Author Q&A: American History, as Told through Beef

The beef industry literally and figuratively reshaped the American landscape. A new book explores the evolution of the cattle business, from the displacement of American Indians, the rise of ranchers, the ascendancy of meatpackers, and its indelible mark on American industrialization.

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“The cattle-beef complex was the product of thousands of small debates, struggles, and fights over keeping one’s job, protecting a home, or making a dollar,” writes Joshua Specht in the introduction to his book, Red Meat Republic: A Hoof-to-Table History of How Beef Changed America.

“Ultimately, these were contests over what our food system should look like and how our society should be organized. Low prices and sanitary meat at the expense of all else won out. It was a system predicated on land dispossession, low wages, animal abuse, rancher impoverishment, and environmental degradation.”

Joshua Specht

Specht’s book explores the historical development of the cattle and beef industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It covers the occupation of Western lands by European-American cattle producers, the dislocation of Native Americans, ecological change and the rise of the beef industry during America’s Industrial Revolution.

Specht is an American historian who teaches at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. The Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates interviewed Specht to examine the historical roots of one of rural America’s biggest industries. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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Oates: Tell me about your interest in the history of the beef industry. Why did you choose to write about the history of American agriculture, and beef in particular?

Specht: As an historian, I knew that books take a really long time to write, so I think it’s important to choose a topic that you’re curious about, that you’re passionate about. I was interested in food topics in general, with something specific that connects us to our choices that lead to economic trends and good stories. I find that food, especially in the 19th and 20th century, is the amazing link between land and environment and capitalism and business. It’s also about how communities, both rural and urban are impacted by land use and capitalism. I’m an American historian, and this is a very American story.

Oates: How do those linkages, between land use and economic development, play out during the period you write about in the book? How did cattle get to be such a large part of the rural economy of the Plains and West?

Specht: When I look at the history of the development and colonization of Western lands, the dispossession of Native Americans and their lands, cattle are a big part of that story. I think that cattle are best described both as a tool of conquest and a justification for conquest. The cattle provide a way for white settlers to occupy large swaths of land, and they also provide a justification for thinking that the rancher is putting the land to a higher economic purpose, say, than Native Americans who were hunting. There’s obviously some irony there, to displace a people who are riding around on horses hunting bison, and then later building a cattle production system based on people riding around on horses and herding cattle. The foundation of this whole production system is herbivores eating grass, but the culture and economy that surrounds the production system certainly changed with Europeans and cattle. And certainly, the justification for people and animals is radically different.

That justification is important. Yes, in some ways, that change was about greed, about economic benefits to certain people, but the people doing the work of conquest have to rationalize their actions for themselves. I think the fact that they were putting the land to a higher and best use was the justification they found.

Oates: Once the European settlers had established the cattle herds, they needed a market to sell the animals. American cities in the East and Upper Midwest were growing. How did urbanization impact the growth of the rural West?

Specht: There have been some books in the past written that really emphasize the role of Chicago and linkages with the flow of cattle from rural areas. That’s really true, but what I found was this leaves out the regional growth of other regional cities that grew because they linked up with Chicago as key nodes in a network of the developing market economy. Cities like Kansas City and Omaha and Minneapolis.

One of the things that people write about, and it drives me a little bit crazy, is that the assembly line magically increases efficiency. What it does is, in some ways, is makes it easier to exploit the laborers.

This really matters for how ranchers are going to conduct their business, how and where they choose to sell their cattle. You might get bids for selling animals in Kansas City or Chicago, and you would have to think about how to move your animals, which is very expensive. The meatpackers, of course, have operations in both cities and there’s a lot of collusion going on at the time between meatpackers, so there is a major power imbalance between the packers and ranchers.

Oates: A lot of ranchers have the same complaints today. They feel squeezed by the meatpackers and are calling for rules and transparency in markets to dismantle perceived collusion and corruption in the cattle markets.

Specht: I like to think of it this way. It’s a global market for buyers but not for sellers in today’s beef industry. In the 19th century, it was a national market for buyers but not for sellers. This has to do with the physicality of cattle. They’re big animals and are highly shippable, but you can’t move them around as quickly as a telegram that reports the price difference between stockyards in the various markets. The meatpackers want the rancher to have limited options. That’s how the packers can control the price they are paying for animals, and that continues through today.

A cowboy camp circa 1938. (Photo source: National Park Service)

Oates: Is there direct evidence in the book for how meatpackers took advantage of ranchers?

Specht: There is a lot of evidence for how the meatpackers acted to control prices, but there isn’t necessarily smoking gun for collusion. There is clear evidence for predatory pricing, and they do have a plan to take over the meat market. They would, for instance, send threats to wholesale butchers throughout the country saying to “sign up with us or we’ll drive you bankrupt.” So they did have a master plan, but I don’t think they necessarily saw that it was all going to work out as well as it did for them.

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As an example, it was obviously important for fresh beef moving to market is the refrigerated railcar, which came out in the 1870s and 1880s. Now the meatpackers didn’t want to have to build these themselves. It was only because the railroads were invested in the shipping of live cattle that they told the meatpackers they would have to capitalize the refrigerated railcars. Well, the meatpackers didn’t realize that owning these cars would be so good for their business, because they ended up owning all of the rolling stock. Yet, by the end the story owning the refrigerated shipping becomes one of the most important sources of strength and market power for the meatpackers. One reason for that is the rise of the fresh fruit industry. By nature of their refrigerated shipping routes, the meatpackers ended up controlling the distribution of fresh fruit as well. So this is how and why the beef industry was able to shape so much of American agriculture, as they were the first big companies to control food processing and distribution.

