OFF THE CUFF: Taking a stand for values – Big Ag “is sucking up the hard-earned dollars of family farmers …”

OFF THE CUFF: Taking a stand for values

D.E. Smoot Off the Cuff

Family farmers filed for protection from creditors in 2019 at an accelerated pace in bankruptcy courts across the nation.

An analysis of federal court records conducted by American Farm Bureau found Chapter 12 filings this past year increased 20 percent from the previous year, reaching a level that hasn’t been seen since 2011. On a year-over-year basis, Chapter 12 filings have increased five consecutive quarters.

Analysts believe the number of family farmers could have soared even higher had the federal government not stepped in to provide assistance worth about $19 billion to offset losses due to the president’s trade tariffs and natural disasters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported recently that net farm income in 2019, when federal support and net crop insurance indemnities are excluded from the calculation, was down 8%, or $5 billion, from the year before after adjusting for inflation.

While the loss of markets and retaliatory tariffs have gotten a lot of the blame, it seems another culprit may pose an even greater threat to family farmers who find themselves getting squeezed out by industrial agriculture. It’s not just consolidation taking a toll on America’s family farmers, the system is being rigged against them.

USDA checkoff programs have been perverted by trade associations and lobbyists and government officials influenced by them and their money. The abuse of these checkoff programs has been widely reported, and attempts to rein it in have failed so far, but that could change as bankruptcy and suicide rates among family farmers climb across the heartland.

These checkoff programs — the USDA has oversight responsibility for 22 of these — proved to be invaluable for marketing and advertising agricultural products and commodities. Producers support the program with their checkoff tax dollars, which seem to have ended up lining the pockets of those who promote themselves and the interests of industrial agricultural at the expense of family farmers.

During the past two decades audits and investigations have turned up examples of misuse of checkoff tax funds. There have been nearly as many attempts to curb those abuses that have stalled by those who are profiting or tasked with oversight.

Marty Irby, executive director of Animal Wellness Action, said Big Ag “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.” And U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has no interest in their plight, telling struggling dairy farmers this past fall “the big get bigger and the small go out” of business.

“Right now, funds from checkoff programs benefit trade associations that promote frightening levels of consolidation within agriculture,” Irby said in an opinion piece advocating in favor of a bipartisan bill in Congress that would reform the checkoff programs. “That does nothing to help the family farmers forced to pay into the program.”

The bipartisan Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act — H.R. 5563/S. 935 — would require transparency and accountability for how tax checkoff funds are used. It would ensure expenditures promote the interests and values of family farmers, which are more aligned with their neighbors, with whom they share the air they breathe, the water they drink, and places they recreate.

This legislation seems sensible — perhaps too sensible for an already heady election year.

D.E. Smoot covers city/county government for the Phoenix.