Podcasts

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.

Niels Brisbane part 1 | #005 01/13/2020

Award-winning Seattle chef Niels Brisbane is reconnecting with his farm-town roots to champion farmers' importance in establishing a cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. In this first half of their wide-ranging conversation, he and Dillon tackle science, art, nutrition, agriculture and much more.

Transcript

Niels Brisbane:
It’s pretty incredible what the Pacific Northwest has to offer and really plugging you in with lots of farm visits, lots of manufacturer visits, actually, these are the purveyors you can get this from.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
This week we hear about the personal journey of a guy who became a sous-chef at one of Seattle’s top restaurants, but that’s not what he set out to do. It’s an incredible story. We actually had such an amazing conversation that I’ve split this into two parts. This week is the first part with Niels Brisbane and him telling his personal story from sports to science to art, all relating to food and now how he’s become passionate about farming and farmers. He’s trying to change our regional food system. An incredible story. Take a listen. Also, make sure to catch next week as well as we continue this story with Niels Brisbane.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically, you started off as a wrestler and you wanted to be a scientist was the starting point, right?

Niels Brisbane:
It was the starting point, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you doing? You were down in California?

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, yeah. I started down in California. I was at UC Davis, which is just outside of Sacramento. I was there. I was studying biology. Like I said, I was there as a wrestler, which was fantastic. I loved being a part of the team.

Niels Brisbane:
Shortly after starting, after the first season, it was springtime at some point, it was 2010. The financial crisis had really started to put the squeeze now. It had been a couple of years, so now the financial crisis was really squeezing on the universities. We had just gotten a brand new dean. She decided she needed to create some funds. She cut women’s crew, which needed a lot of funding. Because of Title IX, she had to find men’s sports to cut as well. She ended up dropping men’s wrestling, men’s swimming and diving. Anyway, she had to free up some funds.

Niels Brisbane:
She dropped the program, which was a bit of an identity crisis for all of those athletes. We had people transfer out. People deal with it in all sorts of ways. UC Davis is, for its biological sciences, is top 25 in the nation at the time. They’ve actually moved up since then. For me, athletics, while absolutely I’m crazy about them, were an avenue to get into, to leverage towards great academics.

Niels Brisbane:
I decided to stay at Davis. The university wasn’t totally brutal to us. They let us keep our athlete status, so we still got a lot of the benefits of being athletes in a college.

Dillon Honcoop:
Even though you weren’t able to-

Niels Brisbane:
Even though we weren’t practicing it. We continued to practice for a while. At first, there was everything from writing letters to doing some demonstrations and having other coaches come in and try to support and do a lot of lobbying to try to get them to reverse this action. None of it stuck.

Niels Brisbane:
Then I was in school. But still, even during that time out of Linden now and having to feed myself for the first time, and then as an athlete there’s that next level of how do I feed myself well, how do I make sure I’m getting all the nutrition that I need. They were trying to basically get me to move up a weight class or be larger in my weight class. Wrestling is always this tight dance of you want to be the largest possible without bumping up into that next weight class.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of body manipulation.

Niels Brisbane:
A lot of body manipulation. Actually, it was really interesting. While I was working at Washington State, one of the PhD students there, she was a nutritionist and had spent time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado and just a really, really intelligent lady who we always had a lot of really nerdy conversations together.

Niels Brisbane:
She had always talked about that she worked with the wrestlers specifically and just how obsessed they were with nutrition. She was a dietician and all these other … versus some of the other athletes that they were very concerned about diet and all these different things; if their weight fluctuates, if they … They’ve got a lot more to play with versus wrestlers are very, very tight. She said it was the only team that was basically 100% organic. They only ate organic foods. They were very concerned with what they ate. I was like, yeah, that’s wrestlers.

Niels Brisbane:
While down at Davis, I was studying sciences, was focused … At the time, I had some very … everything from physical therapy to something in the medicines to very much thinking about health from the traditional pharmacological standpoint.

Niels Brisbane:
Then as we … I don’t know exactly why. I think it was just the nutrition class, Nutrition 101, we had a very, very well-regarded professor. She was published all around the country, considered in the best of her field. Me and a couple of the other athletes took her class. It was amazing to me how little there was of substance on some level where they’re breaking things down into such … Nutrition as a field is a very young field. Nutritionists would tell you this. It’s only been around … it’s really been studied for … I can’t remember when it exactly was founded, but it’s less than 100 years. It’s only been studied and focused on for not very long.

Niels Brisbane:
Tests haven’t been really great as well as usually nutritional testing requires you to survey people and basically be like, “What did you eat last week, and how did it make you feel.” Those are questions that people aren’t really great at answering anyway. Just the feel of nutrition is a really difficult field. It needs a lot more support and it needs a lot more help, but then also just realizing, oh, there’s not … It’s in its infant stages and it’s not ready for the application necessarily.

Niels Brisbane:
It was incredible to work with these incredible professors and realize that there’s not a lot that I can actually glean and use in my athletic endeavors other than eat whole foods and eat more vegetables and eat fruits and eat protein from good, clean sources and stuff like that.

Niels Brisbane:
That was interesting which then pushed me, basically the lack of formula to nutrition and realizing; a. Oh, this is just a really complicated science. There’s the best people are working on this and we just don’t know yet.

Niels Brisbane:
Coming to that point, I was also then living with my best friend down there and a fellow wrestler. He was just a phenomenal cook. He had grown up doing some cooking. He grew up in Japan and then moved to Hawaii after that and was just really very talented in the kitchen. We were all weird wrestlers that were focused on nutrition and eating and not huge partiers.

Niels Brisbane:
When most Saturdays people would be sleeping in and do all this other stuff, we would be traveling 45 minutes to go to our favorite Japanese grocery store and pick out which type of soy sauce we wanted.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s different types of soy sauce?

Niels Brisbane:
Oh yeah, there’s tons of different types of soy sauce, yeah. That was always my favorite. He’d be like, “You can’t put that soy sauce on fish. That’s like a meat sauce or that’s for beef and that’s for vegetables,” and this sauce and that sauce and just learning about these cultures that have such a deep respect for their food. They’ve thought about it for a very long time. Japan, there’s a reason it is just a culinary mecca.

Niels Brisbane:
He was a great teacher. He was very passionate about Japanese cuisine. I learned a ton from him. Also, being athletes, we were competitive. We’d actually prepare each other meals trying to one-up each other constantly. It’s the most friendly competition ever. We did, we were cooking all the time. We were cooking from scratch and realizing what that does to your body and how that makes you feel. It was very eye-opening for me and really just opened up the Pandora’s Box of, oh, if you want to influence how people eat, then you have to be able to produce something delicious. That’s the baseline of everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your starting point was science more though.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
But then really, through this friend, brought in the art of it too.

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now in your position, having been a chef in a fine-dining restaurant in Seattle, Canlis, and all the other things … but you’ve also researched with the university and done all the science-y stuff, you consider yourself more of a scientist or an artist?

Niels Brisbane:
Oh man. I don’t know. I think I would consider myself more of a scientist. I think that the art piece of it is … it’s like culinary school. The first week they’re like, “Do you have a trade or is cooking a trade or is it an art?” I think that whenever they wanted to waste class time, they would bring up that topic. People would just go at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that okay for it to be just a trade?

Niels Brisbane:
I think so. I think the trades are heavily under-respected.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about at culinary art school, I’m sure that they wanted it to be understood on a higher plane than just a job, right?

Niels Brisbane:
Right. Yeah, they did.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s an artistic expression.

Niels Brisbane:
Right. I get that, but also I think it’s the trade of hospitality and the trade of being able to take care of someone like that. I don’t know. I’ve thought about this. On some level, I almost feel like building a table or even … that can be a piece of art, or you can build a table and have it just be totally utilitarian. Is IKEA producing art? I think that would be a hard point to argue. There’s woodworkers out there, there’s tens of thousands of dollars for one of their tables. Is that a piece of art or are they just a really skilled tradesman?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know. On some level, I think that for it to be … art has a certain provocative nature to it. It’s not just consumed or enjoyed. It has to create thought.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s a message.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, there’s a message behind it. It changes the price point. I think there can be very artful food that costs $10 for a portion or whatever else. It doesn’t have to Instagram well to be art.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were trained as a scientist. You got your degree in biology.

Niels Brisbane:
I did, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
At UC Davis.

Niels Brisbane:
At UC Davis, yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
Then were you going to get a job doing biology stuff or-

Niels Brisbane:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
You mentioned also then going to culinary art school, which was the next step. What was between there, and what launched [crosstalk 00:13:00]?

Niels Brisbane:
Getting married was in between there. That was my three months off in between the two.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Niels Brisbane:
I went for a more traditional science school or a more traditional biology track but under the biology degree, UC Davis gave a good amount of latitude as far as what classes you wanted to take. While I was there, I’d been cooking more and more and was just really loving it, really falling in love with the science of cooking and the science of taste and perception. You quickly get into psychology and just the fingers that cooking has all of it in all of these different pies of study.

Niels Brisbane:
Towards the end, I really started creating more of a course towards food science. UC Davis has a phenomenal brewing school and a phenomenal viticulture and analogy school as well as a really highly regarded food science school. I got to take a lot of those classes. I got to study under one of the top brewing scientists in the world, got to go to France and study wine in Burgundy for a couple of months as well as just taking some really phenomenal food science classes and diving deep into that and really getting an understanding of not only why we cook as a society but how it’s done and how those subtle manipulations of what’s a mired reaction versus caramelization and why are they different. Why does that matter? How do you do things differently with them?

Niels Brisbane:
Towards the end, the last two years, I didn’t want to add on a fifth year and actually switch to a food science degree. I knew as soon as I started cooking, no one would actually care that I have a degree. I just basically took as much food science courses as I could, which they both food science. They had a lot of overlap. I left with a biology degree but had heavy emphasis on food as well in that degree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Only three months later, you decided to go on to culinary arts.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. When I graduated in June, I had already applied and was starting cooking school that next fall. I had the summer off, got married.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was that?

Niels Brisbane:
That was here in Seattle. Yeah, Seattle Culinary Academy. We had moved back. My wife had just finished her Master’s down in Sacramento. We knew we wanted to move back to Washington. I chose a school here. It turned out to be a really incredible, incredible experience. It’s a community college program. It’s a beautiful school. They’ve done a really good job with the aesthetic of it. The staff at the time was just really phenomenal. They went above and beyond their job descriptions to make that experience fantastic for their students.

Niels Brisbane:
They really focused on sourcing, on what the Pacific Northwest has to offer, which is pretty incredible what the Pacific Northwest has to offer and really plugging you in with lots of farm visits, lots of manufacturer visits, actually, okay, these are the purveyors you can get this from. Call Hank and he’ll get it to you, those really helpful pieces of information.

