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Arkansas sorghum farmers voice concerns about checkoff

At current prices, the proposed National Sorghum Checkoff would nearly double what Arkansas sorghum producers currently pay in state-collected checkoff fees, while cutting by half funds passed back to the state, according to the Arkansas Farm Bureau and the Grain and Sorghum Producers of Arkansas.

Meanwhile, supporters of the measure believe a national checkoff is necessary to address a “technology gap” between sorghum and other crops such as corn, cotton and soybeans.

The national checkoff, which is proposed by National Sorghum Producers, would require all U.S. sorghum producers to pay 0.6 percent of the value of their sorghum to fund research, information and promotion.

Currently, Arkansas corn and sorghum farmers pay a penny per bushel to a state checkoff program started in the late 1990s, more than 95 percent of which is returned to the state. The checkoff is administered by the Arkansas Farm Bureau, free of charge.

As of Nov. 26, $106,000 in state checkoff funds had been collected by Arkansas' state program, of which $103,000 will be returned to the state for local research and promotional activities, according to AFB.

Under the proposed national checkoff, at sorghum prices to the farmer of around $3.30 per bushel, checkoff collections would rise to around $208,000, with 15 to 25 percent of checkoff funds returned to individual states for research. At the highest level, 25 percent, that's $52,000, according to AFB figures.

Most of current checkoff funds collected in Arkansas go to a verification project for testing sorghum varieties under local conditions and soil type, according to AFB's Matt King, who administers the state checkoff programs for corn and grain sorghum.

The Corn and Grain Sorghum Board in Arkansas is in charge of delegating checkoff dollars.

If research funds are reduced significantly, “it's going to hinder some of our sorghum research, unless some of our board members want to use some of our corn funds to support sorghum,” said King. “Do we really need a national checkoff if we have to keep that much of the farmers' money at the national level?

“Before we had our state checkoff, our farmers tried to use some of the research from the Midwest and in Texas,” King said. “But the concerns are different from state to state. The insect problems and the disease problems we have are different from the ones they have in Nebraska and even Texas.”

According to National Sorghum Producers, some initial objectives of checkoff investments include increased crop yields, technology improvement, market enhancement and increased awareness of sorghum as both a food grain and a feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production.

Malcolm Haigwood, who farms 1,200 acres of sorghum near Newport, Ark., noted, “I understand that there might be less money going to research in the short-term. But the national checkoff is going to promote grain sorghum. It's going to increase crop yields because of all the investment going into it.

“It's also going to build awareness of the benefits of grain sorghum, the water-saving, soil-building and rotational benefits,” said Haigwood, who is a new member of the National Sorghum Producers Board. “This would increase acreage and yields, which in turn, would create the money needed for research and technology.

“I'm looking down the road, to the future. I've seen all these other commodities that have done extremely well with their checkoffs.”

According to a statement from Hannah Lipps, communications director, National Sorghum Producers, “We've heard that there is some concern with reduced university funding as a result of the national checkoff. However, I think it's important to note that, while most local university research is currently supported through state checkoff funds, this research can continue through a combination of funding avenues.

“One option is the continuation of funding through the state checkoff, using passback funds from the national checkoff. The other option, which may be used in conjunction with state passback funds, is a request for proposal, or RFP. An RFP is submitted directly to the national checkoff board by a university. Since research is a stated priority for the National Sorghum Checkoff, and most research work is done at public institutions, university proposals should receive strong support.

“There is certainly no reason for research funding to decrease as the result of a national checkoff. Conversely, research is one of the key reasons that a checkoff is so vital to the health of the sorghum industry,” Lipps said.

According to Arkansas sorghum producer Stewart Weaver, National Sorghum Producers “has been vague about the information they've provided Arkansas producers.

“Plus, with Arkansas being a small producer of grain sorghum, when they comprise their checkoff board, we're not going to have any representation there whatsoever.

“If we had a seat on the board where we could have a little more input, maybe we'd be a little more willing, but as of now, we don't see any advantage for us to be involved.”

Weaver, who farmed about 600 acres of sorghum in 2007, said the state's checkoff, which was established in 1997, grew from a need for local research, after state producers realized that research from other areas “did not address specific issues that producers in Arkansas had. We started from ground zero with the research we're doing.

“If we get into a national program, the money all goes to them and it's pretty much going to cut us out.”

The National Sorghum Checkoff has already been approved by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service and is posted on the Federal Register for public comments.

To view the proposed regulation, to make a comment or to get more information, go to, or call (202) 720-1115.

The document ID is AMS-LS-07-0056-0001. The comment period ends Jan. 22, 2008.

“Farmers need to be educated about this new proposal,” King said.

“We at the Arkansas Farm Bureau Policy oppose the National Sorghum Checkoff. I would urge farmers to gather information about the proposal and send a comment into to USDA and let them know how you feel about this. We have to start there.

“And if that doesn't work, we have to make sure we vote when the referendum comes around.”

Arkansas sorghum plantings rose from 60,000 acres to over 230,000 acres from 2006 to 2007, primarily due to high grain prices.

According to USDA, Kansas harvested the most acres of sorghum this year, 2.6 million, followed by Texas, 2.4 million, Louisiana, 245,000, Nebraska, 240,000, Arkansas, 215,000 and Oklahoma, 210,000 acres.

Other facts about the proposed National Sorghum Checkoff, provided by the National Sorghum Producers:

  • The National Sorghum Checkoff Board will be appointed by the secretary of agriculture to oversee the checkoff and authorize expenditures. As proposed, Kansas would have five representatives; Texas, three; and Nebraska, one. Four at-large representatives would be open to farmers in other states.
  • After USDA reviews and incorporates comments received on the proposed rule, the final rule is published. The final rule will govern the operation of the checkoff.
  • Sorghum producers will vote via delayed referendum. In other words, the National Sorghum Checkoff Board can begin collecting assessments upon the publication of the final rule, but a referendum must be held within three years of the start of collections.
  • USDA will charge the National Sorghum Checkoff Board for expenses in overseeing and administering the checkoff. These expenses will compensate USDA staff time, office expenses, etc.
  • Passback to qualified state checkoffs to be used on state-specific programs will be no less than 15 percent and no more than 25 percent of each state's assessment.
  • The proposed assessment is 0.6 percent of the price received by the farmer. The proposed assessment for forage is 0.35 percent of the price received by the farmer.
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