My experience with Cattlemen’s Young Leaders

April 17, 2012 1 comment

Sigh. A great road trip has just come to an end. Bummer eh?

Oh no, I don’t think so!  Like hell this is the end! BOOYAH!

That about sums up my current thoughts on being a graduate from the Cattlemen’s Younger Leaders mentorship program. We had a graduation event on Friday in Saskatoon (more on a bridge there later), and the new crop of candidates was there for selecting the next  gen of participants on Saturday.

I think all us grads were bemused at how much we had in common with the newbies. We all share a love for the industry and at some level are all AgNerds. What was more surprising, was how it was like a window into the past, right back to the selection event we were all at last year. The nerves, the excitement, the fact that none of us could stop, not even for a minute, talking about cattle (yes, it really was heaven).

I was paired with Owen Roberts, the Urban Cowboy and a general aggie-awesome media guru. A little bit of hometown for me as I went to Guelph for my BSc and did a LOT LOT LOT of growing up there (but somehow still manage to get told that I’ve never grown up…fancy that.) Owen is in Guelph, I’m in southern Alberta, so yes there were some challenges for communicating and it’s not all rosey-posy. But, we really exploited us of social media and e-mailing to connect, which I think is totally intriguing as we’re both game-on for communications and use of such things. I have no problem calling him up or shooting off an e-mail, something that I think we’ll be doing long into the future.

But the mentorship is more than my mentor. I made connections with other participants and their mentors. I learned so much from grabbing a coffee or just saying hello to someone else in the program. There’s also all the connections that were made from people in the program connecting me with people they knew (there’s going to be an upcoming video on the need for grazing in maintaining our natural grasslands that spun off some connections). Although I started with my focus on communications in the beef industry, I ended up learning a lot about things like foreign trade and international law, marketing beef, business accounting and planning, land issues, environment….and oh so much more. So for this year’s crop, don’t get too caught up in who specifically is going to be your mentor.  You functionally get more than one.

I’ve had a few people in the past couple days tell me that it’s intimidating to talk to me about the industry some times because I know so much (usually follow by a guffaw from me, there’s SO FRIKEN much I don’t know and so many other people who know so much more). Aside from the blow to the communicator in me, I can say that it directly relates to this mentorship program. Kudos to all that got CYL going.

I’ll end up posting more about the program throughout the upcoming months, there’s so much that I took from it. I encourage all participants, and people interested in participating, not to be shy and to see out the previous participants and mentors. I mean, isn’t that the role of the program, to advise/train?

I do want to get this outta my head though before I leave for the day. After talking with many of the candidates and hearing a lot of people ask the panel speakers at the grad event and the participants from my year for advice, I kept thinking “what would I tell other young leaders?”. Well here you go (and yes, it is terrifying releasing such a silly little rhyme onto the web) :Chew hot uranium, evil-doer!

You need to reset your objective, if you’re going to be effective,

and get used to the fact that you’ll fail.

But always remember, that small burning ember,

and let passion put wind in your sail.

You may get confused, and some will abuse,

your youth and lack of experience.

But that too shall pass, you’ll hit greener grass,

let nothing create your indifference.

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Categories: beef, cattle industry, CYL

Responsible discussions involve the hard ones

March 31, 2012 2 comments

Everyone is all atwitter (pardon the pun) about the New York Times “Why is it ethical to eat meat” contest. Tell them, a group of animal rights and non-supporters, why eating meat is ethical. Not the credence attributes of the production system or why you love meat. No. They challenge you to use 600 words to communicate the logic behind why you choose to consume meat.

I’ve been debating participating due to trying to figure out how this may effect my current/future job, as the views expressed in any paper would be my own and not my employers or any association that I am affiliated with. I’m a tough debater for both sides in my internal debate, let me tell you!

But today I read something that so enraged me, and so educated me, as to why it’s important to me to share my ethics. A young producer from the US that I follow wrote a posting about the story. Amid other questions she poses the question of why should meat eaters have to explain our position and why is it ethical to question another person’s ethics, rather than celebrate our diversity?

Humans fight wars over ethics every day. Policies are made over ethical decisions. Engaging in the conversation (and wow is this one intimately personal) not only helps us to understand ourselves, but helps to further society as a whole. Bringing the ethics of meat consumption to the table may not get the “ultimate answer”, but it will definitely move the conversation forward and have ripple effects.

