A Dairy Farmer’s Perspective: Checkoff Reform Needed to Save American Family Farms

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By Brenda Cochran

My name is Brenda Cochran. My husband, Joe, who was born on a dairy farm in Baltimore County, Maryland, and I have been dairy farmers since 1975, raising our 14 children dairy farming in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Our family is still dairy farming today, in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, with increasing difficulty, under virtually unbearable pressures due to coercive and restrictive government policies that, among other burdens, limit the price we get paid for our cows’ milk, while at the same time obligating us to pay for so-called “government speech” with “generic” advertising about milk and dairy products that clearly violates my First Amendment rights.

From the time the federal government mandated that dairy farmers finance “generic” advertising, my husband and I believed the program was massive, government over-reach, ripe for abuse, and have objected to it, even becoming plaintiffs in the case that challenged the Constitutionality of the federal dairy checkoff program, Cochran v. Veneman.

Farmers have always “taken it” – we take it from blizzards, fires, storms and droughts, and, now, from the government. Well, we have taken about all we can from these government-mandated checkoff programs.

I strongly believe our First Amendment rights are being violated. On our farm we know that our more traditional farming methods promote stewardship of the environment by better utilizing our resources and provide superior, healthier milk for our consumers. Dairy farmers sell milk to dairy processors by the “hundredweight” (cwt.), and it is just plain wrong for us to have to pay 15 cents per cwt., which is almost 2 cents per gallon of milk, to say all milk is equal, when it is not.

Farmers have always “taken it” – we take it from blizzards, fires, storms and droughts, and, now, from the government. Well, we have taken about all we can from these government-mandated checkoff programs.

For years, the forced deductions from our milk checks being used to finance the generic dairy checkoff program have exceeded $4,500 annually, which is a huge financial loss from our already insufficient milk income that the federal government also controls through a federal minimum milk pricing formula which does not even factor checkoff fee deductions as a “cost of production” in that current federal formula.

The mandatory dairy checkoff program has tilted even more against American dairy farmers with “Free Trade” agreements increasing the importation of milk and dairy products into the US. Surely we can agree that because my 15 cents per cwt. (2 cents per gallon) is going to advertise generic milk and milk products from foreign countries as well as from my own farm, it is blatantly wrong to force me to pay this tax. I am being forced to subsidize advertising for large industrial and foreign companies that are my competitors-competitors who have more resources than I do to advertise their own processed milk and dairy products.

To stay in business, the bottom line is we produce and sell raw milk, not processed milk and dairy products, not chocolate milk, yogurt, butter, or “cheese,” which more and more is not even “real” cheese, but a “cheese” product full of “milk protein concentrate” (MPC), a gooey, milk derivative that actually displaces traditional uses for my farm milk and which was originally used as an industrial “moo-glue” imported into the US with no tariff quotas and which is now being co-mingled with domestic MPC, none of which has ever been scientifically tested and certified for nutritional or safety standards. I would never willingly promote dairy “products” like these to consumers, yet this falls under the injustice inherent in compelled messages under the federal dairy checkoff program.

Surely we can agree that because my 15 cents per cwt. (2 cents per gallon) is going to advertise generic milk and milk products from foreign countries as well as from my own farm, it is blatantly wrong to force me to pay this tax. I am being forced to subsidize advertising for large industrial and foreign companies that are my competitors-competitors who have more resources than I do to advertise their own processed milk and dairy products.

Why should farmers be subjected to this targeted assessment to pay to advertise and develop someone else’s products? The buyers of raw milk should be paying for their own ads and developing their own manufactured dairy products. Forcing farmers to advertise an “industry’s” finished product to consumers is a glaring example of corporate welfare and “special interests” perverting our capitalist economy and sticking farmers with their business costs.

The Dairy Checkoff tax is like most things in government; the large corporations have figured out how to co-opt the checkoff boards and control how these tax dollars are being spent. They use my tax money, my “2 cents,” and ensure they get the benefit. Either the courts have overreached with their decisions or the USDA is simply not doing their job or are unable to do their job; either way, Congress is our only hope to get these tax issues fixed.

While the Supreme Court in United States v. United Foods ruled in favor of mushroom farmers that these mandatory checkoff programs were a violation of the First Amendment, the large industrial companies joined with the government and figured out how to get around that decision. In the beef case, Johanns v. Livestock Mktg. Ass’n in 2005, the government argued that because they, the government, USDA, control down to every word of every promotion, checkoff taxes and programs are “government speech” and therefore not a violation of the First Amendment. The government won and we the taxpayers lost.

“Big Dairy” and the trade organizations have taken over the checkoff boards; they are then able to get their hands on the checkoff tax money; they use this money, my money, to build their names as the voice of “Dairy” so they can influence the Congress against my interests on almost every aspect of the dairy farm; from determining how milk is priced to milk marketing in the federal milk marketing orders to special issues like regulations determining pooling and de-pooling farmers’ milk.

Behind me stand the voices of hundreds of dairies and businesses that would be here today, except for the fact that they are going bankrupt, they are selling their cows, they cannot afford to take a day off. I think passing this bill would save thousands of jobs in the dairy farming community alone, and it is not just in the dairy farming sector: there are dozens of commodities whose farmers have to bear this heavy and hidden tax burden. This checkoff tax is destroying our livelihoods and our liberties.

Dairy producers cannot correct this blatant miscarriage of justice alone, which is why I’m happy to join with my friends representing the cattle producers and the hog farmers, as well as the Heritage Foundation and OCM.

But in the end, it is the Congress that must act. We have been to the USDA, we have been to the courts, and all we have left is the Congress. We are begging Republicans and Democrats to end this unfair tax, work to save American family farms, and protect American consumers. Support the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act and the Voluntary Checkoff Act.

Take action now to support checkoff program reform

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