Wareham: Valley Oaks Issue Requires Collaboration

The dust-up over Valley Oaks Steak Company’s proposed feedlot expansion underscores the need to for agriculture to communicate with consumers. ( Valley Oaks )

Jared-Wareham-2017 web

Jared Wareham

COMMENTARY - The dust-up over Valley Oaks Steak Company’s proposed animal confinement feeding and packaging plant expansion has grabbed its share of headlines lately. After the permit hearing in Warrensburg, MO, where an army of advocates from both sides attended to voice their concerns, I wonder if there is a greater message that deserves our attention.

In February I attended the Young Beef Leader’s Summit during the annual National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention.  One key speaker was Bruce Vincent, the third generation in his family’s logging business that in many ways mirrors the multi-generational farms in our industry.  He had been a leader in that industry’s well documented struggle against oppositional elements. 

He explained the painful evolution his industry underwent and the strategic failures that were now obvious, and his frustration and remorse were palpable.  Realization that the actions he and other leaders committed to had ultimately led to the decimation of the business he loved, was evident in the tears that rolled down his checks.  He began to break down emotionally from the burden of knowing one clear thing: it could have been different. 

Their approach was the typical ignore at first, and then react aggressively when pushed.  Traditionally, all industries have reacted in a similar fashion.  Collectively, we have done a rather poor job connecting with the opposition.  We inaccurately assume they know our personas and understand our motives and vice versa.  I’m as guilty as anyone.  People are people and we tend to base our initial response on conclusions that we have trained ourselves to draw immediately, much like a gun from its holster.  Thus, we start off emotionally charged, and things quickly escalate from there. 

I’m by no means saying that is where we are with the Valley Oaks issue, but I can see that path has been laid down before us.  We have sat aside the underlying contributions from elements that seek to disrupt or intimidate and focus on those directly impacted by changes or expansion.  The resident neighbors, consumers in the greater Kansas City area, other businesses aligned within the supply chain matrix, and other agriculturalists should be the target peer group.

I think we need to step back and accept the fact that some of the issues raised about the expansion are noteworthy.  Protecting our waters from contamination is a legitimate issue and one that will not go away, nor should it.  With that said, we definitely don’t need to bring back the extreme overreach of regulation that WOTUS presented. If we do not embrace the concerns, it certainly could.  A conscience, genuine recognition of the seriousness of that natural resource and our obligation to practice good stewardship of the land to prevent complications is warranted.  If you think you’ve done enough….do more!  This topic is that serious.

We know that Valley Oaks has followed guidelines and specs set forward by the DNR or Department of Natural Resources, and has a documented waste management plan.  Unfortunately, today’s environment may require more than permits and planning.  It may require an educational outreach element.  When they read a DNR report that says the animal waste and waste water storage facilities have 90 days capacity, we know that is not a rigid timeline.  However, its concerned neighbors probably don’t know that a well-managed operation will tactfully plan ahead, spreading those wastes strategically to avoid periods of frozen ground or high runoff potential. 

We are also landowners, homeowners, mothers and fathers, so we can identify with the concerns over safety and the perceived devaluation of land due to the construction of what is presumed to be a traditional style confinement feeding operation.  You have to understand that your neighbors do not know about the low levels of air pollutants emitted from these facilities.  We have had access to and toured multiple facilities of similar design and understand this because it is tangible to us.  We know that spreading turkey litter on our pastures will emit a greater amount of air deterioration than these state-of-the-art facilities will. 

Let’s not speak in terms of, “This is happening, so deal with it.”  Instead, lead with, we want to be a part of agriculture advancement, improvement, and history: want to be a part of it with us?  Do you think the opposition understands the historical importance of what Valley Oaks Steak Company could accomplish?  They don’t know that their vertically-aligned business plan could be transcendent for our industry and our state.  This multi-generational Missouri family will focus on offering things that consumers care about: a reduced ecological footprint, increased sustainability, transparency, and fresh, locally raised beef. 

It will invest millions in the local infrastructure through labor, purchased feed, fuel, and other products, as well as, contribute greatly to the tax base of that county, bringing substantial revenue into the schools.  The need for tax revenue is greater now than ever.  States constantly struggle to balance their budget and properly fund schools.  Businesses that bring in that amount of revenue spread across that large of an area bringing with it the potential for expansion in other aligned segments cannot be idled. 

You have to realize that when they take shots at you for accepting non-English speaking workers, they don’t directly understand the challenges you face when trying to hire a steady workforce.  I bet many of them would if approached correctly.  Many have worked in a setting where they depend on others and have felt the frustration from employees or peers that show up for work inconsistently, or fail to show up at all. 

