Monday, March 13, 2006

Fisking Orian Samuelson

The television program “This Week in Agribusiness” containes a spot where co-host Orian Samuelson makes an editorial comment. The spot is called “Samuelson Sez” and it is a regular feature of the program. This weekend (March 25-26, 2006) it was about the NAIS.

I replayed the segment and created a transcript that I believe is accurate (thank god for TiVo) because I wanted to respond to it.

Please understand that while I disagree with Mr. Samuelson on this issue I don’t dislike him or for that matter even know him other than to see him from time to time on TV. I enjoy the program and watch it as regularly as I watch any TV program (which isn’t very).

So here we go,

Orian Samuelson:

I get letters, I get emails. Let me share just a few quotes.

“Why do I have to do this?”

“It should just be required of the big farmers and ranchers, not a little guy like me.”

“It’s just another case of government sticking its nose in my business, ‘big brother’, if you please.”

“Since I’m not the one who wants this, I sure as ---- am not going to pay for it!”

This is just a sampling of comments I’ve received over the past couple of months from people who are opposed to a national animal identification act.

And big or small producers. It’s the small producers, maybe the hobby farmers who have just discovered that even though they have just five or six animals this national animal id act will apply to them. And the concern over paying for it comes from larger producers.

Personally I guess I fall somewhere between a hobby farmer and a very small commercial producer. As it happens I keep rather more extensive records than what would be required by NAIS but, and here’s the rub, these records are MINE. They are for my use although I don’t mind sharing them with customers and/or suppliers where that’s relevant.

I have no relationship with the Department of Agriculture at either the National or State level nor do I particularly want one.

I regard the prospect of some clipboard toting government employee showing up on my porch about the same way as I would drought, flood, wildfire, or hurricane. There is almost no chance of anything good coming from it, and the downside goes from bad to fatal for my little farming enterprise.

I don’t doubt that most government ag department types are good folks that would like to be helpful, even to me.

But anyone who has ever dealt with government bureaucracy of any sort knows only too well that some of these folks are simply petty tyrants that seem to enjoy making life difficult for those they “serve”.

They especially don’t like dealing with unusual producers that do not fit well onto the forms that government types are forever filling out.

The Ag department would much rather deal with a small number of big producers than a large number of small producers. This same large number of small producers would rather not deal with the Ag department at all, and up to now they have never had to.

Big producers and those associated with big agribusiness have staffs of lawyers to protect them from these problems. I do not.

Please understand, I’m as proud as I can be of my little farming operation. My place is clean and my stock is healthy, happy even, I dare say.

So my problem is not so much the expense, except as a matter of principal, being forced to bankroll something I disagree with and that actually does me harm. More on that later. My problem has to do with privacy.

I don’t want to be issued a “premise Id” and to be entered into some big database somewhere. There is nothing secret about what I’m doing, but it is private. To register something is to give up at least some measure of control of that thing.

If I believe that for example, firearms registration is a bad idea pushed by people who are being less than honest about what they would do with the information, and I do believe that, then I want no part of the NAIS or any such scheme.

I don’t entirely trust the USDA folks, I’m afraid of them.

As to expense, I can sure see how a small to medium size producer, say someone with one or two hundred cow calf pairs, would object to the expense. This poor guy buys retail, sells wholesale and pays the freight both ways. He probably sells into the commodity system. The big agribusiness companies grab guys like this by the ankles, hold them upside down, and shake them till all the change falls out of their pockets as a regular part of doing business. It’s been going on like this for decades.

Orian Samuelson:

So you know, I am 100% in favor of a national animal identification act. That doesn’t mean I like it any more than I like standing in the long security lines at airports waiting to board the airplane. The world has changed, and I’ll put up with the inconvenience to know that somebody carrying a bomb will probably not get on the plane.

The world has changed for livestock producers too. The ability to travel, to spread disease, concern over foot and mouth and bird flu and mad cow disease now makes it vitally important that, if we do have an outbreak we’re able to trace the source of that outbreak and contain it as quickly as possible. That’s why we need the national animal identification act.

OK, we all knew this was coming. Airport security is a bit off topic but the example is given here as an illustration of a “necessary evil”.

Recall that airport security was not created as a response to 9/11, it had been in place for decades although what effect it had, other than making travel an even less pleasant experience than it otherwise would be, has never been clear, at least to me.

The fact that it was stepped up after 9/11 does not necessarily mean that air travel was made safer; it did however demonstrate that the authorities had responded to the traveling public’s demand that they “Do something”.

Likewise the ability to travel and the existence of various animal diseases did not come to be as a result of 9/11.

If what is meant by “The world has changed” is that we now know that there are people out there who have it as a goal to murder large numbers of randomly selected civilians, and I believe that’s what it means, then we need to address a couple of issues.

