Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Alaska Ag.....Why Ag Matters

Not to trample on the Palmer radio program of the same name, folks.

No, this is about *why* agriculture matters here.

The hope

If you are a fan of eating daily, it will give you serious pause to consider the fact that over 95% of the food(s) consumed here in Alaska, are freighted in.  If it doesn't, it should.  This in spite of the BAC, and the Division of Agriculture, and the farming boondoggles of the past (Pt MacKenzie, Delta grain, the two dairy fiascoes, the seafood facility that is now Changepoint in Anchorage, and others). In spite of the land programs, the trusts that hold title, in spite of the explosive growth of local producers, etc.

The reality

Only a tiny fraction of lands can even be held in private hands in one form or another. Around 99 percent of our land is federal, state, or native allotment. Add in the amount gobbled up by the university (a land grant college) and mental health trust, and it leaves slim pickings indeed for anyone else.  With a state government who is dire need of cash to cover its bloated expenses, the very idea of promoting agriculture through inexpensive (or free) land lotteries or sales is preposterous.

Whether you are one in a succession of generational farmers/ranchers, or a cheechako who just wants to try to "grow something", you face the same challenges as everyone else: To persevere against adversity.  The short growing season, generally poor and cold soils, assorted pests (diseases, insects, and wildlife), the high costs of land, of growing supplies, of equipment, of it all. Foods that are easily grown in the verdant soils of the L48, can be impossible, or impossibly hard to do here.  Livestock production presents yet another set of unique and impossible conditions.....long cold winters that demand copious quantities of high quality forages and grains, if the end result desired is a physically mature animal. It is nearly an insurmountable obstacle in itself, just acquiring land to farm or ranch. But to raise those cattle and hogs (and sheep and goats, etc) requires land to actually be in production-while many acres sit fallow for a number of reasons.

Then there is the insurance issue. There is one single provider for the entire state, basically. You either conform to the underwriter's conditions, or not. No other options, and there has been no movement to correct this problem. Possible solutions might be creating a pool and then purchasing group policies, or addressing specific tort reforms in this state so the risks are lower, for example. Our market for insurance is tiny, compared to many states, and this is a handicap that cannot be overcome without a significant change.

There remain the financial challenges. While we have available the BAC, it is fraught with CBC members. Not being an FDIC entity, they do not need to adhere to "fair lending practices", and they don't. They will loan money to folks who have already gone bankrupt, or are in default, deny loans to people who they deem "unable" to farm according to their own yardstick of the moment, and by selecting only those who meet their ideals of industry, they hamstring agriculture overall. Commercial lending from banks is nearly impossible, due to the inherent risks of farming in general. If you intend on subdividing for profit, however, it is readily available.

The land banks are notoriously hard to work with.  In this state, there are only a few entities which have lands in significant amounts: The University of Alaska (a land grant college), the Mental Health Trust, and the Farmland trust are the major landholders. In theory, the university and mental health organizations should divest themselves of assets in times of financial distress-which we are experiencing today. In practice, land is seldom available from either of these, and when they are, it is at market value (read: assessed as for residential lots in most cases) and thus, out of reach of most folks wanting to follow the ag path. The FarmLand Trust is a little different, but there again, matching the right parcel to the entrepreneur can be a tedious process, and not always successful.

There is an entrenched perception across nearly all platforms, that "agriculture" somehow only constitutes row crops, forages, and grains.  If you have enough acreage with cattle, then you're somehow elevated into the "industry" category.  This is a simple summation of a complicated set of circumstances and ideals. There is an emphasis on sheer physical size, over determination and production that is different, or outside the pastoral acres of that normalized conception.  Breaking those perceptions is yet another challenge facing newcomers and those with new approaches and ideas about food production.

So it is no wonder Alaska is unable to feed itself, or even ten percent of the consumable foods imported into the state every year.  The obstacles are, in all practical purposes, insurmountable and immutable.  Once the inevitable occurs, there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth, of course.

Over 700,000 hungry mouths will speak with one voice:

We hunger, feed us!

And the state, and tiny agriculture community will respond: We cannot.

