It’s a safe bet that before March 1, USDA officials never heard of the Cattle Producers of Louisiana. It’s also a safe bet that by March 2, USDA bigwigs not only knew about the bayou ‘boys, they also knew at least one of ’em could write a mean letter.
That letter, dated March 1 and sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, begins with a simple declarative sentence: “The Beef Checkoff is broken.”
Dave Foster, CEO of the Louisiana group and the letter writer, goes on to note the “ethically dismal situation” between checkoff’s operator, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, and its primary contractor, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Making a bad situation worse, he adds, is that required government oversight of both “appear(s) to exist only as a concept rather than an operational reality.”
The heart of the problem, Foster points out, is the 1996 merger that all but married the newly formed Federation of State Beef Councils to the reformed NCBA. While the federation was deemed to be independent, its members — who control 50 cents of every beef checkoff dollar — have moved more and more to NCBA’s side of the bed.
Indeed, NCBA is so open in its role at the federation that a March 21 NCBA news release trumpeted the recent election of New Mexico cow/calf producer Jane Frost, a member of NCBA’s national executive committee, as a regional vice president of the federation.
“There is no effort to even disguise who is in charge of the federation,” says one state beef leader who noticed the two-hatted jobs now held by Frost. “It’s NCBA, and any question about it all but ensures you’ll be marginalized.”
That charge is echoed by the Louisiana cowboys.
“It is unknown what the political preferences and policy desires are of the 90 percent-plus of nationally unaffiliated (with NCBA) cattle producers… However, it is reasonable to believe… (they) would like to make policy and political decisions that involve their money for themselves and not have those decisions made for them by an organization they have avoided (and chosen) not to join.”
The Cajuns then take a step few dare to take: They dig into NCBA’s recent tax filings to see just how much the checkoff means to the tiny group’s — only 1 out of 33 cattle owners nationwide belong to NCBA — day-to-day operations, clout and survival.
The answer is shocking. According to the group’s Internal Revenue Service Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax, or Form 990, NCBA’s revenue in 2008, the latest filing available, equaled $55.6 million of which $46.1 million, or 83 percent, were checkoff dollars.
Even more shocking is the Form 990 revelation that NCBA collected a meager $3.4 million in total membership dues. That means less than 6 percent of its 2008 revenue came from people who chose to join.
Dig deeper into the 990 — and you can; the 31-page filing and the Louisiana letter it prompted are posted at www.farmandandfoodfile.com — reveals that NCBA’s top 14 officials earned a combined $2.7 million in salaries and benefits in 2008. Overall, that means four out of five dues dollars collected by NCBA went to just 14 of its 193 employees.
It also means that NCBA is not a national cattlemen’s group. Take away the 83 percent of its revenue, the checkoff dollars it got in 2008, and NCBA doesn’t have enough members or money to populate or operate an average rural county in the U.S.
And yet, by law and by USDA’s failure “to restore operational integrity” to the checkoff, NCBA remains the single, biggest benefactor of checkoff cash.
And you? Well, you pay and say little and your silence is pure NCBA gold