Thursday, July 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

The coming MMM&S competition?  Not so much!

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

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

And in the middle?

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

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

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


Monday, July 24, 2017

Alaska Ag.....MMM&S Numbers

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

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

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

A total of 1699 cattle and hogs were processed.  

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

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

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

If you can swallow the processing fees, of course.






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

Will competition help, or hinder our tiny livestock producers?

Only time will tell. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Alaska Ag.....Get yer popcorn, folks!

Looks like the reality show that is Alaska Ag is about to heat up-again.

Over the weekend, Todd Pettit (of Denali Meat Company) let it slip on Facebook, that Denali Meats not only has their USDA mobile slaughter unit, they will be installing a USDA approved cut & wrap unit as well. You can look up the principals with an interest in Denali Meat Co. online if you are so inclined.

He did not share the location. Or, when they might be up and running for the public-but he did say they'd be open to "all amenable and non-amenable" livestock.....whatever that means. Here's the screenshot of Todd's post:



It seems reasonable to conclude that some reservations at MMM&S will be cancelled, due to personal and business clashes with the new owner and their services to date.  And the reverse will no doubt be true as well:  Some will remain with MMM&S due to issues with the Denali Meat Co. principals. 

The impact of this new facility, in direct competition to MMM&S, will have wide ranging effects, no doubt. For the small livestock producer, it might prove to be a boon, in that perhaps there will not a lengthy bottleneck over the fall processing period. But it might well put MMM&S even further into the red.....remember, it failed to make money even using cheap prison labor for years. It's no doubt true that the new owner has, or is, modernizing what can be remedied, and no doubt finding those efficiency measures which eluded the State itself. Or, conversely, the market might prove that two plants in the same geographic area is not sustainable on any level-particularly financial. 

The Pt. MacKenzie plant remains closed to the public, so it's operation should not have any adverse effect on either of these two than it already has. 

(Note: The BAC loaned the money for the purchase of the plant which will be competing with MMM&S..... the wisdom of that we'll leave up to someone else)




Thursday, July 13, 2017

Alaska Ag......The Appeal Results

On July 12th, an email appeared from the DOA. This date is at the deadline allowed for response, although snail mail had been checked daily-just in case.

There were five attachments to the email, pdf files.

Four contained multiple pages in response to the administrative appeal.

There are over 100 documents in total, which will take some time to sort through, collate and arrive at a conclusion.

The takeaway here is this:

The DOA *knew* exactly what I was asking for on the first FOIA Open Records Request.  It was denied...."no such documents exist"

They still knew when they denied the second, more detailed FOIA Open Records Request.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out at whose direction those two denials were issued, does it?  Dear Director, naturally. Or whoever over there is pulling his strings.  This is how they exert power, and pick who wins and loses.

I got results when I followed statute, appealed in writing, making sure that a paper trail included DNR Commissioner Andy Mack, and DNR Deputy Commissioner Ed Fogels. I also included the relevant federal regulations, something that DOA *had* to have known to operate MMM&S.  I'd encourage everyone who was ever denied a FOIA request, to follow the same procedure. Especially if what you are asking for does not include personal information, and you are confident that the DOA does have the information you seek.

That said-

The contents are chronologically jumbled, the "kill reports" are a handwritten mess, and if this serves as "record keeping" for the DOA....well, let's just say it nicely "they have serious issues there". Curiously, some of the information was evidently housed at the Plant Materials Center, according to fax headers printed on the documents. No nice and tidy Excel spreadsheet here, of course. Nope, if you are attempting to make a determination about proceeding with livestock production, and need this basic background information (for decision making, for financing or business plan purposes) just shoot me an email, and avoid the stonewalling and excuses at DOA....I'll happily share.

Edited to add: The pdf files themselves.

DOA Appeal letter
Kill Report 1
Kill Report 2
Kill Report 3
Kill Report 4


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Alaska Ag.....Make that, AlaskaGroan




A reader supplied the tidbit that the DOA had updated its Facebook page for the AlaskaGrown program.   At first glance, nothing appeared to have changed, but after poking around a bit (and a hint from aforementioned reader) this was discovered:

(A copy and paste of the Note uploaded 7-10-17)

