The nation’s capital is the focus of plenty of decision-making, and recently, commodity checkoff groups, federal marketing orders and councils made the trip East to discuss their programs. In the first-ever Agriculture Promotion Groups’ Educational Showcase, these groups offered USDA employees and representatives from the political website The Hill a chance to learn more about the work being done by these self-funded groups.
“It’s been obvious for the past several years that there is misinformation out there about checkoff programs, and how they work and bring value,” says John A. Johnson, chief operating officer, National Pork Board.
The National Pork Board, an ag promotion group funded by pork producers who pay 0.4% of the value of every pig they sell to the national program, is also part of a new effort called Ultimate Collaboration, an initiative to help checkoff groups tell their story. NPB is one of 15 groups that took part in the D.C. showcase, which was sparked by the Ultimate Collaboration effort.
One misunderstanding that all checkoff programs face is the idea that taxpayer money is involved in the programs. Funding for all programs — including the funding for government employees’ oversight — comes from the farmers who eventually will benefit, which Johnson says doesn’t always come across.
“The Ultimate Collaboration website and the educational showcase are an effort to put more information out there for people who have questions about how checkoff programs operate, and how they’re overseen by USDA — and how those efforts bring value to the farm,” he says.
One benefit of the showcase was an opportunity for folks who aren’t on the farm to learn more about the many checkoff programs. “The people have legitimate questions about how these programs operate,” Johnson adds.
Often, some checkoff communication goes back to those who contribute. Farmers need to know how those dollars are being spent, and regular reporting is important. An event like the D.C. showcase offers a chance to reach beyond the base to share the story. And that has value in the future, as more consumers get a better understanding of how these commodity marketing programs are supported.
Making an impact
The research conducted by checkoff programs can help overcome issues related to key commodities. Marc Dresner, manager of marketing and communications at the American Egg Board, notes that the research dollars invested by that checkoff have a public impact. “The research component of the checkoff is valuable to all U.S. egg farmers; and it advances nutritional science, in general, for the public good,” he says. “For example, the position of the academic community and nutritional scientists around dietary cholesterol — and, consequently, the USDA/HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services] dietary guidelines — were revised, thanks to research that was initially funded by the American Egg Board.”
Dresner notes that checkoff-funded research has to be independent and peer-reviewed. As for moving the needle on dietary cholesterol, that research was replicated by Harvard University. “Industry-funded research gets a really bad rap,” he says. “The research we fund is firewalled from us, and the results have to be published — good, bad or ugly. It’s always conducted by independent, highly credentialed and extremely reputable third-party researchers at major academic institutions.”
A benefit of the showcase included reaching out to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which is a very large organization that covers a lot of territory. “We partner very closely with a dedicated team at the USDA’s AMS to ensure that everything we do is aligned. That relationship is extremely important to America’s egg farmers. But the AMS, and, of course, the USDA, are obviously much larger than the folks we work with directly, so this [showcase] provided a great opportunity to get acquainted and familiarize them with who we are and what we do,” he says.
Newbie on the block
There’s a new federal marketing order that got started less than two years ago that’s also part of the Ultimate Collaboration, and it was on hand for the showcase. The American Pecan Council is a new federal marketing order. It’s not a checkoff, but it is farmer-funded. Through that order, this council can regulate pecans coming into the United States, and set standards for pecans raised and sold in the U.S.
“We’re the new kid on the block” says Alexander Ott, executive director. “We’ve been around for 24 months in November, and we’re working to collaborate with industry for research and to share the health benefits of pecans. We want to present a unified message. The showcase also helped us reach out to others.”
Involvement with the Ultimate Collaboration has also been good as these “new kids” have learned from other checkoff program about what works, and what may not work, for given promotions and other efforts, Ott says. The program is supported by a 3-cent-per-pound assessment on improved pecan varieties and an assessment of 2 cents per pound on native pecans.
“This is a crop that’s just getting a federal marketing order, but it’s been around for a long time. Native Americans ate pecans, and some 300 years later, some of those same trees are still producing,” he says.
Adds Ott: “I look at [checkoffs] this way. It’s not taxpayer money. A federal marketing order is the purest form of government you can have. It is funded by growers, run by growers, and policies and budgets are set by growers; and every five years, they can vote on whether to continue the program or not.”
A key for checkoffs is to tell the return on investment story. Johnson at the National Pork Board notes that for every $1 spent on the checkoff, $25 is returned to the farm. “We’re proud of that figure, and we report our return on investment every year,” he says. “Our econometric modeling is included in the report. It’s dense reading, but the bottom line is, we’re bringing real value to the farm.”
Adds the American Pecan Council’s Ott: “We’re required to have a very quantifiable return on investment that we can present to our producers showing the value they get from the assessment.”
Sharing the checkoff story isn’t easy. Reaching beyond the base to consumers is gaining importance. The D.C. showcase is one effort, and the website ultimatecollaboration.org is another. Even as different checkoff groups work to reach consumers, at least 16 groups now see the value of working together on the issue.