Niels Brisbane:
It wasn’t just classical French cooking. They did a really good job of being like, yeah, that’s the classics and this is where we’ve taken it and this is where you’ll actually be cooking at this level. Really, it was the plugging into the sourcing that was the most invaluable piece of information and then the way that they just thought about sustainability.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s like, well, if we’re fishing for all this stuff, there should really be a policy of everything you catch, you have to sell or something so that you’re not just fishing. You catch five … I catch for every one regular fish you want or whatever the numbers are. How do we think about utilizing that? How do you think about food when it’s not just putting a piece of protein in the center of the plate? What if it’s a tiny fish? Americans don’t love to eat tiny fish, so how do we prepare that in a way that’s different and delicious? Again, it has to make it over that deliciousness bar. If it’s sustainable and well thought out and artistic or anything else, it has to make it above that. If it’s not delicious, people are just going to think you’re a fraud.

Dillon Honcoop:
How different was that culinary arts program because it was in Seattle, and was that part of the reason why you wanted to come back up here to Washington?

Niels Brisbane:
It was important. I wanted to be back in the Pacific Northwest. It depends why you want to cook, ultimately. If you’re cooking to show people how good you are at cooking, then you should be able to do that anywhere. Part of what would be so impressive is that I can go anywhere in the world and I can take any ingredient and I can make it delicious. It’s about me. That’s fine. There’s certainly nothing wrong with cooking like that, but that wasn’t my goal for getting into cooking.

Niels Brisbane:
I knew that from the start, that cooking was a way to … I have to get over the hurdle of being able to cook well and get people to enjoy my food in order for me to then source in a way and move product in a way that creates a more sustainable system. For me, it came back to improving Washington’s food systems. Cooking is a great way to do that, and how do I do that? It was like, well, okay, I’ll learn how to cook and that’ll be the first step.

Niels Brisbane:
Not having it in Seattle would have been very counter to that. For me, if you’re not plugged into the region here, then you’re making the cooking about solely just your improving, which, again, is not a bad thing, but kill two birds with one stone.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s also a reason though why different cuisines are not only culturally based with the human element but also regionally based. It’s a geographical influence, and that’s where cuisine is different here than … I guess here’s my question: what is the Pacific Northwest cuisine? Really, it’s a young culture out here aside from the First Nations people, the Native Americans that were here. What is that? [crosstalk 00:20:37] different than French food. You talked about Japanese food earlier. They have so much history behind those places.

Niels Brisbane:
Japanese is a huge part of this culture. I don’t think you can claim that the Pacific Northwest has an identity without the Japanese culture having a huge seat at the table. Same with the Filipino cultures. The Korean cultures have a really big presence here. Basically, anyone around the Pacific rim, especially if they had anything to do with the fishing industries, they all gravitated towards this place. It’s Norwegians and Japanese and all these fishing communities from around the world. The all converged here. They all had a very heavy hand in shaping this place into what it’s become.

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t think that the Pacific Northwest has a cohesive cuisine at all. In general, there’s not a ton of strong cuisines even throughout the US in general. I would say that even early on in my cooking, that was one of the questions I wanted to play a hand in defining is what is the cuisine here. I don’t think it’ll ever be as defined as the Italian cuisine or French cuisine or any of those because we no longer live in an isolationist world. You can’t fully develop it in a way without it being morphed and shaped. I also don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s part of our cuisine as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much is it influenced by the food that we grow here?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t think it’s influenced enough by it. I think it should be very defined by that. You go deep down the rabbit hole and people are like what’s from “Washington”? Cabbage isn’t from Washington originally. There was no cabbage being grown here 1,000 years ago. It’s not native to Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can grow just about anything here.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. You can grow just about anything here. To me, the long-term would be anything that you can grow “sustainably” in the area, sustainably being it doesn’t destroy the soils and you’re able to have multi-tiered business models that are able to operate multi-generationally. There’s a consumer base that’s willing to buy into that product for multi-generational. Again, that to me is sustainable is basically is it a business that will work long-term and businesses that just deplete the area …

Niels Brisbane:
There’s a reason the logging industry took a nosedive eventually. It’s because it wasn’t a sustainable model because they weren’t able to turn it over fast enough. Eventually, it was cheaper to go to Brazil or go to these other places. Now logging is very sustainable. They had to find that tipping point of can we do this. Can we plant as fast as we can tear down? Once you can do that, then you’ve got a good business model.

Niels Brisbane:
Figuring that out for the Pacific Northwest, to me, yeah, if it can be grown here, it can be part of Washington cuisine. Whether it should be grown here is always the question whether it’s a good utilization of the land or whether it can be a good return. Should we be growing something that is …

Niels Brisbane:
Dr. Jones is working on … He’s like shouldn’t be growing commodity wheat on this side of the mountains because the soil’s too fertile basically. If you’re going to grow grain, it should be a specialty grain, a premium grain of some sort. Otherwise, there’s single farms on the east side that are bigger than the entire Skagit Valley.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain. You said Dr. Jones. Who is that? This is WSU Bread Lab?

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. This is Dr. Stephen Jones. He is the head of the WSU Bread Lab which is a plant breeding lab that’s doing traditional cross pollination to come up with new wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat varieties. They work on a little bit of everything and then actually finding markets. He does the plant breeding but then he also plays a hand in finding the markets for those. If the markets don’t exist, then advocating for those products and trying to create markets. He’s been fairly influential. He’s been written up in everything from The New York Times to all sorts of things.

Niels Brisbane:
I worked for him for a year helping establish the culinary director position. He’s done incredible things for the bread world. It was how do we get this into the food world more. You can just eat wheat. There’s more ways to eat wheat than just in bread. You can make delicious porridges or there’s lots of risottos or whatever else.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were involved with that but now you’re moving on to your own venture. I know you haven’t launched that yet. Maybe in a little bit we’ll bug you to see how much we can get out of you, a little sneak preview maybe of what you’re up to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Before that though, I want to go back. We should talk about you went through culinary art school. The next stepping stone was Canlis Restaurant?

Niels Brisbane:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Seattle here?

Niels Brisbane:
Yup, yup. I actually even started at Canlis while I was still in school. I did an internship for them part-time in the restaurant world. It was 40 hours a week. After school, I would go to the restaurant and work until closing, midnight or so. On Saturdays, I would do double shifts, essentially. Saturdays and Mondays I would do that. I think one or two other days a week I would go after school and was working for free for them, which they always loved.

Dillon Honcoop:
For people who don’t know, describe what Canlis is.

Niels Brisbane:
Canlis is … I don’t know, I think it might actually be their 70th birthday this year. I can’t quite remember, but late ’60s, early ’70. 1950, they were a restaurant founded by Peter Canlis. It is well-established. They’ve always done that fine dining, higher price point meals. They’ve been very well respected for a long time. There’s the sheer longevity piece of it but then they’ve also done a decent job of always staying modern as well. Really, as food has taken this turn from back in the ’80s and ’90s, fine dining was flying something from across the world. Now fine dining is I picked it from the garden that you walked by as you came in. It’s been a total shift. They’ve done a really good job of modernizing with that.

Dillon Honcoop:
They champion that, eating local.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, they have.

Dillon Honcoop:
In fine dining in particular.

Niels Brisbane:
Right, yeah. Originally, they had multiple locations. One of them was in … I think it was in Honolulu. Regardless, it was in the Hawaiian Islands. They would actually fly Washington salmon to the Honolulu location, and then they would fly Mahi Mahi back. Eating locally but also sourcing in these unique ways, that was a big part of what they were doing.

Niels Brisbane:
Especially the last couple of chefs, Jason Franey and then now Brady Williams, they were focused on more sourcing locally. Especially when Brady came along, that was a really big change in focus. It was like, how do we source more locally and really champion what’s going on here.

Niels Brisbane:
I had been working under Jason Franey, the previous chef, for a few months. He left to a restaurant down in California. We were without a chef for a little interim there. They ended up hiring me on as a cook. I started cooking there. A little bit later, Brady Williams was hired and started with us. I started as a cook underneath him. Relatively quickly, I’d come in and was working on a lot of my own projects, coming in a couple of hours before my shifts and working on dishes that excited me and just trying to keep finessing those skills and exercise that creative piece before, which you just have to do before a 12-hour shift of just executing food straight, it’s very routine. It’s nice to have a little creative outlet before that.

Niels Brisbane:
I’d been working on that. He’s very, very creative and very artistic. I have more of the scientific approach to things. He and I just had a very symbiotic relationship early on. He would often, as I started working on projects, was like, “Chef, Chef, will you try this?” He’d be like, “Okay, yeah, this is cool, but I would add this ingredient.” It would be like, “I never would have thought of that,” because that’s so obscure.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of stuff?

Niels Brisbane:
Oh man.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d just love to have an example so I can start to get hungry here.

Niels Brisbane:
I’d be working on a dish with … I don’t know, you can never remember all the dishes now. Maybe you’re doing duck. You’ve got some classic sauces or a classic pairing of some sort of sweet cherry chutney or something like that. You’ve got some sort of greens on there. He’d try it and he’ll be like, “You know what this needs, mole,” which is a traditional oaxacan from a southern Mexican style sauce that has ground pumpkin seeds and chocolate and all these heavy spices. You wouldn’t traditionally think to pair duck with mole and cherries. I maybe had worked on this dish and gotten it to a point. He would come in and basically say, “It needs this and it needs that. Maybe you should add some sorrel leaf oil,” or something like that.

Niels Brisbane:
Then I could go back and work on all of that and make those changes and find not only a way to make mole but maybe spice it up a little bit, do something a little different, put some flair on it and then bring it back. There would always be this dialog of, “Add this. Take this away.” We just had a good relationship. I was always documenting, always making sure that everything was very linear and just step by step by step by step.

Dillon Honcoop:
The scientist.

Niels Brisbane:
The scientist. He could just come in, and in a good way, wipe the table blank and throw in new things. We just had a good relationship. He quickly promoted me to sous-chef. I ended up running the menu development piece. It was the two of us.

Niels Brisbane:
Chefs don’t have the luxury of always being in the kitchen day in and day out. They’re essentially CEOs is what people don’t realize. We call them chefs but they act more like a CEO. They’ve got to write schedules and do financials and all these other pieces. I’m sure farmers are very familiar with it too. They’re like, “You just get to spend time with cows all the time.” They’re like, “I could be a CPA.” They have all these other skillsets. The chef always has to delegate a lot of these tasks to everyone else. I had the joy of doing the menu development and then the fermentation and focusing a lot more on how fermentation can affect flavor and how it can make things delicious. That was a really fantastic rabbit hole to dive down.

Dillon Honcoop:
This fascinates me. I always wonder, what goes on behind the scenes? How do they come up with these new menu items, and what does someone who’s really creative in the culinary arts do in a kitchen like that? Granted, it’s fine dining, so there’s going to be probably more risks taken and newer things tried than your average restaurant. Still, you’ve got to make sure that the menu items are available. That’s the meat and potatoes of your feeding the customers day in and day out. When do you actually get to play around? That’s interesting, you say you were actually coming in early initially to do that.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Until you proved … You have to be pretty darn good at this to get to where you got.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s one of those things that when you’re doing it, it doesn’t seem like a new idea. You’ll do 100 iterations of something. There’s just a tiny little step that doesn’t seem like a genius idea in between those 100 iterations. Then from going from zero to 100, someone coming in from the outside, they only see that as one giant leap. They don’t see that as 100 tiny steps.

