Betty Malone said she didn’t expect an act of Congress would be needed to establish an industry “checkoff” program for Christmas trees.
“It never occurred to me,” said Malone, who farms near Philomath, Ore.
When she and other Christmas tree farmers began planning for the checkoff about seven years ago, they foresaw bureaucratic hurdles — but not a national political controversy.
The program was derided by conservative bloggers as a “tax” on Christmas trees by the Obama administration shortly after USDA announced its approval of the checkoff in November 2011.
The backlash prompted USDA to suspend the checkoff indefinitely, but the 2014 Farm Bill required it to be reinstated.
On April 4, the agency announced the program will now proceed.
“It’s just a relief,” said Malone.
Growers will be required to pay 15 cents per tree to raise about $2 million a year to promote the crop, which is facing competition from artificial Chinese trees.
The idea was spearheaded by Malone and other farmers who asked the USDA to administer the program, just as it does for other commodities like beef and milk.
“It had nothing to do with a tax or Obama or any of those things,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., who pushed for the checkoff provision to be included in the farm bill.
When asked about reviving the checkoff, Obama administration officials claimed the program conflicted with their economic development message, Schrader said.
Schrader said he encountered a “scared White House that felt it couldn’t defend a pro-American position,” and so decided to take the legislative route.
While several Republicans like Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., supported the provision, others opposed its inclusion in an earlier version of the farm bill, he said.
Ribble negotiated with top Republican leaders to prevent the provision from being stripped from the farm bill, Schrader said.
While that earlier version didn’t ultimately pass, the Christmas tree checkoff was included in the 2014 Farm Bill and didn’t encounter further resistance, he said.
With the checkoff’s approval now secure, the USDA will be soliciting nominations from the Christmas tree industry for the program’s board of directors.
Malone said she expects that 2014 will largely be devoted to laying the groundwork for the organization, such as hiring staff.
The first assessment on growers will be collected during the harvest season later this year, but any promotional campaign probably won’t be ready until 2015, she said.
Christmas tree production is a relatively small industry that won’t be able to afford a major advertising push like “Got Milk?” or “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner.”
Malone said the checkoff may dedicate some promotional muscle to educate retailers and consumers about the proper care of harvested trees.
Research into tree physiology is another possibility, she said.
“I would love to see the industry recover the vigor that it had 20 years ago,” Malone said.
While the political battle over the checkoff is over, the program may still face some tough challenges.
The prospect of collecting assessments has raised the skepticism of some Christmas tree growers, who question the practical implications.
Unlike commodities that are assessed when the crop or livestock is processed, Christmas trees are sold through multiple channels.
For that reason, developing a successful assessment mechanism is less clearcut.