Next Generation Looks Forward
When Sydni Lienemann was a little girl, she and her older siblings used to host their own bull sales. The events didn’t take place in the family’s Princeton, Neb., barn, but in their living room. The “bull” was actually their dog – appropriately named Angus. While no real money changed hands, Lienemann recalls the “sales” generated a lot of excitement.
“My oldest sister would always be the auctioneer, and my older brother would be the ring man, and then I was the showman,” she remembers. “We sold that Angus dog quite a few times. We always had a lot of interest in him,” she says with a smile.
Memories like these – centered around family, farming and livestock – are part and parcel of growing up on a ranch. They’re threads in the fabric of this way of life, and reflect the values and sense of community that spans generations and miles that unite the Angus community.
“You can’t beat the bonds you make on the farm,” says Elizabeth Forker. “I was raised on a sixth-generation family farm in eastern Nebraska, and that legacy is something that’s really important to me.”
Even while working toward her veterinary degree, Forker, the daughter of two cattle-feeding vets, plans to have a dual career as a rancher. “Ideally, I’ll be raising cattle 75% of the time, and practicing 25%. I just hope that the kids my husband and I raise someday will be as interested and invested in raising cattle as we are.
“Being raised in agriculture, I really wouldn’t want to have it any other way,” Forker continues. “From an early age, those values of hard work and determination were instilled in me, and I carry those with me today. I value the closeness I have with my family because we work with each other day in and day out to raise the best cattle we can.”
Farming today, they note, is not without its challenges.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand how much we care about our livestock,” Forker says. “I really want to be a liaison between consumers and the producers who are back at the ranch. I want them to remember that we do everything in our power to make sure our animals are cared for as best they can be.”
Open, proactive communication, and finding opportunities for consumers – most of whom are far removed from agriculture – to talk to ranchers, are keys to dispelling myths and ensuring the economic sustainability of farms.
“It has always been a blessing to be affiliated with the Certified Angus Beef ® brand, and to represent the farming community to people who don’t necessarily see the production side of things on a day-to-day basis,” says Lienemann. “It’s incredible to be a part of that kind of advocacy.”
With margins that are often thin, cattlemen and women rely on measures that help set them up for success. The higher premiums generated by cattle that qualify for the brand – true to the mission established when the brand was first conceived – help families and, in turn, rural communities. Working farms not only generate income, but also have a positive ripple effect on local economies.
“Rising land and equipment prices make it very difficult for young people like me to get into the business,” notes Forker. “It’s hard for these farms to be passed along to the next generation, and there’s a lot of financial planning that comes along with that. It speaks to the importance of raising quality cattle and having a quality product. Every time you sell a quality animal, you’re obviously making more per head.”
“We really need to continue putting an emphasis on quality in our practices, and looking for the most effective, efficient and sustainable ways to raise those animals,” Lienemann says. “We have a growing global population that is currently 7.2 billion, and expected to be 9 billion in the next 30 years. That presents a huge challenge in feeding that growing world. Demand for high-quality protein is going to need to be something we continue putting that emphasis on.”
Forker says farmers and ranchers must keep looking ahead to position themselves for continued success and relevance.
“Fifteen years from now, how can we be planning for where the market’s going to go, and what consumers are going to want? We need to be planning for those genetics in our herds now,” she explains.
The farmers rely on their counterparts across the chain – in processing, sales and marketing – to stay focused on the future alongside them. For these businesses, supporting the next generation of farmers is an extension of their commitment to their communities, and the beef community in particular.
One example is Meijer, based in Michigan with stores in six states. For years, local store directors have supported their county fairs’ livestock auctions, while the corporate leadership is active at the Ohio and Wisconsin state fairs, and the Michigan Livestock Expo.
“We get there early, and we talk to the kids,” says Dave Neitzel, Meijer’s meat buyer. “Then we make sure we’re supporting them at the auction.”
“We make sure we’re there at the beginning, and we’ve developed a reputation that we want to buy the last animal – because it’s not just about the grand champions. It’s about every animal that makes it to the sale,” he explains.
“These are the kids that we’re going to need in the industry 10 or 15 years from now,” says Neitzel. “If you go out on the street right now and ask somebody what they want to do, most of them aren’t going to say they want to be a butcher or they want to be a farmer. So it’s important that we make sure these kids know that we appreciate what they’re doing. They are the future of our business. Without them, we don’t eat. Without them, a lot of the world doesn’t eat.”
“It’s probably the best couple days of my year. I love what I do, but giving back is probably the best part,” he says.
Forker reflects that perspective, grateful for those who appreciate farming families’ commitment and passion.
“I’ve had the chance to experience a lot of things through college. I’ve traveled across the country and had some amazing experiences,” she notes. “But every time I leave the farm, I’m always so excited to come home. I can’t wait to get back to my livestock. That’s something you can’t teach anyone – you just have to be born with it. I’m so thankful and excited that I have been.”
FUNDS SUPPORT YOUNG LEADERS
Since 1999, 76 young beef community leaders have benefited from the Colvin Scholarship Fund, named for the Certified Angus Beef ® brand’s first president, Mick Colvin, and supported by brand partners through an annual golf tournament and auction.
By helping fund their education, donors directly support the next generation at the farm. It’s an endeavor that inspires brand partners like Oxford Trading Co., which became the brand’s first distributor in 1979 – selling this new branded beef to restaurants and grocery stores at a time when no such thing had existed.
Charlie Robinson had led the company the entire time, becoming one of the brand’s most stalwart champions. So when he made the decision to hang up his butcher’s apron in retirement in 2018, he wanted to say goodbye in the most fitting way possible.
With his cohort and current Oxford Vice President Ron Rurak, Robinson commissioned two hand-crafted meat cleavers – one as an auction item for the Colvin Scholarship Fund, and one to be on permanent display at the Certified Angus Beef ® brand headquarters in Wooster, Ohio.
“We consider them pieces of industrialized art,” says Rurak. “The inspiration came from an old carcass splitter I have that dates back to the 18th century. It took a tough person to handle one of those. These are probably the only ones of this size and quality in the country.”
Zack Jonas, a master blacksmith whose work has been displayed in the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art, forged the blade. John K. Pease, a master engraver for Smith & Wesson and Colt Firearms, added the engraving. Even the case has a story. Built by designer Kurt Piper, whose work has been on display in art galleries between New York and Boston, it’s made from the same white oak zebra pattern as the cleaver handle.
Purchased by S Foods Inc. of Japan, the one-of-a-kind piece not only funded grants for future leaders, but added links to the chain that binds the brand community together across roles, continents and generations.
“There aren’t enough words to accurately convey the gratitude we feel toward Charlie, Ron and Oxford Trading,” says John Stika, President of the Certified Angus Beef ® brand. “Not just for these beautiful works of art, but for the partnership that has spanned the breadth of our existence. When we look at where the brand is today, we owe a lot of that to people like Charlie and Ron, who were willing to take a leap of faith on something that had never been done.”
Grateful, too, are those who are selected for the grants, like Forker.
“The scholarship is such a blessing,” she says. “That support ensures young people like me have the opportunity to continue their education.”
The support goes even deeper, she recognizes. Without partners’ efforts to market and sell the Certified Angus Beef ® brand, and driving demand for premium Angus beef, it could not fulfill its central mission of helping sustain Angus farming families.