Richmond Times-Dispatch: John Boyd column: Farm legislation isn’t good for Virginia cattle producers

Virginia’s News Leader


John Boyd column: Farm legislation isn’t good for Virginia cattle producers

By John Boyd

John Boyd, shown here on his Virginia farm, has been raising beef cattle for more than 25 years.


By John Boyd

On its face, the new bill pending before the Virginia legislature to change the name of the Virginia Beef Industry Council to the Cattle Industry Board, and raise the per-cow assessment from 25 cents per head to a dollar per head, seems harmless enough. But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

As president of the National Black Farmers Association, and a Virginia cattle producer myself, I am deeply opposed to this legislation, and I’m urging my fellow Virginians to contact their elected state officials to urge them to vote “no” on Senate Bill 374.

At the federal level, the programs that administer these assessments are popularly known as “checkoffs,” and while they were originally created to fund research, marketing, and promotion of the various agriculture commodities, they have become notorious for their lack of transparency, their malfeasance in handling the assessment funds, and their use to conduct illegal lobbying efforts. While the USDA manages the programs, all the money gets funneled to industry groups like the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association to engage in questionable lobbying activities to thwart the move to more sustainable cattle production methods. Those activities are starkly at odds with the original intent of the commodity checkoff programs. Instead, the money lines the pockets of corporate lobbyists and the big industry groups. The head of the NCBA, for example, earns a salary well in excess of $500,000.

State checkoffs are also rife with problems. In Oklahoma, for example, the lack of public transparency and accountability created an opportunity for an employee in charge of managing the Oklahoma Beef Council’s funds to steal $2.68 million from the program. Perhaps not surprisingly, Oklahoma cattle producers in November voted down a referendum to create a new beef checkoff program in that state.

Corporate agribusiness will try to defend SB 374 by saying that it is not a mandatory assessment, because producers can ask for a refund if they don’t agree with it. Yet there is no process described in the bill for how a producer requests the refund, nor any time frame or deadline for the council to process the refund. The producers’ money might go toward lobbying activities they disagree with long before they ever see a refund check. A better approach to make the assessment truly voluntary would be to require producers to “opt in,” rather than “opt out,” so the producer is given the choice at the point of sale of his or her cattle.

Our governor should also be deeply concerned about SB 374, as it allows for this state agency board to select its own officers, who may be non-governor-appointed members. This provision clearly bypasses both the governor’s appointment authority and the General Assembly’s confirmation process, voiding the checks and balances of good government and placing the authority in the hands of a private membership lobbying organization. Considering this state agency has the statutory power to contract with private organizations, this provision guarantees the Virginia Cattlemen’s Association — which has failed utterly to represent the small family and minority cattle ranchers — will control both federal and state tax funds.

And finally, the legislation is objectionable because it reduces the number of board members from 15 to seven. This puts minority and small, independent farmers at a distinct disadvantage. To my knowledge, no black farmer has ever served on the board, and the bill will make it even more unlikely in the future. Rather than reduce the number of producers and put minority and family farmers at an even greater disadvantage, the board should be composed in a way that represents all Virginia cattle producers.

SB 374 is bad for the family and minority farmers who want to raise cattle according to consumer expectations for beef ranching — that it is humane to the animals and good for the environment. It puts our hard-earned dollars into the hands of corporate interests that will use it against our interests. Ultimately, that’s bad for Virginia cattle producers, bad for our cattle, and bad for the consumer. Please join me in voicing strong opposition to SB 374.

John Boyd is a Virginia cattle rancher and president of the National Black Farmers Association. He may be contacted at JBoyd.