Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Weeding in Alaska Ag

Like ripping a band aid off a festering wound, digging into the "real dirt" on Alaska Ag is unpleasant, but necessary. It may seem like the focus of this blog is solely MMM&S, but that is not the case.

The corruption within is widespread and long term. From the fiascoes of the spectacular dairy failures of the past, through to the present,  the Division of Agriculture is awash in poor management. The entire Division appears to be its own little fiefdom, and who is in charge is a fair question to ask. The new Director is not a leader, and it's rumored that two specific individuals are the backbone of operations....who, of course, do things the way they've always been done.

What sort of service you get from these well paid public servants depends on who you are. This is easily verified by the "service" they provide-or not-to their bosses (the public).  The Division is so tardy on some reports, that in other venues they'd be fired for lack of performance.  And it is not because they do not have the staff necessary to collate these reports-no, it is that those who actually perform the real, day to day work, are tasked (sometimes by default) to cover other Division employees' shortcomings. They aren't even cheerleaders for the Division itself, if the main five people have been conspiring to make Ag it's own Department in the Alaska state government. 

And because they are the bastard step child of Natural Resources, they are oft overlooked and ignored and thus, they are free to do as they please...or not, as the case may be.  They don't make waves (now that the pressing problem of MMM&S has been resolved) so what happens there on a daily basis is unknown to the Commissioner of DNR, with a complicit Deputy Director of DNR who tends to take the Divisions' word for it that all is good there.  And in the normal course of affairs this is how is should work, and does, quite successfully....but sometimes, sometimes, a little extra effort by the those further up the chain is warranted.

It is past time that the Division was properly and thoroughly audited....from the paper clips to the policy makers and everything they touch. For the steady drain on state resources over the past umpteen years, they have not managed to create a plan for Alaska agriculture. There is no goal, no 5, 10, or even 20 year plan....no benchmark to seek, no success with legislators in getting suitable lands into the hands of prospective farmers, no rallying phrase to unify the disparate and widely flung elements of growing food in Alaska. None.  So they just keep on....keeping on, with the projects and programs at hand, heads down to their grindstone, never looking up towards the future.

Yes, some weeding is warranted there, for sure.

Now, lest you think the MSBorough has a better record...think again. The Borough too, is replete with failed policies, and projects. In the heady days of high oil prices, the Boro threw money at projects that never came to fruition. Where is that "Agricultural Processing & Product Development Center, anyway? The one the Boro happily spent a half million dollars to design....but was never built. In today's economic reality, it's not likely to come up in the budget any time soon. How many people were paid to produce the snazzy brochure? Write the proposals? Speak before the Assembly?

When it comes to Ag and the MSB, the Borough is the poster child for schizophrenia.  On the one hand, they look back at the past projects (the Colony project of the 30s) with rose colored glasses. The farms, the farmers, the dairies, the big vegetables to astound the world!!  Woot woot, grow Mat Su!  And on the other hand, lust after the cleared farm lands to be turned into yet another subdivision which would go on the tax rolls.  Woot woot! Grow Mat Su (Government!!).  Oh sure, you will be taxed less on Ag lands.....but their whole approach is: How can we get the road paid for, and maintenance for same, in perpetuity? Why, by taxing the tiny fee simple parcels at "fair market value", of course. Never mind that these ag lands only provide for the use of the land. And do look at their requirements for Ag land....you'll be surprised at what it does not include. The Borough could definitely use a prolonged weeding, indeed it could.

There exist cures, or solutions~

There are many 100s of acres of fallow land within the MSB, and the State. It's just sitting there, in the asset column, to someday be of value to the government. Not the residents, mind you, the government.  The Borough (and the State too, for that matter)could resolve some of it's current fiscal issues with a modern day land rush. All it takes is the commitment to benefit the citizens of Alaska, over their desire to fill their own budgets.

Just imagine....releasing land with agriculture suitability, perhaps 10,000 acres. BOOM!  Roads built, utilities arranged, land cleared, homes built, and food grown within five to fifteen years. A reasonable time schedule, not an artificial one that doomed the other ag projects with ridiculous deadlines and parameters and conditions, all figured out by degree carrying idiots in suits-not hard working men and women in muck boots over generations of farm building as in L48.  Charge them a small flat fee a year (and I do mean *small*) and get the heck out of the way as a boom erupts in agriculture. Which will translate into jobs, increased economic activity, building, and so on.  Yes, it can be done, and should. The state and local governments should recognize that the ability to feed it's residents should not be quashed, period. It should get out of the way and let entrepreneurship and innovation and hard work remedy that dismal percentage of locally grown and consumed.  A little coordination between the state, the borough and the feds with their programs, and voila! A real, modern day land rush for farming.

The naysayers will snivel that it's already been done and was a disaster-and it was. The skeptical would say, who's going to benefit-all residents in due time. The .gov would say-we can't do that because that isn't how we do it-and all it takes is resolve and legislation and signing on to a long term goal.

You know, that plan that the Division of Ag does not have?

Yes, that one, or one created by an enterprising citizen who approached elected representatives and insisted: We should feed our own. 

Friday, December 9, 2016

Alaska Ag: And the winner is........

Today, at their "emergency meeting" of the BAC board, they accepted a $300,000 cash offer for the MMM&S plant, equipment, and 3.5 acres of prime Palmer realty. 

Keep in mind, this property just appraised for $860,000. Which seemed way out of line for an aged facility in need of upgrades. When they couldn't get any takers for such a high price, they then dropped it to Boro assessed value, which is $410,000.

Reportedly, Greg G of Mike's Quality Meats is the lucky new owner, at $300,000. 

Was taking what amounts to a $560,000 (at the most) or a $110,000 loss, good for the agriculture community? Too early to say, but there is hope that a real business person can turn around the "we do it that way because it's always done that way" mentality that permeates Alaska Ag-and MMM&S in particular. Governments and government employees are not rewarded for efficiency, but small business relies upon finding the most economical operating model to grow and succeed. 

