For the past three years, the Livestock Marketing Association (LMA) has wasted who knows how much industry time and money supposedly in the name of giving producers the right to decide the future of the nation's beef checkoff.
Now, they've effectively removed producers from the decision-making equation by asking the U.S. judicial system to rule that the $1/head checkoff is a violation of producers' First Amendment rights and is therefore unconstitutional.
Never mind the fact that the checkoff written into law back in 1987 has already withstood two constitutional challenges. Never mind the fact that ever since the self-help program came into being, a majority of beef producers in periodic independent surveys have always supported the program. In the most recent survey, 72% said they support the program.
And, never mind the fact the beef checkoff — even if you don't agree with everything it does or how it does it — is the only collective opportunity producers have to pursue research and development in tandem with promotion.
In 1998, LMA began a petition drive for a new referendum. At the time, they said producers were clamoring for the right to vote on whether or not to continue the checkoff. Mind you, they said they weren't against the checkoff but felt like producers should have the right to vote on its continuation.
In fact, at the time, LMA's director of information told this reporter, “We have not called for abolition of the checkoff. We have called for the chance to listen to the voice of every producer in this country… We support the checkoff.”
Time does change things, doesn't it?
Beef cattle producers were so enthusiastic about a referendum that LMA couldn't even come up with the required 107,000 or so signatures (approximately 10% of beef producers). That's even after asking USDA for and receiving an additional six months to collect signatures, with the right to choose which 12-month collection period to use for counting.
By the way, during that process, USDA warned LMA about deceptive practices in getting producers to sign the petition. Of the 127,927 signatures LMA submitted, only 83,464 were deemed as valid by an independent firm.
Of course, LMA challenged USDA's counting process. In fact, the court was considering this challenge when LMA elevated the stakes of the game by asking for the checkoff to be declared unconstitutional.
The Checkoff Record
One of the tired arguments naysayers of the checkoff like to hoist up the flagpole of rhetoric is that nothing much has been accomplished after spending all of these checkoff dollars.
Hmmmm…lessee…there's been a reversal in declining beef demand. There are mountains of beef convenience products where there were none before. And, beef has more top-of-the-mind awareness with consumers than ever before.
Oh, then there's that muscle-profiling thing that increases the value of the lower-priced chuck and round. There's also research that helped spawn objective instrument-augmented yield grading, and there's tenderness research that is already helping producers select for it genetically. The list goes on.
In fact, one recent independent study says each checkoff dollar invested has returned more than $5. Is that correct? Who knows. In light of the returns mentioned above, it's gravy.
Is the checkoff solely responsible for all of these accomplishments? Of course not. Has the checkoff been a catalyst behind making lots of this stuff happen by starting the wheels turning? You bet. And, beef producers should pat themselves on the back for willingly investing in their futures.
Are Auction Markets The Enemy?
What's so frustrating about LMA's tail-chasing the last few years is that it's hard to equate the destructive stance of the organization with the continued constructiveness of its members. After all, auction markets continue to provide cattle producers with valuable marketing services and the industry the luxury of having a dynamic, real-time price discovery system.
Some have even led the charge and invented systems for making value-added pay at pasture level. Plus, in many communities, the auction market is the go-to place for advice and support.
Of course, let's not forget these folks are paid for their efforts. Like every cow/calf producer who decides to remain in the industry, these folks have chosen to be in the business.
Surely, money can't be the root of the problem. At $1/head, whether you're talking a 5-weight calf or a fed steer, producers are paying less than 0.005% to have research and promotion that wouldn't exist otherwise. And, there is a cost of participation in any business.
It's a mystery. What is apparent, however, is that the checkoff has made the industry stronger than it would have been without it. Rather than debating whether folks should pay $1/head, the conversation should be whether it's high time the industry upped the ante to $1.50 or $2/head.
Whether or not the beef checkoff is declared unconstitutional, odds are this cat fight is far from over.
Call your local auction market. Ask them where they stand on the issue. If they're against the checkoff, ask them what alternative they propose would offer the same returns of the current checkoff at such a low cost.
Call your legislators, too. Let them know you support the right to invest in your future and demand they help make that right possible.