During a sudsy session in a college pub nearly 40 years ago, a friend wryly observed that every person lacks one word in what he labeled their “personal vocabulary.” Looking my way, Charlie explained. “For example, Alan, your missing word is ‘height.’” Everyone laughed. Clever.
“My missing word,” continued the extroverted friend, “is ‘modesty.’” We roared because Charlie was the most immodest person any of us had ever met.
Then, looking at another pal at the table, Charlie noted, “Your missing word is ‘truth.’” Stone cold silence ensued. Charlie’s jibe had hit the icy essence of our friend and it was absolutely shattering until our buddy, with a smile rising on his whiskered face, announced in a near-shout, “That’s a lie and I should know!”
That’s a lie and I should know. The honesty was hilarious and we laughed until dawn. That scene came to mind as reports trickled in from the late August joint U.S. Department of Justice-Department of Agriculture livestock competition hearing in Fort Collins, Colo.
The major differences between the decades-apart gatherings were the refreshments consumed and one person’s honest recognition that he was a natural-born blanket stretcher. Even before the DOJ-USDA meeting began, some Blanket Boys were spinning misleading tales.
First to warp the weave were five U.S. senators with political knives to sharpen and November voters to split. The five — Kansan Pat Roberts; Saxby Chambliss, the Ag Committee’s ranking Republican; Mike Johanns, the former USDA boss; Sam Brownback, now the GOP nominee for governor in Kansas; and Oklahoman Tom Coburn — sent USDA chief Tom Vilsack a letter that questioned “the objectivity of your Department’s actions” in holding the livestock competition hearing as new meatpacker rules are pending at USDA.
The letter failed to mention that USDA announced antitrust hearings more than a year ago while the new packer rules went public 10 months later. Oh well. The letter fell an inch short of calling Vilsack a Stalinist pawn in a global scheme to bring back Bolshevism.
It did, however, forget to mention that the secretary had received an earlier letter from 21 other senators backing the new packer rules. Go figure.
The distortions continued when a cowboy editor attending the Colorado round-up called the proposed packer rules a “cure for an illness we’ve misdiagnosed.” Curiously, a day or two later the same sharp pencil did note that two meetings held the night before the DOJ-USDA confab showed a gaping divide but no illness between most producers and packers.
One meeting, sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council, showcased “studies commissioned by Congress” that “droned on for three-plus hours” with “maybe 150 (people) representing by your reporter’s estimate (sic) perhaps half of all the fed cattle in the country.”
The other meeting featured a “crowd of 500 or 600,” “two plus hours of two-minute open mic presentations” followed by “standing ovations” from producers discussing the new packer rules and the need for their enforcement.
Given the diametrically different descriptions of the two meetings, which one you reckon the editor chose as most representative of the “industry”? Bingo.
Even though four times as many producers discussed with “passion” how best to preserve their farms, markets and communities they were not as important as one-fourth their number with “perhaps half of all fed cattle in the country” because the latter group included “the ones actually buying all those high priced feeder cattle.”
So, according to this in-the-know observer, a few folks with many cattle are more important than many folks with fewer cattle. Or, as the wry Charlie might say, that guy’s missing word is “people.”
Few cattle, many cattle or no cattle, people vote and cattle don’t.
(Alan Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 75 newspapers in North America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
2010 ag comm