A Buck A Head: Book about Beef Checkoff now available
A new book describing the events leading up to the Beef Checkoff’s implementation and outlining a vast number of happenings since then has caused quite a stir.
Livestock journalist Leesa Zalesky teamed up with former Cattlemen’s Beef Board Communications Director Diane Gumaer to produce a comprehensive textbook style publication that takes the reader through a timeline of events beginning with the rise of Thomas Wilson, a meat packing giant and one of the founders of the American Meat Institute, and ending with details about the checkoff referendum drive and controversial political statements made by the Beef Checkoff’s main contractor, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The 230 plus pages of “A Buck A Head, The Beef Checkoff: Did Greed, Envy and a Thirst for Power Hijack Beef Research and Promotion?” include information from dozens of meat industry leaders past and present.
People from 34 states have purchased the book, said Zalesky. It took 18 months to research, write and publish. Sandwiched in there was the pre-publish legal review by David Domina, Domina Law, Omaha, Nebraska, she added.
“The book is only available in hard copy form, not electronically. It is not available on Amazon and most likely won’t be because we’re old-fashioned about who or what uses our work to make a profit,” added Zalesky. For now, order through http://www.abuckahead.com
The authors answered several questions for Tri-State Livestock News.
1 How did you decide to take on this project?
Diane’s response: I worked for the Cattlemen’s Beef Board for more than 15 years until February 2017, when they let me go. I have no hard feelings for that, though, and you’re not going to find me bashing the work that the checkoff does, because it’s pretty amazing, really, and I don’t think the producers who pay into it realize how much it has done to keep beef relevant in consumers’ minds. That said, since the day I started at the Beef Board in 2001, I have struggled with the conflicts of interest that seem so inherent because of the structure of checkoff management. I watched and tried to understand ever since, and all I see is that the checkoff structure, with a policy organization virtually at its helm, does more to harm the industry’s cohesiveness around a valid program than it does to help it. You can’t have a producer-funded program with one policy organization calling itself the “One Voice” for the industry. There are many voices, and they all deserve to be heard. That will never happen with the current structure. So, when Leesa asked me about helping telling the whole story, I hesitated only briefly to ensure that I was keeping my integrity intact, which I determined I could do by continuing to support the work of the checkoff without selling my soul to the One Voice motto. It had to be done, and Leesa and I provide the perfect balance to each other in making sure we didn’t go off kilter. I couldn’t say no to the opportunity to tell the story by sharing the factual history of this national promotion program we need so much—but not in its current form.
Leesa’s response: When I retired from journalism after 25 years, there were some books on my post-retirement “to write” list, including one on the beef checkoff, its history and why it has been such a lightning rod for substantial controversy, stakeholder distrust and resistance over the years. When retirement came along and I looked at my list, I contacted Diane and suggested we get together to talk about a beef checkoff book. She has vast institutional knowledge of the beef checkoff and I knew she would bring a wealth of accurate information to the project. We discussed the areas where we disagree and arrived at a basic premise we could agree on and that is: The current checkoff structure is deeply flawed. It requires a multi-million dollar middleman (also known as a contractor), which is an obscene waste of producer dollars and falsely inflates the image and influence of the middleman while tying the checkoff directly to a politically-based organization. The structure essentially neuters the Beef Board by preventing it from directly conducting research and promotion. I’m grateful Diane said yes, and, well, here we are.
2 Did you have a goal in mind for the project (were you hoping to prove something, show something, teach people something, etc. or did you just start digging and figure you would share whatever you were able to find?)
Diane’s response: My goal has been pretty simple: Lay out the history of how we got from the first 5-cents-a-carload volunteer beef checkoff to where we are today. If we lay out that story with facts and input from people who were closely involved, including highly respected former NCBA and Meat Board employees, we give cattle producers nationwide the facts they need to form a reasonable opinion and any action plan for which they see a need.
Leesa’s response: My primary goal was to provide a factual history of how the checkoff came to be and a clear depiction of the current checkoff’s structure. So much of what’s in the book wasn’t covered adequately when it happened. Something really informative happens when you put things in a timeline format so people can see and understand how certain events overlapped and shared a connectivity. Something truly motivational happens when producers — a lot of whom want something different from their checkoff or don’t want a checkoff at all — can see how, in the past, certain individuals put their reputations and personal resources on the line fighting for checkoff change after the checkoff became mandatory and the merger creating NCBA occurred. Above all, those people wanted their checkoff to promote U.S. beef that’s truthfully labeled, not some imported generic product. Bottom line, my hope for the book is that it will be the catalyst for producer thought processes and dialogue about the sort of changes they want to see in their checkoff and to trigger producers to be proactively engaged in reforming it.
3 What was the most surprising thing you learned in your research?
Diane’s response: I suppose the most surprising thing I realized was how deceptive the entire process was for developing the structure of the checkoff. Why did it need to be so complicated? Was it truly to create a national self-help program for all cattle producers? Or was it to deceive those same producers into giving their checkoff away to a policy organization that was NOT the single voice of the industry but wanted to be? The history tells the story I didn’t want to believe but that I suspected.
