"What am I doing here? How did I get dumped into the middle of really smart people?"
Those two questions were exactly what was on my mind as I stood up to give a presentation on “The Presence of Salmonella in Eggs” before a Midwest conference of veterinarians in 1985, where ‘Salmonella and eggs” was the main topic.
The veterinarians didn’t want a scientist to speak; they wanted an egg producer, but none of my bosses would do it. Being neither a scientist nor an egg farmer, I spent a lot of time with researchers on the phone, and made exhaustive notes. I believe that was my first year with a computer, and as I read my speech, some poltergeist moved a stray paragraph into the wrong page. The day was saved (and everyone gasped) when at the conclusion, I held up an egg and asked “Does it contain Salmonella?” I broke it one-handed into a glass of orange juice, stirred it with a fork, held it out and said, “We’ll soon find out,” as I drank it.
Hotel kitchens are supposed to refrigerate eggs, but the egg I got from the kitchen was as warm as it would have been had it just come from the hen.
That wasn't the first time I felt in over my head. Example No. 2: Howard Helmer, the Omelet King in New York, had been scheduled to give a presentation for 1,000 Missouri FFA students in St. Joseph at the high school gym. He asked me to do it for him, so I did. He, the world’s fastest omelet maker, had been highly promoted as the speaker. I dropped the first egg I picked up, so I leaned over the table to address the egg on the floor, making the sign of the cross over the remains. The kids applauded, and from then on, all went well. Because I was on the basketball court, with bleachers on all sides, I didn’t know which way to face. It was my most challenging demonstration.
So, how did I get here?
When we lived in California, my husband Bob lost his job as an aerospace engineer, along with thousands of other people as the space program crashed. So I said, “I can type; I’ll get a job.”
It was an awakening. I remember walking the sidewalks in the San Fernando Valley to employment agencies. The sidewalks were hot and I was overdressed. Looking for work, I discovered, and still believe, was and is the hardest work of all. It's demeaning, demoralizing and depressing.
Finally, I was asked to interview at an egg ranch of a half-million hens in Moorpark, just over the hills from Simi Valley, which was just over the hills from the San Fernando Valley. Five people were interviewed; four were offered the job and declined. I was the last choice, and I took it. The qualifications included accounting, an area in which I had no experience. Bob stayed home, did the housework, cooking and cleaning. He also made our children Pam, Norma, Carolyn and Suzie do their chores, homework and practice piano.
I know good and well that if I could have made enough money, he’d be glad to stay home as Mr. Mom. I made $2.75 an hour.
At the egg ranch, I was the receptionist/statistician. This was in 1967, before we had computers. My job was to gather from Jose how full the feed bins were versus what had been delivered the day before, get from flock supervisors what the overnight mortality was, find out from the egg room how many eggs were produced, and figure the production percentages. We had about 17 flocks, different ages, from different breeders. If the DeKalb or HyLine bird hit a hiccup for a few days, the others, Shaver, H&N, Babcock or HiSex would and vice versa. The report form was the size of a half a newspaper page, and included six copies with carbon paper between.
Early on, as I was sort of learning what to do, one of the bosses came down from his office (where he spent hours watching the ticker tape telling him how the Midwest corn crop looked so he’d guess at the future price of feed) and said with embarrassment, “Jo, uh, we got really excited when we saw that last night’s mortality was 97 percent.”
Of course it was not, and I was mortified.
I absolutely loved being part of "business," and was appreciated for my wordiness. I was the voice of the company when customers called. I wrote copy for ads, and was given the task (innocent that I was) of phoning the railroads and begging them to go ahead and deliver corn to the mill, even though we hadn’t paid them in months.
By and by, we got an experienced and professional business manager, and the whole office was forced to learn about charts of accounts, purchase orders, and keeping proper records. Our finances improved, simply by the fact that someone who knew what he was doing whipped us into shape. So, without going to business school, I learned things I should have known. I got a 10 cent-an-hour raise for producing a financial statement (copying the manager’s hen scratches) without a mistake.