Was the offer a wise business move by Mike's Meats? Again, one cannot say at this point. It's a lot to gamble on this plant, with it's terrible operating loss history. Will the community be at least as well served? Surely, with better management, the plant will prove to be viable and provide better service than is currently available. Perhaps there are plans to expand the capacity beyond the ten percent pittance it is utilized today. But regardless of that, many are breathing a little easier, knowing the plant will stay open.

That Alaska Correctional Industries sign will just have to go, though!

Monday, December 5, 2016

At long last, a bright light appears for Alaska Ag

The current (and past) activities of MMM&S, the BAC in it's role with the ARLF, and the Division of Agriculture, have spelled nothing but trouble for years. Between bureaucratic bungling, feuds and favors, little has propelled Alaska Ag forward into the forefront, except the continued negative press their mishandling has generated. And deservedly so...because these are the stewards tasked with "managing" the resource...even if they have all seemingly forgotten our state's constitutional mandate. You remember, the part about "all Alaskans"?

For the CBC of Alaska Ag, you are part of their exclusive group via land, marriage, or crop, and the rest of Alaska agriculture does not exist. This would include every hobbyist, homesteader, home owner with a garden plot and a few head of livestock, and so on. Many thousands of Alaskans truly are "agriculture", whether they realize it or not. Most would not include the locavore, the "local when I can find it" consumer, but a person with wider vision would accept and welcome their inclusion because every single person who consumes "Alaska grown" plays a role in ag's success or failure. 

For some, this situation does nothing but strengthen their determination, their resolve, and their commitment to Alaskan agriculture.  To persevere in the face of such opposition takes a certain chutzpah, and an appreciable amount of courage......but adversity can be overcome...as this recent FB post proves:

Proudly announcing the formation of Alaska's Gold Standard Meat Co-op!  This group endeavor will provide to the small producer, a state of the art processing facility to meet the growing demand for locally sourced proteins. Competitive pricing, with attention to detail that you, and your customers, demand. This USDA kill, cut and wrap facility will be Southcentral located with flexible hours. Come find us on Facebook, and join our community.....together, we can all grow Alaska ag! Ask to join up at Alaska's Gold Standard Meat Co-op on Facebook.

Authored by Alex Davis, of AD Farms.

Direct Facebook link here;  https://www.facebook.com/groups/674776696032906/

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Alaska Ag....where truth is stranger than fiction

In the "who did not see that coming" category.....

The BAC, in charge of the ARLF assets, has more than just the slaughter plant they oversee. Their actions concerning the troubled MMM&S plant included (so it's rumored) declining an offer that would have been full asking price over three years. Now, not having been present at their executive session, one can wonder why this offer was deemed not responsive, and the reasons for not accepting a low ball offer from the other respondent are unknown.

But what is now known, is that they have issued an OTC sale (packet information on the BAC website)  That sale price was lowered to the $410,000 Matanuska Susitna Borough assessed value as the previous blog post stated. The OTC opens on Monday, and while a deadline was not easily found, it's fairly certain that the new price is going to generate a lot of interest.

Also known, and verified by news reports, is the fact that our premiere Alaska brewing company was in negotiations to purchase the Mat Maid property. For substantially more than the Boro assessed value, by the way.

The brewing company naturally, is reportedly rethinking their offer, and may withdraw it completely.  Or perhaps they will be graced with the same sweet deal as the OTC price.....no one knows for sure at this point. But that would be a better deal than the original RFP for MMM&S.....which was (and I am quoting a very astute friend here) "Someone can buy it, kind of, I'll still have a say in running it and in a couple years I'll charge you more for the deed."

So what the BAC did was essentially shoot themselves in the metaphorical foot, in order to dispose of the troubled MMM&S facility. This may end up costing the BAC and ARLF a substantial loss of anticipated revenues on all its' current asset inventory.

Folks, you can't make this stuff up!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Alaska Ag: Second verse, same as the first!

And the winner is.........

(drum roll please)


The BAC rejected both RFP responses at its meeting yesterday.

According to a story in the ADN, the Board, in it's collective wisdom, has decided to nearly halve the asking price on the next go-around. From the original broker's opinion (In October of this year) of $860,000, down to the assessed value of $410,000.  There is sure to be another RFP quite soon, reflecting this change.

Which puts the property itself within reach of local land developers, not just concerned parties who see an opportunity to continue running the MMM&S facility.

It's fairly obvious that the "blue sky" broker's price was not based in reality, otherwise there would be a new operator at the helm. Since there are no comparables within state boundaries, and the plant looses money under the management of the state, one can only speculate where this $860,000 figure originated. That aside, the takeaway should be: How competent is the BAC to handle this, if, after three unsuccessful RFPs, they are finally realizing the plant is not worth what the market will support? And if this is how they conduct asset management, what else is going sideways there?

Edited to add:  Former Gov. Sean Parnell wrote to DNR Commissioner Andy Mack in July of this year on behalf of Denali Meat Company, regarding the RFP for the sale of the plant. The letter brings up a number of problems with the RFP as it was written, and of particular note, touches on the BAC itself:

The BAC is not qualified to evaluate private sector bidder's proposed operations plans for the meat plant, nor has any criteria been established for the BAC to approve or disapprove such a purchase. Instead, qualified independent professionals should evaluate and score any proposed plans. 

Maybe they should take a look back at history, and remember when former Gov. Palin fired the entire board.

The Never Ending Story of Alaska Ag continues........

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Shining the light on......Alaska Ag.

Robert Service said it best:

"There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see..."

(From The Cremation of Sam Mcgee)

Indeed there are strange things done in the light of the midnight sun, especially when it comes to Alaska Ag.  And much of it out of public view, when it comes to the shenanigans surrounding MMM &S (Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage)  Oh yes, many secret, stinky trails there, if one contrives to follow the bread crumbs.

A very wise person once said, and is often quoted: Follow the money.  In following the money, and the people with their hands on it, and those who wish to handle it, and those who want their part, some disturbing things are brought into the clear light of public scrutiny. But there persist the rumors, the whispers, the stories, oh my, my, my.......and then, friends...there are the facts.

