This autumn will mark the 30th anniversary of deliberations leading up to the 1985 Farm Bill. That legislation was noteworthy for several changes in government agricultural policy but most memorable for those of us in the cattle industry was the provision for a national beef checkoff mandated by the federal government.
Beef had taken some big hits in the 1970s – price controls, negative health claims, depressed cattle prices, increased chicken consumption, new environmental regulations – the list went on and on. It was rough times in the beef business. The thought at the time was that the cattle industry needed funds to correct the course of events, and that all producers should contribute to a national promotional effort.
So 30 years later, what do we have? A much better image of beef, without a doubt. The national beef checkoff funds were instrumental in addressing the issues concerning cattle producers at the outset, as well as others that eventually popped up (such as E. coli O157:H7 and BSE). The national beef checkoff also remains extremely popular with producers, and poll after poll prove this. But the real purchasing power of the dollar has eroded over the decades and there is concern that the current $1 per head checkoff amount is insufficient to do all that is necessary for the industry. I wholeheartedly agree the industry needs to find a way to increase the funding. The question is how.
And so, the cattle industry finds itself at a fork in the road.
Some cattle and general farm groups are suggesting we go down the path of increasing the federally overseen national beef checkoff to $2 per head. But I don’t think this is a wise direction.
Here’s my rationale:
First, an increase for the national beef checkoff probably couldn’t be accomplished outside of an omnibus farm bill, which would push it five or six years down the road. The $1 per head assessment rate is rooted in the 1985 law and not something the Department of Agriculture can change through rulemaking or the Cattlemen’s Beef Board can change through policy. My opinion that this change would be years down the road is optimistic given the two year struggle we all witnessed to pass the most recent farm bill.
Second, over time, Washington has played an increasingly participatory role in determining who sits on the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, how the monies are disbursed, and using their authority to subject the industry to costly audits and required releases of information. No rational person can believe this trend will reverse itself given the way the federal government works -- it’s just the nature of government. At the same time, beef industry opponents in the marketplace of public opinion are not subject to this oversight. They are free to raise funds without having to hand a portion of them over to the government, and are free to strategize without being required to submit those plans to us. This dichotomy suggests the federally overseen national beef checkoff has outlived its ability to be an efficient tool for our industry to address the real challenges we face today.