Members in Congress introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act, designed to reform and bring accountability and transparency to reform the USDA’s commodity checkoff programs.
Under federal law, farmers of certain commodities (including pork, eggs, beef, and corn) are required to pay a portion of their sales into checkoff programs. These mandatory fees are intended to be used by the U.S. government to research and market those commodities. Well-known examples of past checkoff-funded advertising campaigns are “Got Milk,” “Pork. The Other White Meat,” “The Incredible, Edible Egg,” and “Beef. It’s What’s for Dinner.” Checkoff programs collect more than $850 million from America’s farmers and ranchers every year.
However, the checkoffs have faced reports of misappropriation of funds, lack of transparency and misusing farmer and rancher tax dollars.
“This legislation will bring much-needed accountability and transparency to USDA’s checkoff programs which have operated without sufficient oversight for far too long,” says bill sponsor Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev. “Family farmers should not be forced to pay into organizations that sometimes lobby against their interests and threaten animal welfare.”
The OFF Act would amend the authorizing checkoff laws to ensure the programs cannot contract with organizations that engage in lobbying, conflicts of interest, or anticompetitive activities that harm other commodities. It would also require that they publish all budgets and disbursements of funds for the purposes of public inspection and submit to periodic audits by the USDA Inspector General.
Commodity checkoff programs were established to serve as mechanisms by which agricultural industries pool money for common commodity-specific promotional and research purposes. Fees are mandatory, from the smallest local farmer to the largest farm operations. Checkoff dollars go to federal, industry-specific boards, which are required by law to use these funds for mutually beneficial advertising campaigns and research.
“The USDA’s Checkoff Program was supposed to ensure American farmers of all sizes could promote their products across the nation and across the globe,” says another bill sponsor Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C. “For years now, small farmers have seen their hard-earned money used to fund the lobbying efforts of massive, multi-billion-dollar agriculture conglomerates. This program has devolved from producing ‘Got milk?’ ads to creating taxpayer-funded lobbying firms, and it needs to stop.”
“USDA’s runaway checkoff programs must be held accountable, and family farmers have a right to know where their hard-earned tax dollars are being spent,” adds Marty Irby, executive director at Animal Wellness Action, and a member of the board of directors at the Organization for Competitive Markets. He also claims: “The checkoffs remain under fire because of their lack of transparency, misuse of funds, and damaging anti-competitive practices that have bankrupted millions of American farmers, and harmed billions of animals.”
Mike Eby, executive director at OCM and chairman of the National Dairy Producers Organization comments: “The checkoff is an example of how farmers lost their voice. We are disappointed that historically, the USDA and Congress appear to have little regard for the millions of farmer dollars that are being used for purposes that are not being made public."
“OCM stands firmly in support of putting more farmers back on the land and reigning in the egregious and illegal activities National Cattlemen’s Beef Association continues to engage in,” said Vaughn Meyer, president of OCM and a lifelong cattle producer from Reva, South Dakota. “The OFF Act is proudly supported by more than 250,000 farmers nationwide and the U.S. House should swiftly hold a hearing to address checkoff reform.”
The measure is supported by more than 250,000 farmers and ranchers across America in an unlikely coalition of allies that include OCM, AWA, AWF, NDPO, the American Grass-fed Association, the National Taxpayers Union and the National Farmers Union.
The OFF Act was first introduced in the 115th Congress by Titus and former Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., in the U.S. House and Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-N.J. in the U.S. Senate.
A 2018 Farm Bill amendment mirrored the OFF Act was one of only three amendments afforded a vote in the U.S. Senate, but the measure was not included in the final farm bill signed into law. Lee and Booker have since been joined by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. in the effort for checkoff reform and the senators plan to reintroduce the measure in the Senate in 2021.
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