Niels Brisbane:
People, they do, they come in and they’re like, “That’s genius.” It doesn’t feel genius. It feels like a lot of work. I think that’s true in any industry. It’s all these tiny little steps and then all of a sudden people come from the outside and they’re like, “How did you ever think of that?” You’re like, “Two years is how I thought of that of actively thinking about this problem and having 99 bad versions of this or incomplete versions at the very least.”

Niels Brisbane:
That’s where, I think, again, the scientific approach because in science, you’re not really looking for success. You’re looking for failure always and how do I disprove my hypothesis. You’re constantly working against yourself in a way. That’s my creative “process” is really just about tearing down what I did yesterday and making it a little bit better on some level and then having good oversight from a chef that knows when it’s ready. Also, just keeping the staff motivated.

Niels Brisbane:
The difference, really, from a fine dining place that puts effort into something like that, it eats through a lot of time. Everyone who owns a business, knows that time is money. Just being able to have the support to say … They, of course, have to invest in that. They can’t just keep the same menu year in and year out. It is out of necessity that they have to put that money in on some level, but allowing us to actually take the time. You still have to run a restaurant while doing all of this. That’s the difficult part.

Dillon Honcoop:
An answer to those people who are like, “This meal cost me 100 bucks. I could go down to the store and buy this all for 15.” Well, you’re paying for all of that development.

Niels Brisbane:
All of that development.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the art and the atmosphere and all those other things that go into that equation is huge.

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Absolutely, which does make it … That is why on some level, to me, the pinnacle of food development is being able to mass produce that creativity on some level and being able to say, okay, I can create something that’s well-sourced and delicious and all these other things, and I can produce a million of them and it’ll cost you five bucks. That, to me, is like oh my gosh, that’s incredible. I’m so glad I had the time to just purely be creative and have the customer pay for it and then being willing and excited about sharing that experience of this is truly cutting edge. Now, to me the next step is, okay, how do we produce a million of them? That’s how you can create that big impact.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did it feel like though being in that creative world? You’re coming through culinary art school in Seattle, going to Canlis. It has to be pretty high on the list of where people want to go, things they want to do and being recognized then. I know you’ve won awards for your involvement there. What did that feel like to start to get into that, really get into that world?

Niels Brisbane:
It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s consuming is probably the best way to put it. Consuming is both really exciting because it’s all you think about all the time. It’s also draining on all the other areas of your life when you’re consumed by this single piece. It’s very fun. There’s a reason it’s high burnout because it consumes everything for all the good and all the bad in that. It’s very exciting. It’s a lot of work, honestly. It is difficult.

Niels Brisbane:
We were talking before we hit record about the necessity to constrain creativity and what that does. I think that’s so important. Having to run a restaurant while being creative is one of those constraints. It’s like, “Oh, what does this dish need? Does it need more cinnamon in this mole or more pumpkin seed?” A cook comes up to you and they’re like, “Chef, halibut didn’t show up. What are we going to do?” You’re torn out of that world of it doesn’t matter which of those because you need to find a source of halibut right now. Someone needs to drive across town and pick up halibut and get their car all smelly because we need it tonight because it’s on the menu and people are expecting it.

Niels Brisbane:
There’s always just, on one hand, it’s really fun to have those really creative moments. You get one of those or two of those really great creative moments a month and then you just get the normal month’s amount of problems of just life. That’s what life is, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s definitely fun. It was a good team there. The sous-chef team was fantastic. I think there was four of us, five of us. It varied from time to time, but each with our area that we ran. I got to play point on some of the menu development and fermentation and stuff like that, but it’s a team effort, absolutely. It’s fun to be part of that team where everyone is obsessed and consumed with it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not something that everyone gets to do.

Niels Brisbane:
No, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s very cool.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s very much like being part of a winning sports team or something like that where it’s contagious and it’s fun even though it’s long.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When Niels and I talked, we had so much to cover that I’ve decided to share the second half of our conversation with you next week. That will be the second part as we get more into farming and Niels’ vision for what can happen with our food system here in the Pacific Northwest, how that relates to amazing food, and what he plans to do next. As you could tell talking with him, he just has so much passion for this issue and wants to keep working, keep pushing the envelope of new things to change the way we think about food here in our region. Please make sure to pick up the second half of the conversation next week.

Dillon Honcoop:
As always, we’d love to hear from you: dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. Please follow us as well on Instagram, on Facebook, as well as Twitter. Just check out Real Food, Real People on those platforms. Would love to have you share our content, subscribe on Apple podcast, Spotify and a bunch of other platforms we’re on now, or even just drop us a line. Give us your feedback on this show.

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.`

Felipe Garcia | #004 01/06/2020

Growing up in Mexico, Felipe Garcia never expected he would one day be the human resources manager for a dairy farm in Washington state. He shares his personal journey to find his passion, as well as what he thinks is sometimes misunderstood about the people who produce food here.

Transcript

Felipe Garcia:
If you don’t know the subject, it’s easy for you to point a finger or to just judge something when you’ve never done it, or you don’t even have the background, what’s going on, how did this product get to my table?

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the podcast, I’m Dillon Honcoop. And as I continue my journeys around Washington state, to hear from the real people behind the food that we eat and produce here in Washington state. One of the things that’s interesting to me is their take on issues that can be controversial, and in this case immigration and the treatment of workers came up in a conversation I had as I made my way to Pasco and 5D Farms. I talked with Felipe Garcia, he’s their HR manager at 5D Farms, it’s a dairy farm, again, near Pasco.

And what Felipe shared was fascinating, telling his story of coming from Mexico to the United States, and what it means to him to work on a dairy farm and produce food for people here in Washington State. So join me as we continue on Real Food Real People, hearing from the real people behind the food that we produce and eat here in Washington state. Talking with Felipe Garcia at 5D Farms near Pasco.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want to talk about the things that you do on the dairy now, but first I want to go back a little bit more.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said you were in inventory, or what was your job before they offered you the job here, when you just came up to [crosstalk 00:01:51]?

Felipe Garcia:
So my job, I used to work in front of a desk and a computer, catching errors on a company inventory, catching the red numbers, and we call it the blue numbers too. The blue numbers is when somebody made a mistake and instead of one, they put 100. So I was just doing that, a daily basis, eight hours a day, five days a week.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of industry was that with?

Felipe Garcia:
It was a candle factory.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. Fragrance candles.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
Arizona.

Dillon Honcoop:
Let’s go back even a little further than that. You said you were born in Mexico.

Felipe Garcia:
I was born in Mexico.

Dillon Honcoop:
What brought your family to Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
Well, my dad, all his life was back and forth, but it was to a point that we were growing up, me and my two sisters, where my mom, she didn’t want to be that far apart, so that’s when they decide, “You know what? Come on over, try it. See if you guys like it. You can stay, if not you guys can go back.” So that was back in 2001 and we’ve been here since then.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you went to high school… So how old were you when you came?

Felipe Garcia:
I was 16.

Dillon Honcoop:
16.

Felipe Garcia:
16 years old.

Dillon Honcoop:
So then you finish high school…

Felipe Garcia:
I finish high school.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
Arizona.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Felipe Garcia:
And then I went to a community college, Gilbert Arizona, and I’m supposed to be a teacher.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, so that’s what you were going into education…

Felipe Garcia:
I was going… Yeah, because I didn’t know what I want. I knew I was going to be something related to people, customer service. So teaching was my first option. Now that I’m working in human resources, now it clicks, it’s related.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
It’s hand by hand, so that’s what I went to school for.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did your dad do? And your family, you had status already to come into the US?

Felipe Garcia:
At that time, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Felipe Garcia:
And you can obviously work through the time [crosstalk 00:03:40].

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. And I know my wife is from Canada, and the immigration process is so confusing.

Felipe Garcia:
It takes a long time. But yeah, it’s not easy, because it’s… One thing people confuse, it’s not just go knock on a door, “Hey, I want to come in. I need papers to work this out.” There’s no option.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
There’s only a very limited ways to do it. That’s why a lot of people has to do it the other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly. And [crosstalk 00:04:10]-

Felipe Garcia:
It just misinformation, and that’s a whole new story.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
But it’s misinformation. There’s only a few different ways that you can become legal, but like I said, they’re limited.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what line of work was your dad in?

Felipe Garcia:
So my dad, he was working at that time, it was a lumber place, they build the frames for the houses before they send them in, that’s what he was working at that time. But he’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
In Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
… Arizona.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what about in Mexico?

Felipe Garcia:
Back in Mexico, well, we have farms and a small ranch, so we would usually work for ourselves, like farming and cows and stuff like that. But even back in Mexico I never done anything related to farming, because I was always focused on school, which was convenient for me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But same thing, in farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you didn’t want to do the farming when you were a kid?

Felipe Garcia:
No. That was hard work, because even like… that I did it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
When kids were on vacation, I was working the ranch. I wasn’t very happy about that, but I learnt to make some money, since I’m a kid, so I like that. I like to be independent, so I start working on my own since very young age.

Dillon Honcoop:
So in some ways you don’t have farming in your professional background-

Felipe Garcia:
No, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
… but in your family background you do.

Felipe Garcia:
My family, yes. All of them. Well, my dad, when he came here he was doing farm work, he worked in dairys too. Actually to this day, my dad is 67 years old, he doesn’t need to work, but he still works in the fields.

Dillon Honcoop:
[crosstalk 00:05:41]

Felipe Garcia:
He’s not a 15 year old boy, but he still works in the fields. And I keep telling him, “You got to stop at some point, that’s hard work.” And he doesn’t want to, and he’s just still there.

Dillon Honcoop:
He just loves it?

Felipe Garcia:
He just likes it. He doesn’t like to sit at home, he wants to do something. But what’s funny, is that he’s working just like everybody else. Actually they like him because he never misses work, he always show up early and leave late.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
So he’s consistent. He’s not the fastest, but he’s consistent. So that’s one good thing I learn from him, “Never say no until you try something.” So that’s why I didn’t quite when I start working in the farm. I used to complain for eight hours a day in a office, and here it was 15-16 hours, because harvest, it’s a small, short window.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Felipe Garcia:
You can’t play with it, when it’s a good weather, it’s a good weather. You got to take it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly.

Felipe Garcia:
So again, that’s why I learn the meaning of work. But again, for some reason I like it. You see the progress on a day. When you’re in the office, you send something and you got to wait for a response, it takes a couple days. And the farming industry, when you do something you can see it, you plant something you can see in a couple of days, you can see something growing, so that’s… I don’t know, I can’t explain that. It just a feeling that I never thought that I was going to have again. I’m from a city, from office, work here in a dairy farming industry.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know exactly what you mean, because I miss that in my… I have a lot of things that I like about what I do, but I miss being able to have that tangible, “I can see what I accomplish today.”

