Too bad his last name isn’t Smith so I could call this interview “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Frank Capra's classic film that established James Stewart as a leading actor half a century ago. Harper and ‘Mr. Smith’ both went to Washington to speak plainly and tell it like it is. Smith had a much tougher time than Harper, though, who left town afterwards and returned to his farm in Sedgwick, Kansas,
Harper is president-elect for the Kansas Livestock Association and a member of the Board of Directors for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association testified during a hearing on the state of the livestock industry hosted by the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Forestry. His words left no doubt that KLA and NCBA members oppose “attempts to narrow the business options or limit the individual freedom of livestock producers to innovate in the management and marketing of their production.”
In plain talk, it was “Just say no to GIPSA.”
He’s a rancher with backgrounding facilities, and he grazes cattle on crop residue just north of Wichita. He and his wife, Mary, lease the majority of their grass from her family in Butler County which means they run a small family farm. Completing the family are two daughters, Annie and Cora.
What he was asking for in Washington was the right to raise and sell cattle as he pleased, taking the risks and reaping the rewards for hard work. He sees his cattle business as his own business to run the best way he can – contracting with whoever he wants and carrying through on his obligations. He politely asked Washington’s power brokers to stay the hell out.
Mr. Smith would have been proud. Here is five minutes with Mr. Harper.
Q. Frank, you were in Washington, D.C recently to discuss GIPSA and to testify in front of the agricultural, nutritional and forestry committee. How did you become a part of the event?
A. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the ranking member of the committee, asked the Kansas Livestock Association (KLA) to participate in the hearing. As President-Elect of KLA, I was honored to represent our members by testifying at the hearing.
Q. You had the opportunity to deliver prepared comments (click here to view video). What do you consider to be the highlight of your statement?
A. I believe it was communicating to the committee that the long-standing belief of the beef industry is the same today as it has been in the past – government should not restrict cattle producers’ abilities to market their cattle as they see fit. Regulating the beef industry as the proposed GIPSA rule attempts to, will do nothing but set the industry back to the days when all fed cattle were purchased for the same price, without consideration for differences in quality.
I was able to testify how the rule would affect me personally, specifically by putting at risk the value-added options I currently have to market my retained ownership calves through the feeding phase.
Q. An important part of any testimony is what happens afterwards. Do you think your comments were accepted by a friendly audience?
A. I do. It was clear Sens. Roberts and Mike Johanns of Nebraska both have serious concerns with the GIPSA rule. KLA members greatly appreciate their support. Even though there were some present with a different perspective on the rule, I felt everyone had the opportunity to state their case.
After the hearing, I had an opportunity to visit briefly with one of the panelists who felt differently. I think it is fair to say we agreed to disagree regarding marketing issues. All panelists seemed to favor the continued federal support of conservation based programs like EQIP, as well as research funding in the area of animal diseases.
Q. Funding for the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) proposed rule seems on shaky grounds. A lot of news out of Washington seems to hint that there will be no money in the till. Were you able to learn anything about the rule and its future?
A. As you well know, trying to predict what is going to come out of Washington, D.C., is a dangerous thing. Although GIPSA Administrator Dudley Butler has given USDA Economist Joe Glauber the direction to prepare an economic analysis of the rule, Butler has been unwilling to commit to allowing an additional comment period following the economic analysis. One way for members of Congress to hold GIPSA accountable is by restricting funding. We appreciate the steps taken by the U.S. House and look forward to the U.S. Senate taking similar action.
Q. COOL seems to be an ongoing issue. Will it go forward as many think? If it does, what will be its impact on trade?
A. NCBA and KLA were supportive of voluntary COOL based on the same principles as our approach to the GIPSA rule – let the marketplace dictate what is important and what it is willing to pay for, not the government mandating programs that do nothing but add expense and take away from the producer’s bottom line.
The major problem with mCOOL now is that Mexico and Canada, our numbers 1 and 2 markets for exported beef, respectively, have filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization. All indications are they will get a favorable ruling. I asked the committee to resolve the labeling issue so we can avoid costly retaliatory action, potentially against U.S. beef, from our key trading partners.
Q. The real bull in a china shop issue, of course, is the 2012 Farm Bill. Politically speaking, it looks like everything will be in play; no sacred cows to make a bad pun. As the heart of the debate is just beginning, what’s the feeling you got about it in Washington and where does KLA stand on the subject?
A. The discussion is just starting on the next Farm Bill. Considering the snail’s pace at which things seem to be moving in D.C., substantial movement on the Farm Bill is probably a few months away. As far as KLA’s position, it remains consistent with the testimony I gave – avoid government overreach into our businesses. Increased rules and regulations do nothing but put U.S. producers at a disadvantage and ultimately place the strongest agricultural nation in the world at risk of becoming a net food importer. We certainly don’t want to be at the mercy of other countries for our food supply. That threatens our financial standing and national security.
Chuck Jolley is a free lance writer, based in Kansas City, who covers a wide range of ag industry topics for Vance Publishing.