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A Well-Rounded Cattleman
Voogt, who lives on a farm a couple of miles outside of Marne, retired last year from his day job at Moore & Bruggink, the Grand Rapids civil engineering firm where he spent his entire professional career and ended up as the CEO.
But he noted ruefully that he hasn't exactly been hanging out in the coffee shop. That's because the other career Voogt has had for almost 40 years is going into high gear, since he was recently elected to serve as president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for 2009.
Beef is not small potatoes in American agriculture. Last year the retail value of beef in the U.S. was $74 billion, representing more than 28 billion pounds of beef, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The value of U.S. cattle on the hoof in 2006 was more than $35 billion. In January the USDA estimated there were 96.7 million head of cattle in the U.S. (compared to 13.9 million in Canada).
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association is the major trade association for beef producers in the U.S., with 35,000 members across the country, in every state. National headquarters are in Centennial, Colo., outside Denver, but the association also has a Chicago office and a staff in Washington, D.C., that represents the beef producers on Capitol Hill. The association currently is involved in 45 policy issues in Congress, Voogt said, ranging from global trade to energy to environmental issues. The association also spends about $55 million a year promoting and advertising the consumption of beef in the U.S.
Voogt grew up in Grand Rapids and attended Michigan Tech in Houghton, where he earned a degree in civil engineering and then returned to Grand Rapids to work for Moore and Bruggink. So, how did a civil engineer who sprang from a working class family on the city’s West Side end up heading the largest beef producers' association in North America?
Though he was born and raised in the city, Voogt's mother was brought up on a farm and his grandfather was a cattle dealer — "so it was in my DNA," he said.
Forty-one years ago, he and his wife, Shirley, bought a farm just west of Marne, which he described as "100 acres of brush and briars." They cleared the fallow farmland and after a year or two, he got three heifers and bred them to start a herd.
Soon he was spending so much time raising cattle — while also working at Moore & Bruggink — that some days, he said, "I'd change my clothes three or four times." He'd run home during the day, change into jeans and cowboy boots, take care of the cattle, change clothes again, go back to the office until the end of the day, then run home, change clothes, take care of the cattle, and then sometimes get back in a suit for a client meeting in the evening.
Eventually, he bought and rented more land, and today he farms about 300 acres. His primary business is raising Black Angus bulls — "seedstock" — for breeding cows throughout Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
Voogt Farms is definitely not a hobby farm. Its registered Angus herd of 100 is one of the largest seedstock operations of its type in Michigan.
For 35 years Voogt has been a member of the Michigan Cattlemen's Association, an affiliate of the national association. Early on, he volunteered to serve on boards and committees, and for many years was the state delegate to national meetings and events.
As a National Cattlemen's Beef Association officer, even including his upcoming presidency, Voogt is still an unpaid volunteer. He loves the time spent representing beef producers, but it is very demanding work.
"Last year the president was away from home 220 days," said Voogt, and he expects to be, too. Even now, as president-elect, he anticipates being on the road about 100 days or more this year. Last year he spent 68 nights away from home on association business.
While he conceded that the election of a professional civil engineer from Michigan to head the major American cattlemen's organization is "atypical," it's also clear that he fits in easily with blue collar farmers and ranchers from all over the U.S. During those years as a civil engineer, his white collar was hiding a red neck.
"I can listen to a symphony while watching NASCAR on television," he said with a laugh.
Like other agricultural industries, the beef business has cycles. Lately it's been good, but "there are challenges ahead," he said.
"Input cost" — the cost of corn for feed — "is just out of sight," and that cost is driven by energy problems.
The government's decision to subsidize ethanol production drove the price of corn from $2 a bushel to $6, and that pushed soybeans, wheat and other grains up, too. So a lot of farmers ploughed under their pasture land to plant corn and other grains, and that drop in hay production drove up the price of hay.
"We're burning food for fuel. Corn!" he said, shaking his head.
While the National Cattlemen's Beef Association supports corn raised for ethanol production to help reduce the U.S. reliance on foreign oil, "we don't think there should be a subsidy on ethanol. We're against any kind of subsidy or government interference with free markets," said Voogt.
The U.S. beef industry serves a world market. A setback to the beef industry was the discovery of one case of BSE, also known as mad cow disease, in an American cow on Dec. 23, 2003. Although it was the only case of BSE ever found in the U.S. and no beef consumer in America has ever been at risk, exports to two major foreign markets — Japan and South Korea — dropped to almost nothing due to the reactions of those governments. Now those markets are returning to normal, and better yet, China and other developing countries show promise of becoming strong new markets for U.S. beef.
"We have to be thinking globally in the cattle business. We can produce a whole lot more (beef) than we can consume here," said Voogt.