Ready, Willing and Abell
Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s newly elected president brings fresh perspective, unique background to role.
Story by Katrina Huffstutler | Photos by Jerod Foster
When Hughes Abell was a young boy, he’d often tag along with his father. The family’s fertilizer business was thriving, and there was no shortage of farms and ranches to visit. It didn’t take him long to figure out exactly who he wanted to be — and what he’d wear when he did it.
“My favorite guys were the gentlemen who wore light-colored shirts, khaki pants and a small-brimmed hat,” he says. “They just made a big impression on me.”
Today, so long as the occasion permits, you can find Hughes in the same uniform, a tribute to those who instilled a love for the land and livestock in him.
But the Monroe, Louisiana, native didn’t dive right into ranching. Instead, he spent his young adult years studying and working to develop the business know-how and the capital required to follow his dream successfully.
Abell attended and graduated from Vanderbilt University where he studied business and history. Immediately after, he went to work for a bank in Nashville. But just two years later, when his father, along with others, started a fertilizer business on the Texas Gulf Coast, Hughes moved to Texas and joined the company as sales manager. After eight successful years, he returned to Louisiana to manage his family’s fertilizer and plastics companies.
In 1995, Abell sold his interest in the family business and moved to Texas for good, following his dream to be a rancher. Before he and his family — wife, Betsy, and kids, Lucy and Sam — even arrived at their new home, there was a blue posted sign hanging on the fence.
He’d learned of Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association during his first stint in Texas. As Abell drove the countryside selling fertilizer, he was impressed by the number of posted signs he saw and decided he’d have one too, one day.
September 16, during the Cattle Raisers Virtual Convention, Abell was elected president of the association.
“It is a tremendous honor,” Abell says of the role. “This organization has meant so much to me, especially as a newcomer all those years ago. I got a warm welcome and made some new friends right away. Joining TSCRA was the best way to get to know some of the nicest people and the best cattlemen and cattlewomen in the country, and it’s humbling to be able to give back in this way.”
The right man for the job
When Abell first began acquiring land to run cattle, he says he had high standards — and wanted to make sure each place was multi-purpose.
“We’ve looked for land that doesn’t just have advantages from an agricultural standpoint, but land that would also grow in value because of its location and beauty,” he explains.
Abell’s ranches also bring in revenue from hunting and agritourism and have served as the setting for numerous movies and advertisements.
It’s the kind of diverse business you’d expect from someone with his background.
A background that Shelby Horn, who has worked with Abell since 2008, says serves him well on the ranch — and will in his new volunteer leadership position, too.
“Hughes has a real passion for agriculture in general, but particularly the cattle industry,” Horn says. “Couple that with his business acumen, and it makes him uniquely qualified to lead.”
Chick Burney, who began partnering with and working for Abell soon after meeting him (when Abell purchased land Burney had been leasing), agrees.
“He’s incredibly smart,” Burney says. “It’s unbelievable how quickly he learned the cattle business. When we first started working together, he’d throw out an idea, and I’d tell him, ‘No, you don’t want to do that.’ I’d explain why, and he understood. And then hardly any time passed at all before he was coming to me with ideas that were so good, I’d wonder, ‘Why didn’t we ever think of that?’”
He says Abell’s unique experiences from other business ventures brought fresh perspective and invaluable insight.
“I told people at my retirement party, I never went to college, but the 20 years I spent with Hughes Abell was better than a master’s degree,” Burney says.
Both men say Abell’s mindset is one of his greatest attributes, though.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with Hughes and one thing I’ve noticed — that anyone will notice — is he is such a positive person,” Horn says. “He does not get mired down in things that are negative.”
Of course, in ranching, it’s not always sunshine and roses. But Horn says Hughes is a pro at tackling the problem and then getting on with it.
“Sometimes tough things happen,” Horn says. “Sometimes you have to have difficult conversations. But every time we do, Hughes will come out of there saying, ‘OK, onward and upward!’ His philosophy is, ‘Let’s talk about this, let’s find the solution and then let’s move on and move up.’ I’m anxious to see that applied in his work as TSCRA president. The association is in a good place, but I know during his leadership it will go keep going onward and upward.”
Burney adds, Hughes is “just a really good person.”
“I don’t care who you are, if he has ever met you and he sees you walking down the street, he’ll walk across the street to come shake your hand and he’ll call you by name,” Burney says.
Looking down the road
Abell says Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association has many strengths, and he’ll do his best to capitalize on those in the next 18 months.
“We have the best staff a member organization could hope for,” he says. “This team is talented, passionate, and they work tirelessly for cow-calf producers. We’ve made some changes over the last couple of years, and it’s meant noticeable change, and improved programs and services for every landowner with a blue POSTED sign.
“We also have a tremendous network. We know we’re stronger together, and there is truly room for every producer at our table. When we work side-by-side, we can accomplish great things.”
Of course, he admits there are challenges, too. Not just internally, but in the industry as well.
“In an organization of this size, it’s hard to know everyone,” Abell says. “One of my priorities is to deepen the sense of community and camaraderie among cattle raisers. Our new member portal will be one of many tools we use to accomplish that goal.”
He says even though the association is more than 17,000 memberships strong, it must grow to remain relevant and sustainable.
“We will do that by improving our outreach efforts and hope all members will do their part, too — by sharing why they’re a member of TSCRA and why they think their friends and neighbors would benefit, too,” he notes.
In Austin and Washington, Abell says the association will continue to fight to protect the ranching way of life.
It’s a big job — especially for someone who already wears many (small-brimmed) hats. But Horn says especially in these unprecedented times, an association could benefit big from someone with Abell’s long-term focus.
“Not long after I came to work for Hughes, he shared a quote he’d coined back when he was in the fertilizer business,” Horn says. “Plan for the long-term, perform in the short-term and get better every day. I’m anxious to see that implemented and exemplified by his leadership. Because that’s really who he is — someone who plans for the long-term, makes sure we’re executing in the short-term and makes us better every day.”
This story originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of The Cattleman magazine, Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association’s flagship publication. Join today to start your subscription.