Let's first visit the Division itself. Whatever it's origins, it has delivered little for its burden upon state coffers in recent years. How many reports and conclusions have those well paid scientists produced in the past decade?  Have any strides been made in discovering new varieties of crops that are proven to produce well here?   Does any one know, and if not, why not? What *is* grown in that huge greenhouse at the PMC? That also keeps a well paid state employee quietly puttering inside, producing....what, exactly?  The State does not know. The new Director does not know. The Division does not know. And certainly the residents do not know either.

There has been exactly *one* land sale in the past ten years. Yea, you read that correctly-one! Now this is a great gig if you can get it, because one guy has managed to stretch out one single event for an entire decade of state pay complete with state perks. Pretty sweet for that one man, but it shows no honest effort to the farmers that are supposedly served by the Division. Oversight is so lax there, it's speculated that a number of heads would roll if the Commish (That is, the DNR Commisioner or Governor Walker) paid a surprise visit out to the PMC and the Palmer offices. They could take a look at the size of their phone bills....and where those long distance charges originated, for example. And this time, do not take the Deputy Director's word on what the situation is....because he just parrots whatever the new Director relays. A forensic audit covering a decade would be an eye opening report, indeed it would.

And let's touch on Director Keyes, for a moment. Those that don't know, would be surprised to learn that a person who is computer illiterate (including email, btw) could snag a job that pays north of $120,000 a year. Being related to the BAC certainly pays off, because there were other, more qualified candidates overlooked in his favor. Yet another example of how rigged Alaska Ag is....so sadly true. (Due to this fact, all contact via electronic communications intended for the Director, gets a pre-read and approval by someone else. And you thought those communications were private, didn't you?)  Since there is no way to hold any of these people accountable, we certainly got very little for the State's dollar, all around.  But we did get easily manipulated folks, ones that won't make waves and one could take some small comfort in that.....right?

At this point, the Division could be axed and few would feel any lasting effects. The invasive plant program could be taken on by the Co-operative Extension Service, and the other, smaller efforts that somehow tie up a dozen people for a whole lot of money, could be (pardon the pun) farmed out to other offices, agencies, and organizations. If only the Commissioner or Governor would pay attention to this small segment of their respective duties, much of this could be righted, or eliminated in very short order.  In following the money, a person finds that some people have cadged out a niche on the state teat, and have managed to milk that for years. On our collective dime, mind you.

Going forward....tomorrow, December 1st, 2016 is the BAC meeting. According to a story in the Anchorage Daily News, there are at least two candidate companies planning on tendering responses to the RFP for MMM&S. That would be Mike's Quality Meats and a Co-op headed up by Scott Mugrage in the Delta area. No word on Denali Meat Company, or Inlet Processing, two of the previous players made public earlier this year. The Alaska Farm Bureau is behind the Co-Op idea, and is asking for public support already-before approval. A cursory check of business licenses shows Scott Mugrage as sole proprietor at this point. Likely, this is because the articles of incorporation, officers, assignation of shares and what not, is a lot more complicated for a formal co-op than can be thrown together quickly. The Farm Bureau has pledged $100,000 in support.  Mike's Quality Meats (of Rocket Ranch that does not exist fame) certainly has the wherewithal and experience to qualify on that end. It will depend on how the RFP was written, and whether or not the BAC took Sean Parnell's advice about allowing the plant as collateral for funding.

Now, the idea of a Co-Op is sure to be appealing to many, because the expectation is that the plant would remain open to all, with no preference shown any particular producer. If the plant instead, ends up completely in private hands (such as to Mike's Quality Meats or some other entity not known at this time) than the very real risk arises that scheduling "anomalies" will force some producers out of the market. And quite a market it is, indeed. MMM&S has stamped at least 867 hogs for Mike's, with high demand continuing for the foreseeable future.

This is just another chapter in the Never Ending Story of Alaska Ag.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Alaska Ag....bad blood

It's been blogged about here many times, the extent and reach of the bad blood that exists within the Alaska Ag community.  A person would need some spread sheet skills, just to keep track of the factions, alliances, feuds, and players themselves. Between the familial ties, business connections, and equally the small state of our state, animosity would (and does) run like wildfire, in a state where strong opinions and independence are handmaids against everyone else. Since the geography and weather tends to separate folks into like minded groups, they generally are not forthcoming about their activities....unless you join and pay dues of course.

This, of course, is where the Division of Ag has let down everyone. And I do mean everyone. Where they should be a unifying voice of Ag, our new director is playing politics. Where they should be establishing excitement and participation and encouraging future agriculture in all aspects, the new director is showing his partisanship to anyone who asks questions. But that's what you get when the system gets to pick their own. The only vision at the Div. of Ag is surviving the coming budget cuts and rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers-both in Alaska ag and in Juneau. And who is not represented? The folks who are plainly evident to anyone who sees the larger picture, but invisible to the state.  The small producer and consumer.

Sadly enough, it is the small producer and consumer, who ends up paying for these disputes.  They aren't members of any advocacy group, or co-op, or anything of the sort. They're working, and working hard, to provide what they can for themselves, and the community. It might be a half a hog, or a side of beef, or maybe a couple dozen extra eggs a week. Or perhaps they are choosing to spend their shrinking food budget dollars on "Alaska Grown" as a show of support, and commitment. Whatever the case, they have no idea how fractured and splintered and partisan Alaska Ag is at heart, and how much bad blood exists between the various groups and alliances.

In less than 20 days, Mt McKinley Meat & Sausage will become a kill floor only. The take away is this: Next year, you will haul your carcass to a place like Mike's Meats in Eagle River, which has a custom exempt cut and wrap permit. How many others might there be? One would have to ask the state, but most of the Valley meat shops do game animals only, in season. If you relied upon the services of MMM&S for your retail sales, you are now forced to find an alternative, whether affordable, convenient, or even within driving distance.

Bad blood has lots of unintended consequences, and MMM&S is just one example of how wrong it can go, and has gone.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Alaska Ag......It's a long, bad road

The shenanigans surrounding MMM&S never seem to have an end, it's just one long twisted, complicated, skein of events. 

