Rural Routes/Margot Ford McMillen

Supreme Indifference


The Supreme Court has been getting a lot of press lately, and it's about time. With attention spans the length of a lightning flash, Americans need to be reminded when something is important. The retirement of Sandra Day O'Connor is important. Rather than going down in history as the "first," she may be remembered as "one of only two women ever on the US Supreme Court."

And the pattern of decisions made in 2005 is important. When deciding between the rights of citizens and government or industry, the Supreme Court has ruled against the people.

In 2005, we saw this pattern in the ruling on eminent domain. Before the ruling, the idea was that a few properties, like railroad lines or highways, were so important for the common good that government could take land and homes from citizens to build them.

After 2005, the idea is expanded so that developers can take land and homes if they benefit the public good when developers promise a good tax return to the government. The court did say, however, that states have the right to rein in the developers. If you think this is important, get active in your state government. Today.

As important is the decision on the beef and pork checkoffs. Checkoffs are mandatory taxes that producers pay into funds managed by USDA. Pork producers pay $4.50 per $1,000 income, totaling more than $50 million per year.

Beef producers pay $1 for every animal sold. The money goes into funds for promotion, research and management by "boards" and "councils."

Independent producers have long argued that the checkoff money goes to support industry. Industry would rather that independent producers didn't exist, because if independents all go away the industry will own all the hogs and have no competition. Instead of independent farmers, they'd have a pool of contractors taking care of industry's animals.

Indeed, a quick scan of checkoff money spent on animal welfare issues shows awards to five projects. Two deal with trucking hogs from one facility to another. Three deal with "group-housed" hogs. Neither trucking nor group housing are problems to small producers raising sustainable numbers of hogs in small groups, and no awards were given to producers raising hogs in sustainable numbers.

The big research winners included the University of Minnesota, which is so industrial that it has renamed some buildings to honor agribusines giant Cargill. Others were the University of Illinois, Kansas State, the University of Guelph and the Prairie Swine Centre, Inc. If those last two university names are unfamiliar, it's because they're in Canada.

In other words, independent farmers who often raise their animals in small groups with access to pasture are funding multinational industrial schemes that confine animals and truck them from facility to facility. The National Pork Producer Council (NPPC) replies that they have increased the market for all pork. They point to the checkoff-funded "McRib," a secret aggregate of ingredients extruded into ribby-type shapes, drenched in barbecue sauce and served with three pickle slices on a bun.

NPPC says the McRib gives hog farmers a way to compete for the fast-food dollar. But please note: McRibs come from factories, not farms. When checkoff began, there were more than 375,000 independent hog farmers in the US. Today, there are about 70,000.

In 2000, after a year of petition drives prescribed by the USDA, pork producers voted 53% to 47% to repeal the checkoff. After the vote, Dan Glickman, secretary of agriculture under Clinton, announced the pork checkoff's cancelation.

Days later, GW won the White House. One of his first acts was to reinstate the checkoff. Independent farmers have been fighting ever since.

The outcry was so vigorous that in 2001, according to Al Krebs writing in the Agribusiness Examiner, the USDA told NPPC it had two years to build approval. If, after two years of building, producers wanted another vote, they were to have it. In 2003.

That was a promise unkept.

The pork checkoff fighters have won in every court. In fact, checkoff schemes have been ruled unconstitutional in the Supreme Court. In 2004, the mushroom checkoff was declared unconstitutional.

But the pork industry is better politically connected than the mushroom industry is. When the pork checkoff case went to the Supreme Court it was combined with the much weaker beef checkoff case. And the Court didn't rule on whether the checkoffs were constitutional. Instead, the issue became a First-Amendment, free-speech issue: "Can producers be compelled to associate with groups and a message with which they disagree?"

This argument goes from mystifying to incomprehensible. The court decided that the slogans are "government speech" and it doesn't matter whether the producers agree with them. Therefore, when you hear, "Pork. The other white meat," you're hearing government speech. Ditto when you hear, "Beef. It's what's for dinner." Government speech.

Industry will now use the decision to argue in lower courts that checkoffs should continue. The pork checkoff has been sent back to the Sixth District Court where it was judged unconstitutional before. With the decision comes an implicit message from the higher court: This political checkoff scheme, benefiting industry, is bigger than democracy.

It's remarkable that any independents are left, but there are. Some in your state, even.

Their businesses are entirely dependent on consumer demand, and consumers are coming through. Some of the independents raise old breeds that would go extinct otherwise. Each has a special quality: leaner meat, for example, or a heartier flavor. And the outside hog is less likely to get sick, so the farmer can use fewer antibiotics and chemicals, and buying from independents means that more food dollars stay in the community rather than being shipped out to some corporate office.

If you want to help, visit your local farmers' market and ask for locally raised pork. Or, look for independents on the Local Harvest, Slow Foods or Chefs Collaborative Web sites.

It's really important.

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

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