The egg room was right behind the office, and the clatter and activity of grading and packing eggs was close at hand. The employees got the double yolks (too large for the XL carton) to eat on breaks and for lunch. A gaggle of women in white with hairnets stood around a 55-gallon plastic barrel, breaking eggs for bakeries and chattering away. Everyone spoke Spanish. Sadly, I never learned.
After more than a year as Mr. Mom, Bob got a job at the University of Missouri, in Columbia, where we both lived growing up, so I left the egg ranch. The present they gave me still sits on the top of our hutch: four tapered bottles filled with the different feed formulas for starting pullets, bringing into production, molt recovery, etc.
Back in Columbia, in 1976, I saw an ad in the paper “Missouri Egg Council seeking executive secretary, travel required.” Seventy people applied, including me. The interviewers (egg farmers and the Midwest directors of the association), liked me (I was the only one who had any poultry experience) but I was female, so they hired a man to be the boss, and told me I could work in promotion. Cary Bradley, the boss, was working on his M.S. degree in statistics, and in a year or so was hired away by United Egg Producers (UEP) to work in Atlanta on a forecasting model for the industry. I was asked if I wanted the board to find a man to be my boss so I could train him, or if I wanted to be the boss. I didn’t appreciate the sound of the former, so I became the director of the Missouri Egg Council (MEC).
Demand for promotional presentations was so great, especially in schools,and there was no way I could personally cover them, so I contacted Iowa, who had established “the egg lady” concept. I hired two full-time promoters, one working on her M.S. in nutrition, Cathy Barnes, but within a couple of years was hired away by UEP to take over the Egg Nutrition Center. The other (Carrie Baer) was also taken from me, asked to work in marketing by Salsbury Labs. So, I decided that, to cover the state, it would be good to have promoters scattered around.
Eventually, MEC had 13 independent contractors covering the whole state. After being screened, hired and trained, they were sent out to contact schools, asking for permission to come into the classes with egg demonstrations.
It was an immediate success. We even had a plan for "moving up." First, it was schools, then general audiences. We eventually had to say we couldn’t come to an event if the audience had fewer than 100 people. We also spoke to the print press, and finally, to what is considered the big time, did television and radio interviews.
They were trained by watching me for a whole day in schools, then visiting an egg farm. Before long, Arkansas began to have more complexes in Missouri, so instead of being “eggs” exclusively, we were all feathers: broilers, turkeys and eggs. I did have a partner in the office by now, Johanna Derda, former flight attendant from Switzerland. She was so good and such a hard worker, the new Missouri Poultry Federation achieved the goal of having every integrator and allied industry integrator as members six months before our goal.
We were invited to speak to the International Egg Convention in Turku, Finland, about the egg lady program, and I particularly enjoyed so much meeting Dr. Rau, owner of the largest egg-laying hatchery in India. He had a fabulous presentation of his own, designed to increase egg consumption in his country. This was in light of the religious right, which took out full-page ads in the newspapers with fire-breathing dragons complete with long talons and forked tails, comparing the eating of eggs by young females to “taking the devil into yourself," because eggs make you “hot.”
Because chicken and turkey needed no promotion or defense (they always were the darling of nutritionists), the only thing they needed from us was a convention, newsletter and lobbying. So we reluctantly dismantled the egg lady program.
Our conventions were great fun. We had innovative speakers and hired the absolute finest lobbyist in Jefferson City to work with us. Legislators of every stripe came to him to write their legislation so that it would pass.
The environmental regulators right away set about creating additional regulations for these large processing plants and growing facilities. We had months of meetings with regulators, alongside the Sierra Club, Rural Alliance, Farmers Union and related groups. They were on one side of the room and "the industry" was on the other. The climate was tense and hostile. Often, the adversaries trained a video camera on every one of us who spoke.
For almost 10 years, I had to learn to run the poultry grill at the state fair.
