USDA shelves new programs after furor over so-called Christmas tree tax
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The backlash against a planned checkoff program for Christmas tree promotions has deterred similar fundraising proposals for raspberries and blackberries.
"Everything blew up and we got caught in the vortex," said Henry Bierlink, executive director of the Washington Red Raspberry Commission.
A planned national checkoff fee on processed raspberries was nearly finalized when the controversy over a similar program for Christmas trees erupted last November, he said.
Bloggers and pundits characterized the grower checkoff as a new tax on Christmas trees imposed by the Obama administration before the holidays, which prompted the USDA to indefinitely postpone the program.
The agency also put all activity on hold with the raspberry checkoff and has been "unwilling to re-engage" on moving forward with the proposal, Bierlink said.
The fee of 1 cent per pound of processed raspberries was expected to raise $1.3 million a year for promoting the crop. In a May 2011 referendum, 88 percent of affected raspberry growers favored the assessment.
The Washington Red Raspberry Commission, which asked the USDA to approve the checkoff, was expecting to begin collecting fees and establish a national governing board for the program in 2012, Bierlink said.
"We're incapacitated, frankly," he said of the national checkoff proposal. "In our capacity to move forward, we are stuck."
Plans for a grower checkoff to promote fresh blackberries have been put on the back burner, though the USDA has encouraged organizers to continue preliminary planning efforts, said Debby Wechsler, executive secretary of the North American Raspberry and Blackberry Association.
"We're hoping the climate will change and the issue will die down," she said.
The association has submitted an informal proposal to the agency and hopes to keep pursuing the checkoff once the current "logjam" breaks, she said.
The checkoff program would raise about $1 million a year for promotions with a fee of 1 cent per pound on fresh blackberries.
"Just because there's an an assessment doesn't mean the prices are going to go up," Wechsler said. "It's growers taking less profit."
Bierlink said he's cautiously hopeful that the raspberry checkoff will not be permanently scrapped.
"I'd like to believe that sanity can eventually triumph," he said.
Betty Malone, an Oregon farmer who headed the effort for a Christmas tree checkoff, said she doesn't expect any movement until after the presidential election.
"We're probably not a real high priority," she said.
The Christmas tree industry had previously launched voluntary programs that typically lasted about three years before burning out, Malone said. The efforts fizzled as fewer people donated time and money to the promotions.
A spokesperson for USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service said the Christmas tree and raspberry checkoffs are under review and there is no timeline for their progress. The agency did not receive a formal proposal for blackberries.
Malone said the controversy over the Christmas tree checkoff appears to have been sparked by David Addington, vice president of domestic and economic policy for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
She said the online furor seems to have been a manufactured attempt to embarrass the Obama administration, which did not actually come up with the checkoff idea.
"This started before Obama was in office," Malone said.
At the time, Addington said the federal government had mandated that Christmas tree sellers pay a 15 cent per tree tax, which they could pass on to consumers.
"Just because the Obama Administration has the legal power to impose its Christmas tree tax doesn't mean it should do so," he said in a blog post.
Of the 19 existing checkoff programs overseen by USDA, two-thirds were finalized under Republican administrations.
In a recent e-mail to Capital Press, Addington said his organization doesn't set its policy views according to political parties.
He said "agricultural product image programs generally are, in our view, inconsistent with the principles of free enterprise, limited government and individual freedom."
Addington said such programs inappropriately expand government beyond the role envisioned in the U.S. Constitution and coerce unwilling farmers to participate, distorting the free market.
Though checkoff fees are paid by the industry participants, taxpayer dollars are used to pay for USDA staff to oversee the programs, he said.