RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

More Than Enough

Enough is sufficient, my mom used to say, meaning that us kids had gone too far in the bullsh*t department, whether we were destroying the house, stretching the truth, or tracking manure on our shoes. We'd been busted, and we needed to straighten up.

The same goes for national organizations that destroy the house, tell lies, and track in sh*t. So, National Pork Board, enough of the pork checkoff tax is sufficient. You're too destructive, too unfair, and, dragging the USDA, you've tracked enough manure into the capitol. You need to go.

Your "pork checkoff" tax has been defeated. The tax of 40 cents per $100 in sales paid by hog farmers to support research and advertising (think: "the other white meat") has been defeated at the ballot box, in the opinion polls, and in court. In the most recent defeat of the checkoff, and a victory for family farmers, US District Court Judge Richard A. Enslen ruled the pork checkoff unconstitutional and ordered that checkoff collections halt by Nov. 24, 2002.

But as the ink was drying on Enslen's statement, the USDA filed an "emergency" motion, asking the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the opinion, claiming that the termination of the program would result in loss of NPB jobs. Immediately, the Campaign for Family Farms, a coalition of family farm groups from several states, filed an opposition.

"Hog farmers have no guarantee that they will have jobs or be in business a year or a month from now. Why should NPB employees have guaranteed employment at the expense of hog farmers?" asks Paul Sobocinski, a hog farmer member of the Land Stewardship Project, part of the Campaign for Family Farms. Other CFF member groups include the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and the Illinois Stewardship Alliance. The Farmers Legal Action Group represents CFF and the individual hog farmers in the pork checkoff fight.

In 1986 when the pork checkoff began, there were more than 388,000 farms raising hogs in America. Last year, the census showed 82,000 farms raising hogs -- a loss of more than 300,000. Because checkoff dollars have gone mostly to university research on confined animal feeding operations -- or CAFOs -- those manure-spewing, air-polluting, fish-killing operations, the number of hogs in America has gone up slightly-from 52 million in 1985 to 60 million in 2001.

Since beginning the checkoff, the NPB has become increasingly controlled by industry giants who each sell increasingly large numbers of hogs. Checkoff money has benefited the corporations, like Cargill and Murphy, by funding Big Pig research.

The NPB brags that checkoff money has put pork on the menu at fast-food restaurants and "changed consumer minds." According to the NPB, the patented McRib sandwich is "a direct result of checkoff promotion and research." In other words, today's consumers get pork products that are increasingly processed -- injected with tenderizers, chopped, flavored, extruded into pork-like shapes by machines, and irradiated, from animals imprisoned, medicated, shipped from nursery to growing plant to slaughter and never allowed outdoors for their entire sad lives.

And, increasingly, the corporations own the hogs. All the hogs -- mothers, daddys, babies. The farmer, if he signs on as a contractor, doesn't own the animals or any part of the breeding stock. The profit farmers once made now goes to corporate CEOs.

And, increasingly, the USDA sees itself as part of that corporate process, and not part of the lives of families on the farm.

Judge Enslen's judgement follows years of battles, including a carefully-administered vote on November 29, 2000, using rules mandated by the USDA.

To get the ballot, organizations like the National Family Farm Coalition and its members collected 19,000 signatures from hog farmers and sent them to USDA.

Then, USDA spent a year whining. They complained that they didn't know how to verify the signatures, whimpered they didn't know how to get ballots to the farmers, grumbled they didn't know how to make their computers merge lists or send mail.

USDA stalling bought time for the NPB. First, the NPB sent glossy posters to feedstores announcing that farmers had benefited from the checkoff. But the posters were illegally paid for by checkoff dollars which supposedly go to research. Farm groups protested and feed stores had to pitch the glossies.

Next the NPB built a war chest financed by corporate buddies, eventually reaching $4.3 million by one estimate. They sent mailers to hog farmers insisting "Vote Yes." And, even though USDA rules required producers to obtain their own ballots rather than get them from a go-between, the NPB hired telemarketers to phone farmers, ask how they would vote, then offer to send a ballot if the voter was pro-checkoff. In his syndicated column, Alan Guebert reported that NPB telemarketers even offered to send ballots to dead family members of hog farmers.

Opposed to the NPB's $4.3 million, family farm groups amassed $180,000, supplemented by lots of volunteer hours from farmers and supporters who don't want to see all the food in the world come from factories.

Then 30,347 hog farmers voted, and when the votes were counted, 53% of family farmers voted to end the program. According to the USDA rules, this was a mandate to end the checkoff within 30 days. Secretary of agriculture at the time, Dan Glickman, announced, "the checkoff does not have the support of producers ... I am directing the USDA to terminate the program."

That statement came just as the administrations changed. The NPB, with support from the Bush administration, is still stalling. They have found a willing accomplice in Ann Veneman, Bush-appointed secretary of the USDA.

One wonders why the NPB-USDA coalition cares so much. The NPB should inaugurate a new voluntary checkoff funded by the Big Pigs that donated so many millions in this battle. The Big Pigs have all the hogs anyway, so they could pay the same amount they do now, and the NPB's income would hardly change.

Judge Enslen's ruling is one of many similar cases in the court system. In June 2002, a US District Court judge in South Dakota ruled that the beef checkoff is unconstitutional. A few months later, an opposing decision came from Montana. That decision will likely be appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In Pennsylvania, a US District Court judge is considering the dairy checkoff.

Besides putting farmers out of business, these checkoffs violate free-speech rights by taking money from farmers and using the money to say things the farmers don't support. In fact, in June 2001, the US Supreme Court ruled that the mandatory mushroom checkoff violated producers' First Amendment rights and was unconstitutional.

Even the New York Times, not given to cover rural issues, wrote that, "The truth is that there is even more support for ending the program, support demonstrated in a democratic manner, not in back-room negotiations ... Ms. Veneman should let well enough alone and allow the pork checkoff program to lapse."

Consumers can help, of course, by knowing where your bacon and ham was raised. Independent, local brands are springing up in every state, and they are all proudly announcing the standards used by their producers. Look for one that requires that their hogs be raised with access to outside, with no hormones or regular use of antibiotics, and raised by independent family farmers.

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

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