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It’s time to find our bootstraps & start pulling
“God helps those who help themselves,” that is a phrase I heard a lot growing up.

For a long time I thought it was from the Bible; it is not. As a kid I was often exhorted to “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Since I wore only P F Flyers, I had no idea what bootstraps were or how pulling on them was going to improve my math grade.

Our language is full of phrases that laud the virtues of self reliance. Most of them come from our pioneer and agricultural past.

Our pioneer forefathers carved a mighty nation out of what was a wilderness. American farmers developed the most efficient and productive food and fiber production system in history all by themselves. While government, industry, and academic institutions have helped, it has been primarily the ingenuity and individual investment of farmers that have created the agriculture industry we have today.

So why is it when some farmers are asked to invest in their future through a self directed promotion and research program, does the hair on the back of their necks stand up and they start hurling vile and malicious insults at their neighbors? Say the world “checkoff” in a room of producers, and you will instantly divide the room into two camps. One group will swear by the power of checkoff programs; the other group will swear at the first group.

In Indiana, we are currently in the midst of yet another checkoff debate. A bill to impose a mandatory checkoff program is moving through the legislature. The funds would be used to promote the state’s corn industry, help develop the behind-the-times Hoosier ethanol industry, and perform other market development activities that would increase the price of corn in the state. Yet opponents of the concept have come out of the woodwork to try and stop the effort as they have done six times previously in the past two decades.

What is different today is that we have a long history of what good producer checkoff programs can do. The beef, pork, soybean and dairy programs are just a few of the examples of what pooling producer dollars and investing them in our industry can do.

The beef and pork export markets that today represent a significant demand sector of the market are a direct result of checkoff investments in market development. The ethanol and soy biodiesel markets that are becoming factors in increasing producer prices would not have developed without checkoff investments.

All of that is history; however, what about the future? American farmers will be facing some serious challenges in the next few years, challenges that could wipe out many family operations and significantly change the structure of American agriculture. Animal rights, environmental regulations, animal and plant diseases, zoning and land use restrictions, diet and nutrition information are just a few issues that will impact each and every one of us in the very near future. Who is going to step up and help us fight these issues? Where will the direction and, most importantly, the money come from?

Farmer attitudes about checkoff seem to be changing. Recent survey data from both the soybean and pork associations indicate that the majority of their members support checkoff programs. As these programs put self-help tools in the hands of farmers, they are realizing the value of investing in their industry. The negative minority will always have a loud voice; but if you feel investing a small part of your profits in the future of your industry is important, then you need to speak up for the checkoff program.

Checkoffs are farmer-funded and farmer-directed. They represent our chance to help ourselves. This self-help philosophy has made the industry strong in the past and will be needed to face the challenges of the future.

We cannot bet our future on government programs, private industry, or academia. It is time to grab those bootstraps and start pulling.

This farm news was published in the February 8, 2006 issue of Farm World.