Federal checkoff programs—better known to consumers from slogans such as “The Incredible Edible Egg,” “Beef, It’s What’s for Dinner” and “Pork, the Other White Meat”—were created so that farmers could pool their resources to research and market their products. There are programs for cotton, lamb, and blueberries, to name a few.
The programs overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture get their funding from farmers giving a small percentage of each sale to the general fund. For pork producers, for example, it’s 40 cents for every $100 they receive for their pigs. The checkoff efforts aren’t universally loved, however, and some farmers complain that they are required to fork over money to support activities and advertising that benefit agribusiness but not necessarily those with small and mid-size operations.
Enter the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a recipient of checkoff funds and an organization comprised of more than 80 agricultural groups with a mission of “doing the right things to fix the growing distrust in today’s agriculture.” On the alliance’s website, it portrays itself as the voice of everyday farmers and ranchers. It is not a cover for Big Ag, its website says.
Nonetheless, the alliance’s affiliates and partners are just the kinds of groups that are normally associated with Big Ag: the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Sugar Alliance, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Monsanto, and John Deere. And the types of articles featured on the Farmers and Ranchers Alliance’s website tend to support an industrial style of agriculture favored by agribusiness giants, defending the use of hormones and antibiotics in livestock, questioning the value of free-range chicken, and lauding the benefits of genetically modified crops. As a number of states consider legislation that would require labeling of food containing genetically modified ingredients, the alliance website features an article titled “Labels for GMO Foods are a Bad Idea.”
For real-world farmers, however, checkoff campaigns that seem to prioritize the interests of big business can provoke anger. Mike Callicrate, a Colorado rancher and rural activist, says he finds it “very offensive” that an organization like the alliance receives checkoff dollars. “The whole purpose of those checkoffs being made available to the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance is to promote industrial agriculture that is driving the family farm right out of business,” he says.
Randy Krotz, the alliance’s executive director, takes a different view, saying the group doesn’t favor one type of farming over another. He says checkoff money is used for activities like the alliance’s Food Dialogues, panels on agriculture that have been held around the country. “My personal feeling is, there is a lot of information there on every side of agriculture,” Krotz says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture prohibits checkoff funds from being used on activities that disparage another commodity, or for the purposes of influencing any legislation, government action, or policy. In the case of the alliance, the USDA ruled in 2010 that checkoff funds could be used for specific projects and activities, but could not be untargeted or used for paying dues.
That, of course, only raises the question: Could checkoff funds be used for a project at a group like Food Democracy Now, a grass-roots organization that espouses views unlikely to be found on the alliance’s website? For instance, Food Democracy Now supports mandatory labeling for foods with genetically modified ingredients.
“While I can’t speak about hypotheticals, all projects would go through the same review process,” said Sam Jones-Ellard, a USDA spokesman, via e-mail.
Dave Murphy, the founder of Food Democracy Now, isn’t holding his breath. “If the Farmers and Ranchers Alliance get checkoff dollars, then Food Democracy Now should get checkoff dollars,” he says, adding, “I would highly doubt that the USDA would allow checkoff dollars to Food Democracy Now.”