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Xmas trees, check-offs, and half-truths

Warm up the cider, decorate the Christmas tree, put a match to the Yule log, hand out the songsheets and let’s all hum a dirge as common sense shudders its last.

In yet another triumph for bluster over fact, this week a pack of willfully ignorant, frothing-at-the-mouth ideologues took on a hypersensitive White House that, apparently unable to defend the perfectly defensible, turned tail and ran.

Here’s what happened: on Tuesday, the Federal Register carried news that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would appoint members of a Christmas Tree Promotion Board. The board – backed by a 15-cent-per-fresh-cut-Christmas-tree-sold check-off fund -- would be responsible for “promotion, research, evaluation and information designed to strengthen the Christmas tree industry’s position in the marketplace.”

Ignoring the fact that such check-off programs exist for all sorts of agriculture commodities – “Got milk?” – the Heritage Foundation, a well-known right-wing think tank, saw an opportunity to raise their constituency’s collective ire and adrenaline level by claiming the Obama administration had imposed a 15-cent “tax” on Christmas trees. This claim by Heritage Vice President David Addington – in case you recognize the name, indeed he is the same mendacious, elbow-swinging creature that carried Dick Cheney’s firewater during the build-up to the Iraq war – was picked up by other right-wing sites and it was off to the races.

By now, you know the pattern. Forget the back story, forget the context, forget the other check-off programs; the idea that Obama is imposing a tax – on sacred Christmas trees no less! – fired up a base that had only been provided a biased, barebones narrative.

Always good for a fire-breathing quote, South Carolina Sen. Jim Demint even said the program was possibly “unconstitutional” and he’d consider legislation to end it. Really, Jim? Are all the other check-off programs your farmer constituents are members of unconstitutional, as well?

And, of course, less than a day after Addington’s grand “expose,” White House officials reportedly said the check-off program was being put on ice. Better to maintain the peace and happiness of the holiday season, I suppose, than simply combat the hyper-vocal, death-before-taxes crowd with, you know, the truth.

Late Thursday afternoon, Michael Jarvis, Director of Public Affairs with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, confirmed the check-off’s delay following Addington and his acolytes’ twisted claims. “The first thing is: no one is preparing, or proposing, a Christmas tree tax. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about this…

“All that happened is an industry group approached us and wanted to impose fees on themselves to fund a promotional campaign. They’d seen the success (of such check-offs) in milk, beef, pork, eggs, blueberries, what have you.

“These check-off programs are an important way for American agriculture to expand markets and move product. It works across a wide spectrum.”

The reaction to the rampant bogus information regarding the Christmas tree check-off means “at this point in time, we’ve delayed the program’s implementation,” continued Jarvis. “The last thing we want to do is hurt Christmas tree growers. … We’re looking at steps forward and, at some point, we’ll make a determination. I don’t know when that will be or what it involves.”  

Rick Dungey, National Christmas Tree Association spokesman, said he was shocked that the process had taken such a quick turn. “Why would some yahoo at the Heritage Foundation decide to call out a check-off program that’s only come about after a group of farmers spent 3.5 years dealing with red tape and jumping through USDA hoops? These tree farmers have spent a big chunk of their lives preparing to pool their own money to improve their industry. The Heritage Foundation … says that is a ‘President Obama attack on Christmas trees.’

“Those are hot words, nowadays. You wouldn’t believe some of the e-mails we’ve gotten from people. They’re really vociferous. Despite the facts I provide, they don’t want to listen. I have to say ‘I’m sorry that you’ve been misinformed. This is not a tax -- it’s farmers pulling their money together to promote their crop.’

“I mean, who could be against that?” says Dungey chuckling ruefully. “Seriously, boiled down to a basic level, who is against farmers selling more of their crops?”

For a farmer perspective, see here.

According to a statement by the Missouri-based association, the check-off was “requested by the industry in 2009 and has gone through two industry-wide comment periods during which 565 comments were submitted from interested parties.

“More than 70 percent of the growers posting comments, and nearly 90 percent of the state and multi-state associations that posted comments indicated that they were in favor of the program. A group of Christmas tree farmers and retailers spent nearly three years studying the potential positives and negatives of a check-off promotion and research program, including looking at other commodities that have similar programs.

“The program is designed to benefit the industry and will be funded by the growers at a rate of 15 cents per tree sold. The program will be administered by an independent 12-member board of small business owners who grow and sell farm-grown Christmas trees and they will be responsible for developing and approving promotional and research efforts to benefit the entire industry.

“The program is not expected to have any impact on the final price consumers pay for their Christmas tree. The funds collected after this season will be used to develop promotion and research programs for the 2012 season.

“This program was developed under the Commodity Promotion, Research and Information Act of 1996. There are at least 18 other similar programs already in effect for various agricultural commodities. Although smaller in scope, the Christmas tree program will be similar to recognizable programs for milk, cotton and beef that have brought consumers commodity-oriented messages such as ‘Got Milk?’ and ‘Beef, It’s what’s for dinner.’”

Over the years, I’ve spoken with farmers unhappy with how some check-off funds from various crops are spent or dispersed. But I don’t recall many complaints about the underlying reasons – promotion and research – for the collection.

Why should Christmas tree growers be denied the same check-off program benefits available to other producers?

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