Never-ending checkoff duel in new phase

The negotiations might well have ended by the time this column is published, but for the past few months, the Alberta Beef Producers

The negotiations might well have ended by the time this column is published, but for the past few months, the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) and the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association (ACFA) have been arm-wrestling about the fate of the $1 mandatory part of the $3-perhead cattle checkoff.

You might recall the never-ending checkoff story — the Alberta government cancelled the mandatory $3-per-head cattle checkoff and made it refundable. In a major bureaucratic blunder, that cancellation included the $1-per-head national checkoff. That put Alberta out of step with the rest of the cattle industry in Canada.

The subsequent agriculture minister, Jack Hayden of Drumheller- Stettler, realized the embarrassment of that government blunder, and then managed to get the two main antagonists in the checkoff war to sit down and hammer out an agreement to reinstate the $1 national checkoff portion of the refundable checkoff as being non-refundable.

The main feature of the deal was that it was for a three-year period, subject to renewal by the two parties.

Well, that due date is coming — hence, the ongoing negotiations.

I expect the discussions, at least at the start, probably did not go well. The ACFA has waged a war against the cattle checkoff for well over 20 years and scored a major victory when they successfully lobbied the provincial government to terminate the non-refundable checkoff.

It was only under intense pressure from the former ag minister, Hayden, and from national cattle producer groups that the ACFA agreed to reluctantly reinstate the $1 national portion as non-refundable. Almost three years later, they once again have the big stick.

An underlying aspect of the cattle-checkoff agreement was that the ACFA, after three years, would evaluate if the money generated by the compulsory $1 portion was being effectively used and providing results. The idea being that if in their opinion it was not — then they had their justification to not agree to a renewal and make the $1 portion as refundable as the rest of the cattle checkoff.

That was an open-ended agreement that clearly favoured the ACFA and gave them all the power. Coming up with concrete results for the newly created Canada Beef Inc., promotion agency (the main recipient of the national checkoff funds) would be virtually impossible within a short three years. Even more significant is that cattle feeders are seen to be closely aligned with the ruling PC party through their successful lobbying efforts and presence at PC party conventions.

For the ABP, it’s been a hard fight back from their loss of the non-refundable checkoff, their success in reinstating the compulsory $1 national portion of the three checkoff took a lot of effort by then-chairman Chuck MacLean.

Another problem faced by the ABP is that if the election results are any indication, much of their cow/calf producer membership is seen to be voters and supporters of the opposition Wildrose party. In the eyes of the long-entrenched PC government, such bad voting behaviour is quite unwelcome, particularly in southern Alberta, which the PC party once considered their fiefdom. One senses that ACFA has the political advantage in this issue.

There is more, of course. The Alberta government recently appointed one of their defeated candidates, former agriculture minister Evan Berger, as the political overseer for the PC party in southern Alberta. That puts a new spin on the issue, as both sides realize that they will have to win the support of the new overseer in order to win their side of the negotiations.

Considering all the aspects of the issue — it would look grim for the ABP in being successful in keeping the $1 portion non-refundable.

One hopes, however, that wiser heads will prevail and both sides will do what is best for the industry, which needs continuous stable funding to pursue the development of more and better beef marketing. The government might well relish in playing its Solomon-like role in deciding the fate of the checkoff, but their role from the very beginning has been less than admirable.

We can only hope that common sense will rule the day.

Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.