Felipe Garcia:
Well, if tomorrow I go work somewhere else in a office, I don’t think I will be able to. The reason I do it here is because I work in my office, get my work done, and the rest of the day I’m outside with the guys. I’m working myself. I’m driving a truck, I’m doing something. I just don’t get bored. It’s just something different. If I got stuck in a office for the whole day, I can deal with it for a couple days, because we have to some times.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
But I don’t think I will keep up with it, so…

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like it’s in your blood a little bit.

Felipe Garcia:
Well, like I said, I’m a workaholic. I like office work, but only so much.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I know it’s in my blood too. My family is the same way. What did your dad say when he found out you were going to go work for a farm?

Felipe Garcia:
It was a surprise for him. He helped me, but he didn’t know how far I was going to get. He know I will try the best, and he was going to be okay if I say, “You know what? I don’t like that job anymore,” because he know how hard it is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Felipe Garcia:
But little by little he’s been seeing the success, and better a little bit a time. And now he’s happy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did he laugh saying, “You didn’t want to do the farming when you were a kid, and now you’re farming.”

Felipe Garcia:
No, because he saw the experience firsthand. I see him every day. And he just didn’t know, he was surprised how much work I can get done in a day, again, because I used to complain for just a couple hours of work. And now he sees me come home late at night, leave early in the morning, and he was just surprised. And he was happy because he knows the feeling. He was pretty happy. I guess as a father, you want to see your kids grow and do better-

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
… but I think working in the industry that he loves, it’s even better.

Dillon Honcoop:
So did the rest of your family then move here, your parents?

Felipe Garcia:
I move them up here.

Dillon Honcoop:
You did?

Felipe Garcia:
Yes. About almost six years ago. They put out for a long time, they didn’t want to. They were so used to Arizona, but I keep pushing, “You guys got to move up here.” And finally they’re like, “Okay, let’s try it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They can handle the cold?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s cold here, compared to Arizona especially.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. Well, right now what I do, I just send them back to Arizona with my sister in the winter.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Felipe Garcia:
They come back when it’s a little bit better.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk about your family. Are you married, have kids?

Felipe Garcia:
I’m married. I have two daughters. I just got a newborn two months ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Congratulations.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, it’s a journey.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how old is the oldest?

Felipe Garcia:
She’s six years old. They’re fun, they’re girls. It’s just girls in the house, just me as a man. That’s important.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s like my house too. I have two girls.

Felipe Garcia:
But it’s good, and they support me, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy isn’t it, having kids? It just changes so much.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes. And my wife, I give her credit because again, our industry’s demanding on time, and I work six days a week, sometimes seven days a week, and she’s okay with it. We’ll learn to work each other, and that’s probably the best thing, because when you’re getting short time at home, they need time, and they start complaining. But the freedom about my position is that if I need a day off I can just take it and then go take care of my family. But we’ve been like this since ever, so it’s not new to them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But my wife is very supportive.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, farming can be hard on family life, right?

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
For the reasons that you’re saying.

Felipe Garcia:
Well, here’s the difference between just farming and dairy farmers, the farming stoop at some point, and the maintenance is not as much as the rest of the year, but dairy doesn’t stop. It’s still the same no matter what day it is. So it’s not like I stop November and then I take time off, it doesn’t work that way. But I still take vacation with them, we go out on the weekends, we do stuff. We make it work. But again, this is what I like, this is what I do, that’s how they met me, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So you say you’re working six, seven days a week, is that year round then?

Felipe Garcia:
No. Like I said, I’m a workaholic. I work Monday through Saturday. Saturday is most likely just couple hours, just to make sure everything’s okay, and then I go back home. Only on the harvest time, it’s when I’m here a little more often.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
Again, I don’t have to, because we have guys that take care of everything, but once in a while you need the extra hand, and I just jump in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So your main job is HR?

Felipe Garcia:
My main job is human resources, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
For people who aren’t familiar with HR, what kind of stuff do you do? And I guess, HR on a farm, what does that look like?

Felipe Garcia:
Well, that’s no different than any company or corporation. The HR, we get all the fun. We hire, unfortunately we have to fire too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
All the documents, all the legal stuff, a little bit of accounting, payroll, all the personal problems with employees and employers too, because we are right in the middle line. We’ve got to look for the good on the company, but also in the employees. So we’re the one in between. And we’re the ones that enforce the rules in the company, so that’s why we get all the fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the hardest thing about doing HR?

Felipe Garcia:
Letting people go, that’s probably the hardest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
Because we all come here to work, we all need the income, we all need to support the families, but that’s probably the most difficult thing, for any reason. Some people, they’re not as good as the other employees at showing up or just missing to work, and you have to let them go. But you know that person has a family, that needs to take care of, and that’s probably the hardest part. But you got to think different, sometimes you didn’t cause that, they did it theirselves, but that’s probably the hardest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it take to be really good at human resources?

Felipe Garcia:
You got to be very partial on the decisions, so no different than a judge. You got to look at what’s the rule, but how much can you play with it, or how much… That’s the thing, that one you take a decision for a person, it has to be the same for everyone, so that’s the hardest thing there. You have to be really good at judging that stuff. You can’t have friends in this type of work. If a friend ask you for a favor, well, it doesn’t work that way, because you got another 50, 60 people right next to you that they may want a favor too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
And if you already did it to one, you have to do everyone. So you have to be good at looking at the situation, and you go to be good at solving problems, because sometimes you get those problems, right away you got to get a solution in that instant, that’s not something you can wait sometimes. And you have to be a good people person, good communication. You have to be good at communicating. There is one thing as explaining something, but if the person doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand it, you’re not really good at it.

Felipe Garcia:
So culture wise, here has a lot to do with culture. By my fortune I got both of them, I got American culture and I got Hispanic culture.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the trick to balancing that? I would imagine part of it is just being able to understand people, what they’re really thinking, what they’re… mean when they say certain things, what they’re really trying to accomplish. I know that could be misunderstood, when people are communicating across cultures.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, that’s the thing. Something I notice on HR is, I do a lot of interpreting, translation, not just because you speak the language, you can be an interpreter, and I seen that, because I have people that have interpreter right in front of them, they explain them, they still don’t understand.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
So I have to come out with different words or different ways to explain so he can understand the same thing. So it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Words aren’t always the same as ideas.

Felipe Garcia:
… No. And culture wise too, understanding our believing, or the way of thinking. Again, I can’t explain it because I was raised with both of them, so I can understand both of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is important to understand then, for someone like myself coming from American culture, communicating with someone from Hispanic culture? What’s an important thing for them, for me, to even recognize is a difference in culture to be able to communicate clearly?

Felipe Garcia:
There is one thing that we’ve been trying here at the farm, is Hispanic people, they’re not used to see like a person that speaks a different language, the same, maybe because they feel inferior. Or most of the time… For example here, employees are not used to seeing their boss close enough, or even talk to it. I heard that a lot from the employees. Back in their country they just see the boss driving a very nice pickup far away, and that’s all they get. Here they have that person right in front of them, they shake their hand. They’re not used to that.

Felipe Garcia:
And culture wise, that never happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
They’re never allowed to see or talk to the owner. Here you can approach to anyone, you can shake their hand.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of misunderstandings does that difference lead to? I would imagine it might be surprising then for some people coming from that culture to say, “Hey, what’s the owner doing here? Is there a problem?”

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, most likely. They think there is something wrong, especially with the new guys that come in, they don’t know. But the guys that have been working here for a couple years, they know how close this person is. They’re always driving by, checking, talking to them, their office is always open to anyone to come in and talk to them. But again, our culture, it’s a little bit different on the Hispanic side, but they’re still afraid. They’re still afraid to come and talk to one of them, or ask something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
They feel comfortable with someone that speak the same language, that’s something I noticed too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many people are you working with as far as HR? How big is the team here that you oversee?

Felipe Garcia:
About 150 people.

Dillon Honcoop:

  1. And what kind of jobs are those people doing?

Felipe Garcia:
All kinds of work on the farming industry. There’s truck driving, tractors, we got guys walking pens looking for cows, we got milkers, we got shop mechanics, we got supervisors, we got management, we got parch runners, all kinds of stuff here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. What’s the key to managing farm workers, because whether it’s American culture or Hispanic culture, farm workers are kind of a different breed in some ways, right?

Felipe Garcia:
Well, I will say just respect, respect the people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
Respect their culture, respect their thinking. We have a way to work and it’s the same for everyone. So we got to respect their thinking too. And I will say most likely it’s respect, not because they look different, they speak a different language, or they think different, you treat them different, so that’s probably the key. And treat them good. I’m an employee as well, the way I want to be treated, that’s the way I’m going to treat them too. And knowing their work, what they do, it makes it easier for us to take the decisions. We don’t take decisions based on, “Oh, let’s see if it works.” We know how hard it is at work, so we try to make things better for them.

Felipe Garcia:
So there is not a exact key, but our success is that we treat people right, the best we can, because that’s their way they want us to treat us. It’s an exchange. If we treat them bad, they’re going to treat us bad too.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like your boss wants to be closely connected with the workers, and is involved and will actually be hands on.

Felipe Garcia:
He is, but he only can be involved to a certain point. Again, if he has a person that is in charge of human resources or managing the people, he has to respect their decisions too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
So he’s been really good at that too. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
So he has to respect your decisions?

Felipe Garcia:
… Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
So that’s why nobody can just come into him and say, “Hey, I want to do this.” And then he want to delegate something, knowing we have rules, that’s not going to happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
So he has to say, “Hey, Felipe, what’s going on with this issue?”

Felipe Garcia:
Pretty much, that’s what he does, said, “Hey, there’s a concern here. Can you check into this?” At the end, we’re working on it. And it’s been very few times, but it’s good to keep him involved, because he’s the owner, he owns this place, and we run his place, but we got to respect him too, can’t push him out of the game. His decisions matter because he’s the one that leads everything, but he understands there’s rules, and he has to follow rules too, that’s what he created. For example, just to having an HR department on the dairy farming industry, well, that’s a bit step.

Felipe Garcia:
And that’s one of the good things, that they don’t hesitate when it comes to safety, because we’d know, we work with livestock and it’s hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
We understand that we got to keep the guys safe and send them home safe as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do the people like working here? You talked about these workers that you oversee, and you work with their concerns, you do their payroll, all of these different things. Do they like the… It’s hard work, as you say, you’re out on the farm too.

Felipe Garcia:
That’s something I never understood, the past, until I start working here, because there are long hours. What we’ve been doing is, we change the way it work, we try to minimize those hours, so they’re not too tired, but there is something that they like. For you to be working here is because you like it. We understand some people, they need some money-

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
… and they try, and a couple months later, they’re gone. Well, these guys, they’ve been here for years. The turnover has been less every year, and that’s because they like what they do, they enjoy this. That’s just like… I don’t know, you liking some dessert, well, you eat it because you like it. You can’t be here just because you have to. But we’re been creating ways to make this easier for the employees, better equipment, better process, because we understand that the better for the employees, the better work they’re going to do, the better we can present the owner.

