Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Jennifer Bair

Second Advisor

Kathleen Tierney

Third Advisor

Jill Harrison

Fourth Advisor

Isaac Reed

Fifth Advisor

Laura Raynolds


As the most valuable agricultural commodity in the U.S., beef is both an economic and cultural foundation of modern American agriculture. Uniting core perspectives from economic, environmental, and agri-food sociology, I examine ongoing transitions in the beef industry that illuminate the factors shaping the structure of the industry and their implications for different industry actors. Stemming heavily from the global value chains tradition, yet also drawing new connections the value chain literature and natural disasters and food regime research, I provide a close analysis of how the rise of private standards, extreme drought, and generational transition form a crucible of pressures reshaping the landscape of American agriculture. As a highly fragmented industry, the beef value chain provides an excellent opportunity to understand how exchanges between distinct segments of the chain—cow-calf producers, feedlots, processors, and retailers—are governed. My findings underscore the variation that exists within a particular value chain segment, and show that a single firm can participate in multiple governance arrangements simultaneously—even with the same exchange partner. The expansion of private standards within the beef industry influences these governance types but with uneven effects for producers depending on the nature of the standard (collective versus individual), and thus the degree to which the standard can "lock" upstream producers into particular relationships with particular buyers. Together, governance, environmental pressures, and a generational transition encourage exit from the industry, while a strong commitment to hegemonic masculinity and a work ethic valuing self-reliance and dedication keeps beef producers in a seemingly unprofitable business.