If you’re actively involved with the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB), the Federation of State Beef Councils (Federation), or the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), you probably have a decent understanding of what’s actually going on with the feud that surrounds the checkoff. However, if you’re among the other 99% of producers busy making a living and assuming good people will find a good result, you’re probably confused about all the media coverage and political posturing taking place.
Without question, context on this issue has been a difficult thing to come by. Most of what’s occurred has been done behind closed doors in executive sessions and clandestine political maneuverings that make it almost impossible for the typical producer to really understand what’s been transpiring. I’ve written extensively about the fiasco surrounding the checkoff, and I admit that all of us writing about the issue are to blame for this general lack of understanding.
If I were an investigative reporter for the New York Times, I would have mentioned names, and it would have been no problem airing all the industry’s dirty laundry. However, I’m also a cattleman – we’re cattlemen – and we know that most of the people involved are good people with good intentions.
We probably understand why the CBB didn’t act aggressively to discipline staff who broke the code of ethics and breeched trust levels that we all believe in. We all believed things would work out in the end, and airing the political agendas that have created this problem might endanger the checkoff in general. I guess we’re like the mainstream media, which choose to ignore problems because they support the politicians or the goals those politicians are trying to achieve.
A lot of producers have contacted me seeking names and demanding more information. They want to know the end game. They also want to better understand the differences between the ethics violations that occurred, which are really totally separate issues in some ways, yet intertwined in others.
The basis of this situation is that there have always been issues between the staff leadership at NCBA and CBB – issues that largely revolve around clashes of ego. As the primary contractor of the checkoff, NCBA does most of the work and also garners most of the glory. In addition, those who oppose NCBA’s policy positions on some issues see this turmoil as a chance to damage NCBA by forcing separation.
Thus, we have those who believe that a restructuring would hurt NCBA’s policy division. And we have those who want to go back to the pre-merger days, moving the actual demand-building activities away from producer-controlled contractors and under the auspices of the CBB and even more USDA control.
It’s a power struggle over to whom employees will directly answer. This has all come to a head because of the leadership and a radical shift in the makeup of the CBB Executive Committee (EC).
The EC – at the behest of USDA – wants to achieve the holy grail of diversity, which means not only more minority representation but diversity of operations. Thus, those who pay in the vast majority of checkoff dollars have found themselves with dwindling representation, as alternative production systems have gained added clout in dictating the direction of an industry in which their role is a minimal part of total production.
While adding such diversity to the checkoff decision-making process isn’t a bad thing, the problem lies in that many of these new appointees come onto the CBB without the benefit of “coming up through the ranks,” as it were. Without the background of serving on a state beef council, they are unfamiliar with the checkoff and how it’s supposed to work.
This push for added diversity is driven by a USDA committed to its notion of a “greener, sustainable” agriculture. Where previous administrations were satisfied with allowing the respective industries to manage the direction of their checkoff programs, the Obama administration is much more interested in using all tools at its disposal – including commodity checkoff programs – to socially engineer America to the vision it wants.
The voting structure of the Federation and the CBB has served as a fairly effective check and balance to keep the EC from forcing separation and consolidating all the power under the CBB. And, as a whole, most people believe the current structure is pretty darn good and only needs adjustments.
The frustration by producers is that the checkoff wasn’t supposed to be political, but it’s been used as a political weapon while an internal war rages to consolidate power. This process has also highlights the fact that the checkoff isn’t really a producer-run program, but a government program that makes political appointments. Under past Washington administrations, the program answered to the government, but producer demands and interests were considered. That’s why so many producers are frustrated by their inability to stop the infighting and refocus on building beef demand again. It’s created a movement by some to take the checkoff in a new direction where it can be producer-controlled.
Then there’s the issue of the breeches in trust and ethics. Simply, the CEO of the CBB and several key leaders clandestinely entered into conference calls to spy on conversations between state beef councils without their knowledge. This wasn’t a simple oversight, as the supporting documentation shows they knew what they were doing was improper and unethical, yet it was repeated many times. Perhaps the most damning thing was the initial denial but subsequent admission when confronted with the evidence.
Everyone who’s written me wants to know why this situation wasn’t resolved, who has the authority when the person who controls the audits and the money is doing these things, and how does crucial trust between the Federation and CBB get restored? These folks are correct in assuming that their local and state groups would have moved decisively to restore trust if their executive officers, staff or leadership had behaved in a similar manner.
We’ve all seen political parties or factions rally around people stung by scandal, because condemning the action would give the other side a political victory. This is why Americans today have such little faith in our institutions and leadership.
To their credit, state cattlemen’s groups and state beef councils have called for everyone to put down their axes and get busy focusing on building beef demand. They’ve also put the leadership on notice that continuing down this path could harm the checkoff. Despite all that, there seems to be no resolve to change things.
Building demand for a commodity product isn’t an easy task, but we have a great system in place; it’s up to producers to tell the leadership to tweak it where necessary but move forward on the task they were given. Enough is enough. As producers paying into the checkoff with hard-earned dollars, we expect teamwork, preparation, strategy, character, integrity, attitude and adherence to high ideals. The only focus should be on building beef demand.
And leave the political battles where they’re meant to be fought – on the policy side.