A bill seeking to limit the use of agricultural checkoff funds has been reintroduced in the Senate and it has the backing of several current or former presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle.
The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act of 2019 was reintroduced on March 28, by U.S. Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) after the same legislation failed to make its way in to the farm bill during the 2018 mark up.
The OFF Act would put in place financial restrictions and transparency for USDA’s agricultural checkoffs that aim to reform how the programs operate.
Booker, who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for president, and Lee, both supported the OFF Act in 2018. At that time, the bill was co-sponsored by former 2016 Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who is also running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. Paul and Warren have returned to co-sponsor the OFF Act again in 2019.
The Senators argue that checkoff funds are being improperly used by contractors, such as National Pork Producers Council, American Soybean Association or the National Corn Growers Association, to lobby against legislation that might benefit other segments of agriculture.
“Checkoff programs force farmers to pay into a system that sometimes actively works against their interests,” Lee says. “On top of that, the boards for these programs have come under fire for a lack of transparency and for misuse of their funds. The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act is common sense reform that would help farmers see exactly where the fees they pay are going and ensure that their hard-earned money is not being used against them.”
“Federal checkoff programs need to start working again for the family farmers and ranchers who are required to pay into them,” Booker says. “This bipartisan legislation will bring much needed reforms by prohibiting conflicts of interest and anti-competitive practices, and requiring more transparency in these programs.”
The 2018 version of the OFF Act and a similar bill tracing back to 2016 had the support of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), but the animal rights group has not voiced any support for the bill thus far.
The OFF Act does have the backing of another Washington, D.C.-based animal rights group, Animal Wellness Action, along with several agriculture orgs that would like to see drastic changes made to the way checkoffs operate.
“USDA’s checkoff programs must be held accountable, and family farmers have a right to know where their hard-earned dollars are going,” says Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action. “We applaud Senators Booker and Lee for introducing the OFF Act to curb the use funds to lobby for policies harmful to family farmers, and animal protection.
“I don’t want my hard-earned dollars funneled to a quasi-governmental org that works against my best interest and represents industrial agriculture’s continued movement toward the monopolization of farming,” says Will Harris, president of the American Grassfed Association. “We’ve farmed the same land in Georgia since 1855, and I want to ensure that future generations are able to continue to do the same.”
“It’s crisis time in agriculture where every penny counts,” says Mike Eby, chairman of the National Dairy Producers Organization. “If farmers are going to be forced to fund checkoff programs’ ‘government speech,’ the very least farmers should expect is legitimate oversight and a system of checks and balances for all commodity checkoffs, and the OFF Act does just that.”
In its support of the 2019 version of the OFF Act, Organization for Competitive Markets (OCM) argues that USDA has not been doing its due diligence for oversight to manage the relationships between checkoff boards and lobbying orgs.
“The over $850 million these programs take from farmers each year have become the cash cow for orgs that work against fair competition and market transparency. So long as checkoff funds remain hidden from accountability and in the hands of trade and lobbying groups, independent family agriculture is in peril of being wiped from the face of the countryside. It is imperative this legislation be passed and signed into law,” says OCM founding member Fred Stokes.
There are agriculture industry associations that don’t support the move because checkoff programs are already under the supervision and guidance of USDA.
In a statement to Farm Journal, National Milk Producers Federation president and CEO Jim Mulhern shares he doesn’t believe the OFF Act is necessary.
“Checkoff programs provide valuable services for U.S. farmers, allowing them to pool resources for research and promotion that has helped make the U.S. the world’s biggest farm exporter and its leading agricultural producer. USDA is already required to provide oversight of checkoff programs to ensure fiscal responsibility, and fair treatment of participating stakeholders,” Mulhern says.
“Finally, current law already stipulates that checkoff dollars cannot legally be used for lobbying or influencing government policy or action of any kind. The legislation is a solution in search of a problem,” Mulhern adds
Last year, the OFF Act was defeated by a vote of 57 no votes to 38 yes votes to enter the farm bill in 2018. Five senators abstained. A similar version of the OFF Act did not make its way into the House farm bill, either.
After the OFF Act failed to make it into the farm bill in 2018, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a contractor to the Beef Checkoff program, offered thanks to Senators who opposed the amendment.
At the time of the bill failing, NCBA’s past president Kevin Kester said “The rejection of this amendment is a win for America’s cattle producers, who voluntarily created and continue to overwhelmingly support the beef checkoff system. Legislation like the Lee-Booker amendment is largely pushed by militant vegans and extreme political orgs that essentially want to end animal agriculture.”
NCBA also voiced concerns regarding statements made by Sen. Warren while on the campaign trail this past week regarding topics like agriculture checkoffs.
“If Senator Warren’s goal is to help cattle farmers and ranchers, her policy proposals seriously miss the mark. The ideas she outlines are nothing more than recycled policies promoted by some of the leading opponents of animal agriculture. It is regrettable that Senator Warren would follow in the footsteps of groups like the Humane Society of the United States, who have launched unfounded attacks against the Beef Checkoff for years. Crippling the Beef Checkoff and resurrecting failed policies like mandatory country-of-origin labeling may be a dream for radical activists, but it would be a nightmare for cattle producers,” says Colin Woodall, NCBA senior vice president of government affairs.
The OFF Act is one of just a few attempts that are being made to revamp the checkoff system. There is currently an ongoing lawsuit led by Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF) against the USDA that alleges checkoff funding goes towards private speech, a violation of the First Amendment. Also, Senators Lee and Paul introduced the Voluntary Check-Off Program Participation Act on March 28 that would make participation in checkoff programs voluntary at the national level.
“If farmers and ranchers want to get together and pool their resources to better promote their products, then that is the free market at its best,” Lee says. “But as soon as the power of the federal government is used to force people into a program they do not want to participate in, then that is crony capitalism at its worst.”