Farm marketing fee programs are hurting small farmers. Congress is eyeing a plan to reign them in.

Funding for timeless marketing campaigns aiding crop and meat sales have largely been paid by small farmers and benefited corporate giants, Congressional advocates on the left and right argue.

Critics on both sides of the aisle argue that “checkoff” programs – best known for funding marketing campaigns such as ‘Got Milk?’ and ‘Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner’ – represent a tax on all farmers that often support products, practices, and policies that benefit only a few and contribute to corporate consolidation in agriculture.

These programs began in the 1930s as a voluntary fee farmers could opt into, but in 1988, nearly 80 percent of producers voted to make those fees mandatory.


The backstory: The Dairy Board and the Beef Board are among the elected bodies responsible for running ad campaigns to promote these commodities, and they contract with hybrid marketing and advocacy groups like Dairy Management Inc. and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

  • In the beef industry, for example, one group – the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) – gets half of the entire pool of checkoff money, which pays for 70 percent of its operations.
  • Critics charge that the NCBA has also advocated against measures – like mandatory country-of-origin labeling – that have helped slash income for smaller farmers.
  • The OFF Act aims to ban checkoff boards from farming out their marketing to any group that performs any kind of lobbying and require them to regularly account for their spending. The act also calls for USDA inspector general and Government Accountability Office audits of checkoff programs.
  • Checkoff supporters have cast the reform movement as driven by opponents of animal agriculture, rather than farmers themselves. The NCBA argues that transparency requirements are redundant and that opponents don’t want animal agriculture to exist.
  • The broader movement to reform checkoff programs has advocates across the political spectrum, but for now, both sides agree that the U.S. government has subsidized a wave of corporate consolidation in agriculture that has squeezed hundreds of thousands of farmers off the land.
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