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RSS By: Steve Cornett, Beef Today

Read the latest blog from Steve Cornett.

No Peace for Beef’s Leadership

Feb 21, 2011

If anything became clear at the annual confab/cat-fight of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, it’s that the rift between the two sides is taking on the intractability of Mideast peace efforts.

Not officially. Officially, everything was patched up. They agreed on a long-range-plan and all.

But drift into the hallway and scratch the veneer of congeniality, and you get a whole different story.

What’s up is this: USDA and the leadership of the CBB want as much divide as possible between the checkoff and the policy division at NCBA. Some pretty stout NCBA policy leaders collared reporters to talk about the checkoff becoming a “government program.”

They’ve got an argument. USDA’s official CBB overseer told that group that “the secretary would like a wider range of choices” for board members. He wants more diversity in terms of size and type of operation. In fact, the current administration was more selective in its choices of members of all commodity boards—and they’re looking to see more representation from outside the traditional industry power structures. They want more truck farmers and direct marketers.

The CBB does not, of course, directly choose its members. Cattle groups with bonafide credentials make nominations to the secretary of agriculture. Historically, secretaries have simply rubber-stamped nominations.

Secretary Vilsack—with his bent toward smaller operations and rural renewal—is different. He has the ability to shift power from the haves—the NCBA, Farm Bureau types—to the have-nots like R-CALF, the National Farmers Union and other administration-friendly, groups.

NCBA (which you’ll recall officially endorsed George W. Bush and, more recently, cheered Republican operative Karl Rove at this very convention) is not well positioned to expect favors from Mr. Vilsack.

What is worrisome here is that some NCBA folks are so off-put by all this that they’re prepared to attempt to kill the beef checkoff program. I’m not saying there is a majority. But there are some pretty hefty ones making that argument.

Kill it, they say, and return to a voluntary program. They believe—and not without having some groundwork done, apparently—that they could put together a more effective—or at least more controllable—voluntary program with the help of packers and other industry members.

It’s a bit ironic, a cynic might note. The Livestock Marketing Association and their friends in the “family farm” movement got miffed at NCBA and the checkoff because they thought NCBA was focusing money on retained ownership, inter-sector cooperation programs that would hurt its auction-members’ business.

LMA tried for a recall. The family farm outfits almost got the program killed before it was saved by the checkoff lawyers making the argument that the checkoff was “government speech.”

Now, as this new kind of secretary actually imposes the government’s will—at least the will of this administration--onto the program, it’s the other side arguing the program will be used against them.

This reporter is a big fan of the beef checkoff program, but convinced it should not be used to affect industry structure either way. You can not take my dollar and use it to promote policies that put me at a competitive disadvantage; Nor, I would argue, should you take importers’ dollars and use them to put foreign beef at a competitive disadvantage.

You can only use my mandatory dollars to enhance beef demand.

That seems evident, doesn’t it?

There is plenty of room for other programs. Nothing keeps Tyson from advertising its beef against Cargill’s brand. And there should be nothing to prevent them working with producers to develop a new, separate, beef promotion program with no government strings attached. That would not necessitate killing the checkoff program. It could be additive.

In fact, it would preclude the need for the increased per-head checkoff that would require an iffy rewrite of the checkoff law and an even iffier referendum.

I’ll be frank with you folks. I’ve been watching cowboy leadership a long time. I don’t think these guys are going to make peace. It’s become too personal. There are people on both sides of this who could make peace, but I’m not sure they’ve got the pull to drag everybody else along. I’m not even sure who’s righter and who’s wronger.

But I’m sure what USDA—at least THIS USDA—thinks.

The Association should forget CBB’s power structure and get busy building new programs to bring new—less restricted—dollars into making beef a more popular, affordable and predictable food choice.

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