Wareham: Valley Oaks Issue Requires Collaboration

The dust-up over Valley Oaks Steak Company’s proposed feedlot expansion underscores the need to for agriculture to communicate with consumers. ( Valley Oaks )

Jared-Wareham-2017 web

Jared Wareham

COMMENTARY - The dust-up over Valley Oaks Steak Company’s proposed animal confinement feeding and packaging plant expansion has grabbed its share of headlines lately. After the permit hearing in Warrensburg, MO, where an army of advocates from both sides attended to voice their concerns, I wonder if there is a greater message that deserves our attention.

In February I attended the Young Beef Leader’s Summit during the annual National Cattlemen’s Beef Association convention.  One key speaker was Bruce Vincent, the third generation in his family’s logging business that in many ways mirrors the multi-generational farms in our industry.  He had been a leader in that industry’s well documented struggle against oppositional elements. 

He explained the painful evolution his industry underwent and the strategic failures that were now obvious, and his frustration and remorse were palpable.  Realization that the actions he and other leaders committed to had ultimately led to the decimation of the business he loved, was evident in the tears that rolled down his checks.  He began to break down emotionally from the burden of knowing one clear thing: it could have been different. 

Their approach was the typical ignore at first, and then react aggressively when pushed.  Traditionally, all industries have reacted in a similar fashion.  Collectively, we have done a rather poor job connecting with the opposition.  We inaccurately assume they know our personas and understand our motives and vice versa.  I’m as guilty as anyone.  People are people and we tend to base our initial response on conclusions that we have trained ourselves to draw immediately, much like a gun from its holster.  Thus, we start off emotionally charged, and things quickly escalate from there. 

I’m by no means saying that is where we are with the Valley Oaks issue, but I can see that path has been laid down before us.  We have sat aside the underlying contributions from elements that seek to disrupt or intimidate and focus on those directly impacted by changes or expansion.  The resident neighbors, consumers in the greater Kansas City area, other businesses aligned within the supply chain matrix, and other agriculturalists should be the target peer group.

I think we need to step back and accept the fact that some of the issues raised about the expansion are noteworthy.  Protecting our waters from contamination is a legitimate issue and one that will not go away, nor should it.  With that said, we definitely don’t need to bring back the extreme overreach of regulation that WOTUS presented. If we do not embrace the concerns, it certainly could.  A conscience, genuine recognition of the seriousness of that natural resource and our obligation to practice good stewardship of the land to prevent complications is warranted.  If you think you’ve done enough….do more!  This topic is that serious.

We know that Valley Oaks has followed guidelines and specs set forward by the DNR or Department of Natural Resources, and has a documented waste management plan.  Unfortunately, today’s environment may require more than permits and planning.  It may require an educational outreach element.  When they read a DNR report that says the animal waste and waste water storage facilities have 90 days capacity, we know that is not a rigid timeline.  However, its concerned neighbors probably don’t know that a well-managed operation will tactfully plan ahead, spreading those wastes strategically to avoid periods of frozen ground or high runoff potential. 

We are also landowners, homeowners, mothers and fathers, so we can identify with the concerns over safety and the perceived devaluation of land due to the construction of what is presumed to be a traditional style confinement feeding operation.  You have to understand that your neighbors do not know about the low levels of air pollutants emitted from these facilities.  We have had access to and toured multiple facilities of similar design and understand this because it is tangible to us.  We know that spreading turkey litter on our pastures will emit a greater amount of air deterioration than these state-of-the-art facilities will. 

Let’s not speak in terms of, “This is happening, so deal with it.”  Instead, lead with, we want to be a part of agriculture advancement, improvement, and history: want to be a part of it with us?  Do you think the opposition understands the historical importance of what Valley Oaks Steak Company could accomplish?  They don’t know that their vertically-aligned business plan could be transcendent for our industry and our state.  This multi-generational Missouri family will focus on offering things that consumers care about: a reduced ecological footprint, increased sustainability, transparency, and fresh, locally raised beef. 

It will invest millions in the local infrastructure through labor, purchased feed, fuel, and other products, as well as, contribute greatly to the tax base of that county, bringing substantial revenue into the schools.  The need for tax revenue is greater now than ever.  States constantly struggle to balance their budget and properly fund schools.  Businesses that bring in that amount of revenue spread across that large of an area bringing with it the potential for expansion in other aligned segments cannot be idled. 

You have to realize that when they take shots at you for accepting non-English speaking workers, they don’t directly understand the challenges you face when trying to hire a steady workforce.  I bet many of them would if approached correctly.  Many have worked in a setting where they depend on others and have felt the frustration from employees or peers that show up for work inconsistently, or fail to show up at all. 

If recent technology has taught us anything, it's the power of one person and their cell phone.  We normally paint this with the brush of discontent due to the backdraft of misleading posts that have gone viral.  However, there is plenty of evidence to support it as one of the most powerful resources available to tell our story.  Don’t wait to be a victim of misinformation or fake news.  Be the leader and an ambassador for your industry. 

Do they understand the potential value of collaborative vision that could be achieved with other local businesses?  Powell Gardens is an awesome place.  My kids love going there.  I can envision a summer time event held there sampling wines, meats, and other products of Missouri’s vast agricultural infrastructure.  We are as diverse as any state and should build on that knowledge.  I can also see an excellent collaborative opportunity for educational programs like “outdoor classrooms” that will help our next generation learn about the importance of stewardship, sustainable and organic agricultural production. 

I realize there are deeper forces and special interests at work that won’t yield to any attempts to collaborate.  We still need to adjust our approach.  Instead of ignore and react, be proactive.  Proactively embrace the opposition and make a genuine effort to understand and empathize.  It is not only the right approach, it's the ONLY approach.  We have to learn from the tears of others that have fought this same war before, but fought with a flawed strategy and lost.