President's Notes

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We Accomplished A Lot in 2015, But There’s Still More To Do

Burton Pfliger, ASI President

Thank you for the privilege to serve on behalf of nearly 80,000 sheep producers. This past year, ASI celebrated our 150th year of advocacy on behalf of the American sheep producer.  

It was my pleasure to testify in front of the House Agriculture Committee this past March to reauthorize mandatory price reporting. ASI worked diligently for more than two years preparing comments and proposed changes that would enhance the market transparency, improve reportable numbers and lower the threshold for reporting lamb.   

Additionally, ASI organized and led the effort to rewrite the proposed H-2A rule put forth by the Department of Labor. ASI brought together Mountain Plains and Western Range to speak with solidarity as one voice, which we believe was highly effective in securing a compromise. The new rule – while not perfect – allows for a three-year step process to ease the wage burden on producers while still maintaining virtually all the special procedures, such as mobile housing. Thank you to all 500 producers who took time to share the shortcomings of the proposed rule. You were instrumental in securing a workable rule. Also, thanks to USDA Under Secretary Edward Avalos for making your intentions known. You too were part of the solution.  

While traveling to a number of state meetings and attending the National Farm Broadcasters conference this year, virtually all media wanted to talk about was how the sheep industry was able to retain Country of Origin Labeling. ASI negotiated industry COOL two years ago in Farm Bill discussions. My response to reporters was that sheep producer members of ASI have a consistent 20-plus year policy supporting the identification of American lamb.  

Thirty days following the 2015 convention, the meat industry requested ASI to seek a Section 32 lamb buy to relieve large freezer inventories. It truly is the only tool in ASI’s box that we can leverage to positively affect prices at the ranch gate. USDA responded with three large buys, totaling 1.5 million pounds of lamb worth $7.4 million.

If all the previously mentioned events were not enough to accomplish for this past year, ASI and Cornerstone Government Affairs tackled the bighorn domestic sheep grazing issue. ASI sought to include in the last piece of legislation to pass congress in 2015, the Omnibus bill, language to require the U.S. Forest Service to make like-allotments mandatory for grazing permittees displaced by bighorn interface. While the final language in the bill strongly encourages the forest service to make like-allotments available, it stopped short of making it mandatory. And so, the effort goes on.   

As part of ASI’s contribution to the Industry Roadmap, we ramped up $1.5 million in Let’s Grow program grants, holding two rounds of funding for worthy recipients.  

Another major event was the acquisition of the JBS plant by Mountain States Rosen. The industry has high hopes for the shared success of MSR and the entire industry.   

The lamb roadmap concluded its second full year addressing identified industry issues. I recall the original goals set forth at the formation of the roadmap committees.  Making lamb a consistent and premium product is the one that I believe to be critical to building a growing, repeatable and loyal customer base.  

Two years ago this board of directors passed a directive seeking to identify and define what constitutes lamb meat. The Lamb Council meeting of 2014 was eventful to say the least. Producers voted without opposition, supporting FSIS adoption of a definition for lamb. However, some in the industry sought to stop all advancement on this issue and, in 2014, the lamb industry once again stopped short of any standard.

Today, we find ourselves on familiar soil with a slowdown in meat sales, a buildup in freezer inventories,  increasing slaughter weights, increased excessive fat lambs of more than 200 pounds and fewer and fewer lambs being graded. I have heard from some that lamb does not have a flavor problem, but rather a fat problem. To me, the two are indistinguishable. Fat is a component of flavor and one we must solve. The current system allows ungraded carcasses to be labeled as lamb regardless of age. FSIS, the federal agency with oversight in the carcass fabrication room, has no adopted regulatory definition for what characteristics constitute a lamb carcass, thereby qualifying all ungraded sheep carcasses to be legally labeled as lamb.

It is my belief that every consumer that intends to purchase lamb and unwittingly purchases something else does not return to the meat case seeking another under performing experience. Each of these less than pleasant introductions to lamb cost us an estimated five years of future demand and must be reversed to change the trajectory of the per capita consumption of lamb. I hope all of you will study the issue and seek a resolution. We understand the roadmap team intends to recommend to ASI the beginnings of policy development and direction on lamb flavor in 2016.

Just as the first convention attendees 151 years ago came together to “share ideas and common interest,” so do we leave this convention dedicated to preserving the rich tradition of agriculture and feeding the world. May we be judged worthy of the tradition started 151 years ago to come together to learn and look through the eyes of others, to grow larger than our differences and focus on common interests and goals of our industry’s future.

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