Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Alaska Ag.....Is that Alaska Grown?

We've all likely seen the label -

But what, exactly, does it mean?

Fierce defenders, those producers who bust butt to grow or raise food here in state, believe it means wholly grown or raised here, period. Basically from birth to butcher, germination to harvest, no wiggle room allowed. 

Other folks?  Well, not so much. Even Dear Director (of the DOA) has waffled on what qualifies as Alaska Grown. 

When it comes to branding and marketing, AlaskaGrown has a certain panache, a certain expectation that surrounds the concept and the bright yellow, blue and green logo. Proudly worn by those born here, and sported by fans and tourists who visit, it is an unmistakable symbol of Alaska agriculture.

That marketing gets marginalized and blurred, when this happens:

 (We'll take four dozen of the Alaska hardy pineapple plants, please!)

Or the signage in your local grocery store does not reflect what's actually on the shelf, or the produce cannot be found at all, or you're wondering at the very large images of your competitor, proudly beaming down from on high...and fuming about how they were chosen, and you (and your farm) were not.

Or worse...the packaging can be misleading, as well as the terms used to describe the package contents.  In theory, to qualify for AlaskaGrown, an animal must spend at least 51% of its life here in Alaska.  This applies to vegetables imported as seedlings as well.

A large number of food producers (of all types) don't bother with the AlaskaGrown designation. It is a relatively inexpensive branding to acquire, but the programs' history is sketchy and memories are long in Alaska agriculture. Others prefer to create their own brands and labels for marketing, not replying on the common denominator concept for local advertising and promotions. Alaskan producers are just as independent as any other group here, and some want to build their own identity, without the checkered auspices that the logo represents.

Yet an incident whereby the Director of the DOA, acquiesced that imported vegetables could be sold as AlaskaGrown, if it spent any time at all in Alaska dirt....leaves residents and consumers alike wondering just how AlaskaGrown their purchases truly are. As usual, the DOA spreads more confusion and distrust with the following:

Not one to miss an opportunity to re-plow harrowed ground, the DOA has jumped on a related platform they're calling a "Livestock Certification/Quality Assurance Program"   There are already national programs, so it can safely be presumed that the DOA has sniffed out grant money/federal funds to reinvent the wheel for Alaskan farmers and ranchers. Since more programs=more money=more staff=more important DOA, you can be sure that this will be created and launched regardless of need or impact. Are Alaskan cattle and hog producers going to jump happily into this new program that the DOA will provide for their assistance?  Perhaps a few, but most are too busy building their businesses, fighting bureaucracy, and struggling to cover expenses, to pay attention to whatever it is they're blathering about in Palmer.

When it comes to "truth in advertising", Alaska is a wide open field of possibilities. The AlaskaGrown program, for all its purported benefits, is not necessary for marketing.  Those that would deliberately mislead the consumer, are easily caught out for their actions, thanks in no small part to the tiny population and the rise in social media.  That there is no standard for cattle and hogs processed here should come as no surprise to anyone.  Thankfully, Alaska remains small enough that if you have questions, you can always just call the farm or ranch yourself, and ask.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Alaska Ag......The USDA stamp shakeout

(The USDA "stamp" is a euphemism for acquiring all the approvals and following all protocols necessary-including inspection-to sell cuts of meat to retail and commercial customers. This differs from custom exempt, whereby the consumer purchases a live animal and butchers themselves for their own use)

In the muddled mess that is meat production in Alaska, nothing exemplifies the pitfalls as well as the history of MMM&S.

Long on the books as an asset of the BAC, and managed by the DOA, it constantly lost money, except for one year when they sold a load of hides. Under the auspices of the DOA, the plant deteriorated and the business conducted there was.....marginal for some producers. When the calls arose for privatization several years back, the BAC was forced to put it up for bid. This caused some fractions within the farming community, and the BAC (wearing their CBC of Ag hats for all to see), accepted a bid well below appraised value.

Last week, the plant was formally handed over to the new owner.  There's no assurance of success (the plant has failed in private hands before, necessitating State intervention to keep this crucial asset functioning) but there is hope that having a producer in charge of operations will succeed where others have not. Volumes have been written about the inefficiencies of government to run business, so there is no need to repeat what is well known. However, the new owner is investing in our community by making improvements, performing needed upgrades, and so on. This allows the small producers some small measure of optimism for the future.....except that:

The new owner has applied and received a direct to slaughter import permit. This allows the new management to import cattle from Canada, direct to the plant in Palmer. They have 14 days from arrival to process those cattle, who most assuredly are not Alaska grown, raised, or pastured. Just how this will effect scheduling at the plant for the community, remains to be seen.

