When there's producer and grower money at stake –quite a bit of it– there always are strong feelings about who should spend it and how it should be spent. That's why both the beef check-off and soybean check-off programs have been in the news lately.
The beef program is funded by the $1-per head check-off collected each time an animal is sold. Up to 50 cents of the $1 check-off goes to state beef councils which collect the money with the other half being passed on to the Cattlemen's Beef Board. Then the beef board doles out the money to various contractors to provide a variety of services such as advertising and promotion, product research, and so forth. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association is the largest recipient of beef program monies.
Turns out, the Cattlemen's Beef Board, following an independent audit, accused NCBA of not using program funds properly. Specifically, CBB spot-checked five NCBA activity areas and found many expenses that were either improperly charged to the check-off or insufficiently documented.
A strict separation between advertising, promotion, research and development on one hand and policy and lobbying activities on the other is a continual concern with USDA-sanctioned commodity check-off programs. CBB alleged that NCBA "breached the financial firewall" between marketing and lobbying. Not so, says NCBA president Steve Foglesong, an Illinois cattleman. He told the New York Times, "We spend an awful lot of time trying to make sure that firewall is maintained." Foglesong pledged that NCBA would work with NCB and USDA to make sure his organization is in compliance.
There's more. Earlier this summer, the Cattlemen's Beef Board recommended that the Federation of State Beef Councils would be "free from the influence of any policy organization" if it were a separate entity from the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. However, it late July, the Federation of State Beef Councils passed a resolution that it maintain its partnership with NCBA.
Switching from beef to beans, then U.S. Ag Secretary Schafer announced in January 2009 that USDA's Office of Inspector General would be conducting an investigation of the national soybean check-off program based on a petition by the American Soybean Association. The ASA petition accused the United Soybean Board and the U.S. Soybean Export Council of not using soybean check-off dollars properly. There were allegations of no-bid contracting and conflicts of interest among many other charges.
Just last week, USDA announced "no basis for any of the allegations." We haven't heard the last of the beef shake-up and, undoubtedly, there will be more commodity-program controversy in the future. It behooves leaders of all such organizations, staff and producers alike, to watch the dollars and how they are spent closely.