Vaught: Miller’s rodeo image obscures complexity of Texas agriculture

Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner who has been embroiled in one controversy or another since his inauguration in January 2015, is instantly recognizable.

The brim of his broad white hat defines the visual outlines of his political persona — and it’s part of a concerted effort on his part to create a memorable and marketable image.

And a lot of the time, he succeeds. The intentional and less-desirable publicity Miller has received is a facet of his visual and literal associations with rodeo.

Miller is the most easily identified Texas agriculture commissioner in recent memory, but only in part because of his savvy marketing. Miller has recently faced national scrutiny and ridicule for using state funds to participate in a rodeo in Mississippi and to allegedly receive a pain-relief injection common to rodeo competitors called the “Jesus shot.”

It is no accident that Miller’s political career is tied to his participation in rodeo, or that he has drawn on his rodeo identity to market his image. Rodeo and the beef industry share historical ties, dating to when Texas was at the center of a nascent American cattle culture. From the first informal rodeos, where makeshift arenas corralled a diverse group of cattle workers for ranch audiences, the men at the center of rodeo were the same men at the center of the beef trade.

Professional rodeo did not become a nationally popular spectacle until after World War II. Young ranch men, such as Harley May from Alpine, returned from war to enroll in agricultural colleges — and many brought rodeo with them.

May and a group of his young, veteran college peers inaugurated the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association. By the late 1950s, May was president of the first national rodeo governing body, the Rodeo Cowboys Association, which organized the existing regional rodeo patchwork and brought professional rodeo to a national audience — all the while using his agricultural education to grow a successful cattle operation.

Men like May used their agricultural educations to make both beef and rodeo successful businesses. In the process, rodeo became a staging ground for conservative politics, as it mobilized a celebration of ranching “tradition” alongside a policy agenda that favored the growth of large cattle operations.

In fact, since the 1950s, there have been connections between conservative politicians and professional rodeo. May specially honored Republican President Dwight Eisenhower at the first National Finals Rodeo in 1959. Ronald Reagan’s secretary of commerce, Malcolm Baldrige, died while competing in a rodeo during his time in office. And Miller is a lifetime member of the Houston Rodeo and was crowned a “world champion calf roper” in 2004.

Rodeo has doubled in popularity over the past 40 years, paralleling the growth of industrial beef — which concentrates huge numbers of cattle on feedlots — or confined animal feeding operations. The problem with rodeo’s popularity, however, is that it has made cattle ranching serve as a visual and cultural shorthand for agriculture.

This fusion of agriculture with beef obscures the diversity of agricultural products and producers in Texas. The high economic impact of beef is wildly disproportionate to the state’s geography: Only five Texas counties account for almost 90 percent of the cattle industry.

Miller’s emphasis on his rodeo identity as his main public relations wheelhouse continues this disparity in the eyes of Texans who may not be aware of the actual and potential diversity of agriculture in the state. Professional rodeo has been formed over time to reproduce the myth of conquest of the West, gradually erasing contributions from African-American, indigenous and Mexican influences to produce the spectacle we now recognize.

In conflating ranching with Texas agriculture, we similarly lose the historical contributions of enslaved cotton laborers, freed black horticulturists, women subsistence farmers and independent farmers. Today, Miller’s rodeo image makes it hard to see — and support — the farmers who live beyond the five counties that make up the vast majority of what counts as Texas agriculture. It’s time we get out from under the hat and contribute to the health of all Texas producers, in all their complexity.

Vaught is a lecturer in American studies at the University of Texas and the author of “Rationalizing the Rodeo: Animal Agriculture and Taming the American Environment.”

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