The Supreme Court heard arguments challenging the constitutionality of the mandatory beef checkoff program Dec. 8. The decision, expected in the spring of 2005, will likely determine the fate of the mandatory pork checkoff. Midwestern hog farmers with the Campaign for Family Farms (CFF), which is a named plaintiff in the mandatory pork checkoff case, attended the hearing.
"Hog farmers are sick and tired of paying into a system that promotes factory farms and industrial agriculture over independent producers," said Rhonda Perry, a Missouri hog farmer and member of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. "Mandatory checkoffs have been fueling the demise of family farms."
"We have fought long and hard to end the mandatory pork checkoff," said independent Minnesota hog farmer Rich Smith, member of the Land Stewardship Project. "We won the referendum and two federal court decisions. We are confident the Supreme Court will uphold these decisions and terminate the mandatory checkoffs once and for all."
In 1998, the CFF initiated what has become a national movement against mandatory commodity checkoffs with a petition drive calling for a hog farmer referendum to decide if the program should be ended. That led to a vote conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in August and September 2000 in which over 30,000 U.S. hog producers voted 53 percent to 47 percent to terminate the mandatory pork checkoff. Following the announcement of the vote results in January 2001, the then U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman ordered the termination of the program. Hog farmers have paid more than $170 million into the pork checkoff since Secretary Glickman announced the results of the referendum, and will continue to be forced to pay into the checkoff until the Supreme Court makes its final decision in early 2005.
However, in a move which outraged hog farmers around the country and various members of Congress, the newly appointed Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman cut a backroom deal with the National Pork Producers Council in February 2001 which led to throwing out the results of a democratic vote and forcing hog farmers to continue paying into the checkoff program. This action led to CFF's lawsuit against the USDA, which specifically claimed the mandatory pork checkoff violates hog producers' constitutional rights by infringing on the First Amendment.
In ruling the pork checkoff unconstitutional in October 2003, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the pork checkoff "compels (hog farmers) to express a message with which they do not agree," and struck down the entire Pork Act. Federal District Court Judge Richard Enslen ruled in October 2002 that the pork checkoff forces hog farmers to pay into a program that they believe is contrary to their interests because it supports factory-style hog production and corporate control of the industry. The checkoff, therefore, is "unconstitutional and rotten," Judge Enslen ruled.
"We've come here to take on the commodity groups which do nothing but carry water for corporate agribusiness," said Wilmont Minnesota hog farmer, a member of the Land Stewardship Project. "We will terminate the mandatory checkoffs, and in doing so, we'll begin to reclaim American agriculture for family farmers and American citizens."