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 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 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 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., 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 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.