By Des Keller
Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor
Mark Fincham's family has been farming near Pratt, in south-central Kansas, for almost 130 years. As part of his effort to help the business last at least another century in ever-more regulated times, he hired a firm that conducts annual inspections to assess the farm's safety, security and environmental sustainability.
"I was excited about it, actually," says Fincham, who operates Heartland Family Farms with his wife, Lisa, and brother, Craig. "I'm on the weird side. I think this stuff is cool."
The Finchams farm 4,000 acres and, this year, will custom-farm about 1,000 acres more. This "cool" didn't come without a lot of work -- and expense.
Fincham points to a fire extinguisher attached near the driver's seat of a well-worn 1960s John Deere 4010 used for minor chores (see photo below). There would have been no thought to having an extinguisher on that tractor four years ago, he explains.
"We had maybe two or three fire extinguishers around the place then," he says. "One on the combine, one in the building and one in the pickup truck. Now, we have 25 or 26 different fire extinguishers on the farm -- one on every tractor, one in every vehicle and multiple places in the shop." There are two extinguishers on the combine.
"I kind of cringed at the cost, but I didn't cringe at wanting to do it," he says. The extinguishers are checked and serviced every year through an agreement with the provider. "These inspections can help keep injuries, theft and even bioterrorism at bay. It doesn't stop the possibility completely, but it is at least another stop-gap."
AUDIT SPURS CHANGES
The fire extinguishers are only a few of the changes on the farm since 2009 after an auditor/inspector representing Des Moines, Iowa-based Validus first visited. Validus' services involve audits and certification in areas such as farm security and product traceability. Their clients range from family grain and livestock farms to food-packaging companies and retailers.
Several years ago, Validus began working with agricultural consultant FamilyFarms Group (FFG) to provide its teams (client farms are referred to as teams) with access to Validus inspections. FamilyFarms Group has about 70 team/clients nationwide. The Fincham operation is a FamilyFarms Group team. (See "On-the-Ground Inspections.")
"Early on, it was decided [that] we would be committed to farm security and food safety, and that we would put something in place to recognize this," says Jamie Cannady, the implementation facilitator with FamilyFarms Group. "Anybody can say they are socially responsible, but our farms can receive certification of that from a third-party auditor." Roughly half of FFG's clients are involved with the certification inspections.
"We have had huge growth from a company standpoint," says Matt Jones, senior director of audits and assessments with Validus. "The business seems to be coming at us in two or three different ways."
One way is through private clients like FamilyFarms Group or individual farmers, Jones explains. The second is from farms or businesses that need a third party to verify crop, livestock or food-handling processes. Industry associations that put together inspection programs for their members make up a third area of growth.
Neither Validus or FamilyFarms Group would disclose the cost of the audit/certification services they provide together. Jones does say that generally, the cost of an audit on a 3,500-acre grain farm is about $2,000. The inspections are annual. Validus auditors issue a report with recommendations following their farm inspection.
"The farm then has to come up with a 90-day action plan to identify what they are going to improve or correct, and how quickly that will be accomplished," Cannady says.
Though it's easy to visibly see the change in the number of fire extinguishers on the Finchams' property, that was not the greatest transformation. Fincham was most taken aback by the increased recordkeeping needed.
"I thought we were doing an OK job of recordkeeping," Fincham explains, "but we were only getting about half of what they [auditors] wanted." Most of what was required involved noting on a weekly -- and even on a daily -- basis the use of water, fertilizer, chemicals, fuel and oil.
"We may have been checking these things regularly, but we weren't writing them down," Fincham says. "To the auditor, if you're not writing it down, then you never checked."
Now, he can stack up more than a half-dozen three-ring binders on his office table that recount how much of almost everything is stored and used on the farm. Soon, nearly all these records will be digitized, and he and employees will be able to note changes using computer tablets and smartphones.
The environmental side of the audit takes into consideration whether they are preventing runoff from fields or have proper containment walls built around fuel and oil tanks. Many of these measures Fincham had already taken or was in the process of accomplishing. The inspections sped up the timetable for installation of buffer strips and even "tillable" waterways.
"I was working on doing those things, and this pushed me to keep going on it," says Fincham, whose great-great-grandfather came to the area from England in the 1870s. Fincham believes future regulatory requirements are coming from the likes of EPA, OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] or other government programs.
"I want to be one of the ones that do what I can now to comply. We're trying to do it at our leisure and our pace."
Iowa-based Validus (www.validusservices.com) conducts inspection audits for farm operations and related agricultural businesses in the U.S. and overseas. The company can inspect in one or all of a half-dozen focus areas for these businesses. Validus offers experienced third-party certification that certain standards are being met.
The private company has its roots in the efforts begun nearly 20 years ago by the National Pork Producers Council to help its members and assure the public that hog-confinement facilities met environmental standards.
Validus works with Illinois-based FamilyFarms Group
(www.familyfarmsgroup.com), a private agricultural consulting firm with about 70 client businesses nationwide.
Many of FamilyFarms Group's customers use Validus to certify their operations via two types of inspections. They are:
-- On-Farm Security audits, which seek to make sure operators are taking precautions to deny access to outsiders to prevent theft, damage or even bioterrorism.
-- Environmental audits to see that best sustainable farming practices are being used on the land.
Additionally, Validus conducts farm and ag business inspections for:
-- Traceability audits, which can help a farm account for specific animal species and/or crops from field to end user.
-- Safe Quality Food audits, which provide operation assessments to the food industry, food-packaging companies and farms.
-- Animal Welfare audits, which ensure on-farm animals are being well cared for.
-- Worker Care audits that review a farm's employee and human resources procedures.
-- Facility Certified Institute audits that service the feed industry.
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