If recent technology has taught us anything, it's the power of one person and their cell phone.  We normally paint this with the brush of discontent due to the backdraft of misleading posts that have gone viral.  However, there is plenty of evidence to support it as one of the most powerful resources available to tell our story.  Don’t wait to be a victim of misinformation or fake news.  Be the leader and an ambassador for your industry. 

Do they understand the potential value of collaborative vision that could be achieved with other local businesses?  Powell Gardens is an awesome place.  My kids love going there.  I can envision a summer time event held there sampling wines, meats, and other products of Missouri’s vast agricultural infrastructure.  We are as diverse as any state and should build on that knowledge.  I can also see an excellent collaborative opportunity for educational programs like “outdoor classrooms” that will help our next generation learn about the importance of stewardship, sustainable and organic agricultural production. 

I realize there are deeper forces and special interests at work that won’t yield to any attempts to collaborate.  We still need to adjust our approach.  Instead of ignore and react, be proactive.  Proactively embrace the opposition and make a genuine effort to understand and empathize.  It is not only the right approach, it's the ONLY approach.  We have to learn from the tears of others that have fought this same war before, but fought with a flawed strategy and lost. 

Comments

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Submitted by Ray James on Thu, 04/05/2018 - 20:11

VO could have easily been built just off 13 , 23, 2 highways in very rural area instead it was sited on the one large piece of farmland surrounded by homes and subdivisions . More people live within 3 miles of VO than live in most of the counties "cities" Kingsville , Chilhowee , Leeton all have fewer residents. Knob Noster might have a few more but not many

People think this is a rural area but look at a current map of the area .

Very poor choice of location. Too many homes impacted, poor access to large trucks onto 50 hwy. I drove 50 today and went with the flow of traffic only to look down at the odometer and realize I am going 75 and have cars passing me. The lane entrance onto the property must be improved with a turn and acceleration lane added or the accidents will happen.

Submitted by Ribbit on Fri, 04/06/2018 - 09:42

The tension reflects that people are tired of giant agriculture destroying our environment. I love how they are trying to sell this as a “family business” raising “local beef” give me a break. 7k cow feedlot represents everything wrong with monoculture ag that places dollars and cents ahead of the continuity of the species. Building feedlots like this should be illegal period. Our government signed the Paris Climate Accord and if they were still in charge it would be illegal. But big business runs this country. And from what I read, Drovers is just a propoganda machine for them....
So sad that everyone reading this comment is subscribed to drovers meaning most of them probably think these are dumb ideas. Wish I had a newsletter so I could help people learn about how VO is another nail in the coffin.

Submitted by J C on Fri, 04/06/2018 - 15:50

Sounded to me like the drovers author agrees with you, stating that VO should be more collaborative. Many very good points made in this article. Agriculture has to thrive for humans to survive. BIG agriculture has given itself a bad name from consumer perspective. As an industry, we have to improve transparency in order to improve perception. With growing population and fewer people in the ag work force, big agriculture is a must. It is up to those of us in the industry to make sure it is done in manner in which consumers accept. It is up to consumers to be open minded and give farmers and ranchers a chance to prove we care about animal and consumer well being.

In reply to by Ribbit (not verified)

Submitted by Ribbit on Fri, 04/06/2018 - 23:26

If you think the author agrees with me, then you misunderstand. The problem with their version of collaboration is that it relies on misinformation and scientists that have sold their reputation to distort facts to illogical conclusions.
Big agriculture isn’t a problem in itself. The problem is that big agriculture is trying to “McDonald”ize nature and it’s going to destroy the planet. The truth is that the earth has a carrying capacity (around 10 billion) that is if we actually use the earth at its potential. If we use monoculture(like feedlots) to feed the greed of large corporations, not only are we going to fall short of supply long before that, we are going to pass the tipping points and cause a global meltdown.
Like I said, this feedlot should be illegal. Pushing for the creation of feedlots like this is idiocracy. With the information available now, it is not even debatable that it is destroying the earth.

In reply to by J C (not verified)

Submitted by J C on Sat, 04/07/2018 - 18:39

Like I said, we can do everything right and if you aren't open minded then we can't help you.
Cities are growing and subdivisions are drowning areas for us graze catlle as much as we have historically. If you give us a chance, we can show you that those of us in the beef industry care and are doing our part. But remember, there is a cause and effect, what you see as a cause ( feedlot=bad) we see as effect (less grazing=feedlot).
I urge you to take a feedlot tour and see how things are handled to insure healthy environment.

