Texas born, Montana raised, Oklahoma settled with Mexico on his mind.
From the February issue of Drovers.
In many ways, Derrell Peel’s life runs parallel to the cattle markets he’s analyzed for over 30 years, with patterns of predictability and a fair share of uncertainty. On the surface, his story seems similar to many in his profession: Go to college, get a master’s, follow it up with a Ph.D., then settle down with a steady career of studying livestock markets. But dig a little deeper and the agricultural economist for Oklahoma State University (OSU) just might surprise you.
It was 1964, and Peel’s father, a West Texas row crop farmer, took a huge step to finally get into the cattle business and relocated his family to western Montana. Peel, a 1959 model, had his entire childhood shaped while working alongside his father raising beef cattle and irrigation-farming for hay crops.
“My dad wasn’t an academic man; he actually never finished high school—but educated himself with a lot of reading,” Peel recalls. “He had a progressive approach to business and became one of the first adopters of AI technology.”
The way of thinking rubbed off on Peel, and at a young age he began collecting animal health and husbandry documents to read, inspiring him to go into the pre-vet program at Montana State University after he graduated from high school, with plans of eventually returning to his family’s operation.
“That first year allowed me to take a lot of science, but it also had me in my first economics class—I didn’t even know what economics was. And by the time I was done with the course, I not only understood what it was, but I realized it was who I was,” he says. “Suddenly things I did and the way I thought about the business aspect of my family’s operation made sense.”
It didn’t take much more thought for Peel to switch gears into agricultural economics and agribusiness, but as the end of his undergrad neared, he realized he was going to have to take a different route and not return home.
“It was the early ’80s, and the looming farm crisis made clear the reality that returning home was not going to happen,” he says. “So I turned my focus to academics and went after a master’s.”
Just as he was coming to the end of his master’s degree, Peel was approached with a job opportunity as the superintendent of a range research station for Colorado State University in the southeast part of the state.
“This ended up being an important part of my career because of the exposure it gave me to the stocker business. I remember distinctly when I learned you could graze wheat and harvest a crop off it,” he recalls. “The work also imbedded in me the need to understand the physical production of an operation, like animal management, forage yields and plant species. Economists make assumptions on many situations, but it is important to have a decent depth of knowledge on production systems to make a good analysis.”
Eventually, with three and a half years of work experience under his belt, Peel felt it was time to take the next step toward his goal of obtaining a Ph.D., and enrolled in the University of Illinois. For two years he trekked around the Champaign campus for course work, and then took an opportunity to do his research at Auburn University in Alabama, giving him practical knowledge of the Southeast beef-production system.
“Being around the various cultural and regional impacts of agriculture really played into how I look at the cattle industry,” he says. “It exposed me to how complex the entire industry is, and why we don’t always understand each other because of the way certain issues impact different areas.”
Then in 1989, when he had finished his doctorate, Peel was asked to come work as a livestock marketing specialist for OSU, developing a special focus on the stocker industry. Shortly after his arrival at OSU, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. was in development, once again pushing Peel out of his regional comfort zone and into a whole new world he quickly grew to love—international business.
In 1992, just two years before NAFTA came into effect, Peel traveled to Mexico with an agribusiness trade group for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. He was hooked immediately.
As the years went by and trip after trip south of the border took place, Peel couldn’t deny his desire to dive deeper into the Mexican beef industry. So in 2001, he made arrangements with OSU and took a year-long sabbatical to move to Mexico.
By this time, he and his wife, high school sweetheart Patricia, had two sons, Travis and Cody, and a daughter, Tegan. Together, his family took the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“My wife is very much a trooper and loves to travel, but the move to Mexico was very challenging,” he says. “Our wedding song was John Denver’s ‘Follow Me.’ The lyrics are, ‘Follow me where I go, what I do and who I know.’ At the time we were married, we were just small-town Montana kids who hadn’t seen a lot and had no idea how prophetic that song would be.
“And the timing worked out perfectly for my family. The kids were in elementary school and adapted easily,” he recalls. “I’m actually more proud about the value of that experience for my family than my professional career.”
In addition to his Extension appointment, Peel has also had the opportunity to teach classes at OSU, in which he has made it a mission to teach his students not only about agricultural economics but about life experiences as well. His “kids,” as he calls them, fondly call him “Poppa Peel” because of his sincere investment into their journey of becoming professionals.
“Being a university professor is kind of like being a gardener. You plant flowers, protect them and watch them grow until they blossom,” he says. “It’s amazing to watch how much these kids grow in four years—especially ag kids who often haven’t seen much.”
Peel has taken what he calls an out-of-the-box approach to bring students out of their comfort zones and show them that the world is much bigger than the town or state they grew up in. “It’s what happened to me and I want to share that experience with as many people as possible,” he says.
“One of the dimensions my international work has brought to my career is study-abroad trips with students,” he says. “I’m a very big believer in complementing what we do in the classroom with real-life experience.”
“There’s nothing more useless than a Ph.D. who thinks he has nothing else to learn.”
To put it simply, the last few years of cattle markets have been wild, from record prices to sudden crashes—sending the industry into uncharted waters.
“Ten to 15 years from now, we’re still going to be talking about what we’ve been through the last 24 months,” Peel says, when asked about the future of the cattle markets. “We can anticipate general trends, but we never know how it is going to play out. With the last few years being how they have, I’ve found myself extending charts back to the early ’60s and ’70s, because it is more similar to what we are going through now.”
When asked about his own future, he simply says, “I could think about retiring, but I wouldn’t have done it this long if I didn’t enjoy it so much. I still have a lot to learn and understand about the cattle industry to communicate it to producers—and there’s nothing more useless than a Ph.D. who thinks he has nothing else to learn.”