As it stands, the three experienced employees are leaving on December 15th. New hires have been chosen, and are in training. Which means the plant will be open through the end of the fiscal year at least-or until a successful response to the RFP by the Board of Agricultural Conservation is accepted. But producers who had hoped to use the plant for their budding retail sales customers, will be disappointed. It is rumored that the plant will be strictly a "kill floor", no cut and wrap available as of Dec. 15th.

It's a reasonable deduction to conclude that the reason(s) for kill only are due to 1) skill level of the new employees, 2) No more inmates from DofC available, or 3) Three people are not enough to handle the expected product numbers, or 4) Any combination thereof.  Remember, those plant "workers" are regarded as DOC trained first, before acquiring the specific knowledge and training to maintain certifications and procedures the plant requires for it's USDA stamp and inspections. 

Since neither the Division of Ag, nor the BAC are exactly adept at letting the community know what is happening with the plant, it is left to the producer and consumer to figure it out on their own. A person could call the plant directly, and ask...but personally, should take any information with a bit of salt. Circumstances may change over the following six months of operation, so at this point, no one can be sure of anything.

Except this curious little fact:  One of the new employees has a very familiar name, with ties to the (still no state business license) Rocket Ranch and Mike's Quality Meats.  Yes, you read that correctly. One of the new employees is a Giannulis.  ***stunned***

So, do you think Mike's Quality Meats will have Alaska processed beef and pork in their showcases, in January?  Will it continue to be a subject of their radio and television ads?  

Someone once famously said~

It's a long, bad road and you can't get there from here.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Alaska Ag.....blind beyond the fenceline

As if Alaska agriculture isn't facing a monumental handicap every day ~ between the US government regulations, State of Alaska statutes, various Borough rules, regulations and taxes, an adverse growing climate, lack of transportation infrastructure, and so on......there is always, always, the blind.

It's a safe bet you never thought of this blindness extending to Alaska Ag, but it is all too true. 

This blindness extends to every producer who cannot see beyond his or her fence line. They cannot see that a rising tide lifts all boats, and will torpedo the competition out of malice, or spite, or ignorance, or fear, or whatever loathsome impulse prompted their words or deeds. They just can't wrap their minds around reality-that it's all inter-connected here in this state, much more so than any other place in the L48.  

So think about this: Nearly all producers would be willing to undertake more crops, or livestock. And why haven't they?  Much of it rolls back around to the high costs of feed. Since there is hardly any new lands being developed, and much turning into subdivisions, the obvious answer is to open up the fallow lands for crop production-wherever they may be.  And there are hundreds of acres of once productive farm lands, safely held by the State itself, awaiting their onerous, and stupendously expensive "state land auction" sales, priced nicely at residential or commercial rates and precluding farming quite nicely.  There are two other large land owners here, aside from the State itself, and that is the University of Alaska, and the Mental Health Trust. Neither of those entities are particularly great stewards of that resource as both arrive in Juneau every year, hat in hand, for more money. Are they blind too? Of course they are. Could these properties become productive and increase Alaskan agriculture? Yes, much of it could. But they too, are blinded by policy, blinded by statute and regulation and a bank of bureaucrats in suits, carefully hoarding their assets away from the sordid public. 

Now as to the cost of producing feed, much can written. But it boils down to actual costs. Fertilizer, equipment maintenance, insurance, taxes, all those mysterious overhead items that end up proving to the work worn farmer that the only person getting anything out of the deal is whoever holds the bank note on the place. Fertilizer costs skyrocketed when the Agrium plant closed, requiring all fertilizer to shipped from down south. When prices went from $350 a ton, to over a thousand, that cost was carried through to the crops produced. Even 25 years ago, on a very productive little patch of Valley land, my fertilizer cost *alone* was nearly $3 a bale of mixed timothy and brome hay. This is why barley and oats and hay are $300 to $400 a ton, and more. Since Alaskan farmers roll the dice on one crop in most areas, many cannot weather repeated crop loss financially. This is why many of them are still working off the farm-in what other areas would be called "gentleman farming" but up here, is many times a necessity.  Then there's taxes. The organized Boros have "exemptions" for "agriculture"/  What this means is that if you can squeak out a percentage of your income from farming, they'll only tax you at a percentage of your regular taxes. When you die, your heirs get to inherit that back, uncollected tax liability-not helpful for family farms, now is it?  But that's the way of it. Where they can levy taxes, they continue to rise because the tax man is a beast that is never satisfied. Not enough money to run the government? Why just increase assessed value, and voila! Bigger tax roll, and around and around it goes, until the farmers have given up, subdivided and sold out. 

Once a person does manage to scratch onto the Alaskan farming scene, they are soon met with this reality: There is only one insurance company.  Yes, a monopoly. Is there a solution?  Oh probably, but it would require the concerted efforts of elected representatives, insurance industry types, and would take years to shepherd through to the Governor's desk for signature. Such resolve does not afflict Alaskan politicians, never mind its agricultural promoters. Again, a blind spot as wide as the YK Delta. 

So if the legislative nonsupport, the statute and/or regulatory process remains invasive and expensive, the financial burden nearly impossible to surmount, there is always the heroic size of Alaskan egos to face.  Of course, that comes with substantial pitfalls as a certain enterprising man figured out this year......envy may have been the catalyst that lead to the lie that lead to cancelled leases....but that is just speculation.  In the end, the movers and shakers in Alaska Ag rolled an eyeball at the young farmer, and voila!  Successfully ran another committed, hardworking, and entrepreneurial person right out of Alaska Ag.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Alaska Ag: The new Director review

If you were hopeful that the new Director of the Division of Agriculture would be a step forward into the future, the skeptic would say: Well that is a foolish thought, given the circumstances.

And what may those circumstances be?  When the former Director was asked to step down, word spread rapidly across the state. Lively discussions ensued, naturally, and eventually, 10 people responded in writing for the position. Five were selected by the BAC initially, and two of those were forwarded to the Governor. (as any Director or Commissioner serves at the pleasure of the Governor, it should also be noted that the Governor can select anyone he chooses, but they would not include those that initially applied since their information was never brought forth) 

It was all for naught.  In Alaska Ag, it's always "business as usual" and thus, the fix was in well before the other applicants submitted letters of intent. I was even told so, by the aforementioned, incredibly clairvoyant friend, back over a year ago. And there again, my skepticism was awry-for indeed, the son in law of the chair of the BAC secured the Director position with the Division of Agriculture.  