Alaska Grown FACEBOOK TERMS OF USE - https://www.facebook.com/dnr.alaska...
This is the official Facebook page of Alaska Grown and is managed by the State of Alaska, Division of Agriculture. This page was created to provide people who have any interest in the work of the Alaska Grown program, the ability to communicate with and access information about Alaska Grown and the Alaska Division of Agriculture. This page is monitored and managed by the Alaska Division of Agriculture. Comments posted by others on the Alaska Grown Facebook page are not necessarily the opinion of the Division or the State of Alaska, nor does the Division of Agriculture endorse any third-party comments on this page.
The Division of Agriculture welcomes a person's right to express his/her opinion and encourages commenters to keep posts civil and related to content on this page. Either posting on or “liking” this page constitutes an acceptance of the terms below. Please review these terms before posting:
• Alaska Grown reserves all rights to remove and/or block any posts or any commenter/friend at the Division of Agriculture’s discretion.
• Alaska Grown shall particularly remove and/or block any post or any commenter/friend for inappropriate or offensive comments/posts, including, but not limited to material which: 1. defames, abuses, harasses, stalks, threatens or violates the legal rights of others,
2. suggests racism, hatred, slander, obscenity, violence, vulgarity,
3. includes any personal information about another person which may violates one’s privacy interests,
4. includes copyrighted material belonging to another person,
5. contains links to websites which the Division of Agriculture deems inappropriate or offensive,
6. ALL spam or advertisements.
The acceptance of a friend invite between Alaska Grown members and a citizen does not indicate endorsement of that person's actions or comments. Following approval of the Division of Agriculture, others may be allowed to post photos or videos on Alaska Grown’s page. If you have photos or videos you'd like to share on this page, contact Alaska Grown at dnr.alaskagrown@alaska.gov and provide evidence of your copyright ownership or license from the owner.
All postings to this page become the property of the Alaska Division of Agriculture and are subject to all applicable federal and state law. This includes, but is not limited to, any applicable federal and state criminal and intellectual property laws.
_______________________


Friday, July 7, 2017

Alaska Ag....The DOA Sobriquet

Once again, email and messages arrived, concerning the use of "DOA" on this blog.

The State of Alaska, Division of Agriculture, has been nicknamed here "DOA" since day one.

It has never meant, not once, the Department of Administration of the State of Alaska.  

Whatever whimsical or punny or hilarious phrase springs to mind when 'DOA' is read, is up to the reader to apply.....we've heard a number over the past couple of years ourselves. 

In fact, if you have one-feel free to share it with your fellow readers.

We'll start with this one:


The Dept. Of Angst


>insert appropriate smiley face here<

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Alaska Ag.....The Large Divide



The yawning chasm of professionalism in Alaska state government Ag, is best exemplified by two state agency publications. 

First, let's look at the latest newsletter from the DOA:



Second, take a peek at what the Office of the State Veterinarian published:




Some would say this is comparing apples to oranges.  That's laughable when a person remembers how much effort the DOA has put into snaring the OSV and its complex, wide ranging, and important programs and works. 

Just how well do you think a part time dirt farmer would do, managing the OSV?

About as good a job as they do producing that newsletter linked above. Please note carefully what they are actually doing, not what they are waving pom poms over.

*cough cough*





Sunday, June 25, 2017

Alaska Ag......The Appeal

From:

Tiani Heider
7479 W Born Lazy
Wasilla, Alaska  99623

To:

State of Alaska
Division of Agriculture
Central Office
Director Arthur Keyes
1800 Glenn Highway, Suite 12
Palmer, Alaska  99645



Subject: Administrative Appeal
  2 AAC 96.340. Appeal from denial: manner of making


Director Keyes-

Per the statute referenced above, I am appealing the Freedom of Information Act denial I received on June 20th, 2017, regarding DAG 17-028 Public Records Request.

The denial was authored by
Lora Haralson
Administrative Officer I
Division of Agriculture
Central Office
1800 Glenn Highway, Suite 12
Palmer, Alaska 99645

The records requested were originally described as “copies of USDA pen cards, or similar”. During a follow up communication, a further description was provided to the Division.

It has since come to my attention, that the Division does, indeed, have both hard copies, and computer files for these documents. MMM&S called them “check in” cards, and the Plant Manager (among others) filled them out as animals arrived at MMM&S. One copy went to the producer, one to the USDA, and one to the Division of Agriculture. In addition, this information was entered into a computer on a daily basis during normal operations.

Pg.2




These records are federally mandated to be retained, under FSIS and HAACP regulations. For the HAACP that the Division has on file, records are required under 9 CFR 417.5 - Records.  (and others, for HAACP)  as well as FSIS 9 CFR 310.2 (a) and related regulations. All of these regulations specifying required compliance for record keeping can be found online at the related agency, or in the Federal Register..


I remain confident that the Division does, in fact, have these documents in their possession.  Since the data I requested did not include any specific personal producer information whatsoever, I am certain that my FOIA request was wrongfully denied.



Respectfully-













CC: Andrew T. Mack, Commissioner, DNR
        Ed Fogels, Deputy Commissioner, DNR
     

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Alaska Ag.....A FOIA Request


As blog readers here know, I made a FOIA request to the DOA personally, back on May 25th.

