NOTE: The organic farming community is facing a full-court-press by the powerful industry lobby group, the Organic Trade Association.  They want to pass a “checkoff” that will tax farmers to fund promotional and research work.  The history of these checkoffs leave farmers extremely skeptical, to say the least.  Cornucopia, and every organic farming group that has taken a position, has come out against the OTA proposal.  The following commentary represents the position of the National Farmers Union, an ally in our work (the author, the President of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, is a certified organic dairyman).

by Darin Von Ruden | Wisconsin Farmers Union President

Darin Von Ruden

After three years of trying to work with industry stakeholders to make needed changes to the Beef Checkoff program, the National Farmers Union withdrew from the Beef Checkoff Enhancement Working Group in early September.

The United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA) also withdrew from the working group, citing similar frustrations with a lack of progress since the group was formed in 2011.

NFU President Roger Johnson went so far as to call the working group a “bridge to nowhere” and a waste of time and resources. I have to agree.

The working group was designed to bring together vested parties from across the beef industry and to attempt to reach a consensus on substantial reforms that would make the checkoff a stronger, more effective tool for the beef industry.

The group also included the American Farm Bureau Federation, American National Cattlewomen, Cattlemen’s Beef Board, Federation of State Beef Councils, Livestock Marketing Association, Meat Importers Council of America, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Livestock Producers Association and National Milk Producers Federation.

Sadly, it has become clear that in reality, there is no willingness from key players within the group to allow real reforms to take place.

There were times during the past few years when NFU Senior Vice President of Programs Chandler Goule and South Dakota Farmers Union President Doug Sombke — who were our representatives in the working group — believed things may have been moving ahead to the benefit of the beef farmers. However, during the past few meetings this spring and summer, it seemed as though the group had reached a stalemate, caused largely, I feel, by scare tactics used by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) to protect interests of processors.

One of the chief problems with the current checkoff is that the majority of checkoff dollars – between 90 and 99 percent – go directly to the NCBA. In recent years, the group has become more of a voice for the meat packing industry than for family farmers and ranchers.

While most cattlemen support Country-of-Origin Labeling, NCBA sued the USDA to stop implementation of the rule. NCBA also threatened to oppose the farm bill — which was backed by nearly every other farm group in the nation — because of disaster relief written in.

That very disaster relief was sorely needed at the time by beef producers on the Great Plains whose herds had been affected by weather-related catastrophes.

NFU originally requested the Secretary of Agriculture write a new Beef Checkoff Order under the 1996 Commodity Promotion Act but was told the Secretary would not step in until all avenues of unifying beef industry groups had been exhausted.

Three years later, those avenues have come to dead ends. Secretary Vilsack relayed his frustration with NFU members on our recent Fall Fly-In to Washington, D.C., and said he was considering using his own authority to make changes to the program. More recently, during a stop in Nebraska, however, Vilsack said his hands are tied, as processor groups put pressure on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and threaten a lawsuit.

This isn’t the first time such threats have been made. Farmers Union stands behind Secretary Vilsack on this issue, and we’re hopeful he’ll hold the NCBA accountable for making sure beef producers are the beneficiaries of their checkoff dollars.

Farmers Union believes the following reforms are necessary: 

• The Cattlemen’s Beef Board must have the authority to carry out checkoff projects on its own, similar to other checkoff oversight boards.

• The CBB must be allowed to enter into checkoff contracts with non-policy organizations and private companies, such as ad agencies and public relations firms, in order to prevent policy-driven organizations from using checkoff dollars to fund overhead for political activity.

• The beef checkoff must be completely refundable.

• A referendum on the continuation of the beef checkoff must occur every five years.

It will take 90,000 beef and dairy farmers standing up and demanding a change in order for a checkoff reform referendum to pass.  When that time comes, will you be one of the 90,000?

It just doesn’t make sense for us to keep working with a group that isn’t looking out for the family farmer. If you ask me, that’s a bridge better off not traveled.

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