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Promoting Agriculture: Farmers, the State, and Checkoff Marketing, 1935–2005

  • Sarah Milov

This article provides a historical overview of the development of U.S. government-mandated commodity promotion. This form of promotion, known colloquially as the “checkoff,” is responsible for such memorable slogans as “Beef: It's What's for Dinner,” as well as research intended to boost consumption of agricultural products. The article argues that checkoffs represent an associational form of governance in which private organizations achieve public aims. Though they have been frequently challenged in courts and have garnered scrutiny from public health activists, checkoffs have been a durable form of agricultural regulation because they hide the heavy hand of government with the rhetoric of markets and self-help.

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1 C. Everett Koop, “Press Conference to Release The Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health,” 27 July 1988, Profiles in Science, U.S. National Library of Medicine, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

2 MacDonald, James, Ollinger, Michael, Nelson, Kenneth, and Handy, Charles, Consolidation in U.S. Meatpacking, Agricultural Economic Report AER-785, Economic Research Service, USDA (1999), 3, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

3 Beef Board, Annual Report: October 1, 1987–September 30, 1988, 4, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

4 Beef Board, Annual Report: October 1, 1988–September 30, 1989, 14, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,; Beef Board, Annual Report: October 1, 1989–September 30, 1990 (hereafter 1990 Annual Report), 13–14, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

5 Beef Board, 1990 Annual Report, 13–14.

6 Cronon, William, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, 1991).

7 Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2901–2911 (1985).

8 “The Egg and You: A Scramble for Sales,” Los Angeles Times, 1 Aug. 1976.

9 Crespi, John M. and Sexton, Richard J., “U.S. Generic Advertising and Promotion Programs,” in U.S. Programs Affecting Food and Agricultural Marketing, ed. Armbruster, Walter J. and Knutson, Ronald D. (New York, 2013), 171.

10 A subset of First Amendment Constitutional law, the scholarship on government speech is vast and rapidly evolving. The concept has been invoked in debates ranging from the labeling of agricultural products to the sponsorship of license plates by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. For an introduction to the topic, see Yudof, Mark, When Government Speaks: Politics, Law, and Government Expression in America (Berkeley, 1983); Shiffrin, Steven H., “Government Speech,” UCLA Law Review 27, no. 3 (1980): 565655 ; Bezanson, Randall P. and Buss, William, “The Many Faces of Government Speech,” Iowa Law Review 86 (Oct. 2001): 13771511 ; and Blocher, Joseph, “Viewpoint Neutrality and Government Speech,” Boston College Law Review 52, no. 3 (2011): 695767 .

11 For instance, William Winders's recent reassessment of twentieth-century American agriculture policy omits discussion of them. Winders, The Politics of Food Supply: U.S. Agricultural Policy in the World Economy (New Haven, 2009). On interest group politics, see Hansen, John Mark, Gaining Access: Congress and the Farm Lobby, 1919–1981 (Chicago, 1991); and Browne, William P., Cultivating Congress: Constituents, Issues, and Interests in Agricultural Policymaking (Lawrence, Kans., 1995). For state capacity literature, see Feingold, Kenneth and Skocpol, Theda, State and Party in America's New Deal (Madison, Wisc., 1995); and Carpenter, Daniel, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862–1928 (Princeton, N.J., 2001). On the agricultural welfare state, see Sheingate, Adam, The Rise of the Agricultural Welfare State: Institutions and Interest Group Power in the United States, France, and Japan (Princeton, N.J., 2001).

12 Galambos, Louis, “The Emerging Organizational Synthesis in Modern Business History,” Business History Review 44, no. 3 (1970): 279–90.

13 Williams, Gary W. and Capps, Oral Jr., “Measuring the Effectiveness of Checkoff Programs,” Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm, and Resource Issues 21, no. 2 (2006): 7378 . Shane Hamilton observed similarly that journalists writing in the muckraking tradition have recently found success in “exploiting consumers' concerns over the ‘dark side’ of their meals' origins.” Hamilton, , “Introduction,” Business History Review 83, no. 3 (2009): 237.

14 Wilde, Parke, “Federal Communication about Obesity in the Dietary Guidelines and Checkoff Programs,” Obesity 14, no. 6 (2006): 967–73. Wilde also maintains a blog that functions as sort of a watchdog on the USDA's statements on nutrition: U.S. Food Policy: A Public Interest Perspective, accessed 1 Sept. 2016, For a recent industry-centered perspective on checkoffs, see Zaraska, Marta, Meathooked: The History and Science of Our 2.5-Million-Year Obsession with Meat (New York, 2016).

