America's Civil War was fought to preserve the Union almost 150 years ago, but sensitivities still linger between the adversaries. That same condition will probably exist regarding the beef checkoff no matter how the courts decide its constitutionality in the coming months.
So rather than put up with this bickering into infinity, here's my solution. Why not just divide the industry into two camps and let each go their own way? Forget unification. Let's create a more perfect “disunion.”
This is how it would work. Checkoff proponents would swear allegiance to a mandatory checkoff. We'll call these guys the “progressives.”
The progressives would pledge to pay the checkoff, commit to actually being knowledgeable about it and take an active part in the program. They'd also promise to work through the system if they didn't like decisions made by the producers named to represent them.
Any producer who couldn't commit to these baseline requirements could join the ranks of the non-checkoff payers — the “regressives.” These folks wouldn't have to contribute a dime and could rest assured that no one would bother them again about not paying their “fair share.”
The progressives would be the most populous group, probably numbering about two-thirds of U.S. beef producers. That's the percentage of U.S. beef producers that annual surveys indicate support the mandatory beef checkoff.
Meanwhile, I suspect the regressives would comprise less than 10% of total U.S. beef producers. I get this figure from the fact that the Livestock Marketing Association couldn't muster the required valid signatures of 10% of U.S. beef producers to call for a referendum on the checkoff last year.
The remaining 20% or so would consist of those steel-crotched folks riding the fence. Under my plan, they'd have to decide to be either a progressive or a regressive. There's no fence sitting in this perfect disunion.
Everyone in this disunion would still be independent. And they'd have the option of entering into any kind of marketing and business agreement they choose. In this exercise, each producer — progressive or regressive — picks his or her own path, but there are no checkoff freeloaders. You get what you pay for.
Progressives would pledge to work in a coordinated production system designed to produce cattle with performance and end-product quality in mind. Their cattle would be individually identified and source verified.
Progressive cattle would be raised with set health and management protocols designed to foster efficiency and optimum performance. They would be sold as individuals on a quality basis for use in both foreign and domestic value-based markets developed by checkoff-funded research and promotion programs.
The progressives' aim would be to collaborate within and among segments to deliver products that meet consumer desires for tenderness, flavor and convenience. All information and profits would be shared throughout the chain.
Meanwhile, the regressives would sell into a commodity market. Since they don't contribute to product promotion and research, the regressives would be prevented from participating in any quality-based markets developed via checkoff dollars. They also wouldn't have rights or access to any of the production, marketing, promotion or research and development breakthroughs generated by the progressives' checkoff expenditures.
Regressives would simply take the price offered by any buyer willing to assume the risk of their undocumented cattle. Producing beef the cheapest is the only criterion for success.
It's likely that the ranks of regressives would dwindle each year as high-cost producers are run out of business. As numbers shrink, the regressives' existence increasingly would be dictated by what they can beg off the government. Eventually, that would disappear, too, as legislators and taxpayers noticed the viable, stand-alone industry and market-place that the progressives had built.
Eventually, regressives would become like harness makers are today. And once they're gone, our perfect disunion would become a perfect union.
Best of all, everyone involved picked their own path and was responsible for their own fate. No freeloading.