November 15, 2012
Law students come from every walk of life and embark on the journey of a legal education with many different career goals in mind. We asked South Texas cattleman and law student Jeffrey Diles to share his experience in China and how it may have changed his endgame.
The easily recognizable scents of straw, dust and manure filled the warm arid afternoon as a couple dozen red and white beef cows, tethered side by side, watched over their days-old calves wandering around exploring their new world. The modest concrete and metal structure where the cattle were housed was relatively new and designed as a ‘convertible’; the temporary half of the roof had been removed to allow for ventilation. The surrounding low mountains, draped in quilts of green farmland interspersed with occasional patches of ambers and browns, were visible through the open side of the roof. At the far end of the barn, one of the farm workers in slightly tattered and soiled blue coveralls and rubber boots was methodically sweeping the last bits of leftover silage from the dual purpose feed and water bunk that ran the length of the barn in front of the cows.
After 18 years in the beef bull business, it was an encounter that was, at once, both familiar and foreign. The scene on this particular day was the backdrop for discussions of genetic strategies, nutritional challenges and the potential for cross-border business opportunities. And, in these particular discussions, I was engaging with beef producers, college professors and government officials of China. It was day two of an exploratory side trip to the Gansu Province
to learn about the beef industry of China while on an extended break from summer law classes at Beihang University in Beijing. The classes were offered through the St. Mary’s School of Law Institute on Chinese Law and Business.
When I began my career in the beef bull business in South Texas, I did not consider factoring in an option for a late-in-life, second career in law. The inclination to pursue the law seems now to have always been with me, and at 40-something, had just naturally matured into action. Exposure to legal issues through business and life events had deepened my understanding of the importance of the law, and positive encounters with capable attorneys made it easier for me to see promise for myself within the legal profession. As odd as it might have been for most folks in my situation, the transition just seemed to make perfect sense for me.
The decision to enter law school, however, did not include the slightest inkling that I might study law in China; that development was altogether chance and circumstance. My perception of study-abroad programs had always been that they were designed primarily for students enjoying the benefits of extensive parental support, and that the programs were of very little practical value to the average student. I now realize that study-abroad programs are just like everything else in life: The benefit received is directly proportional to the effort invested. Students who participate simply to experience another culture and see an exotic land will likely gain little else. On the other hand, study-abroad programs can provide an excellent occasion for some students to make connections and build relationships that may significantly impact their future careers. There is an old Chinese saying, “Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.”
For me, the St Mary’s program offered the opportunity to ‘catch more than one calf with a single loop.’ Participating in the St. Mary’s China program included the obvious objective of earning some summer school hours, and also the very real benefit of seeing some of the many wonders of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Most importantly, however, the program offered the possibility of leveraging my past experience in a unique way by blending my beef production know-how with my new career path in the expanding Chinese beef market. I already had connections in the U.S. beef business with connections in China, and the courses available to me through the St. Mary’s program were designed with an emphasis on doing business in China. My personal mission was to connect the dots and position myself to help facilitate trade in the beef cattle business between the U.S.
Because I had previously marketed beef genetics into Australia, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela, and directed the expansion of international marketing programs for a U.S. beef breed association in Central and South America, I was quite familiar with the notion of a global beef industry. China, however, had never been on my ‘Places to Market Bulls’ list, even though that list is intentionally left open-ended to include all potential customers. My simplistic preconceptions were that Chinese
citizens were probably not big on eating beef, and that there were probably very few beef
cows in China. Those preconceptions, as it turns out, are both true and false, like many of
the first-year law exam answers seemed to me. China consumes very little beef on a per
capita basis, but because of the multiplier effect of the massive Chinese population, the
total consumption is roughly half of what is consumed in the U.S. annually. There is
also roughly the same number of beef cattle in China as in the U.S. – about 80 million
head. Additionally, because of the rapid improvement in the standard of living for
Chinese citizens during the past two decades, the demand for high quality beef has driven
prices to $40 – $50 USD per pound. These dynamics are creating significant challenges,
as well as opportunities, for beef producers in China and sending similar substantial ripples
of possibility across much of the global beef complex.
My visit to China was relatively brief, and my exposure to the beef industry there was
little more than a scratch of the surface. But, I took away from the experience a couple
hundred photos, dozens of great memories, several new friends, four useful law school
credits, some solid business contacts and multiple ‘what-ifs.’ Thanks in large part to
the St. Mary’s program, doors are now open, and a foundation that could support a future
venture in China is taking shape. It at least seems plausible that my history in the beef bull
business and my future law career might one day amount to some sort of natural ‘yin and
yang’ for me in China.