Producers Must Act Now To Save Their Beef Checkoff Program

Producers Must Act Now To Save Their Beef Checkoff Program

Get three cattlemen in a room at any given time and you’re virtually assured of not having a unanimity of opinion. So, who would have thought that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack would have been the one to unite the beef industry?

Vilsack has been quoted several times lately telling a story about how he was trying to guide his two sons to the right path. When his two sons couldn’t agree, he says, he’d step in with a solution that neither of them would find palatable. At least, Vilsack, says, they could agree on one thing – they both didn’t like his suggestion.

That’s the justification he’s given for his recent action in proposing a supplemental checkoff under the 1996 Generic Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act. As with his boys, Vilsack got it right again, because cattlemen and cattlewomen are in agreement that they do not like his attempt to circumvent the 1985 Act and create a new checkoff that USDA will control and direct. Believe it or not, Vilsack has succeeded in uniting the U.S. beef industry. 

I think Vilsack’s analogy has several glaring shortcomings. First of all, cattlemen and cattlewomen aren’t children. More importantly, however, while Vilsack may believe he’s some sort of paternal figure who must look out for us, cattlemen and women are independent, thoughtful and able adults who don’t need the administration to jump in and help.

Perhaps some individuals in the industry see the government as the answer to all their problems, but that’s never been the overall industry’s perspective. In an industry this size there will always be politics and differences. However, anytime you can get 80% support of a program, I think that signifies there is no problem. Vilsack is trying to remedy what amounts to a landslide election result.

Sign The White House Petition To Stop USDA's Checkoff Plans
A small window remains for concerned cattlemen to act to save their national checkoff program. Sign the White House petition on the checkoff issue here.

 

Nobody believes the 1985 beef checkoff act is perfect, but virtually everyone seems to agree that it’s much superior to generic checkoff act of 1996. For review, the 1985 Act was developed by beef producers for beef producers to increase demand for beef. It protected and incorporated the vital role played by the qualified State Beef Councils and the Federation of State Beef Councils.

Perhaps most importantly, it limited the government’s role in exercising control of the checkoff. While the USDA Secretary appoints members to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, which does give the government ultimate control, those appointments have to be cattle producers. Plus, while importers are allowed to participate in the program, they also are forced to pay into the checkoff.

USDA Secretary Vilsack, Photo Credit: Alex Wong / Staff / Getty Images

Meanwhile, the 1996 Act specifically says it isn’t intended for commodity groups that have their own act, but rather to promote commodities for which no legislation has been created. The 1996 Act gives government free rein; it doesn’t have to respect the role of the state beef councils. It also allows for expenses to take up to 15% of the checkoff, and we all know the government would require at least three times that much to accomplish half as much work.

Under that law, the USDA Secretary also has free rein to appoint members from the general public. I, for one, am not keen on groups like the Humane Society of the United States deciding how beef promotion dollars will be spent. In addition, importers no longer would be required to pay in, and the list goes on.

I certainly would expect that Vilsack would incorporate many of the good aspects of the current checkoff into a new program, but that then begs the question of why even bother creating another program? The answer is simple: the government wants the control and our dollars. There is no other conclusion.

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What nobody disputes is that the checkoff has been both quite successful in building demand, and amazingly efficient in spending our dollars. And it’s amazed me how the industry has united behind this cause. No one contends that the 1996 Act is better for the industry, and some believe Vilsack’s move is aimed at ending the 1985 checkoff. I think that’s a strong possibility. After all, the implementation of the ’96 Act would signal dramatic changes to the checkoff.

Some might argue this would be a good thing in the long run, as states would just accelerate the trend of creating their own state checkoffs. Such programs allow states to control the dollars, and likely would use the current infrastructure that is the envy of all commodity groups. Thus, producers and states would gain larger control and avoid the overbearing influence of the federal government as the current checkoff becomes irrelevant. However, it would take at least five years for the industry to recreate the wheel, and we would lose valuable time and ground in the process. 

Producers support current checkoff

Every poll shows that around 80% of beef producers support the current checkoff. It will be up to those producers to stop the government’s attempt to take it over. Vilsack can’t retreat, he’s made his decision, and producers have a very narrow window to stop USDA’s implementation of the 1996 Act and takeover of the checkoff.

If Vilsack is incapable of listening to, or unmoved by, the strong opinions of cattle producers in support of the 1985 Act, it leaves the industry two options:

  • Get the Obama administration to step in and pressure Vilsack.  The Obama administration has many issues with a much higher priority right now, but there’s a petition on the White House website on this issue. If producers sign it in volume, it perhaps will get the White House’s attention. Go to http://wh.gov/i3Hdh to sign the petition. Just click on enter your name and it is added to the petition. It is critical that producers sign up, and have your voice heard.
     
  • Convince Congress to step forward and let Vilsack know that it created the beef checkoff and he should respect that.

I truly believe the first option is important, but largely symbolic. It’s crucial to get the White House’s attention, but congressional pressure is what will ultimately stop Vilsack if anything can.

The industry has fought long and hard to make the checkoff as successful as it is. The federal government is attempting to reverse all that work in a very short period of time, with very little input from the cattle industry. The enemies of the beef industry are rallying to encourage Vilsack; they know it would destroy the beef act and producer control.

It’s time for every producer to have their voice heard. It’s not enough to say you support building beef demand and celebrate the success of the program. As producers, we’re now being called upon to stop the government taking over the checkoff. It’s our responsibility to immediately pick up the phone and make our feelings heard. One man cannot change the course of our industry unless we simply allow him to act without speaking out. Every industry must at times act to preserve itself for the next generation; this is one of those moments.

 

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com and the Farm Progress Group.
 

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