Shift Age

I recently read a book titled Entering the Shift Age by David Houle. It really got me thinking about the shift age as it pertains to the livestock industry.

What I took away from this book was that we have gone from agricultural revolution to industrial revolution to technology revolution and we are now in a time when the combination of all three of these revolutions is causing us to create a shift age to a new way of life which we are just beginning to realize. Some are embracing this shift, some are fighting it.

One thing I am  certain of is that there will be change and I have a feeling some of these changes may be unlike any we have seen ever before.

I have been watching how people deal with change for a long time. It is very difficult to change habits or traditions even though we know it is the best thing to do.

The first time I met Temple Grandin she told me about a new knife handle developed to be ergonomically correct. They presented these proven better knives to all the employees in a slaughter plant. If the worker had only been on the job for a short time, they used the knife and productivity went up; injury and fatigue went down. However, the worker that had been on the job for long enough to get comfortable in the habit of using the traditional square handled knife (even though they were told the new design was better) soon went back to what they were used to.

Several years ago, I discovered what was then called “intensive grazing.” As a young man wanting to get into the business of ranching, but having no money and no land I really felt this was the way to be able to make it work. I figured anyone that learned about it would be jumping on the band wagon. I was raised on a small place with lots of small pastures so we were already sort of doing this, I just did not recognize it. I was real exited about this grazing style but when I would talk to experienced ranchers that grazed traditionally they would have lots of reasons why they did what they did, and why what I was talking about would not work.

I read Holistic Resource Management by Allan Savory and subscribed to The Stockman Grass Farmer magazine that at the time was all about grazing and livestock management on pasture. One of the real big game changers in my ranch philosophies was going to “Ranching For Profit” with Stan Parsons and Dave Pratt. The reason I think all these things were real easy for me to want to do, is because my grandfather was already doing most of what I was learning about, I just did not yet have the ability to see it clearly.

Most of the folks subscribing to the new teachings (of old methods) were new into the business, or were being forced to change from either from financial reasons or personal reasons, like the wife being tired of being broke (that’s very personal, not financial).

My point in all this is it very hard to change our habits and traditions. It may be caused by pride, a psychological reason, or even seem to be a financial issue. Whatever the reason, if you have been doing things a certain way for any lengthy amount of time it is almost impossible to change too much too quick.

Now lets look at the public and what they want and believe …

The big shift in the world may seem to be technology. I think that technology certainly has shifted the world. We now have ideas or images that go viral. What I say in this moment can offend or please someone on another continent in a moment. Just ten years ago this was not possible.

Every moment people are being influenced by others. It is easy to get information on anything, anytime. The challenge is making sure it’s fact and much of the emotion is lost without physical contact.

As the general public gets farther and farther away from physically being involved with agriculture, the more they feel the need to control and influence the decisions being made.
It feels good to stand up for what you think is right, and it is easy to become so passionate about the cause. I just wish folks would make sure all the info they get is fact and are willing to put forth effort and sacrifices to help the cause that fuels the passion.

We had some folks over to supper several years ago. The husband was real interested in horses and had moved from California to Montana. His wife did not share his passion for horses and in conversation told me she was an “environmentalist.”

We were invited to dinner at their home about a year later. I reminded her of our conversation about her being an environmentalist, and asked her what she had done to improve the environment in the last year. She told me she had been very busy and did not actually do anything, but did give some money to a group. She did not even think to ask me what I had done, so I told her about all the grazing projects I had going, how I was actually encouraging the beavers to build dams to help with my sub irrigation, and let her know that most ranchers work with Mother Nature instead of against her.

She told me she was embarrassed by the fact that she just assumed all ranchers were bad for the environment, and that she had not really done anything to help what she believed. Hopefully, she had a shift in her thinking.

The shift we have seen in the consumer in the last ten years has been from thinking food came from the supermarket to wanting to know why, when, what and especially how the food they are eating is raised.

These are the shifts I am seeing.

