Frequently referred to as the "mortgage lifter", hog production for generations allowed farmers the means to add value to the corn they grew.
No where has that been more true than in Iowa, the nation's most prolific pork state, where hogs outnumber people 5 to 1. According to the Iowa Pork Producers Association, the industry provides 85-thousand jobs and has an annual economic impact of 12-billion dollars.
But during the past 20 years more of the production has migrated into fewer hands. And the trend towards large-scale so-called factory farms has coincided with the demise of two-thirds of the nation's pork producers.
Many of the surviving hog farmers claim the National Pork Producers Council, or NPPC, favors large-scale pork production over so-called "family farms".
Late in the summer of 2000, producers voted, by a narrow margin, to terminate the mandatory check-off program that finances many of the NPPC's activities. But a series of legal maneuvers has cast a cloud over the vote and the future of the program. John Nichols reports.
Demonstrators: "Family Farms, Yes–Factory Farms, No."
In 1997, the Campaign for Family Farms, a coalition of grassroots rural groups, marched to National Pork Producers Council headquarters outside Des Moines, Iowa. The group posted a sign reading "National Factory Farms Council", and called for an end to the mandatory pork checkoff.
Larry Ginter: "I want my checkoff dollars back."
Under the mandatory program at that time, a farmer marketing 1,000 hogs annually, paid about $450.00 into the checkoff fund, which was administered by the National Pork board.
Most of the money was earmarked for promotion and research conducted by the National Pork producers Council, or NPPC. But all of that was about to be challenged.
Larry Ginter: "Today is a great day for agriculture because hog farmers across the U.S. are taking a big step towards reclaiming our industry."
In April of ‘99, the same rural activists, armed with piles of petitions, announced they had enough signatures to force a vote on whether the pork checkoff should be continued.
In August and September of 2000, America's hog farmers voted 15,951 to 14,396 to terminate the checkoff.
On January 11th of this year, then Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman directed USDA to prepare to terminate the checkoff.
The following day, NPPC and pork producers from Michigan filed suit against USDA, and applied for a temporary restraining order prohibiting USDA from shutting the program down.
One week later, a judge in Michigan granted the restraining order prohibiting USDA from terminating the program.
The following day, January 20th, Ann Veneman took over the helm of the USDA and on February 28th, USDA announced it had struck an agreement with NPPC that ultimately would keep the checkoff in place.
Wayne Demmer: This is the whole 'joke' about this thing. We had a democratic right to vote, and they stripped us by making a deal with the National Pork Producers and the USDA, to keep the checkoff intact.
Wayne Demmer markets more than 3,000 hogs annually from his farm in Northeast Iowa. He claims the settlement violates the principles of democracy.
Wayne Demmer: All of our wars, we always talked about fighting for democracy, for our freedom of speech, our freedom of rights. Well, if we're going to strip the pork producers of their freedom of a vote, who will be next? Will we be denied freedom of assembly? Freedom of speech? And that's why I'm very upset at what has happened.
Barb Determan: "They have to recognize the fact, that we question democracy from the beginning of the referendum...."
NPPC President Barb Determan markets more than 5,000 hogs annually from her homestead and other sites near Early, Iowa.
In addition to numerous voting irregularities, Determan claims, on January 5th of 2000, the Agricultural Marketing Service informed NPPC, The National Pork Board and the Campaign for Family Farms, that there were not enough signatures on the petition to force the vote.
Barb Determan: "According to the temporary restraining order issued by the judge in Michigan, the Secretary did not appear to have the authority to call for that vote because 15% threshold was never reached.
Dan Glickman: "I absolutely had the authority...."
Dan Glickman served as America's Secretary of Agriculture from March of '95 until January 20th of this year.
Despite his own beliefs in the merits of the checkoff, Glickman claims its future should have been determined by the will of the people.
Dan Glickman: "I happen to believe the program was an effective program. But the problem you still have, is a majority of people who voted, voted no. And you know, sometimes democracy is just one hell of a political system. It would be nice to have an authoritarian system, where you didn't have to go out to the people and ask them to give you their opinion. But in this case, we did and a majority of the people said they didn't like it."
At the request of the NPPC, 30 U.S. Congressmen asked the General Accounting Office, or GAO to determine whether the petition was valid, what factors led Secretary Glickman to call for the referendum and whether he had the authority to do so.
On September 28, 2000, the GAO released this report outlining its findings.
The investigation revealed the petition validation process was flawed in several key areas, resulting in an inability to determine whether 15% of America's pork producers had called for the vote. Nevertheless, the GAO concluded Secretary Glickman did, in fact, have authority to order the referendum.
Ann Veneman: "You know, I came into the USDA, inheriting a situation... "
Current Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman took over direction of the USDA on January 20, 2001.
Under advice of USDA counsel, Veneman signed the settlement agreement with NPPC keeping the pork checkoff in place."
J. Michael Kelly: "That petition drive failed..."
J. Michael Kelly, is the Acting General Counsel at USDA, who incidentally counseled both Glickman and Veneman.
He agrees that Glickman had authority to call for the vote. While the official rules for the referendum seem to indicate the checkoff would be shut down if a majority of producers vote for termination, Kelly claims that since less than 15% of the nation's pork producers signed the petition, the vote was advisory in nature and not a binding referendum. And he claims the settlement was the appropriate legal remedy.
J. Michael Kelly: "That was an effort which was initiated by USDA. After Secretary Veneman arrived, she found herself facing a situation and asked for advice from the General Counsel's office as to how to proceed. And with advice from our office and from the Department of Justice attorneys who were handling the matter, it was determined that we should approach the NPPC, well, in fact, all the plaintiffs, ah, in an effort to try to work out a basis for settlement. And we did that. "
The settlement agreement would restructure the relationship between the NPPC and the National Pork Board.
The NPPC would no longer receive any checkoff funds and would focus on policy related legislative and regulatory issues. The National Pork Board would assume promotion and research duties, and would be required to maintain its own offices, staff, and communications.
Nevertheless, Glickman is skeptical of the arrangement.
Dan Glickman: "The problem you've got is, is the settlement is kind of inconsistent with full scaled principles of democracy in this case. Now saying that, I think the law is not 100% clear. I'm not so pigheaded, excuse the terminology that I didn't understand why that settlement was made. But I think, still, the majority of the votes should have been honored."
Larry Ginter: "We're here today to protect the sacredness of the ballot box."
The Campaign for Family Farms also believes the majority of the votes should have been honored. On May 14th, they announced their own suit against USDA, demanding the program be shut down immediately.
While opponents vow they'll never give up, Determan claims the battle is pretty much over.
Barb Determan: "As far as I'm concerned, it's a done deal. The court will listen to a few more arguments, but those will be settled over the next few months."
Wayne Demmer: "I just want to let the pork producers know that this is not going to die. It's not going to stop, because we will fight them until the last court in the land to uphold democracy. Because that's what's been stripped of the American Pork Producer."
For Market To Market, I'm John Nichols.