House Ag Committee hears bill on state beef checkoff
Cheyenne – On Jan. 25 the House Ag Committee of the Wyoming Legislature met in Cheyenne to review a portion of the bills pertaining to the agriculture industry in the state, including HB16, Wyoming Beef Council Fee Collection.
Following much discussion, the bill, which had been studied in the interim by the Joint Ag Committee, passed out of the committee on a five-to-four vote, without amendments proposed by both the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) and the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation (WyFB).
Later in the week, HB16 was defeated in its first reading in the House. The amendment that required a referendum of producers passed, but the bill itself, which would have authorized Wyoming’s beef producers to initiate a self-funded promotion program, failed by a vote of eight to 49 with three excused.
The legislation addresses a 1971 law that allowed an in-state beef checkoff to be collected by the Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) for the Wyoming Beef Council (WBC). That state collection was halted upon the passage of the Federal Beef Promotion Act and Order in 1986, which authorized the national checkoff collection of one dollar per head on cattle sold across the country. At that point in time, the state checkoff transitioned to the national checkoff program, which is how the program has operated ever since.
The summer 2010 meeting of the WSGA brought the issue to light, when the membership voted to request the WBC to investigate whether it could collect a state checkoff of up to one dollar in addition to the national checkoff dollar.
“What we ran into is that the wording in the law allows the WLSB to collect up to a dollar on our behalf, and not anything beyond,” explained WBC Executive Director Ann Wittmann at the committee meeting. “It’s a case where the intent of the law changed as things progressed, and we’re trying to get the wording available, so that if there is a desire for a checkoff in the state, the WBC could recommend to the WLSB to begin collecting.”
In answer to concerns from the representatives over whether the WBC would make absolutely sure that Wyoming producers were in favor of a state checkoff before implementation, Wittmann said, “What’s in front of you only allows the opportunity for a collection to be implemented, should producers want it. It does not guarantee a collection. It allows for collection up to one dollar, and we haven’t seen producer support for an amount more than 50 cents.”
Dairy producer Scott George of Cody said he views the checkoff programs he pays for both dairy and beef as an investment in his business.
“There are checkoffs on corn, wheat soybeans and fruit, and they are all self-help programs and an investment in the business,” he said. “You’ve seen the uses for the dairy checkoff, with the ‘Got Milk?’ and milk mustache campaigns, and in beef we’ve seen ‘Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.’”
George added that the benefits to a state checkoff would be a freedom from restrictions in the national program.
“Right now we have animal activists hitting our industries, and the Humane Society of the United States has an active role in eliminating animal agriculture. We can’t refer to them with federal dollars as an ‘animal activist group.’ A state program would allow greater flexibility on what we as producers could do,” said George.
“The question with this legislation is should the producers, if they so desire, be allowed to collect and promote their own industry?” explained George.
However, producer Judy McCullough of Moorcroft, and ICOW member, said her membership is against the bill.
“We have a lot of concerns,” she said. “Combined with the potential for the national checkoff to increase to $1.50, the total checkoff could go up to $2.50. If I sell 200 calves, that’s $500, or a calf for every 200 head I sell, and I’m already paying enough taxes through property tax, sales tax and others.”
She added that ICOW fails to see where the national checkoff has helped producers, and says there’s not enough accountability in the bill as considered by the committee.
“If the checkoff will be so beneficial, I think we’d volunteer the extra money, rather than ramming the state program down our throats,” she said, adding that ICOW wants to be sure there will be a guaranteed vote of producers, not based on cattle numbers, before a state checkoff is put in place.
“If we must go forward, we need to at least have an opt-out option, so when a brand inspector comes to your door, you can check the box to opt out, and you don’t pay the state checkoff,” said McCullough. “ICOW would like to see this bill killed in committee, and if it was possible, I’d have you take us out of the federal checkoff.”
Mark Bebout of Lingle, Terry Henderson of Converse County and Randy Stevenson of Wheatland also spoke in opposition to the legislation.
“I would recommend the committee table the idea of any further taxes on Wyoming cattle until USDA rectifies and reforms the national checkoff,” said Stevenson.
Erv Petsch of Meridan, who works with the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), argued that the U.S. export market is bringing an additional $150 per animal slaughtered into the U.S. because of the efforts of USMEF, which is funded by checkoff dollars from the beef, pork, sheep, soybean and corn programs.
Petsch added that the $150 figure does not come from choice quality meat, but rather from meat that can’t be easily marketed in the U.S.
“If you think your margin is bad now, take $150 out of each head you sell, and it’d be worse,” he said.
Producer Ed Prosser of Laramie County said he doesn’t think an extra 50 cents is too much of a burden to pay out of the final sale price of a yearling. Mark Eisele, who ranches in Laramie and Albany counties, agreed, saying, “We’re talking about one-four-hundredth of our income for a self-help program. I wish the taxes were that low on a pickup truck or ranch land. We have the opportunity to pay more, and that’s great. A lot of folks in the industry ride the coattails of the proactive producers, and they will opt out, should that option be given.”
Les Barkhurst of Saratoga spoke against the bill, saying that the root of the problem is the packing segment of the beef industry. “Every time the beef checkoff has tried to build a market, the captive supply takes it down. They know how much we can handle before we go out of business. Let’s stop the exports and imports, and see what would happen if America both produced and consumed all its beef,” he said.
Tammy Barkhurst, also of Saratoga, asked for a referendum from all producers equally, as opposed to weighted by cattle numbers, saying that in Carbon County a handful of absentee landowners own the majority of cattle.
In regard to producer input, and how that would be determined, Scott Zimmerman of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union said his organization favored the WyFB amendment, which called for a referendum, over the WSGA amendment, which left the strategy for collecting producer opinion more open-ended.
Producer John Francis of Laramie County said he believes a referendum not only needs to happen, but needs to be repeated every so many years to review the policy.
In the end, both amendments failed to pass the committee, while the bill itself narrowly passed, and Rep. Dan Zwonitzer of Laramie County has been tasked with drafting the appropriate amendments related to a referendum to take to the floor of the House of Representatives when the bill is read.