Two weeks ago, another USDA stamp processing facility began operations. The BAC and the DOA management are directly responsible for its creation. (The long, sordid story of how the BAC turned down a near-asking price from this new facility owner is again, the CBC of Alaska Ag picking winners and losers in the tiny club that is Alaska agriculture.)  This new facility is not open to the public, will be processing both local and imported cattle and hogs, and is pursuing specific markets.  Whether they open to other producers in the future remains to be seen-but here again, there is a proven professional businessman at the helm. The majority of cattle processed here will be what might be called "Alaska Finished", that is, the cattle spending several months at Pt MacKenzie before processing.

Also reportedly in the works, yet another USDA facility for processing. This one supposedly involves the Denali Meats principals. Having the sole processing plant for Southcentral in the hands of a direct competitor was likely more risk than they felt ready to assume-and thus, their remedy was another plant. It is unknown if this facility would process for the public, but considering the rumored location, it is unlikely.

The water is already muddled when it comes to market branding, and the direct-to-slaughter import matter further roils the situation. The "Alaska Grown" program has specific conditions, but there is no enforcement if a consumer is somehow lead astray with advertising. There have already been several incidents where meats were marketed wrongly-with no penalty for the CBC of Alaska Ag players.

In the end, the decisions and actions of the CBC of Alaska Ag, have served to accidentally spur the growth of the protein sector, not stifle competition for MMM&S.

It's a sector long overlooked in the patchwork of improving Alaska food security.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Alaska Ag....A win, a loss, and a draw

In the card game that is Alaska agriculture, most players understand that they are literally playing against a stacked deck. Most of those have been covered here in previous entries, explaining the challenges facing our local farmers and ranchers, and everyone else attempting to produce food in Alaska.

In the win category, the MMM&S facility formally changed hands. Not without its last minute drama, we're told, but it did indeed close. This is a big win for Mike's Quality Meats of Eagle River.  The BAC, in their wisdom, turned down two nearly full price offers, to accept MQMs fire sale bid in the end. Thus, the problematic plant is off the BAC's books, and no longer under Director Keyes management. 

In the loss column, comes word that Northern Lights Dairy is closing. This will leave one remaining dairy in the entire state: Havemeister's in Palmer. The owners of Northern Lights Dairy can't find help, nor anyone to run it. Director Keyes' comments are pathetically without compassion or comprehension. You can read them yourself with a little digging on the matter.  Keep in mind that just a few decades ago, dozens of dairies were operating across the state. Yes, dozens.

And a draw is discovered when news arises that not one, but two, mobile slaughter plants are in the works. One is already operating with USDA stamp in the Pt. MacKenzie area, and the other will be located a bit north, near Sutton. These developments are a direct result of the DOA's management of MMM&S, and the sale of the plant into private hands.

Continuing the poker allegory.....it seems certain that several jokers are yet to be played, on this tiny stage called Alaska agriculture.  Of course, playing with the CBC of Ag is a high stakes game, pitting lives, fortunes, and livelihoods against the entrenched corruption that seems at ease with food security numbers that give others nightmares.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Alaska Ag.....Quote of the day, week.....

month, season, year...maybe the decade thus far:

"Need to change the blog.

No more anonymous stuff

4 categories

1. I love Arthur

2. I hate Arthur

3. just farming here, never notice what's going on unless the shit happens to me

4. owe money to the BAC"

Offered up in the spirit in which it arrived and was read:  Painfully, hilariously, sadly...accurate.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Alaska Ag.....The Posse

It's laughable, how predictable the local posse is.

The option of anonymous commenting has allowed some in our farming community to speak out against the content of this blog. Ironically, they are not addressing the substantive information regarding DOA/BAC.

No, no, can't defend the indefensible. Instead, they've attempted to malign the blog owner, with tactics better served in school yards of their youth. The fallacy of their attacks is known as:

"ad hominem",

Definition of ad hominem

  1. 1 :  appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect an ad hominem argument
  2. 2 :  marked by or being an attack on an opponent's character rather than by an answer to the contentions made made an ad hominem personal attack on his rival

Local application amounts to: Shoot the messenger.  A poorly executed attempt to intimidate and demean others in the agriculture community.

