Big Catholic Families, Al Gore, Goats, and Labor Exploitation

When my wife and I got married she was always amazed at how few preferences I had.  She jokes that I would be happy sleeping in a field with a rock as a pillow. I credit that to growing up in a big Catholic family.  There was simply no time or money to deal with unimportant details and unneeded comforts.  Only the essential was required.   That kind of a mentality helps when you start a new company. There is simply no time to do anything other than the most important task that can get you to your goal quickly.  I’ve always had an instinctive ability to ascertain only the essential and focus on that.  There are a thousand tiny details crying for attention, only a few of those details are actually important.  The chaos of growing up in a big family is a perfect training ground for starting your own business.  Plus, it helps you learn how to handle strong personalities.

There is an old (apocryphal) tale of Al Gore claiming that he invented the internet. I always joke that I owe my livelihood to Al Gore’s invention, the “intertubes”. Like most apocryphal stories, it is partially true. Al Gore didn’t actually claim to have invented the internet, but he did claim (truthfully) that he was a major champion of commercializing the DARPA technology that would later become the internet. Fast forward to today and I own a meat business that does a significant portion of its sales online.  I owe it all to Al Gore and the infrastructure he was a major part of championing.

Until 2017, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, based at Iowa State University, was funded through a tax on anhydrous ammonia.  What’s anhydrous ammonia you might ask?  It’s manufactured fixable nitrogen and is a key ingredient to growing corn in Iowa.  I had the privilege of studying and getting my MBA and MS in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State between 2008 and 2010.  I had a graduate assistantship attached to the Leopold Center at that time.  That assistantship was paid for by the Leopold Center anhydrous ammonia tax.  That tax (and opportunity), created the time and space for me to develop better meat processing methodologies as part of my thesis project.  I still use those methodologies today.  

Probably the most formative experience I had was doing mission work in Haiti for two years.  I lived and worked for the Xaverian Brothers on the Central Plateau.  I benefited immensely from their charism to “be transformed by the ordinary flow of everyday life.”  A wonderful charism that still knocks me off my feet when I read it.  I was a young man when I had that experience and it really did change the trajectory of my life.  As an agricultural volunteer,  I figured out right away (with the help of some Haitians) that lack of resources required some smarter farming and better thinking than what I knew of US production agriculture.  It really opened my eyes on what was required to do a good job in production agriculture and figured out how much you could really do without.  It was an epiphany that maybe, just maybe, some of the conventional wisdom I’d learned was wrong.  I got a chance to work on irrigation projects, goat breeding projects, and nursery projects.  It was fun.  To this day we’re still breeding goats on the Central Plateau and we’ve helped a lot of peasants improve their quality of life.

Fast forward to today.  I’m running my own meat business full time and love the work.  My family and I have a great time living in Lansing and we are part of a group working on expanding our local bike trails.  We do a lot of bike riding as a family, even more now that this COVID thing is happening.  I’m dreaming of a world of vibrant businesses where instead of working in hierarchical, everyone has a chance to own the means of production.  For me, ownership has changed my life and not just because of the financial benefits.  The constant “fear of the boss”, verbal abuse, zero sum competition with co-workers for raises, the financial vulnerability (of getting laid off) is largely non-existent if you have ownership rights.  Sure, it’s not perfect, we have customers that are less than kind, and early on we didn’t get paid, but I feel like I have more agency today than ever before.  I want everyone to get a chance at some control over their own economic life.

Some of the most important work is upcoming.  For those of you who don’t know, the dirty secret in the meat processing industry is that this work is mainly done by people who don’t have legal documentation.  It creates an industry that is operated on the back of people without labor rights…or really any rights under US law.  With ICE running around, folks without documentation can be picked up randomly.  Even that free range, organic, and hot stone massaged chicken you bought at your local co-op was probably processed at some point by someone who does not have legal rights in the US and is under threat of deportation/family separation/etc…  This is the industry. So, if I were to dare to dream, I would dream about policy changes that give folks work visas, amnesty and a path to citizenship.  I would also dream of a world where meat industry laborers have full rights under the law and have a stake in the business.  It’s probably the key problem facing the industry right now, although it doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s radar.  In a concrete way in my business, I’m facing numerous conflicts on this issue, one is maintaining the cost structure of the business, which is constantly under threat.  Two, big chunks of the packing infrastructure in our country is dependent on this exploitation and there aren’t a lot of places to turn for raw material processing.  Even if I wanted to change tomorrow and accept a different margin, where would I go?  

