Small farmers push for USDA reforms

Small farmers push for USDA reforms
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Small farm and ranch companies and animal rights activists flew to Washington to meet with lawmakers and push for legislation they say will bring needed reforms to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

At issue are mandatory USDA fees for so-called checkoff programs. Farmers and ranchers are required to pay for federal programs that help market industry products. The funds have been used for such popular and iconic campaigns as the "Got Milk" ads and the "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" campaign.

But critics say those programs promote policies for industrialized agriculture, not small farmers and ranchers. The fly-in July 19-20 was organized by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Humane Society Legislative Fund.

“The least we are asking for is transparency,” Eric Swafford, Tennessee HSUS state director and a former Republican state representative told The Hill.

“No one can see how these checkoff dollars are being spent, and there is no accountability. The system is inherently broken,” Swafford, a fourth-generation cattleman, added. 

One of the bills, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, would enforce greater transparency on how the funds are used.

The bill has bipartisan support and was introduced by Sens. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeSentencing reform deal heats up, pitting Trump against reliable allies Senate gets to work in August — but many don’t show up GOP leader criticizes Republican senators for not showing up to work MORE (R-Utah) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). Reps. Dave Brat (R-Va.) and Dina Titus (D-Nev.) also are working on companion legislation in the House.

“Federal checkoff programs — which impose a mandatory tax on farmers and ranchers — are in desperate need of reform,” Booker told The Hill. “Checkoff programs need to do a better job of spending their dollars in ways that benefit small family farmers, and the legislation that Senator Lee and I have introduced will increase transparency and help restore trust in checkoff program practices.”

The OFF Act would require checkoff programs to publish all budgets and expenditures of funds and to submit periodic audits by the USDA inspector general.

In 2005, checkoff dollars were ruled as government taxes rather than producer fees, but there is no system for auditing those funds.

Those promotional ad campaigns have helped boost American agriculture, but smaller farmers and ranchers say their needs are not being met. They say the funds are also used to lobby for legislation that promotes the interests of big producers and blame lax oversight at the Agriculture Department.

“These funds are being used to lobby for control over the perceived voice of the American farmer,” Swafford said. “Young and alternative farmers are seeking a voice, but are being deprived of the opportunity.”

One example the fly-in attendees pointed to were the Country of Origin Labeling, which required companies to provide labels informing customers where their meat originated. Small ranchers and farms backed the rule, but it was opposed by larger companies.

Congress repealed the rule in 2015.

“The current system forces responsible farmers to pay into a system of taxes that is used against them,” Mike Weaver, president of the Organization for Competitive Markets, told The Hill. “It’s a game of survival for independent family farmers.”

“We are so behind in our food system because it has taken on an industrialized approach,” Pete Eshelmen, owner of Joseph Decuis Farm in Indiana, told The Hill.

Amanda Carter, owner of a private family farm in North Carolina, said there has been a false narrative against alternative agriculture.

Another reform bill, the Voluntary Checkoff Program Participation Act, introduced by Lee and Brat in the House, would take the OFF Act a step further by prohibiting the compulsory checkoff programs altogether.

Many of the attendees were hopeful the Trump administration would back their push.

“If the Trump administration is serious about draining the swamp, fighting for free enterprise and getting rid of regulations,” Eshelmen said. “Then this is the chance for them to prove it.”

This story was updated on July 24 at 8:44 a.m.