Mandatory checkoffs are regularly criticized for funding lobbying organizations cozy with corporate agribusiness. Grassroots farm groups say it’s time to terminate these commodity group slush funds.
Beef. It’s What for Dinner.
Pork. The Other White Meat.
These marketing and promotional slogans might appear harmless, but the system of “mandatory commodity checkoffs” that pays for the familiar ads is in dire need of reform, say farmers and ranchers across the country. That’s because many checkoff-funded organizations, such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), are also large and impactful lobbying groups with close ties to corporate agribusiness.
Farmers pay into the commodity checkoff system when they sell their crops and livestock through a per-unit fee issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Checkoff fees are then pooled and distributed by commodity-specific boards to organizations, ostensibly for marketing, promotion, and research.
“The main issue we have with checkoffs is lax oversight by the USDA, which has resulted in collusive and illegal relationships between the checkoff boards and lobbying organizations that influence legislation and policy, even though that is against the law,” said Angela Huffman, Co-founder and Vice President of Farm Action. “These lobbying efforts funded by the checkoff have an anti-competitive effect benefiting certain producers to the detriment of other producers.”
That just rubs farmers the wrong way, Huffman said. “They’re being forced to pay into a system that is actively working against them.”
For recent examples of anti-farmer lobbying by a checkoff-funded group, just look to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), said Huffman. The organization opposes mandatory country-of-origin labeling for meat, as well as the Biden USDA’s Packers and Stockyards rule. “Their actual members are the big meatpackers like Cargill, Marfrig [National Beef], and Tyson, so it’s no surprise they have the opposite position of cattle producers.”
Farm Action and dozens of other groups—including R-CALF USA, National Farmers Union, Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, Western Organization of Resource Councils, Farm Aid, National Family Farm Coalition, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Organization for Competitive Markets—are urging U.S. House and Senate Farm Bill negotiators to include comprehensive checkoff reform in the 2023 Farm Bill.
"Checkoff reform is the big sleeper issue of this Farm Bill cycle," said Matt L. Barron, a New England Farmers Union member and rural strategist from western Massachusetts who has worked on or covered every Farm Bill since 1981 (Full disclosure: Barron is a donor to The Cocklebur).
"Checkoffs have been captured and subverted by the commodity associations in cahoots with the giant meatpackers, dairy processors, and other Big Ag players,” said Barron. “But we now see agricultural trade associations violating the rules concerning keeping lobbying funds separate from research, education, and promotion [checkoff] funds, while USDA seems unable to exert effective oversight on these pools of cash. They’ve become slush funds to undermine many family farmers and ranchers."
But checkoff reform advocates do have allies in Congress. Earlier this year, a bipartisan, bicameral group of federal legislators re-introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (OFF Act). The bill would prohibit “certain wasteful, anti-competitive, and deceptive behavior from checkoff boards,” according to the co-sponsors.
“Farmers and Ranchers are being forced to pay into checkoff programs that often advocate against their best interest and support food system consolidation. These programs need transparency and oversight so a farmer can be sure they aren’t required to fund their own demise,” said Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ). “That is why I am proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation that will help increase transparency and prohibit conflicts of interest and anti-competitive practices in these programs.”
“Checkoff programs are filled with waste and often abuse those who are forced to contribute to their coffers,” said Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) “These common-sense reforms will ensure that checkoff funds promote and protect all ag producers (big and small) who are meant to be served by these programs.”
While the progressive Booker and ultra-conservative Lee rarely vote the same way, political strategist Barron says that bills like the OFF Act point to potential issues where the Democrats can score points in rural areas. "The politics around checkoff reform is similar to Trade Promotion Authority [“Fast Track trade authority,” that allows Presidents to force Congressional votes
on trade deals]] in that strange bedfellows from both sides of the aisle are united in a common goal. Democrats seeking to win rural votes in 2024 would be wise to recognize this.”
Barron added that the checkoff issue shows how entrenched corporate power is in both parties. "I find it ironic that Republicans who are constantly screaming about freedom from government regulations and controls are the staunchest defenders of the checkoff system while too many Senate Ag Democrats like Baldwin (D-WI), Bennet (D-CO), Brown (D-OH), and Klobuchar (D-MN) are hiding under their desks by not coming out in support of the Booker-Lee legislation.”
Farm Action’s Huffman said that momentum is growing to make checkoff reform a part of the 2023 Farm Bill. “This is a real opportunity for us to pass legislation that would prohibit checkoff funding from going to any organization that lobbies, that would require transparency by making checkoff budgets and expenditures public, that would require periodic audits by the USDA Inspector General. It’s basic accountability and transparency of where the checkoff money is going, and stopping the money from going to lobbying groups.”
For more on farmer-opposition to mandatory commodity checkoff programs, see:
· As New Beef Campaign Launches, Some Groups Seek ‘Transparency, Accountability.” The Daily Yonder.
· Farmers Pay Big Ag to Lobby Against Them. The American Prospect.
· Independent cattle ranchers continue fight against national checkoff program. Investigate Midwest.
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