RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Feeding the Hand that Bites You

Way back in 1986, at the end of a drought-and-policy-driven farm crisis, pork producers voted in "checkoff," a mandatory fee they pay to US Department of Agriculture on hog sales. For every $1,000 on hogs sold, the producer pays $4.50 to the USDA. Note that the money is paid per hog, not per farmer.

The USDA turns the money over to a "Council" set up for research and promotion. USDA, already supported by taxpayers, isn't supposed to benefit from this money, but acts as custodians.

Research and advertising by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is supposed to help the farmers that feed it, but it's only helped put them out of business. In 1986, there were more than 375,000 independent hog farmers in the USA. Today, there are about 95,000 hog farmers, a loss of about 23,000 farmers per year since the checkoff started.

If any industry laid off 23,000 workers per year, there'd be consequences. Indeed, while the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) does well, the existence of entire farm towns, counties, and service industries has been threatened.

Clearly, the checkoff has failed. This year, September 19-21, hog farmers have a chance to repeal it.

To initiate the vote, family farm organizations like the National Family Farm Coalition collected 19,000 signatures and sent them to USDA. A full year has gone by while USDA has fidgeted over rules. In one meeting, USDA complained that they didn't know how to verify the signatures, or how they'd get ballots to the farmers. The farmers were downright embarrassed for our public servants as they whined that they didn't know how to make their computers merge lists or send out mail.

But it's not funny. Keep in mind that every month another 2,000 farmers are being forced out of business. And, keep in mind that every trip to Washington to argue with the USDA forces farmers to leave their businesses, spend money, and come home angry and depressed. Obviously, the USDA taxpayer-funded bureaucrats don't care that their indecisions can ruin taxpayer's lives.

Every month that the USDA procrastinates gave NPPC a chance to raise more corporate money for their war chest -- $1.8 million by their own estimate. As beneficiary of the checkoff, NPPC has a lot at stake. Farmer loss doesn't affect the NPPC budget, because the number of hogs raised today is about the same as in 1986.

In July, USDA finally announced the rules. Any man, woman, or child with a receipt for selling a hog in the last year can vote. Ballots are available at all Farm Service Agencies. Between August 1 and September 18, farmers can write to request an absentee ballot.

NPPC happily bends rules to get what they want. Most recently, they've hired telemarketers to phone hog farmers and read a script, ask how they're going to vote, then offer to send them a ballot if the voter wants to keep the mandatory checkoff. In his syndicated column, Alan Guebert reported that NPPC telemarketers even offered to send ballots to dead family members of hog farmers.

Back in 1995, when farmers first began to protest the intrusion of corporations into farming, NPPC spent checkoff money to hire investigators to dig up dirt on organizations like the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, the Land Stewardship Project for Minnesota, the Animal Welfare Institute, and others. NPPC wanted to paint a picture of the opposition as militant vegetarians and unreasonable environmentalists.

The truth was hard for NPPC to bend -- all these farm groups have members and officers who farm and raise livestock.

The information turned out to be useless to NPPC because there wasn't any dirt to dig, but farm groups discovered the snooping and took NPPC to court, arguing that NPPC was misusing checkoff dollars. NPPC agreed that they had misbehaved and returned the money.

In fighting the ballot initiative, however, NPPC again showed its disregard for those paying the mandatory checkoff. First, NPPC sent posters to feedstores announcing that farmers had benefited greatly from the checkoff -- posters illegally paid for by checkoff dollars. Farm groups protested and feed stores had to pitch the glossies.

Now NPPC's non-checkoff war chest has paid for mailers to hog farmers explaining "the scoop on the pork checkoff" and insisting "Vote Yes." And the telemarketers are reading the NPPC script.

NPPC invented "the other white meat," so their disregard for the nuances of honesty isn't surprising.

Many farm products have checkoffs and councils. Consumers see the impact of checkoff money in the TV and magazine ads urging us to eat certain foods. Dairy men paid for celebrities to wear milk mustaches. The Egg Council advertises "the incredible, edible egg." Beef producers pay for Aaron Copeland music behind "Beef. It's what's for dinner."

Producers of soybeans, corn, wool, honey, pecans and many other commodities have checkoffs and support Councils. The Councils, in turn, support the advertising world.

Checkoffs have been around since 1969, when the Texas Peanut growers taxed themselves for research, development and promotion. If you're old enough, you remember the mid-1970s peanut oil craze, fueled by recipes in home magazines. We who had only known corn oil, butter and lard felt ourselves to be naive greenhorns in a sophisticated new culinary world.

Seeing the success of the peanut checkoff, other commodity groups kicked in for their products. Peanut oil was replaced by sunflower oil, then safflower oil, and so forth. My favorite slogan comes from the Potato Council. "Potatoes. We're here to help." Hasn't caught on.

If you're thinking that these ad programs pit farmer against farmer in the battle for consumer demand and benefit mostly the ad agencies and media who sell the ads, you're way ahead of where pork producers were in 1986. People -- even overeating Americans -- only eat so much.

The biggest winners in this game have been the guys collecting the money. According to the National Family Farm Coalition, National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) has collected $500 million. One farm group dropped in on NPPC's Washington DC suite in 1999, and found movers were bringing in brand-new furniture. The third-floor office was just around the corner from USDA and Congress. It was tastefully decorated and heavily guarded. The farmers felt unwelcome, even though they had paid for the place.

NPPC brags that checkoff money has increased demand, put pork on the menu at fast-food restaurants and "changed consumer minds." According to NPPC, the patented McRib sandwich is "a direct result of checkoff promotion and research."

Trouble is, McRibs and the other fast-food pork come from the factory. You'd expect that they own the patents and the machinery that extrudes meat into those miniature rib-like shapes, but corporations like Smithfield, Continental Grain, Seaboard, and Cargill also own the hogs. They own the mother hogs, the daddies, the babies. The farmer, if he helps as a contractor, doesn't own the animals or any part of the breeding stock. The profit farmers once made now goes to corporate C.E.O.s.

Heavy advertising has helped McRibs, but family farmers don't raise McRibs. Only the factories raise McRibs. In fact, the "direct result of checkoff promotion and research" has put independent farmers out of the game.

Corporations produce food that depends on fossil fuels, chemicals, and secret ingredients. Unless you're a careful consumer buying from a source you know, if you use pork it comes from hogs raised by corporations in sweltering or freezing steel buildings which the industry calls "climate-controlled." These animals live their sad lives drugged with antibiotics and hormones, sprayed with insecticides and subjected to all sorts of weird science.

The poop is pumped out to cesspools (the industry prefers "lagoons") which evaporate into the neighborhood air and leak into the world's water. By an industry expert's own estimate, this way of raising hogs pollutes 50 gallons of water per hog per day.

Then, after butchering, the meat is pumped (the industry prefers "basted") with saline solution. Finally, it's chopped up, flavored and re-shaped, like those canned hams and McRibs.

Well, if you don't object to secret ingredients in your food, or if you don't have a choice, this factory pork is what you get. And, the "squeal to meal" factory-owned pork industry keeps out independent butchers, truckers, grocers and other businessmen.

And consumers? It's mystery meat all the way.

Now pork producers have a chance to vote and get rid of checkoff.

If you know someone who raises hogs, encourage them to vote. Give them a copy of this column, or, better yet, telephone and read it to them.

NPPC's telemarketers have already read them their point of view.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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