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Published March 29, 2010, 08:11 AM

Groups question NCBA governance

WASHINGTON — The American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and four livestock groups have asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to investigate the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s plans for a new governance structure on the grounds that it would give NCBA too much power over the beef checkoff and might violate the 1985 Beef Promotion and Research Act.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and four livestock groups have asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to investigate the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s plans for a new governance structure on the grounds that it would give NCBA too much power over the beef checkoff and might violate the 1985 Beef Promotion and Research Act.

That act requires state beef councils to collect a $1 fee for research and promotion each time cattle are sold, but prohibits the use of funds for any type of activity to influence government policy. The program collects about $76 million annually, and the money is spent by the state beef councils and a national Beef Board that has been closely aligned with NCBA.

At its annual meeting in January, NCBA adopted a new governance structure that its leaders said would simplify and speed up decision making. But in a letter sent March 18, the critics contended that the new governance structure NCBA plans to finalize at a July board meeting will reduce the “firewall” that is supposed to exist between NCBA’s involvement in the checkoff and its policy and lobbying activities. There are 17 other checkoff programs for research and promotion on farm products, and the critics said they are worried NCBA’s new structure could set a precedent for the sectors adopting governance structures would mix research and promotion with policymaking and lobbying. Although the money collected under checkoffs is private, USDA supervises the programs.

Too much power?

The letter, which was cosigned by four livestock groups that often have competing interests with NCBA — the Livestock Marketing Association, the National Livestock Producers Association, the National Milk Producers Federation and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association — noted that many producers already “mistrust” the firewall because many checkoff programs run at the state level by state beef councils already share staff with NCBA. The new governance structure is making producers more apprehensive, the critics said, because it will allow NCBA’s House of Delegates, which is dominated by policymaking interests, to vote on budget recommendations for the Federation of State Beef Councils, which represents the state beef councils that collect the money.

The critics also contend that the new structure would give NCBA an inappropriate amount of power over the checkoff compared with other groups, especially dairy producers, who pay 20 percent of the assessment.

“While NCBA claims about 30,000 members, there are about 750,000 producers in the United States that pay into the checkoff.,” the critics said, adding, “It seems quite unfair that beef producers who are not NCBA members, but still pay into the beef checkoff, will have their monies expended to develop regulatory or membership policies at NCBA.”

NCBA officials wrote Vilsack on March 22 that its members had voted for the new governance structure to improve efficiency and noted that the organization had shared “a model” o0f its plans with USDA in December 2009. NCBA also said the other groups’ conclusions about the impact of NCBA’s governance structure on the checkoff are inaccurate. They also offered to brief Vilsack writing, “If you would like to review our progress on these governance improvements, we will leave our farms and ranches and be at your office in a moment’s notice.”

Vilsack’s office did not return an e-mail request for comment.

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