Andy @ Feedstuffs

FeedstuffsAndy Vance is a featured contributor for Feedstuffs and Feedstuffs Foodlink. You can read his commentary each week in “The Weekly Newspaper for Agribusiness,” at at the Feedstuffs Foodlink blog. In addition, you can listen to his weekly audio commentary as part of’s “Feedstuffs Focus.”

Here’s the archive of Andy’s weekly commentary:

July 22nd: It’s the middle 80% that matters most…

In addition to writing for Feedstuffs and, I do a fair bit of speaking around the Corn Belt.

Last week, I spent a day in Pennsylvania addressing a group of dairy nutritionists from across the country.

My typical keynote address covers my experience reporting on the animal rights movement, social media advocacy and how people in agriculture communicate with consumers.

As you can imagine, I have lots to talk about.

July 15th: Farming, a lifestyle and a business…

You may or may not realize this, but for you to enjoy a tender, juicy steak or moist, succulent pork chop, an animal had to die.

It is an immutable law of the universe: Meat production necessitates raising animals for food and their subsequent slaughter.

My opening remarks may shock you, and that’s okay. As author Roy Williams said, “The risk of offense is the price of clarity,” and I want to be exceedingly clear. When it comes to telling agriculture’s story to the masses, we can’t have our cake and eat it too.

July 7th: Packing up the troops perhaps not best strategy…

It hasn’t been a great week for agricultural policy organizations or farm policy in general.

The week started with renewed hubbub over a rift between certain factions within the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn. Following the presumably-forced resignation of CEO Tom Ramey (I say presumably-forced because Ramey resigned for “personal reasons,” which I always read as “was pushed out”), the usual suspects renewed their assertion that NCBA causes cancer, the fall of the dollar and global warming; or, conversely that we should mothball the checkoff altogether.

In less than two media cycles, that story was swept away by Mercy For Animals latest public relations stunt, targeting Iowa Select Pork with one of its patented “undercover” videos. I have not watched the video to verify my feelings of its veracity, but given MFA’s track record in my home state, I can only assume it is one of their trademark manufactured videos. It was used surreptitiously to coerce major retailers into pulling Iowa Select products from shelves pending investigation.

June 30th: Get to the meat of the matter…

As you may have gathered from reading my column here each week, I am an unabashed meat eater. In fact, I relish the opportunity to chow down on my favorite tasty proteins, be it a flame-seared pork loin or a slow-roasted prime rib.

The discussion and debate over the role animals play in our society often centers on the key question of food animal production. Topics of focus abound: Do we eat too much meat, how are food animals raised, how are they harvested and processed, and should we raise animals for food in the first place are all issues posed by individuals concerned with the food they eat.

Increasingly, those questions are asked by a news media acutely aware that consumers are more interested in food than ever before.

June 24th: Commit to doing more than expected…

From time to time, I find it useful to look back at previous things I’ve written. Occasionally, I wonder if things really change much or if we are discussing the same issues today as we were at some point in the past.

In digging through my old files and columns, I came across a piece I wrote exactly two years ago. Commenting on the introduction of a joint resolution in Ohio’s General Assembly, I wrote my first thoughts on what would become “Issue 2.”

June 17th: Targeting of ‘undercover’ artists sends wrong message…

My home state, Ohio, spent the latter part of the last decade at the center of the animal rights extremist movement. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the largest animal rights lobbying organization in the world, targeted my friends and neighbors in the farm community for eradication.

We saw a lot of ugliness from the anti-meat radicals.

One of the animal rights activists’ key tools in the fight against meat consumption is the “undercover video.” Posing as a potential farm hand, extremists go undercover to video, and in many cases create or encourage, animal abuses.

June 10th: USDA’s proverbial head still in the sand on GIPSA rule…

The U.S. Department of Agriculture owns one of the most wide-ranging mandates in the federal government. Charged with administering programs as diverse as to range from inspecting meat processing facilities to studying the economic impact of rural availability of broadband internet, USDA has an expansive and unique purview.

