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TRANSPARENCY: In January, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act was introduced. Its aim is to create more transparency in the checkoff programs and to prevent checkoff dollars from being spent on lobbying.

Are commodity checkoff programs on the up and up?

New legislation may have an ulterior motive.

Commodity checkoff programs have benefited agricultural producers, importers and other stakeholders in the marketing chain by collectively seizing power to maximize resources while managing risk. By promoting a commodity, instead of individual businesses, everyone in the industry benefits through increased sales, consumer awareness and higher overall demand.

But are checkoff programs on the up and up?

In January, H.R. 5563, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, was introduced by Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., in the House. The measure’s a companion to S. 935 introduced in 2019 by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah; Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Rand Paul, R-Ky.; and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Supposedly, the legislation will fix two problems: agricultural trade associations violating the rules concerning keeping lobbying funds separate from research, education and promotion (checkoff) funds; and alleged nontransparent financial control. The official title, as introduced, is “To prohibit certain practices relating to certain commodity promotion programs, to require greater transparency by those programs, and for other purposes.”

Opposition to OFF

Opponents — which include some 40 groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, major food processors and the American Farm Bureau Federation — argue the proposal “will gut” the programs and “impose unnecessary, duplicative and counterproductive burdens” on them, according to a letter signed by the organizations. 

Those supporting the legislation say industrialized agriculture is sucking up the hard-earned dollars of family farmers and using those funds to lobby against the interests of the people it purports to represent. They also claim checkoff dollars are being used for inflated salaries, office operations and lobbying for policies that could hurt family farmers.

Although the laws establishing checkoff programs broadly prohibit funds for lobbying, proponents of the legislation say checkoff programs have dipped into the cookie jar to support policy directly, or by partnering with organizations that lobby.

The legislation would require transparency and a means for audits of compliance to expose and prevent abuses in checkoff programs.

With the Beef Checkoff program under the most heat, those against the bill say it’s part of an anti-agriculture agenda.

It’s interesting to note that bill sponsor Booker has been a vegetarian since 1992 and a vegan since 2014.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), one of the largest anti-animal agriculture groups in the U.S., has aligned itself with dairy farmers and ranchers opposed to checkoff programs; environmental groups; and The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

The Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM), dominated in recent years by HSUS, has been making Freedom of Information Act requests and poring over thousands of pages of documentation without finding any significant violations. To date, its lawsuits have yielded nothing.

In October, Fran O’Leary, the editor of sister publication Wisconsin Agriculturist, blogged about the value of the dairy checkoff and what she thought of the legislation, writing, “I think this is a smoke screen. Anything HSUS is involved in should immediately send up red flags to any dairy or livestock farmer. Its goal is to end animal agriculture. What better way to do it than to get rid of the checkoff programs?”

Read O'Leary's complete blog post.

Checkoff basics

Agricultural research and promotion programs (checkoffs) are industry-driven, industry-governed, and industry-funded initiatives which drive demand for agricultural commodities. They do this through developing new markets, strengthening existing markets, and conducting important research and promotion activities. There are currently 22 programs covering different commodities, from dairy and beef to mangos and blueberries. More than $1 billion annually is contributed by farmers toward these programs.

Checkoff programs operate only if approved in a referendum by at least a majority of producers (or processors) of a commodity.

Approximately one-third of all funds raised from producers by state and federal checkoff programs go toward funding vital research, primarily at land-grant universities, that might not be conducted absent checkoff funding. No taxpayer funds are used. No appropriations are required.

The funds collected by checkoff groups are used primarily to expand demand (both domestic and foreign) through both generic advertising efforts and the development of new uses of the associated commodities.

Well-known examples of past checkoff-funded advertising campaigns are the pork checkoff’s “The Other White Meat,” “The Incredible, Edible Egg” and “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” Checkoff programs collect over $900 million from America’s farmers and ranchers every year.

I’m for transparency, but I agree with Fran — there seems to an ulterior motive. The risk of losing the collective strength of checkoffs to expand markets and promote commodities is, well, risky.

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