Travis Toews was elected president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association at the national lobby group’s annual meeting in late March. He and his wife and his parents run Melbern Holdings, a ranching operation in Beaverlodge, Alberta. The family runs 700 cows and 1,000 yearlings and backgrounds around 1,200 head a year. Travis has been on the CCA board since 2005 and was elected vice-president last year after cattle dealer Tony Saretsky resigned the position. He headed up the CCA’s foreign trade committee and worked on committees dealing with agriculture policy and regulation, value creation and competitiveness.
Canadian Cattlemen caught up with him last month shortly after he was elected.
Q. Has the CCA developed a strategy for 2010 and beyond?
A. An annual meeting creates an opportunity to review our policies on the various issues that the industry is facing and I think collectively our policies do form a strategy for moving forward. At times I think folks have probably misinterpreted what our strategy may be. To sum it up, we really believe that we have a responsibility to ensure that we have the most competitive market access for our producers, to ensure the most competitive business and regulatory environment in this country. And then let the private entrepreneurs of this industry capture all the opportunities available to them.
I hear government opinions occasionally that the industry doesn’t have a plan and that we should be, in a sense, centrally planning the events and structures and formats of the industry. My view is that there’s not one of us who is smart enough to do that. The market will do that if we ensure that the competitive variables in terms of market access and regulatory environment are right.
Entrepreneurs will follow market directions and move this industry forward. That might look different in different regions and different sectors. But I think that is the strategy that I would like to see preserved as we go forward.
That we continue to be a market-driven industry and that we defend those free market principles.
Q. If there was one thing you could accomplish in your term as president what would that be?
A. I would measure success by moving forward on the market access file to ensure that Canadian producers have competitive market access in all the regions of the world that are significant importers of beef. And we’ve got some work to do there. That would include our COOL challenge in the U.S. Not just the legal challenge, but the related advocacy work that we’ve been doing there.
And I wouldn’t leave it just at market access. Combined with that I would also measure success as being able to meaningfully deal with the various regulatory issues that we face in this country domestically that are impeding the growth of our industry.
Q. Do you think the recent announcement of money for packers to deal with specified risk material (SRM) is part of the solution for the regulatory difficulties?
A. It buys us a little time. We’re supportive of that budget announcement and in fact we pressed the federal government to help with the cost of SRM disposal while we get to a more permanent solution. The ideal solution that we see is regulatory harmonization with the U.S. But we know that that may be some time off.
I think we are seeing more interest in the packing industry and seeing it adopting technology that could to some degree reduce the cost of handling that SRM. The very short-term solution is to deal with the cost of disposal which this budget goes some distance to doing. The intermediate-term solution is seeing these packers and renderers introduce technologies where they can reduce the cost of handling them at least.
I think the ultimate long-term solution is regulatory harmonization with the U.S.
Q. Which is always difficult?
A. It really is. The reality is we have market access negotiations in play right now and even though the information we are privy to would show that the short list in terms of SRMs does not measurably increase eradication time of BSE, we know that to have that discussion in the middle of market access negotiations is difficult.
Q. Do you see any progress in market access negotiations now that Ottawa has a new federal trade secretariat?
A. We are optimistic. The reality is they’ve only been up and running for a short period of time. They’ve been getting some personnel in place. But they’ve been active on a number of files. Maybe not as much on the beef file and some others, but they’ve been getting at it.
We personally would like to see their mandate expanded to where they would be responsible for more of the market access negotiations that are on the go today.
Q. What does the CCA see then as the benefit to merging the Canada Beef Export Federation and the Beef Information Centre if market access is so crucial?
A. Our provincial members have really asked the question, are there efficiencies and effectiveness to be gained by looking at a merger of the two organizations. There were a couple of studies conducted, both of which showed benefits to merging. CCA has really just been the facilitator of the process.
At this point we have a resolution that is recommending to the provincial members to proceed with the merger based on a governance model that was presented at our annual meeting in Ottawa. I think the benefits of this new model will be that it would be somewhat more efficient in terms of less overlap in administrative function and cost but I think the biggest gains would be the fact that funding could flow to the area of greatest need and staff resources could move to the greatest opportunity very nimbly. So really long-term effectiveness is the real win when we looked at this. While the reports show there will be some savings it is probably the smaller part of the equation.
Q. Are we looking at a merger or some type of alliance?
A. It would be presumptuous of me to define what this is going to look like because the provincial members are considering our recommendation at this point. Ultimately they are the ones who will make this decision.
We are hopeful there will be a tight turnaround on this and then we can move forward.
Q. Do you expect to see a drop in revenues for CAA now that the Alberta checkoff is refundable? Will that change any of your plans?
A. It certainly has the potential to. We know that the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) is under some very tight budgetary constraints and really I think the uncertainty is as difficult and anything right now. It simply doesn’t know what is going to be requested back.
For the upcoming year the ABP has budgeted the full allocation for CCA. But we know there could be some budgetary challenges both with the refund-ability of the Alberta checkoff but also the declining cattle numbers in Canada. So we are looking at our upcoming budgets and trying to determine where we can trim.
CCA in my view has operated in a lean fashion historically and we know that any rollback will affect services to some degree but we’re trying to identify areas that we can trim and not reduce service significantly.
So much of the money we spend is on U.S. advocacy and defence of U.S. trade and that’s such a critical piece to our industry and that’s the challenge as we go forward. We’re in the middle of the COOL case now. We’re working with the government of Canada on ensuring that the evidence is sufficient to win this case. We’re working on the advocacy side of this equation and it is at a critical time right now.
Q. Does CCA still support national traceability?
A. We’re supportive of traceability. That was clear right back in 1998 when CCA was an advocate for individual animal ID. However, going forward we need to balance the movement toward full traceability with the economic realities. This industry can not bear any more regulatory burden.
We have developed a set of traceability principles that have been passed by all our directors from across the country and those principles really find that balance and I think are going to serve as guideposts as we go forward with traceability.
Q. Have you come up with an approach for dealing with the National Cattle Feeders’ Association and other groups that have grown up?
A. There is work to do there. We’re challenged in the cattle industry in that so many of the participants are independent folks. Consequently we sometimes don’t work well enough together. That being said, there is so much to be gained when we come together and speak with one voice, and so my hope and goal is that over the next year or two we can find some real unity and common ground and a real structure to work together in a constructive manner. And I think that goes for all facets of the cattle industry.
Q. Are you optimistic about the future?
A. I’ve been accused of being a perpetual optimist, almost to a fault. But, you know, as long as I’m continuing in this business I’m going to continue to be optimistic. The day that I become quite pessimistic about the future of the industry here in Canada is probably the day I’ll be getting out. So, absolutely, I remain an optimist. The factors that grew this industry in the ’80s and ’90s still exist today in a fundamental way. We have access to lots of acres of forage, a pristine environment, lots of water, lots of competitive feed grains, and a spirit of perseverance and independence in a lot of the people who make up this industry. Really, those are the ingredients for success.