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Erin Brown / Grand Vale Creative

Critics continue to take aim at commodity checkoffs in new farm bill

One might wonder what unites two distinctly different U.S. Senators: one who is a GOP conservative from Utah and the other, a liberal democrat from New Jersey. But during recent debate on the farm bill, both united to restrict and reform farmer-funded commodity checkoff programs in the form of an amendment.

Similar legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by Reps. Dave Brat, R-Va., Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., and Dina Titus, D-Nev., but was pulled from consideration before it could be debated during the House farm bill debate.

Starting in 1966, Congress has authorized 22 different research and promotion programs that help expand markets as well as invest in research to improve crops and livestock. Checkoff programs like these are paid for by industry assessments on everything from soybeans to watermelons.

Farmers and ranchers are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to guide checkoff boards and the boards' paid professional staff carry out programs and day-to-day board responsibilities.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) provides oversight for the checkoff programs, and reviews almost all of their work with a fine-tooth comb. A few years ago, AMS Acting Administrator David Shipman wrote that, for every $1 spent in a research and promotion program, the return on investment can range as high as $18.

"For example, the dairy industry's "Got Milk?" campaign, originally developed by the California Milk Processor Board, has spawned many humorous spinoffs in the 16 years since its launch. The campaign also transcended its original advertising medium, with over 75 products, including toys, posters and clothing carrying its message. It reinforced "milk" as a household name," Shipman wrote.

But critics say that any good deeds and market expansion conducted by the checkoffs are not enough.

For example, Sen. Lee wrote in a recent blog post that "USDA has been lax in exercising oversight of checkoff boards" and that "many of these programs have crept beyond the scope of their statutory mandate" to stop new competitive products from entering the marketplace.

"What were supposed to be promotional boards have instead become protectionist boards," Lee wrote. He described the checkoff programs as being in "desperate need of reform."

Booker also took aim at the work of the farmer-funded checkoffs.

"By cracking down on conflicts of interest and anti-competitive practices, and bringing additional oversight and transparency, this bill will help to level the playing field for small family farmers and entrepreneurs," he said in a release.

Their efforts were backed by a diverse mix of groups like the Organization for Competitive Markets, the Heritage Foundation and the Humane Society of the United States.

Ultimately, Lee and Booker's amendment was defeated, 38-57, but the effort attracted a wider margin of support than some had expected and likely guarantees that the criticism is not going away anytime soon. Two farmers in the U.S. Senate, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Jon Tester, D-Mont., both supported the measure. To see how your senator voted, click here. The amendment needed 60 votes to be adopted.

Kevin Kester, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, celebrated the amendment's defeat. "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," Kester said. "Legislation like the Lee-Booker amendment is largely pushed by militant vegans and extreme political organizations that essentially want to end animal agriculture.

"We're happy that producers can continue to lead the checkoff system and contract with whatever producer-led groups will best promote beef consumption and research."

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