A couple of weeks ago, I read pretty much the most inflammatory, negative statement about agriculture as I think I ever will. In the prologue of his book new book The Meat Racket, author Chris Leonard asserts:
“The agriculture sector is one of the richest, most productive moneymaking machines in American life. After all, a lot of the business simply involves sitting around and letting plants grow and letting animals get fat. Mother Nature does the heavy lifting. Then the farmer harvests the plants, kills the animals, and watches the money roll in.”
“Sitting around and letting plants grow and letting animals get fat”? Ouch. This is the statement he chooses to frontload what he sat at a desk and typed, then worked with a big publishing company to get in print and downloadable format for people to buy. After I know he spoke with people who raise livestock for a living at least through phone interviews — one of which I know would have offered in-person access would he have been interested in seeing and experiencing the subject he was “researching”. Check out Ivy League educated, family run feed yard owner Ann Burkholder’s blog for more on this. She gave Leonard an interview, and did undertake the intellectual exercise of reading his book.
As a rule, I avoid commenting on literature I haven’t read, but I do want to address his work based on what I know about it from reading even-handed reviews like this one in The Washington Post. Leonard focuses more on chicken (of which I have no direct experience with and therefore won’t begin to comment on) than beef, but presents the general position that Tyson Foods as a company is a big, bad actor responsible for ruining farmers and their communities. It is his belief that food animal production should revert back to the way it was in 1982 to be the best for farmers, animals, and consumers. I thought McLean’s review was strong, because it called out the common literary tactic Leonard deployed to make his point about the meat industry — he gets all Upton Sinclair graphic on you, then makes really simplistic conclusions. It’s a formula I raise an eyebrow at when I’m reading about a topic I have no direct knowledge or experience about.
Anyway, his focus on Tyson is what made me feel like I have another perspective to share on this topic. Tyson submitted this letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal to shed light on some of the stories Leonard’s book doesn’t have room for. This reminded me, my family has their own story and history with the company.
Friday, I spoke with my dad on his cell phone as he was headed home from taking a load of cattle to none other than the Tyson Fresh Meats facility in Wallula, WA. I’ve been meaning to share more about “my side” of the family, our history in the cattle business, and what my parents continue to do today on their “mom and pop” farm near Kent, WA. A month ago, I said goodbye to one of the most important people in my life – my 97 year-old grandmother. The story of her life has some intriguing ups and downs, but a common thread is farming, particularly a life raising cattle, which is the life my parents carry on today.
Back to Friday. When you imagine a load of cattle travelling to a facility that processes thousands of cattle a week, what comes to mind? This?
At Elliott Farm & Livestock, my folks raise beef that they market in two ways. One is offering “custom” beef – where customers order a quarter, half, or whole beef to fill their own freezer. Their proximity to thousands of consumers in the Seattle area allows them to connect with interested customers. Several of them enjoy visiting the farm when they make their order. But it isn’t actually realistic for my folks to operate on this model alone. While they’ve scaled their farm to what they as a couple can manage, they still must market enough cattle each year to operate without having to look for income off the farm – i.e. become part-time farmers with town jobs.
This is where a longstanding relationship with Tyson comes in. Back when my parents worked with my grandparents, running a larger farm and feed yard in Auburn, WA, my dad would routinely haul finished cattle to the same Tyson facility in the type of cattle truck you were thinking of – that fit dozens at a time and are used by the professional truckers that haul for large farms. During the summer, I got to ride along frequently, which despite the early morning starts, I lived for. Last week, my dad texted the Tyson buyer, who scheduled his delivery of only nine head of cattle, for that Friday.
Nine head of cattle is not significant to Tyson. Nine head of cattle half a dozen times a year is significant to a couple who want to continue raising beef for a living. In exchange for the animals, Tyson gives my parents the same market per-pound and quality grade price that their largest suppliers receive. Today, the market for cattle is high for the producers – record prices actually, because cattle inventory is at a record low (largely due to drought in large cattle producing states where ranchers have had to sell their herds). While Tyson is a large company, and meat prices in stores are at high-highs today too, their average margin is around 2%. The reality is, processing meat suitable to meet today’s safety, quality, and quantity standards is difficult, expensive work. This is one of the “whys” behind the limited number of companies in this market today. Not the only reason, but a big one. My parents believe their continued relationship with Tyson is a, if not the major factor that allows them to continue to farm on a full time basis and provide their direct, local customers with what they want. The two marketing strategies work together.
In Leonard’s world, large companies like Tyson make it their business to put small producers out of business. In this reality, it could actually work the other way around. If Tyson closed their operation in Washington, my parents might stop raising beef, or have to significantly change their business model, one that works well for them today.
My Ag Day point is, I’m not trying to make a big, grand point about Tyson, or agriculture. I just have some first-hand experience with the food topics people are talking about and writing about today. The issues are real, but they are complex. More complex than most book authors let on. Books on food topics are popular these days, and I don’t see anything wrong with the publics’ increased appetite for information on food. But to be an author by trade, you have to sell books. To be a farmer by trade, you have to grow and market food. The former is achieved by getting ideas down on a page. The latter is not so one-size-fits-all, which I think makes it better explored through a diversity of voices and perspectives before, if ever, formulating a grand theory on a one, best way forward.