Promoting Tennessee beef — it’s in the family!

By now, my love of Ole Miss football is well documented. In fact, I even had the opportunity to attend my first game since the 2008 season last weekend — but more on that later.

But I haven’t always been a Rebel girl. In fact, I grew up bleeding orange.

Tennessee orange.

You’ll never see another 21 year-old get so excited about meeting a mascot

Don’t get me wrong — I still love the Vols, and I happily cheer them on to victory… just as long as they aren’t playing the Rebels. Sorry, Tennessee friends, but then my heart beats for Dixie.

ANYWAY. Let’s move on to an entirely unrelated subject (that I promise will return full circle).

As has also been proven, I’m a passion agvocate. I grew up on a farm, and I love to help promote animal agriculture in every way that I can. But did you know that I come by this passion naturally?

Bet you can’t guess which one I’m related to… and no, it’s not Governor Haslam.

My mom, Jennifer Houston, is currently the chairwoman of the Tennessee Beef Industry Council. She’s been active in agriculture leadership since before I was born — and honestly, they don’t call her The General for nothing (sorry Mom, couldn’t resist). In addition to serving in leadership capacities with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, she’s a very active promoter of Tennessee beef on the state and local levels.

How does this go full circle to Tennessee football?

Well, y’all didn’t think the embarrassment of a family member was limited to little brothers, did you?

Tomorrow is Beef Day at the University of Tennessee football game! The Tennessee Beef Industry Council will be at the game, providing free samples and promoting beef — which is awesome! And, just like last year, Mom will join Bob Kesling and company on the Kickoff Call-In Show!

Last year’s Beef Day

If you’re going to the game, you can see the action at Gate 21 of Neyland Stadium — she’ll be on at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time. If you’re listening via radio or Internet, you can find her on the Vol Radio Network.

Awesome, isn’t it?


Celebrating 50 years!

It’s no secret that I’m a proud rural girl. I grew up in an agricultural family, was invovled in agricultural activities, and I currently work to promote animal agriculture in Washington D.C.

But I’m also the daughter of small business owners. And that’s what I want to talk about today.

Our family business

My family owns East Tennessee Livestock Center in Sweetwater, Tennessee. For those unfamiliar with livestock auction markets, we serve as intermediaries between buyers and sellers. To put it in economic terms (or as economic as I get, which isn’t very), we offer a competitive marketplace for sellers to get the highest price possible for their commodities — in this case, live animals. Specifically cattle, though we have a few goats and sheep pass through each week. I also remember seeing a buffalo and an emu come through, but those are few and far between.

The market was founded in 1962 by my grandfather, Joseph Houston, and his four business partners. Over time, he bought out his partners until our family was the sole owners of ETLC. My grandmother worked in the front office, and by the time my Daddy joined the market after college, the business was 100-percent family owned.

Granddaddy Joe -- founder of East Tennessee Livestock Center

Today, my Daddy is the head of the business with my mother working as his business partner and office manager. And on Wednesday, East Tennessee Livestock Center will celebrate 50 years as the Southeast’s strongest and most innovative livestock auction market.

Yes, I know that sounds hyperbolic, and I know that I’m just the teensiest bit biased. But it’s really true. We were the first market in Tennesee to:

• Hold graded feeder calf sales

• Hold graded Holstein steer sales (a much-needed niche in a strong dairy part of the country)

• Hold video sales of cattle lots

In addition, we were the first livestock auction market east of the Mississippi River to hold electronic ID sales.

It hasn’t been easy. In 1987, my grandmother was shot and killed in an armed robbery attempt. We lost my grandfather — founder of our business — last year. And anyone working in agriculture knows how live prices fluctuate depending on market conditions. After the lone case of BSE was found in 2003, prices dropped and suffered for quite a while. Up until the whole snafu with LFTB earlier this year, prices were wonderfully high.

But despite personal tragedy, market setbacks, and competitors moving in and trying to woo away our customers through whatever means necessary, East Tennessee Livestock is still the most trusted livestock auction market in Tennessee.

Having moved away to the big city, I think I’ve developed a new appreciation for the work my parents do. As a child, no one really appreciates their parents — a sad notion, yes, but I think it’s true. You take them for granted. And I’ve definitely taken mine for granted. But living in Washington has reemphasized my rural (and, dare I say, Southern) sensibilities. While there are a lot of things I like about life in the city (Thai food, public transportation, walkability), it’s just not the same as home.

The Houston family

But on the same side of things, it’s amazing to relearn how little experience the average urbanite has with agriculture. All I could really do was blink in shock when someone told me that all farmers tortured their animals — an outright lie if I’ve ever heard one.

While my parents will say that the amount of actual work I ever did at the market was very small, I think I gained a lot more out of my upbringing than mere work experience. Our family business is just that — ours. I’m very protective of it, of my parents, and our way of life.

