By Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union

What should have been a constructive public policy discussion about a program that is vital to the success of the family farmers and ranchers who make their living raising cattle has unfortunately devolved into a whirlwind of innuendo and half-truths that are hamstringing the much-needed discussion about how to modernize and improve the beef checkoff. 

The checkoff program as we know it today has remained virtually unchanged for three decades while the world around it has morphed dramatically.  This has raised serious doubts about the structure of the checkoff and whether it is capable of appropriately funding the much-needed research and exploring the new markets and new opportunities that the American beef industry so desperately needs. 

Clearly, the beef checkoff is in dire need of a major course correction, because it is not only underfunded but unacceptably inflexible.  By restructuring the checkoff within the following guidelines – which have worked effectively for other checkoff programs, including dairy, cotton and pork – the checkoff can avoid the current perception of many cattle producers their checkoff money is being used to subsidize an organization that works against their own political and financial interests.  That widespread perception is the root cause of the lack of support for increasing the checkoff rate.  National Farmers Union (NFU) supports the following principles to turn the checkoff into an effective tool to forge a new path of prosperity for the cattle industry.

•      The modernized beef checkoff should be a single program, modeled after the 1996 Act, which would ensure the program is a more effective tool for increasing beef demand both domestically and internationally.  

•      The new beef checkoff would have a clear separation of the policy organization from the non-political, promotional checkoff entity patterned after other checkoffs.  This would ensure that checkoff funds are not working against the economic interests of its members.

•      The modernized checkoff program should exclude processors and importers from positions of leadership, ensuring that beef producers are always at the helm with a clear vision of the industry’s North Star.

•      The new checkoff should be able to review referendums every five years by U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that offer the option of a program recall by a simple majority vote.

•      The new checkoff should be precluded from allocating a single dime to any organization engaged in lobbying. The important research, promotion and marketing functions of the checkoff must be divorced from politics!

The idea of bringing new ideas and much-needed change to the checkoff is nothing new, and in fact, organizations like NFU met for three years discussing a new direction.  But the meetings were a bridge to nowhere, because they were largely controlled by the organization that has a vested interest in making sure the current structure never changes.   That organization, of course, is the National Cattlemens Beef Association (NCBA).

In retrospect, NCBAs motivation for obstructing each and every idea should have been predictable, since NCBA relies on the checkoff program for the vast majority of its funding.  In fact, in 2014, 97.6 percent of all Beef Board contracts went to NCBA to fund its programs.   NCBA regards the checkoff as its own personal financial trough and will do everything possible to cement that status into eternity.  Clearly, NCBA wants to protect its turf and its income stream, but its days of living off the checkoff slush fund need to come to an end. 

The irony of NBCA controlling the checkoff program is that it has actively lobbied against and spent a small fortune opposing the very programs that are embraced by the checkoff donors.  These programs include Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and even the 2014 Farm Bill, which included provisions specifically aimed at helping cattle producers survive natural disasters.  It is no small wonder that many cattlemen have raised the question about whose side NCBA is on.

Thankfully, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recognized the need for reform and stepped into the fray, announcing that USDA was seeking public comment on how to strengthen and modernize the program.   Finally, other voices and new ideas will be heard and given thoughtful consideration.   Finally, after three long, frustrating years, meaningful structural change is actually a real possibility.

The beauty of our democracy is that programs like the checkoff can be regularly scrutinized, fine-tuned or reformed.  Recognizing that the success of the checkoff is an integral part of the success of rural America, let us work together to move this program forward.  The promise of tomorrow relies on the changes of today.

Roger Johnson is president of National Farmers Union.