Podcasts

Lydia Johnson | #015 03/23/2020

She's about to finish her degree in Environmental Resource Geography, but Lydia Johnson grew up on a Washington dairy farm, and has a unique perspective on why farms in this state are at risk.

Transcript

Lydia Johnson:
They got out of dairy in the year that I moved to college. And I have to say that that’s a little heartbreaking because I felt like I was responsible for it. No matter how many times they’ll tell me, “No. No, you need to go. Go do what you need to do.”

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the Real Food, Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and I’m glad you’re here. Hopefully things are going well if you’re self-isolating and keeping to yourself, as I hope we all are right now, keeping everyone in a safe and healthy as possible. This week we hear from a young woman who is studying at Central Washington University, just about to get her environmental resource geography degree. She grew up on a Washington state dairy farm. And the perspective that she brings from her academics as well as her life experience growing up on a farm is really, really valuable, I think, as far as what’s happening in this state politically and with the environment and with farming. So I’m glad you’re here for this conversation this week. Her name is Lydia Johnson.

Dillon Honcoop:
And as I mentioned on Real Food, Real People Instagram over the weekend, I actually met her at a bar. I know it sounds weird. I was just driving through Washington. I was in little Kittitas, Washington, and stopped in to what I thought was this really cool, old time-y restaurant and bar, The Time Out Saloon, and she was working behind the counter. And we just happened to chat a little bit, and I found out that she grew up on a farm. And so we talked a little bit more and I thought she’s got to be on the podcast and share her perspective and her story. Such cool stuff. So thank you for being here. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter as well. If you can, subscribe on your favorite podcast outlet, Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts, you name it. And of course, check out realfoodrealpeople.org.

Dillon Honcoop:
So without any further ado, here’s Lydia Johnson and our conversation this week on the Kittitas podcast, my continuing journey around various parts of Washington state to get to know the real people behind our food and the real culture of farming and food here in Washington state. We think it’s more important now with everything that’s happening than ever before to know not only where your food comes from and to get food grown locally and from Washington state, but also to know who grows your food and to understand the care and respect that goes into it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So sitting in a bar, strike up a conversation with the bartender, you-

Lydia Johnson:
Right, yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you tell me that you grew up as a dairy farm kid.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah. Yeah, so born and raised on a dairy farm, originally starting down in Vancouver, Washington. My dad got into dairy farming, had to pick up and move the entire dairy up into the raging, booming town of Ethel, Washington, where I say, “Oh yeah, I’m from Ethel,” and they’re like, “What? Bethel?” No Ethel, Washington, population: our dairy farm and a post office.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is Ethel, Washington?

Lydia Johnson:
Southwest Washington-ish, right off of Highway 12 on your way over White Pass, about 10 miles off of I-5. Yeah. So if I’m explaining it to somebody, I’ll be like, “Okay, do where Olympia is?”

Lydia Johnson:
And they’ll say, “Yes.”

Lydia Johnson:
“Okay. Do where Centralia is? Okay, 45 minutes southeast of there.”

Lydia Johnson:
And they’re like, “Oh, okay. I know right where that is. I’ve probably driven right past it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So tell me about the dairy. How many cows did you guys have? Was this your whole life, basically?

Lydia Johnson:
Yes. So we started out as a conventional dairy farm and as I was growing up, we eventually made the transition into an organic dairy. And we began at like 400 cows. And then when we got to an organic dairy, we were only milking about 160. And so this was only my mother, father and I, and we were the only ones doing it. We didn’t have any hired hands. We didn’t have any help. It was just the three of us. And at the time, I didn’t know it was weird or abnormal to just be us three running this dairy, this little 12-year-old girl. And then both my parents had full-time jobs, and so we were just making it work. And so they would wake up early, 3:30, 4:30 in the morning.

Lydia Johnson:
My job was to bring in the cows, so I would always be looking for an excuse to go out and ride my horse. So I sat on my horse in the barn early in the morning and go out and bring the cows in. My dad would always yell, “Don’t run the girls. Don’t make them run. Just walk them.”

Lydia Johnson:
I’m like, “Oh, Dad, come on, let me go.” But after I got a little bit older, I understood, so…

Dillon Honcoop:
So you wanted to be a cowboy, is what you’re saying.

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, it was cowboy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or a cowgirl.

Lydia Johnson:
Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I grew up in this weird dynamic where it’s like I wasn’t really raised to be like a cowboy or cowgirl and do the rodeo thing because I grew up on a dairy farm, and dairy farmers, they don’t. They’re dairy farmers, and you show at the fair and the 4H and the FFA, which I did that too, but I was also involved heavily into junior rodeo and high school rodeo and things like that as well. So it was kind of a strange dynamic, but it’s definitely a childhood that made me who I am. And I’m forever grateful to my parents just because all these other students that I was going to school with or things like that, they had just woken up at 8:30 in the morning and I had already had half a day on them. And just having that experience really impacted me as a person, and it has given me a little bit more of, I would say, an upper hand, definitely an upper hand, but.

Dillon Honcoop:
Upper hand how?

Lydia Johnson:
As far as maturity levels and responsibilities and caring for another creature that isn’t a human. It’s a different dynamics to something. You’re raising calves or you’re feeding heifers or just these different aspects of growing up on a dairy create, I don’t know, just more fulfilling, I would say; probably more fulfilling life.

Dillon Honcoop:
Were you ever frustrated with all of that?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, yeah. Easy, easy. I would always think what would it be like to have a normal childhood, like growing up in a suburb or something like that. And thinking back on that, I was like, what was I thinking? Why would I ever wonder something like that? I know what it would be like: miserable. Not necessarily, but definitely-

Dillon Honcoop:
When did that change? When did you switch from being like, ah, this is just a whole bunch of work to starting to really value it?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, when I was in middle school, I was probably like I had been enslaved for that long already feeding calves. And it didn’t feel like slavery at the time, but it was something that I had to wake up and do every morning and every Saturday, Sunday, holiday, everything. So my friends would be out and they’d have sleepovers or something, but I’d have to get picked up early because I’d have to come home and feed calves or something like that, or just something small. But when I got into high school, I really started appreciating it because it made me a little bit more mindful of time management and how to execute all the things that I needed to get done within the day. But I worked them around milking schedules, so that was really interesting, too. Not very many students had to deal with that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the milking schedule on the farm?

Lydia Johnson:
Usually we would milk at like six 6:30, six o’clock in the morning, and then milk at 6:30, six o’clock in the evening, if not earlier, because it’d depend on how early I could get out and get the cows in because sometimes things don’t always go the right way. And we had a small dairy, so a lot of things went wrong, like pumps weren’t working or something would freeze, or the parlors flooded one morning. Just small, weird things that probably don’t happen on, I don’t know, I guess larger farms. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think they happen everywhere, from the people I’ve talked to.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah, I would say so too, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Murphy’s Law: if it can break, it will.

Lydia Johnson:
It will. Yeah, no. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why did your parents have to move the dairy east, and at what point in your life was that?

Lydia Johnson:
I think I was only two or three.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you probably don’t really remember?

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah, I don’t really. Well, I remember … So, we were releasing some property from a gentleman down in Vancouver, Washington. And my dad had already started the herd and started milking down here in Vancouver. And then they had sold the dairy before our lease was up. And so my dad had started frantically shopping for another dairy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they sold it out from underneath him?

Lydia Johnson:
Right, yeah. And I was pretty young when this happened. And so I think the Indian tribe is where it ended up. And so there’s a new casino down there, like, ilani, or something like that. That is where our dairy was.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah. So that’s a bittersweet deal. But there’s a couple of dairies up in the county where I grew up, Lewis County, that were available at the time, and there was one in Alaska and one in Ethel, and the one in Ethel was home. We moved there in 2000. So everybody’s still refers to it, if they’ve lived there long enough, as the old Dureya dairy, because that’s who lived there before us. And they’re like, “Oh, you live with the old Dureya dairy?”

Lydia Johnson:
I’m like, “That was 20 years ago, but yeah.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, both sets of my grandparents were in dairy farming. And to me and to a lot of people, they’re their farms and they’re still there. I actually own the homeplace of my mom’s parents’ place.

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, that’s amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
But to the real old timers, because they bought them from other people. Sam Bajema. Wait, oh that was the… And, I can’t remember… the Leenders dairy was my Grandpa Honcoop’s later. So I totally get that. And that kind of stuff carries on when the same family can’t keep doing it.

Lydia Johnson:
For sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you think about staying with dairy?

Lydia Johnson:
I actually did, but what I really wanted to do was I wanted to bring dairy back to the Ellensburg Valley. And this was an idea that lasted for maybe six months or something like that. It didn’t last that long because the technology that I was wanting to get into was something that probably wouldn’t be that attainable for me as an individual. And I’d have to find other people that are gung ho about it as much as I am. I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ll get a robotic milker, because I like to travel a lot and I like to go do these things, and I ride horses and I’m doing things like that.” But there aren’t any dairies in the valley anymore. And so that was really strange to me when I moved here that there wasn’t the local dairy or something small, anything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, that would make it harder to run a dairy farm here, right-

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… because there’s no dairy support businesses here.

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely. And there was somebody that had told me that it was because of trucks not making it up here from Sunnyside because that’s where the Darigold plant is, or something like the restrictions on waste management, because the county is definitely turning a leaf in its political stance.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I guess we’re talking about the Ellensburg area now.

Lydia Johnson:
The valley, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And like we mentioned earlier, I met you at this bar at Kittitas, where you’re bartending and I just stopped in for a bite to eat. And we’re actually recording out here behind the bar in the empty beer bar. There’s snow on the ground, actually. And so if you hear cars or trains in the background, that’s why.

Lydia Johnson:
Right outside, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
So the reason I mentioned that is how did you end up here from growing up down there in Ethel?

Lydia Johnson:
I know. It’s a big transition from small town of Ethel to the small town of Kittitas. I mean, well, so I was looking at colleges, and I’d done plenty of research and all that stuff. I was looking for a college that I could rodeo at and compete in college rodeo. But I also wanted a four-year university that I could just knock out the four years and graduate, which didn’t end up happening anyway because I’m on my fifth year, but I’m graduating this spring.

Dillon Honcoop:
I did five. I’ll confess that right here. It took me five.

Lydia Johnson:
Five years, that’s been the average. Yeah, so that’s really what brought me here. And during my first year here, I was thinking about transferring to somewhere. I was going to leave the state. I was pretty set on, oh yeah, I’m going to go to Colorado state or go to a little bit more ag-based college somewhere. And I ended up staying and then I became a part of the community when I started working at the bar because now I can’t go anywhere without somebody recognizing me: “Oh, you’re the bartender from the Time Out.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you go to Central, which is in Ellensburg.

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is what, like 15 minutes from here?

Lydia Johnson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
But actually, when you came out here, you started living right away in Kittitas?

Lydia Johnson:
I did live in Ellensburg, but for a very short time. So it was like for the first year and a half or two years, and then I eventually moved out. My address is still Ellensburg, but I live out past Kittitas. It’s like 15 minutes from here even. I don’t even have internet there. It’s one of those type places.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? Why didn’t you stay in town?

Lydia Johnson:
Gross. I wouldn’t say in town. I like being outside. And I have horses too. I have horses and I’ve got six cows here with myself, myself and my horses.

Dillon Honcoop:
I like that you say staying in town is gross.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah. Well I mean, it’s just like your typical college student walking distance from the campus and things like that. And I don’t really mean it that way, but it’s too confined. I’m renting 25 acres with two other girls and I have my two horses and my six cows, and I have access to an arena and I can go rope whenever I want. So it’s way better out here. I pay the price, but it’s way better out here, for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want to find out about this rodeo stuff, too, because he talked about being younger and into the whole cowgirl thing. You wanted to continue that.

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you do with that?

Lydia Johnson:
So as far as rodeo goes, at the moment, I’m riding a three year old so she is a little slow on the draw when it comes to … I mean, I’m still doing a little bit of roping on her but she’s a little young to be competing on. But just this last spring, I sold one of my good horses that I was team roping and breakaway roping off of. And he was a bang up little horse, but I had a lot of him go. So I did that, but prior to selling him, I did a lot of team roping and breakaway roping and went to rodeos, mostly college rodeos and some small jackpots here and there, and did quite a bit of mounted shooting on him as well, which has become a passion for me as well. It’s just so much fun. It’s like barrel racing, but with guns; way better, way better. Everybody should give it a try.

Dillon Honcoop:
So rodeo, I mean, for a lot of people, that’s like [inaudible 00:16:23] rodeo. I think the sense is it’s really unnecessary and it’s abusive of animals and all of these things. What’s your response to some of that? I mean, I guess one thing I should say, this is a Real Food, Real People podcast. What does rodeo have to do with food? Why it even necessary?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, I guess I would say that rodeo is a little bit more of a showcase of the capabilities of your horse and the amount of training and practice. And I mean, the animals that we use, they’re animals that love their job. The rough stock that’s being bucked out, I mean, they’re bred specifically to do that. I mean, you put them out in the field and just feed them, they’re bred specifically for this job, and it’s not … I mean, calves too, same thing… bred to run.

Dillon Honcoop:
But it’s still skills and a way of life connected with producing food though, right?

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like the beef world… real cowboys still exist to this day.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, especially in this valley. Back home, you find more dairy farms over on the west side where I grew up. And here, people are getting permits to put their cows out on public land. And there’s a lot more acreage for people to push cows around. And it’s more of a practical sense when you’re talking about cowboy and things like that when you’re going out you’re branding or you’re vaccinating and things like that. It’s crucial.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, even roping is about cattle health, right?

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
People just think it’s a show, which, I mean, the rodeo stuff is a showcase of that skill.

Lydia Johnson:
But the root of it is a necessity. Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your favorite thing with rodeo?

Lydia Johnson:
Probably team roping. Probably team roping.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, so I headed for several years, and this horse that I’ve gotten now, she’s pretty small and I can’t head on her. And so I’m really missing team roping and I’m really missing going into … Yeah, it’s been tough, but I’m working through it and I think she’ll be big enough that I could heel off of her; maybe not be a head horse. But yeah, definitely team roping.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re going to keep doing rodeo stuff after college?

Lydia Johnson:
I intend to. I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you keep doing that? Do you have to be pro to keep going?

Lydia Johnson:
You got to make money. Your bank account has to support you. No, even in town, there’s a bunch of small jackpots that you can keep going to. And then you enter in … You pay your NPRA or Pro West entries, and things like that, the smaller … I mean, they’re not smaller, but there are different regions, and there’s a little bit of flexibility. But in the northwest it’s a tough circuit to be in, in the Columbia River circuit.

Dillon Honcoop:
So other than keeping rodeoing-

Lydia Johnson:
Rodeoing, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
… as a hobby or maybe some pro stuff, what else are you planning to do once you get your degree here in a few months?

Lydia Johnson:
So my ultimate goal is there’s a overpopulation of feral horses down in southwestern United States in general, and it’s actually encroaching on the Pacific Northwest as well. And I don’t intend to work for the government, as suggested by professors: “Oh, you should work for the BLM,” or, “Oh, you should work for the Forest Service or DNR.” And granted, those jobs are great and I’m sure of it, but they’re kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. They’re caught up in so many different lawsuits from other advocacy groups that are just … Half of their budget is tied up in fighting lawsuits. So a lot of that is not making any progress. So things that are making progress are research on different sterilization ideas or birth control, like PCP is a current thing going on down there, but they are keep-

Dillon Honcoop:
To keep feral horses from reproducing?

Lydia Johnson:
Reproducing, right.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s a feral horse? Explain what that really looks like in the real world.

Lydia Johnson:
So technically, they’re called wild horses, and that’s a legal term. It’s not because they’re actually wild, because every horse that is on that range is of domestic descent. And so the species, the actual species of them, is of domestic descent. And so there are no wild horses. The only wild horse that there is in Mongolia and it’s called the Przewalski’s horse. And it’s like three feet tall, and just this tiny little horse. That’s the only wild horse that’s in existence right now. And so when I refer to feral horses, it’s kind of like a negative term against the law that’s the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1970. And so that needs to be changed.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve never heard of any of this stuff. This is so cool.

Lydia Johnson:
Really? Okay. Oh, well, I wish I… Yeah, so things along those lines. Things need to be changed. And I’m not advocating for them to be removed or exterminated from the range land at all because there’s definitely a history behind them and they’re part of the West and how the Spaniards in the old Wild West … I mean, it was such a short time in history that it just … People want to preserve it that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you want to help preserve that or you want to help those … What really is your dream outcome here with this issue?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, it’s a pretty controversial topic, so I feel as though … The population doubles every four years.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Lydia Johnson:
And so something needs to be done, whether that is sterilization of mares or people need to quit breeding horses and only adopt feral horses. I’m not going to make that call because I buy expensive horses that are well-bred and things like that. They’re bred for what I do. And so it’s hard to say that there’s one solution to it. I would say conserving, not preserving because preserving what we have out there is not going to be sustainable for the range land, the people that use it, the cattle that are going to be put out on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into this issue? How did it catch your passion?

Lydia Johnson:
I spent some time in Utah, I saw some feral horses, talked to some locals in the area about how they felt about it. And then they very strongly wanted them removed. And where I grew up, a lot of people were buying horses from slaughter to take up to Canada or Mexico or things like that. So it was just not something that was totally new to me because I’d always been around it because the stock contractor, he knew somebody and somebody knew somebody: “Oh, that horsey,” and something like that. And it’s illegal to do that, by the way. And so it’s just something that struck me as a problem that needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed in a fashion that encourages learning.

Lydia Johnson:
So the biggest controversy between the thing is a lot of the people that are fighting for the rights of the horses, they’ve never seen a horse. They’ve never pet a horse. They’re like, “Oh, they’re just so beautiful.” They think of Black Beauty or things like that. They don’t think of a horse that is essentially starving itself out because there’s nothing for it to eat on the range. There’s no water. We’re in a drought. There’s nothing there for it. It starves.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not humane.

Lydia Johnson:
No, exactly. So it’s the balance between the two, and closing the gap in the knowledge. I mean, it could go on forever. I could-

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did you study in college? What’s your degree going to be?

Lydia Johnson:
Environmental resource geography with a certification in natural resource management and a certification in geospatial information systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a mouthful.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. So what kind of stuff are you doing academically, then, to get that kind of degree? What are you studying? What are you learning?

Lydia Johnson:
It’s kind of like a hybrid of different biologies, different chemistries, different geology, geography, climatology. That’s a class that I’m taking right now that’s kicking my butt. But it’s just a broad and mixture of everything that you would find in an environment from resources to weathers that impact the resources, and the actions of industries. And it’s just all-encompassed. Water resource; it’s a big, broad BS.

Dillon Honcoop:
You mean Bachelor of Science?

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.

Dillon Honcoop:
All right, got it. Earlier we were talking and you were planning on leaving the state. Maybe not forever.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you want to leave Washington, other than this horse thing? Are you done with Washington, or what?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, as much as I love Washington, I’ve spent a fair amount of time up in the mountains, in the Cascades, at Mount Rainier. And it’s a beautiful state. You get a little bit of everything from volcanoes to rainforest to desert to the ocean. It’s a beautiful state. I do love it, but I have been impacted by, as I mentioned once before, the politics, the prices, and the people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that changing in Washington, do you think?

Lydia Johnson:
I would say the growth of urban population.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that do to farming here?

Lydia Johnson:
Minimizes it. I mean the growth of Seattle, I mean, they’re moving outward. We’re getting people here in Kittitas County. The population … I mean, you’ll find a lot of people coming from Seattle. They’re a doctor from Seattle and they have a house in Ellensburg and they commute every day because it’s easier to commute from Ellensburg than it is from Olympia. And then from them moving here, that changes completely the dynamic of … The political dynamic is completely altered, not only from the expansion of urban areas but also from the college as well. So I would-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What are some of the pressures on farming? What happens with different people in the mix, like you’re describing?

Lydia Johnson:
Development of farmland, the minimizing of all this farmland that … I mean, this valley is number one, number two, top hay export in the country. And we were getting all these people from Seattle, “Oh yeah, we’ve got this nice 30-acre lot and we’re going to develop it.” Or even if they get their hands on some more expensive, bigger hay fields, they’re not going to sit on it. They’re not going to continue farming it. That’s our goal: “Oh, Ellensburg is beautiful. Yeah, let’s move there. It’s only an hour and a half, two hours from Seattle.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But I thought you’re in college, basically in an environmental program.

Lydia Johnson:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Shouldn’t you be caring about the environment?

Lydia Johnson:
This is why my department doesn’t like me. They’re like, “Oh darn, you got Lydia in your class this time? Oh, I’m so sorry. She sits up front and raises her hand, has something to say about everything.” Yeah, it definitely is a struggle. Well in my department, they do a pretty good job of keeping the balance between politics, and they’re relatively unbiased. But yeah, there’s definitely something that needs to be done as far as conservation of the farmland in this valley, especially.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What needs to be done to protect the environment here in Washington from your vantage point, studying this academically?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, that’s a tricky question because-

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, some people are saying farming isn’t good for the environment, and that’s one of the issues that they want to look at: should we be doing farming or doing farming the way that we’re doing it here in the state?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, I would start off with saying farmers are stewards of the land. I mean, regardless of whether a farmer’s out to make money or not, if they don’t take care of their land, if they’re not rotating crops, if they’re not treating the land, if they’re not replenishing nutrients that they’ve taken out by planning this specific crop, or something along those lines, it’ll affect their crop in the long run and their property in the long run.

Lydia Johnson:
And I mean, I experienced that growing up over on the west side. We grew hay on an old tree farm. And so tree farms are very acidic. And so we always did … chicken manure was the most common thing in our area. So to balance that out and bring up the pH levels, definitely have to be proactive in that, I guess; proactive in how you’re treating the land because in the long run it’s going to affect how your crops are going to turn out, how much you’re going to yield, what are the prices going to be like.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And your farming background, how much attention, how much time have you spent on the whole soil health issue? I mean, that’s what you’re touching on there, right?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, a stupid amount. We had haylage, we were feeding haylage, so we grew haylage and we had barley as well that we ground up and mixed with crack corn.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future for your family’s farm?

Lydia Johnson:
So at this time, both of my parents are retired. They got out of dairy in the year that I moved to college. And I have to say that that’s a little heartbreaking because I felt like I was responsible for it. No matter how many times they’ll tell me, “No. No, you need to go. Go do what you need to do,” type thing … but the farm is still being ran. It’s being leased out by a younger dairy farmer. And he’s running our farm as an organic dairy as well as two other dairy farms. One other is also organic and the other is conventional. So he’s keeping that going, which is impressive because that’s three dairies. I don’t know if I could, let alone one, but I’m sure … I mean, he’s got quite a bit of hired hands.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did the whole organic thing go? What did you think of that? How did your parents make that work?

Lydia Johnson:
So when we got into it, we were ahead of the curve. So it was before everybody was like, oh, go organic. It was before all of that. And so when we were in it, it was good for our family and we were doing well. And it was a really long process, though. I have to tell you, we had to get our land certified that we were making the hay on, which is not in the same location as where our dairy was. And so just getting that certified, and then we’d have to fence off our fences like six feet in because our neighbors sprayed their whatever. And so getting the cows certified, getting the land certified, it was just quite the process. I think it was like six years maybe before we could become certified.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is organic better? At least, I guess, in dairy terms, because that’s what you’ve experienced firsthand?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, in dairy terms? I mean, it’s a nice idea, I guess. But as far as the quality of milk being produced, I would argue that it is probably on the same playing field: organic milk, conventional milk. I mean, I always drink it raw, so I don’t know what y’all are drinking at the store. No, I’m teasing, but we did always drink it raw.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did it taste?

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah, I scraped the cream off the top and put it in your coffee in the morning after it separates out. Like I said, there was no better childhood.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest thing with growing up a farm kid and getting to this point where you are now?

Lydia Johnson:
Hardest thing? I would say probably just a difference in my peers. So I don’t really identify very easily with other 23 year old girls in my classes at school. They’re like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to this party,” and I’m like, “Oh cool, I’m going home to ride my horse,” type thing. Yeah, I feel like I’m a little bit older than my actual age, and I think that’s because I was raised in this fashion that led me to be more mature. And I don’t know, I don’t want to sound conceited when I say those things, but I feel like, yeah, I don’t identify very easily with people my age because of the differences in our childhood upbringings. And it’s just very strange to me too because I don’t know where they’re coming from. They did totally different things when they were growing up. They got to travel when they were young, they got to leave the farm. No, I’m teasing.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, I know how that is. I grew up on a red raspberry farm, so summertime was not a time for vacation, like for everybody else. Well, thank you so much for opening up and sharing your story. Best of luck to you-

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, thank you.

Dillon Honcoop:
… on what you’re doing next. You ever think about getting back into actual farming, being a farmer yourself?

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, I miss it. Yeah, I definitely have considered it, especially with this most recent starting up a dairy thing. And my dad’s dream has always been to bottle and sell organic raw milk. And I don’t know, I guess it kind of rubbed off on me too because I just think that would be so cool to have your own dairy and then have the same store on the same place. And people would come to your farm and you could give them farm tours and educate them about where your milk comes from and, no chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows, and something like that. Yeah, it’s definitely a fantasy, but maybe someday. I plan on having my own garden and greenhouse and my own cows. I’ll be damned if I’m not drinking raw milk out of the tank when I’m settled or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well good luck to you. And again, really appreciate you being willing to share your story with this random guy, me…

Lydia Johnson:
It’s a long one.

Dillon Honcoop:
…that just showed up here at the Time Out-

Lydia Johnson:
Time Out Saloon.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Saloon.

Lydia Johnson:
In Kittitas, Washington, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much.

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely. Thank you.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m always amazed by the things that people do talk about that they know that they’re involved with. And one of those was the whole feral horse thing. I didn’t know anything about that. And I had no idea that Lydia was involved with anything like that. So when she brought that up, I was like, wow. And now I need to do a little bit more research about what is that all about? That’s kind of crazy. It was really cool to hear her story and hear about her family. I hope for her sake … You can hear right there at the end, you could tell that she still wants to be part of that farming world. I hope she can find the right place and time to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for being with us here on the podcast. And hopefully, again, you’re staying safe and healthy out there. If you’re self-isolating, self-quarantining, whatever the case might be, with this crazy world that we’re in right now, you’ve got some time. Go catch up on some back episodes. You can find all of those at realfoodrealpeople.org or on your favorite podcast platform. So make sure to check it out and also follow us on Instagram and follow us on Facebook, and we’re on Twitter as well. I try to share stuff there as much as I can. I’ve been able to do a little bit more of that lately with everything that’s going on, and hopefully I can keep that up. With my busy schedule, sometimes I forget to share, “Oh Hey, this is what I’m doing, this is where I’m at.” So I’m trying to be better about that. And we definitely appreciate you subscribing and supporting the podcast every week.

Dillon Honcoop:
And like I said at the beginning, we appreciate you paying attention to where your food comes from. And of course with this podcast, it’s so important who your food comes from. With everything going on in the world right now, I think we’re more and more focused on our food and are we going to be able to get it? And who’s producing it? How far away is it from me? And that’s why these stories are such a window into the food production that’s happening in our backyard and here in our own state. It’s just so, so important right now. And I think this time with everything that’s changing with our society and with our economy right now, with this virus and other things that are going on, I think it’s bringing that focus back to where it needs to be on how we sustain ourselves, how sustainable our lives are right here at home in Washington. So thank you for being with us on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org.

John Griggs | #014 03/16/2020

He's only 24 years old, but John Griggs is determined to keep his family's 120-year-old cherry and apple farm running. He shares what it's like growing up in a small Eastern Washington town, and why farming is harder than it used to be.

Transcript

John Griggs:
It’s getting hard to do it now. I mean, minimum wage, H-2A. It’s just kind of, we’re still getting the same pricing as we did five years ago when it was $9. It’s hard. But we got to make it work. I don’t see myself losing this farm, and I’ll do anything to keep it.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so I’m going to geek out a little bit on this week’s episode. I grew up on a family fruit farm in Washington State and so did our guest today, but on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. And so, so many of his experiences fit with mine, yet the specific details are different, if that makes sense. So forgive me for just wanting to know everything about how his farm works. We’re going to talk with John Griggs. He’s a fifth-generation true fruit farmer. They do cherries and apples and a few pears over in Orondo, just north of Wenatchee.

Dillon Honcoop:
And he reminds me of myself and I guess kind of who I would have been if I would have decided to stay with the farming thing, which I had to think a lot about when I was in high school and deciding what was I going to do after high school. Was I going to stick with the farming thing? Was I going to go to college for farming? Or for something else? I was also passionate about communications. I took the communications route, obviously. But there’s still part of me that wonders, “Should I have done the farming thing?” I still have it in my blood, I still love it so much. And that’s the life he’s living. He’s a true-blue farm kid, so that’s why I’m really pumped to share his story and the stuff that he faces day-to-day.

Dillon Honcoop:
So again, John Griggs, Jr. His dad is John Griggs as well. Join me now in getting to know him and hearing what his life is all about, somebody who’s super passionate about farming and growing apples and cherries and pears. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast documenting my journeys across Washington State to get to know the real people behind the food that we grow and eat here.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grew up around this.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
From being a baby, you were on the farm.

John Griggs:
This is life.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like growing up?

John Griggs:
I learned how to drive a tractor at 10 years old and I was working, swamping during the summer. Right after school it was, “Go work.” But it was really nice. I really enjoyed it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So when is cherry season? When do things really get crazy, like right after you would get done with your school year?

John Griggs:
Yeah, mid-June is right when it starts. But build up to that, still, and getting the dormant sprays on. And then we end usually third week of July, is when our sweethearts come off. No, it was friends came second, obviously, but it was always fun to run around in the orchard and hang out and enjoy the sunshine.

Dillon Honcoop:
As a kid, what did you do like during harvest time? What was your job, like once you maybe were a teen and stuff?

John Griggs:
Yeah. When I first started, I was down with my dad at our loading area and watering down the buckets and getting them ready to put in the reefer. But when I was about 12 I started swamping, which, that was a task.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah so what does that mean? What is swamping?

John Griggs:
Swamping, you’re really just putting buckets in bins and following tractors around, making sure you don’t miss anything.

Dillon Honcoop:
So like full buckets? Like buckets that people have picked into?

John Griggs:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
The crews pick into a bucket.

John Griggs:
Yeah. The crews pick into a, it’s like a 17.5-pound bucket, and put them into the bins, so that’s for yellow cherries. And then, red cherries, we do pick into these 30-pound crates and then dump them in the bins.

Dillon Honcoop:
Probably got to dump pretty careful not to-

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Soft. Soft, soft. It’s a heavy day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, how many hours a day?

John Griggs:
Usually you’re up at 3:00 and go until about 2:30 and then you go talk to dad and see if you have to spray at night.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, now I’ve heard things about sometimes with the heat you have to take time off.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Heat’s a big part of it. You don’t want to pick when it’s above 90 degrees. That’s when you’ll start to get some bruising and it’s just, cherries don’t like heat.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were working like crazy as a kid on the farm. At what point did you decide, “This is what I want to do”?

John Griggs:
I think when I was like five years old. Just seeing my dad and how he worked. And he drove a semi after work to Seattle and to the airport to dump cherries off. And just seeing his drive and providing for us and I really wanted to be like him. Still do.

Dillon Honcoop:
You get to go along on those trips sometimes?

John Griggs:
I did, I did. I slept in the back on the bunk and I’d go over with him, try to go as many times as possible until mom said, “No. You’re staying home for the night.”

Dillon Honcoop:
How many pounds of cherries on a semi?

John Griggs:
Our semi’s rated for 105,000 pounds. So, you got about 110 bins in that semi. We got four reefers that are 53 feet long.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what happens to your cherries? How do they marketed? Is that a fresh product that people are consuming?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, so we do a lot in our export. So Asia, Taiwan, Singapore. We go through a marketing company and they’ll kind of tell us what to pick and we’ll go with it. And this past year, we used to be in the packing business as well, we owned Orondo Fruit Company, and it was for about 40 years, and so we packed cherries and we did it ourselves. But now, things change, and we’re going through them. We do some domestic. We got our own cherry and that goes domestic.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you mean your own cherry?

John Griggs:
We actually have our own patent on a cherry.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

John Griggs:
Yeah. It’s called the Orondo Ruby, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain, what’s special about it?

John Griggs:
It’s kind of an early Rainier. It’s a little bit more tart than a Rainier, but still yellow flesh and really pretty red, like a ruby, I guess. But we found that about 12 years ago, my grandpa.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain. How does that happen, that he found it?

John Griggs:
He was walking through one of our blocks, actually, on our home blocks, and he noticed the cherry was a little earlier, and it was in a Rainier block. My grandpa was like, “Let’s send it off. Let’s take a sample and give it to a nursery and see if they can…” And it was totally different. It’s a hybrid. We don’t know, the alleles are totally different, it’s just kind of one in a million, like…

Dillon Honcoop:
So wait, was it just a happenstance cross between something else that happened to be in your…?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it was dead center in one of our Rainier blocks.

Dillon Honcoop:
And it was just one tree?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), one. We call it the mother tree. Yeah, it’s weird, and he doesn’t know how it happened. And he’s been farming, he’s almost 80, he’s 75, and he’s never seen it happen before.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s crazy.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because I know, like, growing up with the raspberry business on my parents’ farm, it was always, you know, coming up with a new variety, which varieties to cross. And, you know, there were scientists that were working on this to come up with a berry that’s better or more hearty, or, you know, all these desirable qualities, which is why we have a lot of the fruits and veggies that we have.

John Griggs:
It is. And a lot of people don’t know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. Anything.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Almost every apple now, it’s crossed either with a Honeycrisp or an old apple back in Michigan or New York. I mean, it’s weird.

Dillon Honcoop:
But for it to just happen spontaneously, that’s crazy.

John Griggs:
Yeah. And even the nursery was like, “We don’t know.” But we farm that, it’s about the third week of June that gets harvested. Got about 80 acres of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many acres total do you guys have fruit on?

John Griggs:
About 480. Yeah. About 230 of it is cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what’s the rest?

John Griggs:
Apples and four acres of pears.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk a little bit about your family history. You’re fifth-generation on this farm.

John Griggs:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re, what, like 23?

John Griggs:
24.

Dillon Honcoop:
24 years old.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did your family end up here? Where’d they come from?

John Griggs:
I think my great-great-grandma was from Norway and she was a fisher. And then she moved here in like the late 1800s. And she moved, her husband built a house, first stick-built house in Douglas County, and then started farming. We started with peaches. We farmed about 50 acres of peaches, which, that was a tedious task.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What’s the deal with peaches? Being from western Washington, I don’t know about growing these kinds of fruit.

John Griggs:
They’re just hard… if you look at them wrong, they’ll bruise.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really, wow.

John Griggs:
When they’re ripe. And just packing them is tedious. We packed them in a red barn. We packed them until I was 15 in a red barn and then we finally took them out. But the family, we’ve been farming I think since 1900, and started. And we just tore down our last cherry tree from, it was at least 100 years old, and finally stopped giving us fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that was like one of the original trees?

John Griggs:
Yeah, it was about 25 feet tall.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. And it had one limb that had fruit left on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what happens? The cherry trees just get too old and don’t put fruit out anymore?

John Griggs:
Yeah they’ll start to get some rot in them, and it’s just time for them get out. But it was hard, especially on my grandpa. But no, I’ve never moved out of the valley. I mean, I went to college in Wenatchee and went through the tree fruit program, and it’s the only place I really live[d].

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like, you grew up right here in Orondo?

John Griggs:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big is this town?

John Griggs:
It’s got a gas station, a golf course, and one restaurant. And that’s about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess I could Wikipedia this, but what’s the population of Orondo?

John Griggs:
Like 500, probably. And then during harvest about, probably 3,000.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because of all the workers.

John Griggs:
Just all the workers coming in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s it like growing up in a town that small?

John Griggs:
You kind of are free to roam the land, really. Everybody knows each other. You’ll see the old folk at the gas station in the morning, drinking coffee and talking about what their orchard’s doing, really. All my family lives here, really, or Waterville, which is just up the hill from us. I don’t see it any other way. Like going over to Seattle or Spokane, it’s still just wide-eyed, like, “Why is there so much traffic?” But no, I went to school, I guess there’s a little schoolhouse. But I mean I grew up with all my buddies and I’m still friends with them, and they’re still out here, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sometimes when you grow up in a small town there are a lot of kids. I grew up in a small town, not as small as Orondo, but there were a lot of kids who were like, “I want to get out of here,” you know, “I’m just waiting to get done with high school and I’m going to go to college and I’m gone.”

John Griggs:
Yeah. My mom and dad wanted me to but I was like, “I don’t see it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They wanted you to leave?

John Griggs:
Well, they wanted me to get out and experience another town, even if it was like WSU Pullman or wherever. They were like, “I was never given that chance, so do it.” And I was like, “No. I’m going to be stubborn and stay here” and I don’t regret it. I don’t know, I just can’t see myself any other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are there bad things about growing up in this small of a town?

