So you think you have a good product, eh? Maybe someone wants to pay you fairly well for it. Maybe they don’t live next door or even nearby. Maybe they live in a faraway land; and I’m not even talking Wisconsin here.
Let’s say your product is beef. Let’s say your potential end-user lives in Southeast Asia. They’d be willing to buy your beef, but they’d like a story to go with it. Hey, sign me up for that! But, no, they don’t want THAT kind of story. All they want is a little paperwork to prove that the delicious beef you are sending them is not some steer who has been born in the late winter, spent his summer on some range where the deer and the antelope play, then spent his first full winter on a high-fiber diet of twigs and leaves (or non-dairy hay, as some people prefer to call it) before spending some time on wheat pasture the following spring and then getting to hit the pasture again the next summer before ultimately ending up in a feedlot for some tasty corn the next fall and maybe winter.
Do the math on that one. There’s room for one or even two birthday parties in that equation. Your customer, being a dedicated businessperson who enjoys a lovely meal of tender beef, would prefer to get a steer who is, shall we say, less experienced. They’d like him to be 20 months of age or less. The cattle industry in this country provides an abundant supply of steers that fit the first program where they don't meet up with a butcher until they've seen a lot of country and had a lot of birthday cake. We’ve also kind of built ourselves around the idea that a different person may own the steer for each segment of his life. He isn’t moving from one home to another in a John McCain fashion where multiple addresses are owned by one person. No, this animal is trading hands to different owners each time. Each one hopes to make some money as he handles the critter.
Call me crazy, but I think I can own the beast from birth to dinner plate and speed up the time to get there, thereby allowing me to maybe enjoy the margins everyone else was hoping to make. If I can actually prove that I owned the animal the whole time, and can prove when he was born and where all of his mail was delivered during his lifetime, then my customer is very interested in seeing that animal on his plate. My customer would also like to slip me a little something maître de style as a show of gratitude.
Sign me up!
In fact, that’s what you have to do. The packing plant in Kansas where I frequently send my cattle — US Premium Beef via the National Beef plant in either Dodge City or Liberal, Kansas — has a program where they will pay an extra $35 per animal for official USDA Age & Source-Verified (ASV) animals that are 20 months of age or less. A National Beef employee comes out to my farm to do an assessment of my records, my production practices and my facilities. They basically want to make sure I’m not all hat and no cattle. If I pass the test, then I get to send cattle under their ASV program. I started doing that a few years ago. The paperwork part of it isn’t really all that bad, especially since I keep a lot of records on my cattle to begin with.
My life being what it is with different activities and scheduling, it did not surprise me earlier this summer when I got a call from Mike, the guy who coordinates the ASV program for USPB. Mike wanted to let me know that I had been randomly chosen for an official USDA audit. He and the auditor would show up at the ranch on Wednesday, September 2, to look over my records, check out my cattle, and make sure I was as kosher as kosher could be when it comes to protocol and documentation.
I believe that was set up in June or July, which was fine with me. If you’ve paid attention, I had this nasty hobby of mine get away from me and I strengthened my role as a serial brain surgery patient. (See “The return of silence,” posted August 27, 2009.) At my post-op dismissal on August 20, I was given my sheet of appointments for the future. Removal of sutures was to take place on the same day as the audit.
So that Wednesday, September 2, I got my stitches out in Rochester, then hit the road for home. At 3:00, Mike was just getting out of his vehicle when I pulled into the yard. The auditor climbed out of her car, too. Instead of the intimidating, bespectacled auditor type named Sherwood that I was expecting, I was greeted by a nice, young farm girl from Kansas by the name of Lacey. Granted, she still had the same power as my imaginary foe Sherwood had, but it was a relief when I asked if she had any farm experience and she said that she grew up on a farm in Kansas where they raised and fed cattle. Incidentally, Sherwood is from the Upper West Side, went to Princeton, wears a bow tie and is a vegetarian. He’s tighter with Henry Waxman than he is with Tom Vilsack.
We sat down at my kitchen table and began the audit. Both Mike and Lacey took notes as she asked questions about my cattle operation, my production practices and my record keeping. Then she asked how long I kept my calving records. I reached over and slid my lovely Cub Scout popcorn can toward me (“He shops at Redneck Office Depot!”), pulled out a couple of record books and said, “I have all of my calving records back to at least 1991 in here. How far back did you want to go?”
Then I pulled out the 2008 book, since that was the record of the cattle I’m sending to USPB this summer. Lacey looked through it and found it to be acceptable, I guess. She continued to look through some of the forms in the three-ring binder of ASV materials I maintain as both she and Mike took periodic notes in silence. This didn’t seem to me to be going all that badly, but there was still a little bit of tension in the air. An audit is still an audit, ya know.
The awkward and extended silence was suddenly broken. My kitchen table is sort of next to my living room/office. I get a lot of electronic correspondence from a lot of sources throughout the day, but I’m not a Crackberry user at this point. I still use an old-fashioned tower computer. As I sat there and hoped to hear a cricket chirp to prove I wasn't in a vacuum, I realized that my computer was still set up to check my e-mail every few minutes. A new message arrived. Sure, I could go with a lovely chime or bell to alert me to new mail if I wanted, but I gotta be me.
Thundering through the silence came the lilting voice of everyone’s favorite talk show host, David Letterman: “Congratulations, Skippy, you’ve got mail!!!”
The mood in the room changed instantly. Lacey, as it turns out, is no Sherwood. She managed not to completely bust out laughing, but I could tell she felt better at that moment than she did a couple seconds before.
Mike had this sheepish smile on his face as he looked at me and probably thought, “Of all the producers we have in this program, I get assigned to a random audit and they send me out to visit a clown. This isn’t going to be a standard audit, I’m guessing.”
After all the paperwork review was completed, we headed outside to see if I actually had some real live animals. Since I was going to send a group of them to the plant the next week, and they would be going on the ASV program, we went to the feedlot to look at the remaining steers. Lacey picked a few ear tag numbers at random to see if I could tell her how old each animal was. Being sort of a Sherwood myself, I could tell her what day they were born, who their father was and who their mother was on an individual basis. That makes me a rare find in this industry.
Once we had the feedlot portion of the inspection covered, Lacey wanted to see the cows to make sure they actually exist and are producing the cattle I claim to have. Since there were three of us, and my pastures are on the ground not fit to raise corn consistently, it’s not easy to get to them in a pickup. We would take a utility vehicle instead. It was parked in the machine shed with part of the roof missing from this summer's monster storm. As we loaded ourselves onto it and backed out of the shed, something caught Lacey’s eye, but not in a violation sort of way. It was more of an “Oh, cool! What is that?” sort of thing.
The GuyNo2Mobile dune buggy was parked on the other side of my round baler. Yeah, we could have driven that, I suppose, but it has really wide rear tires and really narrow rear fenders. Do you really want to drive your auditor through the pasture and have all kinds of “cow evidence” land in her lap? I mean, you can’t get much more authentic about your role in the beef industry than that, but I felt I had provided enough proof already.
After we had visited my cowherd and were motoring back to the machine shed, I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out two business cards to hand to Lacey and Mike. They read the card and began to laugh at the Two Guys Farming corporate slogan.
Then we somehow got around to the fact that I write a humor column for Farm Industry News and the latest entry was about my experience in Rochester for some routine brain surgery. I think I may have two new column readers now.
The bottom line of the whole ASV program is that people want to know a little bit more about their food. I remember one person in the industry telling a group of producers, “The people who buy food want to know more about it. They want food with a story.”
I think I have that covered. And now it’s government-approved.
Guy No. 2