Other Voices

Sid Miller’s rodeo image hides diversity of Texas agriculture

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller

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

The brim of his broad white hat defines the visual outline of his political persona. It is part of a concerted effort on his part to create a memorable and marketable image.

And a lot of the time, he succeeds. It’s a facet of his visual and literal associations with rodeo.

Miller is a lifetime member of the Houston Rodeo and was crowned a “world champion calf roper” in 2004.

Still, all of this has some less-desirable consequences for Texas agriculture.

He 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.

Rodeo and the beef industry share historical ties dating to when Texas was at the center of 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.

By the late 1950s, May was president of the first national rodeo governing body, the Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Both beef and rodeo became 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.

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.

It is true that cattle are by far the largest agricultural commodity in the state. But 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 heavy 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 black, 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 of Texas who live beyond the five counties that make up the vast majority of what’s considered 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.

Jeannette Vaught is a lecturer in American studies at The University of Texas at Austin.