The previous blog entries by whistleblowers plainly prove a pattern of deceit, deception, and outright retaliation against select community members. The posse forgets that it could just as easily have been themselves targeted. The words and deeds of the folks representing the DOA do not serve our state well, and most certainly, do not encourage and promote more farming. 

Director Keyes has had hands on the slaughter plant, that is plain and true. His actions there do not encourage and promote farming. His actions against specific Alaskans, most certainly do not serve to promote and encourage farming.  His lies and obfuscations testified to the legislative body, do not serve to promote and encourage farming. 

None of this would have come to light publicly without this blog. Instead, it would be whispered about, lamented in private, rumored, and most would have done their best to keep their heads down-because those who step up and speak out, tend to get ruined if they do.  That's the intimidation tactic that has worked well for the CBC of Ag for decades.

The victims need to know they are not alone. And they are not. They also need to know that others care about their plight....and they do-many people care. And those numbers are larger than the posse can imagine.

The community should condemn these actions and demand accountability.  

Remember: These people work for you.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Alaska Ag....The (bad) Public Servant

Many Alaskan residents have that warm fuzzy feeling when they think of our public servants. After all, the state is small enough that they are likely family, friends, neighbors, classmates, or the people we know through work or our varied leisure pursuits.  Current political buffoonery in Juneau aside, most of our public servants are hardworking, committed individuals, performing needed services for us all.

And then, then, there is the Division of Agriculture (the DOA as its called on this platform) This tiny department, with its minuscule budget and staff, has at its helm, a public servant of the worst sort.

Director Keyes, the young man with the gilded pedigree, who schmoozes with the Governor and power elites in Juneau, exhibits every trait of the CBC of Ag/Palmer Mafia, in spades. Attaining his position through nepotism and connections, he is the poster boy for photo ops,  hobnobbing with power brokers, and making sure that his vision of Ag, is fully funded, staffed, and relevant-no matter the cost to anyone else.

That's the public side of the Director.  But behind the doors of the Division of Ag, matters are are not so......nice.  Particularly when it comes to our livestock producers. The following should raise red flags, and in other governments, would lead to censure, or the forced resignation of Director Keyes. But here in Alaska? Why, it's just business as usual, because they've always done it that way.

In December and January, an experienced, professional, enterprising individual imported a number of cattle from Canada. This is a common occurrence, as import records will show.  When the individual attempted to take the cattle to MMM&S for slaughter, Director Keyes himself (and Shannon at the plant) refused to accept the animals. They insisted they were illegally imported, which was not true. They also insisted on the individual proving where the animals came from, and were eventually forced to provide a copy of the *bank draft* that was used to purchase them. And they still refused to process. Takeaway: The Director himself demanded personal, private financial records from a livestock producer. This is so far beyond acceptable actions of a public servant, words fail.

The owner was understandably irate, and it took ten days to climb up the chain to reach the Governor's office. The reaction was: Oh, they can't do that!  In 24 hours, Director Keyes and Shannon called the owner, and apologized. They sang quite a different tune, no doubt at the direction of the Governor's office. The cattle were subsequently processed, and nothing would be known about it all, except that...........

Roughly six weeks ago, someone again, attempted to process cattle, and were refused. Director Keyes/Shannon grilled the individual: Is that beef from Pt MacKenzie? Where did it come from? Who did you buy it from? What feed are you using? In stunned disbelief, the owner refused to provide this unnecessary information and the beef was eventually processed at MMM&S.

This was followed by yet *another* individual trying to process a steer. In this second instance, the owner was subjected to grilling on where it came from, who bred it, and so forth. The owner gave Director Keyes the name of the person he bought the steer from....and the Director *called that third party person* to verify, and attempt to gain more information! Takeaway: Director Keyes is adamant that a specific person conduct no business whatsoever, at the state owned slaughter facility. Again, words fail.

This is just a snapshot of what's going on at MMM&S, with Director Keyes taking a leading role in micromanaging, and asking question that are literally none of his business, and Shannon, the interim manager hired after Mr. Huffman was forced out. Director Keyes and Shannon have both stated that they refuse to process any cattle arising from a specific individual and his company, for any reason. There are actual recordings that exist to prove all of the above, and these statements made by Director Keyes. During these, he is heard to proclaim "I know the Governor, I can do anything I want!"

And now you know.

These are facts. Not rumors, not fiction, not "garbage" as one local loudmouth likes to proclaim.

