It was just another wreck, and as always, at the same place: the spot where our little County road meets the State highway. The skid marks tell the story, as black lines on the pavement threading the needle between log trucks and morning commuters, leading to a still-smoking car mashed up against a barbed wire fence.
A neighbor stopped by as I was checking on the driver—no injuries, thankfully—, and rolled down his window: “Another one?” Yep. You see, it happens all the time.
A few years back I called the man down at the County and asked if they couldn’t do something to cut down on the frequency of accidents at that site, maybe add some rumble strips or a couple more warning signs. He told me no, they wouldn’t, for the simple reason that according to “The Manual”, the traffic controls already in place there should be perfectly adequate. After all, there was a STOP AHEAD and a STOP sign, and it was a simple intersection. I mentioned that it seemed fairly obvious that the controls, in fact, were not adequate, based on the number of wrecks that occurred there. I also suggested that if he needed evidence he could bring a flat-tipped shovel and a wheel barrow and scoop up the broken windshield glass and little bits of plastic that lined the ditch. Or, just tally up the stitches on the foreheads of the unlucky drivers who landed there.
The rest of the conversation didn’t go very well, and I was left wondering why. Aside from my snippy comments, the scenario was pretty straight-forward: wreck after wreck after wreck, and yet my friend at the County maintained that the traffic controls were working perfectly, or at least that they should be. The evidence was clear, but he simply could not or would not see that reality.
In the world of science the term “paradigm paralysis” refers to a situation in which a set of beliefs are so ingrained that they prevent someone from seeing facts in an objective way. I believe this is what happened to my friend at the County. His training and education and his absolute belief in “going by the book” made it impossible for him to consider that something might not be working out in the field. How sad, and discouraging too. Change will come hard at that intersection. The presence of dead bodies will likely be required.
I think our ranching industry suffers a bit from paradigm paralysis. This becomes strikingly clear when we are confronted with a changing world or a changing market, like…right now. Currently, there is a great discussion in our industry about the cattle market wreaking havoc on ranchers, and while I am feeling the volatility of the market just like everyone else, I’m afraid I reach a different conclusion: the ranching industry in America is suffering from a decades-long adherence to a whole set of ideas and philosophies that don’t work very well. In fact, some of these failing paradigms have been with us for 50 years, and many folks still have ultimate faith in them. This inability to look objectively at the evidence from the field likely means a long, slow wreck lies ahead for many producers. And it won’t be much fun.
Most of the Ag-Econ writers I follow suggest that the current market will likely continue to worsen for a while, then slowly re-build in the coming years. If your economic model is resulting in serious losses right now, it seems to me there are only two choices: continue to do the same thing while planning to lose money for a while, or change your program to adapt to the current reality of the marketplace.
A friend of mine who markets livestock for a living recently told me that he thought it was impossible for a rancher to profitably produce a calf in the current market. I had to agree with him about one thing: our neighbors who have 50 cows, a barn full of equipment and a hay pile big enough to feed those critters for 200 days per year will not be profitable. My idea would be that they need to do something different, very different.
Change is hard, really hard. The changes required to seek long-term profitability will be fundamental and will require tossing away some of the long-standing paradigms that our industry is saddled with, and some of those ideas are things we truly love. Change will also mean taking a long hard look at some of the advice we have been given over the past 50 years, the advice that has guided us down the road to this current wreck.
While I spend my winter evenings working on my grazing plan and scratching away at hopeful models for next year, I’ll keep my first-aid kit and my tow chain handy. One thing for sure: there’s always another wreck just down the road.