“Shell shocked” is how many producers described their feelings when they heard the results of the national pork checkoff referendum. “It’s a sad day.” Of course not everyone shared those sentiments. “I’m dancing a jig,” said one man. I’ll bet he was listening to Willie Nelson music.
My thoughts flashed back to the countless producers who volunteered their time and talent to pork producer associations at the county, state and national levels throughout the years.
I thought about the Moline 90. Truly a group of visionary producers who had the wisdom to look to beyond their hog barns. No question, they were radicals. After all, they wanted to initiate a program whereby producers pooled funds for things like research, promotion and education. They knew the pork industry wouldn’t – or couldn’t – stand still.
Indeed, the industry didn’t stand still, on Jan. 11, 2001 it took a giant step backward.
Of course, since then the legal maneuvering has taken center stage. A Michigan Federal Court judge’s agreement to file a temporary restraining order will keep checkoff alive until he conducts a hearing and rules on the issue. A group of producers, the Michigan Pork Producers Association and the National Pork Producers Council filed the suit.
They contend that former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman exceeded his authority by holding a referendum even though checkoff opponents didn’t produce enough qualified signatures. Interestingly, Glickman didn’t implement the same philosophy when he ruled that beef checkoff opponents’ signatures fell short.
There’s also a little matter of voting procedures. There does appear to be enough variation in the way county government personnel interpreted and implemented the voting to at least raise questions. There were 1,695 votes thrown out. The wining margin was 1,555, but it’s highly unlikely that all the invalids were “Yes” votes.
The Michigan judge could rule that the referendum or the vote was invalid and that the national pork checkoff should continue. Then again, he could rule to end the national checkoff. Either way, appeals are likely. The last stop could potentially be the U.S. Supreme Court. Sound like any other election you know?
Folks can wag their fingers all they want, but the courts would have been pulled into this regardless of who “won” the vote. Checkoff programs have always generated controversy. A few years ago, some California stone-fruit growers presented their argument against checkoff programs to the Supreme Court, but lost. A Tennessee mushroom grower looks like he’ll have his day in the high court to present a similar case.
Agriculture is the largest single industry in the United States. That’s a powerful position. Yet its Achilles’ heel has always been its inability to work together. You can analyze and debate why people feel the way they do about checkoff or NPPC, but 8-cent hogs in the fall of 1998, rightly or wrongly, were the last straw. People perceived that the system was broken and someone had to pay. If the pork checkoff ultimately fails someone will pay – it will be the independent pork businessperson.
While the national legislative pork checkoff may be 14-years old, truth is checkoff has been funding programs since 1968. Most of today’s producers have no idea what it’s like to operate their businesses without checkoff-funded programs in the background.
Ten states do have checkoff programs on the books, and at least some of them would kick in if and when the national checkoff ends. Other states are scrambling to get programs passed. The question is, how much money can a state generate? Corporate farms might pony up a token donation, but they’ll ask for the majority back.
Ron Plain, University of Missouri agricultural economist, calculates (based on a $50-million annual checkoff collection) that 77,000 of the smallest pork operations would save an average of $305 per year. The 260 largest operations would save an average $106,000. Smithfield Foods would save $7 million.
Whether the national checkoff program lives or dies, there will continue to be a national pork association in some form. There may even be a voluntary checkoff. But the programs and policy influence will be significantly less. Independent pork producers will feel the loss.