In reply to by Ribbit (not verified)

Submitted by Ribbit on Sun, 04/08/2018 - 00:20

I’m not subscribed to Drovers for fun. I’m in the beef industry. I’m well aware of feedlot practices, and the steps taken to mitigate some of the damage that is done. I’m open minded in the sense that I’m glad you’re at least taking those steps. But again, it’s like a “better” coal burning power plant. The system is flawed in its concept.
The “cause” of the issue is everyone thinks they have to eat beef. So big ag tries to spam produce it so it’s affordable to the masses when the reality is beef is environmentally expensive to make. Its retail value should reflect that (requiring a lot of people sadly to change their diet). But big ag takes the wal mart/mcdonald’s Principle. The way to make the most money isn’t buy charging more for your product, it’s to make profit per unit lower and sell more units. But like I said, grain finishing beef at its best is an inefficient process, only financially viable because of the monoculture applied to the corn industry, which is a fringe environmental effect that all of the propoganda supporting feedlots neglects to include. The wholistic designation of a staggering percentage of the world’s resources towards American beef production is what is unsustainable.

This is going to seem out of left field, but I genuinely want to help people see what is happening. Take Bic for example. Wal mart said “we’re going to sell your pens for this low price so we can sell more of them it will make us the most money.”
Bic said, “if you do that, we won’t be able to make money off our pens”
Wal mart said, “then we won’t buy your pens”
Bic said, “so much of our business comes from selling pens at Wal mart, we will go bankrupt if we don’t sell to you”
The solution was, Bic put 15% less ink in their pens. They made a lower quality product so it could be sold at a lower price and a larger volume to profit the companies.

This is the same thing that is happening in AG. But we can’t take ink out of our pens. What ag producers are doing is short changing the environment in order to produce a higher volume to sell at a lower price per unit to create a higher profit for the big guy.

We don’t produce beef the way we do because it’s the most efficient way to feed the masses. It simply (and scientifically) isn’t.

All this is supporting my original position. It’s not that I’m being closed minded about feedlot environmental impact mitigation techniques. I’m glad that’s happening. But the creation of more feedlots should be illegal because it is scientifically proven to be a large factor in climate change which if not altered will cause global catastrophe. and the only true driving factors are 1) the consumer who likes the taste 2) the farmers who a) have a passion for what they do or b) are economically stuck and 3) the big ag companies who want to make money

In reply to by J C (not verified)

Submitted by J C on Sun, 04/08/2018 - 10:23

You are obviously being close minded. Global warming will happen until the next ice age.
I prefer grain fed beef because it taste better.
Free market is what drives this country. So if BIC had to change something to stay afloat, so be it, if they go under, someone will take their place. It's called business.
Stating to make new feedlots illegal is capitalism.
I'm not saying things are perfect in current system, we should always look for improvements, which leads me back to the article. We can't shut things out, we have to be collaborative and find middle ground.
That's democracy.

In reply to by Ribbit (not verified)

Submitted by Ribbit on Sun, 04/08/2018 - 15:37

I won’t continue the argument for every two parting thoughts
1) “global warming will happen until the next ice age” you just accept this fate and relieve yourself of the responsibility of stopping practices that will bring it on. Then you call me closed minded.....
2) “I prefer grain fed beef because it tastes better” if you let a five year old choose his dinner he will pick candy every night. It’s up to the parent who knows that it’s bad for his health to make him eat better.

I simply believe that humans are capable of making the changes necessary to slow/stop climate change. Me saying that the current beef production model is a part of the changes that happen to be necessary is as much s proven fact as saying 2+2=4. It’s not closed minded. It’s just a fact.

In reply to by J C (not verified)

Submitted by Anonymous on Fri, 04/06/2018 - 18:44

Good piece, but part of the problem is that to some of the opposition it makes absolutely no difference how much we communicate, how good of managers, how careful we are with our farms, or how much economic impact, etc. because they are adamantly and ideologically opposed to us even being in existence...and these folks, whether they be few or many, always show up and make themselves known.

Submitted by common tater on Fri, 04/06/2018 - 21:49

Don't know why this posted as 'anonymous'....I posted it, then posted my other one.......

