Thursday, March 16, 2017

Alaska Ag....the lure of OPM

How heady the thought, how enticing the ideas, the fancies and fantasies, how vast the disconnect between the lure of other people's money, and the Division of Agriculture's responsibility to the public it serves. 

Seldom held to any sort of demonstrable standard of performance, the Division is busy spending, planning to spend, or diligently attempting to get other people's money. In this case, that money arises from the efforts of every working American, and let's not forget-the Daddy Warbucks of Alaska: Big Oil.

No overt shows of parsimony exist at the Division, acknowledging the current fiscal crisis. Oh, they've trimmed a single administration position, for window dressing.  But to increase their viability and show their importance to legislators, they have also hired at least three.  And they are actively working to literally steal programs and other personnel from one department, to their own.  To snare federal funding, federal grants, and state funding and grants. 

Normally this would be of little consequence to most residents. But to those who know, and watch, this particular set of moves is of grave concern.  The push to move the state vet's office under their control is a public safety issue.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation is tasked with food safety for the State of Alaska. The state vet's office is actually a crucial, and complex position, and is tasked with safeguarding our food supply, among many other things. They engage in monitoring, testing, import, animal disease prevention and a whole host of other programs, big and small. But the Director is burning up the travel budgets and travel grants, making his case to move the State Vet anyway.

Five or six trips to Juneau, complete with air fare, per diem and other expenses, plus the normal entourage of at least one or two other Division employees....yessiree, they're acutely conscious of their budget constraints  And that is not all the DOA spends on, either.

There is now just one person administering the ARLF program. The line item for that is $495,700. A half a million dollars a *year* to service what? 100 loans? Is this reasonable to anyone?   After all, that does not include any ongoing losses caused by the malingering presence of MMM&S either. That slaughter plant is still fully on the State's books, as no word has been made public otherwise. Keep  in mind, that those losses (if any) are charged back to the borrowers in the ARLF, making for a net zero cost to the general fund, or any other fund within state government.  The ARLF recently had two persons tending the books and all that related paperwork (sure to be substantial) but the Division cut one position, in a show of economy. *cough cough*

Here's another little factoid about state government employee positions. Are you aware that a number of them are percentages? That is, if a person is undertaking other work, for another project or office within state government, then that other office or project pays for that portion. In this way, a person might get a base salary for 80 percent for the primary PCN, and the balance in percentages from others. (And you thought your record keeping was complicated? Ha!)  The end result is that division and agency heads can jockey for that additional funding, using those MOUs mentioned previously. Some comes direct from the "DGF" (Designated General Fund), and all the other sources, including federal grants.

It's been said that a forensic audit of the DOA would reveal the depth of corruption and the breadth of incompetence and futility, and would cost more than the Division's entire annual budget to perform.

It needs doing, a thorough forensic audit, whose cost is a pittance against the spending of the legislature in this, or any other year. Just go look at the previous legislative audit, and consider where the DOA is today.....years later.  And it should include the *entire* record on DOA travel, for the past five years. 

There are some frequent flyers there that need their wings clipped, yes indeed.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Alaska Ag....The Juneau Games, Ch. 2

As the state legislature hammers away at the budget deficit, the Division of Ag is still busy spending money.

The expenditures include (and it's necessary to add "but are not limited to") the following:

A new hire for the meat plant, complete with specialty training. Recent public information relays that the actual closing on the plant is hoped for in June.

What is not relayed or part of public information is this tidbit: The land sales guy has been seen driving the convicts to and from the plant. It seems the Division of Ag is unaware that DoC training is *required* for transport?  Another point: Land sales people are paid to perform duties within their position description. These positions are paid for by monies raised by the sale of State lands. So what funds are being used to pay him? And what did they report to the Legislature about this?

Sending two people to a conference in the L48 on the subject of FSMA. That's two round trip tickets, plus per diem, for two employees. This information is not publicly available. In fact, if you go to the DOAs web site, their calendar and newsletter were last updated in 2016.  What kind of public information gateway is this, when the public has to spend money on a public information request every time they want to know what the DOA is doing?

Was sending people to the L48 a necessary expense? 

No, it was not. 

