Reaction to the study is emblematic of the growing rift between big and small players in the pork industry. Another area of contention is the referendum on the pork checkoff. Results of the vote will be in next month and, regardless of the outcome, will help determine the shape and direction of the industry for years to come. John Nichols has this update.
Rhonda Perry raises hogs too, but other than that, the two have little in common.
Johnson's hogs are raised in confinement buildings and about half of them are marketed through contracts with packers.
Karl Johnson: "pork production has changed like the world has changed. It's become more consolidated. how many hardware stores are there left? Not very many small hardware stores, not very many car dealers, implement dealers, that type of things. Farms are getting larger. and pork producers have gotten larger. i don't know that i'm necessarily in favor of that, but something that happens if you're going to stay economically viable, you have to get larger and that's kind of the name of the game in the world today. "
Perry's pasture farrowed hogs are raised outdoors near Armstrong, Missouri and marketed directly to consumers through a producer-owned co-op called patchwork family farms.
Rhonda Perry: "unfortunately these projects come about because we don't have fair and open markets and that's not a good thing. And the environment in which this project took place and others will take place you know is a very negative environment for farmers and rural communities. and its not good that we have to have these types of projects in order to survive but it is good that we have figured out how to do it and we've been creative and we've been able to provide a quality product to consumers."
In addition to philosophical differences in husbandry and marketing, Perry and Johnson are diametrically opposed on a referendum determining the future of the pork checkoff.
This past September, pork producers voted on whether to continue the mandatory program.
Currently, a farmer marketing 1,000 hogs annually, pays about $450.00 into the checkoff fund, which is administered by the national pork board.
Most of the money is earmarked for promotion and research conducted by the national pork producers council, or N.P.P.C.
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 1999, a handful of rural activists, armed with piles of petitions, announced they had more than enough signatures to force a vote on whether the checkoff should be continued.
The campaign for family farms, a coalition of seven grassroots rural groups, gathered signatures for about a year to force the vote.
Larry Ginter: "i want my checkoff dollars back!"
It wasn?t the first time the group aired their dissatisfaction with the checkoff or the national pork producers council.
in 1997, the campaign for family farms marched to N.P.P.C. headquarters, where they posted a sign reading "national factory farms council."
Johnson, a past president of the national pork producers council, says promotion is a key reason why producers should vote to continue the checkoff.
Karl Johnson: "I think people need to remember, go back before we had the mandatory check off, back to the mid '80's when we were losing demand quite rapidly, pork was not considered the meat at all to eat and after the check off came in place, we came up with "pork the other white meat" campaign. Through that efforts, we really changed the public's perception of pork. these things have just contributed to the survival, if you will, of us as independent pork producers."
There's little doubt "the other white meat" has been a successful promotional campaign for the pork industry.
a recent study conducted by northwestern university revealed the "other white meat" to be the fifth most recognizable slogan in contemporary advertising history.
Meanwhile, a Texas A study, commissioned by the national pork board, estimated producers reap a 5-to-1 net return ratio on their checkoff dollars.
Rhonda Perry: "what we're here today to say is that this gravy train to the NPPC is coming to a halt..."
Those opposed to the checkoff, cite different numbers. According to the campaign for family farms, pork producers have paid more than half-a-billion dollars into the fund since the program became mandatory in 1986.
During that time the campaign claims 250,000 pork producers, or 2 out of every 3, have gone out of business.
And the hog farmers share of the retail dollar plummeted from 46-cents at the checkoff?s inception to about 21-cents today.
Perry, who favors a voluntary checkoff, claims independent pork producers are paying into a system that yields little if any benefit.
Perry: "we're paying for that. We're paying for their lobbying activities and you know through corporate control of our markets and we?re just saying we're not going to pay anymore, we're not going to pay the checkoff anymore for commodity groups to say they represent us and we're not going to continue to pay into and participate in a system that doesn't work for us at our expense. and you know, by doing that, it actually changes the playing field a little bit."
Kathleen Marrigan: "congress in a recent legislation requested that all the boards, all of these checkoff programs provide an evaluation in the year 2002 to congress demonstrating their effectiveness...."
Kathleen Marrigan is the administrator of the agricultural marketing service... a division of the u-s-d-a charged with conducting the referendum.
Marrigan estimates about 100,000 pork producers are eligible to vote and claims there will be a thorough verification process.
Kathleen Marrigan: "all the people who vote at the local county FSA offices, their names and addresses will be posted for anyone to view and people can challenge people?s votes. We?ll be investigating those challenges and depending upon the volume, it will take some time, but we hope to have an outcome to announce sometime before the end of the year. "
Next week, the votes will be ed at county FSA offices across the nation.
And no matter the outcome of the referendum, it?s likely the struggle for control of the American pork industry will continue.
For Market to Market, I?m John Nichols.