“What time is it? Oh yes! How could I forget! It’s time for an inspection!”
by Alan Smith
Note: All the dialog in this piece is not fiction, though I sometimes wish it was.
I’m sitting at my desk when I hear a car slow down behind me in front of our house. Today the inspectors are coming so I’m on the alert. What inspectors? The inspectors, the Ag and Markets inspectors, the ones that have been coming to our farm for as long as I can remember. What do they do? You don’t want to know.
As I was saying I heard a car slow down in front of our house, I looked up expecting to see a car pull into the driveway. I saw a big ugly brown SUV out my window that had a sticker with too many colors on the side. I knew instantly who it was, you probably have a good idea of who it was. The sticker was that of the New York State Department of Ag and Markets. The doors of the brown monstrosity opened and a couple men stepped out. I stood up grinning, I knew what was coming. I walked to the door of my room and grabbed a sweater and flicked the light switch off, chances were I wouldn’t be back for quite some time. I exited the house, camera in hand, behind my mom. Although it was about ten o’clock the real day was just beginning.
We walked out to the monstrosity, there were three inspectors putting on white coats. I recognized two of them, one was the head of the dairy department, the other one I knew was our regular inspector. He was a nice guy, friendly, cheerful, and not an idiot. Really not the inspector type at all.
Mom exchanged a friendly, well, not so friendly, greeting with Will, the head. We all walked into the Yogurt Room. General confusion ensued instantly. The White Coats started milling around looking at things, shading their eyes peering into the coolers, opening the “pasteurizer,” looking for something they could write down on their clipboards as a violation of something written down on a piece of paper somewhere. Those pieces of paper that are somewhere are what the White Coats refer to as the “regulations.” The White Coats tell us things like we need a separate sink for washing our hands than the one we wash the flavor containers in and they say that not having one is a violation of the “regulations.” Who knows what is really written down on those papers. We try not to think about it.
While the White Coats walked around bumping into things I sat on the maple syrup barrel taking pictures. At first they went over things pretty quickly and seemed to have covered it all. They had looked at everything, it was true, but, they hadn’t written down anything, no good. They had to go over it all again, this time more slowly, more carefully, this time they had to get out their flashlights. They wandered around some more, holding their pens poised over their clipboards hoping to find something to write down. I sat back, it was going to be a long day.
The most interesting thing they could find was our display cooler. All those quarts of yogurt with their color labels, it was fascinating, to some of us. They peered into the cooler, faces inches from the glass, they seemed to have poor eyesight, either that or those labels were just the prettiest things they had ever seen. One would walk off, stare at something else, then return, back to look at the labels. “So you’re just crossing off the word ‘pasteurized,’” one asked, he wasn’t our regular inspector, he wouldn’t have had to ask, he would have seen that we were. I instantly started thinking up wisecracks, “Oh, is that what that word is?” “What’s…’pasteurized.’” “Oh, is that black line on those labels again?” Mom had something to say, “Yes.” It was a short answer, concise, and to the point, an answer that even an inspector could understand. The White Coat had another question, “And plant number.” It didn’t come out as a question, perhaps a neuron misfired. Mom had a look on her face that was clearly expressing her internal emotions, “What is he asking me for? Is he blind?” Instead Mom gave another terse answer, “Yup.” I could almost detect a sense of pride in her voice. It did feel good to cross off that number on each label every time we packaged yogurt.
The inspector at the cooler had had his turn, he had to find something else to look at while another inspector looked at the yogurt. He found a big white door. It had a big metal handle about half way down and a light switch on the wall next to that. He reached for the handle, he seemed to hesitate, he probably thought that behind the door was his worst nightmare. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, he wouldn’t find out until he opened it, curiosity won out. He grasped the handle and pulled, the door swung towards him with a sucking sound. It was dark inside, he had forgot to flip the switch next to the door. I got off my barrel and walked over to see what would happen. The room that the White Coat was about to enter was no ordinary room, many things had gone in, only some had come out. He looked in. If I had been him I would have closed the door immediately and gone back to staring at the labels on the yogurt. I would have. He didn’t. No, he didn’t know what was good for him. He walked in. “Fool! He has no idea what’s in there! Sure, he saw it from the door but, seeing something from a distance and being surrounded by it are two different things,” I couldn’t help thinking he didn’t know what that stuff in there was. That stuff was cheese. Some people love it, some hate it, others don’t hate it, they just can’t get near it. I was in the last category, I had seen and smelled cheese that would make a lesser man vomit. You think I lie? I wish. The worst part is that those cheeses are the most popular at the local farmers market. “Mmm! What do you call this? Can I get some?” I couldn’t usually resist but I was able to keep it in my head, “What do we call that? We call that a failure and a mess. We call that a freak of nature. We call that the most slimy and disgusting ball of old milk we have ever had to touch.”
