To The Point 12/10

The Metal of the Man —

As is often pointed out, I have been blessed by the many, many people I have come in contact with during my life and tenure in the livestock industry. Not every encounter is a pleasant one, but it is the rare occasion that I haven’t come away with at least a learning experience and more often, a friend for eternity…

Such was the case with Richard McDonald, PhD., the former president of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA). In the structure of the TCFA, the president is the chief executive officer and the elected leader of the membership (not volunteer) is the chairman of the board. So, Richard and I had similar jobs, although the scale of our positions may have been different.

Although we try hard for the beef industry as a whole to be on the same page on issues, because of the way cattle make their way from the pasture to the retailer, the relationship between the various segments of the industry can sometimes be antagonistic. The stockers and feeders make more by buying calves from the cow/calf producer for less. In turn the packer makes more money by buying fed cattle for less. Finally, the retailer makes the most money when he/she buys from the packer at the cheapest price possible and sells to the consumer at the highest price possible. At the bottom end of the chain, cow/calf producers often get — or at least feel like they are getting — the shortest end of the stick.

Thus Richard and I often found ourselves on opposite sides of issues. As you might imagine, with the votes TCFA holds in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), Richard was on the winning side — even Greg Moore told him they ought to let us win at least once in awhile.

But Richard was always the perfect gentleman and mentor. I hope that sometimes both of us came away with a better understanding of our members’ views — I know I did. On the issues that the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association (NMCGA) did agree with TCFA on, I like to think we made a good team. I know I saw the look of delight in his eye more than once as I turned to see how TCFA was voting. I know that the impact Richard had on lives around the region, nation and the world was tremendous.

On October 29 we lost Richard at the really young age of 66 to the most courageous battle with cancer I have ever seen. Diagnosed with cancer in multiple areas on October 28, 2009, Richard’s prognosis was grim at best in the beginning. As someone with his attention to detail would, he immediately began to make plans for the inevitable — but he also began a battle with a vengeance that allowed him, his family and friends to spend whatever time he had left at the highest quality of life.

Our “The Ranchers” group (more on this subject sometime in the future) was privileged to spend most of a day with Richard in late August, picking his brain on how best we can work to ensure the future of our industry, our food supply and the family values that keep our nation great. It wasn’t long before the word was that things for Richard were on the decline.

Undaunted, Richard, his bride Sharon, and his friends and colleagues planned for a special luncheon during the TCFA annual meeting the end of October. When the possibilities of that dimmed, I was honored to receive an invitation to a reception in Richard’s honor at the TCFA in mid October. With a hospitalization the day before the gathering, it seemed that that might not even be possible. But on the appointed day, the word was to come on to Amarillo.

It was not without some concern about the mission I was on that I jumped in the car and headed East. Arriving toward the end of the party, I was pleased and relieved to see Richard McDonald just as he had always been holding court with the many, many people who gathered. I heard one cattle feeder quip that the receiving line was akin to seeking an audience with the Pope. I didn’t know until later in the evening that Richard left the reception to go directly back to the hospital.

I have learned the hard lesson over time that we rarely get to say thank you and good bye to the special people in our lives. I am grateful that on this occasion I was. Always a realist, when I thanked Richard for his mentoring and friendship, he smiled wryly and reminded me that it wasn’t always fun.

Courage On Other Fronts

It wasn’t long before I was reminded that there is no corner on courage within the male of the species or the state of Texas. In early November I was able to get to Tucson and visit my childhood friend and fellow CowBelle Susie Krentz.

The depth of the tragedies Susie and her family have endured in the past six months is unimaginable. In late March her husband Rob, along with his dog, were gunned down in their own pasture near the Mexican border in Cochise County, Arizona.

The months since then have allowed little time for the grieving that is necessary to even try to survive such a horror. But Susie and her children, Andy, Frank and Kyle, along with the rest of the family, have endured with grace and dignity. Those who wanted to honor the Krentz family and make sure that no one ever forgets who Rob was, and what happened to him, ranged literally from coast to coast, with everyone from the National Rifle Association and Fox News’ Glen Beck taking Susie to a national stage to the Arizona Cattle Growers’ Association (ACGA) and 2010 Cochise County Fair honoring the family on the home front.

During that Fair in late September Susie and an elderly friend were run down by an alleged drunk driver as they left Saturday evening Mass. Taking the brunt of the blow, Susie’s injuries were from head to toe, massive and enough to have ended a lesser person.

Six weeks after the injury when I saw her, Susie is nothing short of amazing. Full recovery and rehabilitation will take more time, but in a neck brace and pelvic halo, she was making her own way from the bed to the wheelchair and worried about stressing her family. In mid November the halo was removed and within minutes Susie was walking. She has high hopes of being home in the very near future.

