Joan Ruskamp describes the feed lot business: "It's like running a hotel. We have lots of rooms to put cattle and we want to keep them happy and well-fed while they're here."
It's a description that came to her while she was talking with a hotel employee at the Opryland Hotel during the recent Cattle Industry Convention in Nashville.
"She understood it immediately," said Ruskamp. "She understood that we were in similar businesses, that we have to work hard to take care of our guests."
Ruskamp migrated back to the business when she married her husband, Steve, almost 32 years ago. It was a return to her roots. Her grandparents had farmed in northwestern Nebraska years ago, but she was a city girl working as a veterinary technician when she met her husband at a dance. Their farm, near Dodge, Nebraska, about an hour northwest of Omaha, will celebrate its centennial this month.
"There must have been something I inherited from my grandparents in my genetic code. I've always loved cattle and I think I wanted to get back to it when I met Steve." Her vet tech training came in handy, too. She does the necessary vaccinations, doctoring and record keeping for the business which is now a feedlot with the capacity to handle 4,000 head.
"The place was empty when we started but we had a chance to build a business," she said as she described what it was like getting started soon after they were married. "The 80's were tough but we came through it and we're doing very well now. We work as a team and the balance Steve and I bring to the business is important.
"We have five children ages 20 to 31 and four of them are scattered all over the world - Peru, Austria, Chicago. Our oldest daughter, Ginger (31), lives near Omaha, is married and has a two year old daughter. Ginger is teaches English at Yutan High School. Our son, Scott (28), is a computer engineer in Santa Barbara with frequent business trips to Japan. Emily (26) lives in Chicago and is attending grad school for intercultural ministry. Jeff (24) is in religious formation in Lima, Peru with the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae. Our youngest, Kim (20), is a sophomore at Franciscan University in Stuebenville, Ohio, and is currently studying abroad in Austria. I helped them by being a volunteer 4-H leader for 20 years and being very involved in our church.”
In fact, volunteer work is a big part of her life. In addition to her Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) activities, she's still a 4-H leader, a volunteer EMT, catechist, and a member of several farm organizations including the Farm Bureau Pen Pal Program, Nebraska Cattlemen, National Cattlemen's Beef Association, American National CattleWomen, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Soybean Association, and the Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska.
She has served on a committee for the annual Ag-Ceptional Women's Conference, the Nebraska LEAD program and volunteers for CommonGround, a group that fosters open discussions between women who grow food, and other women who may be several generations removed from agriculture. Their goal is to help consumers understand that food is grown by people, not by factories.
Talking about her CommonGround experience, she said, "We will talk to anyone, anywhere. We want to talk about what happens on farms and how we bring food to their table. I talk about the proper use of antibiotics and hormones. I understand that people are concerned about how an animal is fed because they know they're eating the same thing, too. How will that affect them? We need to be transparent. Like one man said who toured our feed lot recently, 'You know, you act like you've got nothing to hide.' We don't."
She is concerned about the picture of the cattle industry being painted by outside sources. "If you don't understand what's going on, you might misinterpret things," she said. "Sometimes you have to restrain a sick animal to administer the proper medications. It's like watching me hold my son if he had to be given a shot and he didn't want to participate. It's necessary and I have to do it for his own good."
What also concerns her are marketing claims like 'Hormone free' and 'Antibiotic free.' "When people see those claims," she said, "they assume that the other stuff must be loaded with it."
"The older generation tends to have another point-of-view," she said. "They've lived long enough that they realize there are a lot of other, far more dangerous things to worry about. They tend to believe eating in moderation and getting some exercise is a better solution."
Nashville was just her second CBB event. "I'm on the Taste Committee and I'm still learning the ropes. I've always been impressed by the people involved in the check off, though. It's a real teamwork operation that's done a lot for us, and the leadership knows this business very well and that every single dollar counts."