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.


By Bryce Oates, The Daily Yonder

August 7, 2019


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


ďUltimately, 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.Ē


Spechtís 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 Americaís Industrial Revolution.


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




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 itís important to choose a topic that youíre curious about, that youíre 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. Itís also about how communities, both rural and urban are impacted by land use and capitalism. Iím 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. Thereís 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. Thatís 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.


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 thereís 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. Itís a global market for buyers but not for sellers in todayís 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. Theyíre big animals and are highly shippable, but you canít 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. Thatís how the packers can control the price they are paying for animals, and that continues through today.


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


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. ...


Oates: Did ranchers organize to fix these problems? ...


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. ...


Oates: Are the workers unionized at this point?...


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. ...