Under the current administration, the Department engenders fairly frequent criticism for a presumed hostility toward modern, mainstream production agriculture. The Department’s current leader, Secretary Tom Vilsack, bristles at the suggestion, famously snapping at a gathering of farm broadcasters that USDA could “walk and chew gum at the same time.”

June 2nd: MyPlate focus on portions makes sense…

I love food.

I love to eat food. I love writing about food. I love growing or raising food in the garden or pasture. Truthfully, I even love watching the Food Network on television.

Our culture is obsessed with food, and I am a prime example.

May 28th: Feeding livestock is a science, feeding kids is an art form…

You are what you eat.

That’s what we’ve always been told, anyway. Food is an extremely important part of our lives, our culture, and quite obviously, our health and well being.

Our society is in many ways obsessed with food. When we’re celebrating, we eat out. When we’re sad or depressed, we might reach for a pint of ice cream or a 12-pack of beer.

We have multiple television channels dedicated to food, 24-hour fast food drive-through windows and a new fad diet every 17 minutes.

And yet, we probably know less about food and how it affects us than any other aspect of our lives.

May 21st: The circular firing squad…

There are days when I feel like we don’t need to worry so much about organizations like The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bringing down the most productive food infrastructure in the history of man… I’m more and more convinced we’ll do the dirty work ourselves.

It is often said that Rome was not conquered from without, but destroyed from within. The decay of civilization eventually toppled the mighty empire, a realm that reached from shore to shore and spanned the better part of two continents.

Cancer kills the human body by gradually siphoning off the body’s resources to feed rapidly multiplying mutant cells. In other words, the body is destroyed from within, rather than from an outside attacker like a virus or other infection.

Modern agriculture may be, like cancer cells or the Roman Empire, slowing killing itself from within.

May 14th: Checkoff-funded social media is risky business…

Farmers are social creatures. From coffee shops to conventions, we like to gather and swap stories about everything from corn yields and bull selection to politics and local gossip. In the modern era, the timeworn tradition of farmers gathering to tell tales and share information is digitized via blogs and social media.

As a reporter and broadcaster, I spend my days “telling the story” of farmers and food producers. I am passionate about the community and industry of agriculture because of its importance in our society, and because I am part of this community, both as a cattleman and as a reporter.

Like me, several farmers across the country have taken to sites like Facebook and Twitter to tell their own story directly to consumers, as well as by sharing ideas and news with other agriculturalists.

May 7th: Meet consumers where they are…

It was an interesting week to be a writer fascinated by the role of social media in agriculture.

I hate to beat a dead horse with this column, but an interesting exchange last week had me thinking more and more about the nature of our communications within and about agriculture.

Early in the week, an Arkansas rancher named Ryan Goodman tipped me off to a story from Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” blog about the “20 Most Useless Degrees.” Guess what? Agricultural and food-related degrees were four of the top 20 on the list.

Along with such seemingly important professions as journalism, chemistry, psychology and mechanical engineering, the writer of the story labeled horticulture (number 2), agriculture (number 3), nutrition (number 10) and animal science (number 20) as among the most “useless” degrees a modern student might pursue.

April 30th: It All Circles Back…

I want to take a minute to circle back around on something I wrote last week, and reconnect it to something I believe very strongly. Last week I suggested that some of our overzealous brothers and sisters in agriculture may be unwittingly giving us a black eye by embracing the “Jesus Complex” when communicating via social media.

This suggestion engendered more feedback and commentary than anything I’ve written since joining the Feedstuffs editorial family, as I figured it would.

The great news, it appears, is that most folks understood what I was talking about. Let’s be clear: it is absolutely imperative that we tell our story, and that we help consumers feel a level of comfort about where their food comes from and how it is produced.

What we cannot do in the process, however, is allow our need for self-preservation to lead to self-aggrandizement. My fear is that our good intentions will lead to an erosion of consumer sentiment toward farmers, rather than build additional goodwill.

