Bill aimed to reform agriculture checkoff programs introduced in U.S. House
In an effort to add add accountability and transparency to reform the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) checkoff programs Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nevada, introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act on Jan. 9.
The federally mandated checkoff program requires farmers raising everything from hogs to Christmas trees to fund the programs through compulsory fees. The programs were established as mechanisms for agricultural industries to pool money for common promotional and research purposes. Farmers paid about $900 million into the programs in 2018.
Dairy producers are, by far, the biggest contributors to the programs, pouring about $420 million into the program in 2018. That is equal to 47% of all the checkoff money collected in 2018.
Many farmers complain that the groups that receive their money do not disclose details about how it is spent and that sometimes the cash is used to benefit giant factory farms at the expense of family farmers.
“The USDA’s checkoff programs have operated without sufficient oversight for far too long - and this legislation will bring much-needed accountability and transparency,” said Titus in a press release. “Family farmers should not be forced to pay into organizations that sometimes lobby against their own interests and threaten animal welfare.”
Lax oversight by the USDA has allowed harmful relationships between checkoff boards and lobbying organizations to foster. Such advocacy efforts – funded by mandatory fees – benefit certain producers to the detriment of others and have pushed Congress to enact legislation that harms the welfare of animals, according to the press release.
The legislation, H.R. 5563, would prevent USDA checkoff programs from paying organizations that lobby on agricultural issues, prohibit anticompetitive behavior, ban activity that involves a conflict of interest, and require audits to ensure compliance.
“It’s crisis time in agriculture where every penny counts,” Mike Eby, chairman of the National Dairy Producers Organization, said in a statement. “If farmers are going to be forced to fund checkoff programs ... the very least farmers should expect is legitimate oversight and a system of checks and balances for all commodity checkoffs."
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Cary Spivak contributed to this article.