What is the biggest issue facing the pork industry today? Odor control? Manure management? PRRS? Hog prices?

Good answers; all wrong. Realistically, I think the biggest issues facing the pork industry today are legal, regulatory and environmental.

Justified or not, we are embroiled in a period of environmental and regulatory awareness. The decisions made in your county courthouse, the state capitol and in Washington, DC, will affect this generation of pork producers and all that follow.

The message is clear - the pork industry has a window of opportunity, probably 3-5 years, to help establish the legislative and regulatory rules within which hogs will be raised.

And, as always, there's a critical shortage of funds. The legal counsel and lobbying expertise needed to have an impact on the policy-makers is expensive.

Where will the dollars come from? Not the current checkoff, that's for sure. Those funds are earmarked "for pork promotion, research and producer education only."

That leaves the pork industry with the critical challenge of generating non-checkoff dollars - often referred to as "unrestricted funds."

The fundraising issue has been raised at several state pork producer annual meetings this winter. Industry leaders are pushing for positive action by the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) delegate body in early March. Those delegates urgently need your input.

But first, let's pinpoint the real issues. NPPC Executive Vice President Al Tank lists these:

* Legal issues - Precedent-setting cases are on court dockets that will affect every pork producer - regardless of size. "Every pork producer and allied industry person needs to understand that there are a whole group of people that do not want the pork industry to be successful. They are very active, very aggressive, and they are professionals."

* Legislative and regulatory component - As the EPA proceeds to draft effluent guidelines, for example, realize those guidelines will tell every state regulator what they shall do to regulate the pork industry. The ability to manage that guideline-setting process is critical.

* The use of checkoff dollars is being narrowed, not broadened. The demand for unrestricted funds is growing.

So, what are we talking here in terms of dollars needed? Tank, with his considerable experience in Washington, DC, takes a shot. Assuming any fundraising effort would have a provision to return an equitable portion to the states for their legal and lobbying efforts, $3 to 3.5 million would be needed to cover the 44 member states. Another $1.5 million is needed to be truly effective in Washington. "If you really want to do it right, shoot for $7 million," says the NPPC CEO.

That's not chicken feed!

But, of course, it's relative. The total hog slaughter this year will approach 100,000,000 head. A penny apiece would generate a million bucks. A dime apiece would put $10 million in the pot. Sounds like another checkoff.

Oh, if it were only that easy. Remember, checkoff funds cannot be used for this political, policy-setting work.

What if it was a voluntary checkoff? A good question. It's been posed to AMS (Agricultural Marketing Service), the overseers of commodity checkoff programs. No answer yet.

We could reduce the current mandatory checkoff from .45"percent" of market value/hog to .44"percent", then pick up the .01"percent" difference as a voluntary contribution. Similar to the penny-a-pig approach, this would generate about $1 million. Roll the .45"percent" checkoff back to .35"percent" and you could add about a dime/hog to the unrestricted coffers.

Again, the legality of that approach has not been ruled on by the AMS.

If the "voluntary" option is acceptable, could producers request a refund, as was the case before the legislative checkoff passed? AMS is studying it.

Then there's the much bigger issue. Would checkoff managers be subjected to threats of a refund request to gain leverage for a cause?

Or, try this: Establish an industry war chest or pool of funds. Draw in all members of the pork production chain. Logically, all with a vested interest in maintaining a viable pork industry should be willing to contribute. Fees could be allocated; shares sold; an industry bond - call it the pork "war bonds" - could be established. A board or oversight group would guide the activities associated with these funds.

Tank admits, "Some will see this as a money grab by NPPC." His response: "I would give up some of the checkoff money if I could have more money to do the right thing. We could always use the 'other' money as (we do) checkoff money, but we can't use checkoff money to do what we need to do." Is there a better way to get the whole pork chain involved? Some new thoughts, new answers are needed. I've always marveled at the thoughtfulness, innovation pork producers have, time and time again, brought to the table to meet and solve such challenges.

This is a time for more unselfish, innovative thinking. Please share your ideas with your delegates to the annual meeting (March 5-6). Time's a-wastin'.