St. Francis, Kan. – Outspoken and passionate, Mike Callicrate is not afraid to take on anyone in his pursuit of fair markets for the American ag producer.
“See this,” he said, pointing to a picture of the Walmart sign while speaking at a conference. “That’s the tombstone of rural America.”
His outspoken, flamboyant style causes some people to discount him as a rabble-rouser, but no one denies that he does manage to get things done.
Callicrate was one of the driving forces in getting the Country of Origin Labeling passed in the 2002 Farm Bill. He is now working hard to make sure the original intent of the law is fullfilled in the rules being written for its implementation. Promoting fair labeling for US products is just one of his many projects.
“That’s my reason for living,” said Callicrate. “to increase income at the farm and ranch gate.”
Born in Denver, Colo.,in 1951, he has always loved agriculture.
“I was in awe of a tractor farming a field next to our house in Broomfield Colo.,” he said. “I was probably two years old.”
The third of eight children, he carried his curiosity about agriculture through college, first attending Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, Texas, then Lamar Community College in Lamar, Colo., and finishing with an Animal Science degree from Colorado State University in 1975.
“I learned to always question,” he said. “And I learned how to look for answers.”
He is quick to credit friends, family and partners that have helped him along the way. The mentor who taught him the most was a business partner.
“Theron Culwell, St. Francis, Kan., ten years my senior, was a partner of mine in my first feedyard,” he said. “He taught me how to laugh at adversity, and turn problems into opportunities.”
Callicrate has become skilled at turning problems around. He closed his feedlot last year, when he was unable to get fair prices on the open cattle market. Now he is reopening it next week, with a whole new approach to marketing. He will be selling all his cattle to another one of his operations, which will take them directly to the consumer.
“Feeding cattle the last ten years was my biggest failure,” he said. “But that has led to my next success.”
This new venture, Ranch Foods Direct, a partnership with Doug and Susan Samuelson, owners of Warren Ranch Company of Cheyenne, Wyo. has been in the works for several years. Now, through a joint venture with G&C Packing in Colorado Springs, Colo. they plan to process and sell 4-500 head of cattle a month, as well as bison and other livestock.
A true modern renaissance man, Callicrate is fascinated by everything and lets one project flow into another.
“The feedlot led to the Bander,” he said. “I’ve always had an inventive streak.”
He was using a standard bander to castrate bulls and was unhappy with the results. However, his vet Dr. Lynn Locatelli, told him that ligation was a great tool, if the pressure was right. So he set about tinkering and invented the Callicrate Smart Bander, which he patented in 1991.
“It took about 5 years for the bander to take off and start paying,” he said. “The feedlot carried the Bander and now the Bander is carrying the beef venture.”
Just as his business ventures flow naturally together, his favorite ways to relax, eating good food and reading are really just extensions of everything else he enjoys.
He has dealt with adversity and bright sides in his personal life, also. His son Tyler was killed in 1996 in a car accident. His other son, Teegan is seventeen, and a junior at St. Francis High School. Teegan inherited his dad’s inventive streak and loves to build things, including beautiful cabinets. He also continuously works on and builds dune buggies, according to his dad.
What about young people who are looking at agriculture as their future?
“I would encourage them, only with full knowledge of what they are getting into,” he said. “I think the timing is good for farmers to link with consumers via a new sustainable food system that provides real food to people that want to be healthy. The idea that you have to be big is wrong – you have to be profitable.”
While he thinks that this is a good time for farmers to market direct to consumers he is adamant that the market needs to facilitate this link.
“Farmers and ranchers should do what they do best – farm and ranch, he said. “They shouldn’t be told that they have to create their own markets and distribution in competition with global market predators like Tyson, ADM, ConAgra and Cargill.”
Through other ventures, Callicrate has discovered that consolidation is a problem in many markets, from cattle to books. One of Callicrate’s side ventures is Callimuth Press, a partnership with John Helmuth. They have published Helmuth’s novel Voices Rise From the Land, a fictional account of the consolidation lawsuit against packer IBP. They discovered through marketing the book that independent publishing is as rare as independent meat marketing.
“Joyce Meskis, owner of the Tattered Cover (book stores in Denver, Colo.,) is to book selling what I am to cattle feeding,” he said.
Callicrate spends much of his time on the road, working with organizations to try and bring profitability back to agriculture. He thinks there is a future for American ag, but people need to be aware of what is happening in the marketplace.and work to “See that a new competitive market infrastucture is developed and remains open for them (farmers and ranchers), to receive fair prices and deal more directly with the consumer,” he said, “And then just farm and ranch the best they know how.”