Felipe Garcia:
And then we can keep this place up, because our families need this place, they eat from here. We all like our food and our milk especially.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And what’s it like to know that what you’re doing ultimately is providing food for people?

Felipe Garcia:
It’s a big responsibility, but there is a satisfaction to it. Every year on Christmas, we make a Christmas party for the employees and their family, and we gather probably a little bit over 300 people every year. And to see all the people, that they all depend on this place, it’s a big satisfaction, but at the same time it’s a big responsibility, because we got to make sure we provide them tomorrow and the day after and every single day. So it’s a big satisfaction.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about knowing that this farm is producing food for people in Seattle, for people all over? That I think changes things too. Yeah, you’re in human resources, but it’s for feeding the world, for producing food.

Felipe Garcia:
Again, it’s the knowing that you’re doing something good, you’re producing something good. It’s not just for you and your family, it’s for everybody else. So the best we do it here, the best quality gets out there too. And again, a lot of people like their milk, so it has to be good milk. But there is a lot of work behind it, but it’s a good satisfaction, knowing, “Hey, this product’s going everywhere.” We use it ourselves, and if you don’t consume what you produce, well, there’s something wrong there. But no, it’s good knowing that it spreads out.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your favorite dairy product?

Felipe Garcia:
I love quesadillas, I love that cheese. Yeah, and obviously chocolate milk. I like the sweetness.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who can’t say no to chocolate milk?

Felipe Garcia:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you said when you were growing up in Mexico, there were cows. Was there any dairy stuff around the family farms that you-

Felipe Garcia:
No, not that I know. Everything was obviously raw milk.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
And Mexico, they use a lot. To go in the mornings and milk your cow, and drink straight out of the cow. Just grab your cup, fill it up and good to go. But nothing at this level, not like dairy farms. It was everything just local.

Dillon Honcoop:
So farming was so much different?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah. Here I got the opportunity to plant corn, and I can get 200 acres in a day. Back in Mexico I was able to plant corn, and it was just with tools and a sack on the side for the corn seeds. And that’s how we plant corn. And it was hard, so that’s a big difference. It was harder back then.

Dillon Honcoop:
What you’re talking about, hard work, is reminding me. A question I was going to ask you a couple of minutes ago, when we were talking about hard work, it seems like… And I don’t know if you notice this, there’s something going on with American culture in the view of people working hard.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you actually, you grew up around farming. That wasn’t your plan career path, but now here you are in the farming world, and you are just, like we talked about earlier, it’s just in your blood, you like to work hard.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
And me too, that’s what I grew up around, that’s what I appreciate. And some days I miss it, as strange as that might seem to someone, because a lot of people say, “Oh, I’m so glad I don’t have to do physical labor.” There’s something that just feels good to get out and do some physical labor sometimes.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
What is it about American culture that is starting to say, “That’s somehow demeaning or bad.” It seems weird to me.

Felipe Garcia:
I think we judge too much, and we judge too easy. Our workforce is changing. Back in the day we had kids from high school wanting to work in a farm, because they can make some money and buy stuff. You don’t see that anymore. Now the workforce, from average was 25, 30 years old. It’s moving up, now it’s 45, 50. You don’t see young kids anymore, maybe because of that. They’re just judging it too much or just too hard. I think we’re trying to make everything so easy that you don’t want to struggle anymore, and the way you see it, that’s the way you treat it.

Felipe Garcia:
So I think that’s the problem, we judge too quick and too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
And people just don’t seem to want to work hard anymore.

Felipe Garcia:
No, not anymore. And then, again, it’s misinformation. And also because people don’t want to learn. You like to judge of a commercial, or something you saw really quick, or they told you in a way that you like it, and that’s how you judge, without knowing what is behind it. In the farming industry, that is the same thing, “You work too many hours. Oh, you’re working too much.” And then you judge based on that. Or you work too much because that’s your window, but that doesn’t mean it’s all year long, or it’s… I don’t know, that’s my feeling, that’s my understanding of how we judge things.

Dillon Honcoop:
I wonder if some people make that judgment because they have the luxury of being able to do that, and maybe they have their job in an office somewhere, and they make enough money, and they haven’t been in that position that some of us have been in, where it’s like, “No, I just need to make as much money as I can to support my family.”

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, pretty much. And again, if you don’t know the subject, it’s easy for you to point a finger or to just judge something when you never done it, or you don’t even have the background. What’s going on? How did this product gets to my table? Talking about farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
A lot of people like their salads. Do you know what work behind, it’s implicated in this?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
It’s a lot of work, it’s really, really hard work, but somebody has to do it. With technology, we’ve been getting better, but doesn’t do everything, doesn’t do it all. You still need that labor, you still need that person down there. And if we don’t want to do it here, well, they got to come from somewhere else.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you deal with that in HR? Because people have these jobs, this is a farm where you’re working, and you’re doing HR, so they have to do hard jobs, does that become an issue? If people say, “I don’t want to work that hard.” And well, it’s like, “Well, this is a farm. This is what we do here.”

Felipe Garcia:
No, because again, key is information. Since day one, this is what we do, this is what we require, do you think you’re capable of? Do you want to try it? If it doesn’t work out for you or for us, it’s fine, but it’s already ahead. He knows what he’s going through, it’s not going to be like, “Oh, just come in and we’ll try it, we’ll find out how it goes.” No, we do the training, we explain what’s going on, how many hours you’re going to work, this is what may happen. So you know on front while you’re getting into it.

Felipe Garcia:
So people that starts working here, they’re already expecting either long hours, which we try not to, because milkers, they’re only working eight hours a day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
It’s not like we’re working 12 hours a day or 15 hours a day. If you’re in harvest, you’re going to have your schedule of normal hours, but on the harvest time it may go up a little bit. But even like that we try not to push it more than 12 hours a day. Again, a person that gets tired, you can lead to an accident or mistakes, so we just prevent that. But you know that ahead, people doesn’t come in blind and just start working. And again, we have an HR department.

Dillon Honcoop:
You know the HR manager here.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. I… Familiar with him.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that make it hard to find people? Do people say, “Oh…”

Felipe Garcia:
There is-

Dillon Honcoop:
“Maybe I don’t want to do all that work.”

Felipe Garcia:
… Yes and no. Again, we can judge by the cover. I had young kids who never done this type of work before, and even like that, we give them the opportunity and they turned out to like it, they turned out to work here for a couple years, and they’re still here. There is some people who has experienced some farming and they just last week. Maybe because the rules. Again, we have rules, you got to follow them. And it’s the same thing for everybody else. Some people that like to follow rules, some people, they just like to work more in a different way.

Felipe Garcia:
So that’s a different thing. But it’s not hard, it takes a little bit of time, but again, once we hire someone, there is not end period of time, you’re here as long as you want, as long as we keep our rules the same. We’ve been getting people with more seniority the last couple of years. The turnover has been less and less, and it’s because the way we treat the people. We treat them good, they treat us good back.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about harvest, and that’s the extra busy season.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of things go on? I guess for people who aren’t familiar, that’s harvesting corn, grass, other things.

Felipe Garcia:
We harvest corn, hay. Well, the only difference is you work a little bit longer. Again, we have equipment that it makes everything easier, but we still need the drivers, we need somebody to operate the equipment. And when you cut hay, you only have so much time to pick it up, otherwise it goes bad. If it goes bad, it’s not good for your cows. So that’s why you got to time ahead how much you’re going to do. So planning has a lot to do, but it’s just driving a truck, but you have to do that all day back and forth, and it takes you 10, 12 hours a day. So that’s the harvest season.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just go, go, go, go.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. Keep on doing the same thing all day long back and forth.

Dillon Honcoop:
The rest of the time… You’ve talked about you have your office work, your HR work, and then what do you do once you… You say you can often get that wrapped up in the morning and maybe have the afternoon to work outside. What kind of jobs do you pick up?

Felipe Garcia:
So I like to help the guys around. Sometimes we got to either drive a semi, or sometimes we got to haul cows back and forth. I’ll jump in the truck and I’ll drive them up and down. Also we need parts for this place to keep running, because like every other place, sometimes equipment fails, or pipes break, or we need stuff. So that’s where I can help, I can go get stuff for them. And I’m mechanic inclined, that I can take some decisions like that. So we’re just back and forth bringing up stuff, picking up parts. I do help a lot of our employees, just with simple stuff as translating a letter, reading a letter for them.

Felipe Garcia:
So this is where I like my employers. They’re okay with employees coming in, in work hours, and have a question, a personal question. So I do donate a little bit of my time when I can to them for personal issues, so that’s where also a chunk of my time goes into. Sometimes it’s just doctors appointments, that they don’t even know how to schedule one. I’ll just grab the phone and schedule it for them. So that gets me busy sometimes. I never say no, because if I can do it during the day, I can do it after work.

Felipe Garcia:
But that’s pretty much what gets my day around. And that’s funny, because time flies. I come in at six, seven in the morning, and when I realize it’s already five o’ clock, and by the time I get home it’s almost six, but flies when you’re having fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of background do a lot of these workers come from?

Felipe Garcia:
It varies.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were saying in some cases like you were just mentioning, they might need help even scheduling an appointment.

Felipe Garcia:
Most of them is agriculture, construction. I seen a lot of people that work in restaurants. Warehouse people. But mainly, farming and construction. Those most of the background.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they are people who are used to hard work.

Felipe Garcia:
Pretty much, yeah. And this is something they like, because here in this country, you can do whatever you want. You can go learn how to work in construction, you can learn to work in a warehouse, but they just choose to work in a farm, which is good. The thing is stability. The income, it gets to your hand every two weeks, it’s secure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
I think that’s one of the main reasons too. This place, no matter what, you get paid the same day, and that’s some income you can count with. Again, hours. You get your hours no matter what. That’s another reason. People that work construction, restaurants, they only get so much work, and if it’s slow, there’s no more work. Here, no matter what day it is, what season, you still work the same, you still get paid the same. And the more you learn, the better you do and the better wages you get.

Dillon Honcoop:
And when you have to make a rent check every month.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, pretty much.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know how that goes.

Felipe Garcia:
That one doesn’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said, “In this country people can do whatever they want,” how is that different than where these workers are coming from? You’re saying that they may come from a different background on that.

Felipe Garcia:
It’s different. Rules are different, how they respect the rules is different too. Knowing my country, it’s the same way, you work hard, but you don’t make as much. They’re probably stuck on something, they don’t want to learn, they don’t want to grow up. Here for some reason they realize, “Oh, I can do better. And everything’s possible, you can even make your own company if you want.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So in Mexico there’s not the freedom to do that?

