Back before the turn of the last century, the nation's farmers got all worked up over the power of the railroads, their only ticket for moving large quantities of fruit, grain and livestock from rural areas to urban centers, where their customers lived.
As our Tim Hearden reported last week, there's another sort of "us vs. them" going on in the 21st century beef industry.
You have to sympathize with Kevin Borror, the second generation of his family to run the Tehama Angus Ranch in Gerber, an upper Sacramento Valley community. Borror's customers are cattlemen who want proven Angus cattle. Theirs is a common interest -- genetics and performance -- not the finger-pointing of industry politics.
"I get so tired of politics on any level, and the older I get the worse I get as far as just ignoring it," he told Hearden.
The beef industry is set up for "us vs. them" mind sets. There are over 900,000 cattle producers in the country, most of them in the business of raising calves for sale. Then there are margin operators, who get a percentage of the price, regardless of whether the cost of calves is up or down. Both cattle feeders and meat packers are targets of complaints -- sometimes justified.
Everyone complains about the bankers, who call the shots when the line of credit is maxed out.
On top of all that, it takes the grocer and food service operator to retail the beef to consumers. And there's the government, which regulates the industry in many ways, and cuts foreign trade deals that may open the domestic industry to tough competition from imported beef or foreign-born cattle.
The common thread for cattlemen is the national Beef Checkoff, which all beef producers pay, including dairy cattle owners and importers. Since the mid-1990s, when the cattle industry got together in San Antonio and formed National Cattlemen's Beef Association, there's been an effort to represent beef producers in a coordinated way to sell more beef to consumers and help the various segments of the industry remain profitable.
Two newer players are R-CALF USA -- the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America -- born as a legal fund to challenge live cattle import regulations, and U.S. Cattlemen's Association, producers unhappy with R-CALF's sometimes strident voice. Both have their roots in cow-calf operations.
In addition, during legal challenges to the Beef Checkoff, the Livestock Marketing Association, the auction yard trade association, became a major litigator challenging the way the checkoff was administered.
You can't ignore industry politics, as much as you'd like to. This is your livelihood if you are a cattle producer. Besides, there's room for different viewpoints, different approaches. There are voices that need to be heard, and balky government officials who need a nudge, sometimes from a federal judge.
But there's got to be a way to talk toward a common objective -- selling more beef to an ever-growing population at home and abroad.
Bad mouthing a sector of your industry won't put more beef on the table, nor will it raise the price of calves.
It shouldn't be "us vs. them."
It should be "Beef, it's what's for dinner."