Horses first, carts second

You and I know that if we put the horse before the cart the chances of going anywhere are a million times better than if we put the cart first.

This barnyard variant of Newton’s Second Law is well understood by the hundreds of thousands of cowboys who are not members of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association: Horse first, cart second, giddyup.

Flipping

When it comes to who’s in charge of the national beef checkoff, however, NCBA is, again, attempting to flip the laws of physics — the cart, itself, first; the horse, the checkoff’s Cattlemen’s Beef Board, second; and then well, nothing.

Wrongheaded as that might be, it’s understandable given the fact that $45 million or so flows from the Beef Board to NCBA for checkoff work most years, making NCBA the biggest checkoff hired hand by far. But bucks don’t make it boss.

That job, by law, lies with the 106-member Cattlemen’s Beef Board, appointees of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.

That simple line of authority — the Beef Board, NCBA, giddyup — was established when the checkoff was chartered by Congress in 1985. Eleven years later, however, it became tangled when cattle and meat groups merged. The result, a confusing structure of state and national groups organized under NCBA’s umbrella, gave NCBA dibs on most of the checkoff pie.

In 2011, for example, NCBA “was awarded 93 percent of available [checkoff] program funding,” according to Chuck Kiker, a Texas cattleman who serves on the Beef Board’s operating and budget committees.

That NCBA is the biggest benefactor isn’t an accident; it hardwired it from the start.

According to federal legislation underpinning the checkoff, the Beef Board must, as a June 3 memo from NCBA to the USDA explains, “carry out programs through national nonprofit industry-governed organizations active and ongoing before the enactment of the 1985 law.”

Golly, who might that be? And just so USDA got the clear message as to who that isn’t, the June 3 memo includes this head slap: “…CBB [the checkoff's governing Beef Board] does not qualify as such an organization because it did not exist prior to enactment…”

In fact, the eight-page, June 3 memo to USDA from USDA is a classic exercise in overkill. (Find it, and other supporting documents, at www.farmandfoodfile.com.)

It was written in response to the Beef Board’s March 2011, 20-point proposal to streamline and reform checkoff spending and accountability.

Reforms

The reforms, explains Kiker in a telephone interview June 14, “are not about NCBA because the checkoff doesn’t work for NCBA; NCBA works for the checkoff. The reforms are for every cattleman because every cattleman pays the checkoff.”

That’s not how NCBA sees ‘em; it calls the reforms “dangerous,” “unworkable” and “vague.” What it doesn’t call ‘em is overdue — especially after an audit of just 1 percent of NCBA checkoff contracts for 2008, 2009 and part of 2010 forced NCBA to repay the nearly $217,000 of misspent checkoff money last January. (The amount has since grown; repayment now totals $305,365 and “two areas of billing issues” remain.)

NCBA’s continued refusal to acknowledge needed reforms should send a clear signal to USDA that the beef checkoff, as currently constituted, is corrupt. What else would you call a scheme where — the chief contractor has no competition for millions in annual contracts; a “national” organization-contractor that has fewer than one in 32 cattlemen nationally as members; a sledge-hammer lobbyist who survives largely through nonlobbying funds, checkoff dollars, to underwrite its lobbying; and an organization that continues to repay misallocated checkoff funds.

Call it want you will, but NCBA isn’t in charge of the checkoff. It’s the cart, and without the horse — the Cattlemen’s Beef Board — there’s no giddyup.

(The Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact Alan Guebert at www.farmandfoodfile.com.)

© 2011 ag comm

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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