WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 21, 2016 - Members of some U.S. industry-funded checkoff groups sometimes feel like Rodney Dangerfield on Capitol Hill. They just don’t get any respect and their funding sources are often misunderstood.

Supporters say that some of the confusion can be traced back to 2011, when USDA published a rule in the Federal Register to establish the Christmas Tree Research and Promotion Order. The purpose: collect funds from growers to conduct research and promote expanded sales of fresh-cut U.S. Christmas trees – an effort endorsed by the National Christmas Tree Association and others.

The rule was published after a group of farmers spent over three years trying to develop the checkoff program, holding two industry-wide comment periods to gather input. The program – including USDA’s administrative costs – would be covered by a 15-cent assessment on sales of fresh Christmas trees by sellers of more than 500 trees per year. Smaller growers can opt out if they desire to do so.

But then the Heritage Foundation got engaged, calling the assessment a “tax” and suggesting the Obama administration came up with the idea. “Is a new tax on Christmas trees the best President Obama can do?” wrote David Addington in a Heritage blog in November 2011. The concept of “Obama’s Christmas tree tax” went viral on the Drudge Report, Fox News and social media. It wasn’t long before conservative lawmakers were on the floors of the House and Senate, decrying the so-called “Christmas tree tax” and Heritage touted how it “killed the Christmas Tree Tax” in a blog post.

In 2012, Sen. Jim DeMint, who is now the president of the Heritage Foundation, got engaged. He offered an amendment to what later became the 2014 farm bill, that called for the prohibition of compulsory checkoff programs, which financed promotions like the famous “Got Milk?” campaign, prompting an outcry from over 90 agricultural interest groups.

In a 2012 letter to members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Steve Wellman, who was serving as president of the American Soybean Association, tried to set the record straight. 

“Checkoff programs cost the government zero dollars. They are paid for and guided by the farmers they serve. Even USDA oversight of the soy checkoff is funded by soybean farmers. Furthermore, farmers already have the chance to vote via referendum every five years whether we continue such checkoff programs,” Wellman said. “ASA strongly opposes Sen. DeMint’s amendment, and will work to defeat any effort that would weaken checkoff programs.”

In the most recent referendum on the soybean checkoff, conducted in 2014, only 0.06 percent of the 569,998 U.S. soybean farmers requested a referendum on the order.

DeMint’s amendment ultimately failed, 20-79. But others continued to carry his torch. Sen. Ted Cruz, R- Texas, introduced a similar amendment during the farm bill debate in 2013, but it was not brought up for a vote.

The furor over the Christmas tree checkoff eventually subsided and the order became effective in April 2014. The National Christmas Tree Promotion Board (NCTPB) is currently gathering its first assessments on growers, with expectations for collecting an estimated $1.5 million for research and promotion.

“The industry overwhelmingly supports this,” says NCTPB CEO Tim O’Conner.

But misunderstandings still linger and concerns raised by the Heritage Foundation and other groups have not gone away. And because the research and promotion programs are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, all of their information is subject to scrutiny by any individual or activist group interested in filing.

Daren Bakst, a research fellow in agricultural policy at the Heritage Foundation, says it may not be easy, but it is “possible to voluntarily assess groups of people to support industry research and promotion” -- even though he acknowledges that there will always be “free riders” who want the benefit without the investment.

“Even if you don’t call it a ‘tax,’ for all practical purposes it’s a mandatory government-imposed assessment that could be used to compel people to speak in ways that they may not agree with,” explains Bakst.

Wayne Watkinson, an attorney with McLeod, Watkinson and Miller who represents several of the checkoff boards, says that “people need to understand that farmers are supporting these programs. These are not taxpayer dollars.

“I know that some people don’t like checkoffs, but we are a democracy and these programs are authorized by Congress,” he adds.

Currently, there are 21 other so-called checkoff boards, authorized through the Commodity Promotion Research and Information Act of 1996, and guiding research and promotion of everything from dairy to mangoes to mushrooms – just to name a few. The organic industry is currently working to develop its own checkoff program.


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