WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Remember the brouhaha that took place when conservative think tanks called the proposed Christmas tree checkoff program "the Christmas tree tax?"
In 2011, the Heritage Foundation and conservative media outlets were so successful in convincing consumers -- or at least the media -- that President Barack Obama was "taxing Christmas" that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had to suspend implementation of the assessment on tree sales that growers had requested, putting it in limbo for several years.
Five years later, the checkoff is in place and has launched a $1.25 million social media campaign mostly to convince millennial shoppers to buy live rather than artificial trees.
The Christmas tree industry's experience may be a lesson for all of agriculture in what may be needed if President-elect Donald Trump's administration and conservatives in Congress begin attacking farm programs -- and in what is needed to convince the millennial generation to buy farm products.
The Christmas Tree Promotion Board uses the logo "It's Christmas Keep It Real" in its social media campaign.
The $1.25 million that the board has allocated for this year's promotion is too little to launch a national TV and print advertising campaign, so the board is running a social media campaign based on its own website, Tim O'Connor, the board's executive director, said in a telephone interview from his Centennial, Colorado, office.
The campaign is called "It's Christmas. Keep it Real," and it has had a different, somewhat newsy sales pitch each day since Nov. 15. (https://itschristmaskeepitreal.com)
In some ways, O'Conner said, social media is more effective than paid advertising because consumers cannot share a TV or print ad, but they can forward a tweet or an Instagram photo. Besides, the industry's main target audience is members of the millennial generation who are establishing their own households and starting families -- and they are more likely to be on social media than to read newspapers or watch TV.
The fall and rise of the Christmas tree checkoff also appears to show that conservative think tanks either mount these campaigns to arouse the public, raise money and then move on -- or that they are limited in their power when agriculture gets organized.
The National Christmas Tree Association's interest in a checkoff program began when Christmas tree production fell from about 37 million to 31 million trees between 1991 and 2007, the number of tree farms declined and sales of artificial trees grew. The association looked at the success that other sectors of agriculture had found with checkoffs under which commodity producers and others in the industry pay an assessment that is used for research and promotion. In 2008, they petitioned USDA to establish the Christmas Tree Promotion, Research and Information Order.
The order went through the usual comment periods, but when USDA published the rule in the Federal Register in November 2011, the Heritage Foundation immediately posted a blog calling the checkoff fee "a tax on Christmas." It got picked up by the Drudge Report, and conservative commentators began to say that Obama was taxing Christmas.
Vilsack ended up canceling the publication of the rule. O'Connor, who was working for the potato checkoff at the time, recalled that it was actually White House aides who were concerned about the criticism of the checkoff and ordered USDA to take action to stop the negative comments about the president.
It was too complicated in the midst of the Christmas season to make it clear to consumers and even to members of Congress that an assessment on growers was not the same as a tax. O'Connor recalls that the situation alarmed the leaders of all the checkoff programs. They began to focus on educating commodity producers about the importance of all the checkoffs and the need to urge their members of Congress to protect them from attack.
The attacks were "so inaccurate," O'Connor said, noting that the commodity producers not only pay the assessment for the promotion and research of their own products, but also pay a fee for the USDA staff time to oversee the program.
The Christmas tree industry "got in the way of two elephants fighting" and the Heritage Foundation and conservative commentators "didn't want the facts, they wanted to abuse the information," O'Connor said.
USDA continued to resist reviving the Christmas tree checkoff, but Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Reid Ribble, R-Wis., managed to get it included in the 2014 farm bill.
The Agriculture Department's Agricultural Marketing Service still took until January 2015 to get the order in place and appoint the board to manage the program.
Since the 15-cent-per-tree assessment is paid on trees cut and sold or imported and sold, that meant the board couldn't really collect the money and organize a campaign until this year. The board has collected $1.8 million based on the 2015 sales and allocated $1.25 million for the Christmas season promotion campaign, with other money going for research.
The Christmas tree industry's experience with the attack from the right has led all the leaders of the checkoff programs to be on guard, O'Connor said.
If Trump and the conservatives try to attack farm programs, O'Connor said, "throwing things out will create a lot of consternation. I don't think agriculture will sit by idly and watch things get dismantled that are important to it."
Jerry Hagstrom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow Jerry Hagstrom on Twitter @hagstromreport
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