And then the blame and the finger pointing will commence, because we humans are a nasty species when faced with real, lasting adversity. We'll want to blame someone, anyone, for the failures of Alaska Ag. We'll expect and demand someone to rescue us, because that is what Americans do-we rescue the world, don't we?  Yet the collective will not see the possibility, the certainty of long term disaster sure to come, and will not help themselves. They surely will not aid in remedying the shortcomings of our "agricultural system" here in Alaska...because they give it no thought. The grocery store shelves are full to overflowing, and excesses are tossed away without remorse. In fact, even the food banks find slim pickings these days, as grocers are litigated into disposing of their surplus in landfills, instead of the hungry.

If you've never been truly hungry, you don't think about the scarcity that faces humanity across the globe, or here at home.  America might be the bread basket of the world (to borrow a famous snippet), but the farming acreage of Alaska is infinitesimal, comparatively.

And this is why Ag matters.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Alaska Ag......The Prop 64 Problem

Borrowing an infamous line from our cultural history......the $64 dollar question facing the Alaska agriculture community might be this:

Will the Alaska Board of Game outlaw domestic sheep and goats?

Proposition 64 (previously Prop90) has been resurrected, and will be addressed at the November meeting of the Board of Game. The specific proposal is here:  2017-2018 Board of Game Proposal Book    Under "Permits for Possessing Live Game" scroll down to Page 80 to read for yourself. This proposal was shelved last year, and re-emerges again for the upcoming meeting.

What has changed since the last time this topic came to the forefront of public attention?  Not much. The working group (consisting of local producers, a DOA observer, Alaska Farm Bureau member, AWSF and others) meets occasionally. Seemingly not much progress has been made, and little is heard, except to concede to controversial testing on a limited number of domestic sheep and goats. The methodology, and reporting, of these voluntary tests have created yet another fracture in the farming community. 

Without going over the details of the disease, or testing for m. Ovi, it helps to understand this: In the L48, m. Ovi has been blamed for the demise of herds, and major die offs within established ranges there. The actual science of this assumption has not been proven, since other factors are commonly present when m. Ovi seems to overcome or contribute to an animals' death.  In fear of the same fate happening to the treasured trophy sheep and goats in Alaska, the Wild Sheep Foundation, and it's Alaska chapter, are aggressively attempting to outlaw (literally) domestic sheep and goats. Because...well, guides/hunting lodges, and so on....and a wealthy client list of same.  What percentage of positive exposure tests, is acceptable to the sponsor of the proposal? Our bet: Absolutely zero. 

None of the wrong headed proposed requirements have any solid scientific backing, and in fact, the demand for a 15 mile "set back" from habitat is preposterous-when you remember that the state has not even established habitat or range.  15 air miles from where?  The tree line on our major mountain ranges?  Not an accurate boundary, proven as recently as last summer when one was seen in downtown Palmer-negating the "natural boundaries" argument as well.  Are domestic sheep and goats even co-mingling anywhere?  It's not known, although it might be argued that pack goats could, in theory, pose a risk.  But these Alaska flocks are not free ranged, as on grazing leases in the L48. Here, our predator risk is very high and very real. 

So, imagine the Alaska State Fair without sheep or goats.  No bright eyed, hard working 4-H kids with market lambs, rams, and goats.  No more goat milk soaps at all the small farmers' markets, no more succulent lamb chops, lovingly and carefully raised by people you know. No fiber arts from local fleeces, made into stunning outerwear and felted onto canvas.  No backyard does providing allergen free milk for families in need, And that's just for the 15 mile restriction. 

Think that's a crazy thing? Well, it is!  The proposed changes include state permits, mandatory testing, and double fencing, at minimum.  It will drive many families to abandon small livestock raising altogether, further hampering Alaska's ability to feed itself.  Removing domestic animals from the "clean list" is a very slippery slope, and could easily lead to seizure of private property in the future.....even other species.  Bird flu, anyone?

What is even crazier is that the DOA, yes, that agency-with it's carefully selected golden boy at the helm-is seemingly completely absent from any and all discussions about this matter. Yes, they have a "representative" at the *closed door meetings* the working group has....but there has been no hue or cry given, no alarm about eliminating an entire segment of Alaska farming, no nothing. Epic fail on the part of Dear Director. 

Also an epic fail, that the state even allowed 1) a working group in the first place, and 2) evidently allows a game board-with no farmers on it-to dictate to *all* residents on domestic livestock, and 3) Seemingly has no problem with all this happening behind closed doors.  

The testing mentioned above, is voluntary. Detractors are certain that *any* positive will give AWSF the ammo it needs to outlaw their domestic flocks. Supporters are fearful that if they don't join, the same result will occur. There is no Plan B, no other options, and no way to even force the Board, or anyone else, to even map or identify the "habitat" that wild sheep and goat occupy in the State.