I guess I qualify as an “Alternatives” guy in that I assume that immigration reform cannot happen.  So, for me, creating alternative shared ownership business systems, coupled with some technological advances seems like the only way forward.   Part of what I’m considering is developing my own slaughter and further processing systems as well as my own warehousing and fulfillment systems where we can control the labor conditions.  I have some technical ideas that could help push the processing systems faster (hot boning beef if you’re interested; I can talk for hours on this :)), with less inventory, and less hard work.  This could maintain margins even with higher labor costs, which will be necessary for any just labor equation.  However, I’m not really sure if this is the right way to go about this or if it is even necessary.   The readings, to me, reveal that I can get a bit of tunnel vision. I’m very focused on alternatives and driving better business performance (which has served me well as an entrepreneur), but this leaves me overlooking other viable ways to exact change.  I need to be more open to other ways of doing things.

Published by niklaus30

I'm an Iowa State grad with degrees in agribusiness, now living in Michigan. I like food science, grazing, and selling things, not necessarily in that order.

5 thoughts on “Big Catholic Families, Al Gore, Goats, and Labor Exploitation

  1. Thanks for the insight into the industry. I love hearing from good operators and you’re certainly one.

    How are you creating an ownership culture among your own staff? It seems that it’s more than being an owner in name only?

    The meat industry (from the outside) seems like a barbell – A few massive players on one side and lots of smaller players on the other with not much in the middle. Do you think that a shared ownership structure might be the key to driving towards scale? Is scale even the right goal?

    You mention a couple of potential “pressure points” in your piece (workers who seem vulnerable, customers who are unaware) when you describe the industry / system. Do you think “movement-like” approaches that appeal to those groups might have an impact? What have you learned from what’s been tried before by others who have posed alternatives?

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    1. Phil,

      Thanks for your comments. You’re spot on when you mention the barbell structure of the slaughter and breaking side of the industry. That’s a very accurate analogy. I would probably add that there are a lot of what I would call “further processors” who make the sausages, jerkies, etc. This part of the industry is a bit more diverse and the labor practices can vary. But we all get our raw material out of packers whose labor practices operate along the line I described above.

      As to your question regarding scale. I don’t actually think that scale needs to be pursued in the same way that the big players pursued it. Their systems developed under different conditions that are rapidly becoming obsolete. Some scale is needed, but the real need is flexibility to serve smaller market segments. I’m not sure what you mean about shared ownership being key to achieving scale. Can you unpack that a bit?

      It’s interesting that you bring up the movement approach. Last week, I can honestly say I didn’t even know what a movement approach was. I read the article from the prompt and thought “Hmmm, interesting, probably not viable.” and yesterday my business partner called me because some guy wanted to talk to us regarding his organization that was working on human trafficking and labor practices. And I was like, “Shit dude, we need help with this in our industry.” We chatted with him and he’s doing pretty interesting movement building type stuff. So, yeah, I think there might be something here. It’ll take some thinking to unpack.

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  2. Hot-stone massaged chicken would be a game-changer.

    You talked about immigrant labor rights today on our call and I can tell from this post its something you’ve thought a lot about. It seems like a complex issue thats inextricably linked to policy. Immigration policy seems impossible to change right now. What conditions would need to shift for your vision of work visas, amnesty, and a pathway to citizenship to be possible?

    To build on your response to Phil’s question about “movement-like approaches”, it seems like you are already well-connected in your industry and community. Which of your existing relationships could be helpful in addressing this labor issue? What new relationships with people, organizations and/or institutions might you need to build?

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  3. Good question on the vision. I’m not really sure. The local community action group I’m part of had a an interesting meeting with a potential state congresswoman regarding immigration issues for our primaries. It was eye opening meeting. We had a bunch of questions about state policies around immigration and the women had literally no idea what we were talking about. We said “Driver’s licenses for undocumented folks?” She said, “Can’t they get them already” Oof, maybe most folks just don’t have any idea what is going on. Seems big.

    Good question on which existing groups could help address the issue. I’m not sure. Part of the conflict is that if we push for better labor practices without the policy conditions (visas, amnesty, etc…) you end up hurting people already in the system. For example, if you could really staff the slaughter systems with folks with full labor rights, what would happen to the people there already if the federal policy wasn’t fixed. I think that the larger industry would have to want this to happen. So maybe the question is “What is the lever to get industry to “want” to do this?” Maybe part of the solution is the large and myriad group of further processors/distributors like me. If a chunk of those folks demanded a different kind of system feeding their raw material, then it would put pressure on the larger systems to change. You might create an incentive for them to push for the work visa type system that would at least be a good start. Just thinking out loud here.

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  4. Nick I love your insight into the meat processing industry–you’ve help set a context for the vignette I related about a friend’s boyfriend at JBL trying to dodge capture and deportation. I’d like to hear you explore more of your vertical integration ideas. I also want to know about other touchpoints in your industry that might be the common ground to build a coalition with others like yourself who want to see the systemic changes to help illegals gain much needed rights, protections and maybe even better medical care/insurance.

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