Now just how cozy is that?   How is it that of ten applicants, the only two that merited the nod, are personally related to the BAC and ARLF, or have strong political (Former Governor Knowles) ties? In other venues and organizations, this might be called nepotism...or at least raise the subject of impropriety. But with all things Alaska ag, this does not even raise an eyebrow, except for those bemused observers who would agree: It's always been done this way.

Mr. Keyes is now months into his tenure in the big chair that is Alaska Ag. By reading the above, and his credentials, one would presume that his performance would be stellar and that finally, Alaska Ag would have a younger, more modern hand at the helm. One who would understand the challenges and opportunities of the small producer, one who would welcome new ideas, new approaches, new solutions to the many issues facing Ag. One who knows the history, the struggle, and the obstacles of Alaska Ag, through and through.

Or not. Mostly not. Over the course of the summer, an incident occurred at MMM&S, where an employee was escorted off the premises by the Alaska State Troopers, and (reputedly) Mr. Keyes. Several weeks later, the employee returned to full duties...and the status of the "investigation" as mentioned by Franci Havemeister at the October BAC meeting, is unknown. There has been some wild speculation as to the cause for this action, to say the least.

But we do know this: In July, the entire staff of MMM&S gave verbal notice to terminate employment, effective December 15th, 2016. Also in July, the BAC accepted and ultimately rejected, the single applicant for privatizing the plant. All the players know that the plant is going to be closed at the end of June, 2017. That is the message from the legislature, no more funding MMM&S in this time of fiscal crisis. Yet, the BAC did not advertise for another RFP for the plant until October. And the positions at the plant were not announced until yesterday.

That leaves two pretty tough deadlines to meet: The BAC to find some sort of entity to take over the plant for (hopefully!) good before the end of June next year, and DNR to hire and train three correctional officers with specialized training in plant operations-or, hire likely candidates and provide them the special training required to maintain the certification necessary on the state's dime. Then get those replacement workers up to speed with operations at the plant by Dec. 15th.

Of course, the employees are only required to give ten days notice-if they decide to exercise that option, then who knows what will happen? 

Friday, October 28, 2016

RFP recap....Alaska Ag's MMM&S facility

(Photo credit: ADN)

The newly published RFP (Request for Proposal) released today, October 28th, 2016 bears a recap.

The notice linked below, is actually the second such RFP issued concerning the plant this year. When the first one was published, a tremendous amount of speculation ensued. Perhaps a coalition lead by members of the Alaska Farm Bureau, maybe. Or maybe someone who had a lengthy history of livestock production here. Or someone else, who was not well known-no one knew who, or how many would respond.

In the end, just one person responded, with a newly formed company. The man attended one of the BAC meetings, and to say his reception to his speech was chilly, is an understatement. He made some broad boasts, asserted dubious (at best) facts, and ended up insulting the entire industry by the time he was done. In the end, his proposal was turned down. Since that matter is private, one can only speculate, but it made the rounds (and Facebook groups) and was thoroughly discussed and dissected and he was (basically) publicly eviscerated. This author's hunch is that despite his pie-in-the-sky claims, he did not have enough ready capital (read: cash on hand) for daily operations-but again, just speculation. All that is known for certain is that Rean Brooks, and his company, are not in the running this time around either. 

The link below will take you to the actual notice for the plant:

Given that the state is highly unlikely to hire experienced, qualified people and get them trained within six weeks....and it's highly unlikely anyone is going to hand over $700,000 for the plant by the December 15th deadline-what happens then?

Department of Corrections personnel are not trained, do not have the necessary certifications, and still don't even provide their own transportation for the inmates. The Division of Ag does not have the manpower either, and neither does the Department of Natural Resources. So where will that leave all the small producers, the family homesteads, the small businesses that depend upon the plant being open for their livelihood?

You know the answer to that........

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Alaska Ag....lost in the weeds

Like an invasive weed, that bane of every gardener everywhere, MMM&S issues never seem to be resolved. 

Oh, you thought that topic was gone....dead and buried in the mists of local history?

Alas no, the issues surrounding the plant, and the players involved, continues to spread discontent and confusion throughout Alaska Ag, and beyond.

Alaska Ag is not helped by the perception that the new Director of the Division of Ag, does not seem to be seriously committed to the plant. Not being a livestock producer, one could possibly excuse the inattention...but being tasked to tend all of Alaska Ag does not mean the Director should be able to pick and choose which sectors to protect, promote, or preserve.  If one listens to the latest audio recording of the BAC (Board of Agricultural Conservation) meeting on October 24th, who oversees the plant...the frustration is clearly evident. The farmers present want a solution, and the bureaucrat(s) present fall back on procedure and protocol. And in the middle: Every producer who uses, or hopes to use, the plant waits with bated breath.

Over the course of the summer, a curious event happened which involved a plant production manager, the Director of the Division of Agriculture, and the Alaska State Troopers.  It is fairly well known that a plant production manager was escorted off the premises, by a Trooper....and ended up taking a couple weeks' leave while the matter was sorted out. Whether or not we, the public, will ever learn what happened and why, is an open question.

Recently, it was rumored that all three employees had given notice of termination of employment with the state, effective December 15th.  It's a small community, so of course rumors tend to make the rounds and it wasn't long before verbal confirmation was obtained.  Yet, according to DNR (who seemingly hires for the plant) they have yet to get notification in writing.

But that aside, the problem is this:  IF the state makes an exception and is allowed to hire replacements (keeping in mind the DoC training and/or certification is needed for inmates to continue to work at the plant) it isn't going to happen as fast as December 15th. Generally speaking, employment openings are advertised for at least 30 days. Then, the review and interview process takes place, with selection following typically 60 to 90 days after first posting of the job vacancy. Given the glacial pace of the hiring process, it does not seem likely that any people hired to work at the plant through the fiscal year, will get any training whatsoever from current employees. November 1st is just around the corner, remember?

