. To remain competitive, they respect the choices of fellow producers to utilize specific production practices and maintain the sustainability of their own operations.

Sustainability has many different definitions. At the present time, the definition of choice seems to be "harvesting or using a resource so it is not depleted as it has been in the past."

What needs to be recognized is that the majority of farmers and ranchers have not abused their resources. They should be commended more often for their dedication to maintaining a sustainable operation that focuses on pasture, soil and water quality.

The headline of this New York Times article really does not do justice to the overall goals of the project that is being supported financially by Tom Steyer, founder of a large hedge fund, and his wife Kathryn Taylor, currently the chief executive of One PacificCoast Bank.

The couple purchased a ranch when ground surrounding the ranch was being urbanized and turned into housing and business developments. They wanted to preserve the ranch so it would remain a viable part of the San Mateo, Cal., area.

Their financial support of production practices to reverse the impact of overuse and abuse of the pasture by the previous tenants is commendable. Their use of rotational grazing and natural fertilizer and marketing their own version of grass-fed natural beef does positively affect their local community and the beef sector as a whole.

Livestock producers understand that consumer demands, including production qualities, have expanded over the past decade. They know that everyone who produces beef will not use the same production practices as they do. Sustainable practices need to be tailored to fit the needs of each individual operation.

Most livestock producers do not direct market their products, but that does not make their farms and ranches unsustainable. Some traditional ranching colleagues find use of the term "sustainable" to be a bit controversial when used to promote meat product quality and safety, yet these same ranching professionals accept this as just another challenge in a competitive marketplace.

Producers' concerns that their customers take time to read only headlines — especially those that imply that their career is accidental and that sustainable farming is something new — are justified.

Seeking a solution to the communication gap will continue to be a challenge for all farmers and ranchers. Most of them do not have time to counter every headline or create their own media to explain it in the press.

For now, what can be done is to counter any accusations generated by the original headline and article with something more realistic — perhaps: "Urban California Couple Creates Meat Company While Returning Ranch to Production."

*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.

Volume:85 Issue:51

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