The White Coat looked around inside the walk-in cooler, he saw cheese stacked on shelves to the ceiling, he saw good cheese, he saw bad cheese, he saw it all. He saw it because he wasn’t the brightest and so hadn’t closed his eyes upon entering the room.
“Look at this! This one has something living in it!” Oops, he looked too close. I thought up an answer, “Oh, that one, yeah, it’s $50 per square inch. Don’t touch it!” Mom played it cool, “Obviously I’m not going to give that to people to eat.” The White Coat had found another specimen, “Some rat droppings,” he said pointing. “Yes, that’s what those are, congratulations, for your correct answer we will give you a free sample of our living cheese” This time Mom didn’t answer, she had walked off. I took some pictures. The inspector stood up and exited the room after giving one more quick glance around. As he came out he remarked, gagging, “I have a good stomach but that was strong.” He hadn’t smelled anything, not according to me, I consider what he calls strong a whiff of sweet perfume.
They were back at the coolers. What a surprise. Will managed to peel himself away and walked into unexplored territory, the other room. “Barbara, is this the packaging room?” he asked. The room had a sink and a few counters, the room he had just left had a pasteurizer and a filling machine. “No, this is where we make the flavors.” “Ah,” it was an amazingly intelligent sounding answer coming from an inspector. He looked around quick and left, the yogurt was calling to him. “We good to go?” he asked, addressing his fellow White Coats. They mumbled their replies and exited the building. “On to the barn.”
We all walked around to the back of their lump parked in our driveway and opening the hatch they withdrew a dish pan and a bottle of pink powder. Dropping the pan onto the ground a White Coat poured a small amount of the powder into the pan. Then another White Coat took out a long handled brush and a bottle of water. Carefully pouring the water into the pan from five feet he handed the brush to his fellow. The liquid that was now in the pan was bright yellow. “Uhm… from pink powder to yellow liquid… What is in that stuff?” I was a bit turned off. With the brush the White Coat distributed the fluid over the boots he had just put on. He was going into the barn, a place of dirt and unsanitary things, a place for rats, well, to those who don’t know better. In truth a barn is a place for animals to live and equipment to be kept. Once he was done rinsing his boots in the yellow stuff the other inspector did the same. When they felt prepared we entered what we call the “milk room.” I entered last, my boots were covered in mud, unsanitary mud, I held the door for whoever wished to follow, no one did so I propped the door open. “Oh, you won’t want to do that.” said one of the inspectors as I left the door open and came in after them. “Why not, afraid of fresh air? Is it too dirty?” I replied, in my mind. I knocked the block out of the way and the door slammed shut. “Good boy,” said the White Coat. “Excuse me! Boy?! I am seventeen! Do you want to step outside? Or will the air suffocate you?” I kept my anger concealed behind a smile. It was not a “Thanks for the complement!” smile, it was more of a “I can’t help but smile when I think of what would happen if you fell in the gutter.”
They didn’t find anything of interest in the milk room, they really didn’t find anything worth mentioning, except the dirt on the window sill.
We proceeded deeper into the barn. “Oh, no fowl in the stable!” said one of the inspectors, almost laughing, probably with glee, he had seen some chickens. According to the “regulations” fowl are not allowed near the cows, not even where they will be or have been. The White Coats had just found some chickens in the milking end of the barn, they had at last found something they could write down. The gleeful inspector turned to me and asked, “Is this all the medicine? Do you have a medicine cabinet?” He had just picked up a bottle of Calendula cream and was examining it. “Medicine cabinet? What would we have to put in it? Hormones? Antibiotics? No sir! Not us!” “No,” I answered. After a little more wandering around we went through the next door into the last section of the barn. We traveled down the barn to the door the cows come in and out, the White Coats found nothing interesting, not to them. This was the most boring part of the entire inspection. They looked around some more, unable to get past the wheelbarrows that we cart manure with and having to keep close to each other from fear of anything slightly unclean. We left the barn, they were completely uninterested in it.
