Voters will be flocking to county extension offices today, but not to cast ballots on school bonds or library books.
About 4,000 sheep ranchers in Washington and Idaho will join in a national referendum on a $14 million plan for promoting the sale of lamb meat and textile wool.
While similar elections have been held in the past, this marks the first time that the industry can establish a promotional fund that’s not woven into the complicated system of federal farm subsidies. It also could open the way to collect fees from Australia, New Zealand and other importers of lamb and wool.
“This vote is critical to the survival of the U.S. sheep industry,” said Fred Blauert, a Washtucna rancher and president of the Washington Wool Grower Association. “If we’re going to promote our products and fund research and education, we’ve got to have some source of funding.”
Congress in 1994 ended federal assistance to lamb and wool growers. Money collected for promotion under the Wool Act of 1954 will dry up at the end of this year.
Under the new program, known as a checkoff, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would assess a farmer or feed lot 1 cent per pound live weight when a lamb is sold and 2 cents per pound for grease wool right off the animal.
The money would be used to advertise lamb meat, support livestock shows and provide taste-testing and education programs, Blauert said.
Importers would pay 2 cents per pound for boned lamb sold in the Unites States, 3 cents for boneless. They would contribute about half of the $14 million fund, which has many in an uproar.
“They (U.S. sheep industry) have run this thing roughshod over everyone,” said Trevor Playford, North American director of the New Zealand Meat Producers Board, which is campaigning against the referendum. “This doesn’t seem a very good way to build cooperation.”
Playford said importers plan to sue the USDA and U.S. sheep producers if the referendum is adopted. The program discriminates against importers, he said, giving them less voting authority than U.S. producers and restricting promotion of foreign-brand lamb.
The American Sheep Industry, a Denver-based trade group, expects about one third of the nation’s 82,000 sheep farmers to cast ballots. However, anyone who can show proof that they owned sheep in 1994 is eligible to vote, including 4-H youth.
The USDA will announce the results in March. The department could begin collecting money for the promotional fund as early as June.