By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

Supporters of a national Christmas tree checkoff worry the White House has indefinitely blocked the program out of the fear of another negative backlash.

"We're very frustrated. We feel we're being mistreated," said Paul Schroeder, a Wisconsin farmer who chairs a committee supportive of the checkoff.

In November 2011, the USDA approved the program aimed at research and promotions, which would have raised about $2 million a year by collecting 15 cents per tree from growers.

Conservative bloggers and pundits immediately attacked the checkoff as an Obama administration "tax" on Christmas trees. The furor prompted the USDA to postpone the regulation to give farmers and the public "an opportunity to become more familiar with the program."

Nearly a year and a half have now passed, but the checkoff remains in limbo despite outreach efforts, said Betty Malone, an Oregon farmer who headed a campaign to create the checkoff.

"We still can't have our program because the president would have some bad publicity?" she said. "We just think that's crazy."

It seems unfair that 20 other commodities have research and promotion orders but Christmas trees can't get their program implemented despite jumping bureaucratic hurdles, said Schroeder.

"We don't know why we're being singled out," he said.

As of deadline, Capital Press was unable to reach for comment the White House official with whom checkoff supporters have communicated.

The USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees checkoffs, issued a statement saying the checkoff has been delayed so the industry could "educate the public about the program."

Because the USDA has indefinitely suspended a rule that was already finalized, Malone said checkoff supporters could have a legal case that the agency has violated administrative law.

"We do think we have a leg to stand on," she said. "There is no precedent for what happened to this program."

However, checkoff supporters are reluctant to sue the agency because expensive litigation in federal court may last as long as Obama's term in office, Malone said.

The practicality of launching such a lawsuit is difficult, as the Christmas tree industry is made up of many small farmers, said Schroeder.

"We're not very well organized, nor do we have the clout," he said.

Checkoff supporters were willing to wait until after the 2012 election for the program's implementation, given the previous political firestorm, he said. At this point, though, the delay seems excessive.

"This is just ridiculous," Schroeder said. "We'd never dreamed they'd just hold it and never given an explanation about why it's not getting lifted."

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