Local View: Keeping checkoff in check

As a lifelong rancher, I want to speak up for the Nebraskan cowboy — while we still exist. There is a runaway government program that’s taking our money and handing it off to corporate forces that work against us.

Cattle producers, like every producer of 21 other commodities, have to pay a mandatory tax called a “checkoff” on the sale of their products. This is ostensibly to help pay for the promotion of the commodity as a whole.

But these commodity checkoff programs have been mired in controversy for decades. Make no mistake about these checkoffs: they are big business, collecting about $900 million from farmers and ranchers annually.

These funds have been overwhelmingly managed by trade associations that lobby for policies that do not benefit farmers and ranchers. Despite claims to the contrary and firewalls designed to prevent commingling of the funds, it is hard to imagine that the powerful lobbying associations that may represent only 3% or 4% of producers in the country could swing such a big bat if the perception didn’t exist that they represent the interests of the average cowboy with the sweat-stained hat.

The problem is exacerbated by cozy relationships between those managing the checkoff program and the USDA, which oversees the checkoff programs. Often the voices of dissent are dismissed by industry “leaders” as inconsequential and marginal, and dissenters have little or no opportunity to share alternative ideas with USDA leadership, which has such a cozy relationship with the trade association, which controls the checkoff.

As an example, consider the beef checkoff, which has been married to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for decades. Seventy percent of the NCBA budget consists of checkoff dollars, and NCBA performs the vast majority of checkoff research and advertising programs. In most states, NCBA affiliate members control the state beef checkoffs and send their funds to board members serving on the Federation of State Beef Councils, which has near veto power over the spending associated with each program.

NCBA’s lobbying efforts reveal their true priorities. U.S. labeling policies permit beef raised in other countries to be repackaged in this country and pawned off as USA-raised beef. But NCBA has opposed Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling, effectively putting U.S. cattle producers in competition with cattle producers around the world and in nations where health, safety and animal welfare issues are a grave concern. Meanwhile, NCBA counts among its members multinational packing corporations whose interests are radically different than the cowman or woman.

NCBA has also supported the gutting of the Packers and Stockyards Act, which weakened rules designed to prevent predatory marketing practices — the kind we saw during COVID when U.S. cattle prices plunged while packers raked in millions.

Worse still, NCBA blocked Freedom of Information Act requests for the release of beef checkoff audits. What are they trying to hide?

The fact is that funds from the checkoff programs should not be managed or controlled by any one trade association. These programs should be independently run and responsive to those actually paying the fees, rather than being a creature imprisoned by byzantine rules and regulations designed to protect the status quo.

A few months ago the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (referred to as the OFF Act) was reintroduced in the Senate by a bipartisan coalition of senators whose focus is to reform the checkoff. When the initial bill was introduced in 2018, 38 senators from both sides of the aisle had signed on to it. Support has built since then.

The OFF Act does not eliminate national checkoff programs, but it is designed to offer more transparency and would guarantee that American farmers and ranchers paying the checkoff would know where their dollars were going. Limiting the ability of entities whose real purpose is to lobby for policy would cleanse the checkoff programs of the stink which association with the policy entities imparts to the checkoff. Nationally, more than 130 farm, ranch, consumer and food groups are urging the adoption of the OFF Act, with cattle ranchers in the lead on this issue.

Nebraska is among the top three producers of cattle in this country, so the support of Sens. Deb Fischer and Pete Ricketts for the OFF Act would raise the profile of the bill and boost it to widespread adoption. We urge our senators to move quickly to support this legislation.

Al Davis


District 43

Elected 2012