The gift that keeps on giving

If you’re an ag-dependent advertising agency, a commodity organization hired hand or an ag journalist who can’t do math, commodity checkoffs are a gift that just keeps on giving.

The most recent checkoff gift comes courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General.

The OIG released a 29-page report Jan. 31 on the less-than-thorough, 2013 USDA report — this one issued its Agricultural Marketing Service — that outlined AMS’ poor oversight of federally-chartered beef checkoff.

Do-overs

You read that right: because of weak USDA reporting on shenanigans inside federal checkoffs, the department’s inspector general was called in to research, write and file a USDA report on a previously researched, written and filed — and now buried — USDA report.

Not one farmer or rancher could make this stuff up but they (and you) finance the checkoff hired hands who do make it up and, now, the government gatekeepers who seem to close gates long after the cash cows wander off.

The 2013 examination was the first, hard look by USDA into the then-decades old, non-refundable beef promotion effort. It covered the years 2008-2010, when the checkoff brought in an average $81 million per year, $53 million of which ended up in the saddlebags of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, or NCBA, the checkoff’s largest, single contractor.

In fact, according to the 2014 OIG report, 82.3 percent of “NCBA’s total funding” during that period came from the checkoff while the remainder, less than 18 percent, derived from actual members and other services.

Reason

Why this matters came to the fore again last month, when NCBA lobbied fiercely against the three-years-in-the-making farm bill. NCBA opposed the bill because, said NCBA President Scott George, it contained “mistakes like Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling” — COOL — that “already have resulted in steep discounts.”

Neither George nor the NCBA offered one fact, figure or rib-eye to substantiate the claim.

Moreover, poll after poll show nearly 90 percent of all Americans believe COOL is anything but a mistake. U.S. consumers view it as important tool used to purchase food.

Fail

In the end, NCBA’s lobbying failed. Had it succeeded — had Congress voted down the just-passed law — NCBA also would have succeeded in killing an innovative, multi-billion-dollar livestock disaster relief program that was included in the farm bill.

What kind of group lobbies against its own customers interests, COOL and its own members’ critically important disaster program? The kind that gets over 80 percent of its budget from a non-refundable, never audited, 25-year-old government-mandated program that the government itself says needs better transparency, more review and “improved procedures for contract compliance.”

Curiously, NCBA’s anti-American consumer, anti-American cattleman push came within three days of OIG issuing its formal review of the 2013 checkoff review. The cowboys claimed the Jan. 31 report substantiated the 2013 results, a hard fact to prove since USDA pulled that report from the AMS website. (Links to substantiating documents are posted at http://farmandfoodfile.com/in-the-news/.)

An honest assessment, however, would include what the OIG did say in 2014, not what some embarrassed cowhand claims it said in 2013. According to the January report, the OIG “concludes” that AMS’s poor “internal control function” has led to a “reduced assurance that beef checkoff funds were collected, distributed and expended in accordance with the Act and Order.”

Call for action

By itself, that should push every U.S. cattleman to demand USDA conduct a full audit of the beef checkoff’s contracts with NCBA for the first time since 1988, re-examine the structure that delivers the majority of all beef checkoff money to a contractor that openly and actively lobbies against American cattlemen and do a cost-benefit analysis on whether the checkoff is even relevant today.

Talk about a gift to every cattleman.

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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