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Farm Action wants referendum on Ohio Beef Checkoff program
By Celeste Baumgartner
Ohio Correspondent

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio cattlemen pay an extra dollar per every calf, cow or bull they sell to the Beef Checkoff program. Whether that should continue is a subject Farm Action would like to see brought up at a referendum. Members of Farm Action and those interested in Ohio beef testified at a recent hearing by the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) on whether a referendum should be held. 
The Beef Checkoff program is a state and federal producer-funded program designed to increase domestic and international demand for beef. Cattlemen pay $1 for every calf, cow or bull they sell to the federal checkoff program. In 2014 Ohio established an additional dollar checkoff fee just for Ohio. 
The money is overseen by the Ohio Beef Council (OBC), a non-profit organization that is certified to invest Beef Checkoff funds to stimulate the sale of beef and encourage consumers to buy more beef. 
Elizabeth Harsh is the executive director of the Ohio Cattlemen’s Assoc. She directs and coordinates all activities of the OBC and the Ohio Cattlemen’s Association (OCA). She is responsible for compliance with the Beef Checkoff Act & Order and all OBC/OCA financial statements.
“The ODA collected testimony; they do that every 5 years to determine whether to bring up the beef checkoff for a referendum to allow producers to vote on whether it should continue,” said Angela Huffman.
Huffman is the co-founder of Farm Action. The checkoff is one of their top priority issues although they’re focused more on the national level and federal policy. However, they want a referendum so Ohio cattle producers can decide if there should be a change in the checkoff program.
Farm Action’s message is that Ohio’s cattle producers are being double taxed, Huffman said. Producers are charged the dollar per head for the federal checkoff and they’re charged this additional dollar in Ohio.
“Seeing this happen in my state, we wanted to have an opportunity to weigh in on it,” said Huffman, who has a family farm in Ohio. 
“Our position is that, while it is up to Ohio’s cattle producers, I think they should have an opportunity to weigh in and have that vote,” she explained. “Our opinion is that it is a wasteful and abusive program; that it is not serving Ohio’s cattle producers. The best outcome would be if it is removed.”
“We don’t think they’re (cattle producers) seeing a benefit for that because Ohio doesn’t have enough processing facilities on a large enough scale,” Huffman said. “So, producers are having to send their cattle out west for either feedlots or processing. 
“So, they’re paying this double tax in Ohio but they’re not getting higher returns on their cattle for it,” she explained. “That’s our biggest concern with this.”
However, Frank Phelps, past president, and current at-large director of OCA, said that Ohio cattlemen take pride in the cattle they raise and sell nationally and internationally. The checkoff funds provide the resources to engage with consumers while building demand for beef. 
“Our checkoff funds are strategically invested by the OBC, guided by consumer market research to maintain and grow beef’s share of the plate and consumer confidence in our product,” Phelps said. 
Concurring, Erin Stickel, beef producer and current chair of the OCA testified that OBC’s digital and advertising efforts reach millions across social media platforms, media campaigns, and e-commerce campaigns targeted to Ohio consumers. One campaign resulted in $1,512,518 in traceable beef sales in Ohio. Another campaign had a 26.1 percent lift in beef sales.
Farm Action also has concerns about how the program is administered. The OCA is a lobbying group in the state, Huffman said. That group shares an office and staff members with the Ohio Beef Council. 
“That is a big part of why we have concerns about the beef checkoff program,” Huffman said. “Those funds are not allowed to be used for lobbying and policy work and that’s what the OCA does. They are directly benefitting from the checkoff so even producers who disagree with the policies that the OCA is promoting are being forced to subsidize their work through the checkoff.”
Harsh testified that The Cattlemen’s Beef Board and USDA, and in Ohio, the ODA oversee the collection, compliance, and investment of checkoff funds and annual auditing requirements.
 “I don’t have any reason to believe there will be anything other than approval of the continuation (of the checkoff),” Harsh said. “These hearings are routine but it is a great opportunity for the OBC leadership to share information on those checkoff investments and what they are doing to build demand for beef.”
ODA will decide in about 30 days if things continue as they are or if there should be a referendum. If ODA decides against a referendum, Huffman said Ohio’s cattle producers can organize and if they submit a thousand signatures, they can bring a referendum on their own.