To proponents, checkoff programs boost profits for commodities through promotion and research. To critics, they violate free speech and fail to represent all segments of the industry.
Indeed, checkoff programs of every stripe are in a state of flux. From mushrooms to beef to pork, the future of checkoff programs lies in the resolution to some contentious court cases.
Recently, a federal appeals court decided it would NOT consider a lower court ruling that the beef checkoff is unconstitutional. And this week, a separate appeals court reached much the same conclusion about the pork checkoff.
The ruling came on an appeal filed by the USDA and the Michigan Pork Producers Association on a lower court decision issued nearly a year ago. That ruling found the pork checkoff unconstitutional.
The litigation trail has been long and the journey is NOT over yet. But this week's ruling by the federal appeals court was a major setback to advocates of the pork checkoff.
Craig Christensen markets 30-thousand hogs annually and serves as the President of the National Pork Board.
Craig Christensen, President, National Pork Board: "Well, I'm a little disappointed. I don't think we were surprised. We know this was going to be a process that was going to last a long time. A lot of pork producers are disappointed in this because the checkoff does a lot of good and they want to keep these programs going. So, this is just another step and we'll just see where it goes after this ruling."
The checkoff fee has been collected throughout the litigation process, including following a U.S. District Court judge's decision last November that the assessment of those fees should end. USDA got a stay of that order and took its case to the federal appeals court, where this week it lost again.
Mark McDowell is an independent pork producer who markets about 350 hogs annually.
Mark McDowell, Hampton, Iowa: "This is a great victory for independent hog producers because it affirms the vote that was taken in 2000 where 30,000 producers voted and 53% said no, that they didn't want the checkoff anymore."
Campaign for Family Farms protestors:"Family farms yes, factory farms, no."
The furor began in 1997, when the Campaign for Family Farms, a coalition of grassroots rural groups, marched to NPPC headquarters outside Des Moines. The group posted a sign reading: "National Factory Farms Council", and called for an end to the mandatory pork checkoff.
Larry Ginter, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement: "I want my checkoff dollars back."
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said she was disappointed by the latest ruling. She vowed to consult with the Justice Department on what to do next, but an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court seems likely.