USDA seeks growers' comments on proposal
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Christmas tree farmers have been asked to weigh in on a proposed checkoff program that would annually raise about $2 million for promoting the crop.
The USDA has proposed implementing the checkoff on a trial basis for three years, after which farmers would vote whether to continue the assessment of 15 cents per tree.
"This is a very tough, competitive market for Christmas trees," said Betty Malone, a farmer in Kings Valley, Ore., and chair of an industry task force that proposed the idea to USDA.
Christmas tree farmers are facing market pressure from manufacturers of artificial trees, who have rapidly increased their sales in recent years, according to the task force.
The task force has been working on the proposal for about three years, hiring an attorney to formalize the plan and holding informational sessions in major tree-growing states, Malone said.
During those sessions, farmers generally preferred a delayed referendum rather than voting on the program right away, said Malone. "They wanted to see what the program looked like before they made a decision."
Opposition to a mandatory checkoff isn't as vociferous now as when the task force first came up with the proposal, and support has been building, she said.
"We haven't had a concern that the negative voices would outweigh the positive ones," Malone said.
The Christmas tree industry has launched several voluntary fundraising campaigns in the past, most recently collecting nearly $1 million in 2006, she said. Each time, though, such efforts taper down as volunteers and contributors get burned out.
"It's really on the back of a few people who are willing to give their time," said Malone.
A mandatory program with a board of directors and hired staff would be fairer and more sustainable financially, she said.
The problem is that Christmas tree farmers have a large variability in sales arrangements -- some may sell directly to the public, while others market through brokers, said Greg Rondeau, sales manager of Holiday Tree Farms, a Corvallis, Ore., company that opposes the checkoff idea.
"Who is the first handler? Where is the collection point?" he said. "It's very hard to establish in this industry."
Malone said the logistics of collecting assessment fees will be challenging, but that's not a reason to give up trying. The program's board would likely hire a compliance officer to help ensure assessments are paid.
Farmers found to be non-compliant could face penalties from USDA, she said. "You have the weight of the federal government behind you to collect."
Aside from the practicalities of enforcing the checkoff, Rondeau said he's unhappy with how marketing efforts would likely be directed.
In the Pacific Northwest, for example, much of the Christmas tree crop is shipped to California, he said. For these growers, it makes more sense to focus on that market rather than target a national audience.
"It's not that we're against marketing. We're more into regional marketing. If you're working with a national program, it's going to be diluted," Rondeau said. "Each region should manage its own affairs."
How to comment
The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service is accepting comments on the Christmas tree checkoff proposal until Feb. 7.
To comment on the proposal online, go to www.regulations.gov and type in the docket number, AMS-FV-10-0008, into the keyword search field.
To comment on the proposal via mail, send a letter to the Research and Promotion Branch, Fruit and Vegetable Programs, AMS, USDA, 1400 Independence Avenue, Stop 0244, Room 0632-S, Washington, D.C. 20250-0244. Be sure to reference docket number AMS-FV-10-0008.