After all the industry acrimony, the political intrigue and the government machinations, was it all worth it or has it just been a big con job?
I am referring to the much anticipated Beef Industry Alliance (BIA) action plan to save the cattle and beef industry. It would seem it was unveiled at the end of the Alberta Beef Industry Conference held recently in Red Deer. Good thing it was at the end of the conference as it was almost painful to see a hired facilitator trying to extract sparse commentary from the audience about some familiar schemes which were woefully short of any real vision.
You remember the BIA and its ad hoc predecessors, a loose coalition of the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association (ACFA), the Feeders Association of Alberta, the Western Stock Growers Association (WSGA) and the Beef Initiative Group. The BIA now seems to be comprised of only the WSGA, the ACFA and some marketing groups. At any rate the coalition was going to pursue a new direction to save the beef industry, claiming the existing organizations – the Alberta Beef Producers, Beef Information Centre, Canada Beef Export Federation and the Canadian Calltlemen’s Association had done nothing and wasted $70 million of producer checkoffs over the last 30 years. The first step they claimed was to end the mandatory non-refundable Alberta cattle checkoff. That step alone was proclaimed to be the necessary shock to force existing organizations to become unified, accountable and to initiate change by other groups.
Well the previous agriculture minister bought that hook line and sinker and terminated the cattle checkoff. Cattle feeders, I expect, were ecstatic with that victory, it put about $4 million back in the pockets of a few hundred producers. Clearly the majority of cattle producers were out foxed by the more politically-astute cattle feeders. But wait – wasn’t part of the checkoff-ending sales job that this action and the creation of the BIA would see the industry become more unified and seek out a vision to chart a more prosperous cattle industry? Wasn’t all that refunded checkoff money going to go to those that created the best bang for the buck? I may be a bit cynical about the true intentions of this elaborate exercise by cattle feeders but something has come off the rails.
The much anticipated unveiling of the BIA master plan seemed shockingly lacking in substance or even new ideas. Perhaps I heard it all wrong but the vision to this point is this: Develop a premium brand to sell Canadian beef to offshore markets (apparently BIA is unaware this is already being done) and – get ready – producers should buy the failed Ranchers Beef plant in Balzac. Incredibly it was even suggested that producers should spend their refunded checkoff money to finance the purchase and operation.
By now most producers, if not all, would suggest that there is some folly in investing in a scheme to resuscitate a failed packing plant. The fact that some private enterprise hasn’t bought the plant and is not operating it at full blast would indicate that perhaps this type of activity is rather risky and a bottomless pit for investment dollars. There is a reason it is not operating as built. Many producers, God bless them, seem to have an engrained perspective that they know how to operate a packing plant and make millions. Unfortunately, over the years North America has become littered with the failed dreams of such a notion. But who am I to tell producers where to invest their hard-earned dollars. I would be so bold to suggest that in this case, history will repeat itself.
What is disappointing is that is this all the BIA can come up with – recycling of an old scheme? What I would suggest is that the cattle feeders have achieved their one and only goal – the ending of their long battle against the checkoff. They see some of that refunded checkoff money ending up in their organizations coffers. They are already hiring extra staff in anticipation and expanding the role of their national cattle feeders organization. I would suggest that they believe they are in the ascendancy in being the voice of the cattle industry in this country. I get the feeling they have used the BIA for their own purposes and given the lacking vision of the BIA plan to save the industry, the cattle feeders will in time let the BIA wither away.
In retrospect as this has all evolved the cattle producers of Alberta and the new minister of agriculture might want to ask themselves – was all this necessary and for what purpose – or has it all been a con job. Only the BIA and the cattle feeders can change what many people are beginning to suspect. It’s on their plate now.