Recently, a rural newspaper in Wisconsin carried an editorial entitled, “Checkoff Shouldn’t Fund Air Pollution Studies.” Here is a response to that editorial by Jerry Kozak, chief executive officer of the National Milk Producers Federation:

The recent editorial “Checkoff Shouldn’t Fund Air Pollution Studies” missed the mark on several key points.

The biggest was the assumption that air emissions regulation is something that only the biggest farms need be concerned with, and since Wisconsin is mostly populated with smaller, herds, the research is irrelevant to farmers there.

In fact, several environmental scientists have estimated that the current federal air emissions laws used to regulate livestock operations could apply to farms with as few cows as 100. In Wisconsin alone, there are 2,800 dairies with at least 100 cows, meaning the potential exists that all of these 2,800 farms could be affected by air regulations. That is not just a “big farm” issue.

The editorial also misunderstands the process involved in this agreement between EPA and the dairy industry. Under the consent agreement with EPA, the dairy industry must pay for research that will help demonstrate that dairy farms are, by and large, not major sources of problematic air emissions. The research will be conducted by PurdueUniversity and other land-grant institutions, not EPA. But the important point is that without such research, federal (and perhaps state regulators as well) will increasingly view livestock operations as problems unless we can demonstrate otherwise. For better or worse, the burden is being shifted to livestock producers to demonstrate that they are NOT a problem. Without this research to make our case, we have little evidence with which to defend ourselves.

Let me make two other points about the role of checkoff money in paying for this research. First, it bears repeating that other livestock groups (eggs and pork) are using their own checkoff dollars. Because of the way their checkoff programs are written, they are allowed to use money for both promotion of their product and pre-harvest issues. The dairy checkoff program is not written the same way, so a one-time act of Congress was needed to obtain permission to use checkoff money for this environmental research project.

The other key point is that the role of checkoff funds in the dairy industry has evolved in the 22 years since the national promotion act was passed. Unlike in the 1980s, few dollars are spent nationally today on advertising, while more is invested in educating consumers about the dairy industry. That’s because consumers are concerned about environmental issues and food production now more than ever before. Farms in Wisconsin (and across the country), not just a few large farms, are right now being targeted by special interest groups, anti-agriculture activists, and government regulators. Environmental problems that affect one dairy inevitably become a headache for all of us. Thus, good research is needed to help every dairy producer determine what their air emissions really are.

Several years ago, Wisconsin’s Milk Marketing Board invested checkoff dollars to demonstrate how important the dairy sector is to your state. The Dairy Impact campaign was not intended to promote dairy products per se, but to portray the positive role of dairy farms in the Badger state. That expenditure represented a new and different role for the checkoff.

Likewise, the dairy-funded environmental research we support will show consumers that the dairy industry is being proactive on the crucial environmental questions of the day, instead of turning our backs on the issue. This research is going to show consumers that dairy farmers are good stewards of the land, which I think most producers will agree is a suitable role for the checkoff.