There are very few organizations in the Canadian beef sector Martin Unrau hasn’t been a part of.
He’s the former head of the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association (the forerunner of Manitoba Beef Producers) and was president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. He helped chair the National Beef Strategic Planning Group. He has been a mentor for the Cattlemen’s Association Young Leaders Program and helped develop the Young Cattlemen’s Council.
Now his lifetime of contributions to the sector have earned him one more laurel.
Why it matters: Martin Unrau is only the second person to be awarded for his lifetime achievement by the Manitoba Beef Producers.
Unrau stood up in front of the Manitoba Beef Producers Feb. 7 to become the second member ever named to the organization’s lifetime achievement award.
“It really is about all of the people that you work with over the years,” Unrau said.
“We accomplished a lot of things after BSE and, moving to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, of course, accomplished a lot of stuff for the cattle industry in Manitoba and in Canada, but it was always part of a team effort. It’s never about one person. It’s about my family and the people I work with.”
Manitoba Beef Producers president Tom Teichroeb praised Unrau for his years advocating the beef industry, “both here and abroad.”
“He has been involved in tackling tough issues such as BSE and country-of-origin labelling,” Teichroeb said. “He has a standing interest in trying to make business risk management programs more responsive to the needs of agricultural producers. Despite wearing those many industry hats, he is active in his own community, being recognized as a local citizen of the year, for his strong commitment here. He’s also very involved in his church and one cannot state strongly enough what a strongly devoted family person (he is) as well.”
Unrau’s story in beef industry politics began in 2003, during some of the Manitoba beef industry’s darkest days in recent memory. The BSE crisis had already reached its worst, and many of Manitoba’s beef producers worried that the crisis might spell the end of their farms.
“Those were terrible times,” Unrau said. “People were losing their lifetime’s savings, their lifetime of work and most people who weren’t part of it don’t understand the devastation in the industry as a whole. That summer, we sold cows, really nice, fat cattle, cows that were dry, for $200 and stuff. Those cattle were worth $1,200 before BSE. I sold a bull for $1,800 on May 15, and I sold the twin to him for $261 in June.”
It was in this atmosphere that Unrau stood up during a local producers’ meeting and pitched the importance of opening markets. His brief time at the mike inspired a round of applause and, soon after, Unrau was asked to run and was elected to a spot on the Manitoba Cattle Producers Association board.
“Working to make sure we got our markets back, that was a huge achievement for the whole industry and very important for us,” he said. “In all reality, if we’re going to produce the animals, we have to be able to have a market for them.”
His industry group involvement later moved to the national level, and Unrau went through a list of roles in the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, including seats on committees from animal health to trade, and eventually being elected as vice-president, and then president in 2012. He stayed at the group’s helm until 2014, becoming past president.
The CCA credits his tenure with the resolution of a Canada-EU trade deal, Japanese entry for under-30-month beef, strides in insurance programs and part of the fight against COOL, a fight that finally ended in 2016 after years of dispute and appeals with the World Trade Organization.
Priorities have changed since he stood up in front of his fellow producers years ago. Environmental impact has become a much larger discussion in the industry in the last 15 years, he said, and there is now greater focus on public relations and telling the industry’s “story,” from sustainability to animal welfare and personal faces from the farm.
All of those will become even more critical as the industry moves into the future, he said.
“The fringes of people who want to eliminate livestock as a food source, we can’t even address that. We just have to fight back and make sure that we’re standing up and telling our story on those fronts,” he said. “But for the legitimate customers who want to buy beef and who are demanding a certain type of product, you know, the customer’s always right and, at the end of the day, we have to find a way to make sure that we meet the needs of our customers, that we educate our customers into what they need at times.”