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2 Iowans hold top pork jobs

(Thursday, Dec. 18, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Jerry Perkins, DesMoines Register, 12/16/03: Iowa hog producers Jon Caspers of Swaledale and Craig Christensen of Bouton lead, respectively, the National Pork Producers Council and the National Pork Board.

It's unusual for one state to simultaneously hold the two top national jobs in any commodity organization, but both Caspers and Christensen face unusually difficult circumstances.

The pork council and the pork board used to be close-knit organizations before the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a divorce decree. The split-up stemmed from a controversial and contested producer referendum that defeated the pork checkoff and led to a lengthy legal challenge to the constitutionality of the requirement.

Before the legal wrangling, the National Pork Board collected the mandatory pork checkoff fee of 40 cents for each $100 in hogs marketed, and contracted with the National Pork Producers Council to spend most of the money, which averages about $50 million a year.

Besides spending the checkoff money, the National Pork Producers Council also lobbied on behalf of its affiliated organizations.

It was eventually decided that a clearer demarcation needed to be made between the council's political activities and the spending of the checkoff money, which is supposed to be used for promotion, research, consumer information and communicating with pork producers and the public -but not on politics.

After the Agriculture Department redrew and tightened the boundaries between the two organizations, the pork board took back much of the money it had contracted to the National Pork Producers Council.

Both organizations are still dealing with the legal cloud hanging over the checkoff.

On Oct. 22, the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's ruling that the pork checkoff was unconstitutional. The checkoff continues to be collected under an order granted by the courts while the issue heads for the ultimate showdown before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Here are profiles of the two Iowans who are attempting to help their organizations deal with the rapidly changing pork business.

Jon Caspers

Jon Caspers will spend 120 days on the road this year fighting trade and political battles for the National Pork Producers Council. Last week, he was in Canada to meet with the Canadian Pork Council.

The Canadian sow herd has grown rapidly in recent years, and feeder pigs and market hogs are pouring over the border from Canada into the United States.

They are not headed south because they like the warmer temperatures. They are crossing the border because of the relative strength of the U.S. dollar compared to the Canadian dollar. That makes the United States an attractive market for Canadian hog producers.

That currency imbalance is shifting, Caspers said.

"As the Canadian dollar increases relative to the U.S. dollar, maybe they will start feeling the pain we've felt the past several years," Caspers said. "Hopefully, they'll stop the expansion of their sow herd."

The National Pork Producers Council also is looking at subsidies the Canadian government provides for its livestock farmers, such as an income insurance program.

"We're exploring that to see what impacts it might be having on U.S. hog producers," Caspers said. "If we had a level playing field, we'd be able to compete."

Meanwhile, Caspers and the pork council are keeping an eye south of the U.S. border, where the Mexican government is investigating charges by its domestic hog producers that the U.S. is dumping processed pork in that country.

Caspers traveled to Cancun, Mexico, just before the World Trade Organization held trade talks there in September. He made the trip to talk with Mexican producers about the dumping charges.

A preliminary decision by the Mexican government has been delayed and is still pending, Caspers said.

"We don't believe we have," Caspers said of the pork-dumping allegation. "We're continuing to defend the U.S. side in the case. We're encouraging the Mexicans to drop it."

In the 10 years since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico has become the second largest market for U.S. pork after Japan. Canada ranks as the third largest, Caspers said; then the rest of the world is as about as big as Canada.

"If Mexico put a quota on our pork, it would really hurt us," he said. "We don't want anything that would restrict our exports."

Closer to home for Caspers, who has been National Pork Producers Council president since March, is the domestic political dispute over a law that would have required the labeling of the country of origin of some food products, including pork, beef and lamb.

The National Pork Producers Council has opposed the labeling requirement, which was part of the 2002 farm bill. The council recently won a partial victory when Congress delayed the implementation of the labeling law for two years.

"I'm hoping that with the delay, all parties can step back, take some time and look at all the information," Caspers said. "Our concern is that the cost of labeling will far outweigh the benefits. We would never have opposed (country-of-origin labels) if we could see a benefit to producers."

Caspers imports about 6,000 head of Canadian feeder pigs a year for his hog operation. He says buying Canadian feeder pigs has nothing to do with the pork council's stance on country-of-origin labeling.

Pork that comes from hogs imported from Canada would have to be labeled as foreign, even if the Canadian pigs were fattened and slaughtered in the United States.

"The NPPC has been opposed to the country-of-origin labeling a lot longer than I have been president," Caspers said. "We've always thought the cost would outweigh the benefits."