Demographics are a big influencer. The baby boomers are a huge part of our population. We have lived hard, spent hard, had a lifestyle that did not always have health at the front of the priorities. Now we are playing catch up on the health scene and are very concerned about what and how we eat. The millennial group are much more into health and are very willing to spend more on food and sacrifice other wants for a healthy meaningful lifestyle. We still have plenty of folks that don’t really even think about how they eat and this brings on the next shift I am seeing.

Obesity is now a large problem. Changing the way we eat is going to be the next big push.
Look at what has happened over the past 15 years in the tobacco industry. We will see similar changes in laws and trends in the food industry in the near future, whether we like it or not. I am not comparing food with tobacco, but looking at the facts of a changing world and as we become less involved with the actual process of creating food, it creates the desire to become more influential in the regulation of the production of food.

Then there is the power of social media. People have a need to be heard and want others to share the same thoughts and philosophy as they do. As technology leads us to quicker and easier communication on a global basis, trends will happen much faster and become more widespread than ever before.

I have learned the hard way to not “know” what will happen in the future. From my observations, successful enterprises in any business must create a desire for a product, or produce a product for an existing desire. Maintaining and increasing this desire is the challenge. As you create desire you also create competition, and animosity to the product from those who don’t desire the product. Just think of the tobacco industry.

For me in the world I live in, I get to see many different types of people and have the opportunity to observe very different lifestyles from my own. I feel I have trained myself to see things from others point of view and try to see things in a way that is factual, not just the way I want it to be.

So here are things I see coming with what I call “the foodies” …

  • Humane animal treatment becoming more important
  • Environmentally friendly foods
  • Less processed foods
  • More natural type foods
  • A shift away from certified organic to local
  • Seasonal eating
  • More grass-fed
  • More small livestock operations
  • More home gardens
  • Food being a social uniter
  • Choosing products based on the way it was raised
  • Spending more for feel-good food
  • Less trust in science based research

I am not judging if this is bad or good, just pointing out what I think is happening.

My problem is I don’t know for fact how big and how strong the foodie movement is. In the circles I travel in I feel it is very strong and gaining momentum, but it may be my circle is not the big picture.

Many of the desires of the foodies listed above are very difficult for agriculture on a large scale to meet. This is a real problem that we need to address from an honest, factual point of view. In my opinion the future will see more and more small operations, especially in the pork and poultry side.

For those of us in the grazing animal side, we will see some growth in small operations that finish animals on the farm or ranch with somewhat of a custom finish. If you are willing to meet the needs of the customer, and if they can afford it, there will be great opportunity for smaller outfits to do well.

I am nervous about the future of large scale finishing operations. With the rising costs to manage, more regulations, the uncertainty of weather patterns, and the huge numbers it takes both monetarily and in animals, as well as challenges with the labor force, it is more challenging than ever before to make it work. When competition for commodities from the fuel industry, as well as foreign markets are all added in the risk is even higher.

The latest technology I have been reading about is 3D printing and I believe it will have a big impact in the future. I also have visions of our implants going from a consumer fear to a confidence builder by implanting healthy omega 3 s, vitamins and minerals and health promoting properties into our animals.

The use of drones to monitor health of livestock, check fence and water on ranches and maybe even help to manage livestock on the range to better use and create sustainable environments.

Farming has benefited so much from technology, I don’t see why livestock production can’t do the same. The thing we should be very careful of is spending to much money on infrastructure until we know what direction we are headed.

Nothing is certain, but I would be willing to bet quite a bit on the fact that the consumer of the future is going to become more informed about the products they consume, and will only purchase foods that meet that criteria.

Food safety, nutrition content, animal welfare, sustainability, and environmentally friendly are going to become more and more important to the consumer in the future. Are you going to love or hate these phrases?

In the future of my blog rants I am going to focus on two things that I am passionate about, animal husbandry and stewardship of our resources.

~ Curt Pate

5 thoughts on “Shift Age

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  2. Cary Schwarz

    This blog has made it to my bookmarks Curt. Thoughtful observations I must say. I attended a Bud Williams clinic in the mid-nineties and I think often of the things I learned there even though I am no longer in the livestock biz.

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