By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The USDA has approved a national checkoff program for Christmas trees that will require growers to pay 15 cents per tree to help promote the crop.
About $2 million a year is expected to be raised under the program, which is aimed at helping farmers compete with sellers of artificial Christmas trees.
Fake trees have been taking market share from real trees for decades, necessitating a unified industry-wide marketing effort, said Betty Malone, a farmer from Philomath, Ore., and chair of a taskforce that launched the proposal.
"At some point, you have to do something different," she said. "You can't keep doing the same thing and expect a different result."
The agency has approved the checkoff months later than expected, but the program will be able to begin generating funds from the 2011 harvest, said Malone.
It's likely the USDA will collect the fees even after the current shipping season has ended, she said. Those funds would be held in an escrow account until a supervisory board for overseeing the checkoff program is established.
The idea to create a mandatory checkoff program sprang from the industry's inability to sustain voluntary fundraising efforts, according to previous reports in Capital Press.
Such campaigns often were initially successful but then fizzled because they relied on the same limited pool of volunteers and contributors.
Under the current system, farmers will be able to vote whether to keep the checkoff going after it's been in place for three years.
The task force that pushed for the checkoff preferred a delayed referendum so growers would be able to see how the program works.
In the years leading up to the USDA's recent approval, the proposal has not been without controversy.
Farmers sell their Christmas trees in a variety of ways -- to retailers, directly to the public and through brokers.
Other industries with checkoff programs often have a limited number of handlers, packers or processors.
Without such a set point for collections, imposing assessments on the Christmas tree industry will be a challenge.
That problem has caused some growers to be skeptical of the program.
Greg Rondeau, sales manager of Holiday Tree Farms -- a major grower based in Corvallis, Ore. -- said he's still not sure how the collection process will actually work.
He's also concerned about how the money will be spent.
Farmers in major tree growing areas generally sell into very specific geographic markets, Rondeau said.
For that reason, it would make more sense to launch a regional marketing effort rather than a blanket program for the entire country, he said.
Rondeau also said he's concerned the checkoff was created due to a inaccurate perception of why prices for trees have been depressed.
"It's not necessarily a lack of demand," he said. "It's an oversupply of trees."
Although the U.S. checkoff program is bound to come up against obstacles, a similar effort among Christmas tree farmers in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia has been successful, said Malone.
The U.S. program will probably emulate Nova Scotia's strategy for collections: hiring a compliance officer to ensure farmers are paying their assessments, she said.
The checkoff's 12-member board of directors will be representative of the volume generated in different growing regions, Malone said. Five members will come from western states, four will come from eastern states, two will come from central states, and one will represent importers.
"By law, what they fund has to benefit the entire industry," she said.