U.S. farm bill checkoffs unchecked

Normally, we Canadians watch the U.S. farm bill for items related to protectionism, farm subsidies and support programs that create government-supported advantages for our U.S. neighbours that we will have to compete against.

Now, the latest renewal of the farm bill, which happens every five years or so, is before the American Congress. And while the vast majority of the bill consists of funding for children’s school lunch programs and the food stamps programs for the poor, there is another part of interest to Canadian farmers.

Farm commodity group check-off funding is governed by the farm bill. This time around, both Republicans and Democrats have agreed to a congressional amendment to the administration’s proposed legislation that would limit the uses for check-off money when it comes to research, lobbying and public promotion of farmed commodities.

Farmers also feel that the Brat, Titus and Blumenauer amendment would stop research projects at universities, producer extension groups and public health organizations. It would also end funding of groups that advocate on behalf of farmers to government.

The amendment’s goal is to ensure that mandatory checkoffs are used in ways that don’t disadvantage small farmers or ensure they provide a benefit to all farmers or none.

The amendment suggests that check-off funding for research, as well as crop and livestock market promotion, fails to support smaller farmers, which represents a conflict of interest and could potentially be construed as anti-competitive.

The difficulty is that nearly all the money is sourced from commercial-scale farms, based on production. The benefits are generally shared by all producers. Refundable checkoffs, as we have in Canada, are not as effective or generally as fair.

But the push for small is driving these politics, with a suggestion that there is a more noble advantage to smaller operations serving 100-mile diets and local markets.

Agriculture serves many needs and markets, and no one style is more noble than another. But the push for small is publicly popular and it might be coming to public policy near us as political populism proliferates.

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