Felipe Garcia:
Yes, but it’s harder. It’s harder to get a loan, it’s harder to get people invest on you, and it’s just different. If you don’t have somebody to help you, it’s hard. Here, as long as you work hard and you get a good record, good credit score, you can do whatever you want, you can buy whatever you want, you can work wherever you want, so…

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think a lot of people just think about wages.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
“Wow, you make more here or there,” but there’s so much more than just wages-

Felipe Garcia:
Oh absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for a person.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes, and it’s hard to understand sometimes. But sometimes it’s not. If you’re making more, is it stable? Is it all year long? Or it’s more for a season or a period of time, but then there’s nothing. So that’s the other side of the coin.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what you said about getting loans, too.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
I think we take that for granted-

Felipe Garcia:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… here in America.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. It’s not how much do you have, it’s what does it show? What’s your credit score? “It’s high? Oh yeah, whatever you want. It’s low? Oh, it doesn’t matter how much money you got in your pocket.” It’s just the way it works.

Dillon Honcoop:
That can also be deadly too.

Felipe Garcia:
Ah, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
As many of us have found out, especially in the…

Felipe Garcia:
On the highway, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the crash of 2008 and nine, when a lot of us had a wake up call of, “Oh yeah, we can get a lot of money, but…”

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), you got to pay it back. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I guess that can cut both ways. You talk about all the different jobs you do and how many different things you get to do, and you like the variety, what’s your favorite job on the farm?

Felipe Garcia:
Driving or operating heavy equipment, that’s the best. And that goes from a semi to a loader to an excavator or a dump truck, I guess… I don’t know, I like the… I wouldn’t do that for a living, but I like it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about tractors, do you like to do field work?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah. Yeah, I do. Again, tractors, planting stuff, it’s exciting. Just the knowing that you can operate such a big piece of equipment, and how much you can do with them, that’s probably the good feeling.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s my favorite growing up. Anytime I got to drive the tractor, I was happy.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, no. And I guess, not to prove points, but sometimes when new guys come in, and they see me driving a big semi or something, because they see me in the office all the time, and they think that’s all I do, and just drive the pickup back and forth. But once they see me driving a piece of a equipment or working with them, it earns a little bit of respect with them. Not what I’m looking for, but it’s good for them to know and say, “Hey, I know what you’re doing, because I can do it as well. I understand the things you’re going through.” So that makes a big difference, and I like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think that shows a lot for, like you said, respect.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
And then to show that it’s, “I don’t think I’m better than you because I work in an office job.”

Felipe Garcia:
I like to be an example for them, because I keep telling them, “Hey, when I start working here, I was picking up garbage,” because that’s the only thing I had to do at that time. It was cold, not much to do, and there was a lot of cleaning. And now I’m in HR, the HR office, so there is no limit here. If you want it, it’s there. It’s how much you want to do. All the management in this company, they start from the bottom. We all start doing something here, we didn’t just come into that position.

Felipe Garcia:
So that proves that there’s always improvement, there’s always opportunities. We’re always looking for leaders, supervisors, it just not everybody’s up to that responsibility. But hey, opportunities are there, we’re proof of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think people in Seattle or in the big city anywhere need to know or should know about where their food comes from? Places like this, is where their dairy product… where their milk and cheese comes from.

Felipe Garcia:
They just need to know the truth, the good and the bad. A place like this is long hours and that’s just the way it is. Well again, define long hours.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
I used to think nine hours a day was long. Long hours means that you work eight, nine hours a day, but it’s hard work. That is what we mean with long hours, not that somebody is working here 19 hours a day, that doesn’t happen. I mean it’s physically… it is possible-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
… but it’s not good, because we do things ourselves so we understand. They just need to know what’s a good thing and a bad thing. Obviously a place like this doesn’t smell as pretty as other places, so that’s the thing. Some people are tolerant to that, some people don’t. Like I said, my first job was at [Can 00:40:10] the company, it was a fragrance place. Same thing, smells good, but it was too strong. So they just need to know the real workers, what the real work is, not just commercials for 30 seconds and they think they know everything. We’ve just got to share a little more information, we’ve just got to share how we treat our animals, how we treat the people, how we treat everything, so they can learn a little more.

Felipe Garcia:
But it’s more like people wanting to learn. Some people, they just don’t want to. Some people, they just like to have their glass of milk in front of them and that’s it. Some people, they really care where that come from-

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
… how much work is it. Maybe they think it’s too expensive. Well, if you see what’s behind it, eh, or maybe they think it’s too cheap. Every person has a different perception or mentality, but I think that information is key, showing them the good and the bad. What’s the good, the good product that we produce. What’s the bad? Well, it’s hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
Since you’re in human resources, what do you think people outside of the farming world should know about labor issues, when they hear about farming labor issues in the news or things going on with farm workers? What would you say about how that’s being talked about?

Felipe Garcia:
I think it’s just third parties trying to create misinformation for a personal gain, that’s the way I see it. And that’s what I’ve noticed too, because again, I’m human resources, so I work very close with that, and I’ve been seeing the real truth about that. The employees are the ones not getting all the benefit, which… it’s wrong. It would do something, is for the benefit of the employees, no over third person to get money in their pockets. That’s the way I see it, that’s the way I’m seeing it. That’s why when we do something here in our company, it’s to the best of the employees, because it goes straight to the employees, not to someone else.

Felipe Garcia:
So it’s all about money and political…

Dillon Honcoop:
So you think people who are saying, “Farm workers are mistreated,” are saying that because they can profit from it?

Felipe Garcia:
Some of them. And also, there was an issue years ago, and I think at this point with every rule and regulation that comes, we are no different than any other company, we got to follow rules. And we got to get better for ourselves and our employees. So I can talk for my company, I can put my hands on fire for my company, I can’t really talk for everybody else.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But as far as I know, is that if we have a regulation or a rule, we got to follow it. So I don’t know, I think some people try to work the system too, and I see it on a first hand. But the labor issues is just miscommunication between the employers and the employees. They’re not as lucky as we are having an HR involved. One of the things that I think is, it’s when employers work directly with employees, that means communication, it’s a big issue. Like I told you early, making sure they understand the rules, make sure they understand their rights, that’s a big thing too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
I have people come here from [LL9 00:43:15], talk to them, “Hey, this is LL9, this is what it is, this is what it works for. “They need to know, they need to be free to talk to the owners or the supervisors or their managers, because I think it’s very important. Information is key.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talked about misinformation and you talked about third parties getting involved, and it’s political. What kind of misinformation do you see or hear out there from these people?

Felipe Garcia:
They see just a handful of people saying, “I got mistreated.” But that people don’t talk for the rest of them. You cannot judge one thing for four, five people when you have thousands… and employees. They can go and ask them, you can go talk to him. You can go see what’s a real deal. That’s the problem now, how you spread your information. You can take a picture and put a description to it, and that’s what you’re going to think. You could put the same picture, now put something wrong, something bad, that’s the way you’re going to see it.

Felipe Garcia:
So that’s the way I think they’ve been treating this labor issue.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s a really strong farm worker community here, especially in eastern Washington, right?

Felipe Garcia:
It is. It is pretty strong. Everybody knows everybody, that’s why we are so comfortable here, because we just do the best and it spreads out. And because of that we have a lot of people wanting to work here, because they know it’s a good place to work. It’s a small town so everybody talks to everybody.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would happen to that community if these dairys or other farms went away?

Felipe Garcia:
I don’t know. I can’t even imagine, because I do this for a living. I’ll be thinking of doing something different and I don’t think I can. I don’t think I want to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Do people worry about that? Is there a fear of what happens in the future if they’re pushed away from here?

Felipe Garcia:
We do the best we can here, because I want to keep feeding my family. I want to make sure that my employees are able to feed their families, so we just try to get everything as best as we can. And the best for them is knowing that they have work tomorrow.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know this is a family that runs this farm.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that extend to the workforce? Does that extend to you? Do you feel a part of that-

Felipe Garcia:
Oh absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… community?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah. And again, culture wise, they try to separate theirselves to work.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But me, actually I live for a while in this farm, like actually live here. And when the owners tell you, “You’re part of the family,” you’re part of the family. You are in their family events, you are. Again, you kind of… Because you got to get used to it, you got to get to know the people, and you know it’s real, it’s not just saying that because they want to look good. You become part of the family. And they see their workers the same way, but obviously they’re not going to see it, like that cultural wise, like I say, they see the boss pretty far away, but living on it first hand, they treat you good. They treat you like family.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s something I think that’s special about farming too, that…

Felipe Garcia:
Absolutely. That’s one of the main things. If a farmer can help you, he will help you, he won’t say no. And he’s not looking for anything in exchange. And that’s one of the reasons I like this place. They can help you, they will help you.

Dillon Honcoop:
Felipe, thank you so much for-

Felipe Garcia:
Oh, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
… sharing your story and all the stuff about how this works and what you do. It’s pretty incredible how this all works together. And I think it works a lot better than maybe some people have been led to believe.

Felipe Garcia:
Oh absolutely. I’m happy to be here to share a little bit of my experience, and hopefully it’s good to someone.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What an amazing story of cultural diversity, and working his way up from just a general laborer to the HR manager of the entire company. Felipe Garcia was so awesome to talk with. And we just appreciate you joining us for these conversations on Real Food Real People. We’d love for you to visit realfoodrealpeople.org for more episodes, more info from behind the scenes and to subscribe to our blog. Again, realfoodrealpeople.org. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is documenting my journey to get to know and hear the real stories of the people behind the food that we produce and eat here in Washington state.

Dillon Honcoop:
So please check out our website. Also, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. D-I-L-L-O-N is how I spell my name, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Shoot me an email with any feedback that you have on the show, things that you’d like to hear talked about, people with incredible stories. I’d love to have nominations for guests on the program, I’d love to hear from you as we continue this journey.

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

Erica DeWaard | #003 12/30/2019

Despite her quiet personality, dairy farmer Erica DeWaard is known around the world for her touching and informative social media posts about her work feeding dairy calves. She opens up about her passion for farming and why she continues to speak out in the face of negative pushback.

Transcript

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people threaten to kill me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Death threats?

Erica DeWaard:
Death threats. They don’t want me on there. I figure that they’re scared of the fact that I’m telling the truth and I’m threatening their agenda.

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 this week I talk with probably one of the quietest, most reserved people I’ve ever met but with an incredible story to share and such a huge voice via advocacy on social media.

Dillon Honcoop:
She opens up to me about why she does that, about her passion for her job, helping produce food by raising calves. She loves dairy calves. That’s what she does professionally, and it’s her life passion to care for those animals as well as speak out about it. And yes, she does talk about death threats that she’s received via her advocacy.

Dillon Honcoop:
She’s known as Farmer Girl on Facebook and Instagram, her real name Erica DeWaard, and she shares all of this plus a lot more about the background and what it really takes to raise calves on a dairy farm in this conversation. So join me as I continue this journey to hear from real farmers about what turns their crank, why they do what they do, and why they’re so passionate. We produce amazing food in this state, and Erica has such an incredible perspective to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you decide to start speaking out about farming?

Erica DeWaard:
I [inaudible 00:01:52] there was one guy, Andrew Campbell, who started this #farm365 try show people about farming, and I was watching it and he was just getting attacked, so I decided to join him. He needed help. A lot of farmers came and helped him.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re saying-

Erica DeWaard:
[crosstalk 00:02:09]

Dillon Honcoop:
… here’s somebody getting attacked and you-

Erica DeWaard:
And I went in there and fought.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s funny. I didn’t expect that to be the starting point.