The Division of Ag does not have statutory control over food safety. It rests exclusively with ADEC. Where there is a fully qualified person, as it happens. 

Director Keyes told legislators that there was a "plan" to move the state vet's offices back under the Division roof.  This is an untruth, as no such plan evidently exists, just like no authorizing MOU is known to exist between ADEC and the Division of Agriculture.  Based upon this nonexistent plan (isn't it ironic that one plan is shelved, yet another is made of fairy tales?) Director Keyes hired a person to staff the FSMA program....and that newly arrived Missouri transplant hopped on a plane to attend the above conference.

The takeaway is this: To move the state vet's office into the Division of Ag requires a change in statutes. You know, committees, hearings, public comments, the whole works. Typically these changes can take two sessions (or more) of legislative work to complete. The folks in Juneau are pretty busy figuring out where and how to put their hands in our collective pockets, so any significant activity on the move is.....unlikely.

However, they could enter into a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding). This is a mechanism whereby one department or office, can agree with another, over staffing and responsibility, etc. At stake here is some federal funding for food safety. It isn't a lot, but enough to justify (seemingly) hiring a new person or two for the Division of Ag.....even though an already qualified, expert person is already on payroll.

Now, about those inspections, referred to by Director Keyes. Not all inspections are equal. (and under FSMA there are only a handful of companies that qualify for those) and most appear to be field inspections of crops. These are not the same, not even close. One would hope that the Director understood he was reporting false information to the legislature-or at the very least, allowing them to reach an erroneous assumption without correction.

The Division has also wandered into uncharted waters, by hiring yet another person to establish certain inspections....inspections that are currently under the state vet's office. So that is two positions filled, for a program that does not yet exist, nor has a MOU.

By providing existent staff, the Division can then argue that they already have qualified people, therefore why not move the State Vet's office?

So here is a little more to consider on this particular issue:

How counterproductive would a Division of Ag FSMA MOU be? We have the people trained and already operating out of DEC, yet DOA is hiring and sending people for FSMA training! Where is the money coming from to train and pay for a position if an MOU, statutory authority, and federal funding are yet to be granted to DOA?

How did these positions get approved without funding or authority?

Now, wouldn't it be interesting, to see a complete accounting of payroll for the DOA?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Alaska Ag....Digging for truth

This blog was recently linked to a local FB group, where discussion ensued over the content.

The quasi legal disclaimer, once again: This blog is opinion. It is as factual as can be ascertained, and where question arise, the veracity (or lack thereof) of the information relayed is clearly stated.  Consider the content as a sort of citizen journalist's way of disinfecting the slimy underbelly of Alaskan Agriculture.

The string of comments that erupt, expose the schism that exists in Alaska ag, like no other. Some take the questions raised here quite personally, and others just presume the author has some sort of axe to grind...or hates ag...or something else equally nefarious in nature. Naturally, they are unwilling to accept the truth: 

This blog author cares deeply and personally about the future of Alaska agriculture. 

*All* of Alaska agriculture.

Not just the "industry". Not just the row crop folks, the farmer's market growers, the greenhouse producers. Not just the peonies, the pot, the hydro people.....everyone who grows anything at all, to consume or sell. Growing food, forages, or flowers here is a challenge-and everyone who is actively participating recognizes this unavoidable truth. 

Because if it were easy, the state would not be importing 95 to 96% percent of its food from the L48. 

That is a truth that could be changed if the will to change it existed. 

If the State itself (in the guise of the Division of Agriculture) actually worked to change it

If the State itself (Every land management department) actually let people have farm land

If the State itself remedied the farm liability insurance obstacle

If the State itself even had a clear, attainable goal of self sufficiency and sustainability. 

If the State itself even considered agriculture a growing natural resource. 

If the power players of Alaska Ag accepted the young, the newcomer, the outside the box thinker, the innovator, the inventive, the determined and the dedicated into their ranks. 

If this were done, much could be changed and for the better. For all Alaska residents, everywhere. 

And that, readers, is the motivation.

Sadly. it's the getting there that is a nasty, long trek through an incredible amount of corruption, collusion, and complicit actions through an exceedingly complex trail of connections. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

Alaska Ag.....The Juneau Games

With the legislature gaveling into session, agriculture interests have hopped on planes for Juneau to plead with representatives, senators, and various committees.  

