Christmas tree farmers have narrowly approved a national checkoff program that raises about $1.8 million a year to promote and research the crop.
Though 51 percent of growers voted in favor of continuing the Christmas Tree Promotion Board during a recent referendum, the program continues to face uncertainty.
Another referendum would normally be required in seven years, but the USDA — which oversees the research and promotion checkoff — has announced that growers will again vote on its continuation in about one year.
The agency hasn’t specified why another vote will occur so soon, but a referendum may be held at the request of the secretary of the USDA, the Christmas Tree Promotion Board or by more than 10 percent of eligible farmers.
Roughly 1,500 Christmas tree growers across the U.S. who sell more than 500 trees a year and pay 15 cents per tree to fund the program are eligible to vote in the referendum.
“I’m pleased we’re going to be able to go forward,” said Betty Malone, a farmer near Philomath, Ore., who spearheaded the effort to start a checkoff for Christmas trees.
Even so, Malone said she’s surprised by the narrow margin of victory, since an internal “head count” of growers had indicated stronger support.
Holding another referendum in a year will create uncertainty at a time when the checkoff program needs to be making long-term decisions about research and promotions, she said.
“It’s absolutely crucial for our industry to do that kind of planning,” Malone said.
Frans Kok, a Virginia farmer who organized opposition to the checkoff, said he was disappointed by the result because he’d been cautiously optimistic growers had voted against continuing the program.
It’s likely USDA decided to hold another referendum next year because the vote was so close, he said.
“It gives us a chance,” Kok said. “A swing of 15 votes shouldn’t be so hard but we will get significant opposition working against us as well.”
Kok said he must discuss the situation with other growers who funded “Farmers Against Christmas Tree Taxation” to see if they’re willing to orchestrate a similar campaign in the future.
Many growers oppose the checkoff both because they feel it’s ineffective — consumers aren’t likely to grow more aware of Christmas trees — and because they feel the program was foist upon them, he said.
The checkoff program was first allowed to operate for three seasons before a referendum was held, partly so organizers could compile a list of eligible farmers. Opponents, however, discount that rationale.
“Given the vote, you can see it’s extremely controversial,” Kok said.