The United States is the Bo-Peep of livestock-producing nations. We once had more than 50 million sheep, but we’ve lost nearly 90 percent of them over the last century.
That said, we’re not the type of nation to leave them alone and assume they’ll come home. We’re the type of nation to establish a National Sheep Industry Improvement Center to try to revive our dwindling flocks. And while their numbers are continuing to decline, we’re not the type of nation with the type of Congress to let that kind of data kill a federal program.
The 20-year-old Sheep Center is not a big part of our big government, getting just $1.5 million for a grant program in last year’s $956 billion farm bill, less than 30 cents per head for America’s 5 million-plus remaining sheep. And the funding is not necessarily baaaaaaaad, in the sense of irrational or corrupt. The U.S. sheep industry has been mauled by high feed and energy costs, foreign competition, and weak demand for lamb chops; the Sheep Center was designed to help it survive and compete. It’s a government effort to promote a struggling industry.
The question is: What’s so special about the sheep industry? (And the goat industry, which, thanks to Washington mission creep, also enjoys support from the Sheep Center.) There’s no government-sponsored National Journalism Industry Improvement Center, though God knows we need improvement. There are no federal marketing programs for convenience stores or pogo-stick manufacturers or other random non-agricultural businesses.
In fact, there’s nothing particularly special about the sheep industry, except that it’s an agricultural industry, and Washington loves to throw money at agricultural programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture now has more than 100,000 employees, more than one for every dozen U.S. farmers. Its Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the Sheep Center, also oversees a Dairy Program, a Fruit and Vegetable Program, a Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program, a Cotton and Tobacco Program, and a slew of similar programs supporting U.S. farmers and ranchers. Congressional agriculture committees, dominated by lawmakers from agriculture states, dominate agriculture policy, and they rarely kill agriculture programs.
The Center’s woolly legislative history is classic Washington. The 1996 farm bill created it on the condition that it would be privatized in 2006, and the privatized entity was later renamed and merged into the sheep industry’s trade group. But the 2008 farm bill created a new quasi-public Sheep Center. In 2014, the House adopted an amendment by Republican Rep. Trey Radel to eliminate the center’s funding — but then the final farm bill authorized the agriculture secretary to give $1.475 million to an entity that sounded an awful lot like the Sheep Center.
That makes a total of $22.5 million that Congress has steered to the center over the last two decades, but the industry is continuing to crater. According to the USDA, the number of U.S. sheep operations has declined by one-fourth since the 1990s, “as producers experienced shrinking revenues and low rates of return.” Today, the USDA says, “sheep inventory continues its downward trend.” Incidentally, the Sheep Center’s manager, Steven Lee, helped oversee the center when it was part of the USDA; his predecessor at the center was his former boss at the USDA. A department spokesman said this revolving-door situation is “not unusual,” noting that “many former government employees are hired for these and similar types of positions because of their familiarity of a particular program or industry.” He’s right about that.
In any case, the Sheep Center survives in a quasi-public capacity, which is more than can be said for Rep. Radel, who resigned last year after he was convicted of cocaine possession. The center’s latest grants include a Montana State University wool research project, an effort to create a dairy goat cooperative in the Hudson Valley, and a rebranding project to improve the image of domestic lamb through an “influencer strategy that ignites interest and breeds loyalty,” requiring researchers to “identify and query those with access and influence in socialite/celebrity circles.”
Maybe it really will revive interest in lamb. But it kind of sounds like pork.