April 23rd: Farmers Don’t Need a Martyr Complex

Given that it’s Holy Week, I’ve been thinking a great deal about sacrifice. In the context of my Judeo-Christian worldview, Easter is very important for a number of reasons, but the symbolism of spring and renewal are important to all of us in agriculture for obvious reasons.

In conversation this week, I was spurred to ponder an unfortunate metaphor. Thanks to some “agvocates” working on our behalf in social media, farmers and ranchers are getting a Jesus complex.

April 16th: Waffle House Can be the Best Classroom

You and I need to broaden our horizons. To accomplish this significant task, I recommend going to Waffle House.

I love Waffle House.

I’ll admit it. It may not be the healthiest place in the world to eat, depending on who you ask or what you order, but I love it nonetheless.

April 9th: A Protein-rich Diet Offers Many Benefits

Clint Eastwood’s iconic character “Dirty Harry” Callahan had a saying about opinions. I’ll not reprint the direct quote in the interest of polite conversation but suffice it to say Harry thought everyone had one, and generally that everyone else’s stinks.

When it comes to food, nutrition and diet, it seems everyone really does have an opinion, and it seems like most of them disagree with one another.

April 2nd: One Voice From 765,000 Mouths

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times: Agriculture needs to speak with one voice.

For my corner of the industry, it’s hard to speak with one voice when that voice is coming from 765,000 mouths.

Agriculture faces challenges every day, both from outside our industry and from within our own community. I saw some interesting statistical information recently that put one of our biggest challenges into perspective.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported that beef cow/calf production now occurs in every state. Nearly 765,000, or about 35% of the 2.2 million farms in the U.S., had a beef cow inventory in 2007. Most were small, part-time operations.

According to the study, roughly one-third of farms that raise beef animals had a beef cow inventory of fewer than 10 cows, more than half had fewer than 20 cows and nearly 80% had fewer than 50 cows.

March 27th: Sustainability? At These Prices?!

Writing this column is an adventure. Inspiration comes from the darnedest places. Last week, I took a “spring break” trip with a few friends to celebrate my buddy’s birthday. Sitting at a blackjack table, I struck up a conversation with the dealer, who asked me what I do for a living. I told him I’m a writer.

After explaining that I typically write about agriculture and food policy issues, George (my friendly dealer) got very serious and said, “I’ve got something you should write about. How about writing about these crazy gas prices when we’ve got all this oil in Alaska and other places we’re not using?”

While I’m going to leave the politics of oil and gas exploration and drilling on the table for the moment, George’s concern over fuel prices hit home. After paying $3.59/gal. far too many times in recent weeks, I can relate.

March 20th: YouTube-proof Your Farm

Undercover videos are one of the favorite tools of the radical anti-meat, anti-animal agriculture crowd. From the videos that shut down Hallmark a few years ago, to the numerous staged videos plaguing individual farms in recent years, many of us in agriculture assume it’s only a matter of time before the next sensationalized video hits the internet.

It probably goes without saying that the worldwide web is a dual-edged sword for food producers. On one hand, it gives us an avenue to sell farm-fresh product directly to consumers, an opportunity to tell our story and build our brand and numerous channels to communicate with one another and improve our knowledge, skills and network.

On the other hand, of course, it gives our detractors the opportunity to spread their myths and misinformation outside the traditional media filter.

March 13th: Vigilance is the Price of Freedom

Simply put, our ability to maintain the basic liberties of our society is dependent upon our willingness to continually safeguard those freedoms. In our community, specifically, our right to produce meat, milk and eggs has been challenged frequently and forcefully in the past decade. Animal rights groups and other anti-agriculture activists continue the march toward forcing us out of the livestock business.

We cannot allow that to occur.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is one of the most visible, and most powerful of these anti-meat businesses, but it is far from the only player on the field. From PETA to Mercy for Animals (MFA), the rogue’s gallery of hell-bent, wild-eyed radicals is never empty.