15 Rodgers, Daniel, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, Mass., 2011), 4176 .

16 Beef Promotion and Research Act of 1985; Pork Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act of 1985, 7 U.S.C. §§ 4801–4819 (1985).

17 See, for instance, Nestle, Marion, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley, 2007).

18 Balogh, Brian, The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia, 2015).

19 Mettler, Suzanne, The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago, 2011), 26.

20 Ibid.

21 Collins, Robert M., More: The Politics of Economic Growth in Postwar America (Oxford, 2000).

22 National Wool Act of 1954, Pub. L. No. 83-690, 68 Stat. 910–913 (1954); Potter, David, People of Plenty: Economic Abundance and the American Character (Chicago, 1954).

23 Young, James Harvey, Pure Food: Securing the Federal Food and Drug Act of 1906 (Princeton, N.J., 1989); Cohen, Lizabeth, A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York, 2003); Jacobs, Meg, Pocketbook Politics: Economic Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America (Princeton, N.J., 2005); Harris, Richard and Milkis, Sidney, The Politics of Regulatory Change: A Tale of Two Agencies (New York, 1989); Hays, Samuel, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1985 (New York, 1987).

24 Sheingate, Rise of the Agricultural Welfare State.

25 Postel, Charles, The Populist Vision (New York, 2007); Woeste, Victoria Saker, The Farmer's Benevolent Trust: Law and Agricultural Cooperation in America, 1865–1945 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1998).

26 Hawley, Ellis, “Herbert Hoover, the Commerce Secretariat, and the Vision of an ‘Associative State,’ 1921–1928,” Journal of American History 61, no. 1 (1974): 118–19.

27 Olson, Mancur, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (Cambridge, Mass., 1965), 64.

28 Winders, Politics of Food Supply, 7–10.

29 Hamilton, David, From New Day to New Deal: American Farm Policy from Hoover to Roosevelt, 1928–1933 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991), 242.

30 Hansen, Gaining Access, 111; Winders, Politics of Food Supply, 6. Winders attributes debates over farm policy after 1950 to divisions between cotton and wheat producers, who favored supply management, and corn producers, who favored “market-oriented” agriculture.

31 Agricultural productivity has doubled since 1948, while the number of farms has fallen, farm size increased, and crop specialization intensified.

32 Hansen, Gaining Access, 109.

33 Council of State Governments, Advertising by the States (Chicago, 1940), 12.

34 “Advertising News,” New York Times, 16 May 1936; “Advertising News,” New York Times, 20 Nov. 1937.

35 Council of State Governments, Advertising by the States, 3.

36 Ibid., 6.

37 Kinnucan, Henry and Thompson, Stanley, Commodity Advertising and Promotion (Ames, Iowa, 1992).

38 N.C. Gen. Assemb., An Act to Enable Flue-Cured Tobacco Farmers in North Carolina to Hold a Referendum and to Promote through Organized Effort the Export Sale of Flue-Cured Tobacco, S.B. 255, State of North Carolina Session Laws and Resolutions (Raleigh, N.C., 1947), 647–48.

39 Broughton's campaign for Senate touted his legal work for Tobacco Associates as evidence of his record of “Progressive Public Service.” See “Advertisement: Former Governor J. Melville Broughton,” Lexington (N.C.) Dispatch, 13 May 1948.

40 R. Flake Shaw to Gentlemen, 19 Feb. 1947, box 1, folder 1, North Carolina Farm Bureau Papers, North Carolina State University Special Collections, Raleigh, N.C. Today, a similar situation exists in which the major meatpackers enthusiastically support the pork and beef checkoffs—sometimes more enthusiastically than producers themselves.

41 McCune, Wesley, Who's Behind Our Farm Policy? (New York, 1956).

42 Schapsmeier, Edward L. and Schapsmeier, Frederick H., “Farm Policy from FDR to Eisenhower: Southern Democrats and the Politics of Agriculture,” Agricultural History 53, no. 1 (1979): 352–71.

43 Schapsmeier, Edward L. and Schapsmeier, Frederick H., “Eisenhower and Ezra Taft Benson: Farm Policy in the 1950s,” Agricultural History 44, no. 4 (1970): 373, 370.

44 Devine, Jenny Barker, “‘Hop to the Top with the Iowa Chop’: The Iowa Porkettes and Cultivating Agrarian Feminisms in the Midwest, 1964–1992,” Agricultural History 83, no. 4 (2009): 477502 .

