When Benjamin Franklin noted in a 1789 letter to a friend that “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes,” Franklin did not foresee the incestuous, billion-dollar-per-year commodity checkoff industry.
If you farm or ranch in America, not even taxes are more certain than the beef checkoff, the pork checkoff, the soybean checkoff, the peanut checkoff, the dairy checkoff, the sheep checkoff, the sorghum checkoff, the cotton checkoff, the popcorn checkoff, the egg checkoff…
And like taxes, all are mandatory and non-refundable. You simply put up and shut up.
Like last year, when soaring commodity prices clipped U. S. soybean growers for an estimated $140 million (all figures US$) in checkoff “contributions,” more than twice what they’d normally get nicked for, without so much as a thank-you note from the checkoff collectors at the United Soybean Board (USB).
Worse is the sweetheart relationships most commodity organizations have with their corresponding checkoffs. For example, the highly political, meat packer-dominated National Cattlemen’s Beef Association gets millions every year from the (by law) non-political Beef Board for checkoff-funded producer programs.
How’s that workin’ out for ranchers? Not very well. After more than 20 years of a mandatory, $1-per-head beef checkoff – or more than $1 billion spent on so-called self-help programs – ranchers are suffering through the worst market bloodbath in decades.
’Course, the checkoff gang is convinced that markets, really just a euphemism for ignorant consumers like you, will return to beef if cattlemen simply fork over $2 per head to “educate” you even more forcefully with the message that “Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.”
If all of this seems slightly insane, you haven’t heard anything until you grab an earful of the latest checkoff fiasco. This one features soy’s main producer group, the American Soybean Association, and the aforementioned USB.
In a Dec. 10 letter to then-secretary of agriculture Ed Schafer, the ASA alleged “serious… abuse, wasteful spending, and mismanagement” of checkoff funds by USB “and organizations that USB has caused to be created” – one of which was co-created by ASA and USB.
ASA asked Schafer “to order an Office of Inspector General investigation and audit” of USB. Schafer did just that on Jan. 9.
As the year-long investigation ensues, though, soybean producers now face a quandary. By law, USDA must ask producers every five years if they wish to vote to kill or continue the program. This year is the year for soybeans.
The process to get to vote, however, is designed to prevent a vote. By law, at least 10 per cent of all 589,182 American soy producers must sign a petition to hold the vote before a vote will be scheduled.
All might be moot anyway because no one believes 58,918 soy growers will sign or send, in person or by fax, a petition to their county USDA office requesting a soybean checkoff vote.
Oh, did I mention that the petition “drive” is scheduled for May 4 through May 29 which, coincidentally, is the height of soybean-planting season?
Golly, a system so rotten that it requires a protection scheme so smelly is a system in need of dismantling. Or a straight-up, kill-or-continue mail-in vote.
In fact, if the defenders of these many, costly checkoffs are so certain their work is so righteous and your millions are so well spent they’d encourage just such a vote, right?
Despite the stench, don’t hold your breath.