John Griggs:
Yes and no. The drive to town is about 35 minutes, which is fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
To Wenatchee?

John Griggs:
Yeah. During the summer you get a lot of boats on the river, people being dumb, but that’s it, really. I don’t see it. I don’t see very many negatives. Sometimes the fires, we get pretty good fires. But that’s it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ever had a fire affect the orchards?

John Griggs:
No. We’ve had one close but nothing burned, thank goodness.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future look like, do you think? What are your plans? What do you want to see this become?

John Griggs:
I want it to get a little bigger, but it’s getting hard to do it now. I mean minimum wage, H-2A, it’s just kind of… we’re still getting the same pricing as we did five years ago when it was $9. But I see us, we’re in a good spot. We can still grow, and we’re planning on it, just finding the right opportunities and partners and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you talk about the minimum wage. That’s a higher cost for the farm with-

John Griggs:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not like you’re getting more money for your fruit, you’re saying?

John Griggs:
No, no. We’re getting same pricing five, 10 years ago on fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you mentioned H-2A, too. How has that affected this whole situation?

John Griggs:
That’s made the minimum wage go higher than regular minimum wage, and I think it’s like $15, high $15, and we had to bring in 100 guys this year. And we have about 275 people working during cherries and pears and stuff, which is, I mean, we pay by bucket. But if they don’t pick the bucket rate, which, minimum wage, I mean, it’s hard to pick that many buckets in an hour. It’s just made costs go way up. Chemicals keep going up, and land prices are up, and just kind of a tough spot.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you handle working with employees? There’s been a lot of talk about that and are workers being treated fairly.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. The foreman, our foreman, he’s been here for 35 years. I grew up with his kids, I’m friends with them, I hang out with them, I go to the worker dinner, like potlucks and stuff. Every year we do like a soccer game down at the school and we’ve got about 30 guys that I’ve, they’re pretty much grown up, and taught me a bunch, pruning. I’ve worked alongside with them, I’ve been to people’s soccer games, I’ve gone to their kids’ wrestling matches. Our guys, I’m very thankful for them for being here for us and try to treat them good. They all live in our housing and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right now, in any line of work anywhere, people are just looking for good people.

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah. You got to be there for your employees and stand up for them and help them out, I feel like. That’s what my dad’s taught me.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s been a lot of talk, though, about how hard it is to find people who want to work on a farm.

John Griggs:
It is. Especially the swampers, the teens, the high schoolers, they’d much rather not work. They’d rather go up to Chelan and go swimming up at the lake. It’s really hard to find a young kid that wants to work in an orchard, get their hands dirty, be hot all day, and work, get up at 3:00. You can’t find very many. I’ve got cousins that are having to work for us and they like it, but it’s not their favorite.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. If you’re good, how much money can you make during season?

John Griggs:
Oh man.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like, by the hour?

John Griggs:
Well, we do by bucket if you can pick that many. One day we worked until like 5:00 at night picking before a rain storm, and I was driving a tractor, and I came up to one guy and was scanning his card and I was like, “He has a 105 buckets already!” And that’s like $600, $700 and I’m like, “Oh my God!” And I go and tell my mom and she’s like, “I know. I know.” You can make good money. If you work hard for it you’ll make a decent, you’ll probably make $10,000, $15,000 in a month and a half.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. If you’re fast, you’re good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that difficulty of just finding enough people to do the work, though, that’s why you guys had to bring in H-2A?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. Yeah, we used to be able to do just 150 guys but our production’s gone way up. Nobody would even stop by. We used to have people stop by looking for work. Now it’s almost nonexistent. We go to like the WorkSource and put our name out there. I mean we even upped our per-bucket pay, and… nobody. So we were like, “We got to do this or…”

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you paid even more?

John Griggs:
I don’t know. I’d hope people would come. I mean, I’d much rather work outside than in an office. But we’ve tried almost everything, ads in the paper, put them in Orondo stores or Wal Marts. Nobody. Calling my cousin’s friends, “Hey, you want to come work for a couple weeks? You can stay out at our place,” but they’d say no.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about your dream, as you continue on with this family farm, to get bigger. Could the issue of finding workers keep you from being able to do that?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely. You’d almost have to bring a whole, probably a couple of hundred H-2A in. You also need housing for them, which, we had to bus them out from Cashmere. We bought three school buses just to get– we even pay people’s rent for their housing and that didn’t work. But the H-2A, they’re here to work and they’re slow at first, but they catch on pretty good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because they’re people, you know, they haven’t done this particular kind of work before?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Some of them have been up here before, but mostly this isn’t even their profession. I mean they’re contractors or just farmers themselves. But yeah, when they come up here they’re kind of like “ugh,” and of course they’re far away from home.

Dillon Honcoop:
So from what you’re saying that’s pretty expensive to do, though, to bring those people.

John Griggs:
It’s very expensive, yeah. It’s about, I think it’s like $1,500 a person to get them up here.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then the wage that they make.

John Griggs:
And then the wage they make and the housing we have to pay for, which, yeah, it adds up.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you have to do that-

John Griggs:
You have to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because there’s nobody else?

John Griggs:
Yeah. You got to do it. The farther north you go, the harder it gets to find people, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you talk about getting bigger. That would be just adding more acres of cherries? Or do you want to branch out into other stuff?

John Griggs:
Probably go more into apples. I feel we’ve got plenty of cherries, got about three million pounds of cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. It’s crazy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of apples do you guys have?

John Griggs:
We got Buckeye Galas, it’s a high-color Gala, Aztec Fujis, high-color, pretty much everything high-color. Honeycrisp.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean, high-color?

John Griggs:
Really red and more… the older varieties were lighter and the new ones are bam-in-your-face red. And Honeycrisp, Royal Red Honeycrisp, the newer version. And SugarBee, SugarBee’s a club variety.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean?

John Griggs:
The warehouse that owns the variety, well, the marketing company owns it, but we have to go through our packing house to get it.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is like a proprietary thing where you get licensed to do it?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah we pay a royalty for the trees. We got about, I think we pick 1,200 bins of those, it’s like a really sweet apple.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve seen them in the store but I can’t honestly say I’ve had one, now that you bring that up.

John Griggs:
They’re very good, they’re super sweet. It’s almost like a candy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome.

John Griggs:
But no, that’s a very good apple. And I guess we got some Ambrosia, too, that are grafted. And Grannies.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re busy in, like, June into July with the cherries.

John Griggs:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then, what, you have a lull in the middle of the summer?

John Griggs:
We have about three weeks and then we start pears. But thankfully, we only have a little bit. But then right after pears is apples, Galas, and it’s go until about a week after my birthday, which is in October. Yeah. Last year we went a little late on the Fujis and Pink Ladies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, I read somewhere that there’s some people who had apples they didn’t even pick this year. Was that because of weather?

John Griggs:
Yeah. We had a freeze come through in the Quincy area and stuff and they literally froze. And I mean, you can’t do anything, they’ll shrivel and it’s just no good. A lot of people for their Fujis did that.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a late variety?

John Griggs:
It’s a later variety, yeah. But help was pretty hard this year, too, so some people were picking with half a crew. On the bigger orchards, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because they couldn’t get enough workers?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And they were paying, like, $35, $40 a bin, and that’s a lot of money.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what this state is famous for.

John Griggs:
It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like to know that you’re raising and providing that food that’s world famous?

John Griggs:
It’s kind of cool. But at the same time, it’s a task. I mean, you got to get in a good market to even hope to make some money. I think we grow the right varieties, and the new varieties which people are seeing in the stores. But it’s definitely different. You can’t have old orchards anymore. You got to have new, high-density, really high-density orchards to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that? Why does the density make a difference?

John Griggs:
More bins per acre, just more volume. People are trying to up the volume. You can’t do like 40 bins an acre anymore, you go to be 80, 100. Some are at 120.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much does a bin weigh?

John Griggs:
About 800 to 1,200 pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot of weight.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Pears are heavier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Per acre.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah, you’re picking a lot of fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s amazing.

John Griggs:
And we don’t have, it’s still picked the same way as it was way back when. There’s no picking machine yet. You still got to have the bodies. And people don’t like picking apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

John Griggs:
It’s heavy, your back is shot.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hard work.

John Griggs:
Hard, hard work. Your fingers hurt and you’re all sweaty.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about different varieties and stuff. There’s been a lot of buzz about Cosmic Crisp.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Anybody doing that around here?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. We didn’t have any acreage to open up for it. But yeah, almost everybody north planted some.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s another one of those like SugarBee where you have to pay a royalty, right?

John Griggs:
I believe so. But I know it’s only us in the state that can grow it, the apple growers. But it’s a great apple, stores really well, it’s crisp. I like it a lot, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s always interesting because you hear the buzz in public. I always wonder, you know, what are the farmers saying behind the scenes on something new like that? Like, “Oh, this is our champagne in the butt,” or something like that.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. It’s a pain to open up the land, get it all ready, buy the supplies and materials, and then plant it.

Dillon Honcoop:
To put a new variety in.

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise, how long does a planting last in apples?

John Griggs:
We’ve got some trees that are 40 years old.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

John Griggs:
Yeah, some Granny trees in our driveway.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they still produce good?

John Griggs:
Yeah. They’re 80 bins an acre right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you say Granny, you mean Granny Smith?

John Griggs:
Granny Smith, yeah. The old… I don’t like those apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
Too tart for you?

John Griggs:
Way too tart.

Dillon Honcoop:
See, that’s what I like about them.

John Griggs:
Oh, really?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

John Griggs:
They make a good pie. But yeah. I like Galas, Goldens, and Fujis are my main ones.

Dillon Honcoop:
What makes a really good apple, or for that matter, a really good cherry? What’s the secret to that? Because I know the fruit that we produce here in Washington, and particularly here in this area, Wenatchee, Orondo, is some of the best anywhere.

John Griggs:
Yeah. You need the weather, good weather. You need a good microclimate. Where we are in this valley, I mean, I think we produce some of the best cherries in the world. I know it’s my family’s orchard, but we’ve been in billboards in China, I mean, I’ve seen people fighting over our fruit over there.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been over there a few times?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Well, at least my dad has. He’s sent me pictures, of course, but no. You got to work hard for it, you can’t miss a task. If you miss one you might be like, “Oh shoot, it’s not this big.” You got to have the right sprays, you got to have the Mylar pulled out to make them red.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now explain, how does that work?

John Griggs:
So the sun reflects off the Mylar underneath the cherries. The tops of the cherries get red, for yellow cherries. Red cherries, they get red no matter what. But you pull out, we have this, it’s like a fabric-y kind of stuff. It’s called Extenday. It’s a white Mylar film, it’s reusable. So you pull it out, the sun reflects off it, you got about seven hours of good sun for it to pretty much, my grandpa says it bakes the fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re basically, it’s reflective, bounces the light back up.

John Griggs:
Bounces off into the bottoms of the fruit to redden the bottoms and sides, and it’s pretty much a mini-sun on the bottom of the trees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like people who use reflectors when they’re out suntanning or whatever, I’ve seen people do that before.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Exactly, exactly like that. Just on a bigger scale.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I guess. It’s got to be quite the job to put all that out.

John Griggs:
Putting it out and picking it up, it’s a pain. You’re hot and it’s just, ugh, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, because you don’t do that when the weather is cool.

John Griggs:
No, no, you’re baking if it’s cool. If it’s hot, you’re like, “What do you want me to do now?” I’ll go pick it up… It gets water on it… Yeah, it’s hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does it take a lot of irrigation for these trees?

John Griggs:
Yeah. On apples, we use overhead cooling, overhead sprinklers to keep them cool. Or else it will… apples will bake on the tree. Cherries-

Dillon Honcoop:
Sunburn, or…?

John Griggs:
They’ll get sunburned. They’ll start to shrivel if it’s hot and then cool. Apples are a lot harder to keep cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they have to be out there for more of the hot summer, too, since they aren’t ripe until-

John Griggs:
Uh-huh, they got to make it through until fall, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t think the cherries could probably make it, could they?

John Griggs:
No. Cherries would-

Dillon Honcoop:
If they were.

John Griggs:
They’d turn into a raisin. Yeah, it takes quite a bit of water. But we got a bunch of wells. Summers are hot, but not enough to make things difficult.

Dillon Honcoop:
So somebody going grocery shopping, what should they be looking for when they’re looking for cherries, for instance?

John Griggs:
Well, check the stems. The stems, if they’re not green, I wouldn’t buy them.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that tell you?

John Griggs:
It’s just, the cherry’s been sitting there for a while and it’s probably really soft.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s an indicator of freshness.

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah. And check and make sure the stem’s like not that big, not tiny, but more long. It’s just how you… I say the quality of the fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

John Griggs:
Yeah. That’s how I was taught to look at fruit. But you got to think of how long it takes. You got to have them packed, you got to… you won’t get to a fruit until it’s probably a week old, but they hold their freshness.

Dillon Honcoop:
Probably also should check and make sure it’s grown in Washington.

John Griggs:
Yes. Check and make sure it’s here, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s competition for you guys? Is there fruit that comes in from other parts of the country or the world [inaudible 00:31:11]?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. California, Turkey. Chile is a big one. Chile, I think they’re either picked or picking soon, their fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, because they’re-

John Griggs:
They’re totally different, it’s their summer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Opposite side of the year. Right.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Europe has quite a bit of cherries, surprisingly. Who else…

Dillon Honcoop:
Those don’t end up over here, though, do they?

John Griggs:
Sometimes you have to buy them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just different timing of seasons?

John Griggs:
It’s different timing, markets change, tariffs change. I mean, things lift and they’re like, “Flood the market, let’s go!” And you’re sitting here, “No!” You got to check with all that kind of stuff. And sometimes you’ll get fruit that’s not even from the United States, but yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
No thanks.

John Griggs:
No thanks.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want fruit from here.

John Griggs:
I want fruit from here and to be my fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, and there’s, it’s just different standards here.

John Griggs:
It is. I think this state grows, by far, the best fruit. Whether it be apples, cherries, peaches, I think we get it done and right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

John Griggs:
The weather. The people growing them, they care. They want their product to be well, and they’ll complain if they don’t get it done right. I mean, I know my family does if the cherry doesn’t… if we’re picking a little green on one day, we’ll say, “Oh, we’re done.” We want them to be good for the consumer. We care about them. That’s what keeps us [in] business.

Dillon Honcoop:
With it being tougher and tougher to find labor and other pressures here, do you think there could be a future where there’s more and more stuff that’s just brought in from other countries?

John Griggs:
There could be, yeah. That’s definitely, I mean, our standards are way different than elsewhere, I can tell you that. I’ve seen some that I’m like, “How is that even possible? I would never do that!”

Dillon Honcoop:
From, like, other countries?

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like what kind of stuff?

John Griggs:
Like I’ve seen, my dad’s sent me pictures of like apples on the ground, like bare ground, dirt, and they’re selling them like that with a tarp over them. I’m like, if we did that we’d get in a lot of trouble.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, no kidding.

John Griggs:
And we got really strict standards here, not just us but everywhere, and you’ll get bit for it if you don’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest pressure for the farm? What’s the hardest thing for, like, thinking about the future, to keep it going?

John Griggs:
I’d say labor, mostly. Yeah. Our guys are getting older. I’d say most of our guys are over 45, 50 years old and they’re going to want to go do stuff. And it’s scary but you got to keep doing it, I guess, one way or another. We’ve thought about bringing platforms in, going more mechanical, but they don’t have a picking machine yet. But they’re trying. We just… Efficiency, I guess. Labor, equipment’s not cheap anymore. But yeah, everything, everything’s gone up tenfold.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do you do, then, to do deal with that? Because you’re saying you’re not getting any more, really, for your product.

John Griggs:
You got to make sure you got the right stuff. Labor, equipment. You got to keep up on equipment more, you’re going to have to put more hours on the already over-houred tractor, you’re going to have to be smart, try to be more efficient. Just think of creative ways to farm now instead of just do the same thing your dad did.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That doesn’t get it done anymore I know, for sure.

John Griggs:
Sadly.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think about the whole organic thing? You guys aren’t doing the organic thing?

John Griggs:
No. Organic, I think it’s getting flooded. The first people that did it, they hit home runs. But we tried to go organic on our pears and we were spraying more then than on our conventional stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, your organic?

John Griggs:
Yeah, you’re spraying more on your organic than your conventional. You don’t have the same potency, everything’s like a virus. For insecticides, they’re pretty much a biological virus for the insect, doesn’t affect anybody else. But yeah, we were spraying two times a week instead of once, or sometimes three. If we were getting a lot of coddling moth, or any insect, really, we had to go back through.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I know previously we had April Clayton from up the road on the podcast here and they were doing organic cherries and had to stop for that reason, because the organic products that they were having to use were killing their cherry trees.

John Griggs:
Yeah, oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve seen that?

John Griggs:
I’ve seen that all the time. Organic cherries are, that’s hard, hard, hard to do. Chemicals are totally different. And even right now, our stuff isn’t like it was.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess people are worried about chemicals being on their fruit.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you tell them?

John Griggs:
I wouldn’t be nervous. I eat fruit right off the tree and I’m fine. But I don’t see it being a big issue, not anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back in the old days.

John Griggs:
Back in the old days, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why do you have to do that, I guess, for somebody who’s curious, why do you have to spray anything? Why do the organic people, why do they even have to spray? What are they trying to deal with?

John Griggs:
Keeping pests down. I mean, ou don’t want to be the guy that has a coddling moth, or a cherry fruit fly, which, if you get cherry fruit fly, you’re done with the warehouse. You got to stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’ll kick you out and they won’t take your fruit.

John Griggs:
They’ll kick you out. They’ll… “No, sorry.” They’ll even, what they have they already packed, they’ll throw away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that probably what leaves little tiny worms in the fruit or something?

John Griggs:
Yeah, it’s a little tiny worm in the cherry.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ugh.

John Griggs:
Yeah. But very few people get that. If they don’t upkeep their orchard, they’re the ones that get it. But you got to spray to keep pests down, you got to spray nutrients on the leaves, you got to get the leaves big. You got to fertilize them, you got to feed the tree. It can’t do it on its own. If it does, it’s going to be a gnarly-looking tree. After a cherry season, the trees, they’ve produced 20, 30 pounds of fruit on their tree, some more. You got to give them some food and put them to bed. Put ’em to sleep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they go, like, dormant then? Or what do they…?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. They’ll go dormant, they’ll lose all their leaves. Buds will start coming in, they’ll be tight, but they’re just getting ready for the spring.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can tell you love it.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? Why do you have so much passion for this?

John Griggs:
It’s freedom. I mean, I get to work with my family, I get to help just give product that I’m passionate for. And it’s all I’ve known. I didn’t see myself sitting in an office all day long. But even here, I can be working from 3:00 to God knows when. One time I sprayed 22 hours straight and then had an hour off to sleep and I had to go drive a tractor in the cherries. Yeah. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I get to see my family. I live on the farm. I’m two minutes away from my grandpa. He’s probably my biggest motivator, biggest to do anything, I’ve lived right next to him for 24 years.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have you learned from him?

John Griggs:
I’ve learned what the varieties are, I’ve learned how he does things, I’ve learned how to tree train. I’ve learned how to plant orchards. I’ve learned what a high density orchard is compared to a medium density, to a low density. I’ve learned how to know when fruit’s ready. Pretty much everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Being raised in this world, what was it like going to college for that program? It sounds like maybe you could have taught the classes yourself.

John Griggs:
Yeah, it was… I learned some stuff. I had to get something to work out here. I don’t even work out here full-time yet.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what else do you do?

John Griggs:
Inside sales for an ag chem company in east Wenatchee.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of farmers have jobs off the farm to keep doing it.

John Griggs:
Yeah. They need to now. You’ll get people working for the DOT in the winter to plow roads. Some of them don’t even… they’re hobby farmers. They’ve got five, 10 acres and they’ll do it, “Well, I got to go prune,” they’ll do it by themselves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you hope to one day be entirely on the farm?

John Griggs:
Oh yeah. I hope soon.

Dillon Honcoop:
What will that take?

John Griggs:
My dad, my family’s young. They had me young, so he’s about 18, 19 years older than me. So I’ve got a… and he doesn’t own the orchard fully yet. So, kind of got to wait for that to happen then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Keeping a farm like this in the family is hard if you’re-

John Griggs:
It’s hard, hard. But we got to make it work. I don’t see myself losing this farm, and I’ll do anything to keep it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve asked other people in your situation if they feel a lot of pressure, but it sounds like, to me, it’s not that you feel pressure other than just your own, like you’re passionate about it and want to keep doing it.

John Griggs:
I’ve got to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not because somebody else is telling you to.

John Griggs:
No. My dad told me, “You go do you,” whether it not even be in the farm. He doesn’t care. As long as I’m making a living and doing good in society, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re like, “No, I want to keep this going.”

John Griggs:
Yeah and same with my sister. I mean she worked in the orchard but she was like, “Ugh, I got to do this.” But she liked it and now she wants to be on the marketing side. And in the orchard, too, but. As long as you’re passionate about it, go for it, they say.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you say to folks in Seattle who are eating [inaudible 00:42:06] fruit from over here, or food from anywhere grown in Washington?

John Griggs:
Know it’s grown with passion. Even if it’s a big two, three thousand-acre farm, I mean, there’s people behind it. You got to know they have families and you’re here providing for them, really, I mean this is their job, their life. They’re just as passionate as I am. Whether they’re in that situation or not, they still do it. Big farms are still owned by families, too. I’m really good friends with big growers and they’re just like us, just two or three times bigger. But they don’t see themselves leaving, they want the small growers still, and everybody helps each other out in the farming. We share people with our neighbors, I mean, I have an uncle that lives right to us that has a 13-acre pear orchard and we come and pick it for him, and he helps us out, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can the consumer trust the fruit that they’re buying that’s grown in Washington?

John Griggs:
Absolutely. Know it’s grown with care.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your biggest fear with all of this?

John Griggs:
Not being able to do it. That’s a big… disappointing, I guess. I mean, that’s tough. Getting told that you’re done, that’s probably the biggest fear.

Dillon Honcoop:
You remember hard years in the past?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have been the roughest times that you can remember?

John Griggs:
I remember my dad saying, he’s like, “We might not be able to fix this tractor.” Back when, early mid-2000s, I mean that was a tough time for orchards. Even people that had the new varieties were still, “Nobody’s buying our fruit. What do we do?” Well, everybody goes through a tough time. Even the big boys go through times. You can tell.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did that mean for your family during that time? What was that like?

John Griggs:
It brought us close. We were really close already, but we were eating dinners together trying to, “Hey, what do we do? What can I do to make things better?” Even when we owned the packing shed, we were still, “What can we do? Do we pack this variety? Do we say no?” I mean, that’s one of the tough things. No grower wants to be told “no.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you just want to keep growing more.

John Griggs:
Yeah they’re like, “We just want to farm.” I mean some people, that’s all they’ve been doing. That’s all my family’s done, but we don’t see it any other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
You hope to have a family and kids one day and have them continue it on into the [future]?

John Griggs:
Yeah, I’d hope so, but I mean I’ll give them option, I mean it’s always here for you. But don’t just abuse it. That’s what I’ve been told.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would abusing it be?

John Griggs:
Oh just kind of, “Oh, I farm but I really don’t work,” “I have got a bunch of free time on my hands and I’m not doing anything.” That’s kind of what I see it as. That’s what my dad’s told me, playing X-Box when I’m 18 years old and, “What are you doing?” “Uh, relaxing.” “Come on, we got to go.” “Oh, no.” Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not typically what the 18-year-old playing X-Box gets told.

John Griggs:
No, they’re like, “Okay, 15 more minutes.” No, it’s, “You’re done right now or else I’ll shut it off.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well thank you for sharing your story, I appreciate it, and thanks for what you do. I can tell you just put everything you have into producing the fruit that you guys do here.

John Griggs:
Yeah, thank you.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talking with John and hearing that conversation again, now, just makes me want to get back into farming in some ways so much. And I don’t know if it affects other people that way. I think it’s because of my upbringing and growing up on a fruit farm. So much of that stuff just makes sense to me. But in some ways it’s part of me that’s sort of dormant, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is kind of documenting my journeys around Washington State to get to know the real people behind our food. I loved talking with John. We’ve got a lot of really cool conversations coming up. And we really would appreciate a follow on Instagram, on Facebook, if that’s what you like to do, or on Twitter, whatever your preference is, or all of the above.

Dillon Honcoop:
Also, if you could subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify or whatever platform you prefer, that would really help us, too. And share these episodes, we’re trying to bring more people into the conversation and get the word out that farmers here in Washington are real people, too, and I think it’s important that we get to know them and understand the realities that they face, because we want to keep farming and farmers and farm land here in our state. And making sure that farmers have a face is, I think, important.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, this is the Real Food, Real People podcast. Subscribe, follow us on social media, and if you want to reach out directly to me, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org.

Alex Durney part 2 | #013 03/09/2020

She never expected to be involved in farming and ranching, but now that she is, she says it's changed her life. In the second half of our conversation with Colvin Ranch manager Alex Durney, she opens up about her dreams for the future of her ranching career.

Transcript

Dillon Honcoop:
Five years ago, what would you have said if you heard yourself just say what you said now?

Alex Durney:
I would have said that you’re absolutely crazy. Absolutely crazy.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Last week on the podcast, we got to know Alex Durney a bit, and she is a rancher now managing Colvin Ranch in Tenino, Washington, but that wasn’t her background. She didn’t grow up around farming or ranching, and just a couple of years ago she was a vegetarian. She was a student at Evergreen State College. Just hearing about that change and what it’s meant for her life has been so incredible and inspiring.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, we get to hear more about what this means for her future. She shares some really neat insights about the promise and the opportunity that this has given her, joining the agricultural community, and the new dreams that she has. It’s pretty inspiring, and it’s such a great story to share with you of the real people like Alex behind the food that we eat, here in the Pacific Northwest.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast, and it’s all about my journey around Washington State to share with you these stories of the real people behind our food. Thank you for being with us, and enjoy the second half of the conversation with Alex Durney.

Dillon Honcoop:
You touched on this earlier, saying that you don’t really fit the mold for what someone expects for a rancher. What’s it like to be a woman in the farming world?

Alex Durney:
It’s really hard. You’re not taken seriously at all. By very few people are you taken seriously, I feel like. That’s the biggest thing for me, especially since I’m so young. It’s like, “What do you know,” kind of thing, and that is really hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that a young-versus-old, or a male-versus-female thing? Or is it a background [crosstalk 00:02:25]

Alex Durney:
That’s a young-versus-old and male-versus-female.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Are you part of the family? That could be another element to that.

Alex Durney:
I am not part of the family either. I am the one coming into a family ranch and taking over. I mean, had their daughters taken over, they only had daughters, so they would have had a female rancher right there.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you deal with that?

Alex Durney:
I just brush it off. Females are growing in the farming and ranching industry. It’s happening. Classes that I’ve taken, the female population within those classes is rising each year. More and more women are becoming interested in this. I think it’s because we’re finally realizing that we don’t have to stay within this stereotype that I want to say America and a lot of other countries have given us. We can do all of these things. We are not these little fragile beings. We can make it happen.

Alex Durney:
I don’t want to mean this in a bad way, but I mean, sometimes we work a little bit smarter and not harder. Even we just went through a workshop today where he said, “You can hire a cowboy or you can hire a cowgirl. You’re probably going to make a better profit off of hiring yourself a cowgirl, because they’re not going to drive things as fast or break things as quickly. They’re going to work with their brain, not with their muscles.”

Alex Durney:
Just a funny aspect of it, but I mean, things are changing. More and more women are becoming interested in this. Because of how things have been changing in society, we finally have the opportunity to embrace it, and it’s great.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said earlier something to the effect of you don’t want to see it go away, meaning the kind of ranching that you’re doing.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. I don’t want to see these small-scale ranches go away, the ones that are just going down like flies.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the pressures that are causing that to happen?

Alex Durney:
Larger operations, and also customer influence. If more and more customers supported the local smaller operations, there would be a demand for it. Cattlemen and women would not have to sell off their animals for super cheap. They would be able to direct market them to the public right next to them that’s in their vicinity. It’s kind of the best part. More people need to buy local, support that.

Alex Durney:
It’s mostly customers and where they’re putting their dollar, whether you’re putting your dollar into buying from Tyson at the grocery store, or you’re going to your local farmers market or co-op and buying directly from a ranch or a farm that, if you very well wanted to, you could drive by or possibly visit.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does this all mean for your personal life?

Alex Durney:
For my personal life? I feel like my personal life has been turned upside down the last few years. We all have this dream of getting out of college and getting your dream job. This was not my dream job, but it’s turning into it. What this means for me is I have this whole new opportunity that I’m possibly being given, and I mean, this is a ranch that their children don’t want to run it. They need to find someone to run it.

Alex Durney:
The fact that I have the opportunity to learn how to run it from the family who has been doing it since the 1850s is truly a gift, and to possibly be able to own it one day would be great, and be able to run my cattle in the same way that I do now under their name and for their business. The opportunity has given me a lot personally.

Dillon Honcoop:
Five years ago, what would you have said if you heard yourself just say what you said now?

Alex Durney:
Two years ago. Not even two years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
“I dream of running my cattle one day on this.”

Alex Durney:
Yeah. No.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you have said?

Alex Durney:
I would have said that you’re absolutely crazy. Absolutely crazy. I never would have thought that. If you would’ve asked me five months ago when they asked me if I wanted to buy in, I initially said no because it scared the crap out of me. The unknown is scary, but there’s just such a big opportunity sitting there with the way that things have been changing within the agricultural industry, and also the political platform that this ranch in particular has.

Alex Durney:
I went into freshwater ecology to make a change, and had I continued that career path, in order to obtain that and possibly make a change, I probably would have been in my 50s or 60s before I ever really got a chance to make a change. Sitting here now, I could possibly make a change before I’m 30, and that’s fascinating to me, and make a change with an industry that’s so many people are hating on right now and want to see die.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that part of the list of threats?

Alex Durney:
Kind of. It’s like I want to prove them wrong.

Dillon Honcoop:
How are you going to do that? How are you going to prove them wrong?

Alex Durney:
Run cattle, and how they were meant to be run, and just do it in the best way that maintains the land, keeps that land how it’s been for almost over, now, 170 years. That land is immaculate, in my terms. To someone else’s, they’d be like, “This land is horrible.”

Dillon Honcoop:
You say it’s your dream to not see this go away. It’s potentially your dream to one day call this ranch your own.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who knows what may or may not happen, right, but you’re saying it’s becoming maybe your dream job kind of thing. You’re still not sure.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. I mean, it’s a purpose. Everyone’s got to have a purpose.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re also talking about people who want to see that whole thing go away. What would your message to them be? If you could just talk to them about it directly, what would you say?

Alex Durney:
Just having an open mind, broadening what they see as the beef industry and what we do. It’s not all the same. You can’t put us all underneath the same umbrella. There are a lot of different umbrellas, and identifying the best ones and hopefully moving towards more of that, and being open to that idea and working with them. I want to be able to work with them.

Alex Durney:
Having all beef, this carnivore idea or this full-on herbivore idea, we need to find a middle that works for everyone. I believe that I’m on the side of the beef, that could actually maintain and move forward and be able to create a cohesive environment for these two ideologies to exist. That’s what I want to work towards. That’s my goal. I want both of those things to exist in a place.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, that is a big dream.

Alex Durney:
That is a big dream.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because so many people think it’s not even possible right now. There’s just too much polarization, that people are in their own camps on what they think about this stuff. You’re talking about blowing that up.

Alex Durney:
I mean, a divided country we live in right now, divided in so many different ways, and at the end of the day, we all know that we need to just talk. We need to come together and we need to speak, and we need to not only speak, but we need to listen. We’re not going to make a change unless we do those two things.

Dillon Honcoop:
How can you do that from a ranch in Western Washington?

Alex Durney:
Perfect. I’m located only about 15 minutes from the state capital. It doesn’t take me very long to go annoy some legislators about some policy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do they need to hear?

Alex Durney:
I guess that’s kind of hard, because we have the polarized communities working against each other. They’re listening to both sides. How can they really do it? What do they need to hear? I guess it’s not even really what they need to hear. We need to come together as a community first, because they’re not going to be able to decide on either side while we’re still so divided.

Alex Durney:
Because in their terms, no matter what they decide, someone is going to be angry. Whereas if we at least try to come together as a community, and even if you hate one side of it, you don’t have to support it, but you can work to try and make things better on that side, or at least come together to agree on something that maybe … you know, you’ve got to give a little to get a little. For us to come together and actually be able to go to our legislation about what we want to do would be the most ideal thing, but how we come together is difficult.

Alex Durney:
There are multiple organizations specifically within the meat industry that I know of, trying to get more people in the meat industry, beef, poultry, these other sides of it, to come together to create, again, more of a platform to be able to really show people what the small portion, the small family farms, what they’re all about, so that there is more of that voice so that people can see that, so that hopefully we can sooner or later get to that point where we can come together as a community and not really come to a decision but get more in that gray area, as we were talking about earlier, to come to a decision to bring to our legislation and possibly actually make a change within this country. In order for us to be more comfortable, we have to make ourselves uncomfortable.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s uncomfortable going to look like?

Alex Durney:
I mean, vegans being okay that there might be some beef out there, but also the beef industry being completely fine with really drastically overhauling things and giving a little bit towards a more environmentally-friendly way of doing things, and protecting the land. Because if we don’t do that, why are people who are so against the beef industry ever going to want to come over onto our side? You don’t have to love it. You just have to be okay with it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it helping us move in that direction when people are ranting about no one should be eating beef ever under any circumstance, and if you do, you’re a terrible person?

Alex Durney:
Yeah, no. I believe that that is making the divide so much deeper, personally. Whenever people are aggressive … I guess that’s probably the best term to use, aggressive … on their technique of conveying their ideology, I don’t want to be part of a group that’s aggressive or accusatory or any of those things. That’s not a space or people that I even really want to surround myself with.

Alex Durney:
To me, just looking at that for face value, it really turns me off. Also, you could turn the exact same thing towards beef, and I understand where those vegans are coming from. That’s how I’ve been saying, of we really just have to come together. We can’t polarize each other in that way. We’re not going to make a change by excluding others. We need to include others.

Dillon Honcoop:
In that equation, let’s put the militant vegans on one end of the spectrum. What’s the other end?

Alex Durney:
Those would be the meat-and-potato guys. “That’s all you need. What is this kale sitting on my plate for?”

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t see them out.

Alex Durney:
They’re not, because they know that they have a place. People eat beef and people love it. It’s a lot harder to tell people not to eat beef. Maybe that’s why vegans have to be so aggressive about it. Do I think that’s the best way of going about their message? No. A lot of the time, the polar vegans are just really driving people away from that doorstep by being too aggressive.

Alex Durney:
I mean, would they be still super mad if they came onto a ranch similar to ours where they’re able to just see animals grazing about? I mean, we’ve had Evergreen students come out that are no longer vegan or vegetarian, because they for the first time saw that there are other options. They simply didn’t know.

Alex Durney:
For different people, I mean, vegans have their different reasons why they’re vegan. There’s the environmental and then there’s the emotional. I totally get the emotional. I’m not going to try and change the way that you think about beef. If that is how you feel, great. Do not change that.

Alex Durney:
With the environmental aspect, there are things in this world that have far worse environmental impacts than a small family ranch. Your car driving back to work is probably a larger environmental impact just for you on a daily basis than it probably is for half of our ranch. There’s bigger issues.

Alex Durney:
I think that there’s also a lot of data that is messed up. Not messed up, but there’s a lot of private-party data being collected.

Dillon Honcoop:
On what?

Alex Durney:
Just CO2 emissions, greenhouse gases, all these different things. There’s a lot of these private-party surveys going on and data coming out, and which ones are really true is the hard part. I think we’re struggling with that, not just with what we’re talking about, but with so many other things right now. Finding the facts and weeding through everything to find out what is truly a fact is becoming more and more difficult, and it’s requiring more and more time by the consumer in order to figure that out.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest thing, coming into the farming, ranching world from your background, which really isn’t that at all?

Alex Durney:
Pretty much nonexistent. The largest challenge, learning everything. Learning. This industry is so complex, and there is just so much to it on a daily basis. I love my job because I go to work and it’s different every single day, but it is also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve had to learn more than I think four years of college ever taught me in a matter of a couple of months, in order to make sure that I could actually be productive for them as a business or from a business standpoint.

Alex Durney:
That’s probably the hardest thing, was the amount of information that I had to just jam into my brain, which then made it so obvious how much information the public does not know, and I think that’s kind of a special part. I went from being this person of just general public, taking sides, being a vegetarian, and coming into this and just basically completely turning my world upside down in a sense, and just opening my mind to what this industry really is. It’s a lot more than people see.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you only had 30 seconds to convince somebody of that, what would you tell them?

