Rich Smith still remembers the day that the bottom fell out of the cattle market.
It was the fall of 2008, and Smith was presenting at an annual Alberta Beef Producers meeting at a local auction mart. Behind him was a sign displaying the dismally low price of the afternoon’s last sale.
“I’m standing there in front of 84 cents a pound telling producers about all the things we’re trying to do to help the industry,” Smith said.
“I remember sitting there thinking, ‘Can we not find someone to turn off that sign?’”
Smith has seen the highest highs and the lowest lows in Alberta’s cattle industry during his nearly 15 years at Alberta Beef Producers. And as he prepares to retire as executive director at the end of June after a 40-year career in the industry, Smith can see how the groundwork they’ve painstakingly laid over the years has created a stronger foundation for Alberta’s beef industry.
“A lot of the work we do takes a long time to show results, but the results come,” said Smith. “It’s just a matter of building the right framework for producers to operate in.”
Alberta’s beef industry was still dealing with the aftermath of BSE when Smith first joined the organization in 2005. The hits kept coming — a double whammy of a rising loonie and higher feed costs in 2007 and drought in 2009.
“That was a time of turmoil,” he said. “Right through to 2010 and 2011, the industry basically had 10 really hard years, starting with the drought in 2002.”
But in 2011, prices began to rebound and young people started coming back into the industry.
“I started back when producers were still telling the joke that the definition of child abuse was leaving your children the farm,” he said with a laugh.
“But when those prices went up and the economics started looking better, we started seeing young people coming back in.”
For Smith, that’s the best evidence of the industry “coming from a tough place and rebuilding.”
“When I look at our board of directors and our delegates, the age has gone down enormously from when I started,” he said. “I think that’s the most striking example of how our industry is coming along and a very good sign for the future — the fact that we have these really smart young people coming in who, during that period from 2002 to 2010, just couldn’t see the economics of the industry working for them.”
Another hopeful sign for the future is increased collaboration within the industry, he said.
Speaking with a unified voice has long been a goal of many, and ABP was formed by five cattle groups in 1969 in a bid to achieve that.
“The founding meeting came six weeks after the first man walked on the moon, and at our 50th anniversary last year, I made the comment that many would ask, which was the greater challenge — putting a man on the moon, or getting the beef industry together under one organization?” said Smith.
“Cattle and beef producers are strong, independent people, which has made them resilient in the face of tremendous challenges. But that independence also tends to be a challenge in terms of getting everybody together.”
As a result, Smith heard often over the years that the beef industry needed to come together and develop a plan that worked for everyone.
“We did that in 2015 with the development of the National Beef Strategy,” he said. “That’s certainly been a positive step forward.”
Everyone wants the same thing, he said.
“We all want a strong, vigorous, competitive, and profitable industry,” he said. “Unfortunately sometimes the tensions between the organizations get in the way of us working together toward those objectives. So that’s been a real focus for us in the time that I’ve been here — building relationships with those organizations.”
But the relationship between ABP and the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association shows that it can be done, he said.
“The degree to which we’re working with the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association now is so different from when I started, and I think that’s been really positive for the industry,” he said. “We have a much more united voice in terms of talking with the government, and that’s been a real benefit. We’ve been able to make some gains.”
More opportunities than challenges
And since hitting record-high prices in 2014, the industry has remained in relatively good shape thanks, in part, to things like new sustainability measures and international trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
“To me, that indicates that the work we’re doing on trade, marketing, and government policies is creating the conditions where producers can thrive,” said Smith.
“We don’t control trade decisions. We don’t control currency or prices. But we can help to create a policy and regulatory environment in which producers can do well. And I think that’s what we’ve done.”
The pandemic is the most recent hurdle, but Smith is certain beef producers will again rise to the challenge.
“Before COVID, there was quite a high level of cautious optimism in the industry because of where we were heading with export markets and demand for beef,” he said.
“Who knows what things will look like after COVID, but I expect that trade will continue. People will still need protein, and I think it’s safe to expect that a significant amount of the protein people will eat in the future will be beef.
“Overall, the opportunities look greater than the challenges.”
But it’s not just higher prices or increased demand that gives Smith hope for the future of the industry he’s been a part of for 40 years.
It’s the people he’s met along the way.
“One of the great privileges of this job is the ability to work with the farmers and ranchers who are in this industry,” said Smith.
“In Alberta, it’s an iconic industry, and the people I see working in it are what gives me hope for it. They’re strong, they’re resilient, and they’ll keep moving forward.
“The conditions are right for the advancement of the industry, and I think the people will make that happen.”