To not be there based on offence of being asked to engage worries me as to where the discussion will go without representation of the major ethics, inclusive of both anti and supporters of meat consumption (heard of meatless mondays or pink slime?). Social norms are established through ethical debate, as are policies and laws. Our own ethics ebb and flow with the tides of time, and ethical debates are one of the many influential factors, whether the debates are something we are engaged in or something we read in a newspaper.

Nietzsche’s words may be better applied to our respect for their selection committee. These people represent “thought leaders” within the anti/reduced meat consumption perspective. The judges are fair for their cause and representatives of their opinions.

Engaging in the difficult conversations is something that I have heard time and time again in learning about “agvocacy”. I am extremely interested in the submissions to this contest and the outcome. I feel like it will be an indication if agvocacy really has the guts to engage in more than just the easy stuff of how great the good is and really delve into the difficult conversations.

Categories: Uncategorized

Clues to a Great Story: Making sense of animal welfare with science

March 7, 2012 1 comment

Ever get that feeling like you’re just about to figure out a whole bunch of questions you’ve been wrestling? Like the epic anticipation before your favorite character figures out the whole key to the story?

Well, I just encountered a fantastic presentation. I’m still digesting it, but it’s got be up outta bed and roaring with ideas like a kid with a empty box. It connects design, agriculture, marketing, world trade, agvocating, food, cities, farming….all human pursuits. But right now I’m going to focus on its relation to the debate on humane food animal production.

The presentation is by the fellow who helped develop the strong stories of Pixar movies (Wall-E, Toy Story, Finding Nemo etc). They reach out to so many people, to so many people who eat food, and engage. The presentation is called “The Clue to a Great Story“, and the fella is Andrew Stanton.

In the presentation, he reminds us that humans are problem solvers. We’re compelled to do it. I totally agree, our brains are wired for it because it’s essential for survival. You’re being chased by a hungry bear, but you still want to live. Solve the problem. Our activities are evidence that we love to solve problems and create (hello science, design, architecture, games and so much more). But what’s key, is that “the absence of information that draws us in”. Totally the climax in the movie, book, story from a stranger. Or the opening of these stories that draws us in.

But what’s more, is the suggestion that the absence of information is why we are intrigued by animals and babies. There’s such a lack of information there. They can’t tell us their thoughts and that draws us into their story. The lack of information is what makes us care about their story. We just love to finish animal’s thoughts and “solve the problem” of what’s going to happen next by filling in the missing information.

Think about it, animal metaphors are ubiquitous for describing human attributes. In those, we’re filling in the missing information on emotions/motivations etc. with human experiences that we understand. For example, “sly like a fox”….we are attributing slyness to foxes, but how are we to truly know that the inner thoughts (if they have them) of a fox are cunning and deceitful? We’ve merely filled in missing information on the thoughts/behaviors/motivations of a fox. Google “lolcats” and you’ll totally see what I mean (and likely have a giggle).

The challenge with filling in the information is that we all fill it in according to our personal perspectives. For example, some feel that the way animals behave within a system, such as confined production systems (CAFOs for example), is de facto natural behavior or the animal “being themselves”. But other people have a different opinion on what the missing information is. These groups feel that animals have, well, something more going on. They ascribe animals the same rights humans have, because they fill in the missing information with human experiences (e.g. HSUS, PETA).

Both are different perspectives on the same story. Since I tend to cook with a heavy dash of ethical relativism at the moment, it gets really hard to discern between the two. Both have a right to their opinion and to have their own values. But we’re involving a third party that, as I mentioned before, can’t fill in the missing information in their story. Or can they……..

Enter science. (Well hello my perplexing and wondrous friend! grab a drink and relax! the party just starts when you walk in!) Science has helped fill in the missing information on lots of perplexing issues and undoubtedly improved our lives. And it’s application to the current problem of filling in the information on animal’s story brings back a quote that has stuck with me since undergrad (no, I’m not saying how many eons ago that was). Dr. Ian Duncan told me once, “we need to let the animals speak for themselves, and science can help them do that”.

HOLD THE BOAT! Science is getting crazy in here! Was he saying we need to talk with the animals? Ummm, moo? Despite friends’ jest, that’s not exactly what I’m getting at. To me Duncan’s statement means that there is a way to let the animal’s fill in their own information. They get to tell us their story. Sure science has its challenges and is only as good as the people conducting it. It can be biased by scientist’s personal beliefs, perspectives and politics. But that’s why scientists collaborate and go to conferences and have peer review. The potential issues can be overcome and the benefit is worth it. Science offers us a way to figure out how to listen to the animal’s story, letting us problem solve and letting the animal’s fill in their own details instead of us using ours for them.

