Forced to pay, but not liking the result
USDA rule irks small ranchers who say they’re financing what Big Beef wants, not what the little guys need.
Some small ranchers are fed up with a mandatory beef promotion program that they have long said advances the interests of Big Beef over their own.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires ranchers to contribute $1 to the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board for every head of cattle they sell.
The money, about $80 million a year, is meant to research and promote beef, and has financed such well-known slogans as “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.”
But, “when you cut through all the smoke,” said Fred Stokes, a Mississippi cattle rancher, “we are being forced to contribute to our own demise. All they are doing is propagandizing big corporate agriculture.”
About half of the $80 million a year collected by the so-called “checkoff” program goes to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a lobbying group that also serves as the beef board’s “prime contractor.”
The group has received about $200 million from the board in the last six years.
But Kansas rancher Mike Callicrate contends in a federal lawsuit filed in August that the association is improperly using some of that money to lobby government officials.
It isn’t the first time the program has faced a court challenge.
In 2000, the Kansas City-based Livestock Marketing Association, which represents cattle auction barns, claimed the program violated the First Amendment rights of cattle producers by forcing them to pay for beef promotion messages they didn’t like.
They lost when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the program was legal because it constituted “government speech.”
But Callicrate now claims in the suit, filed in Kansas City, Kan., federal court, that the cattlemen’s association has “essentially taken all of our money...and used it to lobby Congress for an industrialized cattle system that is contrary to the interests of independent cattle producers.”
The suit was filed against the USDA, as enforcer of the checkoff program, and the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board. While Callicrate does not name the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association as a defendant, his suit seeks to stop the board from giving the association any more money.
The suit contends that federal law prohibits checkoff funds from being used for any type of lobbying. It cites the cattlemen’s association’s lobbying priorities, including reductions in federal spending and the deficit; minimizing federal involvement in agriculture; and preserving “the right of individual choice in the management of land, water, and other resources.”
The suit is on hold, pending a separate federal audit of the program; those findings are expected early next year.
But Callicrate said earlier federal audits have found what he calls “numerous violations” of the lobbying prohibition.
For its part, the cattlemen’s group contends it has never used checkoff dollars for lobbying and has gone to great lengths “to implement new administrative guidelines, policies and procedures,” to prevent that.
Nearly 75 percent of cattle producers support the program, the group said, because cattlemen know that for each dollar they contribute, “cattlemen and women see an average $5.55 return.”
Cattlemen’s association President J.D. Alexander has said that he is disgusted that Callicrate and others would work “to destroy more than 25 years of market development and consumer demand.”