Pork producers welcomed excellent profits, fabulous demand here and abroad, all in the face of near-record levels of production in 2004.

Everyone seems to be looking around, quietly asking: “How long do you think this will last?”

Most of the hog economics gurus seem pretty comfortable predicting reasonable profits well into 2005. But as 2004 fades, there are ample issues and concerns that will spill into 2005.

Congress' unCOOL Move

Congress' rejection of a voluntary country-of-origin labeling program for pork and other meats, fruits and vegetables was decidedly un-cool. For the life of me, I can't understand why a program, which COOL zealots so adamantly profess to be good and beneficial to all, needs a government mandate. Certainly, if the rewards of COOL exist, they will surface under a voluntary program — and at a fraction of the cost.

If the cost estimate near $3.9 billion for the first year alone is even remotely close, I would argue there are far more urgent needs in the pork industry. For starters, I'd notch out a healthy chunk for research to solve the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) virus conundrum.

In late October, the National Pseudorabies Control Board announced that all 50 states are now free of pseudorabies in commercial swine for the first time in history. Hallelujah! If the U.S. remains free of infection for the next 12 months, we will be declared, “officially free” of the disease. Having wrestled this often-elusive foe into submission, now would be a good time to redouble our efforts to beat back PRRS.

BSE Flashback

While writing this column, news of inconclusive tests for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in a cow were being forwarded to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, IA. The news came like a flashback to Dec. 23, 2003, when the first case of BSE in the U.S. was confirmed. Thankfully, the suspect cow was confirmed negative and the U.S. livestock industry breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The upside of the BSE situation is we've learned a great deal about disease surveillance, testing, and the impact of disease on our export markets.

Then There's the Checkoff

The Supreme Court's decision on the beef checkoff case, scheduled to go before the Justices on Dec. 8, will have far-reaching effects on the structure of pork industry governance and pork positioning in years to come. A final ruling is expected early in 2005.

The overseers of pork checkoff funds, the National Pork Board, are not sitting on their collective hands, however. Plans are underway to roll out a brand new extension of the highly successful Pork — The Other White Meat campaign early next year.

On a Positive Note

One of the most unique and gratifying stories to cross my desk this year was a Kansas City Star article entitled: “Students Can Swap Pigskin for Sheepskin.”

No, it is not a story about football scholarships. It's much better.

The article explained how a private university in southeastern Missouri, Lindenwood University, tapped into the age-old bartering concept for the betterment of cash-strapped students. The “Pork for Tuition” program is aimed at helping rural families defray the cost of a college education.

Having demonstrated a student's financial need, family farmers are cleared to deliver hogs to a designated USDA-approved processing facility. The school pays the processing fees and in return receives roasts, sausages and burgers for preparation in the student cafeteria.

To meet Lindenwood U's annual tuition of $11,200, participants must deliver market animals to cover just 20% of the tab. At recent hog prices, 15-20 market weight hogs would cover a student's tuition for a year. Room-and-board is $6,600/year, but students can work off up to $1,800 (10 hr./week) through on-campus jobs.

“I don't want anybody dropping out of school because of money,” stated Lindenwood President Dennis Spellman in the Kansas City Star article. He launched the bartering program in 2000 and, to date, nearly two dozen students have taken advantage of the program.

Can We Stand Prosperity?

When the hog market has been good for a spell, pork industry economists are fond of saying: “Pork producers just can't stand too much prosperity.”

The not-so-hidden message — when profitability returns, producers often turn to expansion. Wouldn't it be great to prove them wrong this time? Slow, controlled growth to meet real demand makes sense. Let's shoot for that.

Serve pork this Christmas and often in the new year. Best wishes to you and yours for a strong and profitable pork industry in 2005.