Call it risk management or self-preservation, pork producers are finding it increasingly important to step into the political arena as local, state and national policy implications now commonly push past historic, reasoned limits. Left unchecked, some proposals could threaten the industry's very existence.

Consider, on the current national scene alone, these issues:

  • Free trade opponents continue to fight exports, and those markets consume nearly one-quarter of U.S. pork production. Even in 2009, when producers were awash in red ink, U.S. pork exports added an estimated $38 per hog slaughtered. Those sales were likely the tenuous thread that held the industry together.

  • Climate change legislation, though currently stalled, threatens to convert as many as 50 million cropland acres to forest, reducing feed-grain supplies and causing skyrocketing feed costs. Pending energy policy decisions could severely impact energy-intensive industries, like pork production.

  • Proposed bans on Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved antibiotics for use in swine disease prevention and control are finding sympathetic ears in more than a few legislative offices.

  • Some groups are proposing to include animal housing and antibiotic use restrictions in legislation governing school lunch purchases.

  • Food safety concerns could lead to the FDA having on-farm inspection authority, at a minimum affecting biosecurity and creating additional recordkeeping requirements.

  • At the state and local levels, right-to-farm and concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) issues continue to boil throughout livestock-producing regions. Successful efforts by activists to force changes in the way swine and poultry are housed have been well publicized.

Political Teamwork

The increasing producer concern and participation are welcome and needed. While Strategic Investment Program (SIP) contributions fund national and state advocacy through the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), those efforts are hamstrung without grassroots producer involvement, says Audrey Adamson, NPPC's vice president of domestic policy issues and head of the organization's Washington, D.C. staff of eight.

“Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill liked to point out that all politics is local,” she explains. “Politicians are elected to represent their constituents. Our staff can provide legislators with timely and accurate information, give them input on legislation and even help keep them on their toes. But, in the end, a member of Congress will jump over us in a hot second to get to a voter. Producers don't realize what power they actually have when speaking with a member of Congress.”

The NPPC Washington staff excels at translating thousands of pages of legal-speak into meaningful language. “Our role is to boil it down, make it understandable and communicate to lawmakers what impact potential legislation will have on the U.S. pork industry,” Adamson continues. Their group's presence also provides an early warning system for producers when proposed legislation threatens their livelihoods.

As important, they deal with the aftermath of legislation's passage. “A lot can happen between what is passed in Congress and what is contained in regulations written by the various agencies charged with implementing the legislation,” she points out. “There are multiple steps in drafting regulations, and our staff has opportunity for both informal and official comment during the process, which can be pretty arcane. Producers' time and influence are usually best spent at the early stages, before legislation becomes law.”

Involvement Isn't Difficult

Getting politically involved is not complicated or difficult. Professional lobbyists and legislators alike point to some common elements that can help make you an effective political voice.

  • Understand the legislative process

    As unappealing and frustrating as it may be to watch, the nation's founders intentionally made lawmaking awkward and unwieldy. On the plus side, since the political wheels move slowly, the process usually offers ample opportunities for input.

  • Know who represents you

    Keep contact information for your legislators and their key staff members. Take particular note of any legislative committee appointments and leadership positions. Those less-visible roles often determine legislative content and even whether proposed legislation makes it to the floor of the House of Representatives or Senate for a vote.

  • Make yourself known

    The goal should be to create a relationship, or at minimum, a positive recognition with those in government. It's easiest and best to do this before a potentially divisive issue surfaces. Look for “meet and greet” opportunities on your home turf. Offer to be a resource on agricultural issues, or offer a farm visit to the legislator and/or staff members. Follow up even brief personal contacts with a note of thanks. Think of it as “greasing the skids” for access when hot issues occur.

  • Open your checkbook

    Support candidates who support your position. Donations fuel campaigns and even small donations can get recognized; in fact, small personal checks can carry more weight than large corporate donations. Christopher Kush, author of “The One-Hour Activist,” adds the following advice: “Never give a check to a candidate for public office without highlighting your name and signaling the issues you care about.” Those running for office for the first time are especially likely to value and remember supporters.