Alex Durney:
Oh, the elevator talk.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that the world that you’re in is different than people think.

Alex Durney:
Oh, gosh. How would you ever explain that to someone in 30 seconds? You can’t explain that to someone in 30 seconds. That took me months. I’m still learning. I mean, I feel like people should just know that what you see, I mean, everyone has a different view of everything. Your view of the world is completely different from my view of the world. Just being open to listening to those different sides, and taking in all the information that you possibly can to make yourself a more educated consumer.

Alex Durney:
That’s the thing. I’m not going to try and change their mind. I just want them to be more educated. I want them to step more out of their comfort zone and look at what’s really going on. Go to these ranches. If you really want to be against it, really look into it. Don’t just hate it.

Alex Durney:
It’s like when your mom always told you “Don’t hate it until you try it” when it’s a food item. Just because sushi has raw fish in it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be disgusting. You can’t hate it until you try it.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you do try it and you don’t like it, that’s fine.

Alex Durney:
Great for you. I’m not going to try and change your mind. I don’t really think that there is a cattle person who would try and change your mind. If you don’t like it, it’s not for you, great, but don’t hate it until you try it, or at least don’t hate it until you investigate it a little bit more and truly understand it as a consumer.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about yourself, though? You say you’ve learned so much in the last two years. You’ve described it as it’s turned your life upside down. What about the next two years or the next ten years or more? What are you going to say in five or ten years about the positions that you have right now? Could your mind change on other things?

Alex Durney:
Yeah. I mean, I’ll always be open to new things. The world’s going to be changing a lot too. As most people know, we are now calling this a climate crisis. That’s going to have a lot to do with what happens in the next five, ten, twenty years. For me, I just want to be able to hopefully grow with that and continue to adapt to it, to make sure that people still can have sustainably-raised meat.

Alex Durney:
Whether that is still going to be beef, I don’t know, but there are other animals that do have lower impact on the land, if that’s the way that I have to move in order to continue growing as a business and also to just adapt to the environmental changes. I mean, every year is the newest worst drought year, and it could be very possible that at some point in time you can’t raise cattle on that land. Just adapting and changing with that.

Alex Durney:
For me, it’s going to be changing with the land and what the land gives me the capability of. I don’t think that my idea on animal products is going to change entirely back to my point of vegetarianism, and I guess that’s my point with if I can’t run cattle, I’ll try and run something else, until they can’t be run anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for opening up and sharing your personal story … your journey, really is what it is … to get to this point, and I’m really excited to watch and see what happens too, because it sounds like you want to do cool things with this ranch that you’re managing and there’s this future of maybe it’s your ranch someday, but you want to do stuff beyond that.

Alex Durney:
I do. I do. We will definitely see what happens. Thank you so much for having me.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I just loved it when she said really this has given her a new dream. You know, so many young people grow up and especially go to college and have dreams about changing the world, but what does that actually look like and how are they going to do it? Her explanation, of how joining the farming community actually bumps that up for her and makes that a much more real possibility and makes it happen sooner, she’s really pumped for what she’s doing, and it’s so cool to see.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks again for being with us here on the Real Food, Real People podcast. We’ve got more great conversations coming up. I’ve been talking with a lot of cool people, and excited to bring them on the program here with you. You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, on Google podcasts, on Spotify and a lot of other services, so make sure to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Please also follow us on social media. That would be awesome as well, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well. You can find us on those channels pretty easily. Anytime if you feel like it, you can certainly reach out by email, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for being here, and we will be with you again next week with another incredible story of the real people behind your food, here on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org.

Alex Durney part 1 | #012 03/02/2020

She's a former vegetarian Evergreen State College ecology student who now manages a beef ranch. Hear Alex Durney's unexpected journey to embracing farming and finding a whole new dream for her future.

Transcript

Alex Durney:
Like I’m pretty positive my grandfather is disappointed in me, because I went to college to get a college education so that I didn’t have to just be some rancher or farmer and here I am doing that. But with that comes a platform in a change that we’re able to make within this country and I want to be able to help with that. I want to be part of that change.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Farmers come from so many different backgrounds, but our profile this week may be one of the most unexpected. I talked with Alex Durney. She grew up in suburbia. She went to Evergreen State College and studied freshwater ecology, very passionate about environmental issues. She was vegetarian, but now she manages a ranch raising cattle for beef. Not what you would expect at all. She has a pretty incredible story of how she got to where she is and all the things that she’s learned and still her passion for the environment as well as for farming and ranching. This will be the first of two parts of my conversation with her. We just had so much to cover and she brings such a cool perspective with her education and background. So please join me in hearing from Alex Durney. She’s the manager for Colvin Ranch in Tenino Washington. Great conversation. My name is Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my personal journey to get to know the real farmers and the real people behind our food here in Washington state.

Alex Durney:
I actually ended up starting to go to Idaho State University in my home state and I started out as a biology major. I really wanted to be an ultrasound technician and then I realized I didn’t really want to work with people very much, or at least I didn’t want to work with people with health concerns, I guess. I didn’t want to tell people that there was something wrong with them. I wouldn’t be happy in my job and that was the biggest thing. I wanted to find happiness in my job. So that’s where that journey began.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were like, “No healthcare, can’t do it.”

Alex Durney:
No healthcare. And so then I was scrambling to figure out what I could do. At one point I was actually debating becoming a veterinarian, I mean that links us to what I’m doing a little bit right now. But then I ended up becoming a cosmetologist so I did hair, skin and nails for a little bit and that’s great. I’m glad that I have it because if something fails I always have that. But the first week that I was sitting in my cosmetology class, that was a two and a half year program, I realized that I wanted to be an ecology major.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that just come to you at that point?

Alex Durney:
I have no idea. I was just sitting there and I was like, crap, that’s what I really want to do. But I did not want to be the beauty school dropout. So I refused and I stuck out the two and a half years and I graduated and now I have that certificate. But I’m glad that I had that two and a half years because it gave me the time to decide on a school. And I ended up going to Evergreen State College in Olympia, which-

Dillon Honcoop:
So this was after the cosmetology degree?

Alex Durney:
This is after the cosmetology. So I graduated from the cosmetology in December of 2015 and then in September of ’16 I started at Evergreen and started in as a freshwater ecology major. Took a bunch of different classes, actually programs, if anyone knows anything about Evergreen, which I mean it has been in the national news for not super great things. The programs there though are amazing because they allow you just to dive super deep into these theories and have a teacher that you can sit there and discuss with them as if they’re not your professor, as if they’re-

Dillon Honcoop:
And for people who don’t know, Evergreen is built on a totally different philosophy of you do education, right?

Alex Durney:
Oh yeah. You don’t take classes. You’re not taking a chemistry 101 or English. You’re taking a program that’s 16 credits that requires all of your time and that’s all you take is that one program each quarter. But that’s what allows you to dive so deep into those subjects is you’re spending hours and hours talking about these subjects. And you’re not just doing projects to get you to a test goal, you’re doing projects that are actual things that you’ll do in day to day life. So my very last course at Evergreen, I ended up doing that with a large animal veterinarian. So we had two professors at the time, so there was about 50 students in this class.

Dillon Honcoop:
So hold on, you’re doing freshwater ecology, but you were taking a program with a vet?

Alex Durney:
You can do whatever you want at Evergreen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Alex Durney:
It was ecology based. That was the main credential for me was all of my classes needed to be ecology based. I was also at the time doing undergraduate research with actual stream ecology. So that’s why I can label my degree as a freshwater ecology degree, because I have outstandingly more credits of freshwater ecology than any other ecology credits.

Alex Durney:
But the very last class that stuck with me the most obviously was this perennial agricultural class that I took with Mike Perros and Steve Sharelle and that class taught so much. And the biggest thing that I was drawn to was the animal health aspect of it. Of course, I really loved how the grass grew, all these other perennial agricultures, but learning about the animals and how they functioned was just fascinating to me. Within these programs, you have this opportunity to go to all of these different places, field trips. I hadn’t taken a field trip since second grade, but I took a field trip every single Thursday in that class. But I learned so much because we were going and visiting these model ranches and model farms in Washington and Oregon and getting to see how people do this in the best way possible.

Dillon Honcoop:
Real world stuff.

Alex Durney:
Real world scenarios here. And one of those ranches that we visited just so happened to be Colvin Ranch. It was one of the very first places that we visited. And standing on that ranch that day, I definitely wouldn’t have expected that I would have been living on that ranch. But things changed and I continued through this class, learned a lot more, absolutely fell in love with it. And by the very end, my professor was just like, “Hey, you did an amazing job. I know that there’s someone who needs some help because their manager is leaving. Do you want me to get you in contact with them?” And that’s when I got in contact with Fred and yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
The rest is history.

Alex Durney:
The rest is really history. Now I’ve been their ranch manager for almost two years. And in their terms, I’ve changed their life I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Alex Durney:
They never had a ranch manager before that would get other things done. It was like they would leave and the bare minimum would get done, the feeding, whatever, but there was never anyone who was like, “I’m going to overhaul your marketing. We’re going to completely redo everything and make all of this better.” They never had that before so for them, this is amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So Colvin Ranch.

Alex Durney:
Colvin Ranch.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tell us about it. What is that actually like?

Alex Durney:
So Colvin ranch was homesteaded in the 1850s by Ignatius Colvin, which is just a sweet name if you ask me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ignatius.

Alex Durney:
Ignatius Colvin.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s legit.

Alex Durney:
So he came and at one point in time, the ranch equaled over 3,000 acres. But over the course of time with family and people dying and inheriting and marriages and all these different things, the land slowly just got parceled out smaller and smaller and smaller, until we have what we have left, which is just over 500 acres.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is it at?

Alex Durney:
It is in Tenino, Washington, so not Eastern. We got a little bit of Western influence here.

Dillon Honcoop:
People think ranches, they think Eastern Washington, right?

Alex Durney:
Yeah, they do, the Highland Desert and everything. But there’s a lot of rain in Western Washington, so a great place to grow cattle. Most people think of it as actually the dairy portion for Oregon and Washington. But we run a full cattle operation there. The operation has changed multiple times over the years. It’s gone from cow-calf operations to stocker operations. And what we are in now is kind of what I like to refer to is an intergenerational ranch.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain what those different terms mean, like cow-calf operation. People say that in the ranching world all the time. What does that mean?

Alex Durney:
So cow-calf operation is where basically your main thing that you own is cows and you’ll bring in either a bull or you’ll do artificial insemination on all of those cows each year, in determination of when you want them to calf. And all of that really matters with when you want them to calf, to when you want to wean those calves off of their moms and when you want to sell them to get the top market dollar. And that’s the thing that scares me. With those you’re subject to the market, which is kind of scary.

Alex Durney:
So that’s a unique thing about ours is we also have the stocker operation built into it, which is the opposite side. The stocker is the one who purchases the calves from the cow-calf operation and raises them up until they’re able to go to harvest. And so we do all of that in one. So we have our cow-calf and we have our stalker that goes to harvest and we also do the direct marketing for that as well. So not only do we raise all of our animals, but we sell all of them directly to the public.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was going to ask you, like, you do some of that? But you’re saying no, all of-

Alex Durney:
We do all of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the beef is-

Alex Durney:
All of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sold directly.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. Another unique thing about our ranches that we are all grass fed and grass finished. So we never feed corn or soy or any supplemental thing. We’re raising cattle how they should be raised. It’s natural. They want to eat grass, it’s what their bodies are made to digest and we just want to make sure that they’re able to live the best lives that they can.

Dillon Honcoop:
So here you’ve come in some ways full circle from almost from where you started, because it was about health stuff and then you went cosmetology and then it was still like biology, freshwater ecology, but then you’re back to animal health and you’re still dealing with-

Alex Durney:
Still dealing with people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Living bodies and health and yeah.

Alex Durney:
Living bodies and health, it’s a lot easier to tell a cow that she has a foot problem then to tell a human that they have a blocked artery. So that’s kind of why I chose that. I mean I still, with the direct marketing to the public, we still have to deal with people, but you’re not giving them bad news. You’re helping them with a service that right now is hard to come by. So the grass fed and finished holds heavy weight for a lot of people, especially within the state of Washington, fairly liberal community for the most part. And they’re all wanting to get away from that. They care about the environment, they want to see a change. I mean a lot of them don’t agree with the cattle industry in the first place, but we’re doing our best and doing it in the most natural way that we find possible in order to help those people.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was curious to ask you about though, because the assumption, the stereotype, you’re coming from Evergreen, you’re coming from an environmental program at Evergreen, the assumption is that you’re going to be anti beef altogether, anti-meat. You’re going to probably going to be a vegan or something.

Alex Durney:
Oh, definitely. I mean I was vegetarian for three years.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were a vegetarian?

Alex Durney:
I was a vegetarian.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who’s now managing a beef ranch.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What changed?

Alex Durney:
So I started out with the vegetarian thing being on the environmental side. I ended up finishing out my vegetarianism because I was anemic and we found out that the only way that my body can really absorb iron well, because we increased other like iron high vegetables and other things like that, it just wasn’t working. And then what they found once I started eating meat again was my iron levels went right back up to where they should’ve been. And so what we realized is that my body cannot absorb iron from other sources. I have to have a meat protein in order to absorb iron.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that pretty common for people?

Alex Durney:
It can be, yeah. It’s more common than you think it is. Also, I mean the veganism thing is fantastic and I celebrate the people that are able to do it, but a lot of people aren’t able to do it. I’m one of those people. Also, it’s not really what we would call this word at Evergreen is the S word, but sustainable. Veganism isn’t sustainable either. We can’t produce enough vegetables within this country to feed everyone, but it’s not sustainable for the aspect of meat is needed for people that maybe can’t afford higher quality vegetables. It’s also needed for ritual things for religions and other aspects of life, meat is sometimes really important to their culture and their identity, so we can’t take that away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now that you’re in the farming world, you probably hear a lot of the other side of it, the angst and the frustration with vegans.

Alex Durney:
Oh yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you respond to that then?

Alex Durney:
Everyone has a right to their own opinion. I honestly, I just try and remain humble with those people. If they’re so set in their ways, there’s nothing I’m going to be able to say to change their mind. Them being more exposed to the actual farming industry and maybe going and visiting, there are a lot of ranches, I know we allow open visits to our ranch. Anyone can contact us and have a full hands-on personal tour that’s two hours long on our ranch if they would like to, so that they can truly understand what we do. And so I guess just educating those people, but there’s no forcing someone to change their views. They have to want to change their views.

Alex Durney:
So to me until those people are ready to want to sit down and talk about it and be open minded about it, just like they want me to be open minded about their veganism or vegetarianism or whatever, it goes both ways. You can’t shut out the other side just because you’ve discovered and you think that it’s so wrong, it doesn’t mean that it is it. Yes, aspects of it sure are. There are definitely things within the beef industry that I do not agree with, but I do agree with how I’m raising my animals. And our customers believe in that and that’s why they come to us.

Dillon Honcoop:
I just see people getting lumped together so often where it’s like, “Well, you’re beef, you must be bad.” And it’s like, “No, it’s not all the same.”

Alex Durney:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That part is really frustrating to me. As far as the vegan issue goes, me coming from the background of farming, having grown up in that community, you know where my bias is going to come from, but ultimately I agree. Hey, if somebody wants to be vegan, by all means, I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when people are hating on other people. Same thing for the farming community. I don’t think it’s appropriate if people are just hating on vegans for no reason when they don’t really understand. You know what I’m saying?

Alex Durney:
I do. And I think that’s because I’m able to see both sides coming from this Evergreen background, this sustainable, environmental, you have to be vegan. No. You don’t have to. But I see it from both sides and I see why both sides are angry, but there is a middle ground. There is a spot where we can all sit down and talk. We just have to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t it because people want simple answers?

Alex Durney:
They do.

Dillon Honcoop:
And good guys and bad guys when it’s not that simple?

Alex Durney:
It makes it so much easier to make things white and black, but it’s never white and black. It’s always gray and we all know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why are you so passionate about this? About farming and ranching and cattle? Beef?

Alex Durney:
I guess the bigger thing is it’s not even, I’m more passionate. I don’t want it to end and I don’t want the good side of it to end I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
You don’t want what to end?

Alex Durney:
I mean the average age of a farmer in our country right now is what? 63 years old. And it’s what we would call an OWG, an old white guy. And being a 24 year old female going into the ranching industry, I am the exact opposite of what someone thinks of as a rancher, but we need more people like me because if the average age of a farmer is 63 years old, what do people think is going to happen?

Alex Durney:
Those people are going to die. Their kids don’t want to take it over. What’s going to happen to the beef industry? There’s a lot of people out there that want beef. No one’s producing anymore. That’s not great, but there is this opportunity where this younger generation is growing up. We realize what has been done wrong in the past and we’re trying to do right and we just need to be given the opportunity to make it right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that take? What does that look like making it right?

Alex Durney:
For I guess a lot of ranches, it’s letting go of the old way of doing things. It’s expanding your mind. All of us need to expand our minds, but expanding your mind and looking outside of how you’ve done things for years, accepting the ideas of your children that are coming in straight out of school that have… I mean the agricultural cultural sciences part of universities is dying, it’s becoming more soil sciences and there’s a reason for that.

Alex Durney:
People don’t want to go into the agricultural aspect of it because those people are so stuck in their ways and that’s not the way to be. You have to be able to flex with how things are changing. So much is changing in this world. Things are not the same as they were when the 63 year old ranchers were in their 20s taking over their family ranch or whenever they took it over. Things are not the same and things aren’t going to continue the same. We need to be able to change with that. And the newer generation, the people who are willing to just be like, “You know, I’m going to have this ranch job. I’m going to try and make it better.” Even to my own family, I’m pretty positive my grandfather is disappointed in me, because I went to college to get a college education so that I didn’t have to just be some rancher or farmer and here I am doing that, but with that comes a platform and a change that we’re able to make within this country and I want to be able to help with that. I want to be part of that change, so that’s why I’m passionate about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that starting to happen? What’s your take on the new generation, people my age or your age even who are in the farming world?

Alex Durney:
They’re pushing back towards the local. I feel like that’s the overall message is pushing back towards local. At one point that’s how you got all of your groceries. You went to your butcher, you went to the bakery, you didn’t go to the grocery store and the grocery store just made things so convenient in our lives and yes, it is fantastic. I will go to the grocery store as long as there are grocery stores, but stepping out and going to your local farmer’s market and stuff, that’s what this new generation is pushing for. And also pushing to get the local products in the grocery store. If people want that convenience, let’s make it happen for them. And so, I mean that’s why we have our beef in our local co-ops and stuff. So it does give people that convenience factor, but they do have to go shop at the local co-op.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about farmers your age? Are they doing a good job? Are there cool things out there happening?

Alex Durney:
I mean, I don’t know if they’re all doing a good job. I mean, we’re all going to fail. We’re all going to succeed all in different times. We’re still playing the exact same game. We’re just trying to play it in a slightly different way. We’re looking deeper and by looking deeper, I mean we have a lot more knowledge now. We have the soil lab analysis and soil survey, all these different things that we’re able to gather data from. There’s so much more data and using that makes us more powerful. We’re not just going off of, oh well this worked last year or the year before, these are how these aspects work. Yes, that plays a very important role, but there is the important role of also just the raw scientific data from across the world of how to do things in possibly a better way. And I think that’s going to be the aspect that shakes up what we’re used to in the agricultural fields, whether that’s farming or ranching.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you are the ranch manager at Colvin Ranch.

Alex Durney:
I am.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Tenino, Washington.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many head of cattle do you guys have there?

Alex Durney:
Anywhere around 250.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wouldn’t some people say that’s a huge herd neck and people shouldn’t be farming that many animals?

Alex Durney:
No. That’s small. That’s really small. I mean there are herds out there that are 16,000. I mean that’s not unheard of. Even here in Eastern Washington, it’s thousands of head. We just have 250, but for us that’s what our land is able to maintain. And I guess that’s a very important aspect. Our land is able to maintain 250 head and that’s all we care about. Yes, would we love to have 400 head? That would be fantastic, but it’s not possible on our land. We’ve played with it with stocking rates and utilization and so many other aspects they’ve played with and what they come down to is about 250 is what our land can handle with keeping it the way that it is. But we also have quite a few protections on our land as well. 90% of our land is in a permanent conservation easement with the state of Washington, so there are certain sections of our land that are also deferred at certain parts of the year.

Alex Durney:
We’re not even allowed to graze them because we need to make sure that the Camus and Balsamroot and all of these other native plants are able to go to seed set and actually continue to reproduce and make a healthy landscape and prairie for us. And then we go through and with the state of Washington, we actually use our grazing to help those plants. So with hitting invasives at very specific times in order to make sure that the Camus and Balsmroot can succeed and not get shadowed out by a taller grass or other aspects very similar to that. So we work very hard to maintain our land, not just the amount and our profit at the end of the day. Because you’re not going to have a profit if you don’t have good land to grow cattle off of it all. It all starts at the soil.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, and that’s what I was just going to say, you keep touching on soil health issues. That sounds like that’s a big part of what you do and your passion.

Alex Durney:
Oh yes. Down to exactly how we graze, when we’re applying fertilizer, all sorts of things. It’s all timed down to specific moments so that we can make sure that we’re optimizing the prairie itself because our biggest thing is that we are managing for feeding a cattle’s gut. We’re not feeding the cow. We’re feeding the bacteria within their gut. If we don’t have good grass, we’re not feeding the gut very well, we’re not feeding that bacteria, so we need to ensure that our soil health is the best it can possibly be to optimize that production right there.

Dillon Honcoop:
that also does other things though too, right with soil health?

Alex Durney:
So many other things. I mean with soil health then we have a super healthy pocket gopher population on our property. We have checkered spot butterflies, we have all sorts of animals. We have a healthy ecosystem.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about back to the vegan issue, because one of the biggest points that’s made has to do with the ecological impact and then the environmental climate change, carbon footprint impact of beef, right? Soil health is a part of this equation, isn’t it?

Alex Durney:
Very much a part of the equation and the equation has nothing to do with cattle. It has everything to do with management and the management that people deploy on their property. You can have great management and have fantastic soils and fantastic grasses and be able to actually have a higher herd population because of it. Or you can have bad management and you could have very few animals and you could just have devastated land and be causing so many environmental issues. It’s all dependent on what that person is doing on the ranch, it has nothing to do with cattle. I mean specifically at our ranch, if you drive along our highway, you’ll see our ranch and then right next to it you’ll see what used to be part of the ranch 20 years ago. That is completely covered in Scotch broom. And people all the time ask, “How do you keep the scotch broom off of your property?” Simple, we put cattle on that property. We just graze cattle once or twice a year in that pasture and Scotch broom never grows. It’s a great management technique if it’s used properly. So I mean, we’re moving towards something better.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was curious when I was asking earlier if you’re seeing signs of change.

Alex Durney:
Yeah, that would be part of it. I mean every operation is trying to look better and be better.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcasts. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
It really is incredible to see somebody like Alex who came from a background that didn’t have anything to do with farming and in fact was some ways kind of opposed to what farming does to embracing it and understanding the potential there. At the same time, looking at the bigger picture, and again this was just the first half of our conversation. Next week we hear the second half where we get into more of what Alex sees for the big picture, what she believes the future is and how she views joining this ranch, Colvin Ranch in Tenino as a life changing opportunity. Here’s a little snippet of what’s ahead next week.

Alex Durney:
I could possibly make a change before I’m 30 and that’s fascinating to me and make a change with an industry that’s so many people are hating on right now and want to see die.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there you have it. Again, Alex Durney, she is the ranch manager at Colvin Ranch at Tenino, Washington. Totally leave your stereotypes at the door–I mean that’s with everybody on this podcast, and particularly with Alex. So pumped to be able to share my experiences getting to know Alex and other people like her here on the Real Food Real People Podcast. That’s what it’s all about, documenting my personal journey to get to know the real people behind our food like Alex. Sure would appreciate it if you would subscribe and you could do that on Spotify, you could do that on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and a whole bunch of other outlets out there as well, whatever your favorite spot is to get podcasts. Also, please follow us on social media. We’ve got more content there as well, so find us on Facebook as well as Twitter and Instagram, Real Food Real People, you can find us there pretty easily. Just give us a follow. We sure would appreciate it. Again, next week is part two of our conversation with Alex Durney. I’m so looking forward to sharing that with you. Until then, thank you for following and subscribing and supporting Real Food Real People.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org.

Javier Valencia | #011 02/24/2020

Although he grew up on a farm, Javier Valencia was dead-set against following in his father's footsteps. He shares his story of how he came back to his roots and finally understood his dad's passion for farming.

Transcript

Javier Valencia:
First couple of years, I was intimidated. I’d see people like, “A young, tattooed Hispanic. What are you?” You know, “You don’t know what you’re doing,” and I believe that’s pushed me more. People saying, “Hey, you don’t have experience. Hey, you don’t have a reputation for yourself,” but I guess we made a name for ourselves, just with hard work.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week on Real Food, Real People. We get to know Javier Valencia. He grew up as a farm kid in Eastern Washington, but he did not want to be a farmer when he grew up. Well, guess what? He is and he’s so passionate. He talks about his struggles with weight and with being a troublemaker when he was young and being in trouble and now he’s an inspiration with how motivated he is and his goals in life and all the things he’s trying to accomplish.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what he and his boss, Andrew Schultz and you’ll hear him refer to Andrew in the conversation. That’s who he’s talking about, Andrew Schultz, who I hope to have on the podcast in the near future. The organization that they’ve put together called Brothers In Farms, the things that they’re doing are pretty incredible, pretty cutting edge. They’ve done some amazing things in the wine world, growing grapes for wine and the art and science of doing that, so we get into all of it this week with Javier Valencia on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop and this is my continuing journey to get to know the real people behind our food here in Washington State.

[Music]

Dillon Honcoop:
But you grew up around farming?

Javier Valencia:
Yeah, that’s all I grew up around. Like I said, my dad came to America as a farmer from Mexico to California. California is berries, grapes as well. Came to Washington when he was 12 I believe, and farmed since then. Since I was younger, I was able to see him as a farmer, grown into his own business. Seeing that, all that hard work that goes into that. That’s what came into my head like, “There’s no way I’d go into farming.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you didn’t want a farm?

Javier Valencia:
I didn’t want to farm. I was like, there’s no way I would work 12-hour shifts in the heat, in the cold, just seeing that labor. You know sometimes we’d see them two hours a day. The dude would eat and pass out.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of farming does your dad do?

Javier Valencia:
A little bit of everything. I really think he does what he enjoys now. He does mint, asparagus, Concord grapes for juice, corn. One of his favorite things just as asparagus. I don’t know if it’s just something one of his favorites or something that he’s done, but yeah, he does a little bit of everything basically.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you said he farms in Sunnyside?

Javier Valencia:
Farms in Sunnyside and Grandview.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. How many acres does he farm?

Javier Valencia:
In total, I believe he has 62 acres.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so when you were a kid, were you working on the farm? What did you do?

Javier Valencia:
Yeah, I learned how to drive on farm. I learned basics changing water on the farm. A lot of times when I was working was punishment basically, so I think that made it worse.

Dillon Honcoop:
Punishment for like what?

Javier Valencia:
Just stuff at school like me getting in trouble with my sisters. I’m the only boy out of four kids, so three sisters. So I was basically always a troublemaker and because of that it was like, “Okay, you’re going to work with your dad today. After school you’d go do this, you’d go change water, you’d go.” And so I was like, “I’m at school all day, I’m a kid. Why do I have to be changing water after work?” So that just made it like this is just struggle. It’s a struggle, so I don’t want to farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what had you planned to do?

Javier Valencia:
I actually wanted to go on law enforcement. I accomplished Pre-Police Academy when I was 19. That was my set goal. I was set to do it. I’m somebody that doesn’t plan things. I don’t like sitting at a desk. I like the assignment of something changing and that was it for law enforcement. I knew it’d be something exciting and that was my plan and I went to school for that. I wasn’t perfect as a teen, so I kind of backtracked for a while. Enjoyed my 19 through 21.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Javier Valencia:
And I became 21 and ended up having a family. I had a daughter, so that I just started working. I actually went back with my dad, working on the farm, working two jobs because that’s what I was raised as. I had a child, so I had to start working.

Javier Valencia:
Then when I planned to become a cop, I ran into Andrew and he gave me this crazy idea about, “Let’s start farming.” And I jumped in. Like I said, it was just his ideas were what I wanted. Going for the unknown, but knowing that we had a goal for it is like I could do something like that. And I told him the same story, “Man, I’m not a farmer. That’s not my thing.: And he’s like, “Yeah, I get that.” He’s like, “I feel the same way.” But there’s totally different view at farming now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So do you love it?

Javier Valencia:
I do love it. Like I said, “It doesn’t feel like a job.” You know people are telling me you work all the time. My social media people are like, “You’re always working. Why are you always working?” It’s like I don’t even picture it some days. I get up at 3:00 in the morning every day and I go to the gym and I’m in the gym and that’s when I start my day off and then I could work from 6:00 to 6:00, 6:00 to 8:002 and it’s like it’s not a job sometimes. I enjoy it and I never thought I would. I do now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how did that change as you started to do it? When did you realize that you have a passion for this?

Javier Valencia:
I think when I started, I honestly believe I thought about like when he first explained it to me, I was like, “Well, you know there’s money there.” I believe that was my first thought. Hey, that career there’s money there and it’s something I know. Maybe I’ll click onto it faster. So I think that’s what started me out, but I kept going like taking data and knowing I was able to control so much and we were able to control so much, that’s what kept me going, knowing that I control and being able to set goals and accomplishing them and then learning at the same time.

Javier Valencia:
And what’s kept me going now is I see people coming to me asking, “How are you doing this? How are you doing that?” So if I’m able to help out more people now like in a conversation you’re having with Andrew outside, given all these younger kids opportunity that were raised in farming, but, hey, there’s growth now. You don’t have to be like your uncle and your dad that does the same job for 30 years. There’s growth here and being able to give people the opportunity and it keeps them going.

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys are your custom viticulture, right?

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean? What’s the actual job?

Javier Valencia:
Well, our business is growing high quality wine grapes. The difference between quality and quantity basically. We’re able to do work for people at a higher price, but being able to put in little details that people don’t see. Like I mentioned before, we have programs, we have systems that we use pruning weights parameters, shoot length. We have all these small things that keeps us precise on our goals and we were able to use those to set our goals.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, our tonnage were dead on. We were able to set those goals and hit them each and every time just because we’re so precise at those things. And like I said, even those being precise isn’t like, “Okay, we have it figured out.” We don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. It’s sunny outside right now. It could rain tomorrow. But having those goals and having all this data and having all this information is what keeps us on top.

Dillon Honcoop:
So custom viticulture is basically like somebody else owns the vineyard, the field.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then you guys come in and farm it for them.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of things do you do to make that happen?

Javier Valencia:
A lot of conversations like myself, the owners are from Napa where we work for. So I’m able to go to Napa and find out information they have there, see the information they want there and bring it here to Washington where people haven’t seen it, so I’m able to do that. I’m able to take information and show them, “Hey this works. This doesn’t work.”

Javier Valencia:
So besides just data collection and stuff, yeah, I’m able to manage 40 people, I’m able to find and that’s been fun, like I said, I’ve never done it. I was able to walk in and speak to, have conversations and speak with managers that have managed 20 people for 20, 30 years and have conversations with them, how they do it. Until this day I’ve learned, and I’m trying to learn, “Hey, how do you manage those people to get that done?” Because yeah and all, even though I have the information, none of it would be possible without those 30, 40 people that we do have and building that team.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, I think we’ve been lucky to try to find people like me and Andrew that are open minded, that want to see an outcome, that want to see change. And that’s something huge that I’ve seen with our workers that they’re able to see, “Hey, these guys have goals. Hey, these guys are pushing for something instead of just give me a job and working me from 6:00 to 5:00 and kicking me out.” These guys get to see, hey, why are doing this differently. They get to see the outcome, hey, their business businesses growing. They got to see us from the bottom. They’ve got to see where we are four years, now. They get to see why we’re so picky. They get to do harvest and see, maybe in them they don’t get to see the product of the wine, but even just money-wise like for them I believe it’s like, hey, we’re getting paid by tonnage when everybody else getting paid by an hour.

Javier Valencia:
It’s like everybody sees our goals and the achievements we are getting in different ways. Everybody’s able to see it. It’s not just a huge company like, “Hey, we don’t know who we work for.” And I think that just puts us out. That puts us out and shows how different we are from everybody else, just how our company is. How would you put that? That’s how our company is different from everybody, but makes us stronger and shows us why we stand out. Even though we’re younger, like it’s a family that we have here.

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys are kind of the new kids on the block, so to speak with doing this here in Washington. What have the reactions been to you guys doing things differently?

Javier Valencia:
I think that’s the fun part. First couple of years, I was intimidated. I’d see people like a young tattooed Hispanic? You know what are you doing? You know you don’t know what you’re doing. And I believe that’s pushed me more. People saying, “Hey, you don’t have experience. Hey, you don’t have a reputation for yourself,” but us with our results and everything, all the hard work that we put in, our Brothers In Farms has been. I guess we made a name for ourselves, just with the hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about the cultural element? You come from a Hispanic family.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your dad’s from Mexico. He’s been through this world of farm work.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re bilingual as well.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that affect how you manage your crew?

Javier Valencia:
I think that does help me out. Like I said, I believe everybody in any heritage, they’re going to push you. Like you said, you’re the new kid on the block. We’re going to test you to see if you really know what you’re doing, but them testing me in that culture has made me the manager that I am now, stronger.

Javier Valencia:
And I’ve always done that. I don’t go out there and it’s like, “Hey, you’re doing something wrong.” It’s like, “Hey, I see this as this. Would you explain to me why you’re doing it this way?” And before it’s like I would go out there and do that and some guys would turn their back and probably laugh. Like, “This kid does not know what he’s talking about.” Like I said, now I’m able to have a conversation with them because I am bilingual. Like, “Hey, this is why I’ve done this and this is why I do this.”

Javier Valencia:
And sometimes it makes sense or I could take their experience and then my information that I have that I’ve learned now and put them together and it’s like, “Okay, we could balance somewhere here.” And I really believe that’s what stands out. I don’t know how you’d put it. We have the connection with our employees to do that and help us learn. And then, we’re teaching them, but they’re teaching us at the same time, which makes us stronger. Like how you said, being Hispanic, I’ve seen, okay, a guy who wants to do his job and get out and it’s like, “Okay, do that, but I want to explain to you why you’re doing it.” Because I don’t think they’ve ever had the opportunity.

Javier Valencia:
I don’t believe anybody’s ever been told, “Hey, this is your job and this is why you’re doing it.” It’s like, “Hey, do your job and there’s your paycheck.” And I honestly believe that’s what makes them, having that Spanish culture is like, “Okay, now I see that. Now I see why I’m working. Now I see, hey, I could have…” Most of the people that work here are husband and wife. “Hey, I’m able to work here with my wife,” and it’s like, “We know what we’re doing.” Nobody’s working, hey, we’re working 6:00 and 8:00 and they can’t go to their family. We’re all working together as a team and they still have their lives. Nobody’s working 20 hours a day, seven days a week and them seeing that, like I said, I think they appreciate it as much as we do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think that cultural heritage is often misunderstood like when people are talking about labor issues and work and stuff?

Javier Valencia:
I believe so. I honestly believe there’s people still that don’t understand, those guys are just working. They just want a job. But like I said, I don’t think they were ever fed the information that we’re able to feed them now. So yeah, I still believe there still might be confusion. Why do you guys have your employees uninvolved? Why are you taking your time with them? Why don’t you just have it your way and that’s it. That makes the difference between our quality, quantity, you know?

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the key, what’s the secret to managing people?

Javier Valencia:
I don’t know. I believe communication. I was lucky to get new Hepe is what we call the manager this year. I connected with him easily and he’s become a really good friend to me, but that communication is same thing. I’ve had a conversation with him that he’s worked with employees for 10 years that he’d see once a month. He’d get a list and he’d see them once a month and I’m out there involved, asking them questions.

Javier Valencia:
And actually, I had to tell him, “Hey, I need this done.” Most of the time he knows what he’s doing. He’s done this for 10, 12 years, but just because I’m not here all the time, I want to know how this is happening and managing is, I don’t know. It’s something that I’m still learning until this day. I try to read and I try to see how people do that, but I honestly believe it’s takes that experience and that time to get those communications with people.

Javier Valencia:
And I honestly believe I’ve gotten really good at it, but like said, I still want the experience. And I don’t know if it’s just a friendship that’s made it easier, but I just believe it’s like communication to people. Like I said, I see how going back to my family seeing. Maybe they didn’t know anything. Maybe he was working 24/7, he didn’t even know who was working for.

