The return of a non-refundable checkoff is welcome news for Alberta Beef Producers, which loses nearly one-quarter of its annual service fees to refunds.
“We’ve always believed that decisions about funding a commission should be made by producers,” said executive director Rich Smith.
“What (the provincial government’s) announcement does is really allow producers to make that decision in the future.”
Amendments to the Marketing of Agricultural Products Act would allow each of the province’s 13 agricultural commissions to decide whether their checkoffs should be refundable or non-refundable — if approved by eligible producers in a plebiscite.
This amendment will “put control back in the hands of producers,” said Smith.
“That’s what we’ve always believed should be the way that these decisions are made. At our fall meetings, we heard significant support for a non-refundable service charge, and our delegates have voted in favour of that. So we’ll be looking at seeing if that’s the prevailing view among producers across the province.
“Certainly, we’ve heard from producers that they would support this, but we’ll have to see what would happen in a plebiscite.”
But other commissions were quick to rule out going down that road.
“Alberta Canola was Alberta’s first refundable checkoff commission and has no intentions of changing that status,” said general manager Ward Toma, a sentiment echoed by the provincial wheat, barley, pulse, and pork commissions.
“The Alberta Wheat Commission has no intention of pursuing a non-refundable wheat checkoff,” said general manager Tom Steve. “We believe the ability to request a refund gives our farmers a mechanism to hold the commission accountable.”
“While we recognize that other organizations have challenges, we prefer to demonstrate value and maintain the ability of barley producers to have a choice,” said Alberta Barley general manager Rob Davies.
Alberta Beef Producers has struggled financially since checkoffs were made refundable in 2009. While refund rates for the major crop commissions ranged from 4.3 per cent to 5.9 per cent, Alberta Beef Producers had to give back 22.7 per cent. That’s $2.4 million in refunds, most of which went to feedlots.
“It’s a significant amount of money. I don’t think any of the other commissions are close to that level,” said Smith. “We have some very large operations in our industry, and many of them take refunds. When they do, that accounts for a lot of money.”
That loss of revenue reduces funds for market development and research initiatives, said Smith.
“It’s pretty clear in all the work that’s being done that there’s a very substantial return on investment when producer dollars are invested in market development and research initiatives,” he said.
Once the bill is passed (expected this spring), each commission will have an opportunity to hold its own plebiscite. Smith doesn’t yet know what that will look like or when a vote might be held.
“We’ll engage with all producers and associations we’re working with to see how that could be set up properly,” he said. “It seems that more producers don’t take refunds than take refunds, so we’ll see what the producers say.”
The legislative changes will apply to the alfalfa seed, barley, beekeepers, canola, elk, oat, Peace region forage seed, pork, pulse, and wheat commissions as well as Alberta Beef Producers, Alberta Lamb Producers, and Potato Growers of Alberta.
— With staff files