Leesa’s response: I thought I had a grasp of the enormity and quality of the work done by the National Live Stock and Meat Board. I discovered I really had no idea. Diane wisely suggested that we conduct our first interviews with past Meat Board executives and leadership; she felt we needed to talk with people who were involved with the checkoff when it was still voluntary and then went through passage of the Beef Act and the merger with NCA. After the first interviews with people like John Huston, Dr. Russell Cross, Mark Thomas, and John Francis, I was hooked on writing that history. Those were the glory days of the beef checkoff, when it was voluntary and meaningful work was conducted that directly impacted producers’ bottom lines without any policy crossover. It became very important to us to capture that history to the best of our ability so that today’s cattle producers can understand what their checkoff actually can accomplish when it is not connected to and controlled by a policy organization. In the end, we committed an entire section of the book to that history.
4 Do you believe there are positive attributes to the current federal Beef Checkoff? Are there instances where the $1 is being wisely spent?
Diane’s response: Leesa and I are not exactly on the same page on this question. I think the Beef Checkoff Program does some amazing work, including the very research that is required at its base to help formulate the programs and stories that American consumers want to hear. I actually feel like the research that forms nutrition messages is some of the most important information we have from the checkoff. It might sometimes feel excessive from afar but pleasing a sometimes-finicky consumer base that is increasingly knowledgeable about and interested in how their food is raised and arrives at the local supermarket means understanding them. Only from a research base like this can we develop the answers, the messages, that consumers want to hear. I suppose I differ with Leesa most on this because I watched this work firsthand for so long. There’s some pretty impressive research that comes from the checkoff, but my question remains, why are we paying a contractor like NCBA to mete out and contract with land-grant universities to carry out this research? Why can’t the Beef Board do this directly and cut out the expensive middleman?
Leesa’s response: You’ve asked a question in an area where Diane and I don’t always agree. Until we wrote this book I felt the Northeast Beef Initiative was a pretty good investment of checkoff funds. Who doesn’t want beef to penetrate the consumer market in such a population-dense area? But then I saw, and we wrote about in the book, how NCBA leadership — whose salaries are largely paid by the beef checkoff, by the way — undermined that investment by bringing politics into play and exhibiting less than honorable conduct, a direct reflection on cattle producers everywhere. When the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis occurred, it was the checkoff that funded the industry response and defense.
Currently, it seems to me that the checkoff spends millions on one consumer survey/study after another. Those are conducted by the third-party middleman that skims its implementation fees out of the money involved and then a lot of the work is done by subcontractors who also take their share. By the time the contractor and the subcontractors involved have taken their piece of the checkoff pie, I’d venture to guess that about 40 or 50 cents of every dollar spent is actually invested in the work. If the checkoff were reformed to eliminate the middleman (contractor) and free up the Beef Board to manage and conduct the work there would be considerable savings. Maybe the Beef Board or USDA should seek an independent economic study of exactly that since there are members of Congress interested in facilitating checkoff change legislatively. But I do have to say that if I see one more authorization request in the next couple of years for yet another study of consumer preferences I think my hair will catch on fire.
On the other hand, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there’s a state program out there that I think is an excellent investment of checkoff money. The South Dakota Beef Industry Council’s emerging “Build Your Base,” looks to me like a great consumer outreach and education effort focused on the important role of beef in the diet, particularly for young athletes.
5. Were you able to interview any CBB or or NCBA supporters for the book?
Diane’s response: Yes, we interviewed some major checkoff and, more specifically, NCBA supporters. But that was not the focus of this effort. The Beef Board does an excellent job of telling the story of checkoff-program successes. That’s not what we were trying to do here. We wanted to get to the very guts of the program and tell the history of how we got from 1922 to 2021. Producer communications were not our goal.
Leesa’s response: We sure did. We conducted dozens of interviews. And we interviewed people we hadn’t planned to after they heard about the book and asked to talk with us. Everybody had a chance; no one was turned away. I’ll say this: If the interviewee went off into the weeds spouting pre-approved answers (yes, they have those) or talking points, the interview ended — politely — but it ended, because that wasn’t a productive use of time.
6. If you could tell American ranchers one thing about the checkoff, what would it be?
Diane’s response: If you want to really have a voice in how your checkoff dollars are invested, split the Federation (the former Beef Industry Council of the Live Stock and Meat Board) from the policy division of NCBA. Reformulate the checkoff structure so that the Beef Board can contract directly with universities for research, marketing agencies for promotion, and the like. Ask yourself, ‘Why do we need a middleman, let alone a policy organization with which many producers do not agree, to take the beef industry’s message to consumers?’ Because that’s how NCBA helped structure the enabling legislation to favor their organization over all others. Beef producers don’t have One Voice – they have many. But when it comes to selling beef, they all agree. Why in the world do we need to continue dividing the industry about something everyone believes in by tying it to something that NCBA professes?
Leesa’s response: Diane is spot on but I’ll take it a step further. Sign the referendum petitions currently being circulated. If a referendum is held, vote the checkoff down and start over. Get out and VOTE. Producers were saddled with the current checkoff because only about 20 percent of eligible ranchers voted in the original referendum more than 30 years ago. Rebuild a modern program that permits the Beef Board to conduct its own work and make sure the checkoff is insulated from any policy group.
If a referendum is not held, I believe there is a reasonable opportunity today to work with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Congress to rewrite the Beef Act and the Order but it will take grassroots unified leadership, political strategy, and political pressure. There are some very skilled people out there who can help advise and guide that effort.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News