Javier Valencia:
And now I see these guys and it’s like Hispanic culture, they want to work anyways, so he’s going to work, he’s going to work, he’s going to work, but if he knows he’s working for somebody that appreciates that and he knows what he’s working for, I believe just makes it easier for everybody. So being in that man-driven position, being able to do that, honestly, I think that what makes my job even easier. I come to work and I’m managing, but I’m having a conversation about life and work at the same time and we’re both getting things done. We’re all getting things done.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like to know that you’re out there growing food for people to eat or drink, I guess?

Javier Valencia:
I’ve gotten lucky trying wine. I’ve tried really good wines that came from these vineyards that we grow for, but it’s just amazing how you see all this labor, all this time, these harvest hours, it’s amazing what you could do with the grape. It’s amazing how in my eyes is now comparing the grapes that I grow to another wine. I don’t know how wines are made exactly. That’s something I’m still wanting to learn, but trying wines side by side now, “Hey, you grew this and someone grew this,” or trying wines that are from right next door to my stuff and it’s like, what’s the difference, you’re 20 feet away from me.

Javier Valencia:
Even seeing those goals, I honestly wish I could show all the guys that work for us, “Hey, try this wine that your guys labor went into this,” because I don’t think you can write all that in a wine bottle and a lot of people don’t see that. I’ve actually seen, there is some wineries now that take photos of our workers, take the pictures and they have that in their winery as you’re trying wine. And I’m not sure people notice that, but I’m sure, one out of those 10 people see it and it has to get noticed. That one person goes and tell somebody else, “Hey, you see those photos or did you see, you know that wine we had it came from this vineyard?”

Javier Valencia:
It’s amazing to know I grew that and it was made into that like honestly is and that’s why I said, now like last year was one of the biggest accomplishments, having winemakers come and say, “This is some of the best fruit I’ve had in 10 years.” You know I have to pat myself on the back for those things. There’s no way you’ve been buying grapes for 10 years and you’re going to tell me this the best you’ve had two years in a row. That’s accomplishment for me.

Javier Valencia:
But like I said, it’s accomplishment for all of us and if I could write that on a board and put it out there for those guys, I’m sure they love it. Hey, you guys, just appreciate everything you’re doing. And like I said, I’m sure that just has to make somebody happy. If it made me feel that way, I’m sure the guys would love it.

Javier Valencia:
You have a daughter, you said. Do you have any more kids in that?

Javier Valencia:
I have two daughters, seven and eight. Still, I don’t know where they’re going to go. They’re too young for me to decide yet.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Javier Valencia:
But they’re both crazy open-minded like I am, so I can’t complain. I’m a single dad right now, so that’s fun. Like I said, I have a full time managing job and I can still be a full-time dad, so that keeps me on my toes. I’m assuming that it’s really and I’m always pushing myself for more. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m at the gym at 3:00 in the morning. People say, “You’re crazy.” Some people say, “You don’t sleep,” because I just made it a routine and I love to compare things at the gym. That’s the reason why I go to the gym so much. Lifting weights, pushing myself, two different things that I haven’t done. Lifting heavy weight that I haven’t before.

Javier Valencia:
Same with work. I see it most of the time. I compare that to work. It’s like I would go try something that I haven’t tried. Nine-hour days, not really indifferent than a six-hour day. Computer work isn’t really different than standing out in the field. It’s just that mind thing. And I don’t know if it’s maturity. I don’t think I’ve used that word before, but maybe it is. I became more matured to see like, okay, I have goals. I have a future here, so why not use it? I became really big on like I said, just time-wise and me using my time for something that’s worth it.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, my daughter is the same way. Like they’re really young, so I don’t know where they’re going yet, but they have opportunities for everything. They want to try something, they try it. So that’s going to be the fun part, raising them, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you manage being a single dad and doing all the work that you do here and just life?

Javier Valencia:
Honestly, I have no idea, so I’ve gotten that question a lot, but I honestly feel like I’m killing it. Like I said this year or is it like February 3rd, I actually made it a year everyday going to gym, 3:00 in the morning and Andrew was like, “Wow, you did it.” It’s like during harvest, working to our days, I was up at 3:00 in the morning at the gym and I said, I’d just like to push myself. I’m still young, so I could be wasting money, but if I could push myself and set these goals for myself, why not?

Javier Valencia:
Even now, like how you said, I feel like I’m busy. I’m managing a business. I’m still learning, so I can’t say I have it. I’m stress-free. I have two little girls. There’s no way that’s not stressful, but even now, I’m pushing myself to partner up to open up a gym. People are like, “There’s too much on your plate.” But it’s like, “Who else is going to do it?” Nobody. And that’s what I’ve put into my head. There’s opportunities out there for everybody.

Javier Valencia:
So if I’m able to help somebody with that, if it’s my workers, a friend, myself to learn, even if I would fail, I think what’s motivated me the most is that as a younger age through 18, I was overweight, quiet kid and that’s what I was. I was just overweight quiet kid. So when I see I had opportunities and now jumping here, I made a huge step from working a 40-hour week job for two or three years to where I’ve jumped into position now is a huge step and I think that’s what I had taken advantage of, I’m not going to waste time anymore with any of this stuff. I have two little girls that I can’t say I’m bored with. There’s no way I could say I’m bored at a seven- and eight-year-old.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Javier Valencia:
A management position. I can’t say on bored. Like I said, weather-wise, water-wise, harvest wise, I can’t say I’m bored. I can’t say I know it’s going to happen tomorrow. Same with the gym. It’s like, I’m nowhere to perfect, so why not push myself? So that’s what’s kept me. I don’t know. It’s the first time. like I said, I’ve ever used the maturity like I don’t know if that’s changed or not, but I know I’m doing something good. I know I’m doing something that’s keeping me motivated.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, I have people now telling me, “Hey, how are you doing it? How are you doing?” I’m like, “I just get my ass up. I have to. I just get my ass up.” And you have to give people a chance because, “Hey, I want to do that.” Okay and they’ll show up at 3:00 in the morning. Actually, charge me nothing. Show up. It’s sad, but it’s like you give those people opportunities and if you get one out of 10 to do it, that makes you feel better than charging somebody, “Hey, I’m charging you 200 bucks for this.”

Javier Valencia:
So that’s where I’m at now. I feel like I have had a huge opportunity, so I’m trying to give that back to everybody else. Everybody’s around me, Andrew is 38, 37, so about 10 years older than me and he says. “You’re in a position that I was never at that age.” As I said, that’s why I put it in my hand. It’s like I have no time to waste no more. Like why not just put my head down and keep running.

Javier Valencia:
And even me losing the weight, that was a huge thing. I believe I doubted myself a lot before, but it’s like now I put my head down and I just run forward and it’s like nobody’s stopping me. If anybody stops me, it’s going to be myself.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the key to losing weight? Was it the working out or changing your diet or?

Javier Valencia:
I think I just want to change, like I said, I was honestly just tired of it. I used to run and run and run. I used to run sometimes where I’d have to call my mom, “Hey, I’m not going to make it back.” And now I’ve gotten smarter, like I said, working out wise. A year of working out, doing programs, helping the body build programs, having him ask him now, “Hey, let’s partner up and open another gym.” I know I’m doing something right.

Javier Valencia:
And I believe that’s what puts me out from everybody else. And I know Andrew had seen that. I’m willing to go for it and I’m willing to try it and I’ll do it over and over and over. And some people will be like, Oh, I didn’t see. This didn’t happen as soon. It’s like, it’s going to happen. If you don’t try it and you waste time and it’s not going to happen. So like I said, I can’t tell myself right now, hey, I’m going to mess up or I’m going to fail. I’m sitting here, I’ve never done this before. That makes me nervous, but I said, hey, I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do the whole podcast thing?

Javier Valencia:
Yeah, I’ve never done it. I’ve never spoken on a microphone. I’ve never, so I’m doing it once. Hopefully, it’s easier the next time and hopefully, there’s a next time and I don’t see why there isn’t. There’s the opportunity.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your tattoos, you got a lot of them.

Javier Valencia:
I got too many of them. Same thing. I’m not sure why I got tattoos. I have on my arm this family, daughters, nephews, sisters. I don’t why I got tattoos. I believe when I lost my way was something that meant to me. I’ve always liked them, but then I was like, okay, it means something to me. So I started doing it. I like them.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much weight did you lose?

Javier Valencia:
I lost 40 pounds. I believe I was 216 at my biggest, and even now, like I said, I do these goals and stuff. Right now I’m doing this thing at the gym that’s like, hey, who could lose the most fat and gain the most muscle. Like I said, I’m just doing it just so I could do it. My buddy said, “It’s a three-month program.” He’s like, “I lose 50% first month, 50% second month.” And he’s like, I’d like a third. At the last one, it was just like wow.

Javier Valencia:
You put that out there and people are like, “Oh, I want to do it.” And it’s like it just happens. Everybody falls like flies and I believe that’s the fun part, too. It’d be like, I did that now. I’ll just do it to be like I did it.

Dillon Honcoop:
The sense of accomplishment

Javier Valencia:
Right, and people noticing it. Like I said, I don’t think it’s an ego thing, but being able to see those things like, hey, people notice who you are. People notice who Bros and Farms are now. It’s like, hey, that hard work paid off. Everybody’s hard work paid off. And like I said, I don’t believe we’re stopping anytime soon.

Javier Valencia:
And me health-wise, me, I don’t know it’s like trying to keep yourself not satisfied but knowing, “Hey, I like this. I enjoy this, so why not?” You’re satisfied now, but the long run isn’t just going to be worth it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What should people know about how their food is grown?

Javier Valencia:
Health wise and gym wise, I’d say that having locally grown food and stuff like that is worth it because the labor that goes into it, it’s just different than something coming out from a machine. It is better for you. That’s a whole another topic how that food is better for you, but just knowing, hey, somebody grew that or somebody even now like, how would I put that? Just like the grapes I grow.

Javier Valencia:
I’m able to go tell somebody, hey, that wine’s good because I knew I grew it and if somebody had questions, “Hey, what about sprays?” And some people don’t know that information, but some people hide that and I wouldn’t. Hey, I know what I sprayed here. I know what I put there. There’s nothing really to it and some people won’t say anything. It’s just, hey, it’s a bottle of wine.

Javier Valencia:
So I think having information and having a background to it, that will put more people like, “Hey, I want to try that,” because that information is open to everybody when like I said, some people might listen and go one ear and out the other.

Dillon Honcoop:
You mean like people who are worried about what’s being sprayed on food or something?

Javier Valencia:
Right. And they might be worried about it, but they’re not sure what’s in it, so just giving them that information because you do have it, it’s not going to hurt anything. That could have somebody jump into something like, “Hey, that’s interesting.” It just opens conversations that people don’t have. So you know just asking me that like, how do you explain that to somebody.

Dillon Honcoop:
But what would you tell somebody who is worried that their food isn’t safe?

Javier Valencia:
Investigate, ask questions. That’s what I would do. If I don’t know something, like I said, I can’t sit here and say exactly what’s sprayed on everything and how everything’s grown, but just asking those questions because half the time it isn’t. There is nothing huge. There’s nothing. You don’t have to be worried about this, but I guess that’s something like I said, just that fear of asking, “Hey, what’s in my food?”

Dillon Honcoop:
What about how workers are treated and what would you tell somebody who hasn’t been around farming if they’re concerned about that?

Javier Valencia:
Ask questions and actually see it. Like I said, I wouldn’t be scared to show anybody, “Hey, this is what my workers go through every day. This is what my workers do weekly.” Informing them, “Hey, we have information. There’s nothing crazy going on here. These guys have a job just like you do. These guys are putting everything they got.”

Javier Valencia:
For an example, we have workers here that I see are motivated to have a leadership thing, but they really are. They have a background. They’re Hispanic, they came from Mexico. They’re just saying, “Hey, I need my job. I’ll work. I’ll do what you need to get done.” But because they were never fed, “Hey, what about if he’d grown here? What about if he did this? What if?” So having people like that working for us here, like I said, you couldn’t ask for something more.

Javier Valencia:
And people don’t know that. Like I said, people don’t know, “Hey, who are your workers?” Like I said, I don’t think I’ve ever been somebody to do that. Like, this is my fruit or hey, this is my wine that we made. It’s like, no, it’s Brothers In Farms for a reason. We have to all come together to do, to have our results that we have. It’s a really a team.

Javier Valencia:
And like I said I’ve gotten lucky the last couple of years knowing how to build that team and I’m trying to learn more now, to build that team and make that team stronger. Have a buddy jumping on the first, he’s jumping on for the same reason I see he’s open minded. He’s older than I am. That’s actually kept me more motivated this year. A buddy that’s older than I am, that seriously had no goals, driving a tractor in wheat fields. I’m giving him an opportunity, “Hey, jump on with me. Jump on Brothers In Farms and there’s somewhere to go, man. I got a future for you.” And me saying that to him, he calls me like, “Hey, I’m ready to start now or hey, I’ll prove it to you in 30 days instead of 90 days.” This dude is jacked and motivated.

Javier Valencia:
And it’s like I was able to do that for somebody and it’s like people don’t see those. Like I said, people don’t see, oh, how the company was made. And it’s like, we really started from an office, officers sitting in two offices that a desk right next to each other, but to building a shop, to building our label has just become huge.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think there’s controversy about workers and how they’re being treated and immigration and all that stuff? Do you follow that much?

Javier Valencia:
Honestly, I don’t. I’m not a TV person. I’m not involved. I don’t know. I just don’t like something that I can’t. I don’t know if I can’t control it, but it’s like, I honestly feel like it doesn’t affect me. My workers do, so I’m doing my part here. So yeah, if I’m able to say, “Hey, we need our workers here.” I guess my point of view on all that stuff is just like it’s not necessary. We need workers. Get rid of everybody else and then see how many people are in a struggle when they don’t get wine. I mean these guys are going to struggle when they don’t have fruit.

Javier Valencia:
But like I said, people aren’t informed on that. Like I said, I keep myself out of the media and news and stuff just for that reason. I feel like that’s something that somebody has way too much time on their hand to like, “Oh, I want to know. I want to pick at this and I want to know what this is.” I’ve always stayed away from my TV. Not always, but it’s just became a habit again as well, not listening to many media, not listening to the news.

Javier Valencia:
Just controlling, I don’t think it’s control, but just knowing like the known, instead of me questioning, “Oh, I don’t know that or what if that doesn’t affect me.” If I know I’m doing well here and we’re doing good at well here it’s like, it doesn’t affect me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Within the Hispanic community here in Eastern Washington and I know it’s a fairly well connected community. Do people talk about that issue and like labor issues and problems?

Javier Valencia:
I honestly haven’t heard a lot about that. Like I said, I’m younger to this business wise into what I have seen. That’s something I’ve seen recently. Hey, we’re getting paid minimum wage, but like I said, me knowing management wise now, like I said, people get raises every time, but they never know, “Okay, what’s that getting out of the business?” Like I said, we’re a young business. It’s like, hey. You know that adds up and that’s a big chunk out of a business that just started.

Javier Valencia:
And that’s where I think where we stay motivated trying to push them, “Hey, we have a future.” Nobody’s struggling. I don’t believe anybody is struggling and I don’t believe I’m struggling. Maybe at my position I could be making more money I could, but I’m not struggling at all. And like I said, I’m not complaining about where I’m at, but because like I said, I see that future. I don’t believe I’m going to stop anytime soon.

Javier Valencia:
Like I said, I’m only 28. I see me at Andrew’s age, it’s like I’ll be set and that’s not going to stop me then and I don’t believe I will ever stop and that’s just my heritage and like how I was raised. You know my dad now still working. The man shouldn’t be working, I don’t think, but he’s still out there working. So like I said, even if I’m fat and happy, honestly, I hope I never get there, but me staying motivated, it will keep me from that spot. I’ll be happy, but I’m going to be motivated.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your dad think was he like not wanting to be farming and then ending up in farming, what did he say?

Javier Valencia:
When I first told him I was going into farming, I think he kind of like laughed about it, like, “Really?” Like he didn’t think it’d happen. And I think in his head he’s like I gave up on the thing like, “Hey, I’m not going to be a farmer.” So in his head it’s like, “Oh, you really don’t want to work.” And like I said, I don’t see it as a bad thing. Somebody would be like, “Oh, he didn’t believe in you,” but he’s worked his whole life, so I’m pretty sure the first thing he went to his head is like, “Damn kid doesn’t want to work.” And I’m sure that’s exactly how he said it. It’s exactly how he’s seen it.

Javier Valencia:
And now that he sees what I’m doing and that I enjoy it, like I kind of see why he works. I’m pretty sure he enjoyed it. For doing it for 40 years, you know he has to enjoy what he’s doing and if he’s still doing it now and he doesn’t have to, the dude has to enjoy it. And like I said, me learning technology and the new stuff’s that’s upcoming. I mean, being able to share that with him. It’s just like I said, that just raises my standards as well. I’m able to help these guys and it’s not easy to help him and I think that’s the challenging part.

Javier Valencia:
I love challenges. Like I said, just me staying motivated gym wise with my daughter’s work. Everything’s challenging for me. I’m never comfortable. And you know, I read a lot now. I listen to a lot of motivational people, Jocko and all those dudes, any of those guys are just about, just do it and people talking about reasoning in this. And I’m like, I have an excuse for everything if I wanted to. I don’t have to be at gym at three in the morning. There’s no reason I have to be there. My ass could be asleep. My girls don’t go to school until 6:00. I don’t have to be at work at a certain time, but like I said, it’s just keeping that momentum and challenging myself is like what’s keeping us going.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like all this is back to your dad and this has changed your understanding of your dad.

Javier Valencia:
Right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like you get him now?

Javier Valencia:
Yeah, I get it. Like I get why he worked. I get why he was looking. He had a goal somewhat. You know that would be a good question for me to ask him one day, “Hey, what was your goal?” And I wondered if he had one or he just worked his ass off and now he’s like, he’s content, but he’s like, he’s never going to stop and maybe that’s a difference between somebody. Maybe he doesn’t have a high goal yet, or maybe he does, but it’s just, he’s going to keep going until he falls down.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What about you said he was skeptical of you going into farming at first.

Javier Valencia:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does he say now?

Javier Valencia:
Now, he congratulates me. You’re doing well. You’re doing really good. When he was first able to ask me for my opinion, like I said, that just jumped me up. Like, hey, I know what I’m doing. The guy has worked to the ass off, asks me for my opinion. It’s like, I mean I’m doing something right, so that just keeps me going, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Would that have been hard for him?

Javier Valencia:
I believe it took everything he had, you know? Everything he had to ask me, “Hey, what’s your opinion on this?” And I’m damn sure he’d probably kill me if he’s like, “Oh, you’re going to tell people I asked you for help or asked you for your opinion.” But like said, it just shows, I had to show him in some way or another, he’s learning, he knows what he’s talking about. So like I said, if I’m able to get into somebody’s head like that, my workers, the employees we have, that’s what keeps me motivated. Like I said, these guys see it and I know they see it now.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your future with farming?

Javier Valencia:
I want to keep going. Maybe one day, our goals are now, we’re growing so fast to have Brothers In Farms 2. Maybe one day that will be me or maybe I’ll take over Brothers In Farms and then Andrew’s Brother In Farms 3 and then we have, you know, that just keeps growing. I love the business part. I love being outside. I don’t like sitting on desks, but I love this business part. But at the same thing, it’s just challenging. It’s challenging and I said, why not do it?

Javier Valencia:
I failed, but every time I failed now, I’ve learned from it. And I said, that’s the difference for me as well, all these failures I’m taking them and I’m learning from it, so it’s like, “Why not do it now?” If I was able to jump from no experience to a management position, why can I not be in a CEO position and it’s like, why not. The opportunity is there and I believe that was something I was scared of before. Asking for the opportunity or saying I couldn’t move on from this and it’s just all there.

Dillon Honcoop:
What should somebody in Seattle know about the people that are growing their food?

Javier Valencia:
What should they know? There’s hard work into it. It’s not just a piece of fruit that is put into a box. It took a lot to get into that box. It probably took a lot to get to Seattle. I’ve worked in warehouses before. It’s no fun. You know putting apple by apple in a box or into a bag. It’s not that easy. People should really, I don’t know how I’d put it, I don’t think I’ve ever gone to that far of like I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that.

Javier Valencia:
But if somebody has questions about it, not to be afraid to ask and I think that’s something we’re trying to do, building the website and stuff like, hey, this is where this wine is coming from or hey, this is where this field came from. Like I said, I love now just hearing clips and I was down in Benton City, that’s the view from here. I was down in Benton City and I got to see the 60 acres we put in and like I said, I get to say we did that and some people that don’t get to see that.

Javier Valencia:
I’m sure this $200 bottle of wine is coming out of here. Those people open it, but if they got to open it and see the view from where I get to see it, I bet it’d be even better. Like I said, I’ve been lucky to do it all. I was able to grow it, plant it, and try it at the same time. People had seen that story is what makes it even better.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome. Thank you for opening up and sharing your personal story. Yeah, I think what you guys have going here is really, really cool stuff.

Javier Valencia:
I appreciate it and like I said, I really hope we keep growing and like I said, it’s my first podcast, but I really hope from this just people really saying that like, “Hey, we want to know what Brothers In Farms is,” or “Hey, we want to know what grape growing is.” Like I said, it’s just asking those questions and having people like you to get us out there, you’re doing your part, we’re doing our part and it’s like, people staying open-minded, we’re all going to grow like that.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real people podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Honestly, I couldn’t believe it when he said he’s working on opening a gym. I didn’t know before this conversation that he was a single dad and doing that while he’s putting in so many hours on the farm and he’s so passionate about growing incredible wine grapes and kind of changing that world. Yet his story of discipline and motivation on top of all that and all the other things he’s trying to do, pretty incredible stuff, so it was really cool and actually kind of inspiring to get to know Javier Valencia there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for joining us for this conversation and we appreciate you subscribing to Real Food, Real People on whatever your favorite podcast platform is, whether it’s Apple podcasts or Spotify, and there’s some others out there Deezer or Spreaker or I can’t even list all of the ones that we’re on. You can find us there. Also at realfoodrealpeople.org. Our website just got a face lift, so go check it out. There’s additional content there plus I got to get to work on adding even more, so expect that in the near future. Again, at realfoodrealpeople.org.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast, documenting my personal journey going around Washington State, getting to know the real people behind the food that we have here. Thank you for being a part of this with us.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family I Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org.y

Devin Day | #010 02/17/2020

A tech guru becomes a farmer, producing some of the most unique food products in Washington. Meet Devin Day of Valley Farmstead Rabbits and Neil's Big Leaf Maple Syrup, and hear him share how he's found his niche.

Transcript

Devin Day:
I actually gave a baby rabbit, just born, mouth-to-mouth. I just, little, little puff puff, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Devin Day:
Little chest compressions, and it took this huge gasp of air. And within like two minutes was just as healthy as the other ones. Blew my mind.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week on the podcast, we spoke with a guy who’s rethinking a lot of stuff about farming and where we get food from, and doing some unique stuff. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. Thanks for being here and joining us. On my continuing journey to get to know the real farmers in Washington State, and share their stories with you here. Devin Day of Valley Farmstead Rabbits and Neil’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup, both in Acme, Washington, has an incredible story to share of growing up in town and only becoming a farmer later in life. So, join us as we get to know Devin Day and the fascinating stuff he’s doing out in Acme.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, when did you actually become a farmer? What’s your story to the farming world?

Devin Day:
Well, I’m actually fairly new to farming. Most of my background is in technology, computers, software. That sort of thing. My stepdad, who’s Neil, was working out here in Acme and I was working, again, still in tech stuff. He just called and said, “Hey, you want to come work out on the farm?” And I said, “Not really.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the farm at that time? What was he doing? Beef?

Devin Day:
There was a lot of beef there. We have a couple bison herds and growing a lot of grass to feed different animals. It was kind of a program that was building as it went, so to speak. We did that for a couple years and this whole time, he was still playing with the maple trees and cooking out in the woods and doing that sort of thing-

Dillon Honcoop:
Cooking out in the woods. That just sounds like it’s going to be sketchy. Like, what kind of cooking out in the woods do they do in Acme?

Devin Day:
Yeah, maybe I should clarify that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Exactly, yeah, let’s clarify that.

Devin Day:
Well, he was collecting sap from maple trees and he had this big stainless steel tub that he made. He built a big fire pit and he would, down by his shop, and he would cook the maple sap down to the point where it was maple syrup. Then that kind of became the very first, I mean, there’s a few hobbyists out there. There’s some eclectic forums you can find other people that are tapping some of their trees in their backyard. He was doing that, so he would give away sap, or not sap but maple syrup for gifts and it just got more and more popular. That’s where it all started. Just a guy out in the woods cooking.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, he had asked you to come work on the farm or see if you were interested, and you weren’t?

Devin Day:
At first, no. But the more I talked to my wife and we’d … I grew up in the city, then moved out to the county during my high school years and I liked-

Dillon Honcoop:
City being Bellingham?

Devin Day:
City being Bellingham, yeah, not like the-

Dillon Honcoop:
Big city-

Devin Day:
No. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m from Whatcom County, too, so I mean the big city is Bellingham to me.

Devin Day:
Yep. So, just the more we talked about it, it sounded cool. We really wanted to raise our kids out in the county, being able to run around with their shoes off and doing that sort of thing. We already homeschooled our kids and so, it made a lot of sense. We didn’t have a lot tying us down so we just went for it. That was about six years ago, and yeah, now-

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like taking that step? That’s a scary step to make-

Devin Day:
Yeah, it is-

Dillon Honcoop:
To do that.

Devin Day:
I did college. I did, I went on a baseball scholarship and then I hurt my knee and got bitter and left and that whole bit. So, I definitely love doing the tech side of things. It wasn’t necessarily a scary step, it’s just I didn’t know how much I was going to like being on a farm. I wasn’t a farm kid. Didn’t grow up as a farm kid. I think that was my biggest hesitation. But, talked about it and one of the things, too, is I did get to … This whole farm is owned by a larger group, even though we’re doing kind of our own things on the farm, I do work for a larger group and I work for my stepdad. He’s the manager of a lot of different farms out here in Acme.

Devin Day:
So, I did get to do a lot of IT and stuff still for the group itself. So, I still got to have my hands in there. So, it wasn’t … I got to go into town, into the offices and fix everybody’s computers and-

Dillon Honcoop:
What? Farming involves IT now?

Devin Day:
Yeah. But I got a lot of free rein and I got to come up with a lot of ideas for putting efficiency sensors on this, and temperature sensors on that. You get to come up with a lot of different ideas, so it was fun. And then, I got introduced, I’m kind of veering here so if you want to-

Dillon Honcoop:
No, go for it.

Devin Day:
I got introduced because it was all food-oriented. So, the group itself owns some restaurants and things like that, so I was exposed to a lot of chefs and things like that early on. With my marketing and IT and technology background, I’d been exposed working in that agency side of things, so I wasn’t afraid to go and introduce myself to other chefs and things like that. So, it kind of snowballed. You had asked me earlier, “How did you get going with this?” And it really just ended up with being exposed to a lot of those people, hearing that feedback of what they were interested in. I had already been working with some chefs on some rabbits and that’s, we do a lot of rabbit protein to chefs down in Seattle and it’s expanded from there. I brought them one of the little bottles of syrup that my stepdad was cooking out in the woods, and they just freaked out. They were like, and this was a very high-end restaurant that was buying rabbits for all the fancy customers, et cetera. Once they found out, “Wait a minute …” They already used maple syrup, that was the interesting side. When they heard that this was made in Washington with maple trees up here, and that’s never been done, and the flavor profiles are very, very unique. Great for cooking applications and, like I said, they just, they had to have it.

Devin Day:
It slowly snowballed into, “You guys got to set this up so you can start selling this to us.” And that’s what we did.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, back up a little bit. You came out to work on the farm. They were doing beef and bison and other stuff, and you mention this rabbit stuff. How did that get started? I want to hear the rabbit story.

Devin Day:
Yeah, who, rabbit, right? Well, and that’s always the funny thing. It’s like, “So, you’re a rabbit farmer.” “Yeah, I raise rabbits.” So, it’s one of those things. I started to study rabbits and I started to understand how efficient rabbits were. Their manure is higher in nutrients than beef, pork, chicken. You can put it cold on, too. So, we started raising a few for ourselves just for the homesteading side of it and having some really high quality protein. Then because we were exposed to so many different restaurants and chefs already with all the other aspects of the business, it was like, “Oh, you guys have rabbits?” And it was like, “Yeah, I could expand a little bit, grow some for you.” Started with one restaurant and then another restaurant, and then now we do about 20,000 pounds of rabbit annually with probably 50,000 plus pounds of demand that we can’t currently supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. I go to the store. I don’t see rabbit.

Devin Day:
You don’t find it in the store. It’s funny. I talk to a lot of older people and they would say, “Oh, it used to always be in the grocery store.” I don’t know exactly why it disappeared. I would imagine because of the success of the marketing poultry. Maybe, maybe the whole kind of pet side of things. I don’t know. But, it is a very high quality meat. So, to give you a perspective of usage of land inputs, that sort of thing, we did probably 50 plus head of cattle. We have 200 acres to deal with those cattle. Fences, staff, labor, all over the place. And we are in one-third of an acre. I have this little field that used to be for beef and I put up my hoop houses. In probably about a third an acre, I’m putting out the same amount of protein grown per year as the 50 head of cattle. That, to me, just blows my mind. My inputs are smaller, my outputs are the same, if not more, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, are rabbits just more efficient eaters or something then? What’s the key to that? How’s that even possible?

Devin Day:
Yeah, so I think one of the key things is I have a market ready, what they call a fryer, just like a chicken, a market ready fryer in eight weeks, 60 days. No hormones, no antibiotics. It used to, when I first got started, it took me 12 weeks to get to there, to get to market ready. Once I started to research and really understand diet, animal health, when I first started, I just bought commercial rabbit feed, not knowing that there’s better food out there for animals. So, there was that. There was just overall health of the animals. There was animals per unit that you’re raising them in. All of these factors played in a big role. There’s also nutrition. So, this might sound nerdy but I learned huge, huge, huge benefits of vitamin C and huge benefits of a product called yucca, which has a very high steroidal saponin content in it. It is absolutely destroys pathogens. It destroys any sort of coccidiosis and things that you just deal with on a farm.

Devin Day:
There’s a chicken slaughter plant on here, on the property, and chickens from all sorts of farmers come in. See coccidiosis all the time and we don’t deal with that because of steroidal saponins in this yucca product, which is all natural-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s part of the feed?

Devin Day:
We put it into the feed. We get a spray dried version you can put in the water if you want to. It’s a 100% natural product that’s in all kinds of other animal feeds out there. It’s nothing that’s totally new. It’s just something that we’re … It’s very high in vitamin C, fiber, you name it. And they just, once I figured out the right recipe, so to speak, they just, their growth rates, and their genetics, I spent a lot of time finding the right genetics for the herd. It wasn’t me just jumping on Craigslist and finding a few rabbits and growing to a few thousand rabbits, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How many rabbits do you have right now?

Devin Day:
It’ll vary depending on time of year and our slaughter rate at the time, but probably anywhere from 1500 to 3000.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Devin Day:
And we’re expanding. The demand is high. We get a lot of people who have really bad autoimmune problems, and they’re a naturopath and the people that their doctors, they’re not supposed to eat meats. Rabbit’s the only one that they’re supposed to be eating according to their doctor. I get those calls all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that? Why is it different?

Devin Day:
I don’t know. For some reason, it’s just a very clean protein. Either that, or maybe their body hasn’t adjusted to that protein itself, so they’re not showing any autoimmune issue. I don’t quite know exactly but I serve probably 15 or more people that have reached out. The funny thing is is they reach out because they know the way that we raise, our lack of antibiotics, our lack of any sort of inputs to manipulate disease or growth. It’s all natural. And they do really well on it. Do really well on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Devin Day:
Have one lady that drives out from Blaine weekly and buys like five rabbit and off she goes. So, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you talk about, you have a third of an acre and you can raise this much protein. Part of that is because of the amount of protein per pound of meat is a lot higher than beef, right?

Devin Day:
Well, when I say protein, I mean like poundage of meat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Devin Day:
Yep, yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because even per pound, there’s more protein in rabbit mean, right?

Devin Day:
So, I can take … Yes. I can take three does, three female rabbits and one buck, which is the male sire, and I can grow up to 600 pounds annually with those three. So, the amount of … So, they’ll do roughly about nine litters a year and the average cycle of litters annually will give you about 600 pounds of meat. So if you’re, and that’s the thing too, let’s say if you’re, you don’t have a lot of property but you want to be able to raise your own meat as well but you don’t have … you don’t have the property for a cow or you don’t have the energy or time for a cow, you can have three does, which is, you can, the housing you have to have for them is very minimal, and one buck and raise 600 pounds of meat per year for yourself. They’re very easy to home slaughter and they’re extremely healthy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the amount of space, if you’re talking about a couple hundred acres of beef, of ground to have 50 head of beef on, they’re eating all that grass and stuff though. These rabbits, they aren’t just fed by the grass that grows on the third of an acre, are they? Because you’re bringing in feed as well.

Devin Day:
Yeah. So, we have a garage that we converted into a fodder house, fodder beans, sprouted barley, so we do a lot of natural inputs into those. So, we do bring in a commercial feed that’s a custom blend from a local mill. We do have a mill on site that is almost ready, so by spring we should be 100% all inputs from the farm so fresh sprouted barley, which is very high protein and they just love that-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re growing the barley or you bring it in?

Devin Day:
So, we can do 1000 pounds a day in the facility that we converted. So, we do that. We also do a lot of … we have about a third of an acre of comfrey that we do, which is high protein. And we also grow all our own hay as well, so we have a lot of inputs to be … and there’s also, there’s a local, the place where we get our barley, they do malted barley. So they have a process where they actually sprout their barley and then they dry it all in the same machine, and then those sprouted that they dry, the grass that comes off and gets dried out, is an extremely high protein. We can actually take what is a waste product for them-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it Skagit Malting?

Devin Day:
It is, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
On there, they’re like the biggest and one of the only in the region.

Devin Day:
It’s a local … Yeah, so that’s been a really cool opportunity as well. So, just every single input is something. That input is a waste product for them, but an extremely … if we had to go buy that as an input and it’s a waste product for them, if we had to buy that as an input, it’d be a very expensive product. So, we’ve been very lucky to have just these really natural … And that’s the thing, too, is we give tours all the time. Chefs will come and they’re just like, “Wow.” It’s so vertically integrated that it’s all just single source, it’s raised here. It’s bred here, it’s processed here. It’s packed here, it’s delivered. We do all the deliveries ourselves down through Seattle region and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And again, it’s mostly chefs and restaurants that are driving this demand right now?

Devin Day:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because rabbit, like we were talking about earlier, it’s not something you find in the grocery store. It’s really not a common meat anymore. As you were mentioning, it used to be a lot more common. So it’s just kind of coming back.

Devin Day:
And that’s the thing. Like I came from, like I said, a tech marketing internet marketing background, you’re always looking for a niche, right? I don’t want to do something that everybody else is doing. So if you can find enough people for that niche, there you go. And it was funny, I said, “Hey …” I told my wife, I said, “Let’s try selling it online.” Because another benefit with rabbits is it’s not licensed by the USDA. It’s FDA regulated. So, I don’t have the same interstate regulations, so I can, and it’s not like poultry, I can, with my WSDA license, I can ship all over the place-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Devin Day:
Anywhere in the nation, which is great. So the demand, I optimized my site because I had an SEO background. My rankings on Google skyrocketed organically because I knew what I was doing. I said, “Okay babe, let’s flip the switch.” I flipped the switch, and literally I woke up the next morning with a few orders and I’m like, “Oh boy.” So, we started shipping and again, we shipped to individuals and I take it down to my local little small town post office, and off it goes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do people get weird about eating rabbit?

Devin Day:
Not if they’re buying it.

Dillon Honcoop:
But the perception, especially until they’ve tried it is, “Oh, that’s weird.” Or maybe-

Devin Day:
There are a few out there. I’ve had those conversations. But usually when I explain the benefit versus their understanding of it, they tend to be like, “Oh wow, that’s really interesting. That makes a lot of sense. Wow, okay.” And then when I tell them we used to do beef and we needed 200 acres and now we don’t do that and now I grow it in a third of an acre, they’re like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” So, I don’t usually get the, “Oh, you’re an evil rabbit raiser.” I know that there’s those folks out there that are kind of sensitive to that. But the good, I mean, they’re almost the ideal meat in a way. They’re such a clean animal. So, that’s … So, they slaughter in a very clean fashion, where you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
What about the cute factor, though? People think rabbits are cute, so it may be harder for them to-

Devin Day:
Yeah. Well, if you come over and get bit by a few rabbits, they’re not going to be as cute to you as they are.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with cows being kicked, pushed, they’re smelly. I don’t have any problem eating cows, but some people do.

