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by Richard R. Oswald
Rockport, Missouri

(Monday, Nov. 11, 2002 -- CroChoice guest commentary) -- Checkoff beginnings date back to the heydays of family farms. Most of the checkoffs we have now were approved by a very different set of producers with different demographics than many of those present today. A good number who once voted left the roles of contributors when agriculture contraction across the country squeezed them out.

As a pork producer, I favored the pork checkoff and regarded it as a noble attempt at self-help, but today I am no longer a pork producer. My hog operation was a victim of the consolidation that still plagues all areas of American agriculture. In order to make a living I concentrated my labor where it would be most effective. In my case, that meant more hours behind the steering wheel of a row crop tractor or grain truck.

I think that most of us who voted in favor of checkoffs, in whatever area of agriculture, did so not so much to promote basic commodities for the commodities sake but rather to promote the people upon whose existence production of that commodity depended. We did it to make our farms and ranches better, more profitable places for our children and us. We dreamed of what increased demand would do for us financially. We had expectations that somehow our lives might be improved by higher prices that would allow just a little more time both for our families and ourselves. We had expectations that incomes might be enlarged through promotion rather than longer workdays and we craved the self-respect that successful marketing promised.

Many of the hopes we had have been forgotten but the checkoffs as well as consolidation of farms has continued. Many of us have now retired or work off the land. World demand may have improved but mechanization, technology, and genetics took the place of a lightened work load, and the increased production from those and other enhancements has more than nullified any positives that might have allowed higher prices for what we produce.

Many checkoff funded producer groups have developed beyond the needs of producer families. They've outgrown their roots and left behind the people they were supposed to help. In the case of NPPC [National Pork Producers Council], the basic commodity and the corporate business surrounding it took the spotlight to the exclusion of all else. It is obvious that a majority of producers have been disenfranchised and now they are making their dissatisfaction known in the only way that will gain them any notice. All it would have taken to avoid much of today's unrest was respect.

As our groups grow and expand, they become more than we bargained for. They take on the appearance of a large business that must promote and feed itself above fulfilling its original mandate. It's not enough to promote a product if the families who rely on profitable farming and livestock production to make their living are forgotten in the bargain. Groups must respect all farm and ranch families, not just the largest or wealthiest. Promotion isn't totally about big business or political deal making. They must honor our way of life and acknowledge that in the countryside, family men are more important than businessmen. They should remember that, without us, there is no group.

It just takes a little respect.