Getting the axe

Tuesday, July 9, 2002

Standing in front of a fence that confines his 65 Black Angus cows, Stan Murray plucks a handful of tens and twenties from his wallet and extends them toward you.

"Now you give me one single dollar and I'll give you all this," says the lifelong Sedgewickville, Mo., cattleman. "That's the best way to tell you how well the beef checkoff works."

Many Southeast Missouri farmers agree with Murray. They say the checkoff -- the mandatory $1 fee per head of cattle that ranchers must contribute for research and promotional campaigns -- has turned the industry around after 20 years of declining demand.

But many others don't, and after a U.S. District judge's ruling last month that the fee is unconstitutional, the 16-year-old charge could be headed toward the slaughterhouse.

The South Dakota judge ruled the fee violates the free speech of cattle producers because they shouldn't be forced to promote their own product if they don't want to. The program is called a checkoff because farmers check off a specified amount per production unit to pay for them.

The judge agreed with opponents and granted an injunction that would stop the collections beginning July 15.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture have appealed the ruling, and an appeals court is considering a stay this week.

Locally, farmers are divided over the checkoff, which raises an average of $80 million nationally each year, with proceeds split evenly between the national Cattlemen's Beef Board and state cattle groups. Ranchers and feeders in Missouri, one of the top cattle-producing states in the country, pay about $1.4 million a year. The beef industry in the United States is worth $2 billion a year.

Worth 10 percent

Farmers like Murray say the beef checkoff has been a good thing, raising product awareness with slogans like "Beef, it's what's for dinner," as well as coming up with popular new products like microwavable pot roast, rotisserie pot roast and other easy-to-eat beef products.

"Without the checkoff," Murray said, standing next to his 78-year-old father, Elliott, who still farms, "every cattle farmer could cut 10 percent right off the top. It's done that much."

Mike Kasten, who owns a large cattle farm in Millersville, Mo., also once sat on the Beef Industry Council's state board, which administers local funds. He said that the checkoff has provided a tremendous boost to the cattle industry.

"If that's done away with, it's going to be very harmful," Kasten said. "Researching new products will all but disappear. We really don't have anything to fill the void. Once it's gone, it's gone."

Opponents, however, question what, if anything, the checkoff had to do with the turnaround. They also say that the fee is charged too often. The fee is required every time a head of cattle is sold, which may be three or four times before it reaches the slaughterhouse.

"They just collect it too many times," said Mike Frentzel, a farmer in Uniontown, Mo., who raises more than 400 head a year. "Why should we have to pay it two or three times? Doesn't that seem a bit much?"

Lewis Bangennip, a Marble Hill, Mo., cattleman, agreed.

"We really don't realize much out of it," he said. "It keeps a handful of people at the top in jobs. That's it. There's just a handful of people pocketing money, and it's costing us. It needs to be done away with."

There are also negative peripheral effects, said Dutch Meyer, who owns Fruitland Dressed Meats. He said he sent $10,000 for the 10,000 cows he butchered to the Cattlemen's Beef Board, which administers the program.

Money 'going for nothing'

"Sixty percent of all ground beef eaten in the United States is imported," Meyer said. "Those are my biggest competitors, and the checkoff people aren't doing anything about that. So, as far as I'm concerned, this money is going for nothing. There's really no benefit for it."

Local and state agriculture officials disagree strongly with claims that it has done nothing.

Lowell Mohler, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said that he would like to see it stay in place. But he added that if it is axed, then Missouri will have some insulation. As one of several states that implemented a voluntary checkoff before the original law was passed in 1985, it would still collect 50 cents a head per cattle. Those who didn't wish to participate could apply for a refund.

Much smaller scale

Mohler said he didn't know how much that would generate, but he guessed it would be nowhere near the money raised now.

"Any work we could do would be on a much smaller scale," Mohler said. "What we have now works. If it's done away with, it will hurt."

Roger Eakins, a regional livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension in Jackson, Mo., said he estimated the majority of farmers are fans of the beef checkoff.

"How can it not be having an effect?" he said. "We're doing promotion, education and research on a local and national scale."

Eakins, also a cattleman, said the beef checkoff pays for advertising, promotion and leaflets in grocery stores that provide nutritional information and recipes. But he believes the biggest advance is the research that has created beef "convenience foods."

"People are going to eat more beef if it's easier to cook," he said. "And promotion is huge. If we don't promote it, it won't get promoted. It's like Famous Barr saying it's not going to advertise until someone else does it for them. Won't happen."

335-6611, extension 137

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