Behaviour, physiology, neurobiology and so much more comes into play in figuring out how to listen and what their story is. I’m in awe of the layers of problem solving we get to do to figure this one out. And the animal character has an epic spine driving their story (and humans as well): survival.

We already care, we’re drawn into the story. For any of us, just think of your favorite animal. The cow, the puppy. You care, you’re drawn into the story and can’t help but want to complete it.

Now try gently restricting your perspective on filling in the missing information about them and removing your perspective on what they are content with (sorry for saying purple elephant and asking you not to think of a purple elephant, ya you so just did). Now, think of all the discoveries in science and the wonder they create. The insight these discoveries and methods give. The improvements they make into your everyday life (helloooo heating and air conditioning, refrigeration, computers!). Now apply all that awesome to completing the animal’s story.

**I have to give big thanks to a lot of people, but the ones that spurred this thought and haven’t already been mentioned are Jesse Bussard for her song of tweets that always leads to some informative articles, Jeff Fowle for sharing my respect for communicating about agriculture and Jess Keating for her ever intriguing debates on the philosophy of animals and ability to incorporate Calvin and Hobbs into scientific posters.

Day 2 @ CIC12: Cattlemen’s College

February 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Cattlemen’s College, first day of school. Actually, only day of school. I think universities should take note.

Having just attended UFA’s Cattlemen’s College in Lethbridge the week before, I was super curious to see what the flashy American version was going to be like. I was expecting my boots to be blown off.

But to be honest, my boots stayed on the whole day. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of interesting information and good quotes. It just seemed to lack energy and practicality.

My first session was on profitability for cow-calf places in volatile times. A volatile subject itself. There was a lot of chat about the historical value of cattle relative to other meat animals and how feeder cattle revenue growth has outpaced the rest of the economy. The take-home messages were: manage your margins (with the suggestion of locking in prices with contracts), increase working capital reserve, pay down debt, leverage expansion, manage costs and don’t let your emotions always rule over your money decisions.     No duh.

I get the point of not wanting to be too specific. I mean they did say that “what’s good for any business is not good for every business”. That totally makes sense, you have to do what’s right for you. There is no silver bullet (well, there is Coors). This leaves a challenge for a speaker to give a message to a whole room packed full of people from different situations. I do, however, think it would have been valuable to have more concrete examples of dealing with volatility within functional businesses. Drive the general take homes with concrete, tangible methods. Might make it easier to envision how it could work on the farm.

There were two points that I found interesting in the presentation:

1) When adjusting for carcass weight (I’m assuming of fed-cattle, not the cows themselves), the current cow herd is still as profitable as previous years despite shrinking numbers. Go mama cows go!

2) Resiliency is a very important characteristic of successful cow-calf producers. Especially when it comes to managing costs (i.e. being able to adapt to changes and be resilient, not resistant, to variability and novelty). I found this neat because I just read a review of a study on how resiliency in young children was found to be a characteristic that was indicative of success later in life. Is it possible that the manifestation within the industry as a characteristic of businesses that will later be successful is just another manifestation of the same behavioural relationships in a different context?

Day 1 @ CIC12: Beef Advocacy Meeting

February 6, 2012 Leave a comment

The first meeting that I rushed off to after cleaning up was with the folks in charge of the Master’s of Beef Advocacy (MBA for short, I know it’s funny) and some fellow graduates. We had a presentation from US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a check-off funded program in the US on advocating for more conversation with consumers. Then some role-playing of engaging in conversations and a quick update on future directions that the NCBA is taking with the MBA program. There was a lot of conversation with the people in the room, there was maybe 20+ of us, so a nice environment.

The USFRA presentation was from Kim Essex. She went over their research on how beef messaging is perceived by foodies, consumers and other stakeholders and how we can improve our conversation. I’m not sure of their methods, basically if their sampling was stratified properly to support their conclusions. So caveat on extending the results to all situations, but overall it was quite interesting.

The message that beef production is creating a “safe, affordable and abundant” food source was basically proven to be blase and all around meh. People were most concerned about the unknown, long-term health effects of food. It was neat to see that someone standing up and saying “we’re not factory farming, we’re family farms and producing efficiently” as their message was received very poorly while someone who said “consumers rightfully want to know and we’re committed to responding. Farming is innovative and committed to continual improvement. We’re committed to using what we have in more responsible and sustainable ways” was perceived positively.

