First Cut: Maintaining momentum

By Mike Rankin, Managing Editor

MOMENTUM is a wonderful thing. We’ve all seen how positive momentum can bring something or someone from the dregs of defeat or extinction to the top of the hill by merely exerting a little positive energy that, over time, manifests itself into a lot of positive energy. This occurs in all facets of life, including business entities, organizations, churches, politics, and sports. Success is rarely achieved without some degree of momentum, while failure is often the result of lost momentum.

Mike Rankin

Largely through the efforts of the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance (NAFA), which was formed by industry leaders in 2006, federal alfalfa research funding has grown significantly over the past 10 years. It’s been a study of the very definition of momentum. For example, the federal Alfalfa Seed & Alfalfa Forage Systems Research Program has grown from $1.35 million allocated annually, which was a fraction of some other commodities with far less value, to $4 million. Early efforts to boost research funding for alfalfa were often rebuked by policymakers because, unlike many other crops, growers had no “skin in the game.”

In 2016, the U.S. Alfalfa Research Initiative was created; it’s better known as the Alfalfa Checkoff Program. Without federal mandate, alfalfa seed brands voluntarily collect $1 for every bag of alfalfa seed sold. This money is then turned over to NAFA, which awards it to the nation’s alfalfa researchers on a competitive basis. It should be noted that 100% of the money collected is used for research with no administrative fees assessed. Most participating seed companies chose to simply add $1 to every bag sold rather than make the checkoff dollar a separate invoice line item. Alfalfa growers now had their skin in the game and were rewarded with annual boosts in federal research funding.

You see the partial benefits of this program in every issue of Hay & Forage Grower, where a completed checkoff-funded research project is highlighted. What may be less apparent to the greater alfalfa community are some of the indirect program benefits that have largely occurred in the past three years.

With the more than $3 million in checkoff funding collected since its inception, it has leveraged over $40 million in additional federal dollars for research. Moreover, university forage extension and research positions are now being filled, following years of vacancies in many cases. These days, universities don’t fill positions unless adequate research funding is available from outside sources. With new hires, additional students are being trained in alfalfa breeding, agronomy, pathology, and extension. Further, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service has been able to bolster its alfalfa research presence with permanent position funding at several locations across the U.S.

Initially, nearly all of the major alfalfa seed companies signed on to voluntarily collect the checkoff dollar per bag. In the past year, 26 alfalfa brands have actively participated in the program. They are to be commended for that decision in seeing the potential value in return to the industry, with little effort on their part. Given that it doesn’t cost anything to participate, and every alfalfa entity benefits, it’s difficult to understand why a company wouldn’t be on board. Nonparticipation is extremely shortsighted, in my opinion.

To be clear, alfalfa growers are funding the program, not the companies. If a company decides to exit the program (as some have done) and not collect the extra checkoff dollar, I hope they also lower the cost of a bag of seed by a dollar. I’ve seen companies make claims such as “all-in on alfalfa” or “relentlessly driving the alfalfa industry forward.” If that’s so, it’s hard to justify not supporting a program that has been beneficial to both their company and the greater alfalfa industry.

The utility and effectiveness of agricultural commodity checkoff programs have long been debated in many arenas. I get it, but the millions of dollars and positions leveraged by the relatively small collection of funds generated by the still fledgling alfalfa checkoff program is indisputable. One of the consequences of a consolidated alfalfa seed industry is that it only takes one or two larger companies to kill the momentum gained to date, let alone the entire program. Big or small, it’s important that all do their part.

Finally, I would like to ask alfalfa growers, who benefit the most from the checkoff program, to encourage their seed supplier to participate and thank them for doing so. If they don’t participate, ask them why. After all, it’s your dollar per bag that will keep the momentum going and the program alive.

Happy foraging,

This article appeared in the February 2024 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on page 4.

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