The Campaign for Family Farms (CFF), a coalition of farm and rural groups in seven Midwestern states, announced they have collected 16,500 signatures, enough to call for a producer referendum on the mandatory pork checkoff. Organizers planned to deliver the petition to USDA officials in early May.

At a mid-April press conference held in the state capitol in Des Moines, IA, CFF members said they had acquired signatures from 15% of all hog producers and importers, the requirement set by the USDA. The petition drive was launched on April 29, 1998, and the CFF had 12 months to gather the needed signatures.

Originally, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the USDA division responsible for overseeing commodity checkoff programs, estimated nearly 18,000 signatures would be needed. However, AMS recently revised its estimate of active pork producers, lowering the signature requirement to 14,986.

Pork producer Larry Ginter, representing the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the state's arm of the CFF, stated, "We're hoping to have a vote in 60-90 days." However, the AMS must first verify the signatures are from active pork producers. Once verified, the timetable for the referendum will be established.

A joint statement from the National Pork Board (NPB) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) responded to the announcement: "The National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council welcomes the opportunity for pork producers to vote on whether or not to continue the mandatory pork checkoff program, however, we strongly encourage the USDA be diligent in validating the signatures of the petition to make sure they truly represent 15% of the bonafide pork producers.

"All pork producers, regardless of size or geographic location, have benefited from the checkoff-funded programs since its inception of the mandatory checkoff program 12 years ago," the statement continued.

Ginter begs to differ. "They have collected $480 million (since the inception of the mandatory checkoff), we have lost 244,000 good hog producers and we're on the verge of losing thousands more," he stated.

The mandatory pork checkoff program was initiated in December 1985, following a 77% affirmative vote from pork producers in a nationwide vote.

Concerns Raised NPB President Arnie Stuthman, Platte Center, NE, is concerned about the $2.5 million cost of the referendum vote, estimated by the AMS and the NPB.

"The referendum, starting with the validation of the signatures through the actual voting on the referendum will be paid for using pork checkoff dollars," he said. "That will take away from the state and national programs in 1999 and 2000."

NPPC President John McNutt, Iowa City, IA added, "We are going under the assumption that it (the referendum) will be approved and there will be a vote. If 15% of the qualified producers are calling for this referendum, then fine, we'll take the time to do it. Those are the rules we set up a long time ago and those are the rules we will live by.

"But, this is a time when literally, moment by moment, massive things are happening that we have to deal with. We are diverting our attention away from those to deal with this issue and that may be the real cost, the referendum."

McNutt has "multiple positions" on the referendum issue. Starting with a historical perspective, he noted that his father, Paul, was an active recruit during the voluntary checkoff program. "I remember the discussions, the voluntary work, then, deciding the only real fair way to do it was through a mandatory program."

Then, speaking as the organization's figurehead, he added, "The big thing producers need to ask themselves is - remember when? Remember back to the time when physicians, on a regular basis, said 'don't eat pork.' Remember back when we couldn't get a pork sandwich anywhere near a fast food restaurant, or you couldn't find a decent piece of pork in any fancy restaurant.

"And, remember when nobody out there was making sure we were protecting ourselves from foreign animal diseases and there were no coherent producer education programs.

"The most important thing is that producers look at the facts. Be driven by knowledge to make these decisions, not by the pressure of these times. Look at the profitability of the industry over the past 10 years," he added.

Minnesota producer Monica Kahout of Olivia, a member of the Livestock Conservation Committee of the Land Stewardship Project, another group under the CFF banner, contributed 2,100 signatures. She commented, "A lot of farmers are very upset with the way things are going in the industry. I think they wish for more of a control on where their dollars go. They feel that through the last few years the pork producers (NPPC) is involved in mainly trying to push large pork operations and leaving the small producer behind.

"I think a volunteer kind of a checkoff is the way to go because that makes the organization more accountable, so the people who control the money realize they will have to show positive results to the people who are footing the bill," she added.

When asked if the CFF had formed a contingency plan for managing a return to a voluntary pork checkoff, Ginter responded, "That's not our problem. They've (current checkoff management) got to figure out what they want to do."

There is an implication by referendum proponents that the voluntary checkoff programs of the past can just pick up where they left off. McNutt is skeptical about that happening. "We have to think back to when we had very developed county organizations, back to a time when we had a lot of people.

"The whole system has changed dramatically," McNutt continued. "The county organizations are not equipped to go door-to-door and talk to people. We lost something when we lost that really close contact but as an industry, I don't think we have the capability to do that anymore."

And, he added, "I think this effort could have just the opposite effect some supporters of the referendum think. It could force more and more attention to where the big dollars come from. If they are going to participate (in a voluntary checkoff), they are going to darn well expect to have a lot of say in how those funds are used."

Ginter, representing the CFF coalition, sees it differently. "If the checkoff really benefits people, then you'll have all of the money you'll need - to advertise, to get things done for family farmers and pork production in this country."

In addition to the Iowa and Minnesota groups cited, the CFF includes: Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Wisconsin Rural Development Center, Indiana Campaign for Family Farms and the Community Farm Alliance (Kentucky).