Cubs and cattlemen: Paying to lose

Chicago Cubs baseball fans and American cow-calf ranchers have two things in common. First, they can’t win for losing and, second, they pay heavily for the right to do just that.

For example, on April 15, Tom Ricketts, chairman of the Cubs, announced plans to update the 99-year-old home of the team, Wrigley Field. The $500 million renovation includes a new hotel, “more extended beer sales,” and a 6,000-sq.-ft. scoreboard above Wrigley’s hallowed centerfield bleachers.

“If this plan is approved,” boasted Ricketts, “we will win the World Series for our city.”

Given the plan — to spend a half billion bucks on beer and bricks and not one cent on anyone who can actually play baseball — it’s no surprise that the Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908, have not played in a Series since World War II and, just 13 games into the 2013 season, wallow five games under .500.

In the cattle world

The Cubs of the cowboy set are cow-calf folks, the broad base of the $67 billion cattle sector.

These folks pull calves in February blizzards, make hay in July heat and fight feedlot owners for a fair price every day.

And every time they move a feeder or stocker animal off the ranch, they get nicked a $1-per-head by the beef checkoff, the now 27-year-old, non-refundable federal program that has spent upwards of $1.7 billion to research and promote beef.

Trouble is, cowboys don’t sell beef; they sell calves, animals that will be fed for slaughter (almost always) by someone else.

Meatpackers don’t pay the checkoff but do sell beef. Any value delivered after a generation of checkoff “investment” by ranchers and feeders on new products or new markets goes directly to their pockets, not cowboy saddlebags.

Who speaks for them? The cowboys know it. That’s why more than 96 percent of ‘em choose not to join the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the meatpacker-heavy group that has been awarded about $1.3 billion of all checkoff money since 1986.

NCBA claims to be the “national trade association representing U.S. cattle producers,” yet its own membership numbers, if believed, show just “28,000 individual members” out of an American cowboy universe that tops 700,000.

This Big Beef Club is one of those unique, two-faced organizations you see only in American agriculture. While it cannot exist without — by law — the apolitical, $50 million or so of beef checkoff money it receives each year, 82.5 percent of its operating budget, it is purely a political organization known on Capitol Hill and state capitals for its sledge hammer lobbying.

Those lobbying efforts extend to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, too.

On April 3, USDA released overdue results of its years-in-the-making “Oversight of the Beef Research and Promotions Board’s Activities.” The reveiw, claimed the report from USDA’s Office of Inspector General, proved that the checkoff “complied with legislation.”

That’s a remarkable statement in light of the following admission just six pages later:

“We found that AMS” — USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, the oversight agency for all 20 federal commodity checkoffs — “had not developed its management procedures to adequately make determinations that the beef checkoff funds were collected, distributed, and expended in accordance with the Act and Order and to ensure transparency.”

In fact, it’s worse than that: After nearly 27 years and $1.7 billion, AMS has never audited the beef checkoff to see if the producer money was collected and spent in “accordance” to the law to “ensure transparency.”

Not even your church’s Sunday School leader gets that kind of pass.

So how does USDA know that NCBA complied with checkoff law if it never audited NCBA’s books?

Why do cattlemen continue to support a program that sends part of their hard-earned income to a political organization far more in tune with packers than producers? Why did 2.9 million fans pay to go to Wrigley Field last year to watch one of baseball’s legendary bad teams lose 101 out of 162 games?

It’s a mystery — although that last one, I’m guessin‘, might have something to do with beer.

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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