“There is an immense responsibility we all have in agriculture to help our fellow man by growing food to feed the world,” Jo Ann Smith of Wacahoota, Fla., says.
This mindset and mission in life to serve her God, family and community have led Smith to blaze some of the most groundbreaking trails in the beef industry. Her resume is long, with accomplishments such as Florida Cattlewomen’s past president, first female chairman of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and spearhead of the first Beef Checkoff — but more importantly to her: wife, mother and grandmother.
Growing up on her family’s beef farm outside Lacrosse, Fla., Smith learned at an early age that in order for her to thrive in the business, she was going to have to be tough.
“It was just my sister and me helping dad with chores. We were ‘daddy’s girls’ and farmhands all in one,” she laughs. “There were a lot of times while working cattle that I’d get knocked down and pulled around, but that never kept me from loving the operation.”
The time was on the tail end of World War II, and those days of working alongside her dad on their north-central Florida beef farm are where Smith’s core values were deeply ingrained, she says. In 1957, she married Cedrick Smith, a fourth-generation cattleman. Her upbringing with an emphasis on family and respect for American agriculture carried over to her marriage with Cedrick, and her joining the Smith Brothers Operation in Wacahoota (which means cow house or barn in the Seminole language).
“I helped out by doing anything from bookkeeping the herd’s records to feeding cattle and loading out trucks,” she says.
While they had been longtime members of the local Marion County Cattlemen’s Association and the Florida Cattlemen’s Association (FCA), the couple stepped up their involvement. By 1977, Cedrick went on to serve as the FCA’s president. With the leadership, came a deeper respect for the organization’s goals.
“They represented issues such as taxes, land and environmental concerns — things we dealt with every day,” Smith says. “It was a group of people we not only enjoyed working with, but we had a lot in common and built tremendous friendships on national and state levels throughout the years.”
By 1970, Jo Ann served as the second president of the Florida Cattlewomen’s Association to help get the organization up and running.
“We were the new kids on the block,” she recalls. “We set out to promote beef through consumer outreach such as grocery store demos and farm tours. The development was a slow crawl, but that work paid off greatly in the end.”
Smith also became an active member of NCBA, serving on two standing committees for USDA, including the Animal Technical Advisory Committee on Livestock and Livestock Products, and the Foreign Animal Disease Advisory Committee. She was also part of a one-time special committee of the USDA Meat Pricing Task Force that audited meat pricing systems in the country.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years is that you never really completely eliminate an issue, because it will come back again in the future,” Smith explains. “We continue to have issues with the term ‘animal health.’ For example, just because we eradicated brucellosis doesn’t mean we don’t have to continue to stay on top of it.”
After years of involvement with NCBA, Smith went on to serve as the organization’s first female president in 1985. The experience was humbling to her, she says, quickly giving her a firsthand view of how diverse the U.S. beef industry is.
“The U.S. beef industry has such a diverse population of operations and an even more diverse set of people who manage them,” she says. “At the same time, while a lot of them are different, many share the same issues that impact their bottom line.
“When you’re on the front lines of the firing squad, you really begin to understand how crucial it is to have a national organization of people working together with the same goal, and just how important it is to have representation and offices in Washington D.C.”
The year after serving NCBA, Smith went on to lead the newly developed Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board as the founding chair in 1986. This is when a milestone in her career took place with the implementation of the Beef Checkoff program.
A strong push was made by beef-industry leaders to get an enabling act passed in Congress during the Reagan Administration to put a program in place through the 1985 Farm Bill, now known as the Beef Promotions and Research Act. Once passed, a board had to be put in place and the program voted on for approval within 22 months.
“We had a short time frame to secure a nationwide program that would help with the promotion of the beef product, which consumers had questions about,” Smith says. “I can’t even begin to tell you the amount of people within not only the beef industry, but the dairy industry and supporting organizations, that helped get the Beef Checkoff program rolling, while being something the producers would want to continue.”
The right thing to do
Smith’s long list of accomplishments also includes playing a pivotal role in opening the beef trade market to Asia, along with serving as the Assistant Secretary for the Marketing and Inspection Service of USDA from 1989-1993.
Throughout the years of leadership and dedication to the beef industry, Smith’s biggest realization has been the necessity for an industry to work together for common goals.
“Being part of organizations that have a producer’s back on key issues such as tax laws and environmental acts, while they can focus on the day-to-day challenges of running their farming and ranching operations, is beyond valuable,” she stresses.
Her involvement in these organizations also has instilled into Smith a deep respect for the people of the industry, to which she attributes the development of many lifelong friends while getting to meet the men and women who push the industry at every level.
“The industry could not have moved forward the way it did without the help of key players in the agricultural press and boots-on-the-ground support from the staff and producers within national and state organizations,” Smith shares. “Their support was pivotal in the progress the industry has made.”
Smith’s passion and love for the beef industry has been something she has passed down to the generations that follow her. She and Cedrick have two children together, Marty and Terri, along with four grandchildren. Marty currently is the fifth generation running the Smith Brothers Operation. The same willingness to give back Smith learned from her parents is something she has worked hard to pass down.
“I don’t intend to retire, and I don’t intend to quit being involved,” Smith concludes. “We owe it to this country to give back. I do it on behalf of my fellow beef producers and my family because it is the right thing to do and I love doing it.”