Erica DeWaard:
Oh, it was. I couldn’t stand seeing one guy get attacked, so people had to help.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how did you start? What were you doing at that time? You were feeding calves?

Erica DeWaard:
Yep. I’ve raised calves since I was 11, so I’ve been doing that for 16 years.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how old were you or how long ago was it that you started, you decided I’m going to start speaking out on farming stuff?

Erica DeWaard:
About four years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Four years ago. So you decided to start speaking out. Where do you start with something like that?

Erica DeWaard:
I made my own Instagram account and just started using his hashtag and it grew like crazy. People like to know the truth from a farmer, which I hadn’t really thought people would even care.

Dillon Honcoop:
How’d you come up with the name?

Erica DeWaard:
Well-

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that, like, from the beginning?

Erica DeWaard:
Farmer Girl, because I’m a girl and a farmer. A little bit obvious.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, dumb question on my part.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah. And my Instagram name is @ericad429, so that’s my first name and then my last initial, and 429 was one of my favorite cows at our farm, so I used her ID number as my name.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why was she your favorite cow? Tell me about-

Erica DeWaard:
She was-

Dillon Honcoop:
… 429.

Erica DeWaard:
… born on my birthday and I watched her be born, so she kind of became mine.

Dillon Honcoop:
So she was your cow.

Erica DeWaard:
She was my cow.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, describe her. For a non-farming person, what are they supposed to be visualizing here when they think about your cow, number 429?

Erica DeWaard:
She was very, very friendly and she trusted me. I could take her on walks without a halter and she’d just follow me like a little dog. So we’d walk down to the pond all the time and behind our farm and she was just my pet.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so that became part of the name, 429, and then homage to that cow.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is she still around?

Erica DeWaard:
When our dairy sold, she ended up in Eastern Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Erica DeWaard:
So I have no idea.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you start to speak out. What was it like at first? Again, where do you start? What’s the first thing you posted? Do you recall first kinds of things that you were talking about?

Erica DeWaard:
Well I really like the medicine side of things, so I was posting a lot about how to raise a calf and keep them healthy. Mostly it was helping other farmers do a better job at what they do, but then other people, they look at what I post and they realize how much there is involved in farming. Calf raising, people think it’s simple. There’s so much science in it, there’s so much math and people just have no idea how much knowledge it takes to actually raise a calf.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess what’s interesting to me, thinking about you speaking out, is because that doesn’t necessarily come to you naturally because you’re a quiet person.

Erica DeWaard:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or shy, or whatever. I don’t know what term you would prefer to use for that. Some people, they say shy is offensive, or something.

Erica DeWaard:
Well I’m definitely shy, so I’ll just go with that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s kind of outside your comfort zone.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but the same time I’m kind of hitting behind this media screen, just people don’t actually have to see me. I can think about what I’m going to say. And I also love the photography part of Instagram. You have to post a picture with what you post, so I love actually trying to get those pictures and trying to tell a story just with those.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’ve been doing photography for a long time.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why do you love photography?

Erica DeWaard:
I like capturing the story in the picture. It’s not just pointing my phone at a calf and trying to get a picture of it. You have to know how to take it. A lot of the times a lot of my pictures, I’m sitting on the ground, or laying on the ground looking like an idiot trying to get the perfect picture. So much of it is the angle of the picture that you’re taking. If I took it from higher up, you’d see the top of its head. If I take it from its level, it looks so much better.

Dillon Honcoop:
So let’s go back. You grew up on a farm.

Erica DeWaard:
I-

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about that.

Erica DeWaard:
… grew up about a mile from our family farm, so it was my grandparents’. They actually lived on the farm. My aunts and uncles, they lived… All of us were within about a mile of our farm. It was my grandpa’s rule that we had to be able to walk there in a snowstorm. So that’s why all of us just live in the exact same little area.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of farm? Talk about what the whole scene was like when you were a kid.

Erica DeWaard:
Most of my time on the farm was actually just riding in the silo truck with my dad, but then driving through our farm, I always stare out the window watching these calves be born, and when I was 11 I asked my dad if I could actually start helping at the farm raising those calves, because I fell in love with them just by seeing them while you’re driving past them all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
So a dairy farm, how big? What was kind of the…? You said it was your grandpa’s farm.

Erica DeWaard:
It was my grandpa’s farm as well as my dad and three brothers that actually owned it at the end, so actually none of my cousins were really involved. My sisters never got involved, but I was actually liked doing it. And part of that was because I was not forced to actually help at the farm. It was my choice.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so there you were from a very young age doing anything you could on the farm, anything they’d let you? What kind of stuff were you doing, other than writing in the silo truck once you could start to help?

Erica DeWaard:
Feeding the calves bottles. Well, I was 11, so those calves were ginormous. They could easily knock me over. I was actually kind of terrified for awhile trying to figure out how to not have these calves beat me up. They weighed 100 pounds, I weighed 80.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you were a kid on the farm, did you ever expect that that farm wouldn’t be there?

Erica DeWaard:
Not really. They actually didn’t tell me our farm was quitting until about a month before, so I didn’t even have a clue.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because I noticed you mentioned that “until the end”, or you talked about “at the end” it was your dad and his brothers. So what happened? What was that like, the end?

Erica DeWaard:
The end. Actually, I think they ran it for 10, 15, 20 years before it quit. But two of the brothers wanted to retire. The bank wouldn’t let my dad and another brother take it over. We didn’t have the money.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. And so how does that go down? How do you bring something like that to a close?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s hard. Actually, one of the guys that helped us was the nutritionist for our dairy, so he helped mediate this whole issue between four brothers, some of them wanting to quit, some of them not. He just sat in the middle and tried to keep war from breaking out between them and he found the farm that wanted to buy our cows. He was there when the trailers picked up our cows, so he actually helped us a lot just dealing with losing our farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
I bet the emotions had to have been huge that day in particular.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, it was. I actually saw the cattle trailers on my way to school and I lost it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did the rest of your family handle that?

Erica DeWaard:
Oh, turns out we never really got out of farming, so the three brothers that wanted out, or two of them wanted out, they ended up started working for another dairy. The one that wanted to stay, he found another dairy to work for, so we never really managed to quit. We thought we could. We couldn’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t that the way, though, for people who have been in farming?

Erica DeWaard:
Like you can’t get out of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s in your blood.

Erica DeWaard:
Actually, when our farm quit, the next day I was already working for another dairy. I just couldn’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what were you doing there? Feeding calves right away?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about that. How does that job work? If somebody wants to get a job feeding calves, what’s involved?

Erica DeWaard:
Biggest thing is that you really have to actually care. You can’t train a person to care about the calves. You have to really actually just be that kind of person that you can care about one calf out of 200. It’s still an individual, you still have to worry about it. I go home at night, I worry about the calves all the time. They’re just my babies. So they become more like your kids. They’re like your pets.

Dillon Honcoop:
Since you know so much about them, what kinds of things are you worrying about for them? Like health stuff, like medical kind of things for them?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s mostly if I have a sick calf, I go home thinking about her. I pray for them. They’re my life.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many calves are you responsible for right now?

Erica DeWaard:
About 200, so under the ages are six months. I worked for one farm for awhile that I was in charge of everything under a month old, and that was 350 calves. So I’ve had quite a different variety of jobs, but it’s all been just raising calves.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is the line when a calf stops being a calf? Like, how old do they have to be?

Erica DeWaard:
It depends who you ask. I’d say probably about six months old and then they are called a heifer instead.

Dillon Honcoop:
Until they…

Erica DeWaard:
Until they have their first calf and then they’re called a cow.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot of calves to keep track of. Does that take a lot of record keeping? Is a lot of that in your head then?

Erica DeWaard:
Most of it’s in my head. A lot of my favorite calves over the years, I can still tell you exactly which stall she lived in. I could tell you who her mom was. It’s just all this stuff that for some reason is still stuck in my head. I can’t get it out.

Dillon Honcoop:
So when a calf is born, what do you do? Are you involved with it right from when she’s born?

Erica DeWaard:
I am in charge of also watching the maternity pen, which is where they’re going to have their calves, so I’m involved for probably couple hours before they’re even born, just making sure the cow is okay and checking to make sure the calf is coming in the right position, deciding if we need to call a vet. So I’m there when the calf is born and make sure it’s going to be okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the first things that you do?

Erica DeWaard:
Make sure it’s breathing. I’ve given a calf CPR. Not very fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. Like, mouth-to-mouth?

Erica DeWaard:
Mouth-to-nose, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, wow.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s putting it on the line right there.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
See, I don’t know [crosstalk 00:11:42]

Erica DeWaard:
… you [crosstalk 00:11:42] do it to save their life.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Is that gross though?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you care that much that you do that.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, a lot of the times the calves that come out not breathing, they were stressed before they are born, so the calves that are stressed before they’re born, they poop inside the cow and they come out literally covered in poop. So you’re giving mouth-to-mouth to this thing that looks absolutely disgusting.

Dillon Honcoop:
Whoa, that’s brutal. I’ve been around for quite a few calves being born, but I haven’t had to do any of that.

Erica DeWaard:
Well you’re lucky.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, thank goodness.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s not fun. You need to do it, but it’s not… I’d much rather not have to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ll pass on that. I’ll leave it to the experts like yourself. So you make sure they’re breathing, and then what else do you have to do?

Erica DeWaard:
One of the first things is you have to disinfect their umbilical cord so they don’t get an infection, and typically the cow keeps the calf with her for an hour or so, if she actually wants anything to do with it. I’ve had a lot of them, the cow has tried to actually kill their calves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

Erica DeWaard:
They don’t have the maternal instinct that beef cows do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Erica DeWaard:
They’re not bred for it. We want to breed them for better [inaudible 00:12:49] or to produce more milk, where beef cows, the farmers want to make sure they’re actually [inaudible 00:12:55] take care of their own calves, so they breed for the motherly instinct, which dairy cows don’t need, so we don’t breed for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, with certain activist groups, shall we say, this can be a controversial point, right?

Erica DeWaard:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a common refrain: Well why do you take the calves away from their mothers so quickly? It’s inhumane. It’s cruel. But you’re saying quite the opposite. You’re trying to protect the calf by doing that?

Erica DeWaard:
You’re trying to protect the calf. You got an 80 pound calf, 1500 pound cow. She can easily hurt the calf without even meaning to. I’ve had calves that their legs were broken because the cow stepped on them. I’ve taken dead calves out of the pen because the mom accidentally laid on top of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be hard.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s hard. That’s actually how my dad taught me that we need to do this, as he made me take one of the dead dead calves out of the pan that the cow had killed. Because I didn’t really get it until I was the one that had to deal with the consequence.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that really drove the point home that this is a big deal to-

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
… protect the calf.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a huge deal.