Epic fail, all around. And no good outcome appears likely.   Of course, it would be wonderful if certain other Alaskans picked up clarion call of distress, and helped to fight back against Outside influences.  People like the owners of MMM&S, MQM, Rocket Ranch, MVM, even Denali Meat Co. Every slaughterhouse owner or investor, should be standing shoulder to shoulder with the local livestock producers. Every retail butcher shop owner should be as well....They *all* need the product our locals raise, especially for their ethnic customers. 

That too, will be an epic fail. 

So enjoy those photo ops and petting zoos while you can, because it is possible they will disappear from the Alaskan landscape forever, especially with the AWSF making sure that our more rural areas are declared "domestic free".  Because while the WSF, and it's Alaska chapter, are making sure the wheel is spinning with a "working group", they have been busy in the Bush, selling their fears to native groups. It's working, too.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Alaska Ag......Livestock Roundup

A short summation of recent events and ongoing issues:

1. MMM&S is still in operation, although the immediate future of "direct import to slaughter" is in doubt. It turns out that the state acquired permit could not be transferred along with the plants' assets. The new owner must re-apply, and after approval, can then start importing again. In the meantime, the new owner has gone out and about the state, boasting of great things to come. They have even taken to using the term "food security" on their advertising.

2. Denali Meat Company plans are unknown. There have been several members of the organization posting on local social media pages in recent weeks-but no details as to their progress with a formal opening has been mentioned. Their location is along the banks of the Matanuska River, not far from the endangered homes in the Sutton area.

3. The Alaska Food Policy Council, coming in late to the subject, is asking about local food hubs. There are already several up and running, with room for more growth.  If you are not sure what a food hub is, a quick google search will provide the general overview.  Think of them as the link between farm producer, retailer, and consumer in its most simplest form. The Alaska Food Policy Council, btw, does not include farmers or ranchers in any capacity.  Well rounded think tank? Ah, not even close....something to keep in mind as you read their pronouncements.

4. On the same day that MMM&S was having its import permit yanked (and a USDA inspector put on leave) the Dear Director of the DOA was happily singing the virtues of same, to an Anchorage radio host. Reportedly, the breathless praises were well received by at least the host. The irony was both amusing and disappointing.

5. Bogard Food Hub formally opened up for poultry processing this week. This is the second such business to address the explosion of poultry raising in the state in recent years. The Food hub is only open one day a week at this point, with the other (Frosty Meadow Farm & Poultry Processing) is open year round. Both are located in the Mat Su.  If food security even crossed the bows of the DOA, there would exist a large push for development of in state breeding of a meat type chicken. To date, no such effort exists except on the part of individuals, naturally....not "industry" enough to qualify?

6. The Dept of Fish & Game has listed yet another attempt to remove domestic sheep and goats from Alaska entirely. The Alaska Wild Sheep members, plus their national group, are behind this move to kill off a significant portion of Alaska farming. You can read the exact wording here (it is Proposition 64) Board of Game Proposed Regulations . Nowhere on the list was a proposed regulation or request to at least map and identify wild sheep/goat habitat.....Look for an upcoming blog post about this particular subject in the near future.

7.  Confusion still surrounds advertising and promotions of meat for sale in Alaska. Rumors persist that certain sectors are after state and/or federal subsidy, so they can increase their market share, relative to all those many tons imported as sides and cuts. More on this to come as well.

And finally 8. It's August. AKA as a month of hot tempers, irritation, and discontent...and it permeates the agricultural community here no less than anywhere else.  As small as our state is, we remain fractured into splinters, and could not unite for any reason-no matter how compelling the reason might seem to others. This distrust, unease, and outright hostility continues to hobble progress, for all. 

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Alaska Ag......Current Events

Current world events have overshadowed other blog entries in progress.

If ever there was a reason to improve Alaska's food security, the clear and present danger that a nuclear North Korea presents, is it.  The bluster about Guam could easily be replaced with any city on the west coast of the US.

And that, friends, is where the primary risk exists.  Take out anything along the coast line, and our supply line is either severed, or severely curtailed immediately. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that any disruption in those containers arriving at Alaska ports, is going to create chaos in very short order.

