by Alan Merrill, President Montana Farmers Union
Misinformation about the beef checkoff working group, as well as the overall efficacy of the current beef checkoff program, has been stampeding through cattle country recently. It’s time to set the record straight about the beef checkoff program. The beef industry needs one flexible, adequately funded checkoff program that benefits family farmers and ranchers, not just checkoff-funded policy organizations.
The current checkoff has remained unchanged for almost 30 years, while the beef industry, as a whole has undergone enormous transformations. A combination of the lowering value of the U.S. dollar due to inflation the $1 assessed per head today has less than half the buying power it had when the program was initiated in 1985 combined with a steady decrease in the U.S. cattle herd, has left the beef checkoff program in need of increased funding.
Unfortunately, the single largest impediment to improving the beef checkoff program and making it a more effective marketing tool for U.S. beef is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. That is because NCBA relies on the checkoff program for the lion’s share of its funding, and is thus entrenched in protecting the status quo of the program. In 2013, 97.6 percent of all Beef Board contracts went to NCBA to fund its programs. The only issue NCBA seems willing to agree on is the idea of increasing the checkoff payment, so long as those dollars end up in NCBA’s deep coffers.
At the same time that NCBA controls the beef checkoff dollars, it also lobbies to oppose programs and laws that most checkoff donors support. These include two initiatives that have been the best thing to happen to rural America in decades: Country-of-Origin Labeling and the Renewable Fuel Standard. Unbelievably, NCBA also lobbied to oppose the 2014 Farm Bill, including provisions specifically aimed at helping cattle producers. How terribly ironic.
Clearly, the beef checkoff is begging for change. For more than three years, beef groups from across the nation met to discuss changes to the checkoff program that would make it a more effective marketing and research tool for beef producers. The only thing produced after three years of meetings was a taller and stronger brick wall to reform. In the long run, it became crystal clear that the talks were a bridge to nowhere. As a result National Farmers Union withdrew from the discussions altogether. NFU didn’t walk away because we lacked ideas; we walked away because nobody’s ideas were being heard.
When Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack took notice of the working group’s inability to come to a consensus, he announced USDA would step up its involvement in reform of the checkoff, which was a much-needed action.
USDA has now asked for input from vested interests on exactly what changes are needed to make the beef checkoff the tool producers deserve. NFU will be submitting clear reform recommendations.
The checkoff should fall under the 1996 Commodity Promotion Research and Information Act, which would provide USDA and affected stakeholders with more flexibility than the 1985 Act and provide authority to respond to industry and consumer changes, creating a more responsive checkoff program. The 1996 Act would allow the new program to combat industry changes in shifting demographics, the low number of cattle, and the need for continued research. The new program would be a more effective tool for increasing beef demand both domestically and internationally.
The 1996 Act would also serve to separate the political policy organization (NCBA) from the non-political, promotional checkoff entity. Every other commodity checkoff program in the United States has already done so. The expenditures of checkoff funds in programs such as dairy, cotton and pork are controlled by a non-political, non-policy organization.
What the beef industry needs is a new checkoff system that is devoted to research and market development, but is divorced from all political, policy advocating organizations. Under this model, the new beef checkoff would be flexible and quick to change course when needed while not being controlled by one entity whose key charge is to secure its own funding.
Cattlemen embody the spirit and work ethic that made this nation great. They deserve a checkoff program that works for them, not against them. The best tool against a stampede of misinformation is to counter it with thoughtful and effective recommendations. While we do not support two checkoffs operating concurrently, now is the time to weigh in on what a beef checkoff should look like. USDA is asking for your input, please offer them your guidance and help the beef checkoff make a course correction to avoid running off a cliff.
Alan Merrill is president of Montana Farmers Union and Roger Johnson is president of National Farmers Union.
Source: Montana Farmers Union
Reposted by Jami Howell with permission