It was a strange week on the checkoff front. First, a federal judge in Michigan ruled the pork checkoff unconstitutional. Then, a U.S. District Judge in Montana said the beef checkoff was OK.
In both cases, livestock producers claimed that mandatory, farmer-funded research and promotion programs violate their rights of free speech and association. But, in each, the presiding judge took a different point of view.
The last week in October, U.S. District Court Richard Alan Enslen of Michigan ordered USDA to stop collecting assessments under the Pork Production, Research and Consumer Education Act of 1985 and to cease operation of the Pork Check-off Program in 30 days. Given the current low dollar return on agricultural commodities, Enslen said, farmers should be able to decide to devote funds to uses other than generic advertising.
The Montana judge, on the other hand, ruled that checkoff programs are a form of government speech “where the government utilizes private cattlemen to disseminate a single message, a message prescribed by Congress and the USDA.” Judge Richard Cebull did say that the Montana couple that brought the lawsuit did not have to pay a $12,000 administrative fine levied against them when they refused to pay the $1 per head beef checkoff. They were ordered to pay a $417 administrative assessment.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman applauded Cebull's ruling, using almost the same words as in the decision in the Michigan case. “This is very good (vs. disappointing) news because the USDA regards such programs, when properly administered, as effective tools for market enhancement.”
Legal experts expect Cebull's ruling to be appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and to the Supreme Court. The latter has issued favorable and unfavorable rulings in checkoff cases in recent years.
The rulings highlight the philosophical differences that have raged around checkoff programs for years. Those can be summed up in one statement: Do the rights of farmers to band together and promote their products outweigh the rights of individual farmers who chose not to do so? It's the same issue that has bedeviled proponents of boll weevil eradication; that is, do the rights of farmers who want to rid themselves of this pest supersede those of farmers who don't.
Cotton growers in a two-county area of northeast Arkansas are about to be asked to vote on an eradication referendum for the third time this year. In the three previous votes — including one in 2000 — a minority have been able to resist the efforts of the majority to eradicate the boll weevil.
It's ironic to me that this is the same area where my grandfather and his brother-in-law moved to escape from the boll weevil in the late 1920s. They farmed near Leachville, Ark., for two years and moved back to St. Francis County in central Arkansas when farmers learned to “poison” for weevils.
From my conversations with him, I think my grandfather would have been for getting rid of the boll weevil through eradication or whatever means possible. But I think he would also have respected those who have continually voted against the program.