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Pork Checkoff Objections Voiced

In response to requests from National Hog Farmer, members of the organizations within the Campaign for Family Farms give their objections to the mandatory pork checkoff and the way the National Pork Producers Council used checkoff funds.The mandatory pork checkoff is an undemocratic process and is not accountable to the producers who foot the bill, states Paul Sobocinski."The checkoff is not benefiting

In response to requests from National Hog Farmer, members of the organizations within the Campaign for Family Farms give their objections to the mandatory pork checkoff and the way the National Pork Producers Council used checkoff funds.

The mandatory pork checkoff is an undemocratic process and is not accountable to the producers who foot the bill, states Paul Sobocinski.

"The checkoff is not benefiting independent producers," adds the 40-sow, farrow-to-finish producer from Wabasso, MN. Sobocinski is also a part-time employee of the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), the Minnesota group linked with the Campaign for Family Farms (CFF). CFF is the organization that prompted the upcoming pork checkoff vote.

According to its mission statement, CFF is "a coalition of grassroots, membership-based farm groups that work to hold the government, private institutions and agribusiness corporations accountable to independent family farmers."

In addition to the Minnesota group, CFF includes Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI), Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Wisconsin Rural Development Center, Indiana Campaign for Family Farms and the Community Farm Alliance of Kentucky.

Research for Big Operations Sobocinski points to National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) research allocations to make his point.

In 1997, $5 million ($1.5 million in On-Farm Odor Management Assistance, $3.5 million for the Odor Solution Initiative) was allotted to find ways to reduce odor in hog manure.

"Those kinds of problems are present on extremely large operations," he says. "They were not a problem before we had large operations come on-line," he says.

Sobocinski also recalls NPPC Chief Executive Officer Al Tank's comments in October 1998.

"Just prior to hog prices dropping to $8/cwt., Al Tank told producers 'to expand and seize market share.' That was unbelievable," Sobocinski says. "Producers were well aware that we were headed for trouble in terms of what was happening with the hog price. To me, he was not speaking to independent producers but rather to the real large producers."

Hampton, IA, pork producer Mark McDowell says the mandatory checkoff has no benefit.

"At best, the checkoff is irrelevant to me, and at worst, it is working against me," he says.

McDowell's 54-sow herd was removed on July 12 as part of Iowa's pseudorabies eradication program. He is a member of Iowa CCI.

McDowell's objections to the checkoff are founded in the lack of support for small, family-farm producers. Since 1986, he says, 250,000 pork producers have gone out of business while they paid half a billion dollars in checkoff assessments.

Promotion Will Continue Pork promotion will go on without a producer-backed checkoff, McDowell says.

"If there is no checkoff, promotion of pork will continue," he says. "The last two television ads I've seen for pork have been sponsored by packers, promoting their own brand. What's wrong with that as a strategy?" McDowell asks. Sobocinski uses the poultry business as an example of how pork promotion would continue without a mandatory checkoff.

"The poultry industry does not have any checkoff, and there continues to be promotion of poultry," he says. "I believe, in that sense, there would continue to be promotion of pork."

Contingency Plan The dollars that currently go to the mandatory checkoff could be used to support other organizations, Sobocinski says.

"If the checkoff system would end, then farmers would have to decide what organization they want to support," he says. "For someone like myself, that might be the Land Stewardship Project or other organizations I'm currently involved with, the National Farmers Organization (NFO) and the National Farmers Union (NFU)."

Three Complaints Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Columbia, MO, has similar concerns, says Rhonda Perry. She is program director and a hog and grain farmer.

The group has three complaints regarding the mandatory checkoff.

First, the checkoff is not accountable to the people who put it in place and who pay for it.

Second, the industry is vastly different than the one in 1986 when the checkoff was approved.

"It is naive to think that corporate hog farmers and packers have the same needs as independent family hog farmers," she points out.

Third, the Pork Forum resolution "recognizing a packer's right to own swine" clearly set NPPC policies as opposed to independent hog farmers.

The checkoff provides no return on investment to independents, she adds. The checkoff "provides political cover for hog factories and packers."

What's needed is a voluntary program designed and paid for by independent producers, not a mandatory program that unrealistically tries to meet the needs of both corporate agribusiness and independent producers.

Views of the NFO Eugene Paul is a long-time policy analyst for the NFO. "We have members who are very strongly in favor of the pork checkoff and some people who are very strongly opposed to it," he says.

"Our official position as an organization is that if a checkoff program is put in place, it should only be put in place by a referendum, and there should be an automatic vote on that referendum every five years or less on the continuation of the program."

By allowing producers to vote on the checkoff periodically, it instills more accountability in the people who are running the programs, says Paul. He says NFO has not developed a contingency plan, should the mandatory pork checkoff be voted down.

Other NFO policies on commodity checkoffs are:

* Commodity checkoffs should be assessed only once, at the time the product is sold for processing;

* A substantial portion of mandatory checkoff funds should be used to purchase surplus commodities, which should be supplied to malnourished people; and * Voluntary checkoff programs are preferred.

Views of the NFU The NFU has steadfastly opposed the pork checkoff program. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced the referendum at the NFU national convention last February.

NFU President Leland Swenson said at the convention, "It is important that producers have the opportunity to periodically assess the checkoff program and determine whether it is of value to them as producers."

Nebraska was one of the first state farmers union groups to support the checkoff referendum, says state president John K. Hansen.

He observes, "There are a variety of reasons why we think it is important to vote on this issue. One is that our members feel, whether it is a livestock or grain checkoff, we recognize it as kind of an excise tax on the products that we produce. And we think we need some control over that excise tax and how it is used."

In particular, NPPC policies lack oversight and producer control. "NPPC has been very actively encouraging, in our view, the policies of the larger, mega-producers and the packers," explains Hansen. "Our members have been strong opponents of the corporate takeover of hog production, and that is what we see happening."

And he adds: "We are dead serious about trying to create competitive markets. Our producers are going broke. You look at the bloody noses producers have gotten in the last three years, and you look at the exit numbers from the hog industry, and you know that something isn't working."

To regain producer accountability, mandatory checkoff programs should be voted on automatically every three years, stresses Hansen.

What happens if the mandatory pork checkoff is voted down? "I think at that point you put everything back on the table and ask how do we put together a checkoff that does what we want it to do? And should it be voluntary, or do we have a mandatory program with a set number of years for a referendum with a different kind of structure?" asks Hansen.

As it stands, NFU is very disappointed with how those checkoff dollars are being spent and the spending does not reflect the economic interests of the average producer, he says.

"Our guys are not for the 'chickenization' of the pork industry. Our guys don't want to be contract growers. They want to be independent producers selling into a fair and competitive market," says Hansen.

"This referendum is our chance to have our voice heard and finally put this up for a vote," Sobocinski says. "We believe producers will dump the checkoff."