45 “Wool Checkoff Dispute May Be Decisive in Establishing Spokesman for Farmers,” Wall Street Journal, 6 Oct. 1959, 7.

46 Promote Meat Consumption: Hearings on H.R. 11330 Before the House Comm. on Agriculture, 85th Cong. (1958), 122.

47 “Wool Checkoff Dispute,” 7; “Sheep Farmers Vote Heavily for ‘Checkoff,’” Wall Street Journal, 7 Oct. 1959, 28.

48 Cotton Research and Promotion Program: Hearings on H.R. 12322 Before the House Comm. on Agriculture, 89th Cong. (1966), 73.

49 Williams and Capps, “Measuring the Effectiveness,” 73–78.

50 Harry M. Kaiser, “An Economic Analysis of the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board Demand-Enhancing Programs,” Report to the Cattlemen's Beef Board, 25 June 2014, accessed on 15 May 2016, https:// Kaiser, an agricultural economist at Cornell who directs the university's Commodity Promotion Research Program, was hired by the Beef Board to perform an econometric study of the program's performance. Other evaluations have estimated slightly lower, but still substantial, returns. Ronald Ward, an agricultural economist, estimated returns from the checkoff dollar at $5.55. It should be noted that many studies evaluating the efficacy of checkoffs, including the two cited here, are commissioned by the very commodity boards that administer checkoff programs. Williams and Capps, “Measuring the Effectiveness,” 73.

51 Forker, Olan D. and Ward, Ronald W., “Commodity Checkoff Programs: A Self-Help Marketing Tool for the Nation's Farmers?Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm, and Resource Issues 8, no. 4 (1993): 21.

52 Ibid.

53 Producer-Funded Livestock Research and Promotion Programs: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Livestock of the Comm. on Agriculture, House of Representatives, 103rd Cong. 27 (1993).

54 Ibid.

55 JDS Professional Group, United States Meat Export Federation, Inc.: Financial Statements as of September 30, 2014 and 2013, 4 Nov. 2014, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

56 Hubert H. Humphrey, Food and Fiber as a Force for Freedom, report to Senate Comm. on Agriculture and Forestry, at 2 (Washington, D.C., 1958).

57 Agricultural Trade Act of 1978: Hearings Before the Subcomm. on Department Investigations, Oversight, and Research of the Comm. on Agriculture, House of Representatives, 95th Cong. 64 (1978).

58 Rosenberg, Emily, Spreading the American Dream: American Economic and Cultural Expansion, 1890–1945 (New York, 1982), 38.

59 USDA, Economic Research Service, “U.S. Beef Trade,” accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

60 U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF), “Meat Trader's Club, SIAL Food Show Highlight USMEF-Shanghai Activities,” accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

61 USMEF, “Southwest Barbecue Team Delivers Flavor to Japanese Foodservice Industry, Consumers,” accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

62 Geoffrey Becker, “Federal Farm Promotion (‘Check-Off’) Programs,” CRS Report to Congress No. 95-353, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, 20 Oct. 2008,

63 Producer-Funded Livestock Research and Promotion Programs: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on Livestock of the Comm. on Agriculture, House of Representatives, 103rd Cong. 27 (1993).

64 Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York, 2010). See also Michaels, David, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (Oxford, 2008); and Proctor, Robert and Schiebinger, Londa, eds., Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (Palo Alto, Calif., 2008).

65 Ibid., 17.

66 Beef Board, 2002 Annual Report: Connecting Cattlemen to Consumers, 4, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

67 Beef Board, 2003 Annual Report: Investing in Beef Safety, Nutrition & Promotion, 6, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

68 Parke Wilde, “USDA Reports on Pizza Consumption and on Dairy Checkoff Program Initiatives to Increase Pizza Demand,” U.S. Food Policy (blog), 7 Feb. 2014,

69 Michele Simon, “Whitewashed: How Industry and Government Promote Dairy Junk Foods,” Eat Drink Politics, June 2014,

70 Few studies investigate the overall outcomes of checkoff-funded research. One analysis of research funded by the dairy checkoff “did not find consistent evidence that checkoff funded projects were more likely to support an obesity prevention benefit from dairy consumption.” But, as the authors note, “industry sources are more likely to fund research on certain questions, which hold promise for results that are more favorable to the industry.” By merely asking certain types of questions, checkoffs can still shape the kind of scientific knowledge produced. Parke Wilde, Emily Morgan, Jesse Roberts, Andrea Schpok, and Tawny Wilson, “Relationship between Funding Sources and Outcomes of Obesity-Related Research,” Physiology and Behavior 107, no. 1 (2012): 175.

