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The Pork Checkoff:
On the history of the pork checkoff debate
and court ruling

George Naylor,
Greene County, Iowa

The court ruling the pork checkoff is unconstitutional is a great victory for family farmers, whether they raise hogs or not. The ruling inspires this farmer who chafes under the mandatory half percent soybean checkoff to reflect on my checkoff experience.

I was a young farmer on the very first Iowa Corn Promotion Board in 1978. I got on the ballot by getting signatures on a petition whereas everyone else was placed on the ballot by the Iowa Corn Growers Association as per the law they passed instituting the checkoff. I got a real education by getting signatures from older farmers who had farmed during the Parity years before 1953. They were usually not Farm Bureau members and thought "corn promotion" was a code word for having cheap corn so we could export more. They were right, I found out. At least that was the theory. Cheap corn was really the aim of the Corn Growers and ADM who they often consulted. More exports never materialized nor did higher corn prices. It just resulted in recurrent crashes in livestock prices and ever-bigger corporate control of livestock production.

The second aim of the checkoff was to mislead farmers and the public about agricultural markets. The promise of new exports and new uses was to supplant the knowledge of those older farmers that the only time farmers got a fair shake was when it was the law of the land that farmers were guaranteed a share of the national market at a fair price. That came about with the New Deal farm programs with the non-recourse loan -- farmers knew they could seal their grain, and if the grain trade wasn't willing to pay the loan rate, the government reserve became the market of last resort. A price floor was established for grain that indirectly set a floor under livestock prices. Otherwise, cheap grain led farmers to feed more and walk their corn to market on four hooves.

Another aspect of the subterfuge was that price supports cost the government too much. The reality is that price supports cost the government nothing. The grain trade pays the price to the farmer. The cost of storing grain in the reserve along with any cost in administering the program or land set-asides would be minimal compared to all the income supports in the form of direct payments in the farm bills that followed 1953. Any grain brought back on the market at higher trigger prices could actually bring in a profit. Representative Wayne Cooley of North Carolina, chair of the House Ag Committee in the 1950's testified that farmers received 100% of parity from 1941 until 1953 and that farm programs from 1933 to 1953 actually did produce a small profit for the government.

When the Iowa Corn Promotion Board got together to figure out how to spend the checkoff dollars, we always had experts from the grain export council which was funded by Cargill, ADM, etc. Iowa State U. would always be there to tell us how to invest in new research to increase production. It turned out that well over half or even three quarters of the money went straight to USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service which funded joint projects with Cargill, ADM, and livestock feeding companies in foreign countries. We really had nothing to deliberate about because the law establishing the board forbid any activity relating to politics.

When somebody got the brilliant idea that we should collect the checkoff on sealed grain -- potentially getting the checkoff money twice on each bushel of grain, I objected. A few other farmer members weren't too sure either. But after the Chair expressed his opinion, the vote was taken-19 to 1. So it was an object of faith that corn promotion would be good for farmers and everybody was supposed to preach that farm programs were no good. This religion finally gained its ultimate prize in Freedom to Farm. The only thing is that reality proved more complicated. If it hadn't been for over 30 million acres of land in CRP, many acres idled in the European Union, and the billions of direct payments annually dished out despite the rhetoric of Freedom to Farm, rural America would have experienced the winter of 1933 again. That's when my father hauled corn to town and found out that the price of corn had been 10 cents a bushel the day before, but on that day, the elevator wasn't even buying. Tears always came to his eyes when he recounted many of the neighbors losing their farms in the 1920's and 30's.

As long as the farmers and ranchers around the world are pitted against each other and have no alternative but to increase production in the face of lower prices, the only beneficiaries of checkoffs are the big corporations who can increase their volume and margins. If the American people really knew how they and farmers have been lied to, they would wonder what has really happened to our country. Unfortunately, today's campaign tactics and shallow, misleading news reporting leaves the average citizen bewildered or numb.

The court finding the pork checkoff unconstitutional is a great victory. I'm encouraged that we can end the similarly unfair mandatory soybean checkoff. As the ruling pointed out, I could use the $50 collected on 2000 bushels of soybeans in many other ways, like paying dues for membership in an organization that I truly support. Having the Bill of Rights, written over 200 years ago, still offer its citizens some protection from tyranny has to be some solid ground from which we can move ahead and jump for joy. George Naylor -- a proud member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement-a group in the Campaign For Family Farms.

-- Thursday, 31 October, 2002

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Published in In Motion Magazine, November 30, 2002

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