Groups voice support for checkoff reform

More than 80 organizations representing 250,000 farmers call on Congress to support efforts to drastically reform commodity checkoff programs.

In letters to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, more than 80 organizations -- representing more than 250,000 ranchers, farmers and businesses -- called on Congress to support recently introduced legislation that, when passed, will bring what they view as “much needed transparency and accountability” to commodity checkoff programs.

On March 28, 2017, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, S. 741, was reintroduced by Sens. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Cory Booker (D., N.J.), while Reps. Dave Brat (R., Va.) and Dina Titus (D., Nev.) introduced companion legislation, H.R. 1753, in the House. Lee reintroduced S. 740, the Voluntary Checkoff Act, while companion legislation, H.R. 1752, was introduced in the House by Reps. Brat and Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.).

“It would ensure no farmer or rancher is forced to pay fees into programs that do not promote their market segment,” the groups said.

The two bills were previously introduced during the last session of Congress, but their introduction occurred too late during the election year to be properly considered. The groups hope this year's early reintroduction will ensure that the measures are considered by the full Congress.

The joint letters -- signed by organizations such as the National Farmers Union, Organization for Competitive Markets and R-CALF USA -- point to the checkoff programs' history of acting beyond the scope of their statutory mandate, stating that "lax oversight by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has resulted in collusive and illegal relationships between checkoff boards and lobbying organizations, both of which have repeatedly used checkoff funds to influence legislation and government action in spite of a broad statutory prohibition against these activities. Such advocacy efforts have an anticompetitive effect, benefiting certain producers to the detriment of others and forcing some producers to pay into a system that actively works against them."

Fred Stokes, founding member of the Organization for Competitive Markets, said: "Egregious abuses of U.S. farmers' and ranchers' mandatory checkoff tax dollars have been exposed in the beef, pork, dairy, egg and other checkoff programs. The half-billion dollars that these programs take from farmers have become the cash cow for organizations that work against fair competition and market transparency, forcing independent family farmers and ranchers to essentially fund their own demise. Successful passage of this proposed legislation is critically important to restoring fair markets and rebuilding our domestic family farm and ranch agriculture."

Bill Bullard, chief executive officer of R-CALF USA, said, "Our joint letter provides clear evidence that independent cattle producers are tired of the conflicts of interest, misspending and other abuses rampant in our beef checkoff program. We are now appealing to Congress to take action to stop these commodity programs from harming the very individuals who are forced to pay into the checkoff funds, such as the $1 per head cattle tax that U.S. cattle producers must pay each time they sell an animal."

The joint letters highlight the major reform provisions of the OFF Act (S. 741 and H.R. 1753). The legislation would:

1. Stop federally mandated checkoff dollars from being transferred to parties that seek to influence government policies or action relating to agriculture issues;

2. Enforce the prohibition against conflicts of interest in contracting and all other decision-making operations of the checkoff program;

3. Stop federally mandated funds from being used for anticompetitive programs or from being spent to disparage another commodity in the marketplace;

4. Increase transparency of the individual boards' actions by shedding light on how federal checkoff funds are spent and the purpose of their expenditures, and

5. Require audits of each program every five years to ensure that the program's activities are in compliance with the law.

Further, the joint letters request that Congress pass S. 740 and H.R. 1752 to ensure that, in this complicated, multifaceted market, no farmer or rancher is forced to pay into a joint marketing and research program unless they see a benefit to their farm, ranch or business by doing so.

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