It's widely reported that Alaska has about three days worth of food supplies on hand. Or, as a knowledgeable acquaintance once told me: We are 9 meals away from anarchy.  Yes, the state has emergency plans, but does not intend to feed you and your family in the event of emergency. Even so, the state advises at least a weeks' worth of food, water, and medicines should be kept on hand. (There is a list of suggestions on the state's emergency management page, for those interested) Designed with the idea of earthquake, volcano, or pandemic in mind, the suggestions and recommendations apply to any break in our very long supply chain as well.

It's a safe bet that many Alaskans are better prepared to face any coming challenge, than the average urban dweller in the L48. Pantries and freezers are relatively common, and most folks have cupboards with adequate supplies on hand to weather a few weeks-even if the selection thins and wears on the taste buds. 

But there are over 700,000 people here...our tiny agriculture "industry" (laughable on its face, simply due to scale) is incapable of feeding them all. Period, end.  We do not have the herds, the flocks, the dairies, the fields, the facilities to process our production. We do not have the hay and grain acreage necessary to significantly increase those animal numbers either. We do not have the infrastructure in place to move it, nor the capacity to preserve it.

Could we ever feed all these people?  Oh yes, we could, with enough time and resources. Would it be the modern diet Americans are accustomed to? Not even close!  And why can't we do that today?  Well, that would be a very long blog post on its own, and it's been covered here repeatedly.  In short, it does not matter in the current moment of time. Because it does not exist, and will not exist, until such time as the residents of Alaska demand it is done.

Alaska's food security will remain the elusive dream of worriers, planners, and concerned citizens for the foreseeable future. Alaska Ag is flatly not up to the task, and there are no means to rapidly expand capacity in response to calamity.

Got preps?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Alaska Ag.....The DOA Mission Management

No conversation about Alaska Ag is ever complete, without touching upon the influence and performance of the DOA. 

If you recall, their mission statement is:

"The mission of the Division of Agriculture is to promote and encourage the development of an agriculture industry in the State"

Readers might find this link very interesting:

Ballotpedia entry: Alaska Director of Agriculture

Please note the Duties, as described. Now consider their mission statement above. Yes, just a little drift there *cough cough*.

We have seen numerous examples of how that promotion and encouragement is applied to those who have either kissed the ring of the Dear Director(s), enjoy the perks of the CBC of Ag, or kneel in front of the BAC, in supplication and no doubt a fair amount of trepidation.

For promoting agriculture, they have Farm to School, the producer's directory, and every photo opportunity Dear Director can manage. Management of the AlaskaGrown program has taken somewhat of a different path forward, in that much of their interactions with the people they serve has been limited to membership only social pages. The so-called marketing department manages to get Alaska farming into the news media, but seemingly only produce over protein the majority of time. As stated in the comments here, the AlaskaGrown program is rapidly losing whatever marketing advantage it had, due to lack of compliance enforcement. A tissue paper tiger, indeed.  This ineffective agency is the primary reason there exist so many other, effective and innovative groups, happily promoting agriculture in all ways. From think tanks to seed banks, social media pages to garden tours to food hubs, and everything in between....and it's all in spite of the DOA, and their limited assistance.

Yet they (DOA) do seem to devote quite a bit of their resources to denying FOIA requests, taking junkets for photo ops, starting programs done by other state agencies and employees (after specifically being told not to do so, btw) and abusing their access to limitless legal resources, among other extraneous activities.

There remains this pervasive fixation on "industry" over innovation, experimentation, new ideas, new methods, and new definitions of 'agriculture'.  Instead of serving as a creche for new farms and ranches and producers who are small, daring, and different, the DOA primarily serves as a "good old boys" club, whose roots stretch back before statehood, and whose reach extends into many MatSu royalty families.

There is also a blatant bias against ranches and livestock producers, and most folks on the Kenai or Interior would tell you that they might as well not exist, for all the "promote and encourage" they get from DOA.  The independent spirit that dominates the Alaskan culture, persists today in many areas, and agriculture is no exception. This is just a fact, most Alaskans want nothing to do with government. Therefore, their reliance and participation in anything the DOA does less than zero. They're of the "don't need them, don't want them, go away" mindset, and considering the poor reputation of the DOA, coupled with specious lending at the BAC, it's not surprising.  Is the State getting its money's worth there? Of course not.

