NCBA listening to grassroots input

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SALEM, Ohio – National Cattlemen’s Beef Association CEO Terry Stokes crossed Pennsylvania and Ohio last week, conducting town hall forums in Lancaster and Friedens, Pa., Oct. 29 and 30, and heading west to forums in Zanesville and Hillsboro, Ohio, Oct. 30-31.

Stokes, who was named CEO in March, said seeking local input is a priority for the beef organization this year.

“We’re hearing a lot of things,” Stokes said, “particularly ‘we’re feeling the economic stress.'”

“Our cattle ranchers are under severe economic stress right now, and they want to know when they can expect to see the end of it.”

Beef producers airing their views at these meetings, being held across the country, are talking about meat packer concentration, oversupply, drought impacts, and are raising questions about trade, McDonald’s and, of course, the mandatory $1-per-head beef checkoff.

Approximately 60 producers attended the Zanesville meeting; another 100 attended the meeting in Hillsboro.

Stokes’ swing through the region came on the heels of a U.S. District Court decision Oct. 25 that the pork checkoff was unconstitutional and that checkoff collections should cease by Nov. 25.

The beef checkoff is embroiled in its own legal battles, one of which received a favorable ruling Nov. 1, following Stokes’ visit (see related article).

In a second case still under appeal, a June 21, 2002, decision by a district court in South Dakota ruled that the Beef Promotion and Research Act is unconstitutional and directed that the collection of assessments cease by July 15. A stay, requested by the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of the USDA, was granted July 10, postponing implementation of the court decision pending an appeal.

“We remain confident that the constitutionality of the pork checkoff will be upheld,” Stokes said in a telephone interview Oct. 31. “It’s no different than what we’ve experienced in South Dakota.”

He said the beef checkoff ruling appeal will be heard in St. Louis in 2003, although no date has been set.

Stokes said the checkoff is not a violation of a producer’s First Amendment rights to free speech, because it is “government speech.” While the checkoff program is a producer-directed program, Stokes said, it is operated with government oversight.

“They play a very active role [in the checkoff administration],” he added. “It’s not just a rubber stamp.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board maintain that the majority of beef producers continue to support the beef checkoff. A survey conducted in June for the board by Aspen Media and Market Research found 66 percent of producers surveyed approve of the checkoff, while 22 percent disapprove. The level of support was 68 percent in January 2002.

Three out of five producers believe that if there were no beef checkoff program, no one else would pay for beef promotion, the survey found.

For fiscal year 2003, which began Oct. 1, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association approved a “federation division” budget of $58.3 million – funded through the checkoff – for consumer marketing, international marketing, research and communications on behalf of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and state beef councils.

The association’s policy division budget, funded primarily by membership and affiliate dues, is $7.5 million.

Boosting demand. One of the association’s priorities, as a contractor with checkoff funds, is to work to increase demand either through better merchandising or better products, Stokes said.

In 2001, more than 400 beef products were introduced to the marketplace, he added, including the flat iron steak, which was “discovered” through checkoff-funded muscle research at universities in Florida and Nebraska.

The association also works on nutrition issues with such groups as the American Dietetic Association, which is creating a lean beef cookbook next year in cooperation with the association.

Good response. Ohio Cattlemen’s Association Executive Director Elizabeth Harsh said there was genuine appreciation for Stokes and his willingness to listen to their concerns, and to take the time to travel the country visiting with beef producers.

“The meetings helped to increase the understanding that association like OCA and the NCBA work for and are directed by beef producers who have the same concerns and worries as every other beef producers,” Harsh added.

“Keeping up.” Stokes said one of the biggest priorities, and challenges, for the association is reaching out to producers to help them keep abreast with changes in the industry, and how those changes affect their operations.

“Where is the value created by the rapid rate of change in the industry, and how do we help producers be profit sharers and not profit takers,” Stokes said. “How does NCBA become a positive catalyst for change?”

Stokes reaffirmed the association’s long-range goal, to increase the potential for profitability and viability for all segments of the beef industry.

“It all gets back to my bottom line.”

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Checkoff confusion: Latest ruling upholds beef checkoff

BILLINGS, Mont. – One week after a U.S. district court judge ruled the pork checkoff was unconstitutional, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull upheld the constitutionality of the beef checkoff in a suit filed by Steve and Jeanne Charter and other cattle producers.

The judge’s ruling said speech compelled by the act “constitutes support for government speech.”

“The Act creates programs where the government utilizes private cattlemen to disseminate a single message, a message prescribed by Congress and the USDA,” Cebull said.

The Charters are required to remit unpaid assessments and late fees in the amount of $417.79. Civil penalties were dismissed.

No decision in S.D. In a similar suit in South Dakota, filed against the checkoff by the Livestock Marketing Association, a judge ruled last June initially in favor of the association, calling the unconstitutional. The U.S. Justice Department was granted a stay, on behalf of the USDA, that allows the beef promotion program to continue while an appeal is pending.

The ruling has been appealed to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

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