Most of the happenings surrounding the issues of the national beef checkoff have been going on behind closed doors and in back rooms. So much so, in fact, that even many of the people actively involved in the program weren’t aware of all the dynamics. But as the information has emerged, several things are crystal clear:
1. There have been breaches of trust and ethics that are simply too egregious to be ignored. While initially there was hope they could be swept under the rug, it’s become obvious that in order to move forward those actions will have to be dealt with proactively.
This unfortunate failure of leadership, however, isn’t something that significantly alters the checkoff or requires significant producer action. The individuals entrusted to be on the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) will respond to protect the checkoff, as it is far more important than any individual.
2. The checkoff has been diverted from its stated purpose of building beef demand and has become the most politically motivated organization in our industry. There are many factions involved, including R-CALF, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Livestock Marketing Association, the Farm Bureau, USDA and others. And, certain issues are driving the political motivations, primarily GIPSA and ethanol, but it encompasses a lot of the issues that have divided the industry in the past (big vs. small, regional, etc.). These issues should never have been allowed to enter the discussion as it relates to the checkoff.
Everyone talks about the firewall that keeps checkoff dollars from being used on policy discussions. While there’s been a lot of discussion about the financial firewall, the mistakes made are largely trivial, and always have been corrected. Maintaining the firewalls is paramount, of course, but what was not anticipated was the checkoff itself moving aggressively into the policy side.
3. This has become highly personal, and is all about the age-old struggle for power; it has very little to do with building beef demand.
4. The powers that be are either unwilling or unable to fix these issues, or to refocus on the stated purpose of building beef demand. All one has to do is read the correspondence and emails to understand that this competition has become too ingrained and too personal for certain individuals to take a step back and to begin working in the best interests of the industry.
For some, this is a cause they believe deeply enough in to sacrifice the checkoff in the short term in order to attain their desired goals. This is a train that’s headed toward a cliff and it will be up to individual producers to step forward and say enough is enough already.
These realities are causing lots of people to start talking about the nuclear option. That is to hold a referendum, vote the checkoff down and try to create something new that will not allow the checkoff to be diverted from its mission of increasing beef demand. But this is a terrible option.
I firmly believe that if individual producers, state cattlemen’s groups and the like stand up and make their voices heard, that individuals will be forced to respond. Many are working internally through the processes to effect positive change and to get the ship righted. Those efforts are commendable and should continue and be redoubled. However, as producers, we need to send the message loud and clear that we will not tolerate the games and personal agendas. Our message should be to make whatever improvements are necessary, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and let’s get back to doing what is important.
We can debate GIPSA, we can argue about ethanol subsidies, we can play the class warfare game trying to pit large producers against small, etc. We also can villianize the various segments and we can battle in the halls of Congress and at USDA over the direction of our industry. But we need to make it known that the checkoff won’t be used as a tool to attain these goals, and that the checkoff needs to be solely focused on building beef demand and spending our dollars as efficiently and effectively as possible.
The checkoff is far too important to the future of our industry to allow it to be dragged down into the political gutter in an effort to influence policy. The CBB’s executive committee has become a policy organization and the new battleground for all the groups that haven’t been able to advance their ideas through the national policy side. This wasn’t what our industry leaders envisioned when they created the current structure. Perhaps the structure is to blame.
We have industry structures in place to create policy and speaking with one voice is more important than ever, but it doesn’t need to be part of the checkoff! Let’s return to the goals that created a unified industry structure and the long-range plan and continue to capture the efficiencies and leverage it created.
The checkoff can be saved, and it can be improved. A recent letter from the Iowa Beef Council was an important first step. It essentially demanded that leaders start focusing on what they are supposed to focus on. It demanded accountability and sent the message that we are not going to allow a few to dictate a course that is not solely directed toward improving beef demand.
It’s time for producers to make it known loud and clear to all parties involved – enough is enough; either get along or we will find someone who can. We don’t need the revolutionary approaches we are being offered; we simply need a bold approach to do what is right.