My Turn: Agricultural checkoff reform needs support from Sen. Markey

By MATT L. BARRON

Published: 07-05-2023 6:00 AM

One of the major fights in the coming reauthorization of the 2023 Farm Bill will be over the commodity checkoff system. Checkoffs are mandatory Department of Agriculture fees assessed on a per-unit basis that many U.S. farmers and ranchers pay every time they sell any of 22 commodities, including beef, pork, milk, corn, and Christmas trees, which fund boards designed to promote the commodity as a whole.

Checkoff funds have been used for the marketing campaigns behind the “Got milk?” and “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner,” ads. However, checkoff funds are frequently co-opted against the interests of some or even a majority of contributors. Countless farmers, ranchers, and other producers have seen their checkoff dollars squandered or used against their interests.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, have introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act (OFF Act) to prohibit certain wasteful, anti-competitive, and deceptive behavior from checkoff boards. “These programs need transparency and oversight so a farmer can be sure they aren’t required to fund their own demise,” said Sen. Booker in introducing the bill last winter.

The National Dairy Promotion and Research Board is the biggest checkoff, with annual checkoff revenues of $364 million in 2021. Dairy is also the commodity most impacted by checkoffs here in New England. The U.S. lost 20,000 dairy farms between 2010 and 2020, many across rural New England.

In 1978 when I served on the staff of our commissioner of food and agriculture, Massachusetts had some 800 dairy farms — now we are down to 108. Maine has only 176 dairy farms left while in New Hampshire they have 94 still holding on. The high cost of production has exceeded farm income for a very prolonged period, causing a steady decline in farm numbers and putting the region’s dairy industry at risk.

The checkoff fails dairy farmers by handing their money over to corporate-friendly lobbyists. The Dairy Board contracts with Dairy Management Inc. (DMI), a lobbying organization, handing over $110 million in checkoff dollars in 2021. Instead of promoting the products of the struggling dairy farmers who fund them, DMI engages in high-profile partnerships that benefit giant corporations: $5.8 million to Domino’s and $6 million to the NFL.

The Department of Agriculture enables dairy checkoff corruption: Under Secretary Tom Vilsack, the USDA keeps failing to submit congressional reports:

■From 2020 to 2023, USDA failed to submit federally mandated annual reports to Congress accounting for dairy checkoff program activities, spending, and effectiveness.

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■The most recent report was submitted in 2019. It accounts for the nearly $400 million taxed on our nation’s struggling dairy farmers.

■This isn’t the first time: USDA failed to submit the required reports between 2012 and 2016 under Vilsack.

■Following pressure from farm and advocacy groups, the reports were eventually published by USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue under the Trump administration.

■The responsibility for the missing reports was Vilsack’s then as it is now. Following his term in the Obama administration, Vilsack became CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, making him the highest-paid employee at the country’s largest checkoff program. Now Vilsack is failing American dairy farmers again.

It is expected that the OFF Act will be offered when the Senate debates the Farm Bill later this year. During consideration of the last Farm Bill in 2018, a checkoff reform amendment by Sen. Lee was supported by all of the current sitting senators from New England except Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, who voted against it. However Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts took a walk and did not vote.

Farmers deserve to know where their hard-earned money is going. The OFF Act would not end the checkoff, but would bring much-needed transparency and accountability to the secretive government programs. It is backed by many farm and food organizations including the National Farmers Union, NOFA New Hampshire, National Dairy Producers Association, Organization for Competitive Markets, Farm Action Fund and Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

Sen. Markey and all of New England’s senators need to support commodity checkoff reform in this new Farm Bill.

Matt L. Barron of Chesterfield is a member of New England Farmers Union.

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