It’s Good to be the King

There have been rumors of the demise of the farm lobby’s power. But recent events with agriculture check-offs suggest otherwise. Check-offs are government monitored promotion programs that siphon off money from farmers to pay for marketing and research. They are the money machine behind much of the ag and food sector’s marketing appeals, and sometimes sketchier efforts.

A U.S. Court of Appeals has allowed a lawsuit to go forward over payments between two pork organizations for the use of the iconic tagline, “Pork: the Other White Meat,” reported Politico. Small hog farmers and the Humane Society accuse the pork industry of skirting federal law by using a checkoff program to fund lobbying activities alleging the National Pork Board grossly overpays for the “white meat” slogan, which is owned by a lobbying arm of the pork industry, the National Pork Producers Council.

Then, a series of emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act embarrassed another check-off, the American Egg Board. The emails reported on by the Associated Press exposed the Egg Board’s campaign against a startup plant-based food company, Hampton Creek. Hampton Creek is feeding Silicon Valley’s appetite for food start-ups by putting the egg industry on its heels with its eggless Just Mayo. The Egg Board’s campaign included paying food bloggers for favorable coverage and trying to dissuade Whole Foods from stocking Just Mayo.

That there isn’t a call for congressional agriculture committee members to hold immediate hearings on ag check-offs is a testament to the grip Agribiz still has on Congress. Instead of enduring a deserved congressional colonoscopy, the eggs and bacon check-offs seem to have gotten a free pass for now. Meanwhile the House Agriculture Committee is sharpening the knives over food stamps — where spending is decreasing and fraud is low — while the Senate Agriculture Committee is looking for a reason to kick First Lady Michele Obama’s improved school nutrition guidelines in the chicken nuggets.

And while at the national level the big farm groups are enjoying protective status, commodity groups in North Dakota scored a major win over what they perceived as a conflict of interest.

 Ducks Unlimited is a respected, national conservation group with the goal to increase habitat for its namesake and other waterfowl species. They are not a crunchy band of wetland huggers. Many DU members participate because they like to hunt ducks. For years groups like Ducks have been significant arbiters in the conservation title of the farm bill debate because of their rightly perceived image as moderate voices in conservation debates. Where some greens have called to regulate farmers for decades, Ducks has argued that funding conservation programs was the proper path.

All that changed when the corn ethanol mandate under the Renewable Fuels Standard kicked in right when global demand for feed grains was on the rise. The ensuing demand trumped any conservation payments farmers were given and what followed was the conversation of millions of acres of habitat into cropland. Bird numbers cratered. North Dakota was particularly devastated by the loss of 2 million Conservation Reserve Program acres.

The trouble for Ducks Unlimited in North Dakota started when after witnessing the rapid conversion of habitat, they supported a ballot initiative that would divert state tax dollars to a conservation fund (though I suspect it began earlier when Ducks supported attaching a conservation requirement to crop insurance subsidies in the farm bill — something ag groups fought kernel and husk to avoid).  ND Ag groups hated the state conservation measure, opposed it, and the measure was defeated.

Then last fall the North Dakota Grain Growers complained to USDA that at the federal agency’s Natural Resource Conservation division was employing Ducks’ personnel. The move is widely viewed as revenge for Ducks’ support of the state conservation measure. What were the Ducks’ employees at NRCS doing that was so vile?

Farm groups and U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., had complained that the biologists employed by groups such as Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever shouldn’t work in NRCS offices because the wildlife groups sometimes advocate for policies that run counter to the interests of the farm groups and their members.

“Advocate for policies that run counter to the interests of the farm groups and their members”

What about our interests? you know the taxpayer that fund these programs? The taxpayers that want cleaner water and air that come from improved conservation and habitat?

The reality:

Mary Podoll, state conservation for the natural Resources Conservation Service in North Dakota, says it’s true that Ducks Unlimited personnel are working for the NRCS. Three biologists, who are getting half their salary from DU, are on staff.

“The interest by agriculture producers in North Dakota for voluntary programs is significant,” Podoll says. “Over the past five years North Dakota producers utilized $90 million through these conservation programs.  USDA-NRCS in North Dakota has an agreement with Ducks Unlimited to provide assistance in the delivery of voluntary, incentive base programs on agricultural lands.

“Agreements with a variety of partners adds to the technical capacity of NRCS to deliver conservation planning and financial assistance programs such as CRP and EQIP. Agreements are generally a 50-50 financial arrangement that builds NRCS technical capacity and allows federal dollars to go further for voluntary agricultural programs. “

Two weeks ago ND farm groups got their wish and Ducks was exiled from the USDA blind.

It’s good to be the king.




About the author

For over fifteen years I’ve investigated and written about America’s worst polluters from the gas fields of North Dakota to the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve been a Senior Advisor for the Environmental Working Group and a Senior Manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. As a freelance journalist, I’ve written for Politico, the Washington DC City Paper, the Huffington Post, Grist, Civil Eats and the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

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