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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

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Beef Bucks Brouhaha: Round 2

Jun 14, 2010

By Steve Cornett  

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, prodded by a none-too-cordial note from Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, has backed down some on its reorganization plans. They expect to hear “soon”—in, of course, the bureaucratic sense of “soon”—whether they’ve backed down enough or need to go further.

This is a bit of a riveting situation for those of us who believe that intra-industry politics are not only interesting but crucially important to the future of beef producers. The next few weeks, leading up to NCBA’s annual summer confab in Denver, bode to provide something of a political soap opera.

To enjoy it properly, you’ll need some popcorn and some homework. Here’s some homework:

The CBB site provides a couple of FAQs that will be of value to understanding the questions. Frequently Asked Questions on USDA’s role in the checkoff. If you have further questions and enough no-doze, you can see the original enabling legislation by clicking here.

The association’s leadership called a press conference last week to tell us they had made three changes they thought would ameliorate the secretary’s concerns. (You can read about the changes here.)

I’m not sure NCBA leadership believes they’ve gone far enough with this proposal. I am sure the folks demanding more “firewall” between the policy part of NCBA and the beef-promoting, checkoff-funded Federation of Beef Councils don’t think they’re there yet.

As one of the latter told me after NCBA met with representatives of the six organizations who are pushing Vilsack to break the ties that bind the unified NCBA, “We sort of closed the meeting with everybody saying, ‘Well, ok. Let’s just see what USDA thinks of that.'”

These guys don’t just want a “fire-wall.” They want the policy division of NCBA—with which they compete for membership and political sway—divorced from the check-off function. They want assurances that NCBA is not profiting from, nor holding undue influence over, checkoff funding.

Frankly, it looks to me like the proposal as it sits abides by the law as it was written. The Federation members—state beef councils, chose by in-state cattle group —will be at the table voluntarily. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent other organizations from seeking the same relationship with Federation members. There is nothing to prevent any of them from sending their own representatives to the meetings. 

I won’t argue it’s the only way to meet the requirements of the law. The Federation could, in fact, work fine without any input from anybody if that’s what they want to do. But the question is whether this thing is “legal.” Looks to me like it would be. The Federation members will decide how much money is spent on what and who gets to spend it.

Let me remind you that this law was written by the National Cattlemen’s Association and the old National Live Stock and Meat board. They wrote themselves a prominent role into the law, and that law remains unchanged since then.

Up until now, Secretaries of Agriculture have pretty well stuck to the role prescribed to them in the law. They appoint the guys industry groups recommend and they watch to see the checkoff funds are spent in compliance with the regulations.

But this USDA is different. This secretary, for instance, isn’t content to simply let the good old boys nominate each other to the CBB board. He wants more small producers and a wider ethnic representation and such.

I’m not sure where in the regulation the secretary gets the authority to make such demands. But who’s going to argue? He’s the secretary.

Next question, then, is what happens if Vilsack still isn’t happy with NCBA’s proposal? Bill Donald, the incoming president, says he hopes that question won’t come up. He thinks the new plan will suit the secretary.

I’m not so sure. And I’m not sure NCBA will be willing to take all the steps necessary to get the secretary to sign off on ANY reorganization that leaves the Federation and the Policy divisions meeting in the same time zone.

Why would he?

This secretary and his boss have more friends in the non-NCBA outfits than in NCBA. They’re obviously less sold on that “free market” lingo that drives the association. They seem to have bought into the idea that Americans eat too much because food is too cheap. And did we mention that NCBA’s policy division—the one all the un-NCBAers see as competition—endorsed a Republican for president not too long ago?

And so we should watch. NCBA hopes to hear from Vilsack this week. They plan—make that tentatively plan—to send the final framework to their members by June 18th. That won’t be the final plan, of course. It can still be jiggled as the members consider it and juggled at the summer meeting.

I’m not really sure this is all that important to you and me unless these guys fumble around and get the secretary or his un-NCBAer friends mad enough to get the checkoff called up for referendum and then campaign against it.

If that happened, it would be important. We don’t need to lose this checkoff program because of a turf war. But that probably won’t happen.

So mostly it’s just interesting. But you need to do your homework.

Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at scornett@farmjournal.com.

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