Spinning Out of Control

Spinning Out Of Control
— by Lee Pitts

If you thought creative usage of the English language, evasive answers and selective memory were practiced only in Washington D.C. you haven´t been reading the press releases spewing forth from NCBA headquarters. These people could give the Clinton White House lessons on spinning the facts. For example…

High Approval Ratings

ITEM: “What researchers found,” said Chairman of the Cattlemen´s Beef Board, Steve Hailey, “is that 4 out of 10 producers say they´ve never heard of the checkoff, or know very little about it.”

This startling revelation came after the LMA announced they would attempt to gather up the signatures necessary for a referendum on the checkoff. These survey results are now being used as an excuse to spend more money to inform cattlemen about all that the checkoff does for them. There´s only one small discrepancy. For years we´ve been told that 70-72% of all cattlemen approve of the checkoff. Even in a recent press release the Beef Board said, “the research found that 68% of producers approve of the checkoff.”

Let´s do the math. If 4 out of 10 cattlemen don´t know about the checkoff that means if every rancher in the country approved of the checkoff the highest approval rating possible would be 60%. Yet for years we´ve been told that at least 70% of producers approve of the checkoff. Did a large number of cattleman simultaneously come down with the same case of amnesia afflicting our President?

“I Have No Recollection Of That”

ITEM: “USDA officials reported at last Fridays meeting that the import permit requested for the Australian cattle had been withdrawn, largely as a result of concerns raised by NCBA leadership and members regarding animal health issues.”

While NCBA leader´s were issuing that release regarding the possible importation of Australian cattle into this country, Clark Willingham, the current NCBA President, was saying something very different, according to the Australian Broadcasting Company: “The President of the U.S. National Cattlemen´s Beef Association, Clark Willingham says he now believes it may be economically viable for Australia to export live cattle to Mexico for on-sale to feedlots in the United States. Mr. Willingham who is currently in Australia for high level cattle industry talks says that if Australian cattle producers comply with U.S. import regulations, his Association will not oppose attempts to export live cattle to U.S. feedlots via Mexico. The comments are something of a turn around from last week´s claims by Mr. Willingham´s association that applications to trans-ship Australian cattle through Mexico to the U.S. were an attempt to enter the market through the back door. But after visiting Australia this week, Willingham says he now understands how the trade is possible and he WOULD NOT oppose it.” (emphasis ours)

Despite Willingham´s comments, the NCBA is now attempting to take full credit for stopping the Australian cattle. A professor at New Mexico State University told the Digest that U.S. influence had nothing to do with it, because the issue never got that far. It was the Mexican government and the Mexican cattlemen who denied the Australian cattle because they were worried about a backlash and did not want to jeopardize their ability to export Mexican cattle to the U.S.

“It´s A Vast Right Wing Conspiracy”

ITEM: “From its inception the checkoff program has focused on five key producer directives: It´s fair. Everybody pays. No one gets a free ride.” NCBA Fact Sheet

What about the beef packer? They don´t pay the dollar per head on the cattle they process, yet so far they are the primary beneficiary of checkoff dollars.

“I May Have Said That. I Don´t Remember”

ITEM: Depending on the audience, the NCBA often says that they are in favor of mandatory price reporting.

Senator Bob Kerrey introduced an amendment to the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Bill which, if passed, would move livestock marketing closer to the open, public, competitive, capitalistic markets necessary for producers to receive a fair price for their livestock. In opposition to their published policy position, the NCBA viciously opposed Senator Kerrey´s amendment and tried to mount hurried attempts to get the amendment tabled. The NCBA-backed effort to kill Senator Kerrey´s amendment was defeated by a tie vote.

But don´t take our word. We quote from a two page flyer handed out in Congress by the NCBA prior to the vote on amendments to S.2159, including the amendment dealing with mandatory live cattle reporting and packer concentration: “The amendments are not fair and equitable to beef producers and many of these provisions are counter to our producer´s policy,” said the NCBA. Further, the flyer said the NCBA was opposing the mandatory price reporting measure “on behalf of over one million beef producers from across the country.” It was signed by Chandler Keys, III, VP of Public Policy.

The whole affair prompted this reply from Tom Breitbach, a Montana rancher speaking on behalf of the Western Organization of Resource Councils: “NCBA has consistently lobbied against the wishes of its own members and against the interests of all the other cattle producers it claims to represent, in opposing competitive bidding and mandatory price reporting.”

“That Depends On Your Definition of Mandatory”

ITEM: The NCBA countered that they were all in favor of price reporting but not MANDATORY price reporting. The NCBA contends that they don´t believe in anything that is mandatory. “Beef producers should work to minimize direct federal involvement in agriculture and beef production,” said an NCBA release.

One would assume therefore that the NCBA would be against the checkoff since it´s mandatory and is a federal program.

“Just A Coincidence, I´m Sure”

ITEM: “Producers do have a right to request and then vote in a nationwide referendum to determine the future of the beef checkoff.” So said, Beef Board Chairman Steve Hailey.

