‘Checkoff’ program will help tree growers

Cliff Clark

February 20, 2014

A “checkoff” program included in the new Farm Bill will give local and national Christmas tree growers a tool to generate “sustainable” revenues the industry can use for marketing and research.

“I think this will be a real asset for our industry,” said Cline Church, the owner of Cline Church Nursery, the immediate past president of the National Christmas Tree Grower Association, and one of many tree growers who lobbied for the new funding stream.

The checkoff program is well known as a funding source for the agricultural industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administrates the 20 programs for commodities from beef to watermelons, and includes crops like blueberries, mangos, avocados, softwood lumber and popcorn.

For Christmas tree growers in Ashe County and across the nation, the new program will charge growers who sell more than 500 trees per year a surcharge of 15 cents per tree.

Approximately 90 percent of the money generated will be used for promotions, similar to the beef industry’s marketing program “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” and the dairy industry’s “Got milk” campaign.

For Church, the program will be important in “moving the needle” for generating additional sales of Christmas trees.

“The bottom line, this will help increase sales…and we have such a great message that Christmas trees are an environmentally-friendly crop,” said Church, adding that the primary competition for U.S. growers comes from artificial trees manufactured in China.

His support for the checkoff program is based on his experience of two marketing programs utilized over the last 25 years that were successful.

He said the two “voluntary” marketing campaigns, utilizing $3-4 million, made a difference.

“Just that small amount of money was successful in moving the needle,” Church said.

But, he said, tree growers needed a marketing approach, and the available funds, that was “sustainable” year in and year out, which the checkoff program will accomplish.

Before the marketing effort begins, Church said the U.S.D.A. will establish a board made up of 12 members who will represent growers from around the country.

Five of the members will come from the western portion of the U.S., four will represent the eastern U.S., two will represent the Midwest and there will be one importer on the board. Church said the importer could possibly be from the United States, but might also be a Canadian.

“I’m hoping the board members will be appointed in a few months…we’re already three years behind schedule,” Church said.

He said the growers were “behind schedule” because when the checkoff program was proposed in 2011, the conservative group the Heritage Foundation targeted it as an “Obama tax.”

However, “the (Obama) administration had nothing to do with this (the checkoff program),” Church said.

As a result of the negative publicity, Church said administration officials were reluctant to include the program in the Farm Bill.

Intensive lobbying by growers convinced the administration to include the program in the new bill.

To reach Cliff Clark, call 336-846-7164 or on Twitter @cliffcclark.