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Agricultural News

Machiavellian Mashers at CBB, Part Three- Commentary from Steve Dittmer of the AFF

Thu, 31 Mar 2011 4:26:38 CDT

Machiavellian Mashers at CBB, Part Three- Commentary from Steve Dittmer of the AFF Steve Dittmer has been a journalist down through the years that has covered the beef cattle industry. A few years back, he went out on his own and formed a group that is known as AgriBusiness Freedom Foundation.

Earlier this week, Dittmer began a three part series on what he believes is going on at the Cattlemen's Beef Board and why he believes that this could be very bad for the beef cattle industry as a whole.

We are reprinting his email newsletter that has put out a three part series on the strange happenings at the Cattlemen's Beef Board.

Here is part three entitled Machiavellian Mashers at CBB- Part Three   

Parts I & II brought you up to date on history, background and specific issues and trends with activities at the CBB. Now for some very specific events.

Meanwhile, the CBB leadership is phoning board members, trying to get the votes they need for the first steps of a sweeping overhaul of the beef industry promotion network - and doing so not only before the planned next official board meeting but before sundown today.

There has been grumbling from several board members that the leadership has been chosen through a nominating process they do not trust as selecting the best candidates for the jobs. Experience, especially institutional memory, appear to have been disqualifying factors handicapping some interviewees, according to private feedback from some nominating committee members. Other highly qualified interviewees have been told afterwards that nominating committee members had been instructed that they could not vote for certain candidates. Certainly, the results bolster those concerns.

A group of 26 cattlemen, fed up with the current situation, fielded a slate of leadership candidates to nominate from the floor at the Denver meeting. The by-laws, as in most cattlemen's organizations, do allow nominations from the floor as well as from the nominating committee. The leadership at the meeting, however, would neither allow those nominations from the floor nor allow a professional parliamentarian to be consulted. The fighting and vitriolic comments turned so nasty that afterwards, grown men and women removed themselves from the nomination list anyway, recoiling from hostility seldom seen in cattle industry circles.

During the first-day Update session held before some weather-delayed members had even arrived, a board member from one state revealed that one of its state groups had evidence of unethical practices the CBB needed to know about. An executive session was called to deal with that issue. How that issue was handled was what finally broke the camel's back for patient board members who had hoped some folks would come to their senses and remember why they were on the board.

We have since learned that the "unethical practices" referred to a state beef council investigation of a former employee that had revealed not only confirmation of some of the bulleted issues above but a more startling fact. Phone records had revealed that one CBB staffer, with the assistance of this state's former employee, had been conducting unauthorized eavesdropping on Federation conference calls. The former state council employee had also been taping the calls, apparently without the other states' awareness or consent. In addition to the CBB staffer, other policy organizations -- not surprisingly, ones at odds with NCBA policies in most areas -- received copies of the taped calls. We won't get into the possible legal ramifications here, but there are federal and state rules regarding both eavesdropping and taping. But suffice it to say, the practice seems patently unethical regardless.

When confronted with the evidence, the CBB staffer involved is reported to have claimed in a 45-minute defense that the necessities of fighting NCBA - his organization's primary contractor - forced him to eavesdrop on the calls involving a third organization -- the Federation. We can't see the connection. Unless it is that for this CBB staffer, fighting NCBA certainly is more top-of-mind - to use an advertising industry term - than boosting beef demand and forging productive relationships. In fact, the opposite might be true.

Whether that straw was heavy enough to break the camel's back we can't know because the next one certainly could have anyway. Evidently, the staffer's excuse must have been persuasive. Everyone is still on the CBB staff. We've heard no word regarding further investigation. After two-and-half hours of executive session, some six plus hours after the original meeting started and pushing 7:30 at night, board members were ready to be finished with the issue. Someone moved a vote of confidence and it was seconded. With a stand up vote, it was passed by the CBB in a close vote. Now what was "extremely troubling?"

We don't reveal this information lightly. Dirty laundry of this sort shouldn't exist, much less be hung out in public. But this internal war, as one board member put it, has been going on much too long when there are external wars the CBB is supposed to be fighting. We concur. Current and recent CBB leadership has been engaged in fighting industry faction turf wars, continuing the battles R-CALF and other fringe groups prefer to fight rather than advancing the overall good of the beef industry. In fact, it was some of these fringe and radical farm groups who very recently tried to terminate the checkoff, taking the fight all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Now, they are working from inside the CBB to disrupt the real work of the checkoff, primarily by raising questions about proper use of funds and attacking CBB's primary contractor, NCBA, a key engine of the success the checkoff has hammered out over the last 25 years.