As a puzzler on this particular matter, the DNR guy (Ed Fogels, I think?) was heard stating that he had a replacement in mind...which this listener found very odd indeed.

And lastly, this cannot be stated often enough:

If the BAC and it's borrowers assume any losses from plant operations....why is it constantly stated that MMM&S is funded through the State?

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Alaska Ag: The Truth about MMM&S

Like a snarled up mess of broken fishing lines, lures, and weights you reeled in from the Kenai River or Willow Creek....the truth about Alaska Ag is about like this:

Yes, a huge snarl and figuring out which rope to pull to find that truth is a frustratingly aggravating endeavor.  There are so many lines and players here, so many enemies, frenemies, and well meaning do-gooders, it's a wonder anything can be found out all-because no one is talking to anyone. Well, a correction: If you are the "right person" with the "right bonafides" then yes you can learn a lot. If you aren't? Well, too bad and don't bother anyone with silly questions. There are more factions here than any place in the Middle East of similar geographical area, and that *is* a truth.  The fate of Mount McKinley Meat & Sausage processing plant in Palmer is a crucial issue facing Alaska Ag. Without its cornerstone presence, the dirge for Alaskan grown meats might as well continue playing and all that will be left is planting roses in remembrance of what could have been. As it stands, there are numerous people involved, or wanting to be involved in the plant. 

Let's run just a few up the flag pole and salute their involvement, shall we?

First there are the three supervisory employees managing the plant. Yes, three managers. Whether this is appropriate, no one seems to know but all agree, at least a part of their function is to supervise those inmates.  Their competency does not seem to be in doubt (except on the business end) but my oh my, they can work both sides and the middle when necessary. They must see the writing on the wall and are angling to stay employed (and who wouldn't be, in this economy?) and aren't afraid to throw a few handfuls of mud about, hoping some will stick. These are the guys who assisted with the construction of the facility at Rocket Ranch, provide freezer space to special customers at no charge and who may, just may, have committed a bit of malfeasance. They're in a tough position, no doubt, but have not been under the microscope of public scrutiny long enough.

There is Denali Meat Company, whose formation was no surprise to those who knew about the Alaska Farm Bureau independent study. The AFB paid a lot of money for this excellent report, and it will no doubt serve the partners well when they submit their application. In addition, DMC is rumored to have asked for more money to fund a lobbyist. At first, I could not imagine what they'd need a lobbyist for-until it was remembered that the plant was built to a large economy of scale originally (That is, they process at around ten percent capacity annually as it stands today) and the only way to rapidly increase the carcasses going through the plant is to import them. Voila!  A need for a lobbyist materializes, since that person could advocate on their behalf, for a loosening of current import regulations. Import the cattle, finish them in Alaska to butcher weight, process, and slap a "Alaska Grown" sticker on the package. Bazinga! Alaska Ag is a success!

There is the BAC, whose power and threads reach everywhere into Alaska Ag. This is the group who allowed the former Director to say: A large animal veterinary clinic is not "agriculture".  The Chair also voted on Arthur Keyes' selection to the Governor (when the DNR commish was in disagreement) and most recently...was only stopped from taking the principals of the DMC into Executive Session by the astute actions of a fellow (attorney) member. The guys with DMC really want to plead their case and "discuss matters" off the public record. Presumably, this will now take place via back channels.

There is the mysterious Rocket Ranch, who still does not exist according to the state business and corporate licensing (for the second year). We'll presume no Borough business license either, but regardless, they have hung their sign, and are busily raising hogs. They are owned, at least in part, by Mike's Meats in Eagle River. They have a custom exempt plant up there on Lazy Mountain, the one that the MMM&S employees aided in seeing to fruition. It is speculated that this plant could easily be upgraded into a USDA facility for re-sale cuts...in which case there will be competition for MMM&S.

There are a couple of rumored alternatives being kicked around by enterprising individuals. Because no names have been attached, no speculation is warranted. The BAC is going to open up for public comments on MMM&S at the end of the coming month.

The today, the local Frontiersman newspaper posted an article about this subject:

http://www.frontiersman.com/news/group-hopes-to-get-meat-plant-out-of-the-red/article_0f9d33fa-d9be-11e5-a5cd-1b8062583bac.html   (Sorry, you have to click an answer to read the content)

In the article, it is clearly stated by DMC President Nate Burris that the plant won't be "a lucrative endeavor". Followed by this statement by Ernie Diamond (a former MMM&S manager who now holds a 25 percent stake in the new venture of Denali Meat Company):
“Everybody’s going to make more money and everybody’s going to succeed, if this works for us.”

From the outside, it looks as though it's likely that there will be two USDA plants, at least for a short while. One of those will be on very shaky footing, requiring another year of State subsidy (line of credit), a change in import regulations, and support from the legislature to make that happen. This alone proves that they are underfunded from the start and are on very uncertain ground, whatever their collective expertise.  Either one could easily just be "booked solid" for any producer, at any time. This is the real risk of privatization and the warring factions within the Ag community here.

And again......where does this leave the small producer?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Alaska Ag: The joke's on us......


Coming as no surprise whatsoever to the interested observer, the small producer, the hobby farmer, the homesteader, and the easily amused.......

Arthur Keyes beat out Tony Knowle's son for the Director of Agriculture position. Hope he enjoys that $121,000 a year job...while somehow still running all the things he bragged about doing in his letter of interest. Being Ben VanderWeele's son-in-law was no impediment *cough cough*

Also coming as no surprise, is the formation of a brand new baby LLC, known as "Denali Meat Company".  The four individuals named have equal partnership percentages, but only one has true retail business experience-that would be Mr. Burris, current owner of Mat Valley Meats here in the Mat Su. The rest are farmers, including, (ironically) one Todd Pettit, another "anointed by marriage" farm royalty member. Todd is the guy who publicly stated several times that he had no interest in the MMM&S plant whatever. He didn't use it, didn't plan on it, but felt it was important to all farming. You'll find Todd listed as a partner, although what part of the new venture he's going to help with is unclear.  Terry Van Whye is listed too, he is a large pork producer up the Glenn Highway, with plans to expand. The final member is an unknown, perhaps he is the money man? And lest you think all these twisted ties are coincidental, it comes to light that the attorney for the partnership is none other than former Alaska Governor Sean Parnell.  Yes, really. 

