Anyone who has followed my writing over the years knows how I feel about the vertical integration of this industry.
The lack of competition, the concentration not just in the packing level, but even among the retailers, packer-owned cattle, the lack of price discovery, selling our own identity out to lubricate our way into the U.S. through mCOOL… it never ends.
For the record, my position on these issues absolutely has not changed, and I use my consumer voice to express how I feel. I haven’t shopped at WalMart for six years because I don’t agree with their business model. I can’t stand the WalMart way. I detest corporate hegemony, and our current genre of vapid consumerism that rewards low price before high quality.
And yet, for some reason completely baffling even to me, I love the cattle business. I even love the parts that I love to hate. I know it makes no sense – I was raised in a city and knew nothing about the business until 2007, when I moved to Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. Now I live in rural Alberta, but I still don’t own a single cow, and the only brand I have registered is in Saskatchewan.
I love the romance in the cow-calf sector, and its raw, unstoppable grit. I love seeing section after section of native grass and the beasts that graze it, unknowingly filling in for an even greater beast we drove out not so long ago.
And there’s what I like to call the off-the-grid sector – the producers who are going against the grain trying to forge out a living from the animals they love among the economics they hate. Niche players trying to find a foothold, this sector is so interesting because it is comprised of those who are either all heart, or all hate.
Even the feeding sector (though I’ve got exclusively grassfed in my freezer right now) has grown on me, despite my aversion to its inherent sustainability issues. The economics are compelling, and the ratios and mathematics in this sector are beyond fascinating. The labour issues, the underground battles between pharmaceuticals, the political power… what’s not to like?
That leaves the packers – by far the most reviled, mysterious, feared, respected and envied of the chain. In all the steps in the chain before them, cattle are born, raised, bred, fed, sold, bred again, auctioned, fed some more and then something amazing happens – they turn into meat. Make no mistake – it is at the packingplant where all that beautiful native prairie becomes money.
Whether it’s a little provincial abattoir, or the largest plant in the country, that’s where the beef chain becomes a beef business.
In Canada, our cattle business is too large to stay within our borders. We have a lot of land, and few people. We need to export, and to export, we need to be able to compete in same economic paradigm that everyone else operates in or we won’t be able to sell our beef. In the Nixon era, when U.S. agriculture secretary Earl Butz told producers to, ‘Get big or get out,’ he really wasn’t kidding.
That’s the reality. Canada’s producers decided long ago that they wanted to get big. Really big. And that’s exactly what they did. The only thing harder to turn around from than globalism may be death, and like it or not, we’re entrenched in our current model. Even if we wanted to exit from the world stage, and even if that meant we were prepared to just reduce our cow herd by half and supply only the domestic market, even that would be tough.
Why? Because our retailers are huge behemoths. They buy for multiple stores, across multiple provinces and they don’t want to struggle with supply. If they’re going to throw Canadian ribeye on the front page of their flyer, than by golly, we’d better have enough or next month’s centre spread is going to be occupied by the long, supple legs of the poultry industry.
That’s just the way the cookie crumbles these days, and what I happen to feel doesn’t change reality of it...
Source: Argentine Beef Packers S.A.
Back to News Headlines