Texas ranchers are voting this week on a proposed new marketing program for the state’s beef industry.
Most of the industry’s big players back the measure, and it seems likely to pass. Ranchers have already been paying into national marketing efforts for years, and with this new program they’d pay another $1 per head of cattle into a fund promoting Texas beef.
But as some say these “checkoff programs” don’t do enough to help smaller producers.
If the Texas Beef Checkoff Program passes the vote this week, we might start hearing ads that recall that classic “Beef! It’s What’s for Dinner” campaign, but with a specifically Texan twist.
Those ads were funded by the national beef checkoff, a program set up as part of the Reagan-approved Farm Bill of 1985.
Half of the $1 per animal ranchers already pay in goes to marketing beef on the national scene. The other half goes back to promoting burgers and brisket at the state level, but all the money brought in with this new program would stay in Texas.
These kinds of programs are the industry’s attempt to reverse the trend of America’s declining demand for beef, and rancher Bobby McKnight says it’s definitely helped.
“Through that dollar through the years they’ve created so many new retail products,” he says, “and probably added $200 to $250 of value to each animal.”
McKnight’s a Director of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, one of the industry’s largest voices.
Driving around Fort Davis, where he’s spent most his life, he tells me the potential benefits from a Texas checkoff are “limitless.”
I ask him if that extra $1 per head ranchers will have to pay adds up to a lot.
“No,” he says simply, “It is in my mind insignificant.”
He says it’s a modest investment with big returns, and he doesn’t see why anybody wouldn’t support it.
Still, some ranchers don’t think it’s a good idea.
“There’s no reason to think that telling people to ‘go buy beef’ has any effect on the prices of somebody who’s direct marketing their beef at a farmer’s market,” Judith McGeary, a Central Texas rancher and Director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance.
“It’s a completely different marketing system,” she says.
McGeary’s group represents a part of state’s ag community that sees these producer-funded programs as an unnecessary tax rather than an investment.
McGeary admits the cost of the new program’s not a lot of money, but she says smaller ranchers are always struggling to cut costs, and if the market tanked, those dollars could add up.
It’s true that when it comes to beef, national checkoff-funded messages have called into question whether buying grass-fed is really worth the price.
“What we’ve got is producers paying into checkoff after checkoff,” McGeary says, “which do nothing really but compete with each other, and which never have promoted farmer’s market sales, direct market sales, any of the niche markets that many of our members are a part of and rely on for their income.”
“Most of the people that I’ve encountered that consider this to be a tax don’t really understand how the program works in the first place,” says Staci Schoenfeldt, President of the West of the Pecos chapter of Texas Cattlewomen, another industry group backing the state checkoff.
She says anyone in the industry can make their voice heard and push for the kind of ads they want to see, and she argues that even if they don’t, the ads can’t do anything but help.
“At the end of the day, the marketing message that’s out there actually benefits every producer,” she says.
This debate actually went to the Supreme Court in 2005. Cattle ranchers like McGeary argued that forcing people to help pay for ads they don’t agree with violated their right to free speech, but the court ruled against that argument, saying federally-mandated marketing is actually “government speech,” which isn’t subject to the 1st Amendment.
Checkoff opponents say there’s a simple solution – make it voluntary.
Schoenfedlt says that’s a good idea in theory, but she says the fear is people won’t feel they need to contribute if they’re given the option.
Whether the industry needs the checkoff is an open debate. The market’s certainly not hurting right now – beef prices just reached record highs this year, and even though herd sizes have been dropping because of the drought, the USDA predicts Americans will gradually start eating and producing more beef over the next decade.
But the national beef campaign has had to make cuts because of a basic economic reality – the dollar of today is worth about half what it was in the mid-80s, and the industry groups pushing the new state program say it’s needed simply to offset those losses and keep the industry growing.
Anyone who owned cattle since June 6th of 2013 is eligible to vote on the proposal – voting takes place at any Texas A&M AgriLife County Extension Office from June 2 – June 6.