Devin Day:
Yeah, no they are, and that’s the thing is that the kind of compartmentalization. We adore and go far and beyond, even for a rabbit that’s hurt or … we have this attachment to them, but at the same time, we understand and have what they’re for. They’re for the food system. We also have a bunch of pets, too, rabbits. All my kids have their own pet rabbits. They’re different breeds but these are bred as a commercial meat rabbit. That’s the breeders and the breed and the strain that I bought them for and from and they are quite a different animal than your standard pet. So, but it’s kind of having a respect for them at the same time. We … I’ll tell you a really … My wife still teases me about this sometimes, in a fun way. So, I had a mom that had a litter and it really, and it’s not because of the revenue factor, but I hate when rabbits, when they’re born and they don’t make it. It bothers me. We’ve had a very high success rate from where we started to now of our birthrates staying very high. But it still bugs me. I try to get to 100% because I just, I don’t like losing rabbits and it’s not because I’m thinking, “Oh, that guy doesn’t get to go to slaughter in eight weeks.” It’s because it’s a life at that point.

Devin Day:
So, I thought, “I wonder …” You ever seen that scene in 101 Dalmatians where he’s rubbing the dog and it comes back to life, the little puppies when they’re born? Well, I actually gave a baby rabbit just born that was stillborn mouth-to-mouth because I just … Just little, little, puff, puff, little chest compressions. It was a total blob in my hand. It wasn’t firm, like normal little … And it took this huge, and it was just out of curiosity, took this huge gasp of air. And within like two minutes was firm, hard and just as healthy as the other ones. Blew my mind. And I’ve done that many times now because some reason they come out not breathing, if you get a little bit of air in their lungs and they’re so tiny, you don’t even have to really do much. You just get a little air moving through their nostrils and air vent and they, a lot of times, just pop right back up. Take a big gasp and there they are.

Devin Day:
It’s weird. You learn a lot of these little things that you’d never think of, and I think of all the little babies that I could have saved if I’d known that. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. It reminds me of Erica Deward that we had on the podcast a while back. She raises dairy cows and a lot of people get grossed out, but she tells the story all the time, she does CPR, mouth-to-mouth quite a bit on dairy calves. It works. It’s a real thing.

Devin Day:
No, it’s still to this day … the other thing that works really well is, and again, we don’t use any pharmaceuticals, so there’s never withdrawal period, even with the breeders themselves. We use high dose vitamin C. I have had little kits, they’re called, but little baby rabbits just born, and various issues or whatever. If there’s ever an issue that goes beyond something that isn’t like it came out not breathing or something like that, I’ll give it a little shot of high dose vitamin C. So, for us, the equivalent of kilograms of my body weight, if I were to take what I gave the rabbit, it would probably be 30-40,000 milligrams of vitamin C, and they come right back.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Devin Day:
Especially if it’s anything viral or bacterial. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they’re animals. They have their things.

Devin Day:
I just don’t want to piss off the pharmaceutical companies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Devin Day:
But yeah, it’s an amazing thing. It works time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time ad nauseum again. It is, when traditional hasn’t worked, works almost every time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family. You’ve talked about your wife and making decision to go from town to farm and do that whole switch, and kids too. You were mentioning they’ve got some pets and stuff. How big is your family? How many kids do you have? How old are they?

Devin Day:
I have four kids. So, one is right in that decision making of looking for his first place, so he’s 20. The other one is, jeez, my wife is going to smack me. No, 14. No, just turned 15. 15, 13, and just turned 11 recently. Two boys, two girls-

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that … you were talking about, that was a part of the draw to go to the farming world. What has that meant for your kids and your family?

Devin Day:
Oh, they’ve loved it. We have … We’re on the Nooksack River so we have, they get to go down there all the time if they want. They have 200 acres to roam around on, which is cool. All the time we have two UTV vehicles and my youngest, who just turned 11, I’ll be working somewhere and I’ll see her way across the field just, “Do-do-do-do.” Flying down in one of the vehicles, doing one of her own projects. I’m just like, I love it. I love it.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was me growing up.

Devin Day:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
I had my motorcycle and I was out doing this, that and the other thing.

Devin Day:
So, that’s been good. They … It’s everything we do here, it’s family-run. The maple, the rabbits, my wife, she does all the breeding. She’s kind of the project manager of the up close and personal with all the rabbits. She breeds them. She clips all their nails. She brushes them. So, every time they get bred, it’s kind of spa day for the does, and she takes care of all that. She keeps all the records, breeding records, all that kind of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your kids going to get into farming at all? Have they worked-

Devin Day:
They’re all helping right now, yeah. We just added a bunch … we added 600 egg chickens, which was probably not a good … that, I probably should have waited a little while on.

Dillon Honcoop:
We were just talking about chickens being smelly.

Devin Day:
Yeah, I know. So, yeah, go big or go home, right? So, all the kids help. They feed, they water, they help clean. They do everything with us. So it’s a side-by … what’s cool though, is the amount of entrepreneurial side of things that they’ve learned is great. They’ve seen mom and dad start from scratch multiple businesses, and they’re both doing really well now. So, they get to see that, they get to participate in that. They get to ask questions. They get to understand all of the factors that go into it because mom does bookkeeping, dad does deliveries. Dad does slaughter, dad builds out and designs WSDA facilities. Dad, you know so you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
Does SEO. Don’t forget about the website stuff.

Devin Day:
Yeah, he does all of the web stuff. So they get to see every aspect of it and they’ve learned a ton. And all the time, they’re coming up with their own ideas and participating and solving problems. It’s been good. It’s been real good.

Dillon Honcoop:
The way you describe that is farming is so much more than the old guy in overalls turning dirt. The tech part of it. The construction part of it. The family part of it. Working with the animals. There’s just so multifaceted.

Devin Day:
Yeah. Farming is, in a lot of ways, to me, and the way I’ve approached it is very different than … I think it was Joe Salatan, I’ve watched a lot of his content over the years, and he’s always talking about the age of farmers. The average farmer is 60 plus years old. So, the way I’ve approached it, there is a lot of aspects to it and I’m actually, because of today’s market access, that’s one of the biggest things I’ve heard other farmers talk about, and I think I was very lucky to have worked in that sales, marketing, that whole role because I wasn’t afraid to go out there and get my hands dirty to talking to people. I’ll walk right into a restaurant I don’t even know the chef. I’ll introduce myself. I’ll take him a product. I do have the benefit of a pretty unique story. Maple syrup made in Washington. There’s nothing like that in the United States. We’re the first. And then, a rabbit with probably the highest meat to beat bone ratio they’ve ever seen.

Devin Day:
So, the conversation goes well quickly. I’m not bringing in a very common product. So, that’s been a good selling point. But I had to think that through beforehand. I could have done potatoes or chickens or broccoli or something. But I wanted to do something a little different. And we kind of stumbled into the maple but the rabbits were a little bit of a process of understanding a niche because it’s not common.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ve kind of touched on the maple stuff but we haven’t really gotten into that. So, your stepdad was kind of playing with this, like you described, cooking out in the woods. No, not meth. He was cooking maple syrup in the woods, proving essentially that you can do maple syrup out here because-

Devin Day:
We were told for, told and told and told that it’s not possible to do, even by most of the experts in air quotes. And we’re doing it. Not in large quantities yet. We do about 200 gallons annually right now, which is, for the ratio you need on the West Coast versus the East Coast of sap to a finished product, we’re at times almost double. So you’ve got to collect a lot of sap. I kind of, just for ease of math consider it 100 to one. On the East Coast, it’s like 40 to one. Oftentimes, it’s even more than double. I just used that … and it’s often, right in that 75. I would say that after all the years of doing it, the average sap to finished maple syrup ratio is probably 75 to one on the West Coast, so you need a lot. We probably collect about 25-30000 gallons of sap a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
To get the 200-

Devin Day:
To get the 200-

Dillon Honcoop:
Gallons of finished product?

Devin Day:
Yeah. But we also get 10 times the price for it as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Break down in a nutshell, what is that process of collecting sap? I think the old school understanding and people who’ve seen the pictures from back East, where it’s a huge thing, somebody tapping a tree and I think old school way was I think hanging a bucket on a tree and that was it-

Devin Day:
Hanging a bucket, yeah. When we started … When we first started, it was all gravity, meaning, and by gravity I mean you’d drill a little hole, you put your tap in. You have a little tube that goes into a bucket sitting on the ground with a little hole in it so you’re not getting much rainwater in it. That was, that’s how we started. We would go out and we would have all these little buckets everywhere, and it was a very tedious process. You had to lug these five gallon jugs, one in each hand, and that’s five times eight, that’s 40 pounds in each hand. And you’re walking and tripping. It was a lot of work. So, we started that way and he would take it up in his truck and go to his little handmade boiler and cook out in the woods. The woods being next to his shop by his house.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Devin Day:
It mainly started as Christmas gifts and it just, the word got out. I took some samples to chefs. But it was that process that encouraged him to take it to the next step. Understand what they do on the East Coast, get a little more technical. Put a little technology into it. So, he hooked up a trailer, got in his truck, grabbed his wife and headed off to Wisconsin to buy one of those big stainless steel evaporators that cooks sap. Brought it back with some other equipment-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you pull the sap from the trees essentially, and that goes into this-

Devin Day:
Evaporator-

Dillon Honcoop:
Evaporator, which is basically cooking it down.

Devin Day:
There is one other step prior to that which is, so you have all the taps running. It’s like a big vein system, and all these connect back to a big mainline that runs through the woods.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tubes everywhere.

Devin Day:
Yep, tubes everywhere. So it looks like a big artery system running through the woods. And then it comes back to a vacuum system in a little pump house.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what does this syrup taste like? What have people been saying about it?

Devin Day:
Well, it’s a little thicker than your traditional East Coast. There’s more minerals. There’s, because of that concentrated level that you have to, you know, the gallons that you need, you get a bit more caramel type flavors that come out. You get hints of vanilla. You even, if you have good taste buds and you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, you can pull out little hints of coffee, all kinds of stuff. Because of the rarity factor and just because of the kind of different flavor profiles, it’s been far more used as like cooking and pastries and recipes and sauces. One of the restaurants that we work with down in Seattle, they replaced all their refined sugar with it because it’s not … I mean, you tasted it, right? It’s very sweet, but it’s not overly sweet, right? It’s got a lot of depth to it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Devin Day:
So, it’s been very popular from a cooking standpoint and a recipe standpoint. Just to give you kind of an understand of quantities that are made, there’s about 12 million gallons of East Coast syrup made annually in the US. There’s 200 gallons, 200 gallons of Big Leaf Maple. So, these are different species of maple over here. So, it’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus the sugar maple?

Devin Day:
Versus the sugar maple from the East Coast. And so, it’s … And because of our forestry practices here, you find these little pockets of Big Leaf maple groves, and when you do, it’s kind of like a … for us, it’s like a little mini gold rush. You’re out hunting and you find these groves of maple or you talk to somebody that works on state land or something. They’ve given us access to go up and look and hunt and find and test and see how the trees run up there. It’s gotten a lot of attention from that perspective because it was a weed. They poisoned the maple so they’ll quit growing but often they just continued to grow because they’re like a weed. They just won’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, I know you see a certain huge sustainability opportunity with this maple syrup thing, especially out here on the West Coast.

Devin Day:
Yeah. If you look at all the ways to deal with our changing climates and things like that, there’s one of the top ways, if you go and study it, is planting trees. There’s a lot of really good articles and there’s a lot of news coming out now, and planting trees is up there. So, what we see is because the tree itself living provides the revenue source, it continues … it’s like it’s own economic engine. The more you plant, the more you can continue this economic energy. But the trees themselves, they’re a huge shading factor for streams. They rebuild soils every year with the leaves that fall. They … just the trees themselves, they pull carbon out. There’s so many factors that go into them, you don’t have to cut them down. That’s the great part.

Devin Day:
They provide habitat for animals, bugs, just diversity. And the cooler thing is they need zero irrigation. They need zero fertilizing. They don’t need any inputs. You plant them and they grow like a weed.

Dillon Honcoop:
They can grow on poor ground too, right?

Devin Day:
They can grow on pretty poor ground. They can grow on very wet ground too, so it’s kind of like when you have [inaudible 00:38:51] areas and wetland areas and they’re planting that to remain that way. A maple’s a really good tree that can thrive in those kind of areas. So, you can have these non-prime so to speak agriculture areas where you could plant these along creeks and streams and this and they’ll continue to provide a high quality sap that is extremely … the demand is so high right now. We’re backed up years in … we just can’t produce enough and-

Dillon Honcoop:
But there’s only 200 gallons. How far can that demand go? How much of a market do you think is there? Is there any way to even tell?

Devin Day:
Well, they produce 12 million gallons on the East Coast and it hasn’t slowed down. So, I can only imagine how much we could produce here as … and because of the flavor profile, it’s not a replacement. It’s not a … but it’s something that can become another food product out there that can continue to provide reforestation. So, you look at all the hills around here and they’re either clear cut. You have a lot of fir trees with laminated root rot or beetle disease. So, there is a lot of revenue potential as a crop that you don’t have to destroy when the crop is done. There’s no tilling. There’s no … For me, it checks all the boxes. It’s been a pretty amazing … All of those factors combined is why it’s getting a ton of attention. Most of these, a lot of the schools are funded with the state lands and the forestry and things like that, and this is definitely another avenue of funding that can go into the forestry program.

Devin Day:
Just as an aside to that, you talk about where could this go? What’s it doing? We’ve proven that commercially, it’s desired. That it’s doable, and that it can be done on the West Coast. All it needs is some scaling. But like University of Washington, we’ve been working with them. They actually got a pretty large grant that is for a maple program and research for maple syrup, it’s from USDA. And normally East Coast, it would be funding on the East Coast with one of the schools over there, Cornell or some of the schools that have maple programs. But they got the grant because of the article we had in Seattle Magazine showing that the commercial aspect of maple syrup on the West can be done.

Devin Day:
So, now they’re diving into the research. Washington State University has been calling and discussing the whole viability of this on this side. And there’s so much untapped trees out there that it’s a very viable, potential program without doing a lot of damage. Once you put up the infrastructure, it can be there for 10 plus years before you need to replace lines. So, every year, that same revenue stream is there without having to remove the tree to get that profit. That just … that’s mind blowing to me. And then you can, we’re working on ways to row crop it, like raspberries, and the revenue per acre, it’s huge. Huge with the Big Leaf Maples.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future? Not just this but farming and farming here in Washington State?

Devin Day:
I talk to foodies all the time. Like the new generation of foodies, the new generation of chefs, the new generation of farmers. And, a lot of it just comes to overall practice. There’s a lot of stigma right now … you hear the whole thing of, “Oh, we got to get rid of meat and everyone’s got to start having a plant-based diet.” I don’t know. I think a lot of it is just … Thinking about it, I have a kind of a concept that I looked at called small food, and it kind of evolved as I was doing the rabbits from the transition of the cows. It’s not necessarily that we need to stop eating meat or that we’re all going to start eating bugs like you read in some of the articles. I’m not going to start eating bugs for my protein source. But I think we have to be thinking and conscious about how we’re doing things. If you think about it, today, I think that farming is going to move … You can hear next door. We’re next door to … they’re cooking syrup next door and you can hear the filter pump kick on, and it’s bub-bub-bub-bub-bub. It’s awesome.

Devin Day:
It’s not just about having a unique food. It’s about how to scale it and get … it’s very hard right now with the mechanisms in place to get to that marketplace, and naturally-

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus the cost of getting there-

Devin Day:
Plus the cost of getting there, absolutely-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that cost makes it difficult for instance to feed the masses.

Devin Day:
And that’s the thing is I’ve been lucky because I know how to develop business models. I know how to think through niches, so I’m in a unique position. I am excited to see these things evolve in a way where those marketplaces get opened up to small farmers. Right now, it’s all CSAs and farmer’s markets. Those aren’t really large growth factors for opening up big market channels for these farmers to scale.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fascinating. Thank you for sharing your story and journey to this point. It’s going to be fun to watch some of the stuff that you … I mean, you’ve already come up with so much here already and you strike me as the kind of person who’s going to keep coming up with more and more stuff.

Devin Day:
Yeah, it’s growing rapidly. It’s a lot of fun. And yeah, we’ll … The biggest thing that I like doing is sharing the information. I don’t … to me, this isn’t about profit. It’s about making change, and I’m not talking about just the sappy side of let’s change. I mean truly getting people involved in something that benefits them, benefits the market, benefits the animals, benefits the planet. It’s got to be that whole picture and I love sharing that information because it’s not just about making profit.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people are ready for that. They’re done with the slogans-

Devin Day:
Yeah, they are-

Dillon Honcoop:
And they want real-

Devin Day:
Absolutely. I totally agree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Devin Day:
Yeah, appreciate it.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Seriously, that maple syrup was incredible. You really should try it if you can manage to get your hands on it. As he was explaining, they make so little of it and the demand is just growing like crazy. Thanks again for joining us for the podcast today with Devin Day. As you can tell, he’s a super outside the box thinker, does really unique stuff and has such a cool story to share as well about his family and his background and what he sees for the future, too. I think we’ll be talking with him again on the podcast. I know he has so many ideas about what farming could look like.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, this is the Real Food, Real People podcast documenting my journey to hear farmer’s real stories and share them with you here on the podcast as well as at realfoodrealpeople.org. Please subscribe if you can on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Google Podcasts and the list goes on and on and on from there. Pretty much any podcast platform, you can find us. Also feel free to drop me an email any time you have an idea for the show, some feedback, maybe something you liked or didn’t like or whatever. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Again, thanks for being here and we will catch you next week on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online on savefamilyfarming.org.

Sandi Bammer | #009 02/10/2020

In the face of big challenges, Sandi Bammer opened her own local food store in downtown Wenatchee, Wash. She shares how hard it can be to bring locally-grown food to her community, what she's learned from the farmers she's worked with over the years, and why she's no longer a vegan.

Transcript

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Seeing what they’re doing and watching them post pictures of their land five years ago versus their land now and reading about the carbon sequestering abilities of grassland, and regenerative farming, all of this stuff I think that that has really changed my perception of the meat/dairy/egg industry.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast.

(music)

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So I’m in Wenatchee for a meeting a couple of weeks ago just walking down the street. I’d never been in downtown Wenatchee, you go to check it out and I stumbled on this little grocery store right in the heart of downtown and I had to walk in. So I checked it out and up on the board was, “Know Your Farmers,” and all this stuff about buying local food, and the woman behind the counter ended up being the owner of this little shop, so I invited her to join us for a conversation here on the podcast.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I went back to my car, got my gear, and we just set up right there in the middle of the store with the coolers running in the background and it just happened. The name of the store was Rhubarb Market and Sandi Bammer is the owner. We had a great conversation about so many things. I got to know her as we recorded the podcast. It was a really, really cool experience and totally an unexpected stop on my journey across Washington State to get to know people behind our food. I’m Dillon Honcoop, this is the Real Food, Real People Podcast. And thank you for joining us this week.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
(music)

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So I met you earlier today and you have this incredible store in Downtown Wenatchee, which is where we are right now.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, in the store.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
In the middle of the store.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Downtown.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So, tell me about the store. How did this get started? What is the store? What’s it all about?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
okay, so it started… I’ve had the store for almost six years, I’ve just moved downtown. I moved it last summer, so I moved in in June and I just opened the doors to the public in November because it took a long time to get things ready. The way it came about, I worked for a nonprofit, as I was telling you earlier, and I worked for them only for a year, but I’d been involved with them for probably five years prior as a volunteer. And I was part of a group called [Eat 00:02:44] which was education and agriculture together and we did a bunch of educational, I don’t know, programs and we did like farmer, restaurant meetups and tried to just… The local food scene in Wenatchee, I guess, I was part of that and after the nonprofit closed down, I didn’t want to see the store go away and I also couldn’t find a job in Wenatchee, so I decided that I either had to move or I would start my own business. So I opened Rhubarb and it’s been six years of, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So wha-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
A little bit of struggle, local food and have… So the store itself, I guess my mission is to buy and connect the community with local food as much as possible. Now, the store I worked for for the nonprofit, we only sold things that were grown in North central Washington. So we were pretty limited and I was the store manager, I ran the CSA and I noticed that customers would come in and they’d say, “Oh, if we could get coffee here that would be great.” They’d come pick up their CSA. And so there were all these things that I thought, “If I had a store, I would do this.” And so it’s been great because I definitely… Not everything is local I try to get as much local as I can, but we have a good variety. I call myself Wenatchee’s greengrocer, our focus is vegetables.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
We buy direct from small family farms most of the time, in the winter I do use a distributor a little bit to supplement so I have more than carrots and [crosstalk 00:04:17].

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, people still need a reason to come in.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, for sure. So yeah, and I don’t know, we’re just like a fun little grocery in downtown Wenatchee, which I think it’s going to be a fun spot for us because there’s a lot going on downtown now. There’s people living here, there’s a lot of people working downtown and I think we add a fun, I don’t know, to the mix. We’re good, we’ll mix in well.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Being here I realized, I don’t think I’ve ever actually spent time in downtown Wenatchee until today when I was strolling along and happened upon your market, what people do you serve? Who comes in, who is really interested in what you’re all about like your loyal customer base?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So I think they’re definitely motivated by buying local. There’s… I have a core group of people that have followed Kim who was the originator of farmhouse table and then me and they like the idea, they love coming in and seeing the list of the farms that we buy from. They know that I know all the farmers, they like that I can tell them stories about where their food has been coming from, they know that they can ask me how to make something or what do they use rutabagas for. It’s just, I think they come in because it’s more personable than going to the grocery store in many ways, they know where their food is coming from, they can talk to somebody about their food, they’re people who really like to eat, they’re people who are excited about organic and sustainable and…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Is all of your stuff organic?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Not everything. My first… I want to buy local first, not everybody gets certified organic. Most of them grow organically, but some of the smaller folks don’t get certified. I think there’s a lot of people now and maybe will disagree with me, but there’s some people now who don’t think organic, getting the certification is necessarily worth it. They either sell direct, they have relationships with people so they’ll say we’re better than organic. And so…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What do you think about that issue, what’s your personal take on that? People get so passionate about that sometimes.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I work with-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
One way or the other.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I work with a lot of growers who do both and talking to them they’re like, “We wish people knew that we don’t just go out and dump a bunch of cancer causing chemicals on your food, it’s our orchard too, it’s our land.” They try to be very deliberate about… And that organic, it’s not necessarily better. There’s some nasty things that go into organic pesticides as well and you still have to control for that stuff.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You have to be careful regardless.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, so I mean-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Maybe that’s why these people are saying they’re better than organic because people want to know them and that they trust them specifically.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, I think that there’s definitely something about that. Knowing who is growing your food, they’ll tell you, “This is what we’re doing, this is why we’re doing it.” Like, “Yes we use this, but we use it because at this targeted time because this one bug will destroy our crop.” And I don’t know, it’s…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, a while back on the podcast, just actually up the road from here in Orondo I was talking with April Clayton with Red Apple Orchards and they do mostly organic, but as she talked about here on the podcast, they actually quit doing organic with their cherry trees because the organic stuff that they had to use to control a couple of things was killing the trees. So they found it was actually better to go the other way, but all their apples are still organic. It’s-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I think when most people think of organic they just want to know if there’s nasty stuff on their food and the organic label includes a lot more than just that, and conventional doesn’t always mean that there’s nasty stuff on your food. I’m not a farmer though, so I can’t speak really intelligently to that.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
That’s what I’m interested, how did you get involved in the world of food if you aren’t, and did you grow up on a farm or what drew you to this?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
No I did not grow up on a farm, but my family always had big gardens, we grew a lot of our own food.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Where did you grow up?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I grew up in Spokane. My grandparents were wheat farmers in Montana, but that was not my experience they didn’t live on the farm. Visited but never lived there, but we had big gardens, my grandma canned, that kind of thing. And then when I moved, I moved to Bellingham to go to college, I was a vegetarian, I was concerned about the environment, and I just started getting involved in local food, sustainability, environmentalism. There’s a lot of things that happened, I traveled, then I saw like, “Oh, I…” For me, I was a vegetarian for a long time. When I started getting involved in local food and I could see where my food was coming from, I started eating meat again because it made me feel better to know that animals were being cared for, the land is being cared for, that kind of thing. I just I worked at Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham for many years and-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Love those guys.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I think sustainable connections was just getting started and, so Boundary jumped on that and we were sourcing a lot of local food and I just started getting into that. I like to eat, I like good food so… And then when I moved here, that was the way that I thought I could hook up with people of similar interests. So I sought out a local food movement and that’s how I got involved with [Eat 00:09:50] and community farm connections, and just went from there.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But that wasn’t what brought you here to-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
To Wenatchee?

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
No.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Did you come here from Bellingham or what was the journey?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I did, I moved here from Bellingham. I fell in love and he lived here and I lived there, and one of us had to move. So I came here, which is great I love Wenatchee. It’s funny because there is a lot of opportunity in Wenatchee. I think this store probably wouldn’t have happened in Bellingham because there’s a ton of stuff already going on like that in Bellingham, it would’ve been a hard market to break into where here nobody was… Community Farm Connection was its own thing nobody else is doing that, and then I think what I’m doing is my own thing. Nobody else here is doing anything really like this. So, I don’t know. Pybus is doing some stuff similar, but…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So, talk about your time though with this nonprofit. You were working with farmers then to start making some connections between-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So we try-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Growers and…?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, they did a lot of different things. There’s kind of an umbrella organization that had these separate programs underneath. So we did a CSA, we did the farm store, we did a farm to chef program, we did a farm to school program trying to get local food into the schools and a lot of just educational… We would, I don’t know, they would go to the schools and educate like, “What’s this month’s vegetable?” I wasn’t involved with those. I worked with mostly the… I worked with the CSA and the farm store I didn’t do a lot of the other stuff, and it ended up being that there were other groups that were picking up some of that work.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Like I said I think, we had a really hard time with farm to chef, farm to school was easier. The school district was pretty, especially at that time. There were some great people who are really into getting local food into the schools and so that made it easier. The hardest was working the restaurants, I think here in Wenatchee it just wasn’t quite the time, there wasn’t quite the demand for local food in the restaurants from the customers and then that makes it hard for the owners to see a real value in going through the extra effort to get local food. A lot of people use the term local food, but not everybody wants to follow through or they’ll do one thing local on the menu and say, “We serve local food here.” It can be difficult with them.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And the nonprofit dissolved for many different reasons that nonprofits dissolve and, like I said, I didn’t want to see the storefront go away because I saw that as the most useful community building connection with consumer and being able to get that out. And I didn’t want to see the CSA go away because at the time there weren’t a lot of farm CSAs in this area. I think there were maybe two in Leavenworth, there weren’t any in Wenatchee, and over the past five years that I’ve been open there’s been more that started in both Leavenworth and Wenatchee, but I still think that I have a, or I serve a purpose in the… I can buy from farms that are maybe too small to have their own CSA, but they can still sell a fairly large quantity of stuff through my CSA.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Explain a CSA for people who maybe aren’t familiar with how that works.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So traditionally it’s… So CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and it started as a way for a farm to get some seed money literally early on in January and February. So people will buy a share on your farm you-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It’s subscription basically.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah. So you pay upfront, the farmer gets money, they buy the seed supplies that they need, and then you get a share. So all summer they’re supplying you with whatever’s coming fresh off of the farm. And so we sort of… That’s what we do, we buy from 15 to 20 different farms. So we call it [inaudible 00:14:02] a cooperative CSA, some of the farms we work with have their own CSA, some are just wholesale farms, some do market and sell to us. So we buy from a variety of people, but it serves the same purpose for us. I have people who are signing up right now, which is great because January is my slowest time of the year so it helps me get through until spring, and then we can provide them great food all summer.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You mentioned that some farms that [inaudible 00:14:31] the CSA doesn’t quite work out. I haven’t really thought about this before, but really you have to grow a certain breadth of different things.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, you have to grow a lot of stuff if you want to have a CSA off of your own farm, which for some people is…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So if you just want to be like, “Hey, I love growing broccoli, I’m really good at broccoli, my ground is perfect for that, that’s what I do.” You can’t do a CSA?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Right, you can’t do a CSA off your farm, no. Yeah, and there’s a lot of places that do that or they maybe just grow five different things because they sell a lot wholesale or they sell certain things to restaurants and those are the things that they specialize in, but they wouldn’t be able to do a CSA. So, I think it’s that we provide something for those guys because we can buy stuff from them for our CSA.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Absolutely.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, it’s just a… Like I said, and some of the farms we work with do have their own CSA, which is great because they grow a huge variety of things and we get some really fun stuff from them, but I don’t really see it as a competition. I just think the more people that are able to do that it just brings it to more people. There’s a lot of people in the Valley here who are potential CSA customers, so there’s no… I would love to see more farms do it. More farms do those kinds of things, but the fact that we have such a variety of different farms doing different things is great for us because we benefit from what everyone is doing for sure.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It sounds more and more, as I think about this issue with bringing local food to people who eat everybody in our communities is not the growing of the food, it’s the process of getting it to them from that farmer to the eater. And like you’re talking about getting food in restaurants or CSAs, there’s always these complicating factors like sourcing is challenging. Like a restaurant, they don’t want to have to deal with it. We heard that on this podcast a while back from Nails Brisbane working at Canlis and Seattle and they’re trying to do all this local food, but it took a huge amount of his time just to manage all of that.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, for me doing the CSA I can call 10 to 15 farmers in a week to try to see what they have, what’s fresh, what’s coming up, what do you think is going to be available, and not all chefs or restaurants have the time to do that. So it makes it a lot easier when they can just… They get an order form from Charlie’s Produce or FSA and they can just tick off what they want and it comes all in one delivery. So it’s definitely, I think, sourcing and using local food, it’s not… Like you said, it’s not always about the growing it’s how you get it to market, even farmer’s markets are great and they’re great community. A great way to connect with the community, but even that is for a farmer sometimes sitting in the hot sun for eight hours, you have to get there really early, you stay all day, you don’t always make a lot of money.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
It’s a great way to connect with the community, it’s maybe not always the best way to get all of your food out. So, we have a lot of farmers that just don’t do farmer’s market they don’t like it. We have some farmers that love doing the farmer’s market, but it’s just interesting how the different ways to try to get food out to the community… Again, I think we provide a store front we’re like a farmer’s market all week long, you can come in and get the stuff that you could get down there as well. It’s not always convenient for everyone to go down to the market, I’m not knocking farmer’s markets at all I love them, but it’s not always the best way to get the maximum amount of your food out to the community if you’re a farmer, I think.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And what you’re saying speaks to the individuality of farmers too and their operations, what they know how to do, what they’re comfortable with. What’s it like working with farmers? Because a lot of people want to know what’s up with farmers, what farmers are like but don’t know them, you know a lot of them.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I can’t speak, there’s definitely not a type. There’s all types of people who farm, which is awesome, for me it’s great. I know a lot of really cool people that are doing really cool things, but I would say that there probably is an individualism streak in all of them because they are doing what they’re doing, but there’s no one type of person. I have farmers, I work with people who’ve been doing it for 30 plus years, I work with people who just started two years ago, people who worked on someone else’s farm and they wanted to start their own, people who’ve never farmed at all and they’re like, “I’m going to be a farmer.” It’s cool, they all have a desire to do something meaningful and they’re their own boss and all of those things, but I don’t know.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I work with a lot of really cool people, but it is definitely like a person that… There’s all kinds of personalities, they’re all very passionate about what they do for sure. It’s really cool on my end to work with those people and you see the effort and the work that it takes and the love hate relationship you have with it. I don’t know, it’s… I wish more people could see that from where their… I think you would appreciate your food more if more people knew their farmers or where their food was coming from.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
No, that’s why we’re-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
It’s really hard work, I’m very thankful for the people that grow the food because I don’t think I could do it, I don’t think I could be a farmer for sure.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And that’s why we’re doing this podcast. We have a lot of farmers on and other people behind the food like you because you aren’t a farmer, but like we were just talking about sometimes the hard part’s growing the food and everybody knows the hard work outside in the dirt with the animals, whatever it might be. Then also all this complicated stuff of what you’re doing here, a store and all the infrastructure that goes with it and the sourcing and the relationships and business and all that stuff. It’s a lot, you obviously have a huge amount of passion for it to do this just like a farmer has to have passion to be out in the hot sun working for hours on end.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, I think so. I like to think so, I do have a lot of passion for this. I don’t want to equate what I do as being as hard as what they do, but it’s…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Having grown up… I’ll just say this, having grown up and who’ve been around a lot of farmers my whole life, there were some who would much rather do this or do what they’re doing then do this is what I’m trying to say.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, everyone has their role to play I guess is-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Exactly.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And I’m happy to have this part of it for sure, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What about big farms versus small farms?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I think probably the biggest farm I work with would be like Nash’s Organic and [Squim 00:21:32], they’re a really big farm. They have a lot of land, but I still feel like what… I don’t feel like they’re too big, my felling is that they’re not. I don’t know how their farmers feel about that, I work-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So what would feel too big to you and what would be your concern with a big farm? Or a too big farm I should say.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So, I guess losing the relationship. So I think I said earlier in the winter, I do use a distributor, I use organically grown company, they’re out of Oregon, they’re like a farmer owned cooperative distributor. I like them because they do work with smaller farms, they’re super transparent about where their food is coming from, I can ask questions and they have the answers, but I still try when I order from them, I try to get it from the Northwest. I ask them to make sure if it’s available, I want it from a small family farm like P- and I don’t even really know what… In my head I think that that is, a lot of the farmers that I work with here it’s two people maybe, a husband a wife, maybe one of them works outside the home as well as farming because you can’t always make a living farming.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So those are the people that I’m mostly buying from and I would stay away from the places where it’s sort of, I don’t know… And I don’t know why, mostly I think because I’m trying to support those people… I want to support those people who are trying to make a living at something that they love doing even though people who are working on large farms, they’re also trying to make a living. So I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But this is the thing a lot of people struggle with too because the ideal in a lot of people’s minds, or at least it’s trendy or whatever right now is that small family, the smaller the better, but where is that line and what’s good and what’s bad, and does it really have to do with the size or does it have to do with the mentality?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, I think, I don’t know. Maybe the mentality… I think there’s a place for both I don’t think it has to be one or the other, but it’s something that I honestly haven’t thought a ton about because I’m always just busy doing other things. I do think about it, so the first three years that I was open I didn’t use a distributor. So in the winter time I would only… I was really adamant about, “I’m only buy farm direct. I’m not going to use a distributor I’m only going to get Washington grown produce that I buy direct from the farmer.” And that was great in theory, but then there was one, and it went okay the first two years. Thankfully at that time Nash’s was growing a lot of wholesale crops and they had a fairly good variety of things that I could buy. My local farmers didn’t really have anything in the wintertime, they didn’t have a lot of storage capacity because they’re smaller farms so they wanted to be finished by the time farmer’s markets were over.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So after October it would be really hard to get food, so I was going to the West side, I relied on Nash’s fairly heavily. Nash has, they’ve started decreasing the amount of wholesale food that they’re making available so I’ve had to increase my net that I’ve cast for winter produce, and in my CSA I still put only food that’s Washington grown that I buy direct from the farmer, but for the store. So there was a really bad winter and there was… I almost went under because I think I maybe had potatoes and onions and some cabbage, that’s all I had to sell for a whole winter and then it got to be really bleak and nobody wanted to come in because that’s… I still had my really… Thank goodness for these people that would, they would come buy their potatoes and onions from me first. And I had a few other grocery things that they would get too, but before they would go to Safeway, but there wasn’t a lot of reason for people to come in.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And at that point I was like, “Okay, what service am I doing if I go under?” So that’s when I made the decision to work with a distributor, at least in the winter time so that my store had a little more to offer than potatoes and cabbage. I got really creative with cabbage we ate a cabbage that winter, but… And it’s been great because I’ve also… There’s been farmers, they’ll come and they’ll say, “Where are your gaps? What do you need? If I were to start doing something, what would you need me to grow?” So I’m always like shoulder seasons, winter we work with a great guy that does hydroponic lettuce and he’s been a lifesaver the last two years, we get this beautiful lettuce and arugula that he’s growing just right up the road, which is awesome.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So, it’s also in some ways it’s like helped expand, it gives people an idea. Some of the local farmers, they grow a little bit more now so there’s a little more that I can buy from them through the winter because they can rely on me to buy it. So they don’t need to get it all sold by the end of farmer’s market season so…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
That’s the vicious or virtuous cycle it can go either direction, right?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
As you can provide more they can grow more, and that can continue to grow.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, but back to the big farm, small farm, I don’t know… I’m thankful for some of those big farms in the winter that are able to provide stuff that my small farmers can’t, for whatever reason. They don’t have the infrastructure or they’re working to make money so that they can farm during the summer. So, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So why do you have so much passion for it?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What drive that?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I really, I don’t know… I love being, I enjoy this work because I love being my own boss, I love having a store, I love being a… I wouldn’t say I’m a hub for the community, but I feel like this definitely is a place where there’s certain people that… I love it when people run into each other and they know each other from something else and I like having that working at Boundary, honestly. We were going to open a brewery here in Wenatchee that was my dream, was to come to Wenatchee and I was going to open a brewery.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
There wasn’t any here and part of the reason I wanted to open a brewery is because I loved the community feel that boundary Bay had, they were super involved in the community, people met there, it was just a fun place to be and I wanted to have a place that was like a community meeting place that did good in the community. So the brewery didn’t work out, but this is and it’s sort of… I think maybe that’s why I have a lot of passion for it, it’s just fun being in that. I like having people come to my store and seeing people and making those connections, I love to make the connections between people, between farmers, between the community members. So, I guess that’s why.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And when-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And it’s fun to be my own boss I like that too, so…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
When you had to make that step to continue it on your own and make it your own business, what did that feel like?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I had worked service jobs, I’m super over-educated and I went to grad school and… But I always, I’d never had a professional career, I’d always been a waitress or I did a few other things, but I’d never… So it was really scary, I did not know what I was doing. I worked one year in a real job when I worked for Community Farm Connect and I felt like I worked, I had an office job. Basically I ran the store, I was in charge of the store, I was in charge of the CSA, it worked for one year and then I was like, “I’ll just start my own store.” It was ridiculously crazy, but it’s worked out. It’s been, I don’t know. I’ve made it work out.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I’ve been pretty determined that I don’t want to see this go away so I’ve worked hard to make sure that it doesn’t, but it was really scary. It’s still scary, I had to move recently so I lost my lease in March in a spot that I had been in for five years and I was pretty comfortable there. It wasn’t the best spot for some reasons, but it was a good spot for others and I was just starting to feel like I was maybe going to start making a profit, I’d been not a profitable but profitable business. I’ve been a break even business for five years, which I knew going into that one, it’s a food business really small margins too. It takes at least five years to get your feet under you, but just as I was feeling like I was going to get my feet under me, I lost my lease and I had to move.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So that was also a big scary step because it was like, “Okay, do I just call it quits now and just walk away? You tried it, you did it, it was great. Or do you make this leap, spend all this money to…” But I did, I didn’t want to see it go away and I ended up with a really great spot and I honestly think now that I’m downtown, that this could be a really good turning point for what I’m doing.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So maybe a blessing in disguise?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So much so, yeah for sure. It was so sad when I had to move, when they told me they weren’t renewing my lease I was so, so upset and there were even a few places that I thought I had that I lost. I just fell into the place that I have right now and it ended up being the perfect spot. So I’m not usually one of those people that’s like, “Oh, everything works out for a reason.” But it really did so I’m super happy to be downtown, there’s a lot going on down here now and there’s a lot of, like I said, people working and living down here, which even in the last five years that’s changed a lot. So it’s a good, we’re going to have a juice bar, we’re going to have like grab and go food and I think that it’s going to go over really well here, which just means that I can buy more local food. We can have it in the juice bar, we can have it in the deli, how many places can we…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So many of the things that you’re talking about, about the business and the passion that you put into it is so much like a farmer.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
A farmer.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And dealing with years of breaking even or even losing money for that hope, that dream.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I know, that someday.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So really you’re fighting a similar battle and it probably feels like an uphill battle a lot of the time and, like you said, it’s scary too. That’s another thing I think people don’t think about is the emotional side of being in this work.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes although again I think, “Man, I’m glad that I…” I work with 20 plus different farms so if somebody is having a bad year, there’s usually somebody else that’s not. So thinking about being a farmer or an orchardist, and it’s just so boom or bust. If you have a bad year it’s just a bad year, you don’t have anything to… So, I don’t know. I think it would be so stressful to be a farmer, so much more stressful than what I’m doing.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What does this mean, though, for your personal life? Because you have to… How many hours do you put in to running this?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
A lot, the one thing it’s… I just did an interview for The Business Journal and they were like, “What’s the one thing that you didn’t know starting your own business?” And I was like, “The fact that I think about it 24/7. I don’t ever not think about this place, whether it’s what am I going to order? what do I need? What do I need to do for next week? Do I need to drive over the pass? Who do I need to order from or are the bills paid? Did I remember to pay the phone bill or is my internet going to get shut off?” There’s this, I’m always thinking about this, which is great. I feel fortunate that I’m… I try to tell myself that I’m in a very privileged position to be able to own a business, not everybody gets to do that. So when I feel really stressed about it that’s what I tell myself, that I’m fee- “You’re privileged to feel this stress.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
In all of this, what’s been the hardest thing?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Money, just… Financially just always, which again I just… I feel like it’s a really common thing, you just feel like you’re getting ahead and then the cooler breaks down and you have to fix it, and so any money you had set aside for whatever is gone and just always thinking about, financially like, “Okay, can I do this? Can I afford this? Can I order this? Can I fix this?” I think that’s just the hard, the stress that always worrying about financially are we going to make it? Is the hardest thing. If that wasn’t a factor it would be the best job in the world. It’s already a really good job, but that’s just always worrying about the financials. Like I said, now that I’m downtown the foot traffic is crazy, it’s so much better than my old location. So I have really high hopes that that might not be as big of an issue as it has been for the past five years.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Earlier you talked about your motivation to get into this and your passion for this going back to college and thinking about the environment and all of that, how does that play into that now? How has that perspective of yours evolved over time?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I definitely think it’s changed in some ways like what being a good steward of the land is when I see what people are doing. Again, it’s something that I feel a little bad saying, that I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the last five years. Not as much as I did before because I haven’t had the time. That sounds really terrible, but I definitely think that probably the biggest place my thinking has changed, I was a vegetarian for 15 years, I was a vegan for half that time. I think just my perspective there has changed so I work with a lot of… I’ve worked with people who do meat they call themselves grass farmers, but they do grass fed beef and lamb and they have chickens and seeing what they’re doing and watching them post pictures of their land five years ago versus their land now, and reading about the carbon sequestering abilities of grassland regenerative farming.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
All of this stuff I think that that has really changed, shifted my perception of the meat, dairy, egg industry, which I used to have a really… And I think there’s still a lot of people that, again like I said it’s probably a hot button issue, but I don’t always think necessarily that of… There’s a lot of issues with being a vegan and vegetarian too that come up with food, like where’s your food coming from? What’s the impact in other countries and cultures of you wanting to have avocados and coconuts and almond milk? I just think that my view has widened, I’m a little more open to the impact that all of our choices make in food and the environment and, I don’t know, I’m trying to take in a bigger picture than what I used to.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But you were passionate about this stuff all along?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, like I said, I love to eat, I love food. I have, I wouldn’t say, I dunno, a foodie background, and just I feel like it’s such a way for… Everybody eats, it’s just a really good way to connect with people all across the board, I feel like my store has a real cross section of… So Wenatchee is a pretty conservative or has traditionally been a pretty conservative community, I came from a pretty liberal community from Bellingham, I had liberal views, I moved here, there were a lot of people that didn’t think what… And still don’t, I’ve had people come in and I’m pretty, I wear my political leanings on my sleeve pretty much here, but I have a lot… There’s just a huge cross section of people, I know there’s a lot of people that come here and we don’t connect on a political level or a social level.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
We have very different beliefs maybe in religion or, but you can connect in food and the importance that we all place on knowing where our food comes from and getting good food and feeding our families. And I think that that’s cool because I’ve connected with people that I probably wouldn’t connect with in other areas of my life, because we don’t run in the same political or religious or social circles, but we connect here over what do you do with your cabbage? What do you make with rutabagas in the winter? So I think that that’s pretty cool too.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s your vision with all of this not just this store, but with this idea of local food? What needs to happen?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Oh gosh I don’t know, I really don’t. I don’t-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I’ve heard some people say, “No, that’s the future people are… That’s the direction they’re going.”

