[UPDATED: May 16, 2019] It took a year of planning, negotiating and explaining how the money would be spent, but members of the Beef Farmers of Ontario (BFO) finally voted in favour of a hefty $1.50 increase in the beef cattle check-off at the 2019 annual general meeting.
The increase was turned down in 2018.
“It was a big move — investing this kind of money into marketing — and the members needed more time to understand the rationale,” explained Joe Hill, president of BFO.
The bulk of the new money — $1.25 — will be spent on a marketing initiative led by a joint committee of the BFO and the Ontario Cattle Feeders Association (OCFA). The other 25 cents will go toward encouraging young people to get into the business, and member and consumer outreach. The check-off increase will move total annual revenues from about $3.6 million to $5 million.
Ontario goes its own way
Last year, there was also some confusion as to the provincial organization’s position on increasing the national check-off. All the other provinces had voted yes, but not Ontario. The situation remains the same, since it was only the provincial portion of the check-off that was raised. *The total check-off is now $5.50, with $1 going to the Canadian Beef Check-off Agency.
Ontario’s beef industry is in a niche, with a huge market in the Greater Toronto Area, said Hill. “So we’re taking this opportunity to differentiate our product from the Canadian product.”
The new marketing initiative will be led by Jim Clark, the driver behind the successful Ontario Corn-Fed Beef program, which has been in place for nearly 20 years. Three BFO and three OCFA committee members will guide the strategy.
“This is our best shot to get more value pushed back through the system,” Hill said.
Rebuilding the herd
Hill said that currently the system is overly dependent on calves from out of province, and the focus is to boost cow numbers. The Ontario herd totals about 225,000, down from 300,000 a decade ago.
Hill blamed the reduction mainly on the conversion of pasture land to crops due to government subsidies to the ethanol industry, which started in 2004. He pointed out that hay and pasture land were reduced by 30 per cent over the same decade as the cow herd contracted by 30 per cent.
Other factors included the aging population of producers and a “hangover” from the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in 2003 and the resulting ban on Canadian cattle.
Regrouping to get the vote
After the check-off increase was turned down in 2018, the BFO board took a step back and examined whether the vote was against the proposal itself, or whether the membership needed more time to understand it. Based on the feedback, they decided to go forward again.
“There were a lot of questions that needed to be answered, and the agreement with the OCFA was really preliminary,” Hill said.
The agreement was finalized, the proposal was filled out and focused and they were able to make presentations at regional meetings in the fall, when seven or eight county groups get together. Questions were answered, feedback obtained and the proposal refined in time to provide further information at individual county meetings in January.
By the time people voted at the annual general meeting in February, the check-off increase was endorsed by a whopping 87 per cent of members.
“We were fairly confident, but I was surprised by the strong support,” Hill said, adding that the members who still objected had the opportunity to say their piece.
Breakdown of spending
The joint BFO-OCFA committee of the marketing initiative will oversee the development and execution of the program’s objectives, achievables, strategy and how outcomes will be measured.
“The goal is to increase market penetration of Ontario branded beef products,” Hill said, pointing out that the committee will be able to operate independently of both organizations.
It will be responsible for filing annual reports and presenting at annual meetings on the progress being made, as well as more informal updates to the respective boards through the year. An audit will be conducted in the fourth year by an outside consultant to justify the return to producers.
The current Regional Marketing Initiative — which has been a catalyst for successful programs like the premium CARVE brand at Flanagan’s Foods — and the Collaborative Partnership Program that supports it will be rolled into the new initiative.
The BFO will also boost its efforts to encourage more young beef producers to get into the business, whether they’re starting from scratch or inheriting from the family.
“We want to give them the opportunity to build larger, progressive herds,” Hill said.
On the consumer engagement front, the emphasis will be on social license, and getting the truth out about beef production practices, so that consumers can make fact-based decisions about the product.
“We want to tell people about hormones — why and when they’re used and how they reduce the amount of inputs that goes into producing beef,” he said.
He also said the BFO wants to dispel accusations that the industry uses too much water and is responsible for too many greenhouse gases.
“We make contributions to carbon sequestration, habitat for species at risk and the diversity for the ecosystem,” he said.
After the disappointment of 2018, the enthusiasm for moving forward at the 2019 annual general meeting was high, with the BFO board and membership looking to working on a more prosperous future for the Ontario beef industry.
*Update: This article previously stated that $1 of the checkoff went to Ottawa.