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Canal Seed and Feed to change its focus

Published on 1 August, 2006, Last updated at 08:45 GMT

1st Aug, 2006: Columbia, USA - Dan Wickersham stands in front of Canal Seed and Feed on Mullett Street in Portage. Wickersham, the owner of the business, plans to discontinue selling livestock and poultry feeds. Ann Marie Ames/Daily Register

Canal Seed and Feed is making the big change from selling feed to selling food. As of Friday, the Portage business no longer will offer livestock and poultry feed, part of a trend in such businesses during the past 20 years.

Owner Dan Wickersham, who has owned the mill for the last seven years, cites several reasons for the change, including the impracticality of replacing aging equipment and changing Food and Drug Administration record-keeping requirements — specifically the FDA's 2002 Bioterrorism Act.

Wickersham said the record-keeping requirements mean an additional six hours to his work week.

"Dent and bent" grocery items, which have been sold in the store at 131 E. Mullett St. since March, will continue to be available, according to Wickersham. All other products, such as pet food, lawn and garden seed, birdseed and shell corn for home house heating likely will be available, but will continue to be scrutinized for their profitability.

"We're in the process of evaluating what's worth staying in," he said.

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While other stores in the area sell livestock and poultry feed, this was the only Portage business that made selling feed its focus.

Steve Buchanan is an environmental enforcement specialist who has worked for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for nearly 30 years. Buchanan is responsible for enforcing federal and state rules and regulations in parts of six area counties, including Columbia, and has worked with Wickersham for several years. Buchanan said that Canal Seed and Feed is not alone in getting out of the feed business.

"That's a trend we've been seeing for 20 years," Buchanan said. "There was a time when there were mills of that scale — more than one — in every community. There are very few of the small mix and grind feed mills like that left."

One of the reasons Buchanan cites is the increasing size of the average livestock facility. He said large dairy operations, for example, have the buying power to purchase feed from the same wholesale supplier as does a retail store like Canal Seed and Feed.

"Some of the large dairy operations can buy directly from the open commodities market, get it shipped in by the truckload and mix the feed directly on their farm," Buchanan said.

John Petty, executive director of the Wisconsin Agri-Service Association, an association of feed, grain and seed dealers, does not know of another similarly sized feed mill that is citing FDA regulations as a reason to get out of the feed business.

The 2002 act, which was passed by federal legislature, was intended to protect American food supplies by leaving a paper trail for officials to follow in the case of an outbreak of disease, whether accidental or intentional. According to Petty, the requirements have been phased into the feed industry from the top down, meaning that by December 2006, the smallest mills such as Canal Seed and Feed would need to be in compliance.

The requirements, according to Petty, are little more than retaining invoices from both sales and purchases of product. The goal is not to monitor sales — in fact the FDA was not authorized by the legislature to review the records — but to trace an outbreak back through the retail chain to its source within 48 hours.

"The records are confidential and only available to facilitate recall of products should an incident happen," Petty said. "It's not to track sales or people's purchases.

"If somebody got sick, God forbid, eating a candy bar, they could put their hand on every single entity which handled that candy bar or any of its components within 48 hours."

According to Petty, businesses whose food or feed sales are at least 51 percent in retail sales — meaning the products are to be used solely on one farm — are exempt from the regulations.

In other words, if families are raising beef cattle or chickens for their own private meat or egg consumption, or just feeding the dog, the retail trail ends, and the FDA does not need to know about the purchase.

But a sale of feed to a dairy farm that then sells milk offsite must be traced, according to Petty.

Wickersham is optimistic about the future of his business, particularly about the new and growing grocery business that draws customers from as far away as Madison.

"Running a feed mill at this capacity is hard, hard work with few returns," Wickersham said. "We've found something else to do."

He also feels that the canal restoration project will have a positive impact on his business.

"I think it's going to draw people into Portage," Wickersham said.

By Ann Marie Ames


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