A screenshot from THE PEOPLE BEHIND BEEF: A promotional video (see below) highlighting modern ranching.

Editor’s Note: This story is one of two about the Rethink the Ranch campaign. Click here for an interview with a communications specialist who analyzes the campaign and its messages.

The beef industry has launched a marketing campaign to depict the beef industry as modern, technologically driven and sustainable.

The advertising campaign is funded through a mandatory fee on cattle producers that has created controversy in the industry in the past.

“Much has changed since the days of cowboys, cattle drives and the Old West,” states the beef industry’s website, Rethink the Ranch. “Today, it’s more about drones, apps and computers. Join us as we travel across the country talking to real, modern ranchers about how they care for the cattle, what inspires them and why they work so hard day after day,” the site says.

The marketing campaign is funded by the beef checkoff, a $1 per head fee paid by beef producers when cattle are sold. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is the primary contractor of the Beef Checkoff and manages the campaign, “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner.” Rethink the Ranch includes videos and paid advertisements documenting the multiple stages of beef production, from cow-calf operations to feedlots. The campaign also includes research and data on greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental impact of raising cattle.

Some farmers and ranchers, who are not necessarily opposed to the feel-good message of the advertising, say that reforms are needed to document whether family farmers who produce beef are benefiting from advertising produced with the proceeds of the mandatory fee.

“One of the things that always comes to our mind, is that we’d like to know much more about how our checkoff dollars are being spent,” said Joe Maxwell, a Missouri farmer and executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM). “There would be much greater transparency so that farmers and ranchers who are paying into the checkoff, including those that don’t use drones to shoot video, would know more about how their money is being spent. Also, we’d like to know the outcomes of that expenditure”

“To us, it’s hard to evaluate that spending. We’ve been in court for five years, trying to get audit documents to explain how checkoff dollars are being spent. We know that the audits were done, but we can’t get our hands on them. The problem, as we see it, is the lack of transparency and accountability.”

Maxwell said that the Rethink the Ranch advertising gives him a positive feeling, something akin to the advertising based on Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer,” speech. “Consumers, taking a look at that website, I think would come away with a good feeling about beef as a safe food product,” Maxwell said.

But the question remains, “is it effective use of farmers’ checkoff dollars? The NCBA is the primary contractor. How are they spending that money? And, the folks that developed this advertising campaign, do they have the expertise, or is the campaign just pointed towards how lobbyists think the beef industry should be portrayed, how the lobbyists want to promote their policies.”

Another group, the United States Cattlemen’s Association (USCA), has also criticized NCBA’s management of the beef checkoff and marketing.

“The Beef Checkoff program is currently missing the mark on how to connect with millennials and the incoming Generation Z,” a press release from the group states. These groups are the current, and next set, of consumers and as producers we must be looking at new and innovative ways in reaching this key demographic.”

USCA believes that a different marketing approach is in order, “an example of great checkoff work was at this year’s SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin brought thousands of pounds of cheese to the largest annual gathering of ‘innovators’ and media industry representatives. The result was plenty of media coverage of the event and attendees leaving with a positive dairy experience.”

The arrangement between the mandatory beef checkoff and the NCBA has been controversial. A bipartisan bill, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, S. 935, was reintroduced by U.S. Senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Rand Paul (R-KY) and Elizabeth Warren, (D-MA) earlier this year.

The bill would, according to OCM, accomplish the following reforms:

Stop federally mandated checkoff dollars from going to organizations that lobby the government on laws or policies.

Enforce the prohibition against conflicts of interest in contracting and decision-making in the checkoff program.

Stop federally mandated funds from being used for anticompetitive programs or to disparage other commodities.

Increase transparency on how the funds are spent’.

Require audits every five years.

The OFF Act failed in the Senate last year on a 57-38 vote during the Farm Bill debate.

NCBA praised the negative vote.

“The rejection of this amendment is a win for America’s cattle producers, who voluntarily created and continue to overwhelmingly support the beef checkoff system,” stated NCBA President Kevin Kester after that vote. He said the legislation was pushed by “militant vegans and extreme political orgs that essentially want to end animal agriculture.”

NCBA has also been critical of Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for president, including her support of the OFF Act.

“If Senator Warren’s goal is to help cattle farmers and ranchers, her policy proposals seriously miss the mark,” said Colin Woodall, NCBA’s senior vice president of government affairs. “The ideas she outlines are nothing more than recycled policies promoted by some of the leading opponents of animal agriculture. It is regrettable that Senator Warren would follow in the footsteps of groups like the Humane Society of the United States, who have launched unfounded attacks against the Beef Checkoff for years.”

OCM, a group of independent family farmers and ranchers that is critical of NCBA and its policies, disputes the claim that all checkoff opponents are opposed to animal agriculture.

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