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Straw men give new hope for cattle and beef sector

Kim McConnell, John Kolk and David Andrews have impressed even 
cynics with their thoughtful, focused and determined approach

Reading Time: 4 minutes

If you haven’t heard about the straw man beef industry strategy by now, you will over the next year.

That’s because the three straw men — Kim McConnell, John Kolk and David Andrews — have demonstrated steely determination to make sure this project to strategically revamp the beef sector does not die.

They recently managed to do what most could not — gather together virtually the entire cattle and beef industry establishment at not one but two meetings, one each in Toronto and Calgary. Those folks included leading representatives from the beef-processing and retail sectors. That’s quite a feat considering the historically fractious nature of the industry, which seems to come together only when there’s some calamity, such as BSE.

But then again, many would say the industry is already walking towards a possible beef-marketing calamity. That’s what the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute report on the future of Canadian beef marketing implied and it served as the catalyst to start the straw man process. To get the ball rolling, Gordon Cove, the CEO of ALMA, craftily provided some initial funding for the process. The three straw men were then convinced — or maybe it was cornered— to lead the usually headstrong cattle industry to better pasture. Considering what’s at stake, this effort may become a stroke of genius as long as the straw men don’t expire from aggravation.

First, a bit of historical perspective to temper any outbreaks of uncharacteristic overenthusiasm for what seems like just another “save the industry” exercise. Those long in the tooth know the sad history of beef industry studies, reports, strategic plans and pie in the sky — all of them valiant efforts, but quickly consigned to dusty shelves. That goes for industry summits, roundtable discussions and assorted other talk fests that petered out once whatever urgency caused them to erupt fizzled out. All of which caused some grizzled veterans at this straw man event to exclaim that it all seemed so “familiar” to previous industry revival events.

However, even cynics had to be impressed with what the straw men have managed to put together. It wasn’t just a hazy outline either — sure, the strategy had the usual recipe of goals, visions, values and missions — but proposals were put together by prominent stakeholders organized into focused committees. This draft of the strategy was just the first step, and a final version is scheduled to be ready before the end of the year.

The input and participation in the strategy’s development has been a lot more extensive than many had expected — every sector had some involvement, which bodes well for the next steps. I suspect the straw men know from experience that the first step in these types of exercises has every danger of becoming the last step. So they’ve come up with 10 targeted recommendations, each with a timeline, to move the process along. To see if they were on the right track they put some of them to an electronic vote by meeting participants, a clever way to get personal stakeholder involvement in the process.

It didn’t take long for some bumps in the road to arise: Concerns were expressed this initiative would develop into another industry organization that would inevitably step on the turf and egos of existing groups. The funding proposal stepped into the usual minefield of checkoffs, with primary producers having to cover all the costs — that caused the expected grumbling from those producers at the event. Not surprisingly, a proposal for a checkoff to be paid by processors and retailers went over rather well. Clearly funding will be a wrestling match.

A proposal to establish a central depository for genetics, marketing and carcass data was met with favour, but problems with the present BIXS program caused many to wonder if it was really possible. The creation of a new non-organization (Council of Beef Leaders) seemed to be viewed favourably, too, but unless it is deemed to be a council of equals from the start, the usual industry turf battles and political sniping is sure to break out.

From this old war horse’s perch, I sense there is considerable goodwill for this initial strategy, but pitfalls lay ahead. Having clear recommendations and timelines bodes well for real action. The next step will be for producers and the industry to get their respective organizations into the harness to pull the strategy forward. That’s easier said than done — there may be a place for governments to apply discipline or offer incentives to the stubborn in order to get some co-operation and progress.

Producers will want to see some concrete results from this exercise and real soon. Perhaps a pilot project on something from within the strategy or recommendations can be launched that producers can get their teeth into and that matters to them directly. Without some immediate success to point to, the battle to access more funding for a strategy through checkoff will never get off the ground.

In the meantime, funding has to be made available to keep this all rolling. The last thing this exercise needs is for it to be stalled for lack of cash. Past experience shows when momentum is lost, interest is lost and the whole effort soon fades away. Creating a collaborative cattle- and beef-marketing system would probably be a first in the world, so the industry is going down a new trail and will need strong guides for quite a while.

By accident or design (I suspect the latter), the straw men made a strategic decision to open up the consultation process by holding meetings open to anyone connected to the industry. I would suggest continuing such meetings as it’s going to put ongoing pressure on the leadership to consider the best interests of the overall industry and not get bogged down in the vested interests of their respective sectors.

If battle-scarred veterans can see some optimism in this industry strategy exercise — then there is hope. Perhaps history may not repeat itself after all. Good work, straw men.

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