Farm Bill Publicity on Christmas Trees Rings False

Kansas Viewpoint

Christmas Tree growers say Farm Bill issue involved only authorization for check-off; no tax was involved

Published on: June 20, 2013

did a double-take a couple of days ago as I plowed through the blizzard of Farm Bill propaganda that clogged my e-mail inbox as the U.S. House of Representatives prepared for their imbecilic performance on Thursday.

“War on Christmas” and “Christmas Tree Tax” were the phrases that jumped out at me. What on earth are they talking about? I wondered. I got even more befuddled when the language was repeated by Kansas Congressmen, including Tim Huelskamp and Mike Pompeo.

So I did some research. It turns out that what they were referencing was the last-ditch effort of a well-meaning Congressman to insert a provision for a Christmas Tree Growers check-off as an amendment to the Farm Bill. A similar amendment made it through the Senate vote with little fanfare, but in the House bill, it generated objections, especially from “Heritage Action” an arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

From the ridiculous press, you’d never recognize a proposal for a simple, grower-paid marketing, research and promotion program typical of the check-offs that serve a similar function in just about every farm product out there.

“I don’t know how it got so misconstrued and mis-represented,” says Eldon Clawson, who is president of the Kansas Association of Christmas Tree Growers and the Kansas representative on the national association board.

Clawson, who has a 10-acre farm near Belleville and sells about 400 trees a year, is pretty typical of the 50 or so farmers who grow Christmas trees in Kansas. He’s a former Osage County ag agent for Kansas State University Extension and Research and a retired middle school science teacher.

He said a check-off – proposed at 15 cents a tree – wouldn’t have much impact on his operation because it is so small.

“It would affect the big wholesalers who sell 1,000 or 10,000 or 50,000 trees a year,” he says. “I don’t think it even kicks in for people who sell fewer than 500 trees a year.”

But the dollars generated by a check-off might have a big impact on the future of farmers like him, Clawson said.

Small operators reap big benefits from check-off programs, he said, because check-offs tend to generate positive publicity for the industry and pump money into research programs that solve problems for growers of all sizes. That is one of the reasons that small, family-owned operations like check-offs.

Clawson said he thinks Farm Bill opponents seized on the program because it would create a mandatory assessment on the sale of trees – their version of a “tax.” It also talks of promotion and marketing of trees, which the conservative Heritage Action group scoffed at as “wasteful” use of taxpayer dollars.

Confusing in that argument is how any taxpayer dollars are involved. A check-off simply requires a legal nod; after that it is run completely by the industry it is part of.

Why would anyone need to promote Christmas trees? Don’t they sell themselves? Doesn’t everybody buy a Christmas tree anyway? Well actually, no. There’s a huge competition between natural trees and artificial trees and a whole propaganda machine dedicated to making “fake” trees seem like the environmentally friendly alternative to cutting down a growing tree.

Sound science says the continuous cycle of cutting and replanting/regrowing trees actually benefits the environment by capturing carbon and replacing the creation of thousands of petroleum-based, plastic trees with real, organic ones. But that message doesn’t dominate in the marketplace.

Christmas tree growers would like the chance to tell their story and get their message to consumers. A check-off would help.

In North Carolina, a soil-borne fungus has decimated one of the most popular of Christmas tree varieties, the Frasier fir. Farmers will need to depopulate their farms and grow something else for at least five years to get rid of the fungus. But what will grow well and not be susceptible? What treatments might help? They could use some research. A check-off would help.

How will climate change impact growing areas and the types of trees that will flourish there? Again, research would be useful and a check-off would help.

The whole dust-up on this issue is frustrating because it is so typical of how our government works today. Without the slightest concern for what is good for the country, good for industry, good for farmers or good for manufacturers, members of Congress are intent on doing what they think will garner them a moment in the spotlight and a sound-bite on a nut-job TV show or radio broadcast.

Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins (2nd District) did her best to get Congress to move forward on Thursday. 4th District Rep. Mike Pompeo and Big 1st Rep. Tim Huelskamp took great pride in being part of the obstructionist faction.

There have been ample opportunities recently to be embarrassed by the actions of Kansas leaders. Today added to the list.