Upon exiting the barn the White Coats had to clean their boots. After performing the ritual of dowsing their boots in the yellow liquid one of the White Coats asked, “Anyone want to sanitize their boots?” I was surprised he asked such a question. Why would we want to sanitize our boots? Just in case we had stepped in something that might eat away at our boots? When no one jumped at the chance to dip their boots in the yellow liquid he dumped it in front of our milk room. “Great! When the plants stop coming up right there we’ll be constantly reminded of the White Coats!” “Do you have more of that pink powder? I’d like to kill off all the plants around here!”
It had been established a little while ago that there was going to be a conference call between the Ag and Markets lawyer and ours. The White Coats and ourselves would all be in on it. But, we didn’t know how long it would be so we walked inside to get out of the wind. The White Coats stayed outside with their four-wheeled heap of waste. Once inside we stood around waiting for The Call. I looked out the window, waiting for the White Coats to make a suspicious move. They stood around talking on their cell phone. It was exciting. We talked for awhile without any call and then decided we should go listen to what was being discussed outside. As we approached Will turned off the speaker phone feature of his cell phone. Before we even got to him he had said good-bye and hung up. “It’s been decided that there will be no conference call and we are going to quarantine your products,” Will told Mom as we walked up to him. “Oh, great, now we won’t be able to eat our yogurt,” I like our yogurt and the thought of having to see it in our cooler but not be able to touch it was distressing. The White Coats got out their seizure equipment and we walked into the Yogurt Room. Once again confusion broke out. Papers were spread out on the freezer and a White Coat started scribbling like mad. “We have to fill this out before we take an inventory. What’s this?” the White Coat didn’t seem to have filled out a seizure paper before. There was much mumbling and scribbling and some more mumbling. They filled out the form and began taking an inventory of what was in our cooler. “Six… Uhm…” the White Coat looked closely at the yogurt, “Six Cherry Vanilla, code October 26th.” By “code” he meant date, expiration date. “Twelve…” another close inspection of the label, “Twelve French Vanilla code…” “Oops, sorry make that eight Cherry Vanilla,” he corrected himself, he had found two more. “No problem, I haven’t written anything down yet,” replied the inspector who was supposed to be writing down the inventory. “Oh, make that sixteen French Vanilla.” “Alright, I haven’t written the Vanilla down yet.” “You ever going to write it all down? This is interesting but not that interesting!” I internally replied. It was probably those labels that were slowing them down, darn those pretty colors. Taking the inventory went on for a long time, too long. I began to fall asleep at my post, camera clutched tightly. Then I was addressed by one of the White Coats, “Could you open the door to the cheese room?” “Why can’t you do it? You think there is cheese slime on the handle? Or are you still gearing up your strong stomach?” I walked over to the door and pulled it open, the inspector entered. He walked over to the cheese he had found earlier that he said was living, and shot some photos. Then he bent down and took some pictures of what he had called rat droppings. After a few more photos of various things in there he exited and I closed the door. Again he had to remark he had a strong stomach but that was strong. I grinned, “If your stomach is so strong how come you came running out? What you smelled in there is nothing like what I’ve had to deal with. ‘Mom, close the door! We’re trying to make yogurt but we might not live long enough to finish!’”
More paper work. Some mumblings and some scribbling. Some bumping into cooler doors, a bit of label staring and some more mumbling. Some yogurt tipping, knocking the quarts over in the cooler. And then, the main attraction, the faded red sign was attached to the door of our display cooler. The deed was done, the crime committed. The war was on, time to whip out the cell phones and call lawyers. Actually, time to get a restraining order, no more White Coats on our farm!
The White Coats packed up after getting Mom to sign the seizure notice and walked out. “Have a nice day!” said Will as he left. “Hey, you too! Give us your phone number so we can get you to come back and seize our next batch of yogurt.”
What happened next? We relayed what had happened to my dad. We discovered that the “rat droppings” weren’t rat droppings and what made the inspector think the cheese was alive were holes that Mom had poked in a blue cheese.
The next morning when I was having breakfast my parents were discussing how to get a temporary restraining order to keep the White Coats off our farm until the court date. Court? Yes, we’re taking Ag and Markets to court. They recoil at the mention of court, it’s like the word “ni.” I am looking forward to our court date. Sadly it hasn’t been set yet. I’m looking forward to listening to our lawyers crush Ag and Markets with things like charges of harassment and plenty of illegal stuff.
In the meantime I will try to revitalize the ground that had the yellow liquid poured on it. I might even become a yogurt label starer. Next I’ll lose control of things like my saliva glands. After that there won’t be much left to lose.