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Like local food only or…?

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Ish.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, and-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And I think that even that’s what’s you’re describing, is you can’t be a purist you have to make some compromises sometimes and when you can’t get the right thing… But still try your best.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and I don’t know, I think that that’s… I think maybe that’s the future, is trying to diversify a little, having a variety, having people who are producing food locally and… People still, I still want avocados, I like getting oranges. So we’re not… I can’t say that everyone should only eat what they can get within 50 miles of where they live, but maybe having a little more diversity in our food options would be a good thing? I don’t know, I just would love to see more people growing food and experiencing that because I think that’s pretty cool, but there’s challenges, there’s…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You ever thought about doing it?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
No. No, that’s not true I have. I would love… I’ve definitely had the dream of like, “Oh, if only I had a few acres and some goats and chickens and…” But then I reel myself back in very quickly and think, “I don’t think that would…” I’m very appreciative of the people that do that, I don’t think that I could do it. I don’t even have a garden anymore, I don’t need one I get a lot of really great food here, but I just don’t have the time to do that, but I do miss it. I miss gardening and having my hands in the dirt and that thing, but I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Maybe someday you’ll get-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Maybe someday, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Sucked into this terrible world of farming.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Into the- of farming. Yeah, I don’t know, maybe. I feel like I’m getting too old to be a farmer.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Never too old to farm.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, thank you so much for opening up and sharing your personal story, which is so much tied to what’s going on with us in this community here and far beyond.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Well, thank you for stopping into my store today and asking me to do this.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
(music)

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It’s amazing what you’ll find just walking down a street and keeping your eyes open and walking in somewhere and asking a few questions, and that’s how I got to meet Sandi Bammer there at Rhubarb Market. Such a cool experience, not what I expected at all in downtown Wenatchee and her story is awesome. What a cool perspective she brings to the world of connecting us with where our food comes from, who our food comes from. That’s what we’re all about here on the podcast. Thanks for joining us again this week and please subscribe, we’d really appreciate the support in that way. You can subscribe on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and a bunch of other outlets, pretty much anything you can think of out there it’s available so search us up. Also realfoodrealpeople.org is our website and my email address is dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org so you can reach me there anytime, and we will talk with you next week as we continue this journey to connect with the people behind our food here in Washington state.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org.

Jessica Newhouse | #008 02/03/2020

Despite facing major health problems, Jessica Newhouse remains passionate about continuing her family's century-old dairy farm in Eastern Washington. She opens up about her journey from growing up in what she calls the "concrete suburbs" of Portland to becoming a family farmer near Yakima.

Transcript

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And they basically open and remove part of the bony projections on your individual vertebrae to make room for these titanium rods that stretch from, like I said, the base of my neck to about my waist.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
She’s faced major health problems and still battles chronic pain, but continues to keep supporting her family’s century-old dairy farm. This week I talk with eastern Washington dairy farmer Jessica Newhouse about her journey from her childhood in what she calls the concrete suburbs of Portland, Oregon to farming with her husband and has family near Yakima. Her passion for what she does, and her determination to overcome huge obstacles is so inspiring, and I’m sure that you’ll enjoy our conversation as we continue to get to know the real people behind our food. I’m Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a family farm in northwest Washington and I’m on a mission to discover and share the real life stories of our region’s farming community here on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I started 2019 pregnant, and all the sudden in February, I started getting nerve pain in my legs and pretty soon it got to the point where I wasn’t able to pick up my toes on my right foot. It started progressing and I started getting more weakness in my right leg, and then it started going to my left leg, and my surgeon … Everybody just has a surgeon that they talk to, right? I have a outstanding issue of scoliosis, and so when I was pregnant, he was saying, “Well, it could be nerve entrapment from your bones just carrying the weight of your pregnancy.” He’s like, “So we might need to do this surgery that we’ve been contemplating while you’re pregnant.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yikes. Scary.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I was like, “Okay, that’s not just me. That’s my unborn child going through surgery.” Then things started progressing really fast, and so they … I don’t know how much detail you want to go into, but-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Whatever’s good for you.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, and so he wanted me to come in for an emergency MRI, so I had a two-and-a-half-hour MRI, which that zaps so much energy out of you, just trying to lay still. And so at that time, with things the way they were progressing, they thought it was Guillain-Barré, which is an autoimmune disorder. So they moved away from my spine and started suspecting Guillain-Barré, which apparently affects pregnant women a lot. And so that’s an autoimmune condition where your nerve cells biochemically have a similar signature to the common cold, and then it starts attacking your nerve cells so you progressively start losing nerve function in your body. We were literally in the ER in Pasco and they said to us, they said, “Well, don’t go anywhere. We’re going to see where we can transfer you,” and I was like, “I’m going home. I came here for an MRI,” and I’m pregnant and I’m freaking out.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
No kidding.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Meanwhile my husband’s eating Panda Express just like, “We’re going to take it as it comes.” I was like, “Okay.” But anyway, they thought it was Guillain-Barré, and so they discharged us from Pasco and said, “Here’s your transfer paperwork.” They hadn’t told us Guillain-Barré yet, but they said, “You need to drive up to Spokane right now, to Sacred Heart. If you start feeling like you can’t breathe, pull over and call 9-1-1.” And-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You’re kidding me. And you’re like, “Why aren’t you hauling me in an ambulance?”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Well, they wanted to fly me to Seattle, but insurance didn’t want to cover it and we didn’t have flight insurance. That would be $40,000.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Oh man.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So we were like, “Screw it, we’ll drive.” And meanwhile, I’m sitting there going, “This is an episode of Dr. House, the show from …” And I was like, “I can’t feel my legs.” That’s such a common thing on that show and I’m like, “What is happening to me?”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So we get to Spokane and I was in a room, seeing a physician. I couldn’t move anything lower than my hips, so they’re like, “We need to get you to ICU and start this treatment.” Meanwhile, I’m 16 weeks pregnant and they’re saying, “If you start feeling it in your thumbs and then in your fingers, the next thing to go is going to be your ability to breathe so then we would need to intubate you.” So I’m trying to process all of this information in less than 24 hours.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So then we go down to ICU and they’re prepping the treatments and everything. Treatment only takes a week, maybe two, but because it progresses so fast and they don’t know to what extent it will progress to, they were like, “You could be in the hospital nine months, just relearning how to walk and how to do basic things.” So I’m trying to process all this. We’re in ICU about to do the treatment, and there’s, like, seven doctors standing around me going, “Hmm, huh, hmm.” And one of them says, “Let’s do a nerve conduction study in her legs just to make sure before we start this.” And I remember looking at them going, “Yeah, I vote for that option.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So they do a nerve study and they find that my nerves are able to receive the appropriate signal, and from the MRI, they’re seeing that my brain is able to send the appropriate signal, but for some reason, it’s like the signal was being transmitted and the receivers were going, “Where’s the signal?” but they were just on different planes. So I spent a week in Spokane at Sacred Heart, and then I spent a week in Spokane at St. Luke’s doing physical therapy right alongside people that had just had a stroke or an embolism of some kind, basically doing the same thing that they were doing, which is just relearning how to walk and retraining those nerves to fire again

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So what was it? It wasn’t this Guillain-Barré thing?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No. They say that it was a … How did they put it? They said it was a conversion disorder. So that for some reason, there was some stress or trigger that triggered my brain with the excess stress that my brain couldn’t handle. My brain, instead of just saying, “Hey, I’m really stressed, I’m really anxious,” it says, “No, we’re just going to quit doing this function.” Apparently it can happen with walking. If people get super stressed, they can go blind with conversion disorder.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s just this unexplained chemical but physical miscommunication.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Is it super rare?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I don’t know if it’s super rare. I mean, I guess it’s not rare because at St. Luke’s where I was at, they have a whole unit for conversion disorder.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s not like they see one every day, but …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So had you been under a huge amount of stress? Or was it something to do with pregnancy, or …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think the only huge stress at that point was contemplating, “Okay, I might have to have major spinal surgery when I’m pregnant.” I think that was a huge part of it. I don’t want to cast blame or anything, but I think a lot of it was work, too. You’re trying to … with a … Gosh, what was he? One and a half at that point? A one-and-a-half year old an then trying to raise him and balance family and work. Then you’ve got your own structural anomalies that you’re trying to handle, and yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So yeah, what was going on … I mean, you say work. That means the farm.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right, the farm.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What was going on at the farm at that time?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, what isn’t going on? Well, it was right after the blizzard, so that was all right around the beginning of February, so it was right after that big blizzard, freak snowstorm that we had, so we were handling that. A lot of it was a lot … Our dairy farm is … How do I correctly phrase this? We are the longest continually family-run dairy in the Yakima Valley. 101 years now, maybe it’s 102. So I think my husband and I feel this huge pressure to do what we love but also maintain this farm that has lasted for so long. We really like to call it a legacy farm, not that we like to tout ourselves, but …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So yeah, the farm itself, I think, is in a little bit of a transition with the owners currently reaching an age where they’re … I don’t think talking about age or potential retirement is comfortable for anybody.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, for sure.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So I think it’s this situation where we’re needing to navigate that, and what happens to the farm because of that. Meanwhile, we keep going and we keep doing what we need to do.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Does that freak you out?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It does. It does. Sometimes it feels like this David and Goliath kind of situation. You feel like you’re kind of sitting here going, “Okay, I really like cows. I really like to milk cows. I really like being a dairy farmer.” And then you look at this oncoming wave of, okay, there’s societal pressures, there’s economic pressures. Does what I see for the farm jive with what the current owners see for the farm, and how do we navigate this and find a balance with those and then see at our current size, will we be able to survive with everything getting more expensive? It’s a whole host of things.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So how does the arrangement work with the owners, and how did you guys … You and your husband, you’re both involved with the farm, right?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yes. Yeah. He’s more of the handyman. He’s not purely a handyman, but he … If anything breaks, that’s usually … If one of our employees come to me and says, “Hey, this is broken,” if it’s not a simple plug and go, I call him and he goes and fixes it. He’s really technically savvy. I am human resources and then cow records. So basically, anything clerical for the farm with the exception of payroll and taxes, that’s me. I like to get out with the cows more, as much as I can, but all the-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
If you do, what do you do with the cows?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We move cows. I basically help train our employees how to understand how a cow sees her world and be able to effectively communicate with them.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You can talk to cows?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Well, not talking. But, I mean, you can. I mean, I call them … So whenever I move cows, like if I’m helping some guys milk in the barn, I usually call them sis or mama. Because being a mom, I understand. But yeah, no, a lot of it is understanding how she sees … so how she literally sees and how she hears her world and paying attention to those physical cues for her. Because you can move … And it’s all about asking a cow how to move. You’re not telling, you’re not demanding. You are asking her, and just by standing there with your hands in your pockets and if you’re just paying attention to how she’s using her senses to view her world, you can ask her to do things and she’ll do what you would like her to do.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Like move.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, like move forward or move backwards. It’s all about applying … just your presence next to her, if positioned correctly, invokes pressure on her “bubble.” Every cow as this comfort bubble, and if you move-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Every human does, too.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. Some are larger than others.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Some are a little too small, the close talkers.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right. I know a couple of those.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Are there cows that are like close talkers?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. Some cows are like, “Hey, I’m going to share my opinion with you,” and others are like, “Nah, you stay over there. We’re good.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So how did you get to be in this position on this farm? It’s not your farm. You don’t own it.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, no, no.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So how did both you and your husband end up there?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Well, my husband’s been … if he were here, he would probably correct me … but I think since he was 10 he was working on the farm. I don’t know when he started getting paid, but I know that he started working on the farm …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I know how that goes.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. So he’s been working on the farm since he was a kid and we actually met up at WSU in Pullman. I grew up in Portland. I like to call it the concrete suburbs, where your neighbor was literally close talking right next to you, you lived that close with each other.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you didn’t grow up on a farm.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Absolutely not. No. And I never thought I would end up here, but I love it. I absolutely love it.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you meet at WSU.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You meet this farmer guy who’s now your husband, and how does it go from there?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh gosh. We knew each other in our Animal Science 101 class. We were at the sheep lab and there’s this pen with this one ram, which is a male sheep, for lack of a better term. And so they asked for two volunteers and he hops in … and I feel so bad saying this, but he hops in and I’m like, “Man, this guy needs help.” So I just hop in there with him. You have to understand, I had sat in the front of the class for all the lectures. He was in the back making wisecracks, just kind of paying attention, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go in and help this guy.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So we get in the pen … and I don’t know whether you want the PG version or whether you want the little more scientific analytical version of this. Anyway. So the lab director says, “Do you know what you’re doing today?” And my husband says, “No, you haven’t told us yet.” And that’s when I knew. I was like, “This guy’s quick. He puts things together really fast in his head.” And he said, “Well here, take this tape measure.” So he gives my husband the tape measure. Meanwhile, this ram is still standing here. And I can see the writing on the wall, what we’re doing, and my husband takes the tape measure, he’s like, “So what are we going to do?” And the lab leader says, “You’re going to measure the reproductive efficiency of this ram by measuring his testicular circumference.” I’m like, “Okay, we’re doing this.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And so my husband … my non-boyfriend at the time … looked at the tape measure and looked at me and then just without a word hands me the tape measure.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you didn’t even really know each other at all?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, we didn’t know each other at all. We knew of each other, but we didn’t know each other.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And here you are about to measure a sheep’s … together.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, private parts. And he looks at the tape measure, looks at me, and without a word just hands it to me. And I’m like, “All righty. I guess we’re doing this.” So he basically then volunteered to just hold the ram, make sure he wasn’t going anywhere, and I got on my hands and knees and did the dirty work. Then I think it was either that day or the next day that he knew some people that lived on my floor in the dorm and he brought over a Costco lasagna and I kind of crashed their party, and then we just started hanging out from then on. Then, gosh, over time it evolved into … He started working at the Dairy Center at WSU and then I quickly followed suit and started working there. Then he started living there in the apartment above the parlor, so when I would finish with calf chores and it was so cold in the winter, I knew I had a place. I was like, “Okay, I can go upstairs and I can cuddle and get warm before my first class.” So there were perks to that.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
This is before or after you were official?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We were dating at the time.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Oh, okay.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We were officially dating. It was Facebook official. But no, so … gosh. So then we worked there together and then we got engaged a year before we graduated. At that time, we both … I think it was kind of unspoken at first that we were going to come back to the dairy. He kind of told me after we started dating, like, “Hey, my family has a dairy farm.” And by that time, I knew that I wanted to be in dairy. I didn’t go to WSU thinking that I was going to be in dairy. When I was growing up, I always felt more connected with animals than I did with people. Not that I’m not a people person, I love people, but I just felt like I had a stronger comfort level with animals.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So I knew from early on that I wanted to go to vet school, and my dad and my uncle and my grandpa all went to Oregon State, and my personality is, “Oh, well if you guys are all going to do that, I’m going to do the exact opposite. I just need out. I need to go somewhere else.” And so on an offhand comment, somebody had said, “Oh, WSU up in Pullman has a great vet school.” I’m like, “Sold, sign me up. Go.” And it was the drive up there when I was going to move up to the dorms that I realized, “Oh, there’s nothing out here.” I’m like, “What did I do?”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
But I moved in and I was so naïve in a way. We started classes and I was like, “I’m going to work on cats and dogs.” If, by all means, that’s what you want to do and that’s what you want to go to vet school for, awesome, super. WSU’s a great place for it. But then the … I guess I should have gone the biology route maybe if I-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Because you started getting into the science.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, because we went into animal science and I think one of the first labs that we did was at the dairy farm there in Pullman and I don’t know, I just got hooked.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So when you say, “the dairy farm,” that’s WSU’s?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
WSU has a dairy farm, not Dairy Center. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And so that’s where students run the whole thing, basically told.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Basically, yeah. It’s-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Learn the trade and try different stuff and …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, yeah. It’s a Dairy Center that WSU has had for … oh gosh, I don’t know how long. Decades. And then the milk from all of the cows at WSU goes to the creamery there on campus, so they make …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So that-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
… Cougar Gold cheese and the Ferdinand’s ice cream and all that good stuff.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Somebody hasn’t had Cougar Gold before.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Who? You?

Dillon Honcoop (host):
No, I’m saying if someone has.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, if someone hasn’t.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
They need to go out and find themselves … I think you can order it online or something.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
You can order it online.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You got to try that.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I want to-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Stuff is incredible.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I want to say we actually … In the dorms, you have this dining hall account, and if you have any surplus at the end of the year, it goes poof, it disappears, or you can use it up. All the sudden, my boyfriend at the time, my now husband, comes in and he’s like, “I bought 16 cans of Cougar Gold.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Wow.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And we still have them in our fridge six, seven years later, so they age really nice.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, what’s it like-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So if you want a can before you leave, you can.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s it like after it’s aged that long? Does it get sharper and sharper?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think so. I think a little bit. I think it depends on what variety you’re putting in there that’s in the can. I don’t know if Crimson Fire, which is a more spicy version of one of the cheeses that they make … I don’t think it gets spicier. I think it just gets more sharp, but it’s really good. It’s really good.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So going way back to the health stuff, you had this nerve thing going on. They figure out it’s this … Now, what was it called again?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
They figure out that it’s not Guillain-Barré.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Right it was a-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And that it was the conversion disorder.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Conversion disorder.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Was there any risk to your still-in-the-womb baby at that point?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No. No, that was purely just me.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So what were they saying about the pregnancy at that point? Everything was good?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, she was doing fine. And so after spending two weeks up in Spokane, came home and they said, “Oh, well this should never happen again,” and I’m like, “Excellent, great. Cross that off the bucket list.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yuck.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And so we come home and just get back to work and doing everything, and she was due in July, I think. Then I went in … Fast forward months and months and months and our daughter ends up showing up six weeks ahead of schedule. Our big thing at that point was that her lungs were well enough developed that she could breathe on her own. And Lord almighty, did she come out screaming. So that’s when I knew. I’m like, “Okay, lungs are good. I don’t know what else is wrong, but lungs are fine.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So yeah, she was on room air. She didn’t need supplemental oxygen at all. Her main hurdle in getting released from the NICU was just learning how to eat. She was in a huge rush to get here, and then we spent 44 days up in the NICU. Month and a half.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
44 days in the hospital.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Or jail, depending on how you want to look at it. That is one of the … yeah, one of the hardest things.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What was that like? That has to be brutal.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Brutal, brutal. It was hard for me and it was hard for my husband, too, because she just wasn’t real. She’s real to the point where you’ve had your baby, they let me hold her for a couple minutes before they had to take her to the NICU, and then I could hold her afterwards, but she just didn’t feel real. I mean, you prep your home and you think, “Oh, the crib’s ready, the sheets are on it, everything’s ready to go,” and you have your baby and then you come home and your baby’s not here. And you’re just sitting here going, “Wait, where’s my baby?” And it was hard-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So she was in the NICU …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Correct

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… in Tri-Cities 45 minutes away, and you were having to come home.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I would go every day. I’d try to be there for .. I would take our son to daycare, and that’s where he normally went so that I could go to work. I would take him to daycare, drive 45 minutes to go see her, be there for two or three feedings, and then be back in time to pick him up and then come home, and then do it all over again 44 days in a row.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Who was covering all your stuff on the farm?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
My husband. It got him out of harvest equipment. He got to be the office lady for a little bit. He liked it. But-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And who took care of the harvest equipment, then?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Our dairy’s a unique situation where we dairy, but we also do custom harvesting. So for our own cows, we harvest 1000 acres randomly dispersed throughout the area, and it grows corn, we grow alfalfa, we grow triticale. I don’t think we grow any other form of grass. And so we do that. In spring and in fall, we have to harvest our own feed for our own cows, milk cows day in and day out. There’s no seasonality in that. And then we do custom harvesting for other farms, too.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So your daughter was born super early, but that wasn’t it for 2019 and its health issues for you, right?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, no. So-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
The punches kept coming.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, yeah. It was crazy. When she came home, I did a few weeks with … I think I was home with our son for two, maybe three months. He was actually coming to the dairy with me and I would actually clear off a bunch of records off my desk and he would sit in his little chair on my desk. And talk about … I have a boss. I mean, my boss is my father-in-law because he’s the owner. But talk about somebody staring at you being like, “Are you going to get your work done today?” A two month old just kind of doing nothing, staring at you. But he ended up going to daycare so I could work full time, and so with our daughter being technically a preemie … a healthy preemie, but a preemie … I stayed home with her for a few weeks, and then I was like, “I need to get back to work. I can’t do this. I love you but I need to get back to the cows.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So then we went back to work and I started having a lot of pain that I had had after our son was born, a lot of the nerve pain and a lot of pain right in my hip. I was like, “Great, this pain is back.” And going backwards, after my son was born, they found that my lowest lumbar vertebrae is compressing the inner vertebral disc … kind of the spongy cushion that it shares with my sacrum … and so that disc was pushing on my sciatic nerve, causes the sciatica. So I had-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Not a nice thing, if anybody’s experienced that kind of pain.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, no, it’s like fire just running through your legs. So I had an epidural steroid injection for that, which relieved the pain, and then I got pregnant. Then with the limited real estate of the human body, everything kind of went, “Okay, we’re going to stay in this position because we have to carry a baby.” So then when our daughter was born, everything had more room to relax and loosen, so then all that pain started coming back. So I had another X-ray done, thinking that we would have another injection, only to find out that my scoliosis has gotten a lot worse, which opened a whole other host of issues.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Now, scoliosis, that’s something you find out you have when you’re a kid, right? If I remember.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I think it was fifth grade, they were doing scoliosis screening …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, and see, they never-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… and this awkward thing where you had to take your shirt off and they had to look at your back and it’s like, okay.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I think thy gathered everybody up in the gym for that and they’re like, “Hey, everybody …” obviously boys with boys and girls with girls. But I had been complaining of really low back pain. Usually it’s not symptomatic and you start noticing a difference in shoulder height or a difference in where your waist falls compared to your left side versus your right side. And if you bend over, typically you have what they call a rib hump, which is … So scoliosis is really a three-dimensional problem. It’s where the vertebrae that make up your spine curve, and then they also twist and rotate, so it’s a three-dimensional issue. The rib hump comes from the third dimension, which is the twisting of your vertebrae. So as your vertebrae twist off center, they rotate and twist your ribcage off center, which makes it look like a hump on your one side.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We found out when I was in sixth grade, and at that time the curves were not bad enough that they wanted to do surgery right away, so I wore this rigid torso brace for all summer. Still insisted on doing horse camp, so I was riding horses while wearing this rigid torso plastic brace. But despite all that, my curves kept getting worse, so that’s when they said, “You’re going to need surgery.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What was that like at 12 years old, to have that?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I was actually, coincidentally, having this discussion with my mom last night as I’m prepping for this next surgery. I don’t know how much you can really tell a 12 year old at that point. You don’t want to keep them completely blind from the situation because it’s their body and they have a right to know, but I remember thinking, “I’m getting filtered answers to my questions because they don’t want to scare me.” And I’m like, “Well darn it.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Were you scared? Was there any sort of fear with that?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think there was. I think it was the unknown. In a way, being naïve and not knowing what it was going to be like on the other side was kind of a blessing, too.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Totally.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think at first … I remember being in the car with my mom when they diagnosed me and we were headed home, because I hadn’t been to my pediatrician for years because I was so healthy. And that’s, I think, my parents’ one big regret is they were like, “We should have been taking you in even though you weren’t sick. We should have been taking you in for yearly checks.” It just wasn’t something they thought of. But I remember being in the car when I was first diagnosed and saying to my mom, “All the kids are going to make fun of me.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
That was the second thing I was thinking about, was first being scared about it and secondly, I remember being so painfully insecure at that time in my life.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, going into middle school.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It’s just brutal.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Leaving sixth grade … I mean, this was at a time where I was leaving elementary school and going into middle school and I was like, “Yeah.” Then all of a sudden this happens and I’m like, “Oh, wait.” When you see these subtle differences that scoliosis gives … unless it’s really severe and really progressive, really fast … it’s hard to notice. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to notice. So it was one of those situations where I’m sure looking back on it, once I knew that I had it and I stared at myself in the mirror, I’m like, “Oh, this is so obvious. Everybody’s going to see it.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Right, because you’re keyed in on it.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right, exactly. But yeah, I was talking with my mom last night and gearing up for this next surgery. I was thinking, “Do you remember me being scared at all that morning going into it?” She’s like, “No, you were really quiet. You were just kind of like, ‘Okay, if we got to do this.'” I mean, there was an option not to do it, but for my long-term health, there was no option. And in surgery, they are … I don’t know if this is a correct term, but filet would be a good term. I mean, my scar runs from … depending on where your curve is, it runs from the base of my neck to about to where my waist is, and they basically open and remove part of the bony projections on your individual vertebrae to make room for these rods, these titanium rods that stretch from, like I said, the base of my neck to about my waist.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And they put screws in your vertebrae with hooks and then … It’s so medieval describing this, but have these rods attach to these hooks to force your spine to straighten. Then they took part of my iliac crest … which is the top portion of your hip … made this kind of paste or jelly, and then basically stuffed it in between all those vertebrae.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
To encourage those bones to fuse together into one long column of bone, essentially. So by the end of that, I think that surgery was 10, 11 hours long and I was two inches taller getting wheeled out as opposed to going in.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Wow.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And then between 2003 and 2019, my lumbar … so the curve unfused beneath my current hardware … has gone from 20 to 40. So we’re a little back to where we started, maybe a little worse.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And that’s what’s been causing you so much pain?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s the pain like?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh gosh. It depends. I mean, the sciatica is constant. With more aggravated kind of activities … so bucking hay and moving cows and milking cows … I know that I’m going to hurt later.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Are your legs feeling like they’re on fire right now sitting here talking?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh yeah. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. And it’s a different kind of pain sitting versus standing or standing versus walking. Essentially, the only pain-free avenue that I have is laying down watching Netflix. So …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, at least there’s that.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, there’s that.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But seriously, you’re a pretty happy person most of the time when I’ve seen you. If I was in pain all the time, you wouldn’t want to talk to me because I would be so just grumpy and angry all the time.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, my wick is short. And that was kind of one of our reasons for doing this surgery now. My husband was like, “This is not long term, not sustainable.” The pain already limits me in what I physically can do, and just when you’re in pain, you’re crabby. You’re just not happy. I mean, you’re happy but your tolerance for different things gets shorter and shorter. At this point, it’s a self-preservation technique. We know that unless this new fusion happens, my spine will continue to do wild and wonky things come heck or high water. That’s just the nature of the beast. And so if I know it’s only going to get worse, why not go through three or four months of trial and tribulation to solve the problem once and for all.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, that’s what I was going to ask. How bad is it going to be?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I’m hoping that the pain will be less than the first time. I remember waking up delirious from pain meds the first time, screaming at my parents, “Take them out, take them out, take them out,” because it’s like you’re being stretched. Your body is forced to being stretched. So I’m hoping that it is better this time. I would hope that pain mitigation in hospitals has come a long way in 16, 17 years. But yeah, it’s going to be around three to four months of no bending, lifting, or twisting. So anything as far down standing up or sitting down as far as I can reach versus as far as I … in both directions, that’s what I’m going to be limited to, which means no picking up my baby off the floor, no dishwasher.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Will you be able to hold her at all?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I’ll be able to hold her if somebody gives her to me. I’ll basically sit here and say, “Hey, could you hand me my baby, please?” Which will be hard. But I would rather do this when the kids won’t remember, so that when they get older and they want me to teach them soccer or swimming or anything like that, that I’ll have limitations but I’ll be pain free.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Are there risks going into this surgery?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, for sure. For sure. Unlike my first surgery, this surgery will involve removing the cushion, the gel-like cushiony discs between each vertebrae. And so to do that, they have to go through the front, so anterior through my belly. The risk with that is that your aorta and your vena cava, the two largest veins and arteries in your body, lay right on top of your spine right in that area. So there’s a big risk of you can bleed out and you can die.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Like if they make a wrong move and-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
If somebody had one too many cups of coffee that morning and they get a little jittery and …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You laugh, but that’s scary.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
What can you do, though? What can you do? I’m trying to look at this … I am a firm believer that your attitude going into something like that is a huge determining factor for what your success is afterwards. If I go into this thinking, “My life is over. I’ll never be able to do this and do that,” then I’m going to come out a victim and I choose not be a victim. Will I have limitations? Yeah. Are they insurmountable? Well, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to paint my toenails for the rest of my life, but I-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I mean, all of my bending … because I will be extending that metal in my back all the way down to my pelvis, and then six-inch screws in each side of my pelvis to preserve my hips … my bending will be limited to basically a deadlift. I will be deadlifting everything for the rest of my life.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s that going to mean for the farm and what you do on the farm?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, a lot of my job right now is being behind a desk, so I don’t think it’ll change that aspect as much. I think I will have more of a … like we were talking about, bubbles. I think I’ll have a bigger bubble around myself as far as, okay, I need to protect myself in these certain situations, like-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Like if you’re out with the cows?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, if I’m out with the cows or if I’m in a pen with cows, I probably won’t be letting myself shimmy between a cow and a fence really fast. I need to protect what I’ve worked so hard to have. My husband and I call cows … they’re like giant cats. They’re really, really curious. Cows are so interesting because they’re curious yet they’re timid. I just love cows. I’m such a nerd. I just love cows.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
When did you realize that, that you loved cows …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh man.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… that you were a dairy farmer? Here, a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Portland.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh man. It has to be when we first visited the dairy farm at WSU. My first very vivid dairy memory was we would always go to church on Sunday and then we’d go grocery shopping. It was, like, a block away. So we’d go and get our groceries, and I always knew when we were getting to the dairy aisle, not because I saw the milk case in the dairy section, but above the milk case, there was this mural of these green hills and a red barn and a nice, sunshiny sky, which is awesome, and these cows. Then there were these cow butts above the milk case and the tails would wag. And so my first very vivid dairy memory was, “This is where milk comes from.” Yeah, the cows are right there and it just plops … As a five year old or whatever, you’re like, “This is where milk comes from.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s just so funny to think that … Oh man. Do I have to admit how old I am? However many years later that I went from consumer to producer and consumer. So it’s awesome.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You see you doing this for the rest of your life?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. Lord willing. It’s hard. It’s hard right now. There’s a lot of pressures from a lot of different angles that make it hard.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
How many cows do you guys have?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right now, we milk about 850. We have right around 150 dry cows, so cows that are about two months away from calving. We give them a two-month break from producing milk, just to let them recharge and reboot their batteries and that kind of stuff. Milk 850, 150 are dry. As far as replacements … So our herd of heifers, so any calf that’s an hour old up to a heifer who isn’t producing milk yet that’s just about to have her first baby, we have probably about 1000 head. It’s a year-round, day in, day out, keep on keeping on kind of system, so …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What about your kids? If things continue to go … I would say well, but I know how the good days and bad days all the time with farming. If things continue to go forward with the farm, are you going to encourage them to do that?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, for sure. For sure. I don’t think that my husband had any outright pressure to come back to the farm. I think both of my in-laws made it very clear to him, “We want you to go to school. We want you to discover what your calling is, and if it happens to be the farm, then great. Come back.” But I think he for himself felt a very strong pull to come back to the farm.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So he’s passionate about it.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, for sure. Yeah, yeah, for sure.So I think with our kids … We haven’t really talked about that. We’re just trying to survive toddlerhood. It’s-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I hear that. I have-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
That is a day in, day out, keep on keeping on.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I have toddlers.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. It’s crazy. But no, we would definitely … I think our goal with our kids is to encourage hard work. I feel like going through that is one of the huge differences I see in my husband and I. He grew up working, I did not. I got my first job when I was 15. He had already been working for five years. He was already saving up money for his first car. There’s just regional and for whatever reason differences in how kids are raised. I am so thankful for how I was raised with my parents, but in a way, I wish I could do it all over as an ag kid. There’s just such a hardworking, down to earth work ethic that I admire, and that even though I did not grow up an ag kid, I strive to have that for myself and for my children.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s not like you go to school, you come home, and you work until 11:00 at night and then you go to bed and then you go to school. I think you gain a lot. I think you gain a lot of, “Okay, I am earning my way. It’s not being given to me.” And that’s not to say that non-ag … I’m not trying to say that non-ag kids get things handed to them, but you value things so much differently when you know the work that you put into it. It’s like in going to college, my husband had to pay for 50% of his college tuition, so he was working. For me, my parents had saved some funds ever since I was born and we used those, and then we took out loans, so then I had student loans to pay.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Looking back on it, I wish I would have paid for part of my way through school because I don’t feel like in the mornings when I had a 6:00 class, I was like, “Ugh, I can catch up on it later. No big deal.” Whereas my husband, he’s like, “No, gosh darn it. I’m paying for 50% of my education. I need to go to that class.” So I think there’s a huge value in working for what you have. I wouldn’t underestimate it or undervalue it for anything, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you don’t long to move back to the city?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No. And I know that it is for … I mean, a lot of people are drawn to it. It’s interesting to see Portland now. I grew up in Portland. It’s interesting to see Portland now from this perspective. We drive through the Gorge to go visit my parents. They still live in Portland. We drive through the Gorge. We start getting a little white knuckled because we know the traffic’s coming and we’re like, “There’s so many people. There’s so many cars.” I don’t know. I like having my space, my wide open space, and it’s just so … I feel like I can breathe here. Meanwhile, my dad, when I told him when I was back in school … my dad was like, “You’re going to do what?” He’s like, “I raised you in Portland. What happened? Why?” And I’m just like, “I don’t know. I’m just following what I feel is right and this is what I love.” He’s like, “I just don’t get it. I don’t understand. What did I do wrong?” And I’m just sitting here going, “I don’t think you did anything wrong. I think we’re fine.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So were they not supportive when you decided you wanted to …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think they didn’t-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You marry this dairy farm kid and move to the country?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think they didn’t understand. I think they’ve always been supportive, but they didn’t understand.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, thank you for opening up and sharing a bit of your story. Good luck to you, too …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Thank you.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… with the whole surgery thing.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Thanks. Thanks. We’re going to take it as it comes and it can only get better.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And hopefully it goes smoothly …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… and the result, you heal up and you have as much movement as possible and you don’t have to worry about these things anymore, right?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I might have gotten myself out of bucking hay for the rest of my life, but I’ll still be there.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Jessica is just so tough. Seriously, I couldn’t do what she does and I am really inspired by her awesome attitude with everything she’s had to deal with. Thank you for joining us this week, and make sure to subscribe to Real Food, Real People on whatever platform you prefer to get your podcasts. Also, check out realfoodrealpeople.org and feel free to reach me any time by email, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org.