If terrorists object to our way of life, how much of that way of life are we willing to change in response to the threat. At what point have we given up so much that the terrorists have won.

Next, what can we do that will actually help counteract the threat.

Imagine Osama or some similar goblin gets hold of bottle of gruesome black death and decides to introduce it into the American food supply in order to kill off as many people as possible. What do you think they would do:

1) Sneak past my pickup truck with the NRA bumper sticker, past my 100+ pound livestock guard dogs, to get into my back paddock, the one I can see from my office window, in order to get my polled Hereford heifer to take a big old snort of instant death.


2) Go out to a Cargill feed lot in western Kansas where they have some 10,000 head on feed and dump it into the water supply.

If we want to discuss possible safety measures, then we should discuss the decentralization of the food supply.

Clearly the sort of concentration of foodstuffs and the ease of spreading disease with such large numbers of animals so close together is a huge risk in big feedlots, giant poultry houses, and mega hog operations.

My personal opinion is that making a large disruptive change like dispersing large concentrations of animals just to counter a threat that has not occurred is an extreme response to a theoretical problem.

Something tells me that Tyson’s Corporation and ADM would agree with me (that dispersal is an extreme response), but if we are really interested in protecting the food supply, it should at least be put on the table.

Naturally occurring disease has been going on since the invention of agriculture and I’m not aware of a single example where something like NAIS would have helped. It seems to me that if such examples existed those who argue in favor of NAIS would site them regularly.

From the prospective of protecting the food supply, it looks to me like NAIS is a solution in search of a problem.

Here is one result I’ve noticed from 9/11. Everyone, myself included, sites those tragic events as having “proven” whatever it was they strongly believed in before 9/11. It does not matter what the belief, 9/11 underscores it.

I can argue, as I did earlier, that we should protect the food supply by breaking up large concentrations of livestock. This not only sounds plausible, but it has the added benefit of causing trouble and expense to someone else, I don’t need to change a thing.

The big agricultural oligopoly is doing the same thing with NAIS. They want to look like they are “Doing Something” while pushing the hassle and expense to someone else.

This last bit of the Samuelson quote is I think where we start to see what the issue really is.

Orian Samuelson:

There’s another reason too for producers. Because your customers, weather it be McDonalds, Burger King, or foreign buyers like Japan are demanding that they know the source of the meat that gets on the menu or into the meat counter so once again if there is a recall they can get directly to the source.

Inconvenient yes, annoying yes, time consuming yes, but in the long run it could save the livestock and poultry industry in the United States.

My thoughts on Samuelson sez…

My customers are not McDonalds, Burger King, or foreign buyers like Japan.

I sell directly to consumers. If someone has a problem with my product, they don’t need a database to tell them where the product came from, they know me. Most of them have physically been to my farm.

Some foreign countries including Japan have a long history of protectionist trade practices. I have no faith the NAIS if it was implemented would change their behavior. Likely they would simply shift their argument to the next excuse.

If big buyers like the fast food chains want special paper work done by their suppliers, they can refuse to buy from sources that don’t comply with their requirements. They can offer premiums to get what they want. That will cost money, but this is America. At some price someone will sell you what you want to buy. This is as it should be.

But here’s the deal, if everyone is forced to do it there is no premium. If everyone is forced to do it then the expense and hassle of dealing with two types of inputs, source verified and not in this case, can be avoided.

People who buy lamb, poultry, or eggs from me do so in whole or in part because they prefer food produced by a small-scale artisan production model rather than that produced by a big industrial production model. They do not entirely trust the food oligopoly to supply the sort of clean and wholesome food they require. They may be worried unnecessarily, but they are the buyers and, like I said, this is America, they can do that.

There is no way that ADM or Cargill or Tyson can compete with that. Unless of course they force me out of the marketplace and replace me with a slick marketing campaign.

They would claim of course that they would never do such a nasty thing. Perhaps they would not. I’d have to admit to delusions of grandeur if I thought that they worried about a tiny little operation like mine. They have millions of customers and I have just a few.

Still they are looking at some expenses that are not tiny. And there are lots of guys like me.

Does the livestock and poultry industry really need saving, and if so, from who?


Walter Jeffries said...

Excellent post!

-Walter Jeffries
Sugar Mountain Farm

Terre d'Esprit said...

Excellent points. You have a much cooler head thankn I do, when discussing this subject. Thanks for that.

jimWarmke said...

When I finished this post I linked it to the web site for "This Week in Agribusiness" and sent email that just said what the link was for. I never expected a response, but I got one.


Thank you for your comments. Unfortunately, because of time constraints I just don't have time to go blogging.

Orion samuelson