Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Honesty, Openness, and Diligence Pay Off

In the midst of all our goings-around-in-circles, we seem to utterly fail, sometimes, at keeping things neat, organized, etc. Having so many volunteers around makes it even harder to keep things in place, and at the same time we get glimpses of the apparent disorganization through their eyes. It is easy to feel discouraged.

Then a morning like this puts it in perspective.

I had just finished breakfast and the morning's crew of volunteers (two resident WWOOFers, and two off-farm volunteers) was all lined up in the kitchen looking at farm layouts, about to begin the introductory lesson on our very complicated network of electric fencing.

A strange van pulled in the drive, so I went out to see who was here. Surprise! Our properly unannounced visit from the KS Dept. of Ag Meat Wholesaler Inspector (or whatever his exact title is).

And I realized in a flash that I AM organized and up-to-date in the things that REALLY matter, because my automatic reaction to his arrival is always to relax, shake hands, and welcome him to my farm. I KNOW that I have nothing to hide from the inspectors, because I've done my "homework"--and "housework"--on this key aspect of my business all along. I look forward to this annual opportunity to visit with him and show off the results of my work.

Some regular inspection points included:
  • Meat Wholesaler's license up-to-date and posted.
  • Scale up-to-date on its certification.
  • All meat properly labelled, state inspected, frozen solidly.
  • Freezer area clean enough (it passed muster last year, too, but he noticed that it looks even better this year! Strange but true, this is mostly due to getting casters put on Gilbert the Garage Piano, thanks to a couple volunteers...!).
  • Ice chest that we use for Farmer's Market clean, freshly painted this year (with a great stencil of our logo, thanks to a couple other talented volunteers!), and made even more cold-keeping by moveable sections of Reflectix that help insulate the meat.
  • Marketing materials (my price list) provide detailed information about practices we use, but don't make any unsubstantiated claims like "hormone-free" (we don't ADD any hormones, but we sure like it that our ewes and rams have plenty of the hormones that make them want to breed and raise their young!)

He seemed pleased about other things I voluntarily showed him, that aren't necessarily required but certainly contribute to the quality of our operation:

  • We've developed a written Food Safety Plan for the farm, which not many other farms this small have.
  • We have a trace-back system in place where we can track any package of meat back to the animal's production and breeding records. This year the core documents are even right there hanging above the freezer...we realized the processing plant was throwing away one part of the triplicate forms, and asked them to give us two copies, one for our files and one to keep handy near the freezer. Was order # XYZ the old tough ram or the younger ewe? We can look it up in an moment.)
  • We have an effective system for handling and sorting meat from the processing plant to our freezer that helps keep packages clean and undamaged (clean pillow cases for each order or category!).
He mentioned the recent write-ups on us in the Lawrence Journal-World ( and, and asked about our plans for expanded retail activities at the farm. This was a great conversation to have at this point in our long-range farm planning process! I learned that if I were to quit doing any wholesale meat sales, the farm would shift to a different licensing category, Meat Retailers. A Retailer's license starts at about $100, compared to our FREE Wholesaler's license! Definitely something to remember when I'm grousing to myself about the little petty details of arranging wholesale sales to local restaurants and stores, compared to having folks just drop by and say "I'd like a leg of lamb". Those few small restaurant sales last year paid for themselves, in hindsight!

Little things, in some ways. But huge in the overall operation of the farm. We ARE making progress.

Of course, the best part of the inspection was the part that wasn't required at all: a tour of the sheep pens to show off this year's crop.