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Do We Take The High Or The Low Road?

While the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) debacle came to a head this week with the resignation of CEO Tom Ramey, it really began with letters delivered in the last two weeks as state cattlemen’s organizations and beef councils started weighing in.

Several months ago, the letters were telling the CBB leadership to merely get their act together and knock off the political games. The letters that began arriving more recently – from Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Florida, Colorado, Ohio, Nebraska, Georgia and numerous other states – were pretty hard to ignore. They essentially carried two messages:

• One focused on the Rules and Responsibilities document and the serious concerns state leaders had over it.

• The other raised concerns about the radical restructuring and asked for the resignation of the CEO and chairman of the CBB in light of what had transpired.

Almost universally, the Rules and Responsibilities document was condemned as a significant overreach by the CBB Executive Committee. It was seen as an attempt to usurp power from state beef councils and their representatives as well as to consolidate that new power under the authority and control of the CBB Executive Committee.

To his credit, CBB CEO Tom Ramey made the decision to resign. Meanwhile, CBB Chairman Tom Jones has been out of the country so it’s not known how he will respond to the demands for his resignation. This was a step that had to be taken for there to be a chance at rebuilding trust and moving forward again.

While most consider it a positive first step, it merely begins the process of putting us in a position to start moving forward. There are still important issues to be resolved. The resignation(s) merely returns us to the crossroads; as an industry we still have to decide whether to take the high road or the low road.

The high road is to begin to focus, once again, on building beef demand and making the environment better for beef producers. The low road is to degenerate into another political war that ultimately leads to the destruction of the checkoff.

While the overwhelming majority of the industry is demanding the industry move forward and look ahead in a positive manner, a minority still is intent on pushing their political agenda regardless of the ultimate consequences. While there are emotions and bitterness that only time will heal, we are at the point where we either decide to quit fighting or decide to fight to the death.

After being forwarded the response letters sent to state cattlemen’s associations by certain CBB members who are ardent opponents of policies of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), it’s obvious that some believe that damaging NCBA is worth any cost. Thankfully, most have rejected these attempts to divide the industry and are rejecting these games, seeing them for what they are.

This whole fiasco has been filled with ironies. The first is that no one believes there was any type of attempt to use checkoff funds inappropriately or that the CBB failed in its primary goal of assuring compliance. Secondly, no one believes the work done by NCBA or the state beef councils on behalf of the beef industry in building demand has been anything but exemplary. The results have been phenomenal.

It’s ironic that we have always worried about checkoff funds being used for political purposes, and guarded that firewall fiercely, but didn’t anticipate that other groups would use the checkoff as a political weapon.

There are other ironies as well:

• We were always worried that NCBA would somehow benefit from being the primary contractor, but never anticipated that its role in building beef demand would be used as a means to damage its brand.

• We worried about having enough producer control of the program and avoiding the power the government asserted in other commodity checkoff programs, yet we are seeing efforts to consolidate power with an Executive Committee that is politically appointed.

• We worried about efficiency and duplication of efforts, yet a return to the structure that created those very inefficiencies is now being advocated.

• We were always aware of those groups that wanted to destroy the checkoff and even challenged it in court, yet those very groups were embraced while the biggest long-term supporters of the checkoff were ostracized.

But perhaps the greatest irony is that some people were somehow able to convince others that demand building was political by its nature and thus justified the inclusion of political games in the administration of the checkoff. Perhaps this irony is also the most damning. When one takes a step back and tries to analyze all that’s transpired, there are only a couple of results – damage to NCBA and the checkoff brands. Neither outcome should be considered a worthy goal.

One thing that needs no explanation is that we all have a stake in building beef demand. A rising tide raises all ships. Yet, we advanced a radical restructuring of the checkoff under the false assumption that building demand has political ramifications.

I asked leader after leader for examples of where one project designed to build beef demand helped one region over another, or one size of producer over another, or even one segment over another. They could not cite a single example.

There’s no escaping the conclusion that this sad episode was always about policy, and those who oppose NCBA’s policy positions believing they could hurt NCBA by attacking it through the checkoff.

Further, there was irony in attempts at consolidation of power to the Executive Committee by taking it away from the state beef councils and operating committee. We voted down two referendums because we didn’t want government appointees running the checkoff. Yet, had that consolidation of power been successful, the result would have taken power away from volunteer leaders.

Lastly, nobody believes such a change would have altered who the primary contractor is or would be. There simply is no other organization other than NCBA with the skill sets or desire to undertake the work. NCBA operates its checkoff-funded efforts on a cost-recovery basis; there is no profit in it. And, NCBA doesn’t get paid until the job is done, so NCBA must bear the cost of carrying out all the projects before it gets paid.

Though it’s taken awhile to get here, we’re now approaching the critical crossroads. Without question, there will be lingering bitterness for quite some time, and it will take time to rebuild this fractured trust. However, for the good of the industry, there must be a point where both sides put down their weapons and return to the business with which they are charged.

This isn’t the end but rather a beginning. As an industry, we can’t allow ourselves to be dragged down this road again. If it isn’t about building beef demand, then it shouldn’t be part of the checkoff discussion.

The CBB, the Federation of State Beef Councils, NCBA and individual producers have made it clear they don’t want to go down this path again. We must do what is right for the industry, and it’s time to ensure that a radical fringe of politically motivated individuals never again use the checkoff as their own personal political weapon.

I salute all those individuals who stood up and made their voices heard. It’s allowed us to reach this critical juncture. There is only one way that the industry wins, and that is if we all decide that now is the time to retake the high road.