‘Opportunties for Fairness in Farming’ – OFF Act
Some Congressional representatives have heard producers’ cry for checkoff reform.
U.S. Reps. Nancy Mace, (R) South Carolina, and Dina Titus, (D)- Nevada, and U.S. Senators Mike Lee, (R)-Utah, Cory Booker, (D)-New Jersey, Rand Paul, (R)-Kentucky, Elizabeth Warren, (D)-Massachusetts, and Kirsten Gillibrand, (D)-New York are advocating the inclusion of the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (S.557 and H.R.1249) in the 2023 Farm Bill. The Act seeks reform in the checkoff programs. So far a coalition of 131 groups representing farmers, the food system, the environment, animal welfare, and antimonopoly advocacy have also lent their support to the motion.
Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act, (OFF ACT)
This bill establishes restrictions and requirements for checkoff programs. It will prohibit boards established to carry out a checkoff program or a USDA order issued under a checkoff program from entering into a contract or agreement to carry out program activities with a party that engages in activities to influence any government policy or action that relates to agriculture.
(In other words, organizations that lobby the government would be disqualified from receiving checkoff funds.)
A board or its employees or agents acting in their official capacity may not engage in an act that may involve a conflict of interest, or anticompetitive activity, or unfair or deceptive act or practice; or act that may be disparaging to, or in any way negatively portray, another agricultural commodity or product. Upon approval of USDA, a board may enter directly into contracts and agreements to carry out generic promotion, research, or other activities authorized by law if the agreement or contract requires records accounting for the funds received to be submitted to the board. The board must meet specified requirements regarding the publication of budgets and disbursements of funds. The USDA Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office must conduct specified audits regarding checkoff programs.
The term “checkoff” was coined at a time when promotion programs were voluntary.
Producers checked a box if they wished to contribute to the program. Mandatory programs do not have such forms, but the name has remained. American farmers pay over 850 million dollars a year into promotional or “checkoff” programs.
Some US producers feel that the checkoff money could be better spent and that they see no real benefit from it. Others are satisfied with the current system.
North Dakota cow-calf producer, cattle feeder and multi-grain crop producer Corey Hart doesn’t believe the checkoff programs are benefiting the independent producer. “With just the money from my grain check off, I could take my wife on a very nice vacation and probably buy a new pickup every year,” he said. “They do collect a lot of money, it is a forced promotion, the associations should be protecting ag producers, but they fight things like county of origin labeling. So much money is wasted, millions of dollars even in the state checkoffs, it’s all part of the reason this country is in the shape it’s in.”
Scott Schively, North Dakota producer believes checkoff reform is needed but has his doubts on this bill actually passing. “I think it will accomplish some things that need done. Some would like to see the beef checkoff dealt with on its own, but each commodity has its own set of problems. Producers have no say in how the checkoff money is spent but unless the USDA is really committed to doing their job, I don’t think new rules will do any good. The rules already are simple, but they aren’t enforced.”
“The OFF Act was first introduced in the 115th Congress and here we are in the 118th Congress still working for transparency and accountability to reform the USDA’s commodity checkoff programs,” said Deborah Mills, chairwoman of the National Dairy Producers Organization. “This speaks volumes about what frustrates producers who are paying into checkoff programs. The recipients of the checkoff dollars are the greatest proponents of maintaining the status quo. Producers are being denied the basic right to have their questions about their investment answered.“
While Senator Lee is known as one of the most conservative senators in DC, Senator Booker is known as one of the most liberal, considered by many to be an animal rights activist. Many beef industry spokesman have been vocal about their concerns of Booker’s involvement and “ulterior motives” in the bill.
Although Lee didn’t respond to TSLN’s request for an interview, Utah sheep rancher and Utah Republican party chair Carson Jorgensen is a strong advocate for the bill.
“The OFF Act will help producers and will help make the big organizations to be accountable for the money. If people were seeing a big ad campaign but we see no visible benefits from the check off money,” said Jorgensen. “Senator Lee told me that we are the only industry that is forced to pay to be punched in the face. We should not have mandatory checkoffs; I don’t know why senators from beef states aren’t behind the OFF Act. We have the same problem as our founders, there is no reason for mandatory taxation without representation.”
In a news release, Lee said:
“Checkoff programs are filled with waste and often abuse those who are forced to contribute to their coffers,” said Sen. Lee. “These common-sense reforms will ensure that checkoff funds promote and protect all ag producers (big and small) who are meant to be served by these programs.”
Adam Zipkin, Senator Booker’s agricultural liaison, spoke to the senator for us.
He said this issue is an important one for Booker.
”After visiting farmers and ranchers across the country and hearing about their priorities and concerns, it was regularly pointed out that many trade groups who claim to speak for farmers and ranchers on important issues — such as mandatory country of origin labeling for example — only really speak for big corporate agribusinesses. It was alarming to hear that these farmers and ranchers who are required to pay into checkoff programs then see their own dollars funneled to these trade groups that often work against their interests. It was also very troubling to learn about the well-documented history of conflicts of interest, lack of transparency, misuse of funding and anticompetitive behavior by many of the biggest checkoff programs and their associated boards,” he said.
Calling attention to the lobbying organizations who have been checkoff beneficiaries will help keep them honest, Booker believes.
“Shining a light on what these organizations are doing will make them more accountable to the producers, and preventing checkoff funds from being diverted to groups that engage in ag lobbying will mean that the farmer dollars paid in will be used for promotion and research as originally intended,” said Booker’s aide.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and Farm Bureau have also voiced opposition to the OFF Act.
The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, and NCBA affiliate, opposes the bill. “The North Dakota Stockmen’s Association is opposed to the bill. When the Humane Society of the United States, an extreme animal rights organization that fights against animal agriculture at every corner, is championing the legislation, it leaves little question that this is poor public policy designed to impair, not support, the hardworking cattle ranching families across the country. I see it as a thinly veiled attempt by opponents of animal ag to eliminate the checkoffs we use to promote our products,” said Jason Leiseth president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.