Is check-off on the NDP’s checklist?

It was only a few years ago when drama over check-off dollars spilled over into every aspect of the Alberta cattle business. Organizations such as the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association (ACFA) and the Western Stock Growers’ Association fought to make the check-off money collected by the Alberta Beef Producers (ABP) in Alberta refundable upon request.
The government did make the change, which in theory would allow producers the option of requesting a refund of their check-off dollars thereby providing them the freedom to give that money to another cattle group of their choice. At the time, it was viewed as a major upset to the status quo, but there was just one little problem – in Alberta, the legislation didn’t make the distinction between the national and provincial check-off and that spelled trouble for the newly formed Canada Beef Incorporated. That meant ABP and ACFA had to sit down together and come up with a memorandum of understanding that would allow Alberta to contribute to the national check-off again. The crisis was averted, but the refundable check-off has created another issue – a major lack of investment by producers into their industry.
“People are taking money back. Some of them were doing it because they weren’t happy with Alberta Beef Producers, but a lot of them are doing it because they can. And they will continue to do it as long as they can,” said Rich Smith, executive director of ABP, who added that a proportionately small number of people are taking back a rather large volume of check-off. “It’s shortsighted I think, and not looking out for the industry.”
 
Almost immediately after the NDP government dethroned the Conservatives, the rumour mill started grinding over whether the new government was poised to change the check-off back to non-refundable.
“We’ve heard the same thing, that they might be open to it,” said Smith. “I don’t know what they’re going to do, but we’ve heard a lot of people say this new government might be open to actually letting producers decide whether or not the check-off should be refundable or non-refundable.”
It’s not a matter that can be changed as easily as flicking a switch – it would require a change in legislation. And between a review of Crown lease rates and probable inclusion of agriculture into labour law, Alberta’s new Ag minister already has a lot on his plate. When Alberta Beef Magazine interviewed Minister Oneil Carlier shortly after his appointment, the issue of check-off hadn’t even crossed his radar yet – but if ignorance is in fact bliss, it doesn’t last for long.
“We’ve talked about it and raised the issue with him – not in specific terms, but just to make sure he is aware that this is something the industry is looking at,” said Smith, who also said ABP meets regularly with ACFA, and that there is widespread awareness that the industry is being shortchanged.
 “When we’ve talked to producers about it, there’s a pretty clear recognition through the industry that we are short of industry funding, nationally and provincially. And $2.4 million dollars in annual refunds is a significant loss at a time when we’re short of industry funding. So a lot of people see the need to try and address this and we’ve been actively talking with other cattle organizations in the province and with government about ways in which we can try and address that situation,” Smith explained.
 
On the other side of discussions is Alberta Cattle Feeders Association, (ACFA) who agree there is need for further dialogue. “I would describe our discussions with ABP as very fruitful. I think we’ve had a good open dialogue and we’ve had an opportunity to look at how we advance the industry,” said Bryan Walton, CEO of ACFA. “The question about the (mandatory) check-off is always going to be there because there are those that have always seen that as the only way to go.”
Walton said he believes that industry needs to approach Minister Carlier with a unified voice. “We are talking about it and doing more things together, and I think there are some good things that will come out of it.”
The national levy was implemented in the 1990s, and Smith says that’s simply not enough to make Canada competitive enough on the international trade stage.
“On a national basis, the national check-off is non-refundable, but it’s too low to be globally competitive. I don’t know of anything else that’s stayed at the same level it was in 1990,” Smith said.
The lack of dollars on the national side hurts Canada’s efforts in global trade, but a lack of investment dollars provincially means less for research and development right here at home.
“The money – if you just start with money, that’s not a starting point,” said Walton. “The starting point should be, ‘What can we do to advance the industry and what do we need to get it there?’ We believe that a plan should come from industry to the minister and that’s what we are hoping to do.”
Though ABP and ACFA may not have always traditionally seen eye to eye, they’re on the same page when it comes to engaging the new government.
“The more united we can be on it, the more chance there is that we would be able to have the government take action,” said Smith.
One thing has certainly changed since the check-off paradigm shifted in 2010 – times certainly aren’t as tough for cattle producers.
“The refunds in the last year you can’t say are because of financial hardship. It’s because people are choosing to take their refunds,” said Smith, who believes all cattle organizations must work together to try and retain investment in the industry.
by Sheri Monk