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Chinese middle class could be boon for Washington ranchers

| By Thomas Clouse

The prices that small-operation ranchers in Washington get for their cattle is tied to the global economy, making it about as hard to predict as the prairie rain.

Dick Coon, 66, ranches the ground his grandfather purchased just after World War II about 6 miles from Benge, Washington. He’s been part of his family’s 11,000-acre ranch since 1973.

“I’d say we are at the center of everything,” Coon said of his ranch. “It’s about equal distance to the Tri-Cities, Lewiston, Moscow, Spokane and Moses Lake.”

Coon recently returned from a meeting where he was elected to serve on the executive committee for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. He represents the region that includes Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Alaska. It coordinates efforts with the 1,200-member Washington Cattlemen’s Association.

“I’m getting a national perspective on our business that I didn’t have before,” he said.

Part of the job of the national board is to coordinate advertising for the industry. The group is now trying to tailor a message that once included actor Sam Elliott announcing in the early 1990s: “Beef. It’s what’s for Dinner.” The new campaign must now resonate with millennials.

“We are trying to figure out how to market to those consumers,” Coon said.

But the prices that ranchers, including Coon and his family, receive at the stockyards largely rely on regional and international influences, he said.

“Three or four years ago, we had a big spike in cattle prices,” he said. “It caught a lot of people by surprise. Our export demand was high and our own demand was high. We had a drought in the Midwest and millions of cattle were taken out of production.”

But many of those dynamics have changed, and prices have fallen. Now ranchers are eagerly waiting to see how a brewing trade war with China plays out.

“We are selling lots of beef to Taiwan, South Korea and Japan,” Coon said. “We just got into China last year. That had us excited. China’s middle class is larger than the whole population of the U.S.”

One of the first things to change after an economy grows is that the middle class population starts to improve its diet, he said.

“Hopefully, we’ll get more beef in there,” he said of China. “But that’s been pushed back by this tariff hiccup.”

The key for all ranchers, from small ranchers like the Coons, who have 400 cows between two herds, to large commercial operations, is that they must keep producing something the consumer wants, he said.

“If I can’t keep the consumer happy and produce something that is reliably tender … then I haven’t done my job,” Coon said. “That gives me the right to wear a big hat and boots and live a great lifestyle.”

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