But it appears that the NCBA and the Beef Board don´t want to give producers a chance to vote. They are going to spend millions of your money to convince you to keep the checkoff intact. In the face of the referendum by the LMA, the NCBA used the previously referred to survey as an excuse to raise the level of spending to inform producers about the checkoff. At its Mid-July meeting the Beef Board Approved a budget amendment for fiscal 1998, to spend $1.935 million for producer communications. This is in addition to $845,00 already allocated to producer communications for FY98. This is up from $600,000 spent in 1997.

“After 12 years, the major beneficiaries of the checkoff have suddenly discovered that communicating with those who pay the bills is important,” said the LMA in response. “The fact that this multi-million dollar campaign coincides with LMA´s campaign to let producers vote on continuing the checkoff, is just a coincidence, supporters say. At LMA, we are confident that producers will see through this transparent education and information campaign for what it is: an obvious attempt to keep them from ever again voting on the mandatory checkoff.”

Incoming NCBA President George Swan said that “none of the dollars can in any way be used to attempt to influence a vote for the checkoff.” Do you think they´ll spend any of your money to tell you about the failures of the checkoff?

NCBA Hires Political Strategy Firms

ITEM: According to the Livestock Weekly, Merlyn Carlson, an NCBA Checkoff Committee member, said the NCBA hired two political strategy firms to “develop an educational program to combat the petition drive seeking a referendum on the beef checkoff program.” Carlson was further reported to have said that the NCBA wanted to hold off on a pro-checkoff campaign but “the consulting firms advised them to move forward now to dissuade producers from signing the petitions in the first place.” Smith said that within days of the consultant´s report almost $1 million was budgeted by the NCBA to carry out their advice.

“Misinformation Costs Money”

ITEM: “Best estimate, based on the last beef referendum would be about $3 to $4 million.” NCBA Fact Sheet as to the cost of a referendum on the beef checkoff.

When someone got around to asking Barry Carpenter, Deputy Administrator of USDA´s Ag Marketing Service his response as to what it would cost was, “probably less than than $500,000.” And he ought to know considering he´d be in charge of the referendum. When confronted with the slight discrepancy incoming NCBA President, George Swan, said, “the LMA makes matters worse by misinforming producers about various aspects of the checkoff, including how much it will cost to hold a referendum. Correcting misinformation costs money,” he said.

“Again, That Depends On Your Definition”

ITEM: The NCBA contends that they are in favor of country of origin labeling.

Well, sort of. Actually what the NCBA is in favor of is “generic labeling of fresh muscle cuts.” If the NCBA has their way there will be no labeling of ground beef, which is where most imported beef ends up. The fact is, packers and feeders are opposed to country of origin labeling just as they are mandatory price reporting. The situation was summed up by Jordan Valley, Oregon rancher, Margene Eiguren. “It appears that this is the way NCBA does business. They make it appear as if they stand officially behind an important issue to producers, whom they claim to represent, but their actions reflect who they actually represent. They state over and over that the world is run by those who show up, so we show up, adopt country of origin labeling policy that is critical to the producer, only to have it swept under the rug by a task force consisting of two conference calls and one meeting in Denver, both dominated by packers.”

“I Was Never Alone With The Money”

ITEM: In a press packet titled, Myth and Facts, the NCBA denies that the Cattlemen´s Beef Board is now a part of the NCBA. “Fact: The CBB is a separate entity. CBB and NCBA are completely separate entities.”

If that is the case how come in all their press releases the NCBA says of itself, “The National Cattlemen´s Beef Association is the marketing organization and trade organization for America´s one million cattle farmers and ranchers?”

The NCBA is certainly supposed to be a separate trade organization but recently they have assumed the marketing role and claim as members the one million ranchers who pay the checkoff. This despite the fact that fewer than 40,000 people have joined the NCBA. And some of them were forced to join.

“The President Has Spoken To That”

ITEM: “NCBA policy does not allow NCBA to recommend one marketing alternative over another.”

Now listen to the words of NCBA President Willingham as quoted in Beef Magazine. “Alliances continue to be very important. They´re growing because the ones in existence have worked. Alliances are still the best way to get paid for value in cattle. If you sell them through a feedlot or auction barn, you´re not going to get full value, especially if you´ve spent time and money improving your genetics.”

It sure sounds like NCBA President Willingham was promoting one method of marketing over another, doesn´t it? And he´s promoting a method that would increase vertical integration, concentrating the power into fewer and fewer hands, thereby bankrupting much of rural America.

“Yeah, And Hogs Can Fly”

ITEM: “The NCBA will expedite consideration of R-CALF´s request for help in filing a petition for import relief against Canada.” NCBA Press Release

Don´t hold your breath waiting for NCBA to help ranchers rein in imports. These are the same people who continue to push for fast track legislation that would allow more imports. Do you really think the packers who need more numbers and feeders who depend on foreign feeders are ever going to allow THEIR organization to support a petition in favor of import relief? Yeah, and pigs can fly and “that woman” got her job because she could type real fast.