Commodity checkoff reform needed
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Across America, family farms are going under at record rates, with dairy farms among the hardest hit. In January of this year, media reported that Wisconsin—America’s dairyland—had seen the loss of 500 small dairy farms, with 11 additional farms said to be closing each week. Studies show an 8 percent decrease in liquid milk sales, while plant-based dairy alternatives showed growth from 2016 to 2017 by 20 percent. In April, Economic Research Service reported that the 2016 farmer’s share per dollar spent on milk was down to 30 cents. Times are bad, and U.S. farmers have been forced to weather conditions so terrible that farmer suicide is being discussed in terms of the 2018 farm bill.

I am one of the statistics. In 2016, I was forced to give up my seventh-generation Pennsylvania dairy operation due to lack of profitability. Milk is simply not worth what it costs to produce. As Chairman of the Board of the National Dairy Producers Organization, I work with and talk to farmers everyday who are suffering the consequences of U.S. agricultural “cheap food” policy that doesn’t work in their favor. Lawmakers have yet to listen: Requests to allow real farmers and consumers to tell their stories at legislative hearings are consistently denied. Our farm bill is supposed to protect us, our land, and the consumers we feed (with laws like Country of Origin Labeling).

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The 2018 farm bill, H.R. 2, which fell to a 198-213 U.S. House of Representatives vote, failed for many reasons. The legislation didn’t support our nation’s farmers and ranchers with adequate safety nets to endure the record-setting financial strains they are experiencing. The bill proposed cuts to the country’s nutrition programs. The legislation reversed its course on programs to help beginning farmers. And the legislation proposed to eliminate conservation programs. Republicans and Democrats agreed: It was a bad bill. But not all hope is lost.

Reps. Dave Brat (R-Va.), Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerMarijuana and the midterms House lawmakers introduce bill to end US support in Yemen civil war Overnight Defense: Mattis dismisses talk he may be leaving | Polish president floats 'Fort Trump' | Dem bill would ban low-yield nukes MORE (D-Ore.), and Dina TitusAlice (Dina) Costandina TitusOvernight Defense: Uproar over report Army discharging some immigrants | Latest on Pompeo in Pyongyang | Trump hits NATO ahead of summit Foreign Affairs Dems request North Korea hearing Overnight Defense: Defense spending bill amendments target hot-button issues | Space Force already facing hurdles | Senators voice 'deep' concerns at using military lawyers on immigration cases MORE (D-Nev.) co-sponsored an amendment for H.R. 2 that called for much-needed reforms of the USDA’s checkoff programs. Established to pool money for commodity promotion and research, these programs are paid for with family farmers’ money. They were intended to support all farmers. Historically, they have failed to do so. These programs instead have resulted in illegal relationships between checkoff boards and lobbying organizations and the misuse of funds to improperly influence legislation.

Audits and reports have shown that checkoff funds—to the tune of more than $800,000,000—have been used to prop up industrial agriculture organizations like National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF). Checkoff funds are not to be used for lobbying, but NMPF is itself a lobbying organization. The organization claims to speak for the “co-op member farmer” who represents 80 percent of the milk produced in the nation, but instead it openly serves the processing co-op’s management that supply it with the bulk of its funding.

There is a striking similarity between the Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) checkoff agenda and NMPF lobbying efforts, which stands to reason since they sit on each other’s boards. Both promote the continual failed school lunch program utilizing skim or 1 percent milk, while real family dairy farmers call their congressmen and congresswomen asking to have the Whole Milk Act (H.R. 5640) passed. The National Dairy FARM program is yet another example of the cozy relationship between DMI and NMPF. The management board of DMI voted to use checkoff funds to pay for NMPF’s FARM program to address dairy animal well-being. It comes as no surprise, then, that NMPF signed onto a letter to Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conway (R-Texas) and ranking member Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonHow America’s urban-rural divide is changing the Democratic Party Anti-abortion rights Dem candidates dwindle as party shifts left Congress allows farm bill to lapse before reauthorization deadline MORE (D-Minn.) that strongly urged opposition of the Brat/Blumenauer amendment.

History has shown us that checkoff funds have not been used as originally designed and intended, to the detriment of the family farmers who have been forced to pay into the programs. The checkoff amendment introduced by Reps. Brat, Blumenauer, and Titus calls for accountability and transparency in how the funds are used. It disallows funds for lobbying organizations or to any agent who engages in what may be seen as a conflict of interest. It also disallows any act that may be disparaging to or negatively portrays another agricultural commodity or product.

The amendment made its way onto the 2018 farm bill before being strategically withdrawn before the House version of the bill was defeated. Now is the time for the Senate to take up the call for reform again, as it is expected to markup its own version of the farm bill in early June. More than 80 organizations that represent more than 250,000 family farmers and ranchers have called for checkoff reform. It’s time our legislators answer the call of their constituents by ensuring this much-needed reform makes its way into the Farm Bill.

Mike Eby is Chairman of the Board of the National Dairy Producers Organization