You'd have be on the outside looking in, to get the full picture of what is occurring right now. 

Follow along carefully, please.

There are private individuals who have arranged their own meetings and attendance at various hearings, private gatherings and so on.

There are representatives of various ag related groups down there also, and they are doing the same. Attending meetings, presenting information, and schmoozing whoever they can.

And there is, of course, the Division of Ag representatives who flew south to represent their views, plead for funding, and are attempting to polish the turd.

Putting aside the amazing coincidence of verbatim talking points between the Division of Ag and the Alaska Farm Bureau, there is this:

The Division of Agriculture is asking the Legislature to move the State Veterinarian (office, personnel, duties) to the Division. 

The Division does not have the statutory authority for that program, and appear to have misled both the governor's office and a legislative committee about it.  

Now, for the uniformed, the request seems reasonable and I have no doubt Director Keyes put a bright, shiny object up for the committees to consider.  After all, aren't veterinarians and agriculture basically connected?  Farms=animals, which equals agriculture, correct?

That supposition is so far from the truth here, it is literally laughable.

The takeover of the state veterinarian office, to the Div of Ag, is about money, power, and trying to gain credibility (something their own program sadly lacks), by taking it from another agency that has some. And of course, they'll take their federal and state grant monies and additional staff too, please. 

The State Vet's office isn't about traditional animal husbandry issues related to ag production.  But of course, the Division of Agriculture Director does not realize, or recognize, the entire scope of responsibility. Their (Div of Ag) actual focus is more likely to be snaring the Vet's office's programs - FSMA, Veterinary and animal health, and the fish contaminants monitoring program.....which represent grant money, security, and staff.

In fact, the Div of Ag has advertised, and is hiring, someone to take on management of "FSMA". FSMA is actually a broad federal law that allows for the development of numerous federal regulations, including manufactured food safety, produce safety, import inspections, transportation of human and animal food, and several others, the functions of most of which are apparently under the statutory authority of DEC at the state level.

The fact that the Div of Ag continually refers to the Produce Safety Rule as "FSMA" is like calling the State of Alaska Wastewater regulations "EPA" (The Environmental Protection Act). That in itself points to the fact that the Div of Ag Director appears quite unfamiliar with the FSMA law. The one and only person in the state (and former Ag staff member) who supposedly was familiar with and involved with the FSMA and Produce Safety Rule for the past several years has reportedly resigned (and is now apparently at the State Vet's office of DEC, the department that has the authority to manage and enforce FSMA Produce Safety Rule, along with all the food safety oversight in the State of Alaska). And, no joke-the Director of Ag was, until he sniffed FSMA grant money, probably THE most outspoken critic of FSMA, and called publicly for an exemption from the new federal law for the whole state. You have to wonder how good a job he would do of advocating for and enforcing the law he so disdains, and whether the FDA would even agree to fund the state grant if it was moved to his agency.

The Division of Agriculture does not have the statutory authority to oversee or manage food safety, period. Food safety in the state of Alaska is the responsibility of DEC, for good reason. 

It sounds like staff at the Div of Ag may have even went so far as to present misinformation to the Governor and the legislature. A recent justification (written for the Governor's office) for a new position at the Div of Ag, for a "FSMA Program Coodinator", who, it appears is being hired to manage the program, states that there is a "plan" to move the FSMA program and grant money, from DEC to the Div of Ag. This is *not* true. At legislative budget committee hearings, the Director of Ag claimed multiple food safety classes were held by the Div of Ag staff in 2016. The person who taught those classes has apparently not worked for the Div of Ag for a couple of years, and there is no record of any food safety classes announcements for 2016, or of any ag producers who have said they attended one. Never the less, the Div of Ag director claimed to the legislative budget committee that 150 farmers had attended 15 of these classes in 2016. Also questionable is the number of inspections the Ag Director testified to the House Budget Committee that they performed in 2016. It sounds really unlikely that those inspection numbers are correct, unless the Div of Ag defines "inspection" REALLY broadly. It would be interesting to see who was inspected, when these inspections were done, and by who. Their website says these is only one inspector on staff.