Of all the jobs in the world, I knew from birth that running a foodservice establishment was not for me. I had to learn to manage the donated truckloads of products, check the reefer on the 18-wheeler three times a day, pay our taxes and deal with the inspectors. I’ll never forget the day before opening day at the fair: Tyson Foods donated all the fully cooked Chix Halves we’d heat up on the grill. The only trouble was, we had a truckload of raw halves. I called Archie Schaffer of Tyson at 3 p.m. the day before the fair was to open, he calmly said, “We’ll have a truck in there by 8 a.m. with the cooked product.” They were there, and they loaded the frozen raw product for us and carried it away.
Along with the Chix Halves, our best sellers were marinated turkey breasts (which we had to put into the marinade which we blended ourselves the night before) and smoked turkey drums. Johanna and I were there from 6 a.m. until midnight many days. We also served slaw, baked beans, pickled eggs, sun tea (with mint that I took from my Mom’s garden and planted alongside the poultry grill) and iced coffee. One year, we offered frozen lemon-custard on a stick so as to have another eggy offering.
We had superb teams of volunteers from all the companies -- representing eggs, turkeys, broilers, hatcheries, breeders, further processors, equipment manufacturers, state agencies and universities -- who’d come in teams of about 15 from all over the state at their own expense, and work like dogs from 9 to 3, and 3 to 9.
The health inspectors who came to check on us said we were the best for food handling, because all the companies take it for granted that quality and safety is job one. The health inspectors sent fair-goers to us, and all the Missouri Highway Patrolmen came in – but we still couldn’t compete with the beef house across the street, which was air-conditioned.
The State Capitol
I learned another very important lesson rather quickly -- that is, loyalty to your fellow livestock producers. Following the advice of our lobbyist, I testified in such a manner that threw the pork producers under the bus, while saving us from a regulation. That action has haunted me ever since.
Lobbying is for professionals. My biggest letdown was when the Senate’s most revered member understood our request for an important new law relating to minor injuries, thought it was reasonable and took it under his wing. Even he was not able to get it through, and I learned the valuable lesson that in spite of being worthy, sensible and seemingly non-controversial, legislation can go 180 degrees from what was promised, or simply just crash.
The Poultry Federation
Eventually, Missouri was blended with Oklahoma into the three-state organization, and I was out of a job, but eligible for unemployment insurance, another new experience. I had to apply for at least three jobs per week in order to continue to collect, and at first I applied for 16-17. In the end, I scraped around to find three.
After applying for jobs for a year and a half and getting one interview, a friend challenged me to start my own employment agency (Available Jones), specializing in retired people, which I did. After a year of this, in 2000, the egg industry (thank you, Jerry Wells of Moark) wanted me back, so I joyfully accepted, and for the next nine years, did the egg job and Available Jones.
I did try hard to make Available Jones work, but it barely paid the rent on the office. Every Sunday for nine years, I sent responses to the ads in the Columbia Daily Tribune for employees. I got zero response. One year, I actually cleared $1,300 in expenses.
But because I had never paid myself anything at all, I don’t think this qualifies as a going concern.
It was another lesson: “When you work for yourself, nobody writes you a paycheck."
I decided the best way to utilize the membership dollars paid by Missouri commercial producers (Rose Acre Farms and Opal Foods) would be demonstrating eggs on TV (free airtime) and presenting before chef schools. So that’s how I spend most of my time, plus a few excursions like food shows, radio, state fair presentations, and op-ed pieces. There’s only me, and I’m only part time.
Bottom line, after going through all this: I discovered my interests lie in the area of “business,” which includes the environment, medicine, robots, manufacturing, marketing, politics, behavioral science, and research, research, research. What do researchers always say? “More research is needed.”
I regret that a large contingent of our population takes an adversarial attitude toward the world of manufacturing, buying and selling. If only it worked the way it should, and greed and corruption were not manifestations of human nature.
In California in the 1970s, listening to classical music on the way to the egg ranch, it occurred to me how perfect things would work if only the members of a business were as synchronized as members of an orchestra -- following the conductor, ever alert to take their special part, and submitting to the goal of the whole.
Anyone who denigrates “business” or “industry” has never had to meet a payroll. In my opinion, love doesn’t make the world go ‘round, commerce does.
What am I doing here, amid all those very learned and accomplished people in the commercial ag industry? Just trying to get by, and appreciating every minute of the challenge.