Beef checkoff to NCBA: Drop dead

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In a toughly worded statement June 22, the executive committee of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, the group created by Congress to collect and oversee the $1-per-head beef checkoff, served notice that it strongly backed the independence of the Federation of State Beef Councils in the ongoing debate over the checkoff’s future.

Declaring independence

“The Federation,” noted the CBB “should be separate from any policy organization… The checkoff is owned by, and responsible to, all producers and importers, and no specific organization.”

The declaration of independence was aimed directly at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. For almost two years, NCBA has been designing and debating a massive “governance” plan to pull state beef councils under its meatpacker-dominated umbrella.

Several state councils, who, by law, control 50 percent of all checkoff funds (the Cattlemen’s Beef Board controls the other half), view the plan as little more than a NCBA grab for a chunk of the $80 million or so per year checkoff.

Reorganization?

NCBA, however, says reorganization is necessary so the “industry” can move forward, as its CEO Forrest Roberts explained in January, with “one vision, one plan, one budget and one voice.”

All this oneness has one big problem, though: Almost no one outside of NCBA — and that’s nearly everyone because 32 out every 33 checkoff-paying producers choose not to be NCBA members — want anything to do with it and its Big Meat buddies.

Worse, the governance plan hopes to fold one-half of the non-political checkoff, the state councils, into the almost purely political NCBA. As such, the biggest naysayer is Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the final word on all federally-chartered checkoffs like the beef program.

In a mid-May letter to NCBA President Steve Foglesong, Vilsack observed that NCBA’s “reorganization would weaken the firewall between policy and checkoff funded activities.”

The move, the secretary noted, was in direct opposition to other checkoff groups who were building “a stronger firewall between” checkoffs and political players.

USDA Approval?

Vilsack went on to list seven elements NCBA needed to incorporate into any governance restructuring if it was to get USDA’s seal of approval for the change.

After that clear admonishment, says one state beef rep, NCBA leaders went “back to Denver and did little more than shuffle the deck;” made few elemental changes to it plans to address the Secretary’s concerns.

“NCBA just doesn’t get it,” the person says. “The federation represents one-half of all checkoff dollars and 30 times more cattlemen than NCBA. We have said repeatedly that we want more independence of NCBA, not less. So what’s NCBA’s big plan? It gives us less. Unbelievable.”

NCBA opposition

Proof of NCBA’s tin ear — and the packer lard that greases its policy positions — came June 18 after Vilsack proposed new rules to make it easier and less costly for livestock and poultry growers to challenge meatpacker and packer-integrator market power.

The announcement was loudly hailed as bold and innovative by ag groups as politically polar as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union.

The one major commodity group to oppose the proposed rules? Yep, NCBA. Its major objection, noted by Prez Foglesong later that day, would make a Wall Street banker blush.

One vision?

The proposed rules were unneeded “efforts to increase government intrusion in the marketplace.” Golly, this must be part of that “one vision, one plan, one budget, one voice” thing because only one person out of 100 would call more oversight in today’s livestock and poultry markets “government intrusion.”

Little wonder 32 out 33 cowboys choose not to join NCBA. It clearly doesn’t represent working cattlemen and, as such, it clearly should have a smaller — not larger — role in the checkoff that 33 out of 33 pay.

About the Author

Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com More Stories by Alan Guebert

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