Checkoff groups, or research and promotion programs, are partially elected* boards that collect funds through a checkoff mechanism (a bookkeeping term for deducting things such as union dues). In the case of the pork checkoff, the deduction is $0.40 for every $100.00 of pork product sold.
Checkoff groups are responsible for, you guessed it, research and promotion of the commodity. These groups use the checkoff dollars to create advertisements such as “Got Milk?” and “The Incredible Edible Egg”. They also fund market and scientific research.
Most notably, they are also lobbying groups, which is where the majority of their expenditures go. In the case of the pork checkoff, something called Producer and State Relations accounts for $5.19m of the $28.43m collected by the group, the largest single payout, followed by Management Oversight at $4.43m.
Checkoff groups are hotly contested by producers and court precedents set by lawsuit rulings have even shaped free speech law. Producers contest that they are rife with corruption, and that they only advocate for the interests of large corporations, and not small scale producers.
Free speech advocates consider the supreme court ruling in favor of the Beef checkoff program to be an infringement on first amendment rights. In two landmark cases in 2003, Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association and Nebraska Cattlemen v. Livestock Marketing Association, the supreme court ruled that “Citizens … have no First Amendment right not to fund government speech.", a ruling that made challenging compelled funding of checkoff groups impossible.
Checkoff groups are an important element of the economics of agriculture. It is worth the investment of time to learn more about them. Checkoff group websites are a source of vast amounts of information that is very difficult to find otherwise. They are also strong indicators of corruption and bribery, often operating illegally in plain sight.
Checkoff groups are different from other lobbying groups. Organizations like Farm Bureaus, and other collectives like Protect The Harvest and Animal Agriculture Alliance are not checkoff groups and do not receive checkoff dollars.
*Producers of certain products are required by law to participate in these programs. Voting privileges are awarded through participation.