A push to increase the national beef checkoff from 1 dollar to 2 dollars per head of cattle sold is approaching its fourth year of discussion, and recently took a step forward. Several of the nation’s largest Ag organizations came together in a USDA-sanctioned Beef Checkoff Enhancement group, with the goal of putting together a proposal on increasing the checkoff in a manner they could support.
The discussion on how to proceed has been controversial. Several major Ag groups signed a Memorandum of Understanding on how to proceed with the change. However, 3 of the original Ag groups withdrew from the discussions, citing concerns over the checkoff structure and how the money is allocated to different groups.
“The working group has sat down for formal meetings roughly 19 times over 3-plus years,” said Dale Moore, the Public Policy Executive Director for the American Farm Bureau Federation. “It’s largely been a work of a number of groups that represent folks who pay into the beef checkoff.”
The discussions actually involve more than just raising the checkoff dollar amount.
“It’s got a number of facets too it,” said Moore. “Fundamentally, we at the Farm Bureau support an increase in the checkoff because there’s always more work to do, and we need the resources to do it. Discussions also included some potential changes on how those dollars are spent, but by and large, it’s been about how to reach a consensus on moving forward to facilitate increasing the checkoff.”
Dale Moore is the Executive Director of Public Policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation, based in Washington, D.C. (Photo from fbvideos.org)
The talks on changing the process of spending checkoff dollars are where the discussions bogged down.
“The Beef Promotion Act was passed in 1985, and it was one of the most descriptive pieces of legislation I’ve ever read,” said Chandler Goule, the Vice President of Programs for the National Farmers Union. “It literally says who can sit on what committee, who has what authority, how many people from the Federation (of state Beef Councils) are on the Beef Operating Committee, and how many other people sit on the BOC too.”
“There’s only 20 people on the BOC,” said Goule, “and 10 seats go to the Federation of State Beef Councils. Since the Federation is a subsidiary of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, all you need is one more person from NCBA and they control all of the authorization requests.”
Goule added, “That’s why you’ve seen NCBA get anywhere from 93 to 95 percentof the checkoff dollars. Over the last ten years, that adds up to half a billion dollars. Because of them executing a large number of contracts, they have an indirect financial benefit that frees up other resources to lobby against things like Country of Origin Labeling, the RFS, and even the Farm Bill.”
Chandler Goule is the Vice President of Programs for the National Farmers Union in Washington, D.C. (Photo from CommodityClassic.org)
In a recent press release, the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF USA) called the new proposal to increase the national Beef Checkoff “window dressing.”
“It’s designed to deflect attention away from the NCBA’s misappropriation of over $216,000 in producer money,” said R-CALF USA President Bill Bullard, “as well as Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack’s failure to maintain the integrity of the program.”
Bullard ads, “The checkoff has become a USDA-supported cattle tax that helps NCBA to fight policy proposals that support independent farmers and ranchers across the nation. It’s exemplified by NCBA’s ongoing litigation and lobbying effort to eliminate the widely popular country of origin labeling for beef.”
Bullard said the new proposal doesn’t eliminate the conflict of interest in which the NCBA houses and controls the Federation of State Beef Councils, and the Federation in turn controls half the votes needed to consistently award the lion’s share of the checkoff dollars to NCBA.
Bill Bullard is the President of RCALF-USA, one of the organizations that didn’t sign the recent MOA on raising the national beef checkoff from 1 to 2 dollars (Photo from oklahomafarmreport.com)
“The process is a little confusing,” said John Schaefer, a beef farmer from Buffalo Lake, and a former member of both the Beef Board and the Beef Promotion Operating Committee.
“One of the provisions of the national checkoff is the Beef Board and the Operating Committee cannot do any programs themselves,” said Schaefer, a Minnesota Beef Board member from 2007-2013. “They are required to contract with national non-profit industry organizations. By far, the biggest amount of money goes to NCBA. It states right in the Beef Promotion Act that the Federation of State Beef Councils is an eligible contractor.”
Schaefer adds, “That’s where most of the controversy lies at. The organization that gets most of the contracts also has ten of the votes guaranteed on the organization that decides how to spend the checkoff dollars.”
The way the structure is set up is part of the problem.
“Ever year, legal counsel instructed the Operating Committee to maintain an arm’s length relationship with the contractors,” said Schaefer, who spent 5 years on the Beef Promotion Operating Committee. “You have ten representatives of a contracting organization, including their chairman and vice-chairman who are making that decision, and it’s a difficult task to serve to masters.”
“That said, the people I worked with on the Beef Board were conscientious people, and were diligent in carrying out their responsibilities,” said Schaefer. “They were good people put in a rather tough situation.”
Despite the way the checkoff is set up, Schaefer feels it’s still efficient.
“While it’s easy for outsiders to get the wrong impression, it’s operates very efficiently,” said Schaefer, “and the programs by-and-large are well run. It’s not perfect and there’s always room for improvement. The program staff is top notch and doing a good job too.”
More transparency in the process could be a key to clearing up the controversy.
“When you have a structure like that, what you also need is transparency,” said Schaefer. “People need to see that there’s nothing irregular going on, and, in my opinion, that’s where NCBA has fallen down a little. They’ve been a little too secretive about how things are done.”
What’s next in the process?
“Our next steps are making sure our members across the country know what’s in the agreement,” said Dale Moore of the American Farm Bureau. “Then we’ll start laying out the next steps of the process, specifically as it relates to educating the public and what we’ll need to do on Capitol Hill to build support for it.”
Chandler Goule of the National Farmers Union said just because their organization didn’t sign the MOU, it doesn’t mean they’re not keeping an eye on the issue.
“We are still very much engaged,” said Goule. “We only withdrew because NCBA kept walking it in a circle. NFU spent thousands of dollars and staff resources to listen to NCBA reject every proposal we put forth. We put a total of 14 options on the table to make it a more fair and balanced program, and they rejected every one because it took NCBA out of the driver’s seat.