Director Keyes is picking winners and losers in Alaska agriculture, at will.  He is the much publicized and traveled face of Alaska agriculture. Yet it has taken going to the Governor's office to force Director Keyes to provide the public service they are *required* to provide to Alaskans. This is the heavy hand of the CBC of Ag, hard at work representing our community and state.

When you are blackballed by the local government mafia (aka the CBC of Ag) sometimes you give in, sell out, and leave the state, having broken your spirit and your pocketbook attempting to farm here. Or you do the unthinkable:

You succeed in spite of Director Keyes.

Right on their webpage, the Division of Agriculture states:

 The mission of the Division of Agriculture is to promote and encourage development of an agriculture industry in the State.

How is the above, serving to "promote and encourage" agriculture in Alaska?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Alaska Ag....The Protein Problem

Whether it's a smoked and slow cooked brisket in your backyard set up, veal piccatta, a rack of succulent lamb, a specialty cut from a charcuterie, burgers and brats on the barbeque, or a dinner plate T bone in the cast iron skillet at fish camp.....Alaskans do love their meats.  

Salmon, moose and caribou (and the occasional deer) aside, an enormous quantity of meats are shipped in to satisfy those Alaskan appetites. It's all well traveled from the PNW, and some items, from much further away, making for lengthy transits and adding a substantial cost to what you are putting on the table.  

Beef prices in particular, are so high that finally (cue the harps!) Alaskan beef is within pocket book reach of many shoppers. There's a large and growing push to eat local, to eat healthy, to support Alaskan farms and farmers. Check out the marketing of the "Alaska Grown" label in your local grocery store. Increasingly, you can also find Alaskan beef and pork on the shelf in the meat section. (And if the store you prefer to frequent, does not carry it-please ask!)

What makes this explosive growth opportunity so problematic is the complex set of challenging conditions the producers face.  

Affordable land to house livestock is unavailable. The State categorizes "farm land" as tillable (row crops, primarily) and new tracts are generally either inaccessible to market, or assessed and priced beyond a farmers' means. If they're lucky, they might find a lease, but most are unable to expand where they are located. Ironic, since the State has over a million acres at its disposal, and those parcels that do come up for auction, are high priced remote cabin lots, or developer parcels with price tags beyond what the BAC is willing to risk, even if they chose to lend on unimproved parcels.

Farm land and improvement taxes are expensive and complicated. Organized Boroughs have different methods to tax farm land, and most of those include a partial exemption on real property taxes on the acreage used-if enough income is generated. The houses, barns, shops? Full boat taxes in nearly every case. 

Available grain and forage.  Often overlooked by many, the amount of available hay and grain acreage is decreasing overall, while the numbers of livestock are growing.  Slowly, but poised to expand rapidly. As it is, there is not enough high quality roughage (hay) or barley and wheat grown, to satisfy the needs of livestock producers. Some grain and hay farmers are working to increase acreage, but with several 1000 acres taken out of production at Pt MacKenzie, there remains a very real risk of "not enough feed". This issue has not been addressed by the State in any substantive way, except to remove impediments on Canadian imported forages in times of crisis, as in previous years.

Marketing infrastructure is either non-existent, or patchwork. If you farm not too far from a large population center (such as Fairbanks or Anchorage) you are fortunate that getting your product to a market is relatively simple. Other areas of the state face serious challenges, whether it's a tenuous transportation system, lack of support from local government, no specialty transport available on a regular basis, or simply being too far off grid to reach any larger market.

Access to quality processing.  That little phrase sounds so innocuous, but means everything to the success or failure of a livestock producer.   A processor which is accurate, timely, and fair, is paramount to overall success. That has not always been the case with MMM&S. Indeed, they have recently increased their prices, and added new fees to their rate schedule. 

Again, there is a somewhat complicated set of rules and regs to follow. All meats packaged to be resold to consumers *must* carry a USDA stamp. That's a federal requirement, and it is provided at MMM&S (soon to be known by another name, no doubt) where the facility is inspected and approved for processing.  There is also what is termed a "custom exempt" plant, whereby the owner (livestock producer) sell direct to the public a live animal. It is then dispatched, and processed on site by the owner, pretty much.  

These and the other obstacles facing protein production in Alaska, continue to plaque the sector, with no relief in sight. There is some hope that the slaughter plant will flourish under new management when MMM&S finally changes hands-hopefully this month. But until that happens, and until it is known how the new owner will treat the competition, livestock producers are wary.