I asked for very simple data: What are the real numbers of USDA inspected cattle and hogs being processed at MMM&S?

This is a question that high school and college students might ask, or a reporter, or someone doing their homework before deciding to make an investment in livestock here in Alaska. It is back ground, legwork information that would either prove, or disprove, that the sector was growing as fast as it appears to be from the outside looking in. (After all, raising for yourself is one thing, but raising for market is another matter entirely)  

Naturally, I had to do a little research to determine which data would be relevant and accurate. I did not ask for, nor want, any personal identifiers of any kind.  But what records would be available to fulfill this request?  In a few short minutes online, I discovered the correct descriptor. 

Here is a copy and paste of the original FOIA request, submitted May 25th, 2017:

Good morning Lora-

I am requesting copies of all USDA pen cards generated for Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage for the period between May 20th, 2016, through May 15th, 2017.

Scans via return email are acceptable, in the interest of time and cost savings to the State, during this period of fiscal crisis. 

Thank you for your time and attention in this matter.

Regards;

To which the response came:

Greetings:  I have received your FOIA records request DAG17-027 and will begin the request on May 26, 2017 with an anticipated response back to you on June 9, 2017. 

Thank you for your inquiry.

And another email arrived on May 31st:


Good morning, TJ

After returning to your public records request, it is unclear what documents you are seeking.  Please clarify what you mean by “USDA pen cards generated for Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage.”  The time limits for response quoted to you in the last email will not begin to run again until we received your clarification.

Thank you.
Lora

To which I responded:



Lora, my apologies if my request was unclear. 

These are the charts/sheets generated for each USDA inspection performed at Mt. McKinley Meat & Sausage. They do not list owner or anything of a personal nature...it is simply age, sex, breed, ear tag and/or brand of the cattle (or hogs) slaughtered that day. 

The USDA requires them, and it is my understanding that the state would naturally have copies due to tracing responsibility (if it should be required for health reasons)  The USDA calls them "pen cards" but of course, you may know them by another term I am unfamiliar with. As custodian of the records for MMM&S and all it's activities, I am positive the Division does keep these important documents. 

Again, the period would be from May 20th, 2016, through May 17th, 2017

Thank you once again-


And then, the final response on this request:


Greetings Ms. Heider:

Attached is a response letter and denial regulations regarding your public records request dated May 31, 2017.

Thank you.
Lora
______________________________________________________________________




The links above close the FOIA, and provide the information to remedy the decision if a person chooses to continue forward.

However, my research proved that the DOA must have them, although the issue may have been their understanding of my request. I sent the following on June 7th:

Lora -

In the interest of clarity, I have started a new email chain regarding my original FOIA request, dated May 25th, 2017. I am hereby amending this to a new request at this time.

In reviewing the FSIS regulations to ascertain whether or not the Division of Agriculture would retain the relevant documents I described, I found this:

"The establishment is required to have an adequate system for the identification of animals presented for slaughter (307.2(a)). There is not a uniform method of presenting animals for ante-mortem inspection, but the establishment needs to do so in a manner that will allow IPP to document that ante-mortem inspection has been performed. The most commonly used way for establishments to meet this regulatory requirement is by using establishment identification cards, referred to as "pen cards" or "drive sheets”. Although the pen cards themselves are non-regulatory in nature, they must be presented to the inspector before ante-mortem inspection is performed. The pen card or drive sheet should contain space to record the date and time of inspection, pen or lot number, number and slaughter class of animals presented, and IPP signature or initials. In most instances, the establishment will record the information directly on the card for you. However, you should check to see that the information is correct. 

The regulations also require that establishments identify the carcass and parts with the animal from which they come (9 CFR 310.2 (a)), and that the establishment maintain records of the buyer and seller of livestock (9 CFR 320.1(b)(1)(iv)). Tags are typically used to maintain the identity of the carcass and its parts. Pen cards may be used to maintain a record of the buyer and seller of the livestock."

To reiterate, I have not asked for specific owner information. I request copies of the tags (or pen cards  as described above) of those cattle and hogs processed for the period from May 15th, 2016, through May 17th, 2017.

As the Division of Agriculture is now the custodian of the commercial business records of the MMM&S facility, as conducted for the State of Alaska, these records are federally mandated and are in the Divisions' possession.

Thank you for your attention-

********

And there the matter rested, with one follow up email on Friday to check to make sure the request was received. 

Yesterday, the final response on this second FOIA arrived in my inbox, where the DOA decided to contact the feds on my behalf:



Yes, this very long entry has a few points. 