Jiwan Brar & Paul Sangha | #007 01/27/2020

Their families came from India and made a life for themselves growing raspberries and blueberries here in Washington. Cousins Jiwan Brar and Paul Sangha talk with Dillon about the struggles, the triumphs, and the importance of family, community and heritage.

Transcript

Paul Sangha:
The reason why I say it was tough was because there were people that did understand that I looked different and it was a bit difficult because people had their opinions and they like to voice those opinions.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real People, podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Their families came from India to the US just a few decades ago and they’ve made a life for themselves farming raspberries and blueberries here in the Pacific Northwest. This week on the podcast, I talk with Jiwan Brar and Paul Sangha, both young berry farmers who grew up in my neighborhood doing the same farming that my family was doing, but with an entirely different cultural backstory, well, at least in some ways. As you’ll hear in our conversation, although our heritage is from opposite sides of the globe, our immigrant families, mine from the Netherlands theirs from India, share so many things in common.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop. Thanks for joining me on this continuing journey to hear the real personal stories of farmers in Washington state that we call the Real Food, Real People podcast. Again, with Jiwan Brar and Paul Sangha today. When did you first think of yourself as a farmer? Have you always thought of yourself as that? Because you grew up like me with your dad farming.

Paul Sangha:
Right. Yeah, almost just down the road from you.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Paul Sangha:
No, I’ve always considered myself a farmer. Definitely. [inaudible 00:01:39] politically right but I was a farmer at like five-year-old for sure. Just because I was on, you name the tractor, you name the piece of equipment. I was on it of course, just having fun at that time, but still working. So no, I’ve been a farmer my entire life, I’ve been involved in agriculture my entire life and I think it had a big part in just kind of continuing on through grade school and everything and going into everything, just simply watching my dad and how big of a part it was for him. It summed up being the foundation of our entire family and for me after dad kind of later in went into retirement. We do other things outside of farming now, but that’s one thing we’ve never let go because it’s just such a big part of the pillar that we stand on and will help provide everything we do. I’ve been a farmer definitely entire life.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you Jiwan? When did you start like thinking of yourself as that? Because you’ve kind of always been into it too, right?

Jiwan Brar:
Same thing basically my entire life. I grew up on a farm day one, just anything I could do help out, hang out. I just wanted to be out there with my dad and that was the biggest thing where I just had that connection with him and… since day one. And then now I really got into it after high school. I got more and more involved into it and up till now I consider myself more of a farmer now than I was back then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now you’re going to school, right? To continue in agriculture to do even more stuff, right?

Jiwan Brar:
Yes, that’s right. So I’m going to school to get a degree and my goal is to become an agronomist, a crop advisor, that would be my goal.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you Paul? I mean, we’re I think same class, like 2001 that you graduated high school?

Paul Sangha:
2002, so yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh two. So you’re younger than me?

Paul Sangha:
Yep, right after you.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did you do after high school?

Paul Sangha:
Well, right after high school, I continued education but I fell just headfirst right into our family business. At that point dad had started the first… Well sorry not the first but the first Indian American, I guess East Indian processing plant of raspberries and that quickly just enveloped me and my older sister really led us into kind of understanding what the business behind agriculture is and we got a good understanding of that. We were at that point, sitting on about dad was farming or we as a family were farming close to 250 acres at that time too and so it was a big undertaking. And I remember dad kind of told us, “All hands on deck right now because we all need to be involved in this.” And we definitely were and so I just say I went headfirst into that and just never looked back.

Paul Sangha:
And it developed into just something bigger and bigger that kept growing. I would remember even when I was 12, but definitely after high school and going to school and everything, I remember sitting in conference rooms with big buyers of big products. I remember sitting one time with the guys that do catalog and you know the companies that do that and…

Dillon Honcoop:
Like Breakfast Cereal.

Paul Sangha:
Breakfast Cereal guys and Kroger and these guys and now you think of them and you think, “Oh, it’s probably just a easy way to meet.” But then you’re driving hours and hours and sitting in a pickup truck and going to meet with them and it was a definite learning experience.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it take to grow amazing blueberries since you guys are really… I guess you’ve instilled us some raspberries so we could talk about raspberries too but what makes for incredible blueberries?

Paul Sangha:
Want me to take this one or do you want to take it?

Jiwan Brar:
I think it has to do with our area where we live. Our environment takes our farmers, including myself and Whatcom County farmers, everyone’s committed, they’re passionate and I feel like that drive gives us a better product overall.

Paul Sangha:
I completely agree. My main focus to answer that question would just be the passion part. It takes passion. If there’s something about taking a baby plant of anything and planting it in the ground and raising that thing like a baby of your own and having it produced and getting excited about what it’s producing and the quality that’s coming out. If you don’t have that passion from within, then you won’t get the quality and it goes to show about this area. The quality that comes out of here is because of the passion that people have. And again, I get to visit a lot of different growers in a lot of different products, they’re all passionate about what they have. They’ll walk up and down their fields and everything and they know every inch of their ground and what is going on with their ground and they’re taking care of their product.

Paul Sangha:
Jiwan has got a lot of wisdom. I actually call Jiwan myself when I’ve got questions on any sort of programs that we need to be applying. But if he didn’t have the passion, he wouldn’t really be able to tell me. And a lot of people can just give their local agronomists a call and know what to do and put on and you show up once a week or once a month to do that but the guys that are there every day, which is what I see around here, that’s what gets us a quality that we have

Dillon Honcoop:
Jiwan, how did you learn all that stuff? Like, because you’re still in school to be an agronomist but you’re already doing a lot of this really.

Jiwan Brar:
That passion he’s talking about, right? Like that’s been there since day one. Just going to the farm with my dad picking up on things he’s doing, picking up on things that we talked to our agronomist about and just being in it. Driving through a farm in a nice pickup truck with the windows down just doing a lap around the farm, it’s not farming. The best thing for a farm as a farmer’s footsteps, right? Until you get out there and you walk the farm and you experience that, that’s the best and that’s where that comes from, right? That’s what makes our berries so good, you know? And for me, I’m a college student but just because I spend eight hours a day at college, it doesn’t mean I… I come home, I have to go walk around the farm. I can’t just come home and start studying.

Dillon Honcoop:
That reminds me even back to high school and how summertime you guys all had the same experience that I did too growing up in this community and with the family farms, you all grew up on family berry farms like I did. Summertime is like, that’s not a time to slow down or go on vacation.

Jiwan Brar:
No, that’s just…

Dillon Honcoop:
Who goes on vacation and especially in July, if you’re in raspberries a little bit later and blueberries,

Paul Sangha:
Oh boy. I don’t eve know, 35 years old. I’ve never had a summer. In those terms, I’ve never really had a summer but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jiwan Brar:
It was so weird like I feel like elementary, I’m like middle school it was kind of confusing for me I was like, I’d hear all my classmates who’d come and be like, “Oh, I just got back from Hawaii or I just got back from like Alaska fishing.” Or something like that and I’m like, “You do that in summer? You guys don’t pick berries?” Oh my gosh.

Paul Sangha:
Every single day during the season, we’re like 16 plus hours and it doesn’t just end when you start picking and turn the picker off or the harvester turns off, you just don’t go home. I mean there’s a lot that goes into the process of waking up the next morning and having everything ready and it’s 5:00 AM and then you’re… you know, midnight for us, especially for anything we do at the plant now and anyone else, I know that a lot of people around here they’re around their plants, they live there. When you’re sleeping on the couch there sometimes and during lot of those nights but I guess it’s part of what it is. It’s part of the industry and that’s where again, I say the word passion, not passionate about it? It’s hard to do it.

Jiwan Brar:
It’s hard to like picture a billionaire farmer, you know what I mean? Like some magazine because it’s just like everybody is… You’re doing it because you’re passionate and that’s the biggest driving factor.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever stop and think, “This is crazy. I wish I could go to Hawaii in the summer time. I need to do something different.”

Paul Sangha:
I think every other day. Well, yeah you definitely think that. You think, “Oh man.” And I think that comes with any job. My sisters have moved on and my older sister lives in Seattle and she’s been in between LA and Seattle and she works the eight to fives and does really well for herself but she has the same thoughts. She grew up on a farm and she has that background, so she has that work ethic where she sticks to it and we talk kind of like what you’re mentioning now and we think like, “Man, do you think it’d be different if dad had just done like an eight to five and then we’d just gone to school and done our eight to fives and everything?”

Paul Sangha:
And it was, yeah, but then I don’t think we would have been happy at all. I’m talking to my wife now too, and my wife, her background isn’t anything in farming so she kind of had to learn on the fly when we got married and she definitely understands too that the happiness and joy that it brings to do this, of course you get to go to Hawaii. During the winter time, you can go, I guess we have to find selective areas that are warm in the winter because that’s when we seem to have time but…

Jiwan Brar:
Yeah, exactly.

Paul Sangha:
The happiness you find while you’re out there is like being in Hawaii all in itself, you know, when you’re out there. Not every day is all Hawaii sometimes it’s a little stressful too but you have your good times too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk to you guys, what’s the relation? You are cousins?

Jiwan Brar:
We’re cousins yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about the family background because I’m thinking about this, you say a lot of this has to do with how you were raised and your dad and growing up around him, same with you Jiwan.

Jiwan Brar:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And not just your dad, but your uncles and the larger family. Same with my background with my Dutch heritage people coming here, you folks also coming from India, that goes back generations of farming too, right? Farming, even back in the home country same with my Dutch family.

Jiwan Brar:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You wonder how much that is just in the blood.

Paul Sangha:
Oh yeah, definitely. We’re both sons of immigrants, immigrant parents. When dad first came here, dad started a small little 10 acre raspberry farm and soon after when… Jiwan is my mom’s brother’s son, that’s how we’re related.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Paul Sangha:
And soon after when my uncle, Jiwan’s dad came here it was kind of a partnership without ever being an actual partnership because what you do is you work with family and you help family and that’s priority. So culturally, background in India, your proof and how you prove yourself there too is your land, how you work Atlanta and how you provide for your family. You’re an honest day’s work, that’s the way to sum it up. So that definitely traveled here with them and they knew what they wanted to do. They knew what they were good at, they knew that they could farm, they knew they could learn and that’s definitely what dad and our entire larger scale family did.

Paul Sangha:
Luckily there were no I guess iPhones or iPads and things back then and they didn’t have time to let themselves get distracted with anything so they definitely did put their head down and just kept working and grew and grew from there. But their family has been a big part. We’re still to this point, Jiwan has 500 acres at this point and it’s almost like a partnership without ever being on paper. But for us the family isn’t just directly us, the family is everybody. And that includes even far away, aunts and uncles. When they’re here, they are helping out or we’re traveling other places to help them and make sure they succeed. Again and that comes back from this area and where we grew up. There’s a mentality out here, just like you’re mentioning a completely different background back in the day generations ago but still we have that help each other mentality.

Jiwan Brar:
Help each other mentality where real farmers, real family, right? Real family farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
What made your families decide to come here of all places that they could have gone? And why into fruit farming raspberry and now blueberry farming too? I mean, what was the background in India? If there’s farming background in your family, what kinds of things were they farming there?

Paul Sangha:
There they were farming, rice, wheat, corn.

Jiwan Brar:
Potato.

Paul Sangha:
A lot of potato but in India the scale isn’t as big. There is more of five, 10 acre farmers and that’s big. Everything was done by hand. You think wheat, corn, potatoes, you think, “Oh, there’s 1000 acre farms out there.” But in India you got five, 10 acre guys, you have the 20 acre guys and then 30 acre guys. There’s not very many big farms out there but with the equipment there is out there, 30 acre farm out there is pretty big.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You know a lot of stuff to do by hand probably.

Paul Sangha:
Yeah. And I think when dad came here, just before he came was the first time they bought a tractor only in here for 35 plus years and he had just bought a tractor before he was leaving then and I think it was like in the entire village or villages where they live there and they have everything that was like the second tractor anyone had ever even bought there. But when you talk about hand labor for everything that was intensely hand labor and they were doing the whole, you know they had on the Hala, no…

Jiwan Brar:
Chisel plows.

Paul Sangha:
Chisel plows, yeah. The chisel claws were actually on any of the bulls or anything that they had and that’s how they were plowing, like a horse or bulls usually back then or I don’t know if on a bull on bull, but…

Jiwan Brar:
Like an ox, right?

Paul Sangha:
Ox, yeah.

Jiwan Brar:
Like an ox. It’s like my grandpa, his dad passed when he was eight. My grandpa was born in 1925 and he’s been farming since basically eight years old and plowing when he was… In his teenage years he was telling me he’s like, he used to plow with a single bottom plow. Plowing an acre with a single bottom plow adds up to eight acres and having to walk eight acres up and down that’s a lot of ground.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of steps.

Jiwan Brar:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You racked up a lot of stuff on his Fitbit I’m sure. If only those people had…

Paul Sangha:
To get it linked to his iPhone and everything so you could see it instantly right away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Imagine with those past generations, and I think about back in my family too, and some of the things that they did just to be able to succeed or they worked? If that was tracked with a Fitbit, how bad it would put us to shame.

Paul Sangha:
Oh, jeez, no kidding. I don’t think we’d be doing anything better compared to that.

Jiwan Brar:
I don’t think I’d walk half that in a day.

Paul Sangha:
The reason why for dad… Dad’s older brother was here in the US and why come to America? I mean, because it might sound cliché okay but it’s the truth too, this is the greatest country in the world and we’ve been able to live it in as business, agriculture, any type of aspect as immigrants and we’ve seen that that’s true. And that’s what dad guys saw too. They saw an opportunity they came and worked hard and took advantage of that opportunity and they were lucky to be able to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was there some kind of connection though in this region that brought them here specifically? I mean, because you really could choose a lot of places to go to.

Paul Sangha:
True. My dad’s older brother lived here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Paul Sangha:
He was here originally. So dad’s older brother moved to the US he went to school here. Schooling and then after school he stayed here and moved up to Canada, lived there, came back and started farming then on this side of the border. And I think again, that was probably just because the cost difference between Canada and then it was still pretty revelent then too. So he started farming on this side and so he started having his family come and that’s when dad decided to come too and they worked together for a little bit and then dad bought his own 10 acre when he started, at least his own 10 acres.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about your family background and your cultural background, how much does that play into your farming now?

Paul Sangha:
Quite a bit.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, you’ve mentioned a lot about the family stuff and I think that’s a big part of it, right?

Paul Sangha:
It is, yeah. Family’s definitely a huge part of it. Culturally that’s just what’s… You mind your business, you do what’s right and you work hard. You think about community, you have a sense of community, which kind of relates to the sense of family and you make sure that not only you are moving up but the people around you are moving up as well and as a society you’re able to work together. Those kinds of teachings have kind of just always come down generationally and dad definitely passed those on to us. And it’s been a big part of what I’ve been able to grow up in Whatcom County here in Lynden and going through the school system in Lynden I saw it from everybody too.

Paul Sangha:
I was, I think one of three Indian kids that grew up here and so majority of my friends weren’t Indian but still I got to have that same mentality from anyone. A lot of dairy farmers, a lot of berry farmers and even guys that weren’t, were wanting to come over to our dairy farms and berry farms to hang out for the weekends. They didn’t want it to sit at home inside the city.

Jiwan Brar:
Friday night.

Paul Sangha:
On a Friday night you wanted to come over to our place.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s almost like that farming connection is stronger than…

Paul Sangha:
Oh, very much.

Dillon Honcoop:
The heritage and culture and race and all of that stuff that is supposed to divide people and it’s like, no, it’s the farming that’s bringing us together.

Paul Sangha:
That’s definitely the glue.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh yeah.

Paul Sangha:
You know, we come from so many different backgrounds, but what’s the one thing that we have in common? We love the dirt we work on and that brings us all together.

Dillon Honcoop:
Before Jiwan, you and I had talked a little bit about what was that like growing up, but I probably even more for Paul you said there were only three Indian kids in school with you at that time?

Paul Sangha:
Three or four yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that community had grown so much by the time you were in school.

Jiwan Brar:
Yeah. I mean, there is a lot more. I mean there’s maybe 15, 20, but that’s also like from ninth grade to 12th grade, right. From freshman to senior year, but that’s like maybe 30 kids, I want to say. But the community has definitely been growing. The Punjabi community Whatcom County it’s definitely been growing especially in Lynden, it’s growing and Bellingham. But before like when he went to school… only having… very few…

Paul Sangha:
Very few kids.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like?

Paul Sangha:
It was challenging at times. I had definitely had great times, I had great friends, still good friends and so I had a lot of support. I never really had to go through too much of a time where I had to really noticeably know that I looked different. But the reason why I say it was tough was because there were people that did understand that I looked different and it was a bit difficult because people had their opinions. I’ll just leave it at that. People had their opinions and they like to voice those opinions. It was hard to get through those but again I definitely say 99.9% of the community when I was going to school here in my high school days, 99.9% of the community was more understanding. So they were always willing to stand up and understand and glue we talked about just now the farming glue is what helped me with that.

Paul Sangha:
People knew that we’re not any different, we’re here putting her head down, doing the same work and more so than me. I know I had to see dad kind of go through those things and so I kind of was ready for it and I knew a little bit of what would come but I always kind of thought, “Hey, dad looked a lot different than everybody and if dad could do it then I’ve got nothing to whine about and I need to be able to get through it.” So it had its challenges but this place, this whole town and city of Lynden is Whatcom County itself has come a long ways from that time. I don’t see anything like that anymore. I don’t hear about anything or see anything like that anymore here.

Dillon Honcoop:
The reason I ask about school too is because that’s when sometimes some of that stuff can be the worst. These kids are brutal and when they don’t have filters, they just say terrible things sometimes.

Paul Sangha:
It helps when you throw a couple of river parties yourself and then everybody fits in. [crosstalk]

Jiwan Brar:
Down at the River Bar. [crosstalk] that glue gets even, you know, stronger.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you Jiwan?

Jiwan Brar:
Honestly I can relate to everything he said but it was a Greek community we live in. But yeah, that glue and just bonding with everyone on those Friday nights, those Saturday nights after a football game that’s when the real bonding happened. And that just brought everyone closer and I got friends from high school, I still talk to now and yeah, I love it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big of a role does faith play in what you guys do and how you approach farming and stuff like that? I know you guys have both been active in temple and whatnot.

Paul Sangha:
For myself, a big role because our faith is based around a sense of community and that plays a big role in the farming community as well so it’s easy to relate the two. Faith teaches us that you’re no more or no less than anybody else everybody’s equal. And look to help others as much as you’re helping yourself. So when you take those principles and you apply them to something like farming and we grow food, we grow stuff that people eat and it’s needed for life. Technology can keep getting as crazy as it is at the end of the day, you still have to eat something and of course we have our staples and we have commodities and different things but I like to think that people still want to eat their blueberries and raspberries and strawberries and marian cramp blackberries, everything.

Paul Sangha:
So that helps you really wrap your head around why you’re doing what you’re doing, when you… My own kids, they love to eat any fruit that’s out there and they’ll love to eat fruit. And I see a lot of tours, like one thing and I’m thankful to be a part of something like this, but all Whatcom Family Farmers, Save Family Farming, a set up tours for kids. These kids go out and they get to see firsthand what… And I’m not talking about the kids I get to live on farms, I’m saying kids that come out of the cities that never would have even understood what a harvester is or they say, “We hear John Deere and we think green. We think green and we see that little deer symbol.” They hear John Deere and they think of somebody, they’re trying to picture someone.

Jiwan Brar:
Like cows lay eggs or something like that.

Paul Sangha:
And so it’s amazing and that brings me back to how our faith definitely puts into that because it’s a faith in people working together and it’s a big part of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I think there’s a certain, I mean, whether it’s your faith background or mine, there’s a certain teaching within both of those traditions about valuing the earth and where we come from and what we eat and respecting and stewarding that, I guess.

Paul Sangha:
Huge, yeah.

Jiwan Brar:
That’s huge. Being a farmer, being passionate about what we do, the stewardship of the land is huge because that’s where we raise our crops. So if you don’t take care of that ground, we’re not going to have a good crop. So being sustainable and taking care of the ground is going to let us continue to do what we do.

Paul Sangha:
God gave us a beautiful earth and then he gave us the ability to cultivate ourselves on it. And so I’m trying to kind of draw a correlation about what you’re just saying, it’s our responsibility on how we treat it and what we do. I do hear a lot about it and I see a lot about how sometimes farmers are being blamed for a lot of different things that maybe are hurting the earth and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I mean it simply is, I mean, we eat the same product that we grow raw even at some point. I don’t tend to think that farm farmers are that dumb. It’s just simply put is what we do between our irrigations and our programs that we have in fields, no matter what part of the ag industry you’re in, if you don’t treat the land good, the land won’t treat you good.

Paul Sangha:
I mean, that’s our bread and butter. So if you’re not treating it well and it’s not treating you well, then you’re not going to survive. So we haven’t really, no other choice just to put it in basic terms, we have no choice but to keep things at a high quality. It gets a bit irritating sometimes to try to explain that to everybody and say, “Guys, we just don’t even have a different choice. We have to treat it right. We’re not doing anything to harm stuff here.” And I think people kind of get carried away with what they assume without really knowing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I feel that for sure from a lot of conversations I’ve had with people who it’s like some of the things that you’re accusing me or the people I know of, I don’t think any of us have ever even thought of doing that’s awful.

Paul Sangha:
Of course.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talking about the growing community of Punjabi folk here and the temple. I was at Vaisakhi celebration recently and that was so cool to see just how huge that community is. And I’m thinking about like back to that question of why here? Because I think about my community, this community is now known that we have this huge Dutch population. Yeah, there’s people from all different backgrounds, but a ton of Dutch people here and a ton of Indian people here.

Dillon Honcoop:
For the Dutch community, I think a lot of those people ended up here because the climate was so similar to back home and in Holland but that’s not true for your community and yet it continues to grow so much here. What is the reason for your community to grow so much here? Because I think it’s so cool and it’s fascinating to see why some white people and large groups of people together choose a place to kind of gather around.

Paul Sangha:
I feel that It’s like you’re saying the Dutch community is very big here and the Indian community is very big? When Indian people first got here I feel like there’s a lot of Indian people on the other side of the line in Canada. And for some family they want to be closer to their family. So a lot of people from California, Seattle further down South or even that are coming here from India want to move here because a lot of their family is in Canada. Yeah, they don’t live in Canada but they live in Lynden, which is only five minutes away from Canada. So I feel like that’s one reason why there’s a lot of Indian folk here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I just think about Like my ancestors being Dutch, okay, they’re used to this kind of weather but folks coming from India I could see would come here and say, “This weather sucks. It rains all the time.”

Paul Sangha:
And they do when they first get here. Oh my gosh. What is this?

Dillon Honcoop:
Why would you want to live here?

Paul Sangha:
This is the Pacific Northwest in itself and especially this corner up here is kind of one of the last areas where you really get just a breath of fresh air. For all of us that live here, kind of probably to understand what I’m saying when I say that is the greenery, the soils here, water here the quality of life here. Those things those are the draws to this area and it shows just from even Seattle people moving from Seattle up north to here, of what they’re looking for. So you can definitely look at a place like India and place like Punjab in India where it’s heavily populated and ground is scarce and water is hard to find and here you can come here and you can do the same type of work and put the same value into the work and get good results in a better community altogether.

Paul Sangha:
So I think all those combinations really come together and make people think, “Hey, how is that any help?” Say I’m this close to Canada and I’m a few hours outside of a big city if I need to go to Seattle for any reason or an airport if I need to fly out anywhere so it’s just a great place. You’ve got coast and you’ve got mountainous areas so you get the best of everything over here.

Dillon Honcoop:
And more and more people keep finding out about that and it kind of makes you want to say, “No, it’s actually terrible here don’t move here”

Paul Sangha:
“You know the Ring of Fire? We kind of sit right in it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s volcano’s, earthquakes, yeah. [crosstalk] it rains all the time don’t move here.

Paul Sangha:
It is growing.

Jiwan Brar:
It’s really growing.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the future is for farming and like for you guys? Especially blueberries and some raspberries and stuff, small fruits and more and more people are getting into this whole foodie thing and they want to know where their food comes from and they’re trying different stuff. Is it all about food and how much do you think about that and people’s eating habits and what people are into as far as food when you think about the future of what you’re producing?

Paul Sangha:
I kind of feel like it’s almost going to be back to the future type of thing. Early on it was kind of a lot of small farms with not fruit stands or that were take food to the market and it was a real organic feel to somebody being able to come buy fruit that they know that, hey, you just pick this as this fresh coming off your field. I see a lot of that kind of coming back. Not necessarily the exact same way, a lot more advanced and modernized type of that but I see a lot of farmers starting to probably get into seeing their product travel down the food chain line further more than just, “Hey, I harvested my fruit and here you go, and I’m just going to sit back and wait for my payment to come in the mail.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the way it was in the old days too, right?

Paul Sangha:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like your family got into processing about the same time as mine did. To at least have a hand in that next step rather than just picking the berries, taking them to the dock at the cannery and they take it from there.

Paul Sangha:
Yeah. I don’t know what grading. I don’t even understand that and now people are getting more and more knowledge about what this is so I see if you look at that and then you look at again to bring up Seattle, the closest city. Anyone living in Seattle has grown up there and doesn’t understand the farming, but they know that, “Hey, eating fruits is good for me. Fruits and vegetables and eating food like that is going to be better for me in the long run.” They all make the trip down or up to see where is this coming from? And we’ve been watching so many years such a big growth in something like that and people want to know, even if you go to Costco where was this from? I want to know what the history of this pack of fruit is and I only think that’s going to grow more and more and people want more and more knowledge about where their fruit’s coming from, where their food’s coming from.

Paul Sangha:
And so for farmers here, the growth of it, I think farming is going to become bigger and bigger here for family farms. I think commercially people that are in vast large commercial business farming, you know, where a big corporation shows up and they own 1000 acres. They’ll always do well in business. But locally here, the family farms that have been sustaining for so long and continue to keep doing well because they’re going to be able to control that new generation of what they want.

Jiwan Brar:
Yeah. And kind of like that foodie thing you’re talking about. If you’re like consumers, they want that connection, right?

Paul Sangha:
Connection that’s it.

Jiwan Brar:
And to sustain that connection. That’s how it is going to go. Because they’ll want to come down and be like, “Hey, where is this coming from? Who is the farmer that grew this?” They want that connection or that package you’re saying that they’re going to buy a fruit. They want to see where is it from? Who’s the grower? How can I connect to this package of fruit? They know what’s good for them but they want to have that connection.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about that favoring more focus back on the smaller family farm kind of idea yet we hear a lot about the pressures of the economics of that and how you need a certain size just to be able to survive in this day and age. How’s that going to balance out?

Paul Sangha:
Yeah. So I will stick to everything I just said right there. Everybody wants to know where their food’s coming from as long as they can afford to even eat it and that directly falls on our industry, fruit industry. Fruit is something that everybody wants to eat and as not necessarily has to eat. What we know we always want is our potatoes and the things that we know are going to be staples. Actually Blueberries just turned staples and so affordability, the economics of it as a huge, huge thing. It’s getting really tight for a lot of family farmers not only is pricing structure and everything in the industry changing in itself and that’s because the demands are changing by the general public consumer, but even regulations. Regulations now are pushing us far into places where if you own 50 acres, you’re really only farming 35 of them at this point.

Paul Sangha:
You know the way you need to be and because say we’ve got a creek on one side and there’s more people watching us watch that creek than they are doing anything else. Our property again we happen to have a section where the government’s got some tower that they’re using there and the local government so there has to be a radius around that to allow access and everything and so those don’t even fall into regulations yet. Then it’s our food safety or labor laws, everything that’s just coming down on the small farmer and soon enough a 50 acre guy is now back in the day he used to be the five, 10 acre guy, that’s where we’re headed, we’re the small farm. Today we own 50 acres, we farm only 50 acres and we are the small farm out here.

Paul Sangha:
You guys went from 250 to 50 Gs and yeah, it feels like we went from 250 to maybe 15 and if we weren’t doing anything else with it, I mean it wouldn’t be much but there’s big changes coming up front and economically if the prices don’t go up unfortunately we have to rely on politics for a big part of that but if it doesn’t change, that’s going to lose a lot of family farms out here, if that landscape doesn’t change.

Dillon Honcoop:
You touched on labor, that’s a big one especially in the world of fruit. How has that been for you guys? Are you able to get enough labor? I’ve heard from a lot of farmers who can’t get enough people to come do… I mean, we were joking about harvest season and being high school kids. Well, not very many high school kids do that anymore. Who’s going to come and help us bring these crops in is a big question. Has that been an issue for you guys?

Jiwan Brar:
For us, we haven’t had an issue with labor, we have such a big family.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that helps.

Jiwan Brar:
That helps a lot but I definitely see that becoming an issue as we continue to grow and get bigger. I mean our families aren’t getting bigger, but the demand for labor is also going to get more and more and I feel that other farms in our community are going to have to maybe outsource labor from maybe other countries and that’s going to help with the labor demand that we’re going to have here in the next maybe 10, 15 years. You’re saying, like in order to sustain it, you’ve got to keep getting bigger and bigger. And when you get bigger and bigger, you’re going to need more and more labor and there’s just not enough labor here.

Paul Sangha:
Labor is huge. I think labor is a forefront of what the main issues are that people are having to deal with. Again going back to our place of 50 acres, so affordability you really have to watch what you’re doing and how much you’re paying. The minimum wage just went to 13 now here.

Jiwan Brar:
13.50.

Paul Sangha:
13.50 here and so if you’re paying 13.50 and you’re usually having to pay more because you’re really trying to entice somebody to come and it’s hard to get somebody to work that many hours. So now we’re something we didn’t even use to do in the past. I didn’t know what was even existed in farming is like a double shift or night shift and day shift and those didn’t exist back in the day you did the day and you did the night shift. So when all those expenses are then leading you into, okay, well let’s think to the future and let’s think mechanical harvesting. Let’s get more robots involved and that’s what’s going to make it cheaper and that’s true, in the long run it is.

Paul Sangha:
But what does that cost? How much of what you’re doing did that give up? So you start kind of looking down the ladder economically and where this leads you to 50 acres have to be 100 now to be able to push those costs down and deflate those costs even more and not everybody is being able to sustain that. On the other end, you’re having to afford to do all these things that on the other end we’re still getting this year we might barely even get on product 50 cents and you’re thinking back to you, well it used to be 50 cents before two and I know now pennies carry or less value than they did then. So each penny matters a lot more now than it did then too not that it didn’t then but it’s just a lot harder now. So not enough people are happy to eat blueberries at higher expense or raspberries or anything, but they’re definitely…

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they cost a lot more now in the store than they did back then.

Paul Sangha:
They do but I don’t think the translation definitely comes down to the farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
We still see some of those field price numbers that are the same numbers as when you and I were a kid.

Paul Sangha:
That’s right, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
When we were both in high school.

Paul Sangha:
Almost less I think. Almost less even in some places farmers they always write it off to, hey it always rides that wave. You’ve got the good five and the bad five years and the good two years in the bad five years but I don’t know, I think it’s kind of… If you watch the graph, that line doesn’t really ever peak up to where it used to anymore. Labor, if you draw it all back and you really think hard about it and you’ve kind of traveled down that tunnel, you relate it all back to well what’s it costing? And it just costs so much more now and we need the labor force here. A lot more labor force here to help sustain what we’re doing.

Jiwan Brar:
That too and it’s not like any college kid or high school kid wants to be out on a farm digging in dirt, weeding, walking rows, pruning.

Dillon Honcoop:
Putting up wires.

Jiwan Brar:
Putting up wires.

Dillon Honcoop:
I always hated that.

