RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Sustainable Ag: What a Year

Happy New Year, Dear Reader! This is the time when we generally go over stories from the past and identify the “most important.” Troubles in Syria. Donald Trump’s weird candidacy. Justin Bieber’s comeback.

But we know that the most important stories, at least as far as normal lives go, are the stories found in the back of the newspaper ... those are the ones that change our democracy and our lives forever.

Such as, in a very positive, groundbreaking move in early November, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rescinded the approval of Dow’s herbicide called “Enlist Duo.” Here’s a quote from the Center for Biological Diversity, the revocation came “after determining that its combination of chemicals is likely significantly more harmful than initially believed ... Enlist Duo is a toxic combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D that Dow AgroSciences created for use on the next generation of genetically engineered crops that are designed to withstand being drenched with this potent herbicide cocktail”. Ick.

On the negative side, how about that story back in April, when at least 3 million birds had to be destroyed because of an outbreak of bird flu that no one could figure out? Or how about the lawsuit between the city of Des Moines and three rural counties, with Des Moines claiming that rural pollution from hog facilities is ruining urban water supplies and costing millions to taxpayers?

For 2015, it’s almost impossible to stack one outrage above another. Meantime there’s an entirely new outrage here in rural Missouri to consider. It’s a proposal by the Missouri Beef Industry Council to create a new beef checkoff fee. It’s another chance for industry to profit from taxation without representation and put ordinary cattlemen out of business. And it may be coming to your state soon.

First, you need to know that a “checkoff” is a fee imposed by a commodity group on producers of one commodity or another. The money is collected by the government and it’s supposed to go to research, promotion and consumer education about the commodity. So, checkoff money for corn has paid for ethanol research and promotion while checkoff money for pork has paid for recipes in women’s magazines (education) and ways to keep hogs from dying in confinement (research).

But, according to the beef industry guys, there’s just not enough money coming out of the heartland and going into the pockets of the researchers, promoters and educators. Since the 1980s, the beef fee has netted industry more than $2 million per year even though beef consumption has plummeted. Now, the industry wants to double the $1 per sale checkoff.

Here’s why residents of other states need to care about what happens in Missouri. The national organization, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, would like to double the national checkoff but don’t think they can push it through. One of the big expenses for the national organization is salaries for the policy wonks. According to Mike Callicrate, the salary of NCBA’s CEO, Forrest Roberts, according to Roberts’ tax forms, was $428,319 in 2013. Now, of course, it’s higher, and 72% of it is paid by checkoff fees.

Failing passage on the federal level, the checkoff boys are aiming for the states, and trying to convince farmers that checkoff increases demand for their particular commodity. “Pork: The Other White Meat” was clever, and so was, “Got Milk?” but farmers were the losers in both those schemes. According to U.S.D.A., the number of dairy farms fell by 17.5% between 2009 and 2014, and farms with hog and pig sales declined by 25 percent from 2007 to 2012.

Instead of farmers, the checkoff schemes have spawned an entirely new strata of corporate flaks. C.E.O. of the National Pork Board, Chris Novak, pulls down $315,446 when all the salary, retirement funds and other benefits are added together. National Pork Producers Council C.E.O. Neil Dierks takes another $270,082. International Dairy Foods’ Connie Tipton banks over a million while dairy farmers are living on loans and credit cards.

So far, there have been no statements about where the Missouri money would be spent. Janet Akers, a Cattlemen’s Association leader that supports the checkoff, told the press it would be to assure that “facts are countering fiction when it comes to how cattle are raised...”

The travesty is compounded by the fact that cattlemen have almost no way to comment. Unless you got to the hearing in Sedalia on Dec. 8 and signed up to give an oral testimony, you have no chance to submit a written one. This is absolutely anti-democratic. Missouri Rural Crisis Center is collecting written comments in the hopes they can force Richard Fordyce, director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, to change the rules. If Fordyce approves the referendum, cattle producers will have to register to vote on it and would cast ballots from Jan. 4 to March 4.

Let’s hope the outrages of 2015 are replaced with sanity in 2016.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2016

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