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What were you doing 20 years ago today?
The year is 1986 and you are a pork producer; your industry is in trouble. Pork consumption has been declining. Most consumers think your product is fat, unhealthy, and anything but cool. You were selling hogs for about $55 cwt. The biggest problem is that there is no way to fix these problems. The voluntary program “Nickels for Profit” is the industry’s first attempt at collecting funds for self-help programs, but it is bringing in very little cash. What the industry needs is a big idea.

That big idea was the mandatory national checkoff that would assess funds from all producers and importers. Only with this kind of war chest could the industry set out to change the image of pork. Of course, that is just what happened. The Pork Act was passed in 1985, and the first shot came in 1986.

I remember being at the National Livestock and Meat Board in Chicago when the new checkoff-funded advertising campaign was unveiled. As the new logo was revealed, the room of ag journalists sat in stunned science. “Pork, the Other White Meat, what the hell is that?” muttered the seasoned print reporter sitting beside me. We didn’t get it. Pork was not a white meat, and why would we want to associate with chicken: they were the bad guys. The new slogan was not a hit in farm country, and the thought of spending several million producer dollars to put it on national TV sounded downright scandalous.

It did not take long for those of us in agriculture to be proven wrong, and the boys at the ad agency to be proven right. After only 10 weeks on the air, the campaign was having an impact. Consumers responded to the new image and pork demand started to increase.

Lean was in; and the new lean, low fat, image of pork excited the American public.

Everyone was singing the praises of the new pork. Between 1987 and 2002, the consumer image of pork as a white meat increased by 57 percent. The Other White Meat slogan is the fifth most recognized advertising slogan in the U.S.

Today, the average American eats two pounds more pork a year than they did in 1986. The checkoff program also funded nutrition research on pork and started the development of the export market. In 1986, the U.S. was a net importer of pork, today 13 percent of all hogs are exported.

“The pork industry is substantially larger than it would have been without the act,” according to noted livestock economist Glen Grimes. Grimes told me 20 years ago we slaughtered 80 million hogs a year and that has grown to more than 100 million today.

It has not all been smooth sailing. Mistakes were made, consolidation changed the production side of the industry, and the legality of the program was challenged, but it survived. Yet, as the program begins a new era, it is a much different beast. Image is just part of the agenda, along with research, animal health, producer information and issues management. Accountability and return on investment (ROI) are also being stressed more than ever before.

“My dream for the future is for the pork industry to remain profitable and to provide a good living for my family and the next generation,” said pork producer Lynn Harrison.

That future will offer some unique challenges and opportunities. While most large operations will focus on producing lean pork, some smaller operations are specializing in producing breeds with more fat. Some consumers and chefs are seeking this different kind of meat. Danita Rodibaugh, National Pork Board President and Indiana producer, sees an industry producing a variety of differentiated products.

While much has changed over the past 20 years, one thing has remained the same. “The most powerful force in the world is the leverage resulting from organization.” That statement by former National Pork Producer Executive Director Orville Sweet gets to the heart of the program.

Like it or not, the checkoff program has brought all sectors of the industry together to work for the common good. A unified industry is one that can solve problems, create opportunities and withstand attack.

While attending the National Pork Industry Forum recently, I saw that unity in action. Hundreds of producers from across the country - large and small, Republican and Democrat - working together to benefit all producers. This is the true legacy of the 20-year-old checkoff program.

This farm news was published in the March 15, 2006 issue of Farm World.