USDA commodity checkoff programs put swamp politics ahead of farmers

USDA commodity checkoff programs put swamp politics ahead of farmers

By: Jonathan Buttram, Marty Irby


Beef and pork consumption have fallen in recent years

In 2023, consumption of chicken in the United States has hit an all-time high, outpacing that of beef or pork. According to the Department of Agriculture, beef was consumed at an average of 84.4 pounds per person per year in 1970, and in 2023, that number is expected to be 56.7 pounds per person. In contrast, chicken consumption is up from 40.1 pounds in 1970 to an estimated 101.9 pounds projected for 2023 — all without the help of USDA commodity checkoff programs — quasi-governmental slush funds that hamper competing sectors.

Originally intended to collect and pool money to be used for promotion and research, commodity checkoff programs were established to help farmers — large and small producers alike — market their products. Paid directly from mandatory farmer payments and deemed a federal tax by the Supreme Court, these programs were never intended to be used for lobbying efforts, nor were they to fund campaigns against any other commodity or agricultural product.

Unfortunately, history has proved otherwise. Since the inception of these programs, inappropriate relationships between checkoff boards and lobbying organizations have formed. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been misused, and these checkoff programs, as they are being managed, do not work in the best interests of independent family farmers. Groups such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, or NCBA, and National Pork Producers Council, or NPPC, have long used these funds to put small farmers out of business, picking winners and losers in the marketplace and putting the interests of multinational corporations like Chinese-owned Smithfield and Brazil-based JBS above those of the American farmer.

One financial review of only three days of the NCBA’s books proved the beef checkoff improperly spent more than $300,000 on inappropriate activities. Imagine what one would find if we checked a whole month or year. On the pork front, the NPPC, through its famed “Pork: the Other White Meat” campaign, has spent farmer dollars engaging in anti-competitive practices that have left some pork producers stuck in the mud and others out of business.

Hog farmers must pay 40 cents per head sold into the pork checkoff, but it’s only those pink pigs — the ones you’ve seen like Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web” — that actually have “white meat.” Berkshire or “heritage hogs,” the “spotted” pigs like the ones raised at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Georgia, and Gunthorp Farms in LaGrange, Indiana, produce red meat with more marbling, much different than the “Pork: the Other White Meat” slogan seeks to sell.

The NPPC’s slogan has, in many cases, disparaged those products and shut down heritage hog farms across the nation. In 1970, the U.S. saw 871,200 pork producers; in 2023, only 67,000 remain.

Climbing to record heights without a checkoff program and the swampy federal bureaucracy that comes with it, chicken has overtaken the consumption of beef for many reasons: dietary trends, price and availability (i.e., cut-up, precooked and fast-food offerings), to name a few. Although many factors play a role, it’s worth noting that consumption of both beef and pork has fallen in the years since the checkoff programs for each were instituted. These checkoff programs must be fixed. In 2023, Congress is set to take up the Farm Bill, an opportunity that comes once every five years that lends a pathway for the enactment of legislation to address the problems in these programs.

That’s why Sens. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, and Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, along with Rep. Nancy Mace, South Carolina Republican, introduced the bicameral Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, S 557/H. 1749. The bill is backed by 80 farming organizations, including the National Farmers Union, the Organization for Competitive Markets, and more than 250,000 farmers and ranchers in the U.S. It is also supported by conservative groups such as FreedomWorks, The Heritage Foundation and R Street.

The bill doesn’t seek to abolish the checkoff programs, as beneficiaries are misrepresenting. It would instead require transparency, accountability, and a system of checks and balances that would allow farmers to see where their dollars are being spent. It would also prohibit checkoff funds from being used for lobbying efforts and prohibit funds from being used to pay for staff and programs of trade associations that favor multinational corporations pushing independent farmers out of business. In addition, it would prevent disparagement of one product over another. Allowing the federal government to pick winners and losers in the marketplace is unacceptable.

Agriculture Committee leaders in Congress, Sens. John Boozman, Arkansas Republican, and Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Republican, and Reps. Glenn Thompson, Pennsylvania Republican, and David Scott, Georgia Republican, should join with leaders of the OFF Act, along with the quarter million farmers backing the legislation to include the measure in the Farm Bill set to be enacted this year.

• Marty Irby is chief operating officer at FreedomWorks in Washington. Jonathan Buttram is president of the Alabama Contract Poultry Growers Association. Messrs. Irby and Buttram also serve as board directors at the Organization for Competitive Markets in Lincoln, Nebraska.