Jeff Koeze's Blog Good Food, Good Business, and the Good Food Business

30Nov/090

Infrastructure and Locavores, Part II

In response to my last post, my turkey raising partner sent me the following email.  He argues that small scale farming is inherently a communal activity:

It's not only lack of ag. infrastructure, but also the lack of a
coherent and functioning ag community.

Unlike 25 years ago, I have not one farm experienced neighbor to call on
to assist me in anything. Luckily Spaans from SD moved in.

Many farm tasks, by their nature are communal in flavor, haying and
harvesting mainly, but also on a lesser scale, moving stock, stretching
fence, heavy machinery repairs, borrowing equipment in an emergency and
on and on.

There is no one. We are all gone. At best, the neighbors are remedial,
white collar idiots who would all perish of hunger in a month. Do you
think for one second I could call up one of those folks and rely on them
to come down and actually help me, I mean help me in a way that is
meaningful, which means they know what to do? To have them help me rope
down a sick beef, give him and injection and castrate him at the same
time?

It's all ruined and gone bad and there is no saving it.

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27Nov/090

Infrastructure for Locavores

In an article on heritage turkeys appearing in the Thanksgiving New York Times there is a telling comment:

Mr. Reese ran into problems this year when the slaughterhouse he had used shut, forcing him to truck his turkeys to Illinois and Ohio for processing, increasing his "costs by about 10 percent.

“Our turkeys are very expensive, not because of the turkey but because of the processing and shipping,” he said. “The problem is the infrastructure to support truly honest-to-God sustainable agriculture is not there.”

You don't think about needing "infrastructure" for small scale agriculture, but you do.  Here's how I learned this:  Two years ago a buddy and I went in on ten turkeys when he came upon a deal for some heritage-breed birds to raise.  When it came time to butcher them, we went up to the feed mill (20 miles away) to inquire about getting them slaughtered.

We heard that there was an Amish guy who would do it for a few dollars a bird.  Great, because he was our only option other than doing it ourselves.  The Amish don't have phones, so we had to drive another 25 miles further up the road to talk to him about it and set an appointment.  Then drive home.  Then drive the turkeys up there, then drive home.  Then drive up there to pick up the turkeys the next day.  Then drive home.

The next year we dialed back to 5 turkeys and did the butchering ourselves with the help of a neighbor.  This is far from easy.  (10 would have been a bit of nightmare.  More out of the question.)

This year, no turkeys.

By this story I mean to illustrate that local food requires an infrastructure of suppliers and services to really be practical.  This little story just covers slaughtering.  Depending on what you are doing -- and at what scale -- there can be issues with feed, seed, farm equipment, supplies, veterinary care, distribution -- the list is long.

As large scale agriculture has come to dominate, the infrastructure that makes small scale food production practical in many communities has evaporated.

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27Nov/090

Peanut Butter and Rock and Roll

Peanut butter and rock and roll.  Check out the  The Peanut Butter Conspriracy.

pbc_promo4_ed5ca

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25Nov/090

Powerpoint Banned, at least by me

Those who know me know that I hate Powerpoint.  I refuse to use it and have attempted to ban it internally at Koeze Company, Koeze Direct, and Nuthatch Software.  My co-workers always giggle nervously when a salesperson hauls out the slides, but I'm usually quite nice about it.

Among the things I hate about Powerpoint is that its use encourages passivity, as VC Fred Wilson points out in his blog:

A presentation is like a TV show. It's a lean back experience. A discussion is like an online chat room. It is a lean forward experience. They are not the same thing and in many cases they work against each other.

The last word on Powerpoint is Edward Tufte's essay The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint.  Federal law should prohibit use of slide/presentation software by those who have not read and passed a test based on this essay.

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23Nov/090

Amazing Unemployment Graphic

An amazing animated graphic of the spread of unemployment in America: The Decline: Geography of a Recession, by Latoya Egwuekwe

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23Nov/090

Customer Service in the Call Center

Sunday's paper had an interesting article on call centers and why dealing with them can be so frustrating.  One of my companies, Koeze Direct, has to staff up to run a seasonal call center every year, so I'm pretty familiar with the challenges of attempting to provide good customer service.

As the article points out, customer service begins with training:

But I was surprised, in some cases, how much training such workers did receive. Ms. Strong and Randi Busse, who worked at a Verizon call center on Long Island for 15 years, both said they underwent 12 weeks of training, close monitoring for a while after that and continuing training during employment.

But training is often complex because the IT systems used to operate customer service centers are so complex:

One problem, Ms. Strong said, is that most people don’t understand how difficult her job could be. “For one call, we have to look in a million places and go through a myriad of information,” she said.

Work schedules have to be based on projections about call volumes and other call center work loads.  Sometimes they are wrong:

[Sometimes] enough workers are scheduled for the expected number of calls, but a storm, a rate or policy change or a new product introduction can mean an onslaught of calls with too little staff available.

