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Mitch Stephenson 200p

I don’t often get involved with arguments on social media. I find that many of the big topics are far too complex to argue with just a few short, poorly punctuated and spelled sentences. However, I was compelled into a conversation about some misinformation with the beef industry and ranchers grazing on public rangelands in the western United States.

I’m a so-called academic. However, I sometimes dislike the term and what it connotes. I often find I learn more sitting at the feet of a successful rancher who has made ranching work for 50 plus years, than I ever did in the ivory towers of the University. However, the education I received from diligent professors and educators at universities has helped me immensely in my understanding of beef production and rangeland management. In the field of ranching and natural resources we need both the theoretical AND the applied education to really understand the all of management that is required. I value research and education, whether it be from the school of experience or from meticulously planned and controlled experiments.

I bring up my education because of the discussion I fell into on social media. It was with other academics. Both were well-published, history professors at respected universities that focused on western USA history. I enjoy talking with them because of their depth of knowledge on how the western part of our country was shaped. Both the good and the bad. History is something I often take for granted and forget that our history is why we are at where we are at today.

In our discussion, I was writing about how I have seen a shift in many livestock producers that better understand and conserve the ecological value of rangelands (See Ben Tibbitt’s great blog post “Cattle Rancher: True Environmentalist and Animal Steward”), and one of the professors wrote back, “Grazers/loggers/miners/farmers get a boatload of public subsidies yet don’t feel that they have to pay even a pittance in fees or taxes”. My first reaction was frustration. How could the American Cowboy be viewed as a nothing more than a free loader with his hand out to the federal government? My second reaction was worry. Is this really how people see us?

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m going to make a short caveat here. As with many social media arguments, discussions, and shouting matches, we end up talking in the theoretical. For example, I can talk about supporting grazing on public lands and my professor friend can talk about how all of it is a big subsidy, but neither of us are currently running cattle on public lands or dealing with the issues directly. He doesn’t have to confront a family that is struggling to make ends meet on a razor thin margin in central Idaho. Therefore, I think it makes it easy for us to break things down into short, generalizing blurbs. I feel this is unfortunate in most of our discussions. The reality, on both sides of many agriculture issues, is usually much more complex than we can present it, but until we get the whole story from both sides the argument is not fully explored.

Recent events have prompted me to reflect more on this issue. The stand-off with Clive Bundy and the BLM in southern Nevada in 2014 and the current takeover of the federal building a Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge in the past few weeks are classic examples of what propagates the sentiments of people like my professor friend. Regardless of how right or wrong these people are, we need to shape the discussion in ways that promote the importance of agriculture, the value of farming and ranching communities (especially in remote areas of the western US), the ecological sustainability of ranching management practices, and the ways ranchers and farmers are providing services worthy of respect and commandment.

We are providing a sustainable food for the world. I know I am preaching to the choir when I say agriculture is an honorable and a needed profession. A profession that has positively affected the lives of most people that will read this blog. As a result, we need to be the ones that tell the story and make our products the most sustainable as we can. If not, than folks like Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn (See the film Cowspiracy, now on Netflix) or the folks who wrote “Welfare Ranching” will.

Check this movie and book out and then take a moment to settle down from the anger it generates. Then, instead of getting frustrated and angry, maybe we need to start asking some questions. Questions like: Why is this the way our industry is viewed? Are they right in any way? Can we change in a small way to help people better understand? Do we need to take a hard look at agriculture and determine big things that need to change? What research do we need to be doing to become better stewards of the lands?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”2  In my social media spat, I could have spewed data a mile long that supported my side of the argument to my history professor friend (I did a little) and then he would have thrown some back at me that supported his side (he did a little), but I think that a better solution would be to learn from these criticisms. I realize that I am looking at this situation through theoretic, academic eyes. I would likely view this differently if I was at risk of losing my grazing permits and not being able to feed my family. However, only giving biased rhetoric and research will never fully tell the story or shape the discussion.

Only through educating the public with sound reasoning and science will we be able to break down these paradigms. It is fascinating to see the change in someone who doesn’t realize that many ranchers are just as concerned about the rangelands they both value. It is also amazing to see a rancher willingly change his management in a small way to provide better habitat for fish or wildlife. In both of these examples paradigms were set aside and groups came together to better manage our natural resources. To do this, we need adapt and change. In the words of a past mentor of mine, we need three things, “flexibility, flexibility, and flexibility”.

rsz_namelessDo we need to stand up for what is right? Absolutely. Agriculture communities need to band together and help each other with tough issues. I have recently observed and have been impressed to see groups of ranchers come together to legally help other ranching families who were facing some issues grazing their cattle on federal lands. We, as ranchers, farmers, politicians…….and maybe even a few academics that understand the value of sustainable agriculture, need to be willing to come together as a community and address tough issues being faced by our industries. It is often challenging and I know there are a lot of issues that make agriculture a particularly difficult profession sometimes, but I am optimistic in the ingenuity, intelligence, and tenacity of the American Cowboy to tackle these issues head on.

2 Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume 1.