  • Know the issues, but choose your battles carefully

    While you may have strong opinions on everything political, you'll be most effective by reserving direct contacts for those issues having the most impact on your family and business.

  • Know the opposition

    Understand the other side's goals and talking points, and be prepared to counter them.

  • Don't go it alone

    Laws are passed by multiple legislators, and it's rare that one vote decides an issue. Creating a common voice with others through state and national organizations provides a broader influence.

  • Avoid shooting allies

    As farm numbers dwindle, the importance of maintaining a broad coalition between farm organizations grows. Goals aren't always 100% compatible, but carrying disagreements into legislative offices is confusing at best, and usually counterproductive.

Personalization Pays

When it comes to political activism, the Internet offers a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes it extremely efficient and timely for groups, including state and national pork associations, to keep stakeholders abreast of issues. Critical calls to action can be communicated almost instantaneously.

For example, clicking on the “Take Action” link at the bottom of NPPC's home page (www.nppc.org) and then typing in your zip code will reveal your legislative contacts. The click of a mouse can send a predetermined message on its way to the right office.

While using the provided message “as is” is quick and convenient, it's not difficult to personalize this resource into an even more powerful tool — especially if you've already done the background work of making yourself known.

First, decide how critical the issue is to you. Generally, if it comes from an association as a call to action, it will be high priority on either a state or national level.

Next, consider how you can personalize the message, putting a face on the issue. Don't be afraid to use an emotional appeal. For example, an antibiotic ban might raise your cost of production “x” amount, but knowing that probably won't raise much concern on the part of your legislator.

However, explaining how the ban will affect your ability to keep the family farm operating, provide jobs or provide for the health and well-being of the animals in your care can quickly get his or her attention.

Keep messages short and targeted. If there is urgency and you feel you have a good chance of getting through to the legislator or the assistant responsible for that area (agriculture, environment, trade, etc.), a phone call is fast, convenient and effective. If time allows, a well-written letter (handwritten has added impact, but only if readable) can be equally effective. Some offices prefer faxes, others do not. Check before sending one. As noted, emails are convenient, but if you are going to use one, take the same care to personalize the message as you would with a phone call, letter or fax.

Kush advises starting every communication with your name and address as a vivid reminder that you are a constituent. Your vote counts. Above all, be respectful. While emotion is good, ranting is not. If you're upset, count to 10 before dialing the phone. If you're still seeing red, count some more.

In the case of a letter, fax or email, whenever possible, let it sit overnight and re-read it in the morning before sending. It can make the difference between having your opinion heard or ignored.

Bill Gnatzig is a pork producer and freelance writer from River Falls, WI.

Grassroots Resources and Training

The Legislative Action Center on NPPC's web site (www.nppc.org, click “Take Action”) offers a variety of grassroots resources to help producers better understand the legislative process and build relationships with their congressmen and senators. These include sample letters, guidelines for organizing a congressional farm tour, tips for establishing and maintaining legislative relationships, frequently used legislative terms and more.

NPPC's LEADR (Legislative Education and Development Resource) program provides face-to-face public policy training in a brief and convenient format. “LEADR offers a 2½-hour training course designed to take some of the mystery out of the political process,” explains Bryan Humphreys, NPPC's director of grassroots programs. “It also provides guidance on proper ways to go about getting involved and being heard,” he says.

LEADR participants stay up-to-date through weekly e-letters and print newsletters, and also receive critical calls to action via the Internet. Training sessions are commonly scheduled through state pork associations. Interested individuals are encouraged to contact their state pork producer office, or Humphreys at humphreysb@nppc.org, (515) 278-8012.

More intensive training is offered through the Public Policy Leadership Institute (PPLI) program, consisting of three, multi-day Washington, DC-based training sessions, two during NPPC's spring/fall legislative seminars and one during the winter. Participants, nominated through their state associations, receive hands-on experience in the public policy process and a chance to become comfortable in the Washington, D.C. environment. Annual enrollment is limited.