But all the planning and training in the world can't make up for the mixed messages that call centers send with their productivity standards that require call center agents to hurry up and provide good service -- a contradiction in terms:

[One agent] said the average call was supposed to take just under five minutes, and her target was to answer 70 to 100 calls a day. Although she was not judged solely on the number or time of the calls — and said she was never told to shorten a call with a client — the number of calls she handled was one part of how her bonus was determined.

While we do watch our call lengths, we don't give any incentives, positive or negative, to get customers off the phone quickly.  I will admit to cringing a little  bit when I hear that one of my agents spent 45 minutes chatting on the phone with an elderly customer,  but patience and listening are key to taking care of customers.

16Nov/090

Reading Your Peanut Butter Label

I have a bunch of Google alerts set to pick up blog postings about peanut butter. And what I've learned is that people are really confused by the labeling and ingredients in peanut butter products, and they especially confused about the difference between "natural" and "organic" peanut butter.  Justifiably so, because it is confusing.   Here is my explanation.  It is long.

In the beginning, there was peanut butter.  It was all the basically the same, consisting of ground peanuts, and, almost always, salt.  The liability of this peanut butter, then as now, was that the oil in the peanut butter and the solid components would separate over time with the oil coming to the top.  This is because peanut oil is liquid at room temperature.

In the 1920's and '30's, the separation problem was solved by adding hydrogenated vegetable oil to the peanut butter.  This had the effect of making the oil solid at room temperature (think Crisco).  Added in small amounts (as little as 1% by weight) by skilled manufacturers, the hydrogenated oil was enough to prevent separation.

As time passed, manufacturers figured out that hydrogenated oil was cheaper than peanuts.  As was, I believe, sugar.  So these ingredients began to be added to the product in higher and higher amounts.

In response, the Food and Drug Administration passed a rule (21 CFR 164.150) that provided a "standard of identity" for peanut butter.  This provides that to be labeled "peanut butter" a product must be 90% peanuts.  Anything with less than that must be called "peanut spread" (21 CFR 102.23).

Under the general requirement that foods use ordinary and customary descriptors on their labels, peanut butter labeled as "natural" or "old-fashioned" contained only peanuts and (usually) salt.

So, for the last 30 years or so, the world consisted of two kinds of peanut butter:  homogenized peanut butter and "natural" or "old-fashioned" peanut butter.  This was pretty simple, and I think everybody knew the game.

Coming forward to today, first add USDA organic standards.  These rules has nothing to do with the prior regime created by the FDA.  Either homogenized or old-fashioned peanut butter can be organic, so long as the ingredients meet organic standards, and they are made in a facility that meets organic standards.  The result is that not all organic peanut butter is "natural" by the ordinary, traditional nomenclature, nor are all natural peanut butters organic.

It gets worse.

Recently, the food marketers have gotten aggressive with labeling again, and I believe this is leading to additional customer confusion, based on what I'm seeing on the blogs.  (I'm not going to name names here because I didn't create this blog to attack competitors.)

Some companies have begun describing as "natural" peanut butter products that contain both palm oil as a stabilizer, and sugar.  Others have created products that contain 90% peanuts and a variety of other ingredients -- including things such as flour and chocolate topping -- which are being sold as "peanut butter spread."  Yet the most prominent word on the label is "natural," which again, some bloggers, wrongly in my view,  are describing and reviewing as a natural peanut butter.

On top of that, there are all of the various peanut butter and flavor combinations on the market -- pb and honey, pb and chocolate, etc. etc.  There are a number of peanut butter products that have enhancements that are marketed towards health and nutrition oriented consumers -- pb with Omega 3's, pb with flax, pb with sunflowers, etc.  And there are reduced-fat products on the market.  Depending on the ingredients, these may also carry the "natural" or "organic" labels.

I, self-servingly, advocate the KISS approach:  Cream Nut if you like the fuller flavor of Virginia peanuts, or Sweet Ella's if you either like a little sweeter peanut or prefer organic products.

13Nov/090

George Washington Carver Did Not Invent Peanut Butter

But who cares?  Carver was a remarkable person.  I would love to get to Philadelphia to see the exhibit put on at the Academy of Natural Sciences.  But I'll be there in spirit.  Their gift shop placed an order for our peanut butter to sell with the show.

G-W-Carver-flash

7Nov/090

Shameless Self-Promotion — Oprah Edition

Check out my Cream-Nut Clusters on Oprah's gift-finder!

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6Nov/090

Employment Prospects Look Bleak

Navigating this business downturn is has been difficult, but the unemployment situation is simply tragic.

I was struck today by this chart from Calculated Risk, which shows the decline in employment from the prior peak in several recessions graphed against the number of months of the decline.

EmploymentRecessionsOct

(Click on the chart to make it huge.)

One look at this tells us that the road back is going to be long.  I'd hate to see what this chart would look like for Michigan, with unemployment over 15%.

This lead economist Paul Krugman to suggest in his blog that we consider bringing back the WPA and CCC work programs.   Giving the suffering this kind of unemployment entails, and the length of time it looks like it will be with us, I'm for it.