She credits her life and amazing recovery to the multitude of people across the nation who have lifted her up in their prayers, called, sent flowers, visited, and made donations and whatever else they could think of. Susie asks that you keep her in your prayers and she enjoys the calls, card and visits. We look forward to the day she can join us at meetings again.

The ACGA has set up the Sue Krentz Recovery Fund at Wells Fargo Banks. Contributions can be made at any Wells Fargo to account # 5206283169.

Then There Are Those . . .

Who bit the hands that feed them. One might think that people who make their living in the food industry — agriculture’s end product — just might understand the challenges of the industry; the struggle American agriculture is going through just to stay in business; and threat dependence on a foreign food supply our nation is facing.

Not so much, at least for the restaurateur and grocer sitting on the New Mexico Workers’ Compensation Advisory Council (NMWCAC). There has been a running war between a “non profit” group called the New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty and the ag industry over the agricultural exemption in New Mexico’s workers’ compensation law.

As I understand it, when the state’s workers’ comp laws were overhauled in about 1990, one of the components of the new law was the NMWCAC, which was to review proposed changes to the law and make recommendations to the Legislature. The Council is appointed by the governor and requires equal representation by business and labor. In this setting, labor equals union. In theory, no new legislation regarding workers’ comp was to be introduced without the endorsement of the Council.

Despite this “gentlemen’s agreement,” in 2007 a measure was introduced to eliminate the ag exemption. Although agriculture was able to hold the line, someone thought it was a good idea to have a task force look at the issue. That task force was instituted via a memorial and was to include the ag industry as well as representatives of ag laborers. The problem with that picture was that while ag had producers on the task force who hire, pay and care for workers, the workers’ representatives were all attorneys. With all due respect to the great attorneys who represent our industry, I am not sure all lawyers out there have their same pure motives.

After many meetings, it was no surprise that the task force was unable to come to agreement. In 2009 the NMWCAC chose not to make a recommendation to the Legislature, yet the Law & Poverty attorneys took a bill forward. Again, agriculture was able to hold the line. In July of that same year, Law & Poverty filed a suit against the Workers’ Compensation Administration in State District Court on two counts. The Court has dismissed one count and the Attorney General’s office is defending the second count.

So as we head into the 2011 Legislature, we are at it again. We learned at a NMWCAC meeting that the New Mexico Business & Labor Coalition (a self-appointed group to advise the Advisory Council) has determined that ALL exemptions to worker’s comp, including agriculture, realtors and domestic labor should be eliminated — without one iota of discussion with any of the involved industry. Their theory appears to be that if big business must pay workers’ comp, then everyone should.

With two proposals before the NMWCAC at their November meeting, the group took up the Law & Poverty measure first. In what was a complete waste of time for the industry, numerous agricultural producers drove from all corners of the state to plead their case — before a group who had already made up its mind.

The Law & Poverty people were able to provide an array of numbers on the cost of workers’ comp for the various sectors of ag — without providing all of them. One ag producer who does have workers’ comp was told that his place of business was so unsafe that he probably shouldn’t even be in business.

In a unanimous vote based on the premise that ALL workers should have workers’ comp, the Council endorsed the Law & Poverty proposal. Then they promptly tabled the proposal for realtors and domestic labor waiting for more information. What happened to the ALL the workers thing?

Long story short, we are going to need you and the people you employ to come to the Legislature in January and February for one more round on this issue that could put agriculture in New Mexico out of business. Ranchers who are currently paying workers’ comp are paying from 20 to 30 percent of their payroll in workers’ comp. I bet the most profitable restaurant and grocery store couldn’t afford that kind of regulatory increase.

These people are so causal about hitting production agriculture because they KNOW that the price they pay for their food CANNOT go up to cover the increase in cost — at the bottom of the change agricultural producers must take what they can get for their commodities when they are ready for harvest. They also KNOW that the government plays a big role in price fixing for agricultural commodities, keeping costs lower at the retail level.

If you want to KNOW where not to eat and not to buy groceries, let me know. We need to support those who will support us — and avoid those who don’t.

Another Tax Increase

On the same day the Council hammered agriculture, the unemployment division announced that by February that system will be broke, meaning that unemployment taxes are going to have to increase or benefits will have to be cut. What do you think might happen there?

These are just a couple of reasons that we are going to need all the help we can get for the 2011 Legislature. It appears that the body and the Administration will take a more conservative turn come the first of the year, but that also means that there needs to be a ton of education done. If you cannot make the trip to Santa Fe, there are still lots of jobs you can do from home. Just let us know what you can and want to do to help!

Best wishes and prayers for a Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year!
— Caren Cowan, Executive Director New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association