Why are these people attacking the successful formula that has served the industry so well? We believe it is because they do not properly respect the trust given them by the American cattle producers who pay the checkoff to promote the industry. Because their real goal is power, not accomplishing the goals of the industry long range plan. Because they want more command and control, more micromanaging capability over the state beef councils and over their contractors and to amass more power for individuals vs. the grassroots cattleman in the country.

Ironically, since the Denver meeting, the leadership has been crowing about the checkoff's high approval rating with cattlemen out in the country. That's because the results of the checkoff have been good, because of the work of the CBB's contractors, including NCBA, USMEF, ANCW and work the Federation and individual state beef councils accomplish. But they have done great work - too often in spite of, not with the help of -- the CBB leadership, which should be making the contractors' work easier, not harder. The distractions of turf wars, of fighting to keep the work on track, of having to defend proper work, cuts into the efficiency and the morale of both volunteer cattlemen and cattlewomen and the professionals they have engaged to do the proper work of the checkoff.

There is another aspect of this unhappy situation. Everyone recognizes the eroded buying power of a checkoff rate established 25 years ago. Competition from other proteins has increased. Health, nutrition and lifestyle changes have provided new challenges to the producers, processors, merchandisers and foodservice professionals providing beef to consumers. Now, when the economics of the beef industry are improved and poised for big advances if the general economy improves and politics turn our export opportunities loose, is the time we should be planning for an effort to increase the checkoff assessment to take advantage of better opportunities.

Instead, this CBB leadership has poisoned the well of good will and enthusiasm among the state policy groups who would carry the ball in an increased assessment campaign. To say nothing of abusing the national group who would spearhead the effort in the country and in Washington. Leaders in state cattlemen's groups tell me there is no appetite for an effort to give more money to a leadership group that is trying to sabotage past efforts and turn the ship in another direction. The CBB's efforts to raise or encourage unwarranted questions and deliberately cloud grassroots cattlemen's understanding of the very real partition of checkoff dollars from policy dollars do nothing but damage the image of the checkoff in the country. It makes it more difficult to promote any increase in the checkoff. It makes as much sense for CBB to "promote" the checkoff by blowing inappropriate, sinister smoke about the firewall as it did for R-CALF to "promote" the industry by assaulting consumer confidence in beef and suing USDA over the BSE issue. Whether done as a result of poor judgment or malice, the result is the same: damage to the industry's image, its goals and to the enthusiasm of our fellow cattlemen.

As we mentioned before, we haven't revealed names because the board members themselves know who is involved. The board members are the ones who must do something about this atmosphere and this episode, not just put it behind them Clinton-style - "Let's just move on," -- as the leadership is asking. One board member referred to Denver's meeting as an example of a "very dysfunctional board" that needs to be fixed. Because as one board member said, "My livelihood depends on the demand for, or lack of demand, for what I produce."

This drive to split up groups, to disassemble the national beef industry system that cattlemen spent years putting together to provide the most efficient, effective, harmonious, industrywide network to improve beef demand must not continue. Destruction of this system is not why cattlemen from around the country pay the checkoff. Should this trend at CBB continue, rather than campaigning for an increase in the assessment, a movement to threaten the very existence of the checkoff could be spawned. And no one - cattlemen or consumers - would benefit from such a calamity. Ironically, those who would celebrate the demise of the checkoff - like PETA, HSUS, Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen and Consumer's Union - would evidently be joined by some radical fringe cattlemen's and agricultural groups that are waging a war against the checkoff from inside the CBB, after failing in court.

The Cattlemen's Beef Board needs to clear the decks of turf wars, unethical behavior and petty politics writ large and get about accomplishing the CBB's real business - boosting beef demand. More than one member I talked to believes the current leadership has underestimated the determination and abilities of some of the members, states and cattlemen represented that they have scorned. Let's hope they are correct. The industry is depending on them.

This commentary is written by Steve Dittmer, who has given us permission to reprint this newsletter commentary in full.




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