Dee Likes has been hanging around the cattle business for well over 40 years. An acknowledged senior statesman, he's been a force with the Kansas Livestock Association for 38 years and their CEO since 1984, doing good deeds and getting the right things done until his retirement last month. I talked with him just before he jumped in his car and headed out for a long-overdue holiday vacation.
"KLA has been my top priority 24/7 since 1974," he said, "and it won't be easy to step aside. It will seem strange to let it go."
Not that he's really letting go permanently. He will serve as Chief Executive Emeritus, maintaining an office in the Association's Topeka headquarters. It's a position he described as "staying out of the way and giving advice only when asked." He will still be charged with directing special projects and initiatives on a national level.
KLA President Jeff Sternberger, a cattle feeder from Garden City, said, "Dee has spent an entire career protecting the interests of Kansas livestock producers. His passion, energy and foresight have served several generations of KLA members well."
During that long career, Likes was a major force in freeing Kansas cattlemen from a list of tax burdens. He helped adopt a unique use-value appraisal for calculating property taxes on agricultural property, and was responsible for removing sales tax from farm machinery, replacement parts and labor free from sales tax. He also managed to get farm machinery and livestock removed from property tax rolls.
With his decades on the front lines of the cattle industry, it seemed like a good idea to ask him about what he's seen and heard before he officially stepped aside and 'stayed out of the way.' Here's the exit interview:
Q. Dee, you've been around so long that most Kansas cattlemen and women don't know any other leader. Who's stepping up?
A. Matt Teagarden will be the new Chief Executive Officer. He's been with KLA and was my right hand man for several years. He came to us from the NCBA and we're lucky to have him. I know he'll have a long and successful term working with some of the great people I've been privileged to know in Kansas and across the country.
Q. Tell me about the condition of the association. What will Matt inherit?
A. We're the largest state association in terms of numbers and finances. We're strong financially and we've been on a nice growth trajectory for a long time. KLA has been around for 120 years. We needed to be a rock, to help define this business and we've been grateful for the support of everyone in the cattle business including grass-fed and dairy. We're much stronger now than we were 'back in the day.' We can all get together, discuss the issues and decide on a course of action.
It's been a wonderful career and I was lucky I didn't have to start working with an organization that wasn't already healthy. We just took over a strong association and helped it grow. It's a much more complicated business, now, and new demands must be managed.
Q. You've managed to guide KLA through so many industry crises during your service as CEO. What are the problems the industry has solved and what should be aware of in the coming decade?
A. First, the merger that created NCBA was one of the top things I worked on during my career. It created an organization that gave us stronger representation in Washington and a more unified voice around the country. It's the organization that helped us weather the crises we were challenged with. BSE, for instance - the NCBA saved us billions when it actively shared the facts about it.
Things are happening at a much faster pace, now. We have to understand the challenges we will be facing and respond to them in a positive way. We have to continue to operate profitably and keep the industry in good order so it can be passed along to the next generation.
We need to be conscious of the growth of government and the tendency of government regulations to proliferate. It's mind-boggling; the worst I've seen in my 34 years. We need to understand the impact of those government actions on our business.
There are radical animal welfare and animal rights groups like HSUS with anti-meat agendas that use proxies to support their cause. They are a real challenge on the national level and we have to develop a stronger response to their actions.
The tax codes are constantly changing, we have to have more predictability. Let's hope the dysfunctional Congress can do something about it.
I'll include sustainability, too, even though it has become an almost fad word. Even though the industry is sustainable, we have to participate in the public debate about it for at least the next ten to twenty years. The NCBA is working on the facts and giving them to consumers and the retail industry.
Q. The checkoff has been a major news item lately. Where does it fit in your list?
A. The beef checkoff has done a great job for us but it's underfunded. We need to work hard to increase their funding, to help them keep a strong and relevant public voice. It has always met or exceeded our expectations but we need to do more going forward. We need to do more research and messaging.
(About Vilsack's threat to create a second check off) It was created by a mean-spirited, small group of people. Most of us knew the current checkoff was underfunded and wanted to increase it. I think it will come to pass but it might take a few more years.
Those groups who pushed for a second checkoff? I don't think they were really angry with it, they had policy differences with the NCBA and they were trying to use this issue as a tool. It was friendly fire and it wasted a tremendous amount of resources.
Q. How about two current hot button issues: antibiotics and animal abuse?
A. There are so many threats the cattle industry faces today. The worst is a general lack of understanding about agriculture that we find all through the population. There are so many groups actively spreading misinformation, we have to get better at explaining the facts to Washington and the general public.
Those two issues are overblown. There's not much substance to the claim that animal antibiotics are a problem; it's the overuse of human antibiotics. As for animal abuse, it is infinitesimally small. It's an ill-founded concern.
Q. Over the years you've headed up the KLA, you've witnessed a lot of victories and a few defeats for the industry...
A. Nothing is ever solved in a permanent way; the question becomes just how long of an interval passes before an issue is recycled? When we're faced with a challenge, how do we defend our territory or reverse our defeat? Someone once told me that no defeat is permanent yet all victories are temporary. Milton Friedman said, "It's not what people know that's dangerous; it's what they know that ain't so." We have to make sure that what the public knows about our industry is based on facts.