Jiwan Brar:
Or if it’s hot out it’s too hot or if it’s cold out I feel like people want to be more inside working in kind of in a room and where it’s warm. Outside it’s mother nature, right? There is nowhere I get to turn the heat up or I get to turn the AC on, right? And there’s a tree at lunchtime that you want to sit under.

Paul Sangha:
Just the shade. The shade is what you go hunt.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, that’s very true.

Paul Sangha:
But again there’s if anybody that’s considering, I would say anyone that’s considering getting into farming what they should do first is go and work and really understand putting the wires up like you mentioned or any of the things. I’ve been on a harvester for 12 hours go experience that. And if you feel like there is going to be this refreshing feeling you get from doing that, and that’s what’s going to make you decide whether this is what you want to do or not. Every time I do it, there’s something refreshing about it. And now I get to watch it, I’ve got two daughters and I get to watch it on in them.

Paul Sangha:
They’re having fun like I used to. You can’t really see them up on the harvester of course but when they are up there, they’re loving life you know? And those are the things that I’m fearful that won’t stick around very long but I really hope they do. I’m happy that organizations like Save Family Farming, Whatcom Family Farmers are doing everything they can to make sure those stay. Those are big time, they mean a lot more.

Jiwan Brar:
They’re my nieces, right? So when I see them out in the farm it reminds me, I was like, “Oh, that was me. Right?” It’s like one day I’m going to have kids, and they’re going to be up on a harvest or like that too where you kind of look into the future a little bit and then you also think like, “Okay, wait a minute. Berry prices are coming down, right. Well what’s going to happen? Is farming going to be around or is it not?” You know what I mean? Like you start thinking and you never know what the future holds so you just take it 100% of time and see what happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you guys so much for opening up and just talking about life and farming and all this stuff that you guys put into it. I think it’s really cool to hear the real stories.

Paul Sangha:
Definitely. And thank you for having us and letting us kind of at least share our experiences a little bit.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
It was so much fun for me to get to know Jiwan and Paul a bit better since we’ve seen each other across the fence and passing on the road so many times, but hadn’t actually had the chance to sit down and really connect on a deeper personal level and that’s what we want to keep doing here on the Real Food, Real People podcast relink all of us around this region with the people behind our food. Thank you so much for coming along for the ride, for subscribing to the podcast on Google podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Apple podcast, or wherever your favorite outlet is for visiting our website at Real Food, Real People.org and for following us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. It may not seem like a big thing, but it helps us a lot to continue the mission of Real Food, Real People when you connect with us in those ways. We’ll see you again here next week as our journey continues.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families find them online@safefamilyfarming.org.

Niels Brisbane part 2 | #006 01/20/2020

He's passionate about bringing farmers back to the table, in more ways than one. In the second half of their conversation, award-winning Seattle chef Niels Brisbane and host Dillon Honcoop talk about how a facelift for farming could help reconnect eaters with the people who grow their food.

Transcript

Niels Brisbane:
Farming needs a facelift basically, essentially, and there it needs to be appreciated for what it is, but then the other piece is like it’s a lot of work and so there needs to be a financial incentive.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcasts.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hoodies, connecting with farmers and figuring out how farmers can have a seat at the table. Again, in sort of defining what is the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. Last week we got to know award-winning Seattle chef, Niels Brisbane and his unexpected journey from sports to fine dining, to reconnecting with his farm town roots in Lynden, Washington, the same town that I grew up in, even though I hadn’t gotten to know Niels until this podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, we’re sharing the second half of that fascinating conversation I had with him, where we get into in the second half into the vision, his vision for reconnecting people with farmers and reinvigorating both our regional cuisine and the farms that are growing food right here. If you miss last week, go ahead and listen to that conversation if you’d like to learn more about Nell’s background. Thanks for coming along the journey again this week and let’s dive right back in where we left off last week. So you’re involved in this world that’s like culture and art and very urban, yet you grew up in a small Podunk farming community. It happens to be the same community that I grew up in. Interestingly, we didn’t know each other-

Niels Brisbane:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… until now. What was that like? How did that speak in to what you were doing and what did people even say when they found out, you’re from Lynden, Washington? Like what?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, for me that very much roots why I cook and why I’m involved in food at all, because it really does come back to how do we create a better food system? And part of that is like for me, I always want to be able to give farmers options. And like one of my favorite farmers, Dave Hudlin is in the Skagit County and has a great vegetable farm, grows [inaudible 00:02:43]. His tomato greenhouses are, they should be the eighth wonder of the world. They’re incredible. If you’re ever in Skagit, go visit Dave Hudlin’s farm.

Niels Brisbane:
But he always says is, I’ll butcher the quote. But it was basically like, “If you’re a farm and you’re selling to one person, then you’re an employee, and if you’re selling to 100 people, now you’ve got a business.” And so farmers need to be able to, I mean, the worst thing of walking into a negotiation, whether that be, especially when it’s a buyer is if they know you can’t walk out, and negotiate that price any better because they’re like, “Well, that product is going to spoil otherwise if you don’t sell it to me at this really low price.” And so that’s not a good place to be. So developing a system where there truly is an economy around things and not just a path that’s been traveled before.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a big problem in farming.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s a huge problem in farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because different than most other economic arrangements. If we say that farmers are usually the ones with their back against the wall-

Niels Brisbane:
Usually.

Dillon Honcoop:
… they’re price takers as we here said.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you experienced that, you see that kind of from this other vantage point.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And if anyone gets the squeeze, it’s usually the “like lowest person on the totem pole.” And for a farmer that it’s because they’re the first person with the product, that’s why they’re “like the lowest person on the totem pole.” Is like, the chef doesn’t want to pay that high price, so they put the squeeze on their producer or onto their wholesaler. The wholesaler needs to keep their margin. So then they push that squeeze onto the farmer and so they by default have to take that lower price.

Niels Brisbane:
And if they got to… so we were really big on like working directly with farmers and buying, trying to work with them and it’s a headache, but like trying to figure out ways where you can be like, okay, grow all these carrots and we’ll buy all of them. Or we’ll do like what do you want to grow? What did you make a fantastic margin on last year? It was this random beat. Okay, well like maybe we can come up with a great beat dish and move this product for you.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually having those conversations. I mean, what ends up happening is like the complexity from a restaurant standpoint is again this was like a huge benefit that a place like Canlis could afford with time and money is allowing me to figure out all of those pieces and the other sous-chefs to like figure out this sourcing mayhem. I mean, we had, over 100 people that we would source from, from like farms and figuring that out logistically is a nightmare.

Niels Brisbane:
It took, I mean, a huge part of my job honestly was like, it was the creative part, but it was like figuring out how do we get the best product through the front doors in a consistent way. And in most places they just want to make one phone call and get the produce through the door, which means they work with a wholesaler and that’s why that business model exists, but it puts the squeeze onto the farmers and the restaurants lose the face of like, this is a farmer that’s trying to work hard to sell this product.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me that’s just like a shame. And so trying to think of new ways to structure it so that again, like these farmers can have a face in the economy again, it’s like just so that they can kind of compete again and be understood is ultimately how I kind of see a renegotiation of this food system. So whether that be, I mean, it’s either there’s small farms that are starting to figure it out of like, okay, well, I’ll sell at the farmers market and I’ll do a CSA and then I’ll do some wholesale and all these different pieces. And if any one of those were to fail, the business wouldn’t go under.

Niels Brisbane:
Like, but if Darigold declared bankruptcy tomorrow, there’d be a lot of farms that would not have anywhere to sell their milk, and that to me is like, well, that’s an issue. Like they’re not… I mean, they own their own businesses, so they’re taking all the risk, but they only have one buyer. So they really don’t have the reward of being an independent business owner on some level anymore because it’s like they’re dictated to. And so like there’s…

Dillon Honcoop:
And we have something unique hee even, like you mentioned Darigold being a farmer’s cooperative. Then in some other parts of the country where they don’t have that.

Niels Brisbane:
They don’t even have that. Right. Exactly. If anything like Darigold is the best model and so because at least you’ve got a large group that can kind of create that advocacy. But-

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s still that risk, that question mark.

Niels Brisbane:
There’s still that risk of like, well, what’s going to happen if that didn’t work out? And it’s like, well, it’s going to take a lot to rebuild it. It’s not going to happen in five or 10 or 20 years even. But like there’s the companies that are thinking about that. It’s like, well, what if we made cheese? What if we made a new dairy product or whatever it is, rethinking about it and being like, well, this isn’t less work, that’s for sure.

Niels Brisbane:
But actually creating a face of like, well, this is… I mean, it was a joke at the restaurant because I was obsessive with dairy specifically as my… we had five different milks that we kept in the restaurant based on what the usage was. So we had a milk that we would use for steaming for coffee, and we had a different milk that we would use for our basically like milk focused sauces.

Niels Brisbane:
So sauces that you actually were supposed to taste the milk. It wasn’t just like an ingredient. And then we would have a milk for desserts and each one was not just like, a random dartboard, we’ll buy from this farmer this week. It was very thought out. We had brought in 25 plus milks. I mean, it was a really unique experience to be able to even do that in the Pacific Northwest of like, there’s actually 25 plus dairies that you can go out and buy milk from and you could taste the difference between each farm and you could… people were blown away, I think it was like MyShan up in Lynden, actually it was really close to where I used to live and I actually didn’t know…

I don’t think they were an independent farm when I was living up there anyways, but or independent like as in you could buy their stuff wholesale. But they’ve got like a Guernsey farm and people had never really tasted that before, and I don’t know what their processes, but it’s like their milk has a distinct like caramel note that you don’t get from, say like a Cherry Valley, which is down here in King County, and they would have, there’s was like super grassy.

And so if you tried to make coffee with theirs, it tasted like you were licking and eating dirt, like, a little bit while you were drinking your coffee. And so it wasn’t so good for coffee even though it was a fantastic milk. But then their milk was fantastic for coffee because it just, the carameliness really meshed and really high fat content, which is also perfect for coffee versus the grassy one.

If you were matching that with, sauce that was going with beef, that grassiness and the fact that you were, the ironiness, the dirtiness of it, “like it was perfect for me.” And so it was like actually tasting those different pieces and… but people always laughed about how much milk we had in the restaurant and it was a bit of a nightmare. And the cooks would come to me and be like, “Chef, we’re out of this type of milk. How am I supposed to make this sauce?” Because they like understood how different it tasted when you did these different sauces. And so it was interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grew up in a town surrounded by dairy farms like this, and berry farms and potatoes and everything else. What was your awareness of farming at that time growing up? Like were you around farming at all?

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. So my best friend growing up was Rick Heerspink. And so he’s part of the Edaleen Dairy world. And so I spent a good amount of time on his dairy, scraping the lanes and everything else, and that was just… and also just the idea of like, it’s a Saturday evening or afternoon and you want to, go to the basketball game on Saturday night. And just like the uniform experience of everyone of basically could be like, “Well, yeah, I just have to finish my chores. I’ve got like…” just like having high schoolers that would buy their own vehicles because they’ve been working since they were 12 years old or earlier.

Niels Brisbane:
They’ve been getting paid since they were 12 years old is probably the best way to put it. They’ve been working since they could walk. But just the farming community in the way that, everyone is just like, it’s a lifestyle more than anything. It’s like there’s, cows don’t take days off. They need to be milked every day. And just how I remember, I mean, we had like hobby animals. My dad, I mean, he had a construction company, but he sold Quarter Horses on the side.

Niels Brisbane:
And so at like one point we had up to 18 Quarter Horses on the property. And we always had, more of the hobby animals, the chickens for eggs and we would always get a couple of… we’d would finish a beef cow every year and some of those other pieces where I was like, I had been on enough farms and enough of like the horse farm, that it’s like you get the ideas of farming. I won’t claim to have been a farmer like some of my peers were, but still just like the concept of getting pulled out of school because a fence broke and all of the animals are out and like you would leave and you’d go and everyone in class is like, “That makes sense.”

Niels Brisbane:
And then also just the idea of like middle of the night or early in the morning or you’ve been working all day, but you have to finish this product or a project because you have to finish it. Like it doesn’t matter how long it takes or how long you’re out there, it’ll be like put your headlamp on and keep fencing because we can’t not do it. And just like that mentality versus then working in basically less so in the restaurant.

Niels Brisbane:
Restaurants can kind of be similar to that. But even still you can be like, you got that stock on lay. Like it’s not ready but, fine. Just cool it down, we’ll start it again in the morning. It’s like, that’s not an option in farming. It’s like, there’s farmers who will cut corn for days on end essentially because it’s like a rain is coming and otherwise that is garbage if that… so that mentality of, it like, it creates this foundational work ethic that is different. And so while I don’t, like I said, I won’t claim to be a farmer, but that work ethic just kind of infuses life in Lynden and I think is a valuable life lesson.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I know you’ve said in an article I read about you that when you were at the bread lab working with farmers on developing things, that it reminded you of working with people amongst the farming community or being around that culture when you were growing up in Lynden, a county north, mind you. So how much does that influence then what you do?

Niels Brisbane:
It’s huge. I mean, I think, like I said, like it’s all, for me, the food system is built on the backs of farmers. But I do sense that there’s been this… especially, I mean the age of farmers has, I don’t know the current statistic, but basically it’s like there’s a whole generation that is getting older and is in their 60s and would love to retire soon, but they don’t have anyone coming in under them.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s our generation, in their 20s, 30s, 40s, there’s nobody that’s farming. Not nobody. There’s a lot less people that are farming in those generations. And I think part of that is just like, because farming needs a facelift basically, essentially. And there, it needs to be appreciated for what it is. But then the other piece is like, it’s a lot of work. And so there needs to be a financial incentive for how much work it is.

Niels Brisbane:
And so it’s like, nobody wants to be working 80, 90 hours a week to make 50 grand. It’s like they’re going to go to other jobs and eventually there’s going to be a reckoning with that. And so my hope is that by creating different avenues and different ways and honestly like a different mentality around how people think about farmers, we may actually be able to get people interested in farming again.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, I mean, most of my favorite people in working with the restaurant, some of my most like, nearest and dearest relationships from the restaurant were with farmers who I got to spend time with, visit their farms. They would come by once a week with their produce and you’d make them a cup of coffee and sit for two minutes and they could complain about the weather. And it’s like, that’s amazing.

Niels Brisbane:
But they need to be a community that has the spotlight shown on them a little bit more. But part of that is not just shining the spotlight on them, but actually giving them financial options and directions so that they could actually be like, well, this is, I could grow a whole bunch of this and sell it or I could, process it in a different way and may work on ways to create that infrastructure because that infrastructure has been dropping for the last 50 years, and how do we create, build up infrastructure so that it can support these small farms? And ultimately they, it’s like people want to feel proud of what they’re working on. And so if they can see that people actually appreciate it, then it’s like, well, then I think there’ll a resurgence to farming in these younger generations.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you see the future and the dark clouds over the future of farming and local farming. You see that as a real threat to the system that you’re involved with and even the food system, the restaurants, fine dining, all that kind of stuff is threatened by what’s threatening farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say hugely. I mean, the farming community has, I mean, there’s a lot of pressure on them. I mean, I’ve heard this from a good source, but it was that like suicide in the farming community is higher than suicide in the veteran community, which has traditionally been the highest kind of group in the country. And as well as like, I mean, there’s been such consolidation of farming and just kind of the loss of identity in that.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there’s just pressures being put on those farmers where it’s, again, they are getting the squeeze of the Whole Food system on top of them and everyone’s trying to keep their margin. And so then the only margin it can come out of is, the people who are actually producing the food, who have to accept that price. And so, I mean, it’s hard because we live in a country where our food system is subsidized in so many ways that it’s, as a percentage of income, the US doesn’t spend very much on food.

Niels Brisbane:
And so we don’t spend much on foods. So then we pay taxes that can then get subsidized. So it’s like we do spend a lot on food, but it’s like, it’s not a realized cost yet. And so it’s not helping, but the small farmers are not the ones receiving the subsidies. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and it’s a system that really kind of wants its cake and to be able to eat it too, if you use one of my dad’s favorite phrases because we want our food cheap, but we want it healthy. And we want it locally sourced and produced and grown on a small farm where people care and all this stuff. But at the same time we want it available year round.

Niels Brisbane:
And shelf stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
And shelf stable and we want it to be in beautiful packaging and all this and close to home. All these things and-

Niels Brisbane:
And I want it in five minutes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And a lot of those pressures are what’s pushed in some of these farms to get bigger or it to be tough for small family farms because they’re forced to try to survive with those demands. Yet at the same time that consumer is coming to them saying, “Hey, why are you getting so big? Why you’re making money on this?”

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, don’t get me started on that.

.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you keep coming back to that and I think that’s so important. But it’s something that people tend to balk at because they feel somehow there’s this idea of the small farmer, just making food and that’s what they do. And then very quickly, if it’s recognized that, that farmer is making some money at that, then it’s like, well, that’s-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. “You’re a sellout!”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the sus… It makes them suspect. Is that maybe part of what you think needs to happen when you talk about a face left-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I think it is like, I mean, figuring out ways where people need to realize that like what is the farmer bringing to the table? And it’s A, our whole food system, but have selling products that are directly recognized. I think. So creating more individual self identity and venturing out, which is scary, especially in Lynden. It’s like there’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Or any small farming community.

Niels Brisbane:
Any small farming, doing something different is like, because if you succeed then people are like, well, then it’s like that can almost be, there’s like a Danish term where it’s like the tallest tulip gets cut. And so it’s like, it’s not even… sometimes even succeeding above the average is not even a good thing in those small communities because it’s like, well, you’re not helping the community then.

Niels Brisbane:
But then it’s, if you try something and fail, then you don’t want that because you’re like, I should’ve just stuck with what I wanted to do. And so like I get that, that is a real struggle and a real conversation. But there needs to be tools for people to start investigating that. And this is another way that I think more… I mean, you made a perfect point of like what the customer demands and how many things the customer demands it’s like, so now you can’t just produce a delicious vegetable anymore. You have to produce a delicious vegetable and have a well, like a good Instagram feed and like it has to be in the right packaging and-

Dillon Honcoop:
I won’t trust it unless it’s marketed the way that I like.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And so it’s like, but to me, yes that’s really hard because it just keeps kicking up that overhead and making that a bigger and bigger slice of the pie. But it also does create an opportunity for all of these, “non farmers” who have grown up in the farm. Like if you grew up in Lynden and you loved to draw and you went to art school and you feel like there’s no place for you back in Lynden now because you don’t farm and you have no interest in farming, like no because all these farmers need to redo their packaging and rethink about that.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, a really talented graphic designer may be exactly what those farms need. And so it actually allows people to, not just stay in Lynden if you farm, sell equipment or repair equipment. Like there could actually be these, you can create this own independent economy right there that actually supports all of these pieces. But that’s hard. There’s no place for an independent graphic designer and labeled designer in Lynden if there’s only, 10 independent farms. But if there’s 50 independent farms, 100 independent farms, like each one of those needs a new graphic every couple of years and now you’ve actually created a position for someone who, “didn’t have any place in Lynden,” in the traditional economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So changing communities beyond just the traditional-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… farming community. At the same time, you’re talking about pushing the farming community into a place where some have gone, like you talked about MyShan, they’re an example.

Niels Brisbane:
Or Twin Brook

Dillon Honcoop:
From our community that both you and I grew up in examples in there are across the state people who have decided to go direct and really embrace that and brand themselves. But really that’s not the lion share of farms yet.

Niels Brisbane:
No, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s definitely not the comfort zone of a lion’s share of farmers in the state.

Niels Brisbane:
Pretty much not.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re saying that’s kind of what’s needed?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean that’s what I think is needed. I’m embracing the difference and not to say that, that won’t… I mean, I don’t know if every single farmer in Lynden could be independent. I don’t know. Like at the end of the day people will still need bulk milk. But I think that there is, a market for someone to do some value added products that, like who’s to say that Lynden… maybe it’s one farmer starts selling a blue cheese or something like that, that just goes wild and Danish blue or Dutch blue or whatever you want to call it.

Niels Brisbane:
And all of a sudden there’s such a demand that they require, more milk from, but they can pay a little bit higher price because it’s a premium product that they are getting that higher price for. And now all of a sudden they can create their own little cooperative that, of 10 dairies or 20 dairies that are all feeding into this specialty milk or specialty cheese product. And then you’ve got, maybe a yogurt maker that kind of does the same thing and eventually you could create a system where a farmer, there’s a plethora of co-ops that they could join essentially or they could then totally go independent and launch like, okay, I want to go elbow to elbow with, [inaudible 00:26:04] and I think I can, make a better product than them and my eggnog recipe is twice as good as theirs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Good old fashioned competition.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And like actually support that. And so maybe it’s not, if there’s 100 dairy farms, we’ve got 100 different cheeses coming out of Lynden. Like maybe that’s not necessarily how it goes, but there is room to create specially like, I mean, Lynden is adorable. It’s like it’s a cool town. And like, honestly, the brand of Lynden just isn’t being like flexed. I mean, that’s one small little. I mean, you could take that-

Dillon Honcoop:
And you can say that about a lot of towns around-

Niels Brisbane:
A lot of those towns what Twin Sisters is doing in Ferndale like that what they’re doing is very cool. And you could potentially… I mean, you go to France and again it’s taken generations of commitment, but there’s over 100 different types of cheese, not only just like producers of cheese, but literally types of cheese like in France. And you go to all these little different areas and each one is producing a different type.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me, if you can create that brand of like, it’s essentially what like goat milk did of like, getting people aware of the milk industry, but it’s like, okay, we need to hyper focus it though and be like, what is unique about this place? Like let’s embrace what we do differently. Let’s embrace the fact that like, well, if we feed our cows a little bit differently, we can get a change in the finished cheese that makes us totally unique.

Niels Brisbane:
And we know the 10 farmers that produce our milk and so we can get them all on a really regimented feed, process and you can create these systems that have a lot more flexibility and in the end give, if a farmer can sell to five different places and has those options, then they can actually shop around for the highest price.

Dillon Honcoop:
And giving them the incentive to do things like something that otherwise may be a big financial risk, it may be a pain in the butt, will require a lot of, investment and infrastructure, whatever on the farm. It’s like why am I going to do that if that’s really not going to get me anything?

Niels Brisbane:
You’re spinning your wheels to just get to the same place.

Dillon Honcoop:
But if there’s a system that will reward that, and I think there’s a lot of people who want to do that, but just feel like, I don’t know where the reward is going to be-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in our system right now.

Niels Brisbane:
And that’s the thing is you’ve got a lot of great business people in that area. I mean, basically if you own a business, you have to be. You get a quick primer on becoming a business person. And so like, they’re not going to do it if they don’t see the payoff. So people, working in the university where you have a lot of academics that are like, “Well, why don’t the farmers just do this?” And I’m like, “Because do you know how much equipment that would cost?”

Niels Brisbane:
And they’re selling things and making literally like pennies per gallon, and once they pay for all their costs then they’re like, do you know how long it would take for them to pay off $1 million piece of equipment making pennies per gallon? Like you’re talking generations. Like there’s no payoff for that. Or they could just, keep making that money, take the little bit of profit and put it in the stock market and it’s going to grow faster than… So it’s like they’re good business people. So they’re not going to be foolish with their money. And so again-

Dillon Honcoop:
And then when you pay off that piece of equipment too, you’re just going to be like, well, you-

Niels Brisbane:
Then you don’t have to replace it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And also it’s going to be like, well, you’re huge. Look at this huge equipment that you have. You’re just a factory. Well, no, it’s we just had… I don’t know. What do you think about the criticisms for farmers too? I mean, I’m sure you hear that a lot in the urban community, even in the foodie community and environmentally focused world, and that disconnect of what it takes to actually make some of those things happen.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s a very interesting conversation I’ve had. So just as I’ve been moving to the more business development side of things and realizing that there’s a minimum size of profitability, even like, if you want to be a whiskey maker that and you want to spend this whole time making whiskey and you just want to make like one barrel of whiskey a month, at the end of the year you’ve got 12 barrels of whiskey and to make back all your costs and pay for your living wage and it’s like you’re going to have, each bottle is going to be thousands of dollars, and nobody’s going to pay that.

Niels Brisbane:
So it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s just not profitable. So you’re going to have to build up a little bit. And so, but yes, there is this like romantic idea of how big a farmer is, size wise and I think people don’t understand that you need to be a certain size to even break even or be profitable hopefully. And as far as changing the perception of that, I don’t know. People need to… That people don’t view farming as a business, which is a little bit sad.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know. Maybe because it was like subsistence farming used to be a thing. So it’s like if you can cut down the trees, you need to build your house and grow the food you need to eat for a year, then “you’re a farmer.” But I’m like, that’s more of a settler.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and really if you’re a subsistence farmer then everybody has to be a farmer.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you’re just growing the food for yourself.

Niels Brisbane:
You’re just growing food for yourself. So it’s like realizing that, and again, this probably feeds back into the problem of why we have less and less farmers is like, we need more farmers so then, or maybe the farms we have can just produce more, and so then less people have to farm so they produce a little bit more, so then less people farm. It like feeds into itself.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I think we’ve been seeing.

Niels Brisbane:
I think so.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I think it gets worse than when people start to demonize that.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually criticize the beast they’ve created, which is interesting. It’s like, if you want the farms to be smaller, you should go start farming. It’s maybe the answer. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it feel like to be at this place where you have this growing understanding of not just the science, not just the nutrition, not just the food and the art, but now looking at the business side of it and all of these things coming together. That’s kind of where you start talking about the word system. Right?

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Focusing on food systems is kind of a project that’s the next phase. It kind of gets back to the, “How do we make a million of them” question. I mean, restaurants are so great because you have a small, like you only have to feed 150, like in Canlis’s case, like we feed 150 people a night. That’s it. And if it’s different from one night to the next, they enjoy that. You don’t get a slap on the wrist for that.

And so it allows you to be very dynamic. But on the downside, you’re feeding only 150 people a night, and 150 people can’t consume that much food. And so it’s like you spend a lot of time. So like, I spent all this time sourcing five different types of milk but at the end of the day I’m serving people these tiny little portions and telling them this huge elaborate story, which is super fun and great. But it’s like, I’m only buying a couple gallons a month or maybe a week, like maybe three gallons a week.

That is not going to substan… like, and that’s not going to help any farmer really on their bottom line. I mean, I’m sure they love the press. I’m sure they love the Instagram post, but like ultimately they’re running a business and they need to sell more than three gallons a week. And so that made me realize like, okay, the next step is figuring out how to create a larger buyership essentially because I know that’s something I can do, is how do we create a system that can actually, move product and start to work on those outlet things that I was, you know…

How do we create those products through great marketing and great, having just really delicious products to start? And how do we then take the burden off of farmers needing to take that leap of faith and be like… I mean, how is a farmer getting produce the world’s like next greatest cheese where it’s like they have zero… they’re starting from zero? Just because they produce milk doesn’t inherently mean that they know how to make chees

So there’s a disconnect for some like I come from the food world. Like I know how to make cheese, I know how to make a delicious wheat product. And so one of my… I had taken a huge amount of inspiration from the head baker at Grand Central, actually it’s a local bakery here in the city, Mel. And she’s the head baker there and has been doing it for like over two decades and has been working really hard.

I mean, I think she’s got it down to this point where she’s only sourcing Washington flour and it’s like, that is taken 20 years of nonstop work. And now she’s not only getting it down to Washington flour, but she’s getting it down to like individual. Like there’s a farm out in Walla Walla, Small’s farm that’s doing a really, really incredible job with flour. And he built a little mill and he’s a character and a half. And I would laugh.

He would come into the restaurant and he’d talked to you about, why the flour is going to be a little different this year because it’s coming from here. And it’s like she’s working really hard to continue to narrow down. But she’s also baking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of loaves per day. And they’ve got multiple cafes. And so she actually represents a pretty big buyership.

And so she actually carries some weight in the flour world, and she can go to different markets or she could approach a farmer and be like, plant, I don’t know, 600 acres of wheat and I’ll take it in the first quarter. And it’s like, wow, that pencils out really nicely for me and that’s a great option. And here’s a mill that we can get it milled at and cleaned at. And so building more models like that, which again, like, yes, it’s not the rustic bakery where he’s producing 25 loaves a day and like that’s really beautiful on Instagram stories and all those different pieces.

But you’re not feeding people that drives costs up and you just aren’t, it helps one farmer maybe. But it’s like, if you really want to create these larger food systems, you have to be thinking about that next size up. And so Mel’s done it. She’s my food hero and she’s done a really incredible job at Grand Central working on that. And to me that level of thought and care needs to be put into every other area. So the dairy industry, the fishing industry, the meat industry, the vegetable growers, berry growers, they all need a Mel type person that can actually dictate change and support it financially on the backside and is willing to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So is that what’s next for you? I know you’re working-

Niels Brisbane:
That’s what’s next.

Dillon Honcoop:
… on a project that hasn’t been launched, isn’t really public yet. How much can you share with us right now?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, so right now I’m working with several companies doing like business development and product development. So it’s all about, and a couple of them are more of my babies than others. And we’ll potentially take over all of my work. But it’s all about leaning on how we can really move product and checking all those boxes that you talked about earlier. It’s like how do we make something that’s healthy for people and shelf stable and produce locally and has nice packaging and actually is moved in a volume that, we can go to farmers and make requests and have them again perk up and be like, you want that? Like nobody’s ever asked me for that before. Let me do the numbers. That makes sense. That works for me. Like let’s do it. And that’s how you can move the needle and then all of a sudden-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where the disconnect usually happens, because farmers are like, “Hey, we can do this in quantity,” and consumers are like, “Well, but no, we want something that’s more artisan and more hands on. And so farmers, why don’t you do this. Farmers, this is what we want.” And farmers are like, “I can’t afford to do that. Well, maybe I could, but I’m not sure if I can make the risk to switch to something like that.” So that’s where that gap always seems to where that gap is. So one of the-

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s a huge disconnect. And that was like, that was something we would come into conflict with at the restaurant, because even with… I mean, we even were willing to like finance things for farmers like, great, let’s buy all your seeds so that you can grow this specialty thing for us. And figuring out ways to play ball with them so that the risk wasn’t all in their court. But people don’t realize it’s like, I mean, farming is not a high margin industry, and so trying something new, a small margin on a small number is not worth their time and headache and amount of effort to like… I mean, doing something new takes a lot of mental energy and if it’s not going to pay off, they’re just going to stick to the bulk thing and as they should because that’s what makes sense. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had to explain that to people who don’t understand? Well, what do you say to people who are like, well, why don’t farmers do X?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say I’m getting better at explaining it to people. I mean, it’s an uphill battle and part of it is people don’t understand business well enough. And to me that should be like, that should be what high school is, is like teaching you business and probably mostly through like getting jobs. But people that don’t understand business is probably the biggest disconnect. And they just think that, these farmers are swimming in money or honestly that business people are swimming in money, like starting a business it’s just instantly makes you rich and it’s like, nothing’s further from the truth. My uncle has a say. He’s like, “The fastest way to make $1 million is to start a $5 million business.” So 4 million in the hole and you got 1 million leftover. So there you go, you’re a millionaire. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So true.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s that piece in just trying to explain the economics of it, but honestly like experience is kind of the only real teacher in that. So encouraging people to be like, great, put some numbers on a page and like, show me a business plan where what you want makes sense. And there’s no farmer that, if you have a business plan that makes sense, wouldn’t try it. Those are not farmers, but most of them are going to give it a shot and they’re going to be like, “Well, if it makes sense on paper, it’s good enough for me. I’ll give it a shot.” So that’s trying to get people to actually wrestle with the problem of like, even in there, trying to come up with analogies can help, but there’s no real experience. Like experience is the teacher.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this whole journey, what’s been the most challenging, difficult, hard thing for you personally?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, probably this thing that makes life hard, which is people, and trying to… like the politics of all of it and figuring out how to move things forward when there’s 100 reasons not to. And it’s like an asking, trying to get groups to, everything from like you’ll work really hard to get to groups of people to finally like, mutually trust and get excited about a project and then have it fall through. And then, you’re just adding to the distrust of that’s already out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what’s the distrust? What does that look like?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, even just like simple things like, it’s not like a systemic problem, but just like of one person. If a farmer needs a piece of equipment and they’re like, well, if you like, I need this piece of equipment and I’m willing to buy it because I’ve got that CapEx sitting on hand, but you have to promise me that you’re going to buy for the next three years like this much so that my business plan works out, and everyone’s excited and everyone’s like, okay, we’re going to do it.

Niels Brisbane:
And then, from the higher ups on the other side, the product gets pulled and they’re like, sorry, we have to back out. Like, even if we’re going to get beat up on this contract a little bit, but it’s like then the farmer’s stuck sitting on that piece of equipment and they just took a huge loss and it’s like all understandable because somebody has to take that risk and that just adds. So then it like, it makes those farmers like, I’m not going to do that again. That was really dumb. So it’s like, it creates a distrust between… honestly like a distrust of like change and a distrust of trying new things, which is fair.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about trust of farming from the public? I think about that in terms of you saying that farming needs a facelift. That tells me that there’s a problem and I feel that too. I guess I’m just curious from your perspective, what is that problem? What do they see farming as right now, and how is that right and wrong?

Niels Brisbane:
I think they see farming as this like old system of that’s like archaic on some level and has no, I don’t know the best way to put it. But it’s like it’s an archaic way of thinking and operating. And so like trying to think of a way where people can view that as the trade that it is and the skill and the amount of knowledge that’s there and the amount of hard work that’s there and the amount of stress that’s there.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there are ultimately a whole bunch of small business owners, which I think is what this country is supposed to prize as like the most championed group, but it doesn’t right now and that’s a little sad. So I don’t know. I don’t know exactly. I mean, I know how to like, or I have some ideas of how to potentially create that facelift of just two groups of people not really knowing each other is maybe what like the best way to describe it.

Niels Brisbane:
And so they need to interface with each other too because it’s like nobody, it’s the same problem of like the divisiveness that’s going on is because people aren’t sitting in a room talking. And it’s like you can often, you realize how similar people really are when you’re sitting across from each other sharing a meal or buying their product or anything else. And so that is it’s two groups of people that don’t understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
If you grew up in a city, it’s like going to another country, going to Lynden sometimes. And not in a bad way. Like it’s just very different. And honestly, I think a lot of Seattleites would really enjoy their time there, and a lot of Lyndenites would, if they could get around the traffic, would really enjoy the city. Like they’re two great groups of people and they need to understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
And I mean, for me, food is all about bringing people together and it’s about creating community. And when you share delicious food, pretty much all other things fall away. And so when you have farmers producing fantastic food and needing to sell it to large amounts of people, they are two groups of people that should get along very, very well. And there’s just that middleman that’s been, that’s difficult.

Niels Brisbane:
So it’s like, I mean, the amount of money that people will pay for something at like a farmer’s market can be astronomical because they’re looking at someone in the face and they know how much work it was for them. And they’re like, $12 for a gallon of milk, no problem. Like, I’ll pay that. And that’s just doesn’t exist in the current system. And so not that I think all farmers should go to the farmer’s market, like that’s not a business model that will work for everyone either. Like this is still the 21st century and we have to operate accordingly. But there’s businesses that can be created to help bridge those gaps and tell those stories and move things forward in a different way.

Dillon Honcoop:
I feel like there’s so much we could talk about here and I’m just loving the things that you’re saying because you’re coming from this different perspective. But it resonates so much with my experience and the things that I’ve been seeing, and I like the optimism too that you’re bringing not just talking about the problems, but you’re so much more focused on the solutions.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s all that really matters.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for opening up about your passion for all of this and all the work that you’re doing. Really, you’re kind of between two worlds and working to connect them. It sounds like it’s what you’re all about. So I’m really excited to see what happens with your ventures and I’m pumped for when we can find out more specifics-

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and open door for when you want to come back on the podcast-

Niels Brisbane:
I would love to.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and tell us more about some of that stuff because I think you’ve got got cool stuff ahead.

Niels Brisbane:
Cool. Thank you so much.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t Niels such an interesting person, such a talented guy? And so crazy for me to meet somebody like that through this podcast who grew up in the same small farming town as I did. I think my sister, if I remember right, was in high school across country with his older brother. But seriously, that conversation we just heard was the first time that Niels and I had actually met in person.


So as I listened back now to that conversation with Niels, I realize we didn’t get very much out of him about how his new ventures to reconnect eaters with farms will actually work. But because of his passion for food and farming and because he’s obviously such a tenanted leader, I’m really excited to see what he does with that. I have a feeling we’ll be talking with him again down the road.


Make sure to subscribe to the Real Food, Real People Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and basically just about any other podcast platform you prefer to make sure you don’t miss any future conversations with Niels. And of course all of the other amazing conversations with farmers and people behind the food that we eat here in the Pacific Northwest. Also, feel free to email me any time with thoughts that you have on the show. Whatever it is that you’re thinking about, good, bad, otherwise, I’m all ears. dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. Dillon is, D-I-L-L-O-N @realfoodrealpeople.org.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org.