Oates: Again, this is similar to what I hear from a lot of ranchers today. They feel like the big beefpacking companies control the markets for beef, along with operating feedlots.

Specht: The history of how they established this control is probably relevant through today. The meatpackers, in my story, thought that if you actually own the physical animals, the cattle themselves, you’re at a disadvantage. The meatpackers also decided to collude, to not bid against one another. They decided it’s easier to just fleece the ranchers rather than compete with each other. That’s their insight.

In the 1880s, there was an initial move toward ranching, big corporate ranching with herds of a hundred thousand or more. For numerous reasons, that whole model started to fall apart and those large operations started to sell their animals off at one time. That happened at the very same time as the meatpackers started to become some of the biggest companies in America.

Those companies also started colluding, or refusing to bid against each other in cattle markets. The whole industry is based around selling animals in public auctions, but that system falls apart when the buyers decide not to competitively bid against each other. Philip Armour, the head of Armour Packing, gets called before Congress in 1889 and he gets asked directly about this. He replies that there is no collusion, that the meatpackers are competing with each other “like flints making sparks.” Nobody believes it.

Oates: Did ranchers organize to fix these problems?

Specht: The ranchers, at the time, are kind of in a hard place with this situation. They want Congressional action, regulation of the market. But they are also very dependent upon the meatpackers because they won’t have any business without them. The ranchers are really caught in an impossible bind—being exploited by the meatpackers but also being dependent upon them.

Now, a lot of those ranchers might be quite large and powerful in their own right. But even the largest rancher was nothing compared to the scale and deep pockets of the meatpackers. Ranchers do organize to fight back against this. They have a lot of local meetings and a national convention of stockgrowers. They basically go to Washington, D.C., and demand action. They become agitators in some of the first big antitrust investigations into meatpacking.

But the meatpackers come up with a very good argument. They claim to be on the side of the general public. Low prices for consumers drives everything. They say that ranchers might feel like they’re getting fleeced, but that if the government intervenes consumers will be hurt. That pretty much carries the debate. Now, there are eventually some antitrust and fair market reforms and ruling in the 20th Century, but it’s really too little, too late. The collusion and price discrimination had been going on for too long and the damage was done.

Workers Packing Chipped Beef in 1910.  (Photo source: National Archives, Food Exhibit, What’s Cooking)

Oates: What about the meatpacking and processing side of the story? There is a history of unionization and worker organizing in the meatpacking industry to fix problems with low pay and dangerous work conditions.

Specht: One of the other ways that the meatpacking industry starts to increase its market power is through the process of breaking down the manufacturing process into a series of small steps that are both repeatable and don’t require a lot of training. Division of labor is key to their success. Henry Ford, in fact, in his autobiography, said that he discovered the idea behind the assembly line by watching a Chicago meat processing plant in action. He saw this as a model, the beef dis-assembly line as pioneer.

One of the things that people write about, and it drives me a little bit crazy, is that the assembly line magically increases efficiency. What it does is, in some ways, is makes it easier to exploit the laborers. If you don’t have to train them and the workers are replaceable, the factory owners can exploit them more and more. The risk for personal injury or death grows. In this period, there’s a quickly growing labor pool of recently arrived immigrants, largely from Eastern Europe.

Oates: Are the workers unionized at this point?

Specht: Not until 1900. During the 1880s and1890s, there is still a lot of suspicion of unions. Lots of politicians and media at the time are calling union organizing efforts radical socialists. Mainstream America, at the time, tends to be suspicious of the new immigrants and their so-called ‘radical’ views on worker rights and better wages.

A pile of bison bones awaits processing into fertilizer, 1892. Whites eradicated the wild bison that supported American Indians and replaced them with a domesticated ruminant, cattle. (Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, public domain)

Oates: Given the exploited ranchers and workers, and the organizing and reforms that took place, how did the meatpackers continue to operate and control markets? It seems like things have improved some, but that the system more or less has continued to operate in a similar manner through today.

Specht:  On the positive side, the system has delivered a product that people want to eat for relatively affordable prices. It has done so with large costs to the lives of some people, and to the ecology. It’s a dynamic reality. There’s a hard work and ingenuity story, yes, but it’s also a story of exploitation. Exploitation of other people, of immigrants, of Native Americans, of the environment. That’s where you make your money. So the more exploitation of environments and people that occur, the more profits for the beneficiaries of the system.  It’s all added up to that.

But, the fact that there are also some real benefits to the system makes it hard to change. People can buy food that they want to, in this case beef, for a fairly affordable price. It’s safe for the most part. That affordability and safety is a real benefit. And, a lot of the time, I don’t think that the people being exploited, whether it’s the ranchers or the butchers, understand on a human level how much exploitation is going on. The people who eat beef get a service from the industry. The ranchers have a market for their animals. The workers get jobs. They might not be the best jobs, the markets might be controlled by the meatpackers, but it’s hard to break through and fully understand that system of dependency when you’re inside it.

When you ask people about our food system today, they are broadly uneasy about the exploitation and the risks and the dangers it brings. But I don’t think they understand how to change it or what to do about it. I think, in some ways, they feel like it’s inevitable. There are real benefits, and there are also high costs. That dynamic is how I like to explain it.

A message from the Rural Assembly

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