Caspers, 49, started farming in 1976 after attending Ellsworth Community College.

"We were a big operation back then," he said. "But we're not anymore. There have been a lot of changes since then."

Caspers and his wife, Carol, raise 11,000 head of finishing pigs a year. Another 8,000 feeder pigs are sold to other farmers in partnership with Tom Floy, who is on the National Pork Board.

The mid-1980s farm crisis hit when Caspers was a young farmer, but he and his family pulled through. There have been some good times for hog producers, but since 1998 raising pigs has been a much tougher business, Caspers said.

"There's a lot more volatility," he said. "These days, the hog business is a whole different story."

Times have gotten a lot tougher financially for the National Pork Producers Council, too, since the breakup with the National Pork Board and the cancellation of the 2001 World Pork Expo because of the fear that visitors might bring foot-and-mouth disease from Europe.

The pork council had to slash its budget almost in half, Caspers said, and the organization asked hog farmers to voluntarily contribute 5 cents to the council for every $100 in hogs marketed.

Three-fourths of the money went to the National Pork Producers Council for political work, and the rest was sent to the 44 state hog associations aligned with the council. Since the voluntary investment program was instituted, 700 producers producing 19 million hogs have signed up.

Craig Christensen

Craig Christensen, 36, farms near Ogden with his father, Rex; brother, Cory; his wife, Carol; and their daughter, Margo, 2. The family sells 35,000 hogs a year and raises 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans.

After graduating from Northeast Missouri State, now known as Truman State University, Christensen worked in advertising and marketing in Des Moines for three years before fulfilling his dream of coming home to farm. Soon after he came back, Christensen was invited to a pork producers' meeting.

"They were positive and progressive and looking at the future," he said.

He joined the group, rose through the ranks and became president of the National Pork Board this year.

The board's recently approved 2004 budget calls for spending $45.7 million, including $5.5 million from reserves, on national and state programs in advertising, consumer information, retail and food-service marketing, export market promotion, production improvement, technology, swine health and pork safety.

Almost a third of the national program spending planned for 2004 is for new projects, Christensen said.

With the checkoff under legal attack and its future in doubt, Christensen said the pork board has to stay focused.

"You can't go into a shell," he said. "The checkoff is still the law of the land, and we still have to answer to producers."

Using his marketing and adverstising experience, Christensen moved to build a consensus for this year's pork board budget. Surveys were conducted, talks were held with pork-producing states, and 400 hog producers were enlisted to sit on committees.

There are differences between pork-producing regions and between different-sized hog farmers, Christensen said, but a consensus was reached.

"We agree on more than we disagree on," Christensen said. "We can't be all things to all people, but we can choose programs that are relevant to today's industry."

One of the biggest challenges facing hog producers is the rising concern about animal welfare and the criticism of modern hog-raising practices.

"Farmers are the original animal welfarists," Christensen said. "It's in the pork producer's best interest to provide the highest quality of life for our animals because that ensures the highest-quality product for consumers. My income will be less if I do not provide a quality, good, sound, clean environment for my animals."

The National Pork Board recognizes there are many ways to raise hogs, and it has provided different programs for different types of operations, Christensen said.

"Producers should have the right to produce pigs any way they want to -outside or inside," he said. "At the end of the day, our purposes are the same: produce the best-quality pork. Consumers also have the right to buy any product they want to. Consumers will drive the market. They will use their pocketbooks to decide what they will buy."

The problem is, he said, that not everyone wants everyone else to have a choice.

"PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has vegetarianism as an agenda, not the protection of animals," Christensen said. "They're trying to eliminate pork production. It's pork producers who are trying to provide for the welfare of their animals."

In response to concerns about animal welfare, the National Pork Board developed its Swine Welfare Assurance Program, or SWAP, so hog producers can show consumers that they are providing good care for their animals.

"If our customers are asking for something, we have a responsibility to provide them with something that will fill their needs," Christensen said.

The program also could answer the demands of some critics, he said.

"What the National Pork Board does is to provide tools, information and activities so pork producers can be successful," he said. "We provide services, not demonstrations or rallies."

Can the often rancorous debate over animal welfare be settled?

"I'm optimistic about that," Christensen said. "By engaging in the debate, we can show the scientific research and the reasons we do things."

In the end, Christensen said spending time on issues like animal welfare can benefit hog farmers. That's his reward for the time he spends with the National Pork Board.

"If you get involved, you hope you can benefit your operation and your neighbor's operation," he said.