Proponent says 'the election is over and we're hopeful they'll do the right thing'
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A year after the USDA approved and then abruptly withdrew a checkoff program for Christmas trees, proponents hope the agency will soon reinstate the fundraising tool.
"The election is over and we're hopeful they'll do the right thing," said Betty Malone, a Philomath, Ore., farmer who helped spearhead the checkoff campaign.
The checkoff would have imposed a fee of 15 cents per tree to raise about $2 million a year to promote the crop, which has long been battling artificial trees for market share.
A committee of farmers persuaded the USDA to approve the checkoff in November 2011, but the agency suspended the program after conservative bloggers and pundits derided it as a new Obama administration tax on Christmas trees.
Malone said she thought the agency might reinstate the checkoff in early 2012 but realized that was unlikely as the presidential election drew nearer.
With the dust from the campaign now settling, she thinks the checkoff program may have shed enough of its "political baggage" to prompt the agency to revive it.
A spokesperson for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees checkoff programs, said the program's status remains unchanged.
Malone said the agency's communications with checkoff proponents have been vague.
"Sometimes it takes a Ouija board to figure out what's going on over there," she said.
At this point, Christmas tree farmers are busy with harvest and it wouldn't be possible to begin assessing fees on this year's crop, said Paul Schroeder, a Christmas tree farmer near Green Bay, Wis., who also advocated for the checkoff.
Regional farmer organizations would first need to nominate 12 directors, who would then devise methods of collection and other details after getting approved by USDA, Schroeder said.
"Even if the stay was lifted today, we'd be lucky to have our ducks in a row for next year's harvest," he said.
Schroeder said he's cautiously optimistic the checkoff won't again become a "political football" if the USDA reinstates the program.
The political climate is no longer as charged and previous media coverage of the conservative backlash helped explain the way checkoff programs work, he said.
Malone said she thinks the odds of a controversy re-erupting will be reduced if USDA revives the program after Christmas.
"I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime fiasco," she said. "But you never know."
The checkoff program has come up against some opposition within the Christmas tree industry, largely for practical reasons.
Critics have said payments will be difficult to enforce due to the many ways that farmers sell trees -- they don't move through packing plants or slaughterhouses that act as collection points.
Christmas-tree-growing regions have different markets, so deciding which areas to target with advertising will also be challenging, according to critics.
In the past, however, voluntary fundraising efforts haven't been able to maintain the traction needed to sustain promotions, said Bruce Wiseman, a farmer near Ridgefield, Wash., and president of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association.
"Everybody can play the 'what if' game, but most of these checkoff programs have had their ups and downs but in the long run, it's been pretty doggone beneficial to those industries," he said.