The first takeaway is this: The DOA seemingly does not keep federally mandated records. The DOA only keeps "pen cards" for a few days, not the required minimum three years. This is a monstrous public health issue, and warrants a thorough investigation. 

Why?  Because *if* there were disease or other health problem arising from meats processed there, there is no way for public health officials to trace its origin!  The record keeping there is atrocious, and I have seen screenshots of the nearly illegible handwritten lists that they produce. Not entered into an easily searched database with a corresponding file for identification.  

Now while you are thinking through the serious implications of that, let me close by stating the mantra:

They do it this way, because it's always been done this way.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Alaska Ag....Caveat Emptor!

(This is going to inflame many, and for that reason, here is the quasi-legal disclaimer: This blog is opinion. Opinion is protected speech in America)


Caveat Emptor, more commonly known as "buyer beware", is what all Alaskan consumers should be taking into consideration as they make their #alaskagrown purchases. 

Several times here, and in the comments following, this blog has pointed out the false advertising, misrepresentation, and outright frauds being perpetrated against us all. Naturally, the shills trot right out to shout down the truth....but there's this screenshot....shared by a fellow blog follower:



The above screenshot was taken June 10th from the Facebook page of the business. 


Why should this concern you?  

The only cattle processed at MMM&S in the past three weeks were direct-from-Canada imports. 

Confirmation on MMM&S processing comes from a very reliable source.

So, either this beef magically appeared processed with USDA stamp, or someone is flat out misrepresenting the above as (hashtag) alaskagrown, or it is not freshly aged. 

You be the judge here....after all, you are the consumer.








Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Alaska Ag......The Information Gateway is Locked



In the repository of Alaskan agriculture information masquerading as the DOA, you might be quite surprised to discover that much information might as well be inside the Ft. Knox vault.

Want statistics that are not published as part of a program directive?  That takes a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request.

Want details on what the DOA is actually doing?  See above.

Wondering where the Dear Director has been, and how much it cost us?  See above.

Have questions about the DOA's activities and staffing? See above.

Curious about livestock processed at MMM&S? See above.

And about those "FOIA" requests......

Every inquiry is run past the law department before compliance, because...well, it is the DOA after all, and all must be (mostly) approved by higher ups.

If they are confused or stalling, a week or so will pass, and they'll respond with a plea for more specific information...in which case, the clock is reset on their response allowance of two weeks. Or, they'll tell you that it will take more than your allotted 5.5 hours of time (per month) to look up the information (which they have in their databases and files) so it will cost you xx amount-which works out to about $58 per hour of their time. They'll restart your clock when you've paid in full and thank you very much for this opportunity to be of service.  >sarcasm<

It's not clear when a staffer was anointed, but at least one has been "delegated the authority to deny Alaska Public Records requests".  It would take a FOIA to find out who granted that power and if they had the authority to do so, but it's the DOA, after all, the information vacuum of the State. So, whatever your inquiry, there is now the added threshold of this persons' opinion on your request, and then it is passed along to DNR, and the Law Department.

The newest excuse, carefully prepped by the endless resources of the Dept of Law, is "trade secrets", not the more common "no such documents exist".   Each denial response letter will contain the relevant Alaska statute number, and include a legal case reference pertaining to that statute. It will also include instructions on how to appeal their decision. In fact, the DOA relies on the Law Department so much, it's a mystery why they don't have an attorney on staff themselves.

If you should be so careless as to mention specific community members in your FOIA, rest assured that the DOA will let them know you asked, and for what. There is nothing confidential about any contact you make with them yourself, an important distinction to remember. Confidentiality extends only to the CBC of Ag, and whatever the DOA does, so it seems. This is a one way information highway, in practical terms.  

Because no general guide apparently exists that describe what records are to remain legitimately, legally private, every FOIA request submitted is literally a shot in the dark.  They will refuse, when they could easily redact identifying information (if that is the concern) and perform the public service they are paid to perform.

As gatekeepers of Alaska agricultural information, they appear to be diligently working to assure that their employers (that would be us) cannot find out what the heck they are doing, if there are any measurable results for their programs and activities-yet gossip freely about farmers, ranchers, others in the community-up to and including details on those who have loans with the ARLF. These are not banking, personnel, human resources, adoption, SSNs, and assorted records we're talking about here. No, this is information that the DOA has in its possession, concerning its activities and programs and the business it conducts.

It is a strange juxtaposition of closely guarded information that the DOA endeavors to keep secret, and a public persona of bright, shiny optimism, spouting nonsensical gibberish when spotlighted. (Such as the fairy tales Dear Director told the 30th Alaska state legislature)

Why should it be so difficult to get information from a state agency?