Ron Eustice reflects on career
By Janet Kubat Willette
Date Modified: 06/04/2012 2:08 PM
Ron Eustice didn't always want to be involved in agriculture.
"I was going to be a professional baseball player," said Eustice, who is retiring Oct. 1 after 22 years as the executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council.
An International 4-H Youth Exchange trip to Uruguay in 1967-68 charted a new course for the then 21-year-old from Steele County.
Eustice stayed with eight families throughout Uruguay and shared his knowledge of agriculture while learning from his hosts during the six-month program. It had been a particularly devastating winter just before he arrived and thousands of cattle and sheep perished. They couldn't preserve hay for winter-feeding.
Today, Uruguay is one of the world's leading beef exporting countries. Modern technology is used everywhere. Haylage and silage feed their livestock in the winter.
Other things have changed, too.
"I communicate with them on facebook," Eustice said. "In those days, they did not have electricity and today cell towers dot the countryside. Cattle and sheep are sold via text messaging."
After graduating from the University of Minnesota, Eustice had jobs that took him around the globe and combined his love of cattle, travel and people. He and his family, including wife, Margaret, and three small children, Kevin, John and AnnMarie, spent three years in central Java in Indonesia training men in dairy husbandry.
When they went to the farms, they saw that women handled the cows, which was a learning experience, Eustice said. They should have trained the women.
He spent two years in Mexico teaching artificial insemination and spent two more as executive secretary of the Minnesota Holstein Association.
In 1990, Eustice became executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council. He stood out among the three impressive job finalists, said Dennis Swan, who was new to the council at the time. Swan is a Balaton beef producer and former council chairman.
Leonard Wulf was chairman when Eustice became executive director and the two clicked, Swan said. Both had a vision that was way out front.
The beef council was first in many things under Eustice's leadership, Swan said. Minnesota's Beef Council was the first to work with the heart association and became a food safety leader.
Eustice also brought a dietician on staff to reach out to consumers, said Gary Purath, a Red Lake Falls beef producer and former beef council chairman.
"He's put Minnesota on the map nationally for the things that he has done," said John Moon, a Montevideo beef producer who is chairman of the beef council. "Minnesota is one of the states that is recognized as one of the top states in the nation and it's basically because of the work that Ron has done over the years."
Causes Eustice has championed include: Dairy Beef Quality Assurance, Spanish language training and food safety.
He has driven many nights, often to put on Dairy Beef Quality Assurance meetings, Swan said. Through his perseverance, the antibiotic issue in the state has cooled.
His fluency in Spanish came in handy for creating charts spelling out procedures to post on farms, said Houston County cattle producer Carol Abrahamzon, who serves on the council.
Eustice has also given presentations in Spanish in Minnesota, Florida and South Dakota. He pioneered the bilingual training certification program.
The council has reached out to the Hispanic population with advertising on the state's four Hispanic radio stations. They've distributed beef recipes in Spanish.
Eustice is best known for his work on food safety and irradiation. He has given irradiation education seminars in 10 countries and 30 states. He took his marching orders from former state epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, who said irradiation could save lives and do for ground beef and poultry what pasteurization did for milk.
Two companies, Schwans and Omaha Steaks, sell only irradiated ground beef. Irradiation also doubles the shelf life of meat and poultry, Eustice said.
He argues the technology is a must to feed a growing world population. If food is produced, but isn't consumed, than the labor, fuel and fertilizer used is wasted. Agriculture supporters need to provide accurate information about all types of technology — they can't let those opposed to technology dominate, he said.
Eustice said opposition to change is nothing new. He shares a cartoon from 1796 that depicts fear of the small pox vaccination.
As he reflects on 22 years at the helm, Eustice said the greatest checkoff success is the creation of new beef cuts, including the flat iron, petite tender and ranch steaks. He's also proud of the more than 100 articles on food safety and quality assurance he's co-authored in regional and national publications.
Dealing with the budget has perhaps been the most challenging part of the job. The state's beef herd is in decline and the $1 per head checkoff doesn't buy what it used to. Only 50 cents of every dollar collected stays in the state. In the current fiscal year, the Beef Council will have $680,000 to spend and projected expenses of $753,404.
Minnesota has tried to work with other states that are cattle rich and people poor to fund advertising.
Applications for the executive director position are due by June 30. There will be a transition process before Eustice leaves to pursue other opportunities.
"I'm not really retiring. I'm going to spend a little more time helping the world to feed itself."