November 15, 2003
Nov. 2003 -- Last month's Tri Lamb Summit in Washington, D.C., was a unique and humbling experience for me as president of ASI. The knowledge that the sheep industry in the United States is a very small part of our agricultural economy made the assemblage of people in Washington quite amazing.
Sheep farmers from Australia and New Zealand traveled thousands of miles to be there. Congressmen made time in their busy schedules to meet with us. The Australian Ambassador and his wife opened their home to us. High level USDA officials came to greet us.
Why were all these people interested in the problems of the U.S. sheep industry? The answer, of course, is free trade and foreign access to the lucrative American lamb market. But there is no doubt in my mind that the Tri Lamb meetings occurred because of ASI's willingness to defend our market through the instigation of the 201 actions a few years ago.
When we stood and defended our livelihood, we won the grudging respect of overseas producers. They realized that U.S. sheepmen would fight to protect their livelihood, and it earned their respect.
We all realize that we live in a world economy and boundaries of nationalism and patriotism no longer have much effect in the market place. We want to sell ?American lamb,? but we are comfortable with using New Zealand sheep shearers. We buy ?American cars? made in Mexico and Canada and disparage Japanese trucks made in Indiana and Tennessee.
Agricultural imports and exports are similarly blurred. China is now an exporter of corn. Brazil may become the place to buy soybeans. Baby back ribs at our favorite restaurant may come from Denmark. Salmon is raised in fish farms in Norway and Canada. Shrimp comes from farm ponds in Viet Nam.
Economists at Purdue University are predicting that within three or four years, the U.S. will be a net importer of food as we import more and more cheap meat and grains as well as fruit, wine, tea, coffee, etc. from countries with lower production costs and weak ?dollars.?
In setting up the meeting in Washington, D.C., ASI insisted that we wanted to speak with sheep farmers, not government employees. My good friend, the late Charles Probrandt, had insisted that if we could just talk to Australian and New Zealand farmers we could begin to understand and settle our problems. Charles was right.
We knew we were speaking with sheep farmers. They looked as uncomfortable in their shirts and ties as we did. There was evidence here and there of a busted knuckle or a mashed finger. Their knees and backs were as gimpy as ours were. Taken all together our language was not the most elegant or diplomatic, but we sure communicated.
Some things we Americans didn't know: Australians market their lambs in an auction system much like ours. Usually they have 10 or more buyers, including several American buyers! However, just like here at home if a major buyer doesn't make it the sale average drops.
In New Zealand the industry is more integrated. Many producers are members of producer-owned ?meat works? and sell ?over the hooks? (on the rail). They may know their base price at lambing time and enter into a contract.
Australia's ?dingo fence? is in disrepair, and they are losing sheep to dingos and feral dogs. New Zealand lacks sheep predators, but has imported insect predators that are eating their clover pastures at a great rate.
New Zealand and Australia are losing sheep at about the same rate we are. We all need to combat the slump. We all agreed that the exchange rate has fueled the U.S. lamb market. Currently with a weakening U.S. dollar, it is becoming more difficult to export to the United States.
We had a good exchange of ideas on lamb promotion in our countries. Some people confuse promotion and marketing. All of the government officials warned us to beware of talking about control of supply or price, due to risk of violating U.S. anti-trust laws. We thought any marketing should also include the retailers and wholesalers. American delegates repeatedly pointed out the high value of the U.S. lamb market as important to build on. We were especially pleased that Chairman William Thomas (R-CA) of the House Ways and Means Committee attended the opening of the meeting with his support of the U.S. industry and offer of assistance.
Those things that as producers we can somewhat control we agreed to discuss in the future in order to maintain the profitability and the sustainability of the U.S. lamb market. We intend to exchange information on key research, social compliance issues and farm gate, wholesale and retail price to the best of our ability. All three nations have tentatively agreed to meet again in 2004.
When we meet again it will be sheepman talking to sheepman -- all of us trying to make a living in this global economy and trying to ensure that our children and grandchildren can also make a living from raising sheep in the future.