How much is too much attention to give the pork checkoff referendum? In my opinion, you can't give the issue too much attention. The outcome will resonate throughout the industry for years.

A "yes" vote will bring change - change in procedures, change in priorities.

A "no" vote will bring change, too. But, I fear, the change will run deeper and be less forgiving.

If the referendum fails and the pork checkoff is phased out, the pork industry structure, as we know it today, will be dismantled. Programs will go without funding. Many will be lost. Turf guarding will become commonplace. Only those producers with deep pockets will undertake branded product promotions and fund proprietary research.

Conglomerates of independent producers may pool their resources to tackle their own agendas. The cost to "play" will probably be more, not less, than the contributions made under the "everybody pays" mandatory checkoff. Many will be left behind.

I've had numerous calls responding to my pro-checkoff editorials the past couple of months. Most have been from pork producers who either disagree with my stand or remain undecided. All have been respectful. I've enjoyed the opportunity to get first-hand feedback and to hear your thoughts and concerns.

Several callers said they signed the petition calling for a referendum, but they remained undecided on how they would vote when it came down to it.

Some wanted reassurance if they voted in favor of continuing the mandatory checkoff, their voice will be heard. Truthfully, I think it already has been.

This debate has benefited from much discussion, soul-searching and program review. The feedback will remain top-of-mind for those responsible for funded programs. If it does not, I'll have this space available to help you remind them.

A 300-sow, farrow-to-finish producer from South Dakota, acknowledging he had signed the petition, stated up front: "I am not totally against the checkoff." He went on to say the hog business had been good to him and his family up to about 1996. "Never lost money in 15 years."

Then the market slide began. By winter 1998, it hit rock bottom. "Some say it could have been worse. Truth is, it could only have been $8 worse!" He chuckled, but he meant it.

Fair enough. Let's go with that for starters. Fifteen years - all moneymakers - some better than others. Hit a bad spell - a very bad spell - forget about the good years, purge the system and start over? Not a good idea!

Sure, you can focus on the 12 to 18 months of devastating prices and use that as your barometer to assign value to the programs. You can also talk about the thousands of pork producers who have bailed out of the business. None of it will make you feel very good - or change the past.

On average, hog prices and profits were favorable during the first decade of the mandatory checkoff. Margins haven't been bad lately either.

Who gets credit for that? Supply and demand? Promotional programs? More packing space? Sizzling demand for bacon? Low feed costs?

Credit and blame usually reflects a combination of factors - same as the winter of 1998-99.

If the industry affirms its support of the mandatory checkoff program, the message will be sent clearly to Washington that pork producers favor a self-help program with minimal meddling from the bureaucratic masses.

Bringing issues and concerns to the forefront is always good. It's been good for the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council, too, because it has forced discussion, consideration of others' viewpoints and full review of all pork checkoff programs. For that, we are in checkoff dissenters' debt.

Was it uncomfortable? Yes, at times it was. Performance reviews sometimes are. But when undertaken constructively, favorable performance is recognized and under-achievement is identified. These shortfalls are best managed by setting up corrective actions, setting new goals for improved performance, not dumping the investment made in the employee - or in this case - in the pork checkoff programs.

If you are still undecided about how you will cast your vote, please ask yourself these questions:

- Is your pork operation's future stronger with or without the checkoff-funded programs we have today or will have in the future?

- Is the pork industry better off with a coordinated promotional program like "Pork. The Other White Meat" campaign?

- Is the industry better off with independent research funding, development of industry-wide disease control strategies and producer education programs available to all producers regardless of size?

I think the pork referendum should be viewed as a performance review, undertaken with the intent of a positive, constructive outcome. To get the full benefit of the performance review, the mandatory checkoff must continue.