Sheep ranchers weigh benefits of lamb promotion program

WASHINGTON -- California sheepherders must now decide whether to keep taxing themselves for the sake of science, ads and cooking lessons.

On Tuesday, the Agriculture Department formally announced a month-long referendum in February on the future of a lamb promotion program. It's a triennial decision, balancing costs and benefits.

The costs, in this case, are the industry fees paid to support the $2.3 million-a-year American Lamb Board. The benefits are supposed to come with increased sales spurred by creative marketing and a bit of research.

"I think the industry believes it's really helped us," said Stockton resident Florence Cabiburu, a member of the American Lamb Board. "The industry has learned to work together."

The lamb promotion program, with its upcoming industry vote, is only one of many similar agricultural self-help programs that sometimes get mixed reviews. Some are very large, like a federal dairy check-off that raises about $158 million annually. Others are quite small, like the lamb program and a mango industry check-off that raises about $5 million.

Lamb packers pay 30 cents per head while producers, breeders, feeders and exporters pay five cents per pound. The money pays for every manner of marketing.

"The lamb check-off," the American Lamb Board explains, "is working to enhance the image of lamb."

In July 2007, for instance, chefs at a Livermore festival whipped up some lamb meals with the help of industry funding. Several years ago, California culinary school students received a lamb tutorial courtesy of the industry dollars.

Festivals in Paso Robles and Palm Desert have likewise had a taste of lamb because of industry funding, while ovine-touting print ads have run in the San Francisco Bay Area in collaboration with grocery chains like Whole Foods. Promotions and communications account for $1.9 million of the American Lamb Board's annual budget; research gets about $95,000.

Some promotions are venturing into new turf. An Ohio blogger and competitive barbecue cook named Curt McAdams, for instance, was one of 21 bloggers contacted by the American Lamb Board. The board sent McAdams and the others a boneless leg of lamb and some spices; McAdams cooked it up and gave a favorable review on his Buckey's Barbecue and Bread Web site.

"Over the years, the lamb board has made some wise decisions on where to spend the money," Cabiburu said. "I haven't heard that anyone is disgruntled."

A 2004 Texas A&M study concluded that the lamb board's promotional efforts boosted lamb sales.

Lamb producers, feeders and packers will weigh in between Feb. 2 and Feb. 27 on whether to continue what's formally called the Lamb Promotion, Research and Information Order, the Agriculture Department formally declared Wednesday. Many industry votes will come from California, which ranks second in the nation behind Texas in lamb production.

The program appears to have some political momentum, on its way toward pulling the required majority support. In 2005, 80 percent of the 3,490 industry members who voted were in support of continuing the lamb program. The remaining 20 percent were opposed. It wasn't always this easy.

Congress authorized the Lamb Promotion, Research and Information Order in 1996. Initially, though, the proposal failed to secure the necessary industry support to go forward. Cabiburu recalled that it took lots of talking and a very persistent Agriculture Department official to finally secure industry approval in 2002.

Now, every three years, industry members must vote on whether to keep it going. Although promotion orders have survived legal challenges filed by those who don't want their money used for ads, these referenda are not necessarily a sure thing. In 2002, for instance, watermelon growers voted down a proposal that would have assessed fees on more of the industry.