Checkoff battle at an impasse, but there’s still hope for a deal

As of press time this week, there was still no indication as to the fate of the mandatory $1 national cattle checkoff.

AHEAD OF THE HEARD

As of press time this week, there was still no indication as to the fate of the mandatory $1 national cattle checkoff.

Time was running out, as there’s a deadline to meet for government regulations to be put into place to renew the mandatory checkoff.

The stumbling block is the memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the Alberta Cattle Producers (ABP) and the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association (ACFA), which governs the political aspects of the $1 national checkoff. The problem is those two groups tend to have different perspectives on industry issues, and this is no exception.

For the innocent who are unaware of this endless checkoff drama, the MOA was hobbled together three years ago by the two cattle-producer organizations and the agriculture minister of the day. The MOA was to address a major government administrative blunder that imperiled the overall national cattle checkoff, including the impending checkoff on beef and cattle imports — all of which are mandatory.

To deal with that mistake, the first MOA made the $1 checkoff mandatory for three years. With the MOA running out, a new agreement would have to be signed for the mandatory aspect of the checkoff to continue. It was a tenuous compromise at best, and all but guaranteed another round of drawn-out negotiations between the two groups — which is just what has happened.

Discussions between the two groups have been going on secretly for more than six months and there has been agreement on some points.

The proposed MOA has also been expanded in a number of directions, including holding quarterly discussions between the two groups on industry issues.

That’s the good news — the bad news is that the negotiations stalled on agreeing to a new MOA timeline. The ABP proposed a five-year agreement and the ACFA wanted a one-year time limit.

A five-year timeframe would provide some longer-term stability to national funding, and better yet get the topic off the table for a reasonable length of time.

A one-year term might have some strategic benefit for the ACFA and might placate its members that want to terminate the mandatory provision. But the big downside is that a one-year term will guarantee that these tedious negotiations will go on forever.

Considering the major issues that are facing the cattle industry, the last thing cattle producers need is more checkoff discussions. I believe I am expressing the exasperation of many — that 30 years of wrangling on this topic is more than enough — give us all a break.

Sources have indicated that both groups might have gone to Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson to plead their side of the timeframe issue. The legal reality is that the minister can make an arbitrary decision on the checkoff and does not need the MOA between the two groups to act.

The MOA is an entirely political exercise and was instigated by a previous ag minister to force some unanimity on the industry.

What gets lost in all this is that the government created this political mess in the first place. One can only hope that common sense might prevail with the minister and he makes the mandatory aspect permanent.

That might just force the various factions in the cattle industry to start working on other more important issues and stop beating the checkoff issue to death.

One suspects the minister in examining both sides might just renew the regulations under a new three-year timeframe — the same as before. It’s a political compromise, of course, but at least it will keep Alberta on side with the other provinces as to a mandatory national cattle checkoff. It will also prevent the derailing of a mandatory checkoff on beef and cattle imports.

That new regulation would see $700,000-plus of new checkoff money raised for cattle and beef research and marketing purposes.

That process for imports took over 10 years of slogging and lobbying by provincial cattle organizations and the CCA to achieve. It would be an outrage to see all that effort and funding lost because of any political indecision by the Alberta government.

Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.

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