WESSINGTON SPRINGS — The Foothills Cattle Producers are making inroads in South Dakota, letting people know about the issues facing “Cattle Country.”

Now, they’re looking to broaden their message and take it national.

The group, which started gathering informally in late 2019 and consists of cattle ranchers and advocates in South Dakota and around the region, is in the process of shooting a television commercial that it intends to have air in regions of the country that have not had politicians supporting mandatory country of origin labeling legislation in Washington, D.C.

Their message is to make people aware of the economic impact of beef cattle in the United States and re-introduce mandatory COOL, as it is known.

Their group’s momentum is building, said Phil Wipf, of Wessington Springs, who is the Foothills group’s president.

“We’ve got a lot of support from around South Dakota and around the country. This is our livelihood,” Wipf said. “This is cattle country and farm country, and we need to show how much that matters to us.”

On Wednesday, about a dozen adults and as many kids gathered for the commercial shoot, which took place in the town’s City Park. The commercial involves a family gathering for a picnic and eating hamburgers and discusses the importance of understanding where your food comes from. Three generations of Wipf’s family were all involved with the filming of the commercial.

The Foothills group has worked closely with U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D., to understand which members of the Senate should be targeted regarding spreading the word about beef. Rounds introduced a bill in October that prohibits the label of cattle meat from bearing the phrase "Product of U.S.A." unless such meat product is exclusively derived from one or more cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the United States. That bill remains stuck in the Senate Ag Committee and has yet to get a hearing. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., are the other co-sponsors.

The Foothills group asked Rounds what they needed to do to get the bill moving, and the senator said they should try to build more grassroots support among consumers. The idea of changing the minds of families in other parts of the country soon followed, Wipf said.

“The ranchers can say all we want and call our Congressmen and that’s one side of it,” he said. “But if we get the consumer to say, ‘We’re concerned about quality, we’re concerned about safety, we’re concerned about availability,' that carries a lot of weight.”

Growing their group

The genesis for the group came from frustrations over the Tyson Foods cattle plant fire in Holcomb, Kansas on Aug. 9, 2019, and beef packers still turning healthy profits soon after. The Kimball Livestock Exchange organized a bus trip for about 40 cattle producers to rally in Omaha, Nebraska in October, where about 400 ranchers and feeders gathered. It was from there, Wipf said, that the idea formed to create a local group advocating in the same way.

“A lot of us were upset with the cattle prices and the industry in general,” Wipf said. “It was a call to action. They said, ‘If you don’t do anything, nothing is going to change.’ You need grassroots activity to create some awareness.”

In January, more than 300 cattle industry supporters gathered for an event in Wessington Springs, featuring Rounds and Corbitt Wall, a commercial cattle manager and livestock market analyst from Texas, as speakers. Wall also spoke at the Omaha event and noted that the cattle industry risks becoming vertically integrated and squeezing out independent cattle producers.

“We’re all in the same boat; we’re all going to struggle,” Wipf said. “Now is our chance to try to enact some changes for ourselves.”

On that night, the group decided it would focus its efforts on COOL for beef and getting that re-enacted. The repeal of the labeling rules, farm advocates say, allows processors to blend lower-quality and lower-priced meat from other countries for ground beef and still use the Product of the U.S.A. label. Foreign meat generally has looser safety standards than the U.S., allowing another place for processors to cut costs.

There’s also the issue that when consumers see a U.S. Department of Agriculture marking on their package of meat, some may figure that means it’s U.S. grown. Instead, it merely means it was inspected in the U.S., but it could be sourced from outside the country.

Through a GoFundMe page, the group is pursuing donations to help with the costs of production and distribution related to the marketing efforts. The initial goal is to raise $2,500. The commercial is being shot and produced by the Independent Cable Advertising Network, which partners with many independent cable providers in Iowa and South Dakota to air community advertising. With their new advertising, they’re planning on targeting states in the southeastern part of the U.S. first.

Wipf is the group’s de facto president, although there is not much of a formal membership or leadership team. In addition to the 300-plus in attendance for its January event, it has about 850 followers on Facebook. The group has already created a television ad that has aired on cable television in South Dakota and had some local radio advertising.

The effort has the support of the Wessington Springs Area Development Corporation and its leader Loree Gaikowski. She said the formal backing makes sense, given what the area’s cattle producers and farming operations mean to the community of about 950 residents and its surrounding area.

“More people want to know where their food is coming from,” Gaikowski said. “We need to make sure we’re telling those people where it comes from. Our town has a lot at stake on helping our farmers and ranchers.”

Christi Christensen is one of the Kimball sale barn’s owners with her husband, Wade, and colleague Chad Heezen. Like many members of the group, she wants to make sure that there’s a strong, locally driven cattle business that her young sons can someday work in.

“I strongly believe that working to make sure the livestock industry is saved is the best way to make sure our small towns and small businesses are saved,” Christensen said. “Our best chance is when we’re all working together.”

For a few years in the early 2010s, all meat products in the United States were required to carry labels showing where the animal was born, raised and harvested. But in 2015, the requirement was repealed following pressure from the World Trade Organization.

There is some timeliness to the effort, which happens to be aided by the coronavirus pandemic. Crunches to the food supply and concern about safety and sourcing has put more pressure on the nation’s four dominant meatpackers: Cargill, JBS, National Beef and Tyson, which have been accused of price gouging.

“It brought everything that this group has been working on to the forefront, and it has created this opportunity to act,” Gaikowski said. “We have a chance to take advantage of this and speak about how much this matters to us and how beef supports a family and that family supports a community.”