WASHINGTON, Oct. 1, 2014 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the working group looking to reform the beef checkoff to his office Tuesday afternoon to discuss the stalled process and his own ideas for reform, which may involve setting up another new checkoff fund to generate more investments.

A USDA spokesman characterized the meeting as one for “information gathering,” saying Vilsack was simply furthering the plans he discussed at a National Farmers Union (NFU) legislative fly-in Sept. 8. At that meeting, Vilsack said he might come up with his own solution to checkoff reform, and jokingly compared it to the parenting tactic of making both of his sons angry so each would at least be united in something.

But the working group hasn’t really been united in anything. Outside of agreeing to the need for checkoff reform, the group has struggled to find common ground during three years of meetings involving 10 checkoff stakeholder groups. Tuesday afternoon, Vilsack brought seven of those groups together, including the powerful National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which controls most of the checkoff funds, and the NFU and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

In addition to the current $1 per head of cattle sold checkoff that’s governed by provisions in the 1985 Farm Bill, Vilsack is seeking to create an additional checkoff over and above what is currently on the books that would be governed by the Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996. The new check-off could operate in tandem with the current check-off for three years, upon which time there would be a mandatory referendum on whether to continue. A move to the 1996 act was favored by many in the working group, but not NCBA.

Sources told Agri-Pulse the details of the checkoff Vilsack is considering are still unfolding, but he made it clear that it was very critical to get more investment for beef promotion and research. The secretary said the original deadline proposed by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) for completing the reform process by December 2016 was too long and he bumped the completion date up to the end of 2015, or 15 months away.

NFU Senior Vice President of Programs Chandler Goule said he left the meeting feeling positive with a message from Vilsack that said, “Go write the checkoff program the way you think it would run best and present that back.”

Another source said the next steps haven’t been laid out yet. The source said it is a “little uncertain” whether Vilsack will present a plan and seek suggestions, or seek input first and then come up with a plan that will eventually go into the Federal Register for public comment. In some cases, state checkoff boards have already doubled their checkoff from $1 to $2, and this proposal could result in yet an additional dollar being raised.

Several sources told Agri-Pulse they were awaiting guidance from USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) in regards to deadlines for submitting their priorities for checkoff reform to USDA, but that the agency said they would be in touch “soon.”

Goule said it was “unfortunate” the working group had not been able to reach consensus on checkoff reform. On Sept. 6, NFU officially withdrew from the group, calling the talks a “waste of time and money.” A source who was in Tuesday’s meeting told Agri-Pulse that Vilsack’s demeanor made it clear that NFU’s action played a large role in the secretary’s new approach to checkoff reform.

“Think about it this way: The beef checkoff program has not changed really since 1985,” Goule said. “You want to talk about fundamentally changing the checkoff, you talk about the assessment, you talk about the beef operating committee, you talk about one organization receiving 93 percent of the checkoff dollars. That is changing the beef checkoff.”

That one organization he referred to is the NCBA, which bumps heads with NFU on a wide variety of checkoff reform topics. NCBA leadership has been trying to bring the working group – without NFU – together in October, but that looks unlikely now.

When approached by Agri-Pulse after the meeting, NCBA CEO Forrest Roberts declined to comment, saying he wanted to first discuss the meeting with others in attendance. But Tuesday night, NCBA offered a statement from past president Scott George, who reiterated his organization’s support for keeping the checkoff under the 1985 act and maintaining strong participation from the State Federation of Beef Councils, a group that plays a pivotal role in the discussions due to its oversight of checkoff funds and ties to NCBA.

"We have serious concerns about a top-down, federal government-controlled beef checkoff program, or one that doesn’t recognize and involve grassroots producers,” George said. "As we analyze the elements of a program envisioned by Secretary Vilsack, we will continue to be an active participant – with other interested producer-controlled groups – in developing successful ways of maintaining and enhancing our successful checkoff program."

Chuck Kiker, a director with the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, said many in the room need to figure out what the meeting will mean to their individual organizations, but he said he hopes it was a step in the right direction. “I think in the next month or two you’ll see a lot of things evolve,” Kiker said. “We’ll see where it all shakes out . . . We are very pleased the Secretary took some action. We think it’s positive action, and if everybody gets together, we can make this a great deal for the beef industry.”


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