So although the presentation did say that maybe it’s not what we say, but that we’re in the conversation, my take away was that it does matter what we say, but we still have to be in the conversation. Avoid contrasting with what we’re not, and be receptive to other views. I thought of it as ensuring that when talking about an issue, you have to be aware of the imagery you’re painting with your words, tones and body language. After all, we humans use so much of our senses to interpret.

What was frustrating for me in that meeting was the contrast between “us” (presumably beef producers) and them (the public and consumers). There was a feeling in the room that misunderstandings that lead to negative public perception was hurtful to the farmers, because of how personal their work is. Most farmers and ranchers live and breathe their job, 24/7/365. And are passionate about it. But everyone eats.

Regardless of whether they are working in food production or spend 12 hours a day at a computer, eating is a very personal thing. I look at eating as the one part of the day where I actually physically choose (as I am lucky enough to have choice) what becomes a part of me and nourishes me. It’s a very physical and personal experience. I don’t sit in reverence every time I eat, quite often it’s on the road or while I work at my computer. But I still am amazed when I get to thinking about the whole act of eating and food production. Ag-vocacy has the vision of engaging in a two-way conversation and educating about the reality of food production. But this us-them divide leads to a division of the vision.

This was echoed in the presentation from the MBA program’s dean, Daren Williams, on a move to represent what many call the beef industry as the “beef community”. The basis was that it’s hard to change our image from “factory” farms when we use a synonym ourselves. The imagery is based on the idea of pooling resources for the common good of raising beef with respect for the need to conserve. Although it might be tempting to shove this off as more marketing mojo, I believe it gets at the heart of what most beef producers are doing.

Categories: Uncategorized

A story to share: Cattle Industry Convention 2012 in Nashville

February 5, 2012 1 comment

So I arrived a touch sleepy in Nashville after having left home at 2pm the day before to head through Calgary, L.A. and Houston. I thought I would sleep enroute, in a plane or a layover, but no luck. But I was very glad to be on the ground and outta the airport by 10:30am.

I grabbed the shuttle to the hotel and chat with some folks from a co-op farm store, one of NCBA’s board members and a lovely rancher’s wife. Got to the hotel, praying like heck that my room would be ready because I had 20 min to get my travel weary tooshie showered and to a meeting that I really wanted to attend. Thankfully it was, and off I went to navigate the 2,881 rooms to find mine. Seriously, this place is enormous. And gorgeous. Very hard not to get distracted or lost, but more on that later.

Talk about a fish outta water. I’ve lived in million people cities, been to very large conferences and I had yet to encounter anything like walking into the USA’s national Cattle Industry Conference. I have never seen so many people involved in one interest, so excited and engaged.

So I naturally started thinking of home and all the folks with whom I wished I could share my trip with. Oh wait, I have a blog now. I intended to blog daily about what was happening. Then I decided that since I’m so good at finding entertaining things, I’d rather get out there and take full advantage of being in Nashville with so many cattle-lovers, and return to the notes later. So I’m going to go over my notes and re-visit my experiences, distilling my excitement into a series of posts. Likely the more coherent choice for those of you that read this.

The next few posts on here will cover the activities at the conference. Some might be on a specific meeting or topic. There was a lot of intense things ranging from profitability of cow-calf operations, to navy seal ordeals, carcass evaluations and predictions for the near future of the beef industry. But all in all, I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to attend and hope this enriches your life at least a fraction of what it did for mine.

Everybody’s on the net…why we blog

January 27, 2012 Leave a comment

As I was listening to CBC Radio 2 Drive and rushing to clean my apt before having some friends over, I heard the lovely Rich Terfry chatting about his discussion with Sarah Slean about the meaning of her song “Everybody’s on TV”. Specifically a line in it that goes “cause a life unexamined, well it’s certainly not worth living“.

The gist of what I caught is how it’s a twist on the Socrate’s quote “the unexamined life is not worth living” (scroll down, it’s there). Although I’m always intrigued by how humans suppose we know exactly what our ancestors were meaning, the point is that we should examine our lives and question things. Slean (and I love the literary wit here) was maybe, according to Mr. Terfry, pointing out how in the modern day we all want to be on TV or in the lime light.

This got me thinking about why I started this blog. To be out there, or in here, where my thoughts are. Logically it must be some form of out there, because why else would I post my thoughts on a ridiculously public and uncontrollable medium. Or maybe it’s more to converse on virtue of things, with myself through the ability to re-read and re-ponder.

I’m hoping it becomes a more-than-me conversing. And starting to wonder if blogging is a modern contribution to examining our individual and collective lives.

Categories: Confusion, media
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