So if you’re anywhere in southeast Tennessee on Wednesday, stop by and say hello. There’ll be a big anniversary celebration at the market, complete with a luncheon on the grounds and door prizes. I’m pretty sad I won’t be able to attend, but I’ll be there in spirit. There are a lot more that I could say about it, but I’ll just say this:

To my wonderful parents, thank you. You have no idea how much I admire and love you both. Congratulations on 50 years, and here’s to the next 50 being just as groundbreaking and wonderful!

What I learned from 4-H: Animal stewardship, not murder

Today is Thursday. To me, Thursday is Fake Friday—the week is almost over, but you know that you still have to wake up early for one more day before you can have two blissful days of freedom (or at least, two days free from the office).

Today has also irritated me for two reasons. One, PETA was protesting outside my office. This irks me because… well, PETA irks me in general. But that’s a different story for a different blog post.

However, that does go hand-in-hand with the second thing that irked me today. I was perusing Twitter on my phone when I saw a Tweet from Michele Payn-Knoper, an agriculture advocate that I follow. The Tweet contained a link to an article posted on CNN, and I nearly stopped in the middle of the Metro escalator when I saw the headline.

Does 4-H desensitize kids to killing?


Is this for real?

Apparently so, or so about half the commentariat of believe. According to this article, there is popular belief amongst the readers of “Eatocracy” that 4-H raises children to be merciless, cold-blooded animal torturers. We hand over poor, defenseless creatures who’ve trusted us since birth to be put to death for our meal.

Excuse me. I need to go laugh for a bit.

Alright, back.

My little brother, proudly showing his steer last year

Let me back up a bit and explain where I’m coming from. I’m a third generation 4-H member on my mother’s side (and I will be proud of that fact until the day I die). I was raised on a beef cattle operation, and my parents own a livestock auction market. The beef industry is in my blood; it’s part of who I am.

And so, it was natural that at age nine, I would enroll in 4-H, which I did. That first summer, I showed cattle and I showed sheep. In fact, one of my favorite memories is of my dad—not a sheep farmer at all— helping me put my two lambs in their sheep blankets, only to realize he’d put them on backwards. Those two little lambs looked so ridiculous, and the family still laughs at Daddy over that (happily, he laughs at it, too).

However, showing cattle was my main focus in 4-H. Once we were established with a little herd, we started artificially inseminating my former show heifers in order to raise our own show cattle. My brother, Ross, reaped the major benefit of my Dad’s new hobby, but it’s very fulfilling to see our herd grow and produce more show calves.

And yes, we raise some of our animals to be slaughtered.

My lambs, Kanga and Roo, were on loan from my aunt and uncle (they had a sheep herd, while we didn’t). They were market lambs, not ewes, which meant that when the show was over, they were going to be sent off to be slaughtered. Was it hard to put them in the pen, knowing they were going to die? Um, that should be obvious. Of course it was. And yes, a few tears were shed by my nine year-old self.

But as I grew older, 4-H (along with a good helping of common sense, courtesy of Mom and Dad) taught me that that’s how it’s supposed to be.

Does 4-H desensitize children to killing?

Here’s your answer: absolutely not.

In fact, I would argue that 4-H—especially those kids involved in animal care projects—gives children a greater respect for the world and, quite honestly, more common sense.

It’s something that’s harder for my friends who’ve grown up in urban and suburban environments to grasp. For them, when they see one of our show heifers, they think it’s cute. They see a pet. They see a cuddly, friendly (for the most part) animal. They don’t grasp the concept that for us, the slaughter of animals we’ve raised is part of life because that’s what those animals are meant for.

In this article, they cite a comment from a woman named Kathy which says:

“It is really so unevolved. Why are people proud that the kids are crying as they lead their animals onto the trailer to be killed for food? You are teaching them that relationships are disposable. That animals are disposable. NOT A GOOD LESSON, and these poor animals raised as pets are off to the slaughterhouse where they will be tortured before they die.

A few points:

  1. 4-H is teaching us that relationships are disposable?  I beg to differ, Kathy.  I consider some of the friendships (with humans, not with animals) gained through 4-H as some of the most meaningful in my life. 
  2. These animals aren’t raised as pets.  Period.  There’s no question what’s going to happen with our animals when we’re done showing them.  If they’re heifers, they’ll go back home to be bred.  If they’re steers, they’re off to a feedlot.  That’s it.  Do we form emotional attachments?  Well, yes.  We’re humans, too.  But we don’t raise these animals under any illusions that they’re like a cat or dog to us. 
  3. If you think our animals are going to be tortured before they die, I respectfully ask that you stop drinking the PETA/HSUS Kool-Aid. 

If you believe that 4-Hers are happy little killers, content to send their beloved moo cows off to be tortured,  I think you should visit a cattle show (or a sheep show, or a swine show).  See the respect we have for these animals.  But while I respect a person’s opinion to think that, because I have no problem eating a calf that I’ve raised, I don’t have to agree with you.  However, I do ask that you show enough civility to me and those like me and not accuse me betraying a pet’s trust.

Because that show heifer?  She’s not my pet.  She’s how we make our living.