Seemingly, Denali Meat Company appeared at the BAC meeting yesterday. They hogged the microphone (not allowing others their three minutes) and at least once, attempted to move their conversation into "executive session". That's illegal, if you don't have loan matters to discuss-just so you know. And to our knowledge, Denali Meat does not yet have a loan with the ARLF. Keep in mind they were just formed January 5th, and got their business license on February 11th. It's assumed they'll submit a proposal to the BAC to take over MMM&S. Of course, they aren't smart enough to go for a five year lease (it takes about five years to establish a small business, say the experts) so they're asking for a single year. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that MMM&S will end up back on the cutting board at BAC/Div. of Ag before long. 

And just where does that leave the small producer?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Alaska Ag: Cronyism 1, the rest of us......0

I'd like to say that it was a savant, a clairvoyant, a seer...but it was not. It was a very dear friend, an astute observer of Alaska Ag that told this author last fall:

"The fix is in, Ag is done"

And I thought....surely that cannot be?  

No, not when there are literally hundreds of people just getting started with growing food here, not when there are many thousands of back yard gardens, greenhouses, and plant stands with lights in Alaska homes, right?  

Alas, yes, it is true.

Follow along, and you will sadly agree:

Everyone has their own version of what Alaska agricultural history is, so I won't re-plow spent soils there....other than to note that the ARLF (which predates Statehood) is overseen by the Board of Agriculture and Conservation.  "Agriculture and Conservation" has such a lovely ring, doesn't it? An image of a tidy field of row crops springs to mind, or perhaps crates full of produce, or maybe just a farmer on a tractor-coupled that warm feeling of saving something. It's a great marketing and sales tactic, selecting just the right words. Any political campaigner will tell you the same.  Their motto is: 
"Promote and encourage development of an agriculture industry."

Among the seats on that board, sits not one small producer. No, they represent, to a man, the commercial side of agriculture. Small "ag", as I like to think of it....is absent. Small ag is the homestead producer, the smaller operations who might send a handful of critters to MMM&S perhaps, or whose back breaking labor gifts them with a few weekends of produce at a farmers market. 

The same holds true for the ARLF board, sadly enough. The big guys with the big tractors only. It's an exclusive club, and membership depends a great deal on the whims of the board. Their motto is: "Financing the Future"

Then there is the Alaska Farm Bureau, who paid for an industry report on MMM&S, and it's great. They also formed what they call a "Steering Committee" to explore privatization of the plant.  Here again, you will not find one small producer, nary a one. Although several of the committee members were on the FB group, no homesteaders, backyarders, or small business are welcome at the table for the farm bureau steering committee. Their motto is: Farm Gate to the World

Of course, there are all the federal programs, many of them with ample public monies for projects. However, they do come with a number of conditions, and many Alaskans find those to be intrusive and onerous and they'd rather "go local" than not. So instead of a recap of the feds, suffice to say: It's there if you qualify.

Now you may be wondering where that cronyism might fit into the pieces listed above. Cronyism runs through Alaska ag, from it's founding with the Colony project, through the boondoggles of the mightily mismanaged projects of the 80s, the bankruptcies (and how did a $12 an hour employee of the failed creamery manage to acquire all those lovely cows, whose transport alone was in the many thousands?) and on through today. 

If a person were to check through the available records, a person would note that several names recur frequently. It is a complex tapestry of friendships, family, marriages, animosity and enemies. These days, if you don't have skin in the game, you're....well, nothing.  You have to attend the meetings, schmooze the mighty, befriend the suspicious, and acquiesce to the anointed.  And if you can't figure out who that is, well then...no money for you! The seats of power in Alaska Ag are those occupied by the boards listed above, with a complicit slate of Directors of the Division of Agriculture, coupled with essentially zero oversight from the legislature. In short, they do as they please, loan to who they please, and include who they please. Period.  It does not change because they do not allow change, because it has always been done this way. This is why outsiders are not welcome, newcomers are not welcome, small producers are not welcome.  Cronyism at its finest, right here in the Valley. 

A quote attributed to the La Famiglia, the Mafia sums this up nicely:   

You can be rich without knowing how to be powerful, but you cannot be powerful without being rich

And lest you think I am blowing smoke....how is it that a bankrupt farmer or two, got new loans for new ventures? And managed to go broke again? How is it, that the "ag lease" lands, are bought, chopped up, and resold for speculation so easily? Why is it that so many long time farmers, have given up and abandoned the state? Why is it that even a veterinary clinic, whose primary focus would be cattle, cannot get approved because it isn't "agriculture" enough?  Why is it that the former Director was ineffective and served as rubber stamp for the local El Capo? Why is that the only names forwarded for consideration for the new Director of the Division of Agriculture, either related to El Capo, or had strong Democratic political ties? 

And finally....why is that small ag, is not allowed a voice anywhere?

Answer: Because El Capo does not choose to accept them, their existence, and especially, their concerns, ideas, and new ways of doing things. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Alaska Ag: Prop 90 response link

Here is the link to the comment form:

Make sure you click the drop down for the correct meeting, which is Board of Game on March 5th.

Please remember to be polite, and succinct, in your written message to the Board. 

A form letter in this case, just won't do. Also please consider contacting your state representative, as soon as possible. Yes, they are in session, but submitting your comments gets your voice "on the record", which is important. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Alaska Ag: The Prop 90 assault

2016 is not shaping up to be any kinder to Alaska Agriculture than 2015 was. 