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted by Ribbit on Fri, 04/06/2018 - 23:38

It isn’t ideological, it’s science. Feedlots are not far behind coal burning power plants as some of the most outdated, destructive things that humans do on a large scale.
The reason it doesn’t matter how much you “communicate” is because it’s not an argument or a discussion. It’s scientific fact, if these things continue to exist, the planet is going to have a catastrophic meltdown.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Submitted by Angus farmer on Sat, 04/07/2018 - 06:34

You seem to be stating many "facts" in your comments but are offering no links to data or websites collaborating with your points of view. Like any good paper there should always be verified references to the "facts" being stated. Your posts seem no better than every politician in Congress, just spewing misinformation to incite fear and push an agenda at any cost. Would love to be able to read from your sources and become more informed on how this new cattle lot will "kill mother Earth"

In reply to by Ribbit (not verified)

Submitted by Ribbit on Sat, 04/07/2018 - 16:51

Well, this is a comments section not a research paper, so I am not going to provide citations. But if you actually wanted to learn, a quick google scholar search will show an overwhelming body of information about the destructive impact of: emissions of cattle from feedlot, the destruction of topsoil/root systems from not only feedlots but the country sized corn/barley fields that supply them, not to mention the draining of our water reservoirs to produce the corn in the grain belt.
And I do apologize for being somewhat combative it isn’t constructive.
The trouble is that those with the capital to make these investments are being lazy. They are trying to improve a system that at its best is destructive and inefficient. What they need to do is innovate and find financially feasible ways to produce beef that 1) are net GHG sinks for the entire life-cycle not just cow/calf productions, 2) not reliant on using net protein loss grain feeding and 3) utilize the natural behaviors of the animals to maintain/restore the land instead of destroying it.
Trying to justify a new feedlot is like trying to justify a new coal plant and saying “it only emits 70% as much as previous plants”. That isn’t the point. There are other viable options of producing power, that are not destructive. The same is true for beef production. We can do better, stop being lazy big ag.

In reply to by Angus farmer (not verified)

Submitted by Common-tater on Sun, 04/08/2018 - 23:00

So you DO know that cattle in a feedlot actually give off less greenhouse gasses than those on natural pasture?....actually I don;t believe you actually know this or much of anything else about this...you have simply bought what you have read and been told...even though much is not accurate.

In reply to by Ribbit (not verified)

Submitted by Ribbit on Mon, 04/09/2018 - 09:12

I actually have a background in academia and read scholarly articles for fun. I don’t take your attack personally. The sad fact is we live in information bubbles. If you subscribe to Drovers you will hear what big ag wants you to hear. I am just trying to be a tiny voice of science and reason here. You bring up a great issue about the comparison of emissions. This is a critical example of my point that scientists sell their reputation to big business and skew data to support illogical conclusions.

In a strict measurement of emissions of certain gasses at certain stages in the grain finishing process, yes the feedlot wins that race. And because all feedlots want is something to justify doing things the way they have always done them they take that and run. But if you actually think about what you are reading you will realize that the conclusion that feedlots are better than natural beef production based on this point alone is foolish.
When you bring the entire life cycle of the animal into context, that is where you see the destructive force of the feedlot. Here are just a few of the giant factors left out of this comparison.
-The detrimental monoculture of corn/barley required to supply feedlots must be factored into your environmental impact. Just think of the role that grain finished beef plays in topsoil erosion. (All because we want cheap beef that tastes better)
-The detrimental impact on the land a feedlot is placed on (trees don’t grow in the feedlots)
-The healing effect that wholistic farming has on the land where it is done. Studies conducted show that natural beef production as part of wholistic farming is actually a net carbon sink.

That was just a few of the actual scientific responses to one point publicized by big ag from weak research. If you really want to learn, the truth is out there. It will require you choosing to evaluate things honestly, you cannot outsource your information gathering to publications whose primary goal is making money.

In reply to by Common-tater (not verified)

Submitted by Common-tater on Sat, 04/07/2018 - 20:08

You are wrong, Ribbit.....you may think you are right, r you may know the truth....but you are indeed wrong.

In reply to by Ribbit (not verified)

Submitted by Common Tater on Fri, 04/06/2018 - 18:58

Don't understand the comment relating to this should have been in a "more rural" location...or that this was a "bad location". Aren't they building it there because that is whee there farm is?! They either have the right to build it on their land or not.....It is either okay for people to live near it or not....if it is okay for 2 or 3 neighbors, then it is okay for 200. There will ALWAYS be people around saying it should be somewhere else or that there are too many people in a place, no matter how many there are.
Also don't 'understand' the comments from ribbit, but that is because they are not reasonable, not logical, and put forth the same distortions we continually see....and the writer obviously actually has extremely little real life experience with any of this. (and probably nothing could be further from reality and further from actually doing something positive for our earth than the "Paris Climate Accord"!)