February 27th: HSUS Takes on Farms of All Sizes

Sun-Tsu, the legendary military strategist so often co-opted into ’80s business reading material, built his strategy around the basic premise that you must know your enemy to truly defeat him. For that reason, and to keep my blood pressure from ever dipping into the “normal” range, I read Pacelle Pacelle’s blog. Pacelle is the CEO/chief lobbyist/spokesmodel for The Humane Society (in name only) of the United States (HSUS). This $200 million activist lobbying group works to raise funds by working the long con that it is somehow engaged in helping animals. In so doing, it raises hundreds of millions of dollars annually that it in turn spends on lobbying and political activities to force Americans into a radicalized vegan lifestyle devoid of any animal-derived proteins or products. While it typically deny this fanatical end-goal, if you read Pacelle’s blog regularly, he frequently slips up and says what he actually means.

HSUS first ventured into the arena of ballot-initiative political campaigns in Florida in 2002. The effort, to end the use of gestation stalls on hog farms, was for this “sophisticated political organization” (Pacelle’s self-description of HSUS) sticking its toe in the shallow end of the pool. In a multi-state, multi-year strategy, the organization has worked to step-by-step, and state-by-state drive modern agriculture and farm families out of business to drive up the cost of meat, milk, and eggs in the hopes of lowering demand for those products.

February 20th, 2011: Let the Real Legislative Work Begin

Last week, the Senate Agriculture Committee held its first hearing under newly minted chair Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.); likewise, the House Agriculture Committee, under the new leadership of chair Frank Lucas (R., Okla.), held a series of hearings in recent days discussing various issues confronting farmers and food producers.

With one congressional election firmly behind us and the next at least a year away, the work of the legislature finally can commence. The challenges lawmakers face are staggering. The midterm election, like the two previous cycles, cemented the reality that American taxpayers are displeased with their elected representation and, therefore, with the direction of the nation’s legislative and regulatory agenda.

Early indications are that a divided government yields robust discussions on critical issues, but the curse of the ruling class is far from cured simply by shuffling chairmanships and committee rosters.

February 13th, 2011: Take on PR Rockstar Status

Last week, I shared my thoughts on talk show host Oprah Winfrey’s “vegan challenge” episode — but without having watched the episode.

I based my commentary and observations purely on the reactions of others, including my friends and colleagues on Facebook and Twitter. My key premise came especially from the overwhelmingly positive response of my friend the “closet vegetarian” to the segment on beef production.

The segment featured a tour of a Cargill beef processing facility in Ft. Morgan, Colo., and wrapped up with an in-studio chat among Winfrey, foodie author and activist Michael Pollan and Nicole Johnson-Hoffman, general manager of the Cargill plant.

I’ll be blunt: I had no intention of watching the show. I read people’s pre-judgments of the show and its concept, heard some great reaction from my friend, wrote my column and thought all would be finished. Little did I know that my sister-in-law had other plans.

February 4th, 2011: Winfrey’s Vegan Challenge Plays Well for Agriculture

Animal agriculture enthusiasts spent a great deal of digital ink last week discussing multimedia mogul Oprah Winfrey’s episode dedicated to how meat is processed and her subsequent “vegan challenge.”

Let us establish two key facts. First, I did not watch the show. Second (and the root cause of fact number one), I am not a fan of Winfrey.

Winfrey challenged her crew — 378 people in total — to eat a vegan diet for a week. The crew members were encouraged to abandon any animal-derived protein at the behest of author and vegan activist Kathy Freston.

Here is the shocker of the day: I am in no way opposed to this latest affront to animal agriculture and my preferred diet of mass quantities of lean, animal-derived protein.

January 28th, 2011: Dietary Policy Requires Personal Responsibility

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) secretary Kathleen Sebelius are scheduled to announce Jan. 31 the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

This policy, set jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and HHS, “is the federal government’s evidence-based nutritional guidance to promote health, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and reduce prevalence of overweight and obesity through improved nutrition and physical activity.” According to the departments, the policy document assists lawmakers, nutrition professionals, food assistance program administrators, food industry, scientists and academics and the nutrition-focused media with a consistent, science-based foundation for their nutrition efforts.

