In the spirit of the town hosting the recent Pork Industry Forum, delegates to the National Pork Producers Council laid some cards on the table.

The site was Reno, NV. The "dealer's choice" (a.k.a. delegates' choice) game in town - how to generate the non-checkoff dollars needed to lobby for fair environmental regulations, import-export balance, fight legal and legislative battles. It's a high stakes game.

How high? A specially formed, NPPC non-checkoff working group told delegates that member states currently generate about $3 million annually while NPPC adds $2.6 million to the unrestricted funds till. The committee projected they will need an additional $3.25 million/year for the next three years to provide the state and national lobbying and legislative support needed.

It's not news that the pork industry is being challenged on many fronts. Environmental, regulatory mandates will be drafted in the next few years that will affect how you raise hogs, regardless of herd size.

Your delegates at the annual meeting were pretty sure you'd want to be at the table when the next hands are dealt.

But they wrestled with a resolution calling for a new, supplemental checkoff over and above the mandatory checkoff provided for in the Pork Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act of 1985. This resolution called for a voluntary contribution of a nickel per hog or sow marketed. They dubbed it the "voluntary investment program" or VIP.

VIP. Has a nice ring.

Good idea.

Bad timing.

Asking for more money when the market's in a slump does not constitute an opportune moment. But the urgency justified the risk of asking.

Delegates approved the concept but delayed taking final action until they could bounce the idea off their constituents.

So, consider yourself dealt into this high stakes game. The face cards you'll receive are the too-familiar issues of the day - environmental, regulatory, odor control, legal, legislative. And, there's a wild card - the VIP card supporting the voluntary nickel checkoff.

Will you play it?

Will you ante-up a nickel per hog or sow in an effort to win the big pot? Or, are you satisfied to let the chips fall where they may?

What's really at stake here?

* Precedent-setting court cases are being sent to court dockets daily. The win-loss record will affect how you raise hogs in the future. A fund is needed to defend your interests.

* Environmental concerns will not go away anytime soon. Lobbying with good science to represent producer interests is needed for reasonable guidelines to be drafted.

* Food safety issues, import-export markets, animal health and drug issues, and more.

The NPPC's non-checkoff working group's report predicted that if the voluntary program was initiated, about 70% of the hogs would be checked off.

I support the voluntary investment program. But I'm going to propose a little twist. I think we should shoot for 100% participation for a specified period of time. Five years seems reasonable. Plug in a "sunset clause" for the nickel program. That's a reasonable, short-term commitment that would provide a well-financed, focused representation of pork producer positioning.

Under the VIP plan, half of the monies are returned to the states where the real battles are won and lost. You might even call for a 60-40 split. Dealer's choice. You're the dealer.

Do I see some grimaces in Des Moines? Many might argue that the need will not end in 2003. New issues will replace the old.

They're probably right. Still, I favor a five-year performance review for several reasons.

First, it strengthens the argument for full participation or at least minimizes the number of producers who will rescind their consent for the checkoff when asked. Give the program a window of opportunity to work.

Second, unless producers agree the program should be extended five years from now, it has an endpoint. If it's a resounding success, it won't be hard to sell in 2003.

Finally, full endorsement of the voluntary program signals to all of agriculture, business, government and the general public a sense of solidarity and commitment. It says you mean business.

In some respects, this new call for a voluntary checkoff is reminiscent of my first year of reporting in this industry. The checkoff was a nickel/head; it was voluntary; and, there was a consistent, impassioned plea for greater participation. Then, as now, producers were reminded of the need for more money to tackle greater challenges - production of leaner pork and boosting pork consumption.

Years passed. Goals and visions grew. The checkoff was bumped to a dime.

Eventually, a national referendum provided for a mandatory checkoff and the monies needed to do the work of providing research and consumer information, pork promotion for all. But, the restrictions of the Pork Act and the challenging legislative and regulatory issues today are testing the metal of modern-day producers.

In many ways, the need for nickels in 1998 may be greater than it was in the '70s. Are you as committed to the pork industry as your parents and grandparents were when they first signed on to the voluntary nickel checkoff?