When one hears the words "under the creative and innovative leadership of Director Keyes", one can be positive it was not uttered by the public. No indeed, that's a quote from a local ag recording, from a DOA employee, naturally.  There has been nothing new under the sun in Alaska Agriculture since he took office.....unless the numerous photo ops count?  Or perhaps the threats and screaming fits? Or the insistence on using state's legal resources at will, over a matter that turned to be false? Or perhaps the (rumored!) fancy schmancy new lock on the Director's door? Or the disregard of outright orders, pursuing programs the state already performs? Or the flip flopping over FSMA?  Or the legislative bill to begin charging for the use of the AlaskaGrown materials?

Or this development:  It seems Dear "creative and innovative" Director managed to sell Greg G a nice, attractive bill of goods on MMM&S. To wit: That the "direct to slaughter" permit (which the DOA acquired while still in state hands. aka as Dear Director's action, er, bait) was "grandfathered" to the new owner.  This is not true, and every such head of cattle imported and slaughtered since the sale closed was done so without a valid permit.  It's rumored that the plant is shuttered as of today, as the USDA decides what to do about the illegal operation(s) there.

A person wouldn't call any of that "creative and innovative", not any reasonable person with an IQ above.....potato.

(The PMC-Plant Materials Center-was not mentioned here primarily because it does produce readily quantifiable results. Are there issues there? Naturally. But their work is of value to many Alaskan residents-whether they realize it or not)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Alaska Ag....Is there a food fight to come?

A person can speculate, but who knows what will happen in the end?

So, we've covered the (soon to be) three USDA slaughter plants that will operating in Southcentral. 

Currently, Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage is the only facility open to the public, and a number of producers are pretty happy to see the plant in private hands.  The new owner also operates Rocket Ranch in Palmer on Lazy Mtn, and Mike's Quality Meats in Eagle River.  If you listen to local radio, chances are pretty good you've heard their ads, touting all sorts of meat, products and sales.

The coming MMM&S competition?  Not so much!

The competition (Denali Meat Company)  is owned, in part, by Nate Burris who operates Mat Valley Meats in the Valley, and Butcher Block No. 9 in Anchorage, a specialty butcher shop with an extensive line of products.  With no date released for the new plant as yet, it is a safe bet that DMC will process for these two businesses when it comes on line. 

ADN article on the subject here:  ADN article, 7-27-2017

And in the middle?

Why, the gentleman quoted in the article, one Scott Mugrage. He is a transplant who has landed big on the Alaska farming/ranching scene, who aided the Alaska Farm Bureau during the original privatization talks, and who likes rubbing shoulders with Governor Walker.  From his acreage in the Delta area, he supplies MVM (and they advertise Misty Mountain beef), which must be processed at MMM&S for that necessary-and sometimes problematic-USDA stamp.

Will he stay with DMC and MVM? Or jump onto the direct slaughter bandwagon at MMM&S and MQM to fill the need as owner Greg G describes?

Stay tuned, there is sure to be mischief and mayhem to come. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Alaska Ag.....MMM&S Numbers

As a product of the FOIA Administrative Appeal results, some interesting data comes to light.

First, it helps to know that in previous years, the number of processed animals has stayed relatively flat-averaging around 1,000 to 1,200 per year.   This was discovered by listening to the BAC meetings during the push to sell MMM&S.  Do keep in mind that none of these numbers will include custom exempt slaughter, or personal butchering.  The plant was originally built to process ten times that amount, but has never come close to that number. 

Of the time period between May 16th, 2016 to May 16, 2017:

A total of 1699 cattle and hogs were processed.  

Another 30 head (roughly) of "other" stock were processed also (Yak, elk, sheep, goat)

So that number is up significantly from previous years, and it's fairly safe to presume that the marketing efforts of Mike's Quality Meats and Mat Valley Meats are primarily responsible for the uptick. They have both entered into new enterprise (MQM with Rocket Ranch, and MVM with Butcher Block #9) and both have extensive marketing campaigns for their new ventures. 

Of that 1699, cattle accounted for 396 head, proving that hogs have a 3 to 1 market share over locally produced beef.  And, with the increase in processing capacity from the DMC plant coming online sometime in the future, there is plenty of room for solid growth going forward.

If you can swallow the processing fees, of course.

If there was ever any mystery as to why locally produced meats have such a high price tag, the above fee schedule from MMM&S should remove all doubt.  Not only is it insanely expensive to raise quality livestock here, the fees paid for that all important USDA stamp are steep indeed. 

Will competition help, or hinder our tiny livestock producers?

Only time will tell.