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 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?