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Christmas in June?

Will it be Christmas in summer?

If a new farm bill finally goes to conference and takes shape as expected, it just might be for Christmas tree growers.

Readers of Farm Press may remember how, some 18 months ago, political posturing and willingness to flat-out lie in order to rile up the masses eventually led a Christmas tree check-off program – that had been in the works for close to four years -- into limbo.

A quick recap: At the beginning of the 2011 holiday season, it was announced in the Federal Register that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would appoint members to 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.”

Somehow, the well-known, right-wing Heritage Foundation got wind of the new check-off and set their followers’ blood pressure racing by claiming the government was set to impose a new “tax” on Christmas trees. Already stoked by much anti-tax rhetoric, the new “Christmas tax” was simply too much for many to bear and – despite efforts by producers and advocates to explain what a check-off actually does – the program was shelved by a cowed Obama administration.

More here [3].

And on the shelf it has remained. But new developments, tied to the writing of a new farm bill, could mean the check-off is about to get a second life.

In late May, I spoke with Marsha Gray of the Michigan Christmas Tree Association about the situation. Among her comments:

Looking back…

“We’d gone through the whole process, had the proposal written, had the comment period, had great support from the industry and were simply waiting for it to be approved and it was placed on the Federal Register.

“Very quickly, a blogger picked it up and called it ‘Obama’s Christmas tree tax.’ That really misrepresented that it wasn’t a check-off program but a new tax. That created a firestorm and the check-off ended up being stayed.

“That doesn’t mean the check-off was completely gone. It just meant it was put on hold and, 18 months later, we’re still in that position. Nothing has changed.”

Did you get any feedback from the USDA in the intervening months? Did they just keep putting you off?

“We did spend a lot of time (in 2012) working with USDA, first through our attorney. Every check-off has an attorney to represent them.

“We let the (2012) holiday season pass, let everyone take a deep breath, and in late winter tried to find out what could be done to lift the stay. It became clear that the USDA supported us and wanted to see the check-off move forward but was hitting a brick wall with the White House.

“We’d spent all of (2012) trying to make contact and find out what we needed to do to get movement on this. A number of us had appointments in Washington in September meeting with USDA, with legislators.

“Following the (national) elections we assumed the stay would be lifted, that the check-off would be in force early this year. Unfortunately, once again, nothing.

“Since then, we’ve continued to make requests and find out what the status of the check-off.

“The most encouraging and exciting thing happened (the week of May 13). We have a group of House legislators that support us and would like the check-off to move forward. As a group – led by Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader -- they proposed an amendment to the House version of the farm bill. The amendment directs the USDA to lift the stay and allow the program to move.

“Even more exciting is a recent quote from (White House Senior Policy Advisor for Rural Affairs) Doug McKalip, who we’ve had contact with at the White House. He said the amendment might allow the White House to go ahead and lift the stay. If there’s this much support from the (House), there may be no reason to wait for the farm bill.

“That’s our hope. I don’t know if it will happen but, right now, that would be the best thing for us.”

Gun-shy, farm bill

Is it your sense that the White House was reluctant to take on the anti-tax people? Why have they been so gun-shy about this?

“Well, this is my personal view: They know we’d done everything correctly with the check-off. It was published in the Federal Register and we received permission to begin the program initially.

“My assumption is they didn’t like the negative media attention and the misrepresented story they were unable to get corrected.”

It seems too many folks still don’t understand what check-offs do and the fact that growers are just pooling money as opposed to setting up a tax.

“It’s a challenge. We’re in a time when there is a lot of sensitivity to new taxes, to increased taxes. We all feel that.

“The  problem is the check-off was mischaracterized as a tax. Even though we’re explaining ‘no, this is different’ they couldn’t seem to separate the two.

“But we’ve done a huge outreach even though it really isn’t our responsibility. We wanted to correct the story.

“Typically, when you ask people if they are familiar with ‘Got milk?’ or ‘Beef. It’s what’s for dinner’ their eyes light up. They say, ‘Oh, is that what’s behind those efforts?’ No one has a concern about those – or with watermelon, mangoes, whatever. But suddenly the Christmas tree industry check-off comes up and someone decides to point a finger and call it a tax.”

What about the next step? Are you expecting the amendment to move through the House farm bill process unhindered?

“We’ve heard no real negative focus on this. The amendment was approved on a voice vote and I don’t believe there was any opposition. The House Agriculture Committee was fine with it and we’re very encouraged by that.

“We also have a lot of support in the Senate.”

In terms of the conservative think-tanks, (former South Carolina Senator and current head of the Heritage Foundation) Jim DeMint, these types of people, has there been any pushback?

“I haven’t seen or heard anything from the Heritage Foundation. There was a bill introduced by DeMint last year that would’ve negated all check-off programs. That went down in flames. Very few supported that legislation.”

More on that legislation here [4].

Anything else?

“The message we’d like to share is we’re trying to use the program that has existed for a long time, since the 1960s. It’s self-funded by our industry and a board of growers would decide how the funds would be used for research, promotion and furthering the industry. We’re looking for consumers to understand what this actually is.

“We want nothing except the same treatment of any other agricultural commodity. We just really want to get started with our check-off program – we’ve waited long enough.”