Debate continues over beef checkoff

It wouldn’t be a new year without the big players in the $80 million-per-year beef checkoff — the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, the Federation of Qualified State Beef Councils and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association — squaring off over checkoff money, programs and control.

And so it is again as members of this tall-walker trinity gather Feb. 2 in Denver for the annual Cows and Cowboys Convention. (Its official name is longer and less descriptive.)

This year’s, like last year’s, will feature bulls, bullies and, well … The backdrop will be two documents that, again, place the checkoff’s biggest contractor, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in unflattering light.

Questionable spending

The first is a detailed resolution of last summer’s “compliance review” of CBB checkoff contracts with NCBA that revealed enormous amounts of questionable spending by the politically active, narrow-based group.

In a Jan. 7 letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Tom Ramey, the CBB’s boss, reported $216,944 of checkoff spending — including $140,390 by NCBA and $67,645 by the Federation of Qualified State Beef Councils, which also hires the NCBA for checkoff work — will be “reimbursed” to the CBB.

The simplest explanation for this repayment is because the review uncovered systemic problems in NCBA’s handling of checkoff money.

Resolution

For example, the 23-page resolution document reveals that:

• NCBA charged the checkoff $7,666 for legal work on NCBA trademarks and other items “to maintain (NCBA’s) existence;”

• NCBA billed the checkoff $15,922 in credit card charges that lacked “sufficient information;”

• the Federation and NCBA charged the checkoff $59,598 and $28,082, respectfully, for a “senior staff member’s time and expenses not approved” by the checkoff, and

• NCBA spent $6,919 in checkoff money to cover fees to a charity golf event sponsored by — believe it or not — NCBA.

Defense

Oftentimes, more revealing than getting caught with too many checkoff cookies is NCBA’s defense of getting caught.

For example, when questioned why it nicked checkoff-paying cattlemen $3,592 for a “senior staff member… spouse’s travel to New Zealand,” a flagrant violation of USDA checkoff rules, NCBA maintained that its “employment agreement” with the staffer “provides for spouse travel…”

So NCBA benefits trump federal rules?

Who’s in charge? The second controversial document the meeting will kick around is a four-page draft of the federation’s “Charter of Principles.” (The federation is the overarching structure of state cattle groups which, by law, control 50 percent of all checkoff funds. Most spend much of the money with NCBA, also the CBB’s chief contractor.)

While the draft begins with the heady declaration that the Charter will serve as a “framework for appropriate independence in Federation decision-making,” it then guts that very idea by bringing its hired camel into the tent.

In an item listed as “6. Senior Executive,” the draft explains that “NCBA’s chief executive officer shall appoint a senior management executive who shall report to the NCBA chief executive officer and serve as the point person for Federation activities.”

Who is in charge?

So who’s running the Federation, its state members or NCBA?

Need it be pointed out — again — that 32 out 33 U.S. cattle producers voluntarily choose not to be NCBA members?

Why then is pint-sized NCBA essentially controlling 50 percent of all checkoff cash through its “management” ties to the Federation? NCBA critics like the Billings, MT-based R-CALF say these latest revelations — again — point to the need to reform the 25-year-old checkoff.

Why, it asks, does the NCBA enjoy a virtual lock on $50 million or so of checkoff contracts per year when — again — questions over its management of checkoff programs surface any time anyone looks? What do you think?

Go to www.farmandfoodfile.com to read the documents the cowboys will be discussing when they park their ponies in Denver. Unlike most of travel, dinners and golf enjoyed by NCBA officials, however, it won’t cost you a penny.

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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