The selection process for the new Director of the Division of Agriculture, is nearly complete. Two names are slated to be forwarded to the Commissioner of DNR.   One has Alaska experience, and the other has political ties.  Arthur Keyes is the son in law of Ben VanderWeele, who sits on the BAC, and is the Palmer power broker when it comes to the ARLF.  Young Mr. Knowles...is, well you guessed it-a Knowles. 'Nuff said. Has less direct Alaska farming experience than yours truly, but of course, yours truly does not have the correct genitalia for consideration. 

So whichever of these two is selected for this plum, no one expects significant change. Yes, the MMM&S issue will no doubt be resolved in the state's favor-and that's a good thing. But when even state employees cannot be truthful to inquiries about board vacancies...expect the same cronyism that has plagued Alaska Ag since day one. One thing we can grow very well here, is that.

As to other assaults on the future of Ag, there is an item that recently came to attention. received via email, and I urge you consider carefully the ramifications:

Our local hunters, via the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, is placing before the Board of Game, a proposal to take local Alaskan sheep and goats off the clean list. What does this actually mean? Well, it's one of those feel good notions with huge unexpected consequences.  Because there is an outbreak of (unspecified) disease in Big Horn sheep in the L48, the hunters up here want to prevent that. Sounds great, right? Except that they want  EVERY Alaskan who owns one or both, obtain a *permit* (forms, with fees no doubt) within one year of implementation-and yes that means every single backyard doe, ram, wether. They must also be contained within a Department approved facility (Money for inspections) that are at least double fenced-which equals a substantial amount of money for every hobbyist and rancher in the State of Alaska. Completely throwing out the current disease monitoring which is conducted by the State already...and the hard work and sacrifice of dozens of small livestock producers to maintain and test their entire herds year after year. 

But the most crucial, and overlooked component is this: That any person with possession of said animals *within 15 air miles Dall sheep habitat* must comply with the above rules.

Have you taken a good look at a map of Southcentral Alaska recently? Please note that it doesn't say "known range" or "current range" or even known habitat-that is, where a person might typically find them. Nope, just habitat. That would include nearly all of the Anchorage Borough, and a very big swath of the Mat Su Valley as well.  This proposal will likely get a serious look, and may even pass because people in the livestock community are completely unaware. Won't they be surprised when they discover that they live within that 15 mile boundary...and must rebuild their fences, buy a permit and pay for inspections? And suffer the unspecified consequences if they do not comply?

Because those female Dall sheep do bring their babies down to the lower meadows to forage in the summer months. I know this for a fact as I used to see them as a child growing up in the Interior-right through the kitchen window with Dad's telescope.  I've been told the same can be found in the Hatcher Pass and Chugach range area too.  Even if the "habitat" is restricted to the treeline and above...the impact area will be enormous. Hello, Municipality of Anchorage! Eagle River, Girdwood, Chugiak, Palmer, Wasilla, Talkeetna, and on into the Interior as well. Every community and homestead between Palmer and beyond the Matanuska Glacier will fall under this proposal as well. 

The next Board of Game meeting is in March. 

You can find the Alaska Board of Game website here: Board of Game  

On the list of action items in the white box, click the link for the 2016 Proposal Book. 

Once that page loads, click the link to the innocuous "miscellaneous permits". 

Scroll down a few pages and read 90 carefully. 

This is not the time to blow it off, it is the time to get involved. I do not have goats or sheep, but I will be making what effort I can to squash this right away. I encourage others to do the same, because sheep and goats raised locally are an integral part of Alaska's food security. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Alaska Ag: As ye sow, so shall ye reap

In times of great distress, this nation has risen as one, and put forth incredible effort to sustain the Republic. I do wish I had as much confidence in Alaska...as the times of great distress are on the horizon for all to see.

Over the weekend, there appeared on the Facebook group "Alaskans Working to Keep MMM&S Open"  (link here: Alaskans Working to keep MMM&S Open)  several photographs, posted by member Jeff Werner on the 14th. They show the nearly empty meat sections of a Fairbanks grocery. 

It brought back memories I have, of the same sight, back in the 60s and 70s.  Others who grew up in the Interior that I have spoken to, have similar memories. For this (partly) Bush kid, driving into town for groceries every four months was a highlight-and finding shelves empty of cereal meant months of oatmeal and pancakes to come, for example. Several times, my mother was forced back to the car, to re-work her meal plans, painstakingly detailed on a spare yearly calendar. Back then, this was due to literally losing barges at sea, in the era before the large computer controlled container ships became regular with arrivals at Alaska ports. It was soon posted that a total of 5 ship loads did not arrive during the holiday period, and that other stores showed empty shelves and display cases as well-if not as stark as the ones posted by Mr. Werner.  This should be a wake up call to all. We each have a stake in Alaska Ag, whether one single bite of Alaskan grown beef, pork, sheep, goat or poultry ever crosses your lips. 

Because it will be the local producer you will turn to, when (not if!) the container ships ever stop docking in Anchorage. And how can they help improve our food security issue, if MMM&S closes?Answer: They can not. MMM&S is just one critical element of food production within the state. Other challenges remain substantial. 

They will not have the herds, nor the grazing lands, nor the grain production either. This is due in no small part to policy, and not because Alaskans do not want to do this, make no mistake. 

When farm lands sit fallow because they are artificially priced at subdivision rates; 

when new lands are not available from any source at less than "full market value" as determined by degree carrying state assessors whose job it is to maximize value over utility; 

when no monies are available for the small farm/homestead for improvements; 

when the Boroughs tax such improvements at "full market value" instead of farmstead; 

when there is but one source for insurance for any farm endeavor, regardless of size; 

when over all state policy favors residential development over feeding its citizens; 

when new farmers and new methods are not welcomed by the "good old boys" of Alaska Ag; 

when the message is clear that support is welcome but new help and ideas are not;

when unnecessary regulations hamper small milk producers; 

when a new farmer must fight for every step forward against a juggernaut of regulation, statute, law;

when value added ventures are stymied by the above;

Unless and until these issues (and others) are addressed in practical fashion by all the bureaucrats in charge-including the new director of the Division of Ag-Alaska's ability to feed itself will be hamstrung as always, and remain the bastard step child of resource development. 

And they will not be able to fill the void, never mind the hungry.