Casey Reynolds, Executive Director, Turfgrass Producers International
In February, I was fortunate enough to attend the Turfgrass Producers of Florida Annual Meeting and Show and meet with growers to discuss the latest updates on the proposed U.S. Sod Checkoff Program. There was a one-hour session that covered the proposed program, how it would work, what to expect in the coming months, and so on. I also had many one-on-one discussions during the trade show with Florida sod producers, university faculty, and vendors. We are still likely more than a year away from an industry-wide referendum on the proposed checkoff, and there is plenty of time to learn more, provide public comments, and ultimately vote. So if you happened to miss the TPF Annual Meeting in February there will certainly be other opportunities to learn more ahead of the upcoming referendum.
There are currently 22 USDA Research and Promotion Programs (aka checkoffs). Checkoffs have a long, proven history of funding research and promotion of agricultural products and have been around since the 1960s. To combat the decline in the demand for cotton brought on by competition from manmade fibers, particularly polyester, the cotton industry proposed legislation designed to strengthen cotton’s competitive position. The resulting statute is the Cotton Research and Promotion Act of 1966, which created the Cotton Research and Promotion Program.
While early checkoffs like cotton had to go through Congress, that all changed in 1996 with the passage of The Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, also known as Freedom to Farm Act or the 1996 Farm Bill. This bill contained legislation that became the Commodity Promotion, Research, and Information Act of 1996, and it delegated checkoff programs to the USDA. Now, instead of industries having to go through Congress to get a checkoff passed, they simply go through the USDA. This bill was sponsored by Rep. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and 15 Republican co-sponsors and passed the House (318-89) and the Senate (74-26). Florida representatives passed it by a margin of 14-4 in the House and 2-0 in the Senate. Since then, the current 22 checkoffs combined routinely raise up $1 billion each year to fund research and promotion of their products.
Just like the cotton checkoff, many checkoff programs arise out of an industry’s need to push back against market threats, misinformation, and shifting consumer trends. Just google the term “lawns are” and you will see that our industry is no different. The top hits include colonialism, useless, bad, waste, stupid, ecological disaster, and so on. There is no doubt that consumers simply do not understand the benefits of natural grass for lawns and sports fields. The good news for our industry, though. is that the science behind natural grass is on our side. We simply need to fund the research to show it, package it, and then shout it from the rooftops both locally and nationally.
So how do we get there and what’s the latest update? The proposed US Sod Checkoff Program was submitted to the USDA for review in late 2020. Since then, I have been traveling the country to visit with sod producers to get feedback on the proposed checkoff as well as discuss any changes to it. One of the most important components of implementing any checkoff program is industry feedback. In talking with checkoff directors at the 22 USDA Research and Promotion programs, they all spent significant time in promoting their programs ahead of the vote, getting input from industry stakeholders, and making sure that they did everything they could to widely publicize the program.
Also, why not? Checkoffs are not designed to be programs that can be implemented overnight. There are many checks and balances at USDA to make sure that checkoffs are properly written before coming up for an industry-wide vote and of course that takes time.
For example, our initial submission of the proposed checkoff was in 2020 and was 39 pages long. It included an industry analysis and justification, market threats and opportunities, proposed budget, initial language, and more. One of the primary objectives of this process being a rather lengthy one is that it allows industries an opportunity to discuss the checkoff, suggest any proposed changes, and ultimately make an informed decision on it prior to the referendum.
Much of the discussion at meetings over the last 18-24 months has revolved around key details of the proposed program such as board formation, nomination and selection, voting, costs, compliance, and what type of research and promotion could or should be funded with checkoff dollars. The proposed program would be administered by a board of 13 sod producers with 4 producers from northern states, 5 from southern states, and 4 from transition zone states. They would be nominated by other sod producers and/or associations like TPF who are made up of sod producers, and they’d each have 3-year rotating terms. As it stands now, the proposed sod checkoff program could raise as much as $14 million or more annually to fund research and promotion of natural grass. These funds would be raised through an assessment of 1/10th of one penny per square foot of sod sold and would be submitted to the sod checkoff quarterly.
All information obtained from books, records, or reports shall be kept confidential. It would not be available to Board members or Natural Grass Sod Producers, and only those Persons having a specific need for such information solely to effectively administer the program shall have access to such information. This has been a question that has come up at various meetings, and it has been reassuring to many that the 1996 Act contains strict guidelines on confidentiality.
Another question that often comes up is can producers pass this on to their customers, and the answer is yes. In doing so, it becomes a small price to each individual customer and the associations who represent these customers strongly support the checkoff program and are willing to communicate it to their industries. They feel the same pain we do when lawns and other green spaces come under attack, and they understand that any program that promotes natural grass also benefits the industries whose jobs rely on it.
Two recent changes to the proposed checkoff that have come up at various meetings revolve around the idea of board seats and research/promotion dollars.
As a result, in December of 2022 we proposed new language to the USDA on these issues. This language would:
There is no doubt that Florida would benefit from both of these. Additional language around Qualifying Organizations lays the framework for state associations like TPF to be in charge of directing state funds.
So what are the next steps? We have passed several of the key milestones to this point and continue to work through the appropriate steps at USDA. As it stands now, we are still awaiting final approval to open up the 60-day public comment period. While that could happen as soon as the spring of 2023, we really just don’t know. Once that does happen though, our industry (and anyone else for that matter) will have the opportunity to provide public comment on the proposed checkoff.
Once that public comment period closes, the USDA will then have to review and compile all of the comments and provide responses to each of them before announcing the details and date of the referendum, of which there will be plenty of notification. For example, the most recent checkoff to come up for vote was the Concrete Masonry Products Research and Promotion Order, and there were around 17 months between the time the public comment period opened and the voting period closed. So, it is sufficient to say that the voting period shouldn’t sneak up on anyone, and we will do our best to make sure everyone is fully aware of it as soon as it is announced.
Can checkoffs be effective at changing the narrative of an agricultural product? Absolutely. Just look no further than beef, dairy, eggs, almonds, and others who have funded research to tell their story and then packaged it in meaningful, widespread marketing to consumers. Scientists used to say red meat is bad, but now maybe not so fast. Butter and eggs used to be the enemy, but new scientific research shows different. The almond industry funded research to produce an FDA heart-healthy claim and demand has tripled in the last 20 years. All of these stories share the same formula: fund the research, package it, and market it to consumers in a way that changes the narrative in favor of producers.
For more information about the sod checkoff, see webinars, and to stay up to date on the latest details please visit www.sodcheckoff.org.