RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Checking off the check-off

Back in 1986, in the tail of the last farm crisis, Congress came up with a plan to enhance sales of American products with an advertising campaign that would be financed by producers. So if you were a cattle producer, for example, you'd pay money into a beef fund. For hog farmers, there's a pork fund.

Thus the check-off was born. The money is collected by state departments of agriculture, and goes to national "councils" that advertise their check-off products. Some of the money goes back to state councils. "Beef. It's what's for supper" is the current slogan for the beef council. "The Incredible, Edible Egg" and "Pork. The Other White Meat" and even "Potatoes. We're here to help" are campaigns financed by check-off dollars from farmers.

While it seemed logical that the checkoffs could whet consumer appetites, with the checkoffs came a need for a new bureaucracy staffed by promoters, not farmers. Here's a typical mission statement from the state-based Missouri Pork Producers Council -- MPPC: "To instill a true commitment to quality throughout the entire pork industry, establishing American pork as the consumer's meat of choice in the 21st century and enhancing the pork producer's opportunity for profit and ability to remain autonomous, regardless of size."

Think about the words from "enhancing" to "size" as you read the following: Checkoff fees are based on the dollar amount of hogs sold. So if you're Joe Farmer with twenty sows, producing 200 market hogs per year and paying $.45 per hundred dollars into the fund, your contribution looks like nothing next to the contribution of Murphy, Seaboard or Continental Grain with thousands of hogs.

The money that comes back to the states should pay for staff to help build State Fairs and educate consumers about the benefits of the checkoff product. Instead, Missouri Pork Producers Council created a PAC -- Political Action Committee -- to raise money for campaign donations. To fund the PAC, the Council threw a dinner as part of the annual meeting. This annual pass the hat event raises money to make campaign contributions without the inconvenience of keeping a file of donor names.

At the same time, the National Councils set up offices in Washington, D.C., and staffed themselves with professional promoters and lobbyists. Councils are now big business. In February, 1996, according to Progressive Farmer, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) announced that its Pork Board checkoff budget would be $45.9 million, a 14 percent increase due to increased production. $14.5 million would go to national advertising, mostly on TV and women's magazines. $9.3 for promotion, information, research by states, $2.2 for foreign market development.

Foreign market development? Who does that benefit? Joe Farmer's operation -- remember Joe with the 20 sows? -- depends on local markets, close enough that he can haul his hogs in his stock trailer. The Big Pigs, on the other hand, put butcher facilities on their grounds. In their own butcher plants, where they butcher and cut up their own hogs into cuts for local markets, they also make cuts preferred by export consumers. The foreign-market pork is trucked directly in giant reefer trucks to the airport and shipped out.

At the same time, NPPC diverted checkoff money to pay the P.R. firm Mongoven, Biscoe and Duchin to investigate and report on "various activist groups whose philosophies and activities might have an effect on the pork industry," according to the Columbia Tribune.

Missouri Rural Crisis Center -- MRCC -- was one of the investigated groups. The crime of this three-person office? To try to help farmers like Joe save his family farm. To explain why checkoff funds were used, apparently illegally, to investigate farm groups, Al Tank, chief lobbyist for NPPC said "We're at war."

So, the Big Pig thrives, Joe's market disappears. The money he put into the Council has financed an international business that has killed his family farm. That might be the end of the story, except that the international business has made the news recently as it pollutes waterways, displaces immigrants, and is being sued in courts from Missouri to Texas.

And family farmers are fighting back.

With the help of MRCC and other progressive farm groups in the National Family Farm Coalition, farmers are trying to vote to repeal the pork checkoff. In May 1999, the groups gave USDA 19,043 signatures of pork producers, demanding a vote.

This was not an easy petition drive. Given lists of pork producers, the signature gatherers soon learned that over 60 percent of the producers had gone belly up, done in by the record low prices caused by overproduction by the Big Pigs.

As soon as the signatures were received, NPPC began a disinformation campaign, posting signs in feedlots and auction barns that proclaimed benefits of "your checkoff at work." When farmers called foul, USDA informed NPPC that the posters had to come down.

But the bottom line is that the checkoff is a cash cow, and USDA will stall to prevent the vote. In a September 1999 meeting with family farmers, four months after receiving the signatures, USDA claimed that the computer system wasn't up to collating 19,043 names and addresses.

Response from the farmers: You'd better figure it out, because the cattlemen are right behind us -- and they have over 120,000 names.

So maybe you're not a farmer, an environmentalist or even a person amused by political shenanigans. You are a consumer, and there's something you can do -- painlessly -- to help these independent producers.

Buy from them.

That's right. Seek them out and buy from them.

In every state, there are independents who want -- need -- your business to keep their family farms. In Missouri, for example, MRCC has a brand called "Patchwork" that buys from 12 family farmers who use strict environmental and feeding guidelines. No hormones or antibiotics.

Think independently. Ask for names of farmers from your local health food store, or thumb through the yellow pages of the nearest rural towns. Look for an independent locker plant, or a local feed store. Phone and ask them who the independent family farmers are in their neck of the woods.

If you're a consumer, please help independent family farmers. It's clear, from USDA and the checkoff fiasco, that the government couldn't care less.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: For information on Patchwork contact the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, 1110 Rangeline St., Columbia, MO 65202; phone: 573-449-1336; email

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