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Ranchers ain't dead yet

(Thursday, Dec. 11, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Kathleen Sullivan Kelley, Denver Post, 12/07/03: There is nothing quite like reading your own obituary. Unfortunately, I get to read mine a lot. Please consider this a huge scream of protest, a wake-up call from six feet below: I ain't dead yet.

Nearly every day in newspapers and magazines across America there are headlines declaring independent family farms and ranches a thing of the past. Gone. Kaput. Smudged out of existence by vertically deranged mega-corporations and ill- conceived government feed troughs. (Both seem to operate from the same Neanderthal economic models: bigger is better. Humongous is best.)

Few folks talk about saving the family farm anymore. They just talk about throwing dirt on it.

Not so fast, ye undertaker types seeking to subdivide our land and stick real estate signs all over like tombstones. We're alive. And we're on the fight.

There are fairly large groups of feisty independent producers who have had enough of this morbid discourse. We see a future for ourselves as creative, dynamic and productive agrarians. We thrive on invention. Enjoy the adrenaline rush of a challenge that tests our very survival. And we don't mind pounding a few insensitive corporate and government bullies into the mud while we're at it.

More than a few need it. A top government economist once told me, "There is no crisis in agriculture. What we've got is a crisis in guts. We ought to be getting rid of two-thirds of these farmers and ranchers."

To which I replied, "A lot of farmers and ranchers think the same thing about economists, sir."

Some of us haven't changed our opinion, either.

Some remarkable men and women I've gotten to know in recent years have snatched me out of my own tendency to throw dirt on myself, and have given me a lot of optimism and hope for the future. They're tough, innovative and they're on a mission to redefine and build healthy U.S. agriculture markets.

"Healthy" to these guys doesn't mean mega-profit for a few. "Healthy" to them means opportunity for many.

An open door to invent. To dream. To build. To take risk. To come full circle, when the circle is worth traveling.

Too many pundits pontificate that if we just got rid of subsidies and turned agriculture loose to be managed by free market forces, then eventually everything would be OK. Implicit in this statement is the assumption that there is a free market.

Not so.

The beef business, just like most segments of our economy, has gone through massive mergers and consolidations in recent years, leaving cattle ranchers with only three major packers for 80% of the market. And even that is misleading. Most of us have only one buyer in our area and, increasingly, we are lucky to have access to a sales barn.

Pueblo cattleman Tom Spencer (who taught me that the world can be conquered from a wheelchair) reminds us all that the true definition of a free market is far more complex than the worn-out, simple- minded mantra of efficiency. He has lamented that my generation may be the last to trade cattle in a competitive market - unless we fight to fix it.

So with guys like Tom leading the way, we are.

This week we are flooding Congress with calls and faxes supporting mandatory country-of-origin labeling on food. Consumers have a right to know. It's fundamental to a functioning, free market. We've been working to make sure safety standards stay high for U.S. food and that all importers be subjected to the same requirements. In spite of so-called Homeland Security, those standards are at extreme risk. We'll continue to fight hard for a fair market, both domestically and internationally, ensuring crucial safeguards stay in place that keep us from being the dumping ground for the world.

Can the independent farmer and rancher survive? We must. For what will it say of America if a child's dreams of growing up to be a rancher can't be realized?

Certainly, it will say there is no hope for the rest of America, either.

Kathleen Sullivan Kelley (barsn@amigo.net) ranches southwest of Meeker, Colorado.

Source: http://www.denverpost.com/Stories/0,1413,36%257E73%257E1809840,00.html?search=filter