Department Suspends New Sheep Program After Vote is Challenged
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Agriculture Department has canceled a new promotion program for lamb and wool because of irregularities in voting to approve it.
As a result, there will be no assessment on lamb and wool produced in this country or imported from elsewhere. And a second referendum appears unlikely until some time next year.
Though fraud was not alleged, the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service said Friday there were enough problems with how the Feb. 6 referendum was conducted at USDA offices around the country to nullify the results.
``We received complaints that there were inconsistencies in how the voting was done,″ said Connie X. Crunkleton, spokeswoman for the AMS, which oversees promotion programs.
The $15 million-a-year program, paid for by fees, was to have begun in July to replace the government-funded wool and mohair program that Congress voted in 1993 to eliminate.
Crunkleton gave no estimate for how much it would cost to hold the second vote and who would pay for the unprecedented foul-up.
The program, known as an ``order,″ would spend the assessments on advertising, research and other efforts to promote sheep products. The fees _ 1 cent a pound on lamb and 2 cents a pound on wool _ would be paid by producers, feeders and importers of sheep and sheep products.
Though approved, the order faced challenges from dissident producers who had several complaints, including using some money to promote lamb generically instead of specifying American lamb. New Zealand, which sells lamb to this country, objected to the importer fees.
Such checkoff programs are common in agriculture, and producers generally view them more critically during hard times. Some cattle producers, facing hard times, are petitioning to end their checkoff.
Some of the dissidents helped bring up the complaints over voting, hampered by the complicated legislation and rules that governed the referendum.
``There was no guidance as to who can vote and who can’t,″ said Danny Lanning, a Hammond, Mont., rancher who runs a dissident group called United Sheep Producers Inc.
In some cases, he noted, both spouses weren’t allowed to vote even though they were equal partners and owned sheep separately. The rules, he said, gave equal voting power to hobby farmers and 4H youngsters with a few sheep, even though their financial burden was lower.
The American Sheep Industry Association, in charge of the transition to the new program, has spent more than $100,000 getting ready for the July 1 start up and August meeting of the yet-to-be-named board, said John Olson, executive director.
He said the department should pay for the mistake.
``If it was their process, they should be liable for the costs,″ he said.