In 1997, a coalition of grassroots rural groups marched to National Pork Producers Council headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa. The coalition was calling for an end to the mandatory pork checkoff. Under the program at that time, a farmer marketing 1,000 hogs a year paid about $450.00 into the checkoff fund. The money was administered by the National Pork Board. Most of the money was earmarked for promotion and research conducted by the NPPC.
That protest was the launching point for a series of judicial battles, which this week took another turn. Here's a brief history of the legal struggles over the controversial checkoff fund.
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 Campaign for Family Farms, 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 2000, 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.
Under the agreement, the NPPC no longer received any Checkoff funds and focused on policy- related legislative and regulatory issues. The National Pork Board assumed promotion and research duties.
Larry Ginter: "We're here today to protect the sacredness of the ballot box."
In May of 2001, The Campaign for Family Farms filed suit against USDA, demanding that the Checkoff program be shut down immediately.
And this week, a United States District Court Judge in Michigan ruled the Checkoff is unconstitutional. Saying the mandatory fee levied against pork producers violates their First Amendment rights of free speech, the federal court judge ordered Secretary of Agriculture Veneman and her agency to cease collecting the fee within 30 days.
Larry Ginter: "I'm just very delighted. I think the judge, you know, he called it tyrannical, sinful and rotten that we have to pay into the Checkoff and I think he laid it right on the line right there."
Craig Christensen: "As of today we're going to keep acting, business as usual. We're very concerned what could happen."
In addition to marketing 30,000 hogs annually, Craig Christensen is the Vice President of the National Pork Board.
He claims the Checkoff has been instrumental in increasing demand for pork both domestically and abroad. And he says if the Checkoff goes away, he and his fellow pork producers will suffer substantial losses.
Christensen: "I feel that I lost, and the American pork producer lose, a promotional program that was second to none. The Checkoff was designed to help promote, educate and do research for the pork industry. The pork Checkoff-funded programs such as "Pork: The Other White Meat,' all our promotional campaigns did a great job of promoting our product that I can not do individually."