Of all the political hot rocks farm groups are juggling now in Washington, D.C. — cap-and-trade, cuts in crop insurance, shrinking farm program budgets — I’ll bet you a cup of coffee you cannot name the issue that recently united ag heavyweights as diverse as the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union.
That issue (cream and sugar, please) is the proposed changes in governance at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association that will give it a virtual lock on the tens of millions of dollars spent each year by the mandatory beef checkoff.
The move didn’t go unnoticed by several farm groups. On March 18 they sent a toughly-worded, four-page letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that suggested NCBA’s grab “will further erode the separation between the check-off side and the policy side” and “will move the checkoff toward more exclusivity rather than inclusivity.”
What that means west of the Potomac, explains Nancy Robinson, vice president of government and industry affairs at the Livestock Marketing Association, is that checkoff-paying producers who are not members of NCBA — and 32 out of every 33 American cattle owners are not — need to be heard in checkoff issues.
“There’s a real sense that the proposed NCBA changes leave no strong role for state beef councils and non-NCBA members,” says Robinson. (LMA signed the March 18 letter.)
“Who speaks for them if these changes are adopted?”
It’s a question the ag powerhouses privately posed to NCBA months ago. Getting no clear answer, they asked the secretary for one.
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, after all, has oversight of all federally chartered commodity checkoffs. Importantly, too, recent Supreme Court decisions clearly labeled checkoffs “government speech,” which, say several checkoff observers, makes USDA the first among equals in how checkoff dollars are collected, budgeted and spent.
Which is exactly the point the farm groups’ letter makes: “There are currently 18 active research and promotion programs for agricultural products. These programs are overseen by the Agricultural Marketing Service of USDA, but are run by producers for the benefit of all producers who invest in the programs.”
In fact, the letter continues, “In every program, except the beef checkoff, the checkoff boards USDA appoints have complete control over the expenditure of the funds. In the case of the beef checkoff, NCBA currently controls the budgeting and spending of a large portion of checkoff funds.”
So what gives? Why is NCBA now reaching for all beef checkoff bucks it can grab?
According to long-time NCBA critic, Bill Bullard, CEO of R-CALF USA, an 8,000-member cattle group based in Billings, Mont., NCBA needs the money.
“The proposed changes will give it more access to checkoff dollars and without those extra dollars, NCBA probably can’t exist,” says Bullard.
“This is all about the future of NCBA, not the future of the checkoff.”
As might be expected, NCBA didn’t take kindly to the farm groups’ letter.
On March 22, it fired back with its own five-page letter to the secretary “to correct several errors” it claimed the farm groups made in theirs.
The closing sentence of the NCBA letter, however, confirms what the farm groups and Bullard say is behind the proposed changes:
“We are convinced,” wrote the cowboys, “these improvements will enable NCBA to better serve the checkoff-paying cattle farmers and ranchers of America.”
Good grief, it’s not about what’s best for NCBA. It’s about what’s best for the more than 800,000 U.S. cattle owners and beef importers who pay nearly $80 million per year to the checkoff.
Had it been more about cattle owners than cattle groups, maybe beef demand would have risen, not fallen, in 17 of the beef checkoff’s 23-year, nearly $1.8 billion life.