Opinion: Farmers demand accountability and efficiency in government checkoff programs
08/24/23 2:40 PM By Angela Huffman
In his July 25th op ed, “Once again big government comes for farmers and ranchers,” CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) Colin Woodall shares his fear that “big government” will muck up commodity checkoff programs if lawmakers pursue the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act: a bipartisan bill that would bring transparency and accountability to checkoff programs.
The thing is, the government was involved in 1985 when it implemented the beef checkoff program. And it was definitely involved in 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled that checkoffs are government speech, set and approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Checkoffs are government programs, so government has a responsibility to provide safeguards for the $1 billion collected from America’s farmers, ranchers, and producers annually.
Mr. Woodall proclaims that current law already prohibits the use of checkoff dollars to lobby, so the bill is unnecessary. However, this prohibition hasn’t stopped the line between checkoff boards and lobbying groups from blurring: Some, such as the blueberry checkoff and lobbying organization, share staff, board members, and even office buildings.
The close relationships have enabled a history of misuse of checkoff funds and other scandals, and the primary beef checkoff contractor, the NCBA, was caught using checkoff funds for policy activity by a spot audit in 2010. Even if these were isolated incidents, the fact remains that the influence lobbying groups wield on Capitol Hill as the public-facing representatives of their industries’ checkoff programs is just as fungible as money.
At the root of this chronic corruption is the fact that the government is passing these funds through lobbying-oriented middlemen like NCBA on the way to supporting the important functions of research and promotion. The OFF Act would prevent checkoff dollars from being contracted to lobbying organizations in the first place. This would not only be more efficient, it would also assure farmers that no conflicts of interest exist. The OFF Act respects the research our universities and land grant institutions have done on behalf of agricultural producers by providing an exception for them.
Mr. Woodall also expressed concern that the OFF Act’s requirement to publicly disclose checkoff spending is unnecessary since “those reports are already available on the Cattlemen’s Beef Board website.” This is true, but they do not disclose to the public how any of the contractors — most of which are lobbying organizations — are spending the money.
And what about the other programs? The majority of checkoff boards are notorious for publishing skeletal budget summaries, which show just a handful of vague line items. For example, the National Honey Board’s budget only includes three line items for expenditures. The budget line for marketing and promoting exceeds seven million dollars and does not disclose who receives the money.
Opponents of checkoff reform often justify the status quo by pointing to large return on investment figures for checkoff programs. For example, the beef checkoff claims an $11 return on investment. But the studies they’re citing routinely use retail prices in their calculations, which means those figures are majorly inflated. No farmer I know receives retail prices at harvest or when selling livestock.
I’m not the only one who thinks these checkoff ROI evaluations are flawed: The Government Accountability Office found that checkoff ROI evaluations lack consistency and have “methodological limitations” that can “overstate the programs’ benefits.”
Who’s in favor of the way checkoffs are run now? The OFF Act opponents listed by Mr. Woodall have their hands in the checkoff cookie jar in one way or another. The loudest of all is the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, 70% of whose budget is made up of checkoff dollars. The OFF Act’s prohibition on lobbying organizations receiving checkoff dollars would strip NCBA of these funds.
Mr. Woodall dismisses supporters of the OFF Act’s commonsense, bipartisan checkoff reforms as a bunch of animal rights activists. But more than 60 farm groups — representing hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers — are calling for this legislation to be included in the farm bill. Here are just a few: National Farmers Union, R-CALF USA, Rural Coalition, American Grassfed Association, the Kansas Black Farmers Association, the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, Independent Cattlemen of Nebraska, Independent Cattlemen of Wyoming, Western Organization of Resource Councils, National Family Farm Coalition, Latino Farmers & Ranchers International, Inc., and Farm Action Fund.
Sure, there may also be conservation and animal advocacy groups in our corner. When it comes down to it, Farm Action Fund is proud to stand with anyone who values our land and animals in the fight for more transparency, accountability, and efficiency in government programs.
Angela Huffman is Vice President of Farm Action Fund, a farmer-led organization fighting for a food and agriculture system that works for everyone, not just a handful of powerful corporations.