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Justice for R-CALF

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Aug 4, 2017

Pete Crow

The beef checkoff has been a contentious issue for some. I say “some” because they are the same people— and the same groups—who have been challenging the existence of the beef checkoff since it passed in a referendum in 1985, by cattlemen. The battles worsened when the NCBA and the Federation of State Beef Councils merged in 1990 and developed a policy division and a beef checkoff division. The beef checkoff is intended to promote beef and the beef industry. But many believe that, being so close to the NCBA, some checkoff dollars leaked over to the policy side for lobbying efforts. There is a fine line between selling beef and lobbying for the beef industry.

The beef checkoff was first challenged in the courts in 2005 when the U.S. Supreme Court determined that checkoff messages were “government speech,” and using First Amendment logic, free speech and “forced association” didn’t apply. In other words, an individual should not be compelled to pay money to any group he or she doesn’t support.

I suppose you could say the same thing about paying taxes to the federal government. I sure don’t agree with some of the things the government does. Should I not pay my taxes?

Many want to call what is collected by all qualified state beef councils a “tax.” It is the state law that they collect $1 per head each time an animal is sold, but it is really an assessment. Regardless, you are obligated to participate. States are required to send 50 cents of each dollar to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB), which doles out the money for worthy beef promoting projects.

Those groups that disagree with the beef checkoff have found another strategy to mess with the beef promotion system: Attack them at the state level. R-CALF (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund) filed suit in Montana’s U.S. District Court and won a preliminary injunction against the private Montana Beef Council (MBC). A similar case was filed in Utah. Now the MBC must get each beef producer in the state to authorize the MBC to keep 50 cents of each dollar in the state. If they don’t, the entire dollar will go to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board. Just think of the logistical nightmare this will create.

Other states like Texas have voted to set up their own secondary beef council that will not be beholden to USDA oversight; Texans will have the Texas Department of Ag oversee their checkoff allocation. Oklahoma is attempting to do the same thing. Every state beef council is set up differently so I don’t think attacking the state Beef Checkoff Programs will work everywhere.

Surveys show that producers generally support the beef checkoff, but the support levels seem to follow cattle prices too. When the markets are up, support is high; when the market is low, support is low.

The irony of this enduring episode is that we’re talking about a buck a head, which meant a lot more in 1985. Today we’re selling 550-pound calves for $160 cwt., $880 a head. I wouldn’t think the producer’s cost for the checkoff vs. the benefits is going to be a budget buster for any cattle producer.

The problem here is ideological. None of these other cattlemen’s groups like that the NCBA is so close to the CBB and is itself a CBB contractor. They don’t like NCBA getting any money—regardless of their strict accounting practices to keep checkoff dollars separate from policy dollars. In other words, they think that NCBA is just too close to the governance of the beef checkoff.

But, the fact remains that R-CALF did file suit against the MBC with the help of Public Justice. A quick review of Public Justice’s website (www. publicjustice.net) shows they may be a radical legal advocate like the Center for Biological Diversity or Western Watersheds Project. They litigate for “independent” farmers and ranchers, R-CALF’s defining term. They litigate against “factory farming,” ag gag laws, and they are attempting to bring back country-of-origin labeling. They are a strange group for anyone in agriculture to be involved with, and yes, they have folks on staff who have worked for the Humane Society of the U.S.

Seems that R-CALF has opened a can of worms for the MBC now that they must get each cattle producer’s approval to keep money in the state. That’s a lot of paper work that will cost a lot of money to manage. But, with R-CALF, an end to NCBA is justified by any means. It is a shame that cattle producers can be so divided over a dollar a head. — PETE CROW

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