Back from 300 days on the road meeting ranchers all over the United States, Kevin Kester is excited about the future of agriculture. He’s the 2018 president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), and the young generation coming up in ranching has him hopeful.
“Everywhere I go, I’m seeing an influx of smart and savvy young people coming to events, engaged and participating. I’m really excited about the future of ranching and agriculture when I see the engagement of Millennials.”
From Cattle Ranching to Washington
The Kester family has ranched California’s Central Coast since 1867; Kevin and June’s grandkids mark the seventh generation on the land. Their three children Kayleen, Kody, and Kara help run operations.
Kevin never planned on a life in politics. But when his grandfather passed away, the government saw the loss as a taxable event. The family was slapped with a $2 million death tax and nearly had to sell Bear Valley Ranch to pay it. After confronting the grim realm of estate tax policy, Kevin realized how desperately ranching families need advocacy, and his life path changed.
He served on the NCBA Board of Directors since 2007, was president of the California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) for two years, served at the San Luis Obispo County Cattlemen’s Association. His family were the first to partner with the California Rangeland Trust in a start-to-finish ungifted pilot project, a test for how the organization’s conservation easements could benefit ranching interests in California.
Overregulation the Top Challenge Facing Ranchers
While he’s optimistic about the young generation and the capability of agriculture, Kevin admits there are challenges ahead.
“Regulatory compliance is the biggest challenge,” he says.
Overregulation is consolidating the industry and making it impossible for small producers to compete.
“The cost of compliance for regulatory issues, environmental issues, air and water quality, and the multitude of bureaucracies in charge of emissions from federal to state to regional to local levels—you add all those bureaucracies up and you’re left with a real pyramid of regulatory requirements that makes it tough to stay in business.”
Misinformation Hurts Ranchers & Consumers
Ill-advised regulations are the result of a general lack of understanding about agriculture. In his political career, Kevin is constantly confronted by misconceptions. For example, he says he hears misleading statistics from the infamous United Nations 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow almost weekly.
“It was a global report, and we were lumped into the global assessment. The report claimed livestock causes 18% of global emissions, but in the United States the Environmental Protection Agency has found beef production is responsible for just 1.9% of emissions.”
While the UN eventually retracted the report and corrected numbers to reflect the minimal emissions of U.S. livestock compared to other nations, the damage had been done.
“Everyone still uses the vastly incorrect numbers of the 2006 report. When those numbers are out on social media, the genie’s out of the bottle. It’s hard to correct.”
The Green New Deal introduced this year is another example of bad, misinformed policy.
“The congresswoman from New York is the epitome of our challenges in the future in that I don’t think she has animosity toward ag, but she doesn’t understand it,” Kevin says, referring to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
“Many people have no connection to anyone in production agriculture. They just know what they see in the grocery store and on social media. That’s a huge challenge for us. We have to educate our consumers globally and domestically on how we actually produce food. We have a good story to tell of sustainability and what we really do for the environment.”
Ranching Deserves Credit for Self-Advancing
U.S. beef producers have independently taken steps to reduce their footprint and improve efficiencies, but most consumers don’t know about this and ranchers don’t get any credit for it.
“Since 1971, we’ve produced more 33% beef tonnage in the U.S. with a smaller total cattle herd thanks to genetics, efficiencies, and new technology,” Kevin says.
Carbon sequestration is a positive aspect of grazing and therefore a natural byproduct of the beef industry. In fact, grazing is one of the few methods available to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
“I think that the impact of carbon sequestration is going to become more realized and understood by the general public and, more importantly, regulators. 80% of grazing land is not suitable for farming production. If cattle pasture was converted into crop production, imagine all the carbon that would be released into the world. Researchers are beginning to crunch the numbers and see how harmful that would be for environment.”
“The Data Tells a Great Story.”
This year, the Kester family hosted the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef at their Monterey County ranch. The group has 115 members, from cow-calf ranchers to representatives from major retailers like Walmart and McDonalds. Their goal is to collect and communicate definitive sustainability metrics for the beef and cattle sector.
Kevin says this research and outreach should have been done decades ago, but the industry is ready to make up for lost time.
“The data tells a great story. This a prime example of where we’re starting to engage in social media and public relations efforts where we should have been active 30 years ago. People want to team up with the industry to actually tell a good story of how raising cattle is good for the environment, the economy, and the world.”
More U.S. Beef Would Benefit the Planet
Kevin is an advocate of increasing U.S. beef exports. If American-raised beef is the most sustainable beef product in the world, he argues, exporting that product to global markets will help cut overall greenhouse gas emissions and solve nutrition inequality.
“Going into the future, our domestic demand will stay relatively stable, but our export market is growing pretty rapidly. That’s where our profit center lies for future generations. Not only can the U.S. produce protein much more sustainably than other areas of production, we also provide a good, safe, healthy product that consumers across the world want. This will keep ranchers in business, and it’s good news for the global environment.”
“A Food Producer’s Perspective Carries a Lot of Weight”
Kevin made it a point as NCBA president to remind America’s ranchers about the importance of their voice and leadership.
“A food producer’s perspective carries a lot of weight with elected officials and agency staff. I’ve seen it many, many times. When you take the time to show up in person or send a letter or make a phone call, it is really true that a single voice can make a difference.”
For many Americans, that perspective is needed more than ever. With a positive message and exciting new research to share, it’s time to bridge the divide and share what is happening on America’s ag lands.
“In a lot of people’s minds, we still wear the white hat. When we speak up—though we are small in number and we are fighting above our weight class—it makes a difference. Together, we can be very successful.”