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Hog farmers blast USDA:
Vow to get pork checkoff recall vote

Campaign for Family Farms
Columbia, Missouri

John Storm with hogs on his family farm.
John Storm with hogs on his family farm. Bosworth, Missouri. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Following a meeting with government officials in Washington D.C., hog farmers across the country are furious about attempts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deny them a vote on ending the mandatory pork checkoff. They vowed to continue their fight in the countryside, even if it means going to court.

Last May, the Campaign for Family Farms submitted signatures from over 19,000 U.S. hog farmers on a petition calling for a vote to end the mandatory pork checkoff. Federal law required just under 15,000 signatures for a vote.

"We are going to keep on fighting until we get the vote. We earned it -- we deserve it -- we want the vote now," said Minnesota hog farmer Paul Sobocinski, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Family Farms and member of the Land Stewardship Project.

Officials at the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) have stalled the vote for seven months while they conduct their highly criticized signature validation process. AMS plans to prepare a report on the process for Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman by the end of January.

"AMS’s verification process is a joke. They literally made up the rules as they went, without public input or scrutiny," said hog farmer Rhonda Perry, a Campaign spokesperson and member of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. "There is not one step in this process that anyone would consider a generally accepted practice for gathering complete and accurate information."

Campaign members said the validation process has been riddled with numerous problems. For example, AMS hired telemarketers to call hog farmers during harvest to ask them if they signed the petition and to mail in personal financial information to prove they were valid petition signers.

"Calling farmers during the busiest part of harvest is the wrong time to reach us if you need an 85 percent response rate, and that’s what AMS needed," said hog farmer Mark McDowell, a Campaign spokesperson and member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. "In addition to that, having a telemarketer ask us to send private information about our farming operation to a Washington D.C. post office box is a bad idea. A lot of farmers just won’t do it,"

Sobocinski added, "This entire process is way out of line. AMS has put an undue burden of proof on hog farmers. We need more documentation to vote on the checkoff than we did to get SHOP payments (Federal government relief payments to hog producers) -- and that’s because ending the checkoff would cost the National Pork Producers Council millions of dollars."

Some farmers have questioned the motives of AMS officials. "The fact is, some people at AMS have built their careers around administering mandatory checkoff programs. If producers vote to end these programs, those officials could be out of a job," said McDowell.

The Campaign is calling on Ag Secretary Glickman to exercise his authority and call for an immediate vote on the mandatory pork checkoff.

"It’s been over seven months now, and USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has shown that they are completely incompetent at validating the petition signatures. Glickman simply needs to acknowledge the mistakes, call the referendum, and hold the vote by March 1," said Perry.

The pork checkoff is a mandatory fee paid by hog farmers on every hog sold in the U.S. It generates $45-$55 million annually for the National Pork Board and the NPPC. Since it was established in 1986, the pork tax has generated over half a billion dollars, yet hog prices have hit historic lows and hog farmers’ share of the retail dollar has plummeted from 46 cents to its present rate of less than 20 cents. Many farmers also say the checkoff has been used to promote factory farms and the corporate takeover of the hog industry.

Also, the Campaign for Family Farms hailed a Federal court ruling that stopped USDA from releasing the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of hog farmers who signed the petition calling for a vote to end the mandatory pork checkoff. The court said releasing this information would be a violation of privacy and would undermine the secret ballot process. In July, the Farmers’ Legal Action Group, on behalf of hog farmers and the Campaign, filed a lawsuit against USDA to block the release of the information to the NPPC, meat packers, and anyone else who wanted it.

The Campaign for Family Farms is a coalition of seven farm and rural groups that includes the Land Stewardship Project (Minnesota), Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Wisconsin Rural Development Center, Indiana Campaign for Family Farms, and Community Farm Alliance (Kentucky).

Published in In Motion Magazine - January 18, 2000

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