January 20th, 2011: Backing Away from Science is Risky Business

Agriculture is a science. Agriculture is also a profession, a community, a way of life, a hobby, a necessity, a passion, an industry, and as the word itself implies, a culture. Agriculture is many things to many people, but it is one thing to all people: our basic source of sustenance and resources on this planet.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, by and large, bears the burden of regulating and promoting this vital backbone of our society and economy. This week USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack spoke to the House Agriculture Committee about the challenges of regulating biotechnology in food and crop production.

January 16th, 2011: How Clear is Your Crystal Ball?

Earlier this year, I spoke with CGB Enterprises chief executive officer Kevin Adams about commodity markets and U.S. agriculture’s long-term potential for selling grain abroad, and we shared a good chuckle debating whose crystal ball is better.

Sometimes, it feels like grain and livestock marketing is either fortunetelling or shooting craps, but it is ultimately one of the chief responsibilities of successful farmers or ranchers.

Farm markets have displayed seemingly unprecedented strength in recent years, so I decided to ask a few experts: Just how sustainable are these markets?

January 6th, 2011: The non-farm consumer: Friend or foe?

We spend a lot of time talking about the animal rights movement, anti-agriculture activists and the various challenges facing food animal production in modern Western society. In so doing, we typically frame the discussion in an “us versus them” framework. We do so with good reason, of course, because it is both easy and typically accurate. When discussing The Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Mercy for Animals or a dozen other bad actors in the crusade against modern meat consumption and production, it is difficult to consider the opposition in terms other than that of the enemy. One of my friends once described HSUS as “radical anti-meat terrorists.”

How does the conversation change when the “opposition” is actually a close personal friend, coworker or colleague?

December 30th, 2010: Stop Spending So Much Time In the Echo Chamber

Legendary Chinese military strategist Sun-Tzu gave the advice: “Know your enemy as you know yourself.”

Generals from Napoleon Bonaparte to Colin Powell have studied Sun-Tzu’s Art of War and applied its principles to win battles and topple empires.

Read the pages of Feedstuffs or any popular agricultural publication, and you will readily realize that agriculture is embroiled in a war of its own. The challenge is fighting this war on two fronts: (1) on the field of common sense, sound science and best practices and (2) on the field of public perception.

Unfortunately for us, it seems we neither know our enemy nor truly know ourselves.

December 26th, 2010: No Free Passes On Food Safety

Cats supposedly have nine lives, but I doubt much empirical evidence exists to back up this well-weathered saying.

If the Senate’s Food Safety Modernization Act (S. 510) were of feline origin, however, science could definitely prove the veracity of the nine lives claim.

The bill, despite being considered dead on at least three different occasions just in the last 30 days, refuses to die. At press time, its passage appeared highly likely, leading me to ponder the effects, real or perceived, intended or otherwise, of this wide-ranging bill.

December 17th, 2010: Nothing More Than Gunboat Diplomacy

Living in Ohio, I’m well acquainted with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). During its two-year assault on animal agriculture in my state, I interviewed both Wayne Pacelle and Paul Shapiro, the playboy ringleaders of the animal rights movement. Last week, Pacelle and Shapiro gave Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer, an early Christmas gift: a lump of coal in the form of an HSUS-patented “undercover video.”

December 10th, 2010: The Incredible Shrinking Ag Secretary

SECRETARIES of agriculture come and go, and each brings a different personality to the “people’s department.”

Some, like the late Earl Butz, brought a larger-than-life persona and a palpable passion for agriculture. Others, like former Kansas Congressman DanGlickman, were tapped because of their ties to agriculture geographic and political connections.

The Honorable Thomas James Vilsack is the 30th secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and has his second anniversary in office approaches, he appears to fall squarely in the second category of USDA chief executives.

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