The waiting is over. On Se pt. 19 to 21, you will determine the fate of the National Pork Checkoff. At the same time, you will determine your fate and that of your industry.

If that sounds overly dramatic to you, think again. If the referendum vote ends the National Pork Checkoff program, all pork industry programs will come to a screeching halt.

That means all pork-related advertising, promotions, research and education programs will end. Sure, individuals and companies will do the research, market development and information dissemination, but you won’t have access to it. A few producers with the deepest pockets will benefit. If you think the pork industry is a corporate machine now, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

This vote is an all or nothing proposition; either the checkoff will continue or it will end. There will be no opportunity to “tweak an area or two” within the checkoff rules. What’s more, Congress won’t likely entertain any future proposals from the pork industry for a “new” national checkoff plan if the vote kills the current one.

Some people think a voluntary checkoff program would suffice. The National Pork Checkoff collects $35 million to $50 million per year, depending on hog prices. A voluntary program might pull in $10 million. How far do you suppose $10 million goes in today’s world economy?

Memories are short. It’s important not to forget that the National Pork

Checkoff began in 1986 to ensure that all producers participated equally. For years, voluntary participation had stalled around 60 percent. Agriculture has long suffered from its lack of cohesiveness, but a national checkoff program organizes and focuses your industry. It helps you speak with one voice.

There’s no such thing as a perfect system and there’s no such thing as guaranteed profit for any business. Without question, 1998 and 1999 were economically painful years for you. The industry is raising a lot more hogs with a lot fewer sows. Production has been increasing about 3 percent annually. Checkoff funded much of the research and education programs that have increased your productivity. But production is only one part of the business.

Operations have gotten bigger, but that’s not a result of checkoff. The owner of the nation’s largest pork operation will tell you “capital flows to opportunity.” Not so long ago, pork production offered $20- to $30-per-head profit. That’s why corporate pork operations exist. That’s also why independent producers expanded.

Today and in the future, further processing and branded products are the paths to reaping more of the pork dollar. So, it’s no surprise that integrated producers like Smithfield, Premium Standard Farms and Seaboard are working to expand that side of their pork businesses.

“Capital flows to opportunity,” Joe Luter will tell you, and he wants his pulled out of the checkoff so that he can take advantage of those opportunities. Of course, that also will prevent you from tapping similar opportunities.

Since the first voluntary checkoff dollars hit the coffers in 1968, it’s been easy to take checkoff-funded programs for granted. I’ve always viewed pork producers as proactive, professional, focused and wise. But apathy will be your worst enemy come September.

The vote will be close. USDA is allowing anyone who has sold one hog between Aug. 18, 1999, to Aug. 17, 2000, to ote. Obviously, lots of “legitimate” pork producers can still surface.

If a positive vote prevails for the National Pork Checkoff, even the winning margin is significant. A close vote will help the opposition keep criticisms alive, generate money and garner future attention. Both corporate producers and the self-proclaimed “family farm” checkoff opposition say they’ll be back if the program remains intact. USDA won’t allow another referendum for two years, but the wider the checkoff victory, the harder it will be to convince regulators to hold another vote.

Americans will cast a lot of votes this fall, several will impact your family, your business and your future, but none will have more direct impact than the one you will cast on Sept. 19 to 21. Take time to carefully consider your vote, and convince others to do the same. But more importantly, make time to get out and vote.