If these are actually misrepresentations that were made to the Governor's office and the legislature, aimed at creating support for the Div of Ag's goal of taking over the State Vet program (as well as other state programs) it is malfeasance.  Testifying to an untruth simply exposes the corruption within Alaska Ag, and the Division in particular.

It's amusing, in that ironic sort of way, that Director Keyes has plead the case for food safety. He certainly had a very different outlook not that long ago:

The Division of Ag is playing a very dangerous game in Juneau. Not only are they apparently willing to lie to your representatives, they have gone so far as to hire staff, to implement a program based on a plan that does not exist!

All the paranoid posturing in the world, will not correct the poor management, poor oversight, poor accounting, and poor performance that is demonstrated by the Division of Agriculture. Transparency and accountability?  Ha!

And we pay for this. Soon enough, out of every paycheck.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Alaska Ag.....The boomerang

Some issues are just never dead and buried for good, not really.  Like the amazingly accurate weapon of the Australian outback-the boomerang-sometimes, events just conspire to return troubles, over and over again.

Such is the case with MMM&S.

Oh, you thought the place sold?  And all was good over there for all the producers? The deal closed and the new owners in charge?

Well....not so much.  There is an environmental hazards review of sorts, to take place after break up this spring. Who knows what they will uncover with this $5000 contract, but any aged commercial property generally has contamination issues from previous decades. Typically they are relatively minor, and easily remedied, but it is not immediately clear who will end up paying for any necessary work. Best bet: The state.  (Side note: the contract was not signed by an officer of the BAC, but rather by the person who manages the loans for ARLF)

Rumors have arisen ((again) concerning "unusual irregularities" in the plant's accounting *cough cough* which could force another delay, or even a third party audit. No speculation about what the results might be, but given the topic and individuals involved-this would be a very good idea.

So no, the closing has not taken place yet.

In fact, there is this to consider:

The Division of Agriculture is recruiting (hiring!) a Production Manager at the slaughter plant in Palmer. The position is for maintaining the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) process according to federal regulations for MMM&S.

Upshot: The State sold this asset for half its appraised value, is likely on the hook for environmental hazards, and to top it off, they are hiring an employee at $50,000 a year to oversee federally mandated requirements!


Dang that boomerang!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Alaska Ag: The Godfathers

There is no story relating to the deep and troubling issues surrounding Alaska's agriculture, without hearing or reading the same names. Over and over, they pop up in conversation, are cited in history, quoted in the present, and known by all whose livelihood relies upon the pitiful remains of Alaska Ag. To the newcomers, the novices, the folks just starting out, they are presented and held up as icons of industry, or respectful successes. Since the majority of residents will be clueless as what it all means, and who really holds the reins on the throttle of food production in this state, it is simple matter to just....ask around.

It is only later that you will hear about their corruption, their power and their ability to exercise that power firmly. The CBC had nothing on these guys. Back room hand shake deals, taking down the upstarts and's all business as usual for the Godfathers.

Pundits say that the mega projects of the past died in committee, and that's mostly true...but the survivors of state benevolence are jealous of their position, indeed. Others watched askance as the cheechakos tried, and failed, leaving the state with many thousands of cleared acres and a bewildering array of programs, agencies, and all around failure in their wake. Today's newcomers to agriculture are facing the same struggles as previous generations. A state which does not actively promote farming-from banking, to insurance, to taxes, to the land itself.

And then there is the unseen hurdle of the godfathers of Alaska Ag. They will outright lie, misrepresent, and conspire to run off anyone who has the nerve to encroach upon their chosen path to what passes for success in the farming industry here. (Yes, this actually happens, ask around about this too)  Some of the names predate the great state agricultural boondoggles of the past (Delta Barley, Pt McKenzie, Mat Maid Dairy) and some were enticed here by promises of frontier farming and inexpensive money to get going. Others have bulldozed onto the scene, earning peer respect by quashing competition, joining advocacy groups, and schmoozing the anointed.  The anointed, of course, being the Godfathers of Alaska Ag.

Just like the mafia of the movies, these Godfathers all have their crews, their minions, and their business interests infect all sectors of agriculture.

Woe to those who dare to farm here, a truth so bitterly accurate that many a would-be farmer has learned and left......and whose fault is that?

