Todd Carney is a law student at Harvard Law School and guest contributor on this blog.

Many recall the popular ad campaign, “got milk?” but few know the source of these ads. The ads came from “checkoff programs.” Checkoff programs gather money from farmers in a shared industry; and conduct research and advertising to promote that industry. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes checkoff programs as giving “agricultural producers, importers and other stakeholders in the marketing chain the power to maximize resources while managing risk.” However, many groups argue that checkoff programs take millions of dollars from small farms, and use this money only to serve corporate farms.

What are Checkoff Programs?

 Checkoff programs started in the 1930s under the idea that farmers could opt into an initiative to promote their industry by “checking off” a box on their financial forms. The USDA refers to checkoff programs as “research and promotion programs,” because the programs provide research and advertising for the whole industry. The USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS) oversees the administration of checkoff programs. AMS contains 21 boards; each board governs an industry. Each board regulates the collection and distribution of the money for checkoff programs. Each farm contributes a certain amount of money for each product that they sell.

The Controversy

Checkoff programs face a lot of criticism over their spending. Many small farmers argue that  checkoff program boards refuse to provide full records of how checkoff programs spend the money. Small farmers also claim that much of the checkoff program money goes to lobbying groups that cater to corporate farms’ interests. Small farmers believe that their interests and policy preferences do not always align with corporate farms, so small farmers believe that checkoff programs forces them to pay into a fund that will harm their financial future.

Specific allegations over the abuse of checkoff programs’ include that heads of the boards used the money for vacations, that the USDA failed to ensure that the boards abide by federal rules on disclosure of spending, that the board for the egg industry illegally used checkoff money to try to end the sales of egg-free mayonnaise, that the USDA unlawfully approved boards’ spending of checkoff money and several embezzlement scandals.

The Farm Bill

Several members of Congress want to reform the checkoff programs. Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Mike Lee (R-UT) first proposed reform legislation during the 2018 Farm Bill deliberations. Booker and Lee introduced the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act as an amendment to the 2018 Farm Bill. The OFF Act provided clarifying language to forbid checkoff programs to contract with lobby groups, banned anti-competitive practices, and required further mandates for transparency in the checkoff programs’ money. Only 38 Senators voted for the amendment. Several agriculture and food organizations, and animal rights groups supported the OFF Act. Kevin Kester of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) accused “militant vegans and extreme political organizations that essentially want to end animal agriculture,” of pushing the bill.

Despite this setback, Lee and Booker, and several other members of the Senate and the House, introduced the OFF Act as a standalone bill in the current Congress, but the bill has not advanced. Given how few members supported amending the 2018 Farm Bill to include the OFF Act, this standalone bill probably will not pass. Hopefully, enough members of Congress will ultimately decide to stand up to agriculture trade groups to allow the inclusion of the OFF Act in the next Farm Bill.

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