By now I am sure you are aware of the issues surrounding the Nevada farmer and his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. It was quite the cause du jour among right-wing types, as they came to offer moral and in a few cases physical armed support in his fight to keep his cattle on public land. There were also accusations of Sen. Harry Reid and his family involved in nefarious shenanigans with the land.
I don’t know enough of the details to make a definitive statement. Would I be surprised if a powerful senator used his influence to broker a deal to benefit himself and his family? No. Do I think the Federal Government is capable of abusing true justice in the name of upholding the law? Certainly. That has been the case in all governments at all times in all of human history. Do I believe Mr. Bundy is just a simple man minding his own business who accidentally ran afoul of the overbearing authorities? No, I don’t believe that one either. Only someone looking to score political points views one side as absolutely right and the other as absolutely wrong.
But let’s look at the big picture. The reality in our country today is that the cattle herd is not big enough to keep up with the demand for beef. Meat prices continue to skyrocket, and cattle prices are at an all-time high. Were these things happening in a vacuum, now would be a great time to get involved in the cattle business.
But this is not happening in a vacuum. Overzealous government policies are forcing cattle ranchers out of business all over the country. This is true in the West, where hundreds of other farmers have been trying to stay afloat while abiding by the law and paying usage fees. This is true in other parts of the country, like my native Missouri. I have personally heard horror stories of farmers who have raised cattle on their land for generations only to be told their cattle are now polluting the streams at unacceptable levels according to the National Park Service or the Army Corps of Engineers. They have found high levels of pollutants in the water downstream. The water was acceptable 10, 20, 30 years ago. The cattle were there then. Maybe there are other reasons for the higher pollution, but those aren’t being addressed, at least not publicly.
Cattle need water to live. Lots of water. Most of the farmers, like my parents and grandparents, do not have the resources or infrastructure to provide water by digging wells and maintaining the supply every day. They have relied on the streams for generations to provide water. And so quietly, one at a time, cattle farmers all over the country have quit. Sold the cattle off, moved into town and got a 9-5 job, or just retired on their farm, leaving dozens and hundreds of acres unproductive. I’ve seen it personally, and there is plenty of evidence that this is happening all over.
And that brings us to the situation where we are now. I’m sure it’s difficult for government officials to do their jobs in this regard. They have to balance the needs of the people directly affected by their decisions with the policies put in place by people above them, who have to balance all sorts of competing interests in their decisions. Unfortunately the balance they have struck has tipped the balance against small-time farmers.
It’s getting to the point where the cattle industry will go the way of other meat industries: the dreaded CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation). Have you ever been to a CAFO? I have been to a pork CAFO. They are a disgusting mess. You see similar operations in the poultry industry. There are hundreds of animals kept in tiny pens. The stench is unbearable, and the waste is so toxic has to be treated in an on-site facility before it can be returned to the water supply. But the farmers who own the land sign deals with big meat companies like Smithfield or Hormel. The big companies’ legal teams are in bed with the federal and state regulators and get their farmers the proper permits. For many farmers who run CAFOs, it was either set one of these up or quit.
Practically everyone involved in the food industry agrees that animals kept in appropriate, humane conditions produce higher quality meat that is better for everyone. Animals kept in small pens and fed food mechanically, regardless of the quality of the food, produce meat that is higher in fat and contains dangerous chemicals that naturally result from inactivity on the part of the animal.
All of America, it seems, is on an anti-obesity campaign. You can’t turn on your TV or radio without hearing reminders to be active and eat healthy. Experts all over decry the poor quality of food, particularly meat products, found in fast food restaurants and mainstream grocery stores. To them, especially to the government agencies involved, I say you can’t have it both ways. You can’t have environmental and land management policies that work to the detriment of raising healthy livestock and then complain that the food available is of poor quality. Well you can, but you’re a hypocrite.
The big food conglomerates – ConAgra, Kraft, etc. – aren’t going to do anything about it. They like the system where the farmers are beholden to their contracts with them. They have paid tidy sums to lobbyists and regulators to perpetuate this system. The big meat industry boards don’t speak for individual farmers either. They’ve bought into the crony capitalist system as well.If the government wants healthy meat products on the American table at an affordable price, a good place to start would be easing up on farmers. I don’t deny there are idiots out there who are seriously polluting and leaving a mess for others to clean up. There are also farmers who unethically feed their animals dangerous compounds that grow huge animals but leave behind scary byproducts in the meat. There is a place for common sense clean water and air regulations and safe meat standards, and those should be enforced fairly without regard for political connections. I am not opposed to reasonable fees for letting cattle run on public land. The taxpayers shouldn’t have to pick up the tab for you while your cattle get fat and ready for market. But the system we have now is falling apart, and it’s only going to get worse until a lot of people start applying common sense to how our government and culture treats farmers and ranchers.