71 Beef Board, 1990 Annual Report, 17.

72 Ibid.

73 Beef Board, 1994 Annual Report 10: Strength Through Unity, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

74 Pork Checkoff, “Pork Checkoff Funded Research Grants,” accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

75 The challenge to the Beef Board began in the late 1990s, when beef prices had fallen so low that many operators found it difficult to cover production costs. Ronald A. Parsons Jr., “Cattle on a Thousand Hills: Reflections on the Beef Checkoff Litigation,” South Dakota Law Review 57, no. 3 (2012): 431.

76 “Supreme Court Hears Case on Constitutionality of Ad Program,” Chicago Tribune, 9 Dec. 2004.

77 Pork Checkoff, Report of the National Pork Checkoff Nominating Committee to the National Pork Producers (Pork Act) Delegate Meeting (report prepared for National Pork Industry Forum, Kansas City, Mo., March 6–8, 2014),

78 Smithfield Foods, “Animal Care Management,” in 2014 Sustainability and Financial Report, accessed 1 Sept. 2016,

79 Edward Lotterman, “District Hog Prices Hit Historic Lows,” fedgazette, 1 Jan. 1999,

80 “Activists Seek to End Corporate Gravy Train,” Nevada Daily Mail, 16 Apr. 1999, 11. For more on the internecine battles within the hog industry, see Johnson, Carolyn, Raising a Stink: The Struggle over Factory Hog Farms in Nebraska (Lincoln, Neb., 2003).

81 Suspension and Termination of Orders, 7 U.S.C. § 4812(b)(1)(A).

82 Parsons, “Cattle on a Thousand Hills,” 432–33.

83 Carter, Stacy M., “Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin: Destroying Tobacco Control Activism from the Inside,” Tobacco Control 11, no. 2 (2002): 112–18.

84 Rampton, Sheldon and Stauber, John, Trust Us, We're Experts: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future (New York, 2001), 128–30.

85 “Groups Denounce Checkoff for Probe,” Southeast Missourian, 15 Feb. 1997, 9A.

86 “Farm Advocate Willie Nelson Works to Bring an End to Pork Checkoff,” Wilmington (N.C.) Morning Star, 13 May 2000.

87 In some areas, the spread between yes and no votes was stark. In Iowa, which leads the nation in hog production, 60 percent of farmers voted against the checkoff.

88 “Hog Farmers Criticize Veneman for Not Terminating Checkoff,” High Plains Journal, 1 Jan. 2001.

89 “Brief for the petitioner,” Glickman v. Wileman Brothers & Elliott, Inc., 521 U.S. 457 (1997).

90 Johnson, Timothy Russell and Goldman, Jerry, Good Quarrel: America's Top Legal Reporters Share Stories from the Supreme Court (Ann Arbor, Mich., 2009), 75.

91 Glickman, 521 U.S. 457.

92 United Foods, Inc. v. USDA, 197 F.3d 221 (6th Cir. 1999).

93 “Brief of amici curiae states of California, Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington in support of petitioners,” United States v. United Foods, Inc., 533 U.S. 405 (2001).

94 Michigan Pork Producers v. Campaign for Family Farms, 174 F. Supp. 2d 637 (W.D. Michigan, 2001).

95 Mark Champoux, “Uncovering Coherence in Compelled Subsidy of Speech Doctrine: Johanns v. Livestock Marketing AssociationHarvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 29, no. 3 (2005) 1107–17; The New York Times, hardly a routine observer of farm news, published two opinion pieces denouncing the pork checkoff in the wake of the Michigan Pork Producers case: “The Other Political Pork,” 10 Nov. 2002 and “Unconstitutional Farm Checkoffs,” 1 Nov. 2003.

96 Parsons, “Cattle on a Thousand Hills,” 432–33.

97 Ibid.

98 Beef Board, 2003 Annual Report, 12.

99 Beef Board, 2002 Annual Report, 3.

100 Ibid., 1.

101 Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association, 544 U.S. 550 (2005).

102 See, for example, Packard, Vance, The Hidden Persuaders (New York, 1957); Marcuse, Herbert, One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston, 1964).

103 Novak, William J., “Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review 113, no. 3 (2008): 752–72. See also Balogh, Brian, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 2009).

The author would like to thank David Singerman, Brian Balogh, Rebecca Stoil, and the anonymous reviewers at the Business History Review for their helpful feedback and suggestions. Special thanks are also due to participants in the Harvard Business School's Political Economy of Food workshop and to participants in the Johns Hopkins Seminar on American Capitalism for reading early iterations of the article.

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