Ask around, and you'll find out. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Alaska Ag....that's some cachet

Cachet.....the first thought that may come to mind is the Matchibelli perfume of the same name. But in this case, they (Mike's Quality Meats) likely thought of this other definition:

"A quality of prestige or appeal" or similar. Whichever they were aiming for with the bucolic, sun drenched pastoral scenes, and snippets of happy, clean swine in the television ads, the reality is something quite different. 

They certainly do not reflect the lasting impression Rocket Ranch is having on their neighbors.

No, no, no, like Pepe' LePew of cartoon fame, the miasma of reeking piles of animal waste permeate the area. This clear cut property, with it's barns, fencing, shop, and no onsite caretaker, has truly, and literally, become a big stinker.

The reality of a CAFO on Lazy Mountain, just outside of Palmer, was not something that property owners had any notice about. The area is "rural, farming" only in that the parcels are slightly larger than the average subdivision (5 to 40 ac is common) mostly populated with a mix of retired and working folks who enjoy their privacy-with the occasional group or assisted living residence. Well known for its panoramic views, quiet, and yes, the howling scourge of Matanuska winds, people enjoy the feel of remoteness from the Valley floor and its busyness. Farm trucks are not uncommon as they make their way through the twists and turns to the larger farms further back towards the canyon and beyond. 

Trucks hauling 100s of hogs have now joined the ebb and flow of traffic.

Of the over 2,300 hogs imported by Mike's Quality Meats/Rocket Ranch/Greg Giannulis over a 16 month period (ending last year) only 867 were processed at MMM&S over the same period, according to a FOIA request fulfilled recently.  Providing that the figures supplied are correct-and there is no reason to doubt their validity-that means roughly 1400 swine have been processed through the Rocket Ranch custom exempt plant on Lazy Mountain. This is the plant that state employees helped to construct on their time off from MMM&S. Custom exempt is a classification that allows for onsite slaughter and processing after purchase, as long as the buyer has the resulting cuts marked "not for resale".  It's no stretch to say that the custom plant is paying off handsomely for MQM, and the customers. 

Except, of course, for Rocket Ranch neighbors. There is a legal limit to the hog waste that can be stored on the property, and it is substantial. The neighbors have no idea how they are handling all the waste generated, such as soiled bedding, the blood generated from slaughter, the entrails, and whatever else is created during processing. At MMM&S, this was handled by their waste water system and established, monitored procedures, but on Lazy Mountain? Who knows. Perhaps it is buried. Maybe it's tossed into a dumpster. But what is known, is that the property has literally chased people indoors due to the reeking stench, and that several wells and septic systems nearby have coincidentally failed. Are they connected for sure? That is unknown-but when the smell prevents a property owner from enjoying their property....that is cause for remedy.

According to statements the caretaker has made, there have been no complaints about the operation. But that is not accurate, not true at all. There have indeed, been many complaints made. To various state and borough offices, elected representatives, to other residents, to anyone who will listen.

In the Mat-Su Borough, Title 24, it's known as an "annoyance". Naturally, the regulation is written with the supposition that newcomers might find farms offensive (and this statute protects farms and their activities).....not the actual facts here where the new farm is creating the problem. Whether Rocket Ranch is violating statute there is up to Animal Control and Regulation office to determine. Wading through state and federal regulations is a tough slog, but there may be solutions to be found there as well.

This matter of a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) operating within sight and sound and particularly smell, of residential homes will no doubt arise more frequently, now that the MMM&S slaughter plant has moved into private hands, to be sure. 

You have to wonder though, about an unknown number of animals, unattended, on that property. Yes, unattended. There is no full time, onsite caretaker, although a young Giannulis is reportedly there every day. While their style of management may be within the statute of animal care regulations, it does give area residents more cause for concern. The wheels of government move excruciatingly slow, to be sure. But they do move. And if that does not suffice, there is always civil redress to consider. 

Whatever the outcome on Lazy Mountain, one thing is for sure:

Come spring, "Eau de Pigs" is sure to be wafting through the air. And downwind neighbors are sure to be very unhappy.

(Edited to add:  An alert reader let it be known that there is, in fact, onsite supervision 24/7. Thanks much for the email correction, it's appreciated!)