From pasture to plate, from field to fork, farmers come face to face with everyday shoppers
By Ann Bailey, Ag Week Staff Writer
February 2, 2004
Ranchers picture this: A photograph of yourself and your cow next to an array of meat cuts in a supermarket case.
The newest in beefcake?
No, it’s called traceability and it’s already being tested in a supermarket in Europe. In a Parisian supermarket, meat shoppers can pull up on a computer screen a picture of the farmer and his cow when they scan a meat package bar code.
Putting a face on the product is a way that farmers are trying to restore consumer confidence in their products. The decline in European consumer confidence began as a result of contamination of the food supply and their countries’ governments lack of response to the problem.
Scares such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, foot-and-mouth disease, dioxin in pork and chicken and tainted soft drinks have eroded the faith that European consumers have in the safety of their food supply. Under a proposed law beginning on Jan. 1, 2005, all food products leaving or entering Europe will be required to be traced back to their origin.
The demand for traceability will cross the Atlantic Ocean, predicts Gary Wagner, a Crookston, MN, farmer and precision agriculture expert. Some edible bean companies already are asking their producers to keep records of herbicides and pesticides used on their beans, he notes.
“We are definitely interested in traceability,” says Eben Spencer, an Oslo, MN-based agronomist for ADM Specialty Beans. “With consumers demanding safer food all of the time, its one thing the canner customers are requesting.”
“Just in case there’s ever a problem with pesticide residue in canned beans, just to appease the end-user…we ask growers to maintain records.”
Moorhead, MN – based American Crystal Sugar Co. also requires sugar beet growers to record similar information, Wagner says.
In a report called “Traceability of Agricultural Products” that Wagner co-wrote with Eliot Glassheim, who works at Northern Great Plains Inc. in Crookston, MN, traceability is defined as “a strict production and delivery method, with known procedures of observing, inspecting, sampling and testing to assure the presence (and absence) of certain traits, usually defined by consumer demand.”
“Traceability is focused on food safety, consumer confidence and a defined source. It often requires a certified paper trail so each step in the ownership of the product from farm to the final consumer is documented.
The system would have checks and balances and a grower’s statement that the delivery was a certain variety or hybrid and would require documentation down the supply chain from growers to handlers to buyers, the report says. In other words, food could be traced from the field to the fork or the pasture to the plate.
Implementation of such a system will require major changes in the entire food delivery chain, something that’s going to cost everyone involved a lot of time and money, Wagner says. “You’re going to keep the lots pure. It will be a snowball affect. It’s going to be a very difficult thing for the U.S.”
For example, for farmers, record keeping chores will become as much a part of their daily routine as greasing the tractor. But new technology will make the job much easier than it was in the past when everything had to be recorded on paper, Wagner says.
For example, next year Deere and Co. will have on the market a tractor that is wired with Internet access so that farmers can record their herbicide and pesticide applications and wire them back to their personal computer, Wagner says.
A palm pilot already eliminates the paper trail of Arthur, ND, farmer Scott Longlet.
From spring planting through harvest, Longlet documents production information on his palm pilot then downloads the information on a personal page on the Internet. Seed variety, any treatment used on it and fertilizer and spray applied, are documented as soon as Longlet finishes the job.
Longlet, who co-owns a business called AgNavigation L.L.C., says the palm pilot method results in more consistency in record keeping.
“All my notes are the same. All my records are kept the same.” That wasn’t always the case with his hand-written records in which he sometimes recorded liquid measurements in ounces and sometimes in pints, Longlet says. Meanwhile, using the palm pilot to record the production information also is much quicker than recording it on paper.
“It’s just a matter of seconds.”
Longlet discovered the palm pilot record-keeping method by accident a year ago when he bought software for field navigation and measurement. When he saw that software to document production methods was available, he bought that software, too.
“It’s just another progression of the record keeping I was doing,” Longlet says.
The company, impressed by his interest, eventually asked him to be a partner, eventually asked him to be a partner. He co-owns AgNavigation L.L.C. together with partner in Rochester, MN, where the company headquarters are located, and with two partners in Germany.
“I’m the farmer in the group,” Longlet says.
While older farmers may balk at additional record keeping, Wagner doesn’t expect it to be a problem for younger ones who are comfortable using computers. However, they shouldn’t expect to be rewarded for their extra work, Wagner warns.
If the United States implements a traceability system that is similar to the one in Europe, farmers won’t be paid a premium for the record keeping, farmers also will need to thoroughly clean equipment from planters to harvesters, plot their field locations to prevent cross-contamination and make sure their grain storage facilities meet specifications similar to those of seed growers.
Just cleaning the combine alone is time-consuming, Wagner says. The combine hopper must be vacuumed and the equipment’s shields removed and blown out.
“We’ve spent as much as four hours with two guys,” he says.
If the consumer demands traceability, combine manufacturers will have to respond by making their equipment easier to clean, Wagner says.
Down the Line
Tracing food back to its original source also will mean more work for country elevators and grain terminals, Wagner says. For example, the facility will have to have available a greater number of small bins and workers will have to clean truck pits. Down the line, rail cars and barges will have to be cleaned.
Wagner predicts that the “truck” of the future will be cargo containers that farmers will deliver to the elevator or grain terminal. A type of edible soybeans already is being shipped to Japan in cargo containers, Wagner says.
Wagner says the big question farmers face is knowing how much record keeping is necessary. Buyers will have to set standards for farmers, he says. So far, he estimates that only about 5 percent of farmers keep records beyond what’s required for use of restricted use of chemicals.
On his own farm, Wagner’s record keeping now is a matter of economics, not necessarily traceability.
“We track everything so we know the cost of production.”
But while Wagner declines to guess when traceability will be required on his farm and others, he does believe it eventually will be required to produce food in the United States.
“It’s on the horizon,” Wagner says.