Dillon Honcoop:
So not just a talking point to refute the activists, this is the real thing.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah. I mean, yes we take the calves away from the cows, but you also have to realize dogs and cats, we take away their puppies and kittens. No one says a thing about that. I mean, they’re a little bit older, so actually the dogs are attached to the puppies, but people don’t say anything about that because that’s considered normal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think it is? Because you, in your involvement on social media and being so outspoken about particularly dairy cows and calves that you care for, why do you think it is that that is such a thing for people that some people get so upset about that issue about the calf being separated from the cow?

Erica DeWaard:
People like to put their human emotions on to animals, and cows aren’t people. They just aren’t. They don’t have the emotional capacity we do. They really live in the here and now. They don’t worry about tomorrow. Cows, when we take away the calf, you go check on her, five minutes later she’s eating, she’s chewing her cud. She doesn’t care. The calf has gone. She doesn’t even notice.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that hard, maybe, to see? Because in some ways you know these animals so well, and like I think we all experience with pets and stuff, there is a certain emotional attachment, but then to realize, objectively, that’s not necessarily shared or returned from the animal because they just aren’t built that way.

Erica DeWaard:
No they’re not. Just like you can leave your dog in your house for hours on end, and does it care? No, it’s just excited because you got home, because that’s what it’s living for. Just living in the moment.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So after that, the calf is on its own. What do you have to do?

Erica DeWaard:
I have to make sure it gets enough colostrum, which is the first milk that a cow produces, so if we let the calf nurse from the cow, you have no idea if the colostrum was good enough, if it got enough, and the colostrum is the calf’s entire immune system for six weeks. It comes from that colostrum. So if they don’t get it, they can easily die because they don’t have the immune system to fight off any diseases.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know from having children in the last, well, not me personally, my wife having children going through that process, the same thing with humans. That’s why some of these things are so important for survival and health and all that kind of stuff. And you did say, you just mentioned that the calf does get to nurse off of the cow immediately after-

Erica DeWaard:
If they-

Dillon Honcoop:
… being born?

Erica DeWaard:
… would choose to. But a lot of the cows, they don’t even let the calf nurse. They’ll ignore it or they’ll kind of kick it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Swat them away?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s painful. The calves are born with teeth, so imagine that, that your baby’s trying to nurse and you’re sore and all these hormones are going crazy and then the calf pretty much bites you, so it’s not really that fun for the cow.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where do you get the colostrum from, then, that they need so badly?

Erica DeWaard:
Well the cows go through the milking parlor about anywhere from a couple of hours to 12 hours after they have the calf and then we save all of that colostrum. So typically if there’s a new calf being born, we’ll actually go heat something up that we had saved in the fridge, so it’s coming from a different cow than the calf’s mom. But colostrum’s colostrum.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think humans have figured that out too. People sell and trade breast milk, and I know that grosses some people out, but it’s the real thing. It doesn’t necessarily matter who it’s from. It’s the health.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, then people take cow colostrum as a supplement all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. A lot of the colostrum that we have extra is sold and it’s actually processed for human medicine.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really! I did not know that.

Erica DeWaard:
They ship it out to Saskatchewan and people pay a lot of money to actually take that as a supplement.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do they take it?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a powder.

Dillon Honcoop:
As a powder?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really. Do they mix it into things like a protein powder?

Erica DeWaard:
I have no idea. I only learned about that like a month ago. I assumed our colostrum that was getting sold was going into powdered colostrum for calves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s actually not. Most of it’s used for people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you know what the health benefits are that they’re-

Erica DeWaard:
It’s supposed to-

Dillon Honcoop:
… apparently getting from it?

Erica DeWaard:
… help your immune system.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which makes sense-

Erica DeWaard:
It does.

Dillon Honcoop:
… based on what you’re saying.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s the antibodies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, so after the colostrum phase, then what do you do with the calves? Are they in their own pens?

Erica DeWaard:
They’re in their own pens, so about six months out of the year when it’s cold enough, one of the first things I do is put a blanket on the calf to help keep them warm.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then they just kind of hang out for a few months, and you keep them well fed and they can grow?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, they live in a individual dome for the first six weeks and then we have a barn that they move into that has stalls that are meant for two calves to live together, so they can kind of bond with another calf, figure out this whole what we are thing, how to act around each other, and then they’ll move into a bigger group. But typically I’ve found that those calves that were buddies just in a stall together, they hang out together for years.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there is like a bond experience.

Erica DeWaard:
There’s a bond, this weird bond between them. They’ll actually typically [inaudible 00:18:48] around the same time as each other. They’re just so in sync with each other.

Dillon Honcoop:
Interesting, because you’ve just got done talking about how cows don’t have the same emotional capacity that we do, yet they do still have some [crosstalk 00:19:02].

Erica DeWaard:
They still have buddies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Erica DeWaard:
Well they have a hierarchy in the herd, so you’re going to have the dominant one, you’re going to have the one that’s picked on, but for some reason a lot of times the calf will bond with just one specific other calf. I’ll find them always sleeping next to each other, with each other. They feel comfortable just around that one. So they hang out together because they know it’s safe.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about a hierarchy in the whole herd of cows. Can you tell who’s going to be who when they’re calves? Like are they already showing if a calf is going to be more dominant calf or something like that, or does that develop later?

Erica DeWaard:
You see some in how they act around people, so some of them they’re so sweet and they love me and others could care less that I exist, but it’s more later when they end up in a group that they have to figure out who they’re supposed to be within that group.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think is the most unexpected thing, maybe for people who aren’t familiar with it, about raising calves?

Erica DeWaard:
A lot of people don’t even realize that we actually feed these calves milk. They think we take all the milk from the cows and use it for humans. So the farm I work for, we actually feed a formula which is made out of all milk. Some farms feed milk straight from the cows. The calves need milk. They need to have milk in order to grow. We don’t just take all of it away.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are some of the things that have gotten the biggest response as far as details about your job when you’ve shared it in public, on social media? Have you been surprised by things that you’ve shared that you maybe took for granted?

Erica DeWaard:
There’s a lot of stuff that, well, I grew up farming, so I thought everyone knew this kind of thing. Find out people don’t know, and a lot of that is they don’t have someone to ask. So it was just simple things.

Erica DeWaard:
Like this morning I posted about how calves are born with this soft cover over their hooves so they don’t hurt the cow when they’re born. That’s something that I’ve known forever, but people are finding even just that so interesting that calves are created that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how do you decide what to post on social media?

Erica DeWaard:
Whatever I’m dealing with at the time and stuff that I think people are going to find interesting. Sometimes I think, “Oh, people are going to love this,” and no one even cares. Other times it’s like, “Well this is incredibly boring. I don’t know even why I’m saying this,” and people love it. So you have no idea how people are going to respond.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can you recall what’s been your biggest post ever? What was it? What was the one thing that people were just crazy about?

Erica DeWaard:
Feeding calves Go-GURT. I took a video of this calf eating Go-GURT straight out of the tube and it went viral.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have showcased on your social media quite a few human things that you feed to… like the Go-GURT.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Recently I saw something. You were giving a calf a beer.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Things that people wouldn’t expect, and even within the farming community not everybody knows about. Where do you come up with these things?

Erica DeWaard:
Well the beer was, I had this calf that she was not doing good. I had done everything I could possibly do to save her, but she was losing weight and we were ready to actually put her down. But then I started messaging all these vets on Instagram, bugging them, asking, so what can I do when everyone’s telling me, “Well you need to put her down because she’s suffering,” except for this one vet in Ireland who told me that this sounds crazy, but you need to go to the gas station. You need go buy that calf a beer. You give it to her. I thought, “Well, she’s going to die anyway, so why not try it?” Next day this calf, she actually wants to drink her milk. She’s eating grain.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what was it about the beer? Why did that work?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s all the fermenting yeast inside the beer, so their rumen is basically, it has all these bugs, the good bacteria and stuff in it. The beer replaces all of that and makes their whole gut work again.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, you say the rumen, and cows have…

Erica DeWaard:
Four compartments in their stomach.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s the last one? Which one is that? I forget.

Erica DeWaard:
That’s the one they’re supposed to digest all the grain and hay and forage.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically all the stuff that we can’t digest. A lot of animals, even horses, right, can’t digest the same things that a cow can.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, and then the rumen in a mature cow, it’s about the size of a 55 gallon drum. It’s huge.

Dillon Honcoop:
That is huge.

Erica DeWaard:
So all this stuff, it ferments in their rumen and they digest it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s almost like giving this calf a little starter yeast to get that process going in her stomach.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that changed everything?

Erica DeWaard:
It changed everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they act weird, like they are feeling the effects of the alcohol if you have to do this?

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t [inaudible 00:23:37] it really affects them, but they absolutely love it. They become your best friends. They get alcohol anytime they see you.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did people say on social media to you about that?

Erica DeWaard:
A lot of people were just amazed. They had never thought of that. But basically beer is like rumen fluid. Now it’s going to change your mind when you think of drinking that again.

Dillon Honcoop:
So does that mean that I should drink more beer because it’s good for my stomach?

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t know. You’re not a ruminant.

Dillon Honcoop:
So on social media when you hear from people, what’s your philosophy of how to manage…? And everybody these days has a social media account. Some people think about how they’re managing it and people who do it for their job, like myself, think about it. Obviously, people like you that are trying to do advocacy-

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
… think about it. How do you approach dealing with people, people who are surprised, people who are angry? You know, there’s so many responses. How do you manage-

Erica DeWaard:
I try-

Dillon Honcoop:
… people?

Erica DeWaard:
… judge whether these people actually want to learn or not. So if I get a negative response, I try choose, well, do they just not know, or are they going to be someone that doesn’t even want to learn? I don’t put up with much. I will easily block a person from seeing my account, because I have a lot more to deal with than people calling me names and I just don’t need that kind of negativity in my life when all I’m doing is try to teach people about what I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously I’m not asking you to repeat absolutely inappropriate things, but what have been some of the worst things that people have done? I know Facebook and social media can just showcase the worst of humanity. How does that manifest itself around what you do on social media?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people threaten to kill me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really!

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Death threats?

Erica DeWaard:
Death threats. They don’t want me on there. I figure that they’re scared of the fact that I’m telling the truth and I’m threatening their agenda.

Dillon Honcoop:
So wait a sec. How does that go down? Like you make a post, somebody comments right away with a death threat, or is there some back and forth that leads to that? How would someone get to that point?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve found that if I go on like a vegan group, I’ve actually found my name on there saying that, “Oh, we need to go attack Farmer Girl for awhile,” and they move on to another person, then another person.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is on their behind the scenes message boards?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can find those on Google? Or how did [crosstalk 00:26:02].

Erica DeWaard:
I looked up my name once and I found myself on there. I thought, “Well, this is awkward.” No wonder I was getting attacked like crazy for a couple of days because they actually organized it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s those people who will then go on and send you a death threat? Are they doing that publicly? Is that a private message? What do they say when they do this?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s sometimes public, sometimes a private message.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they will say, “I want you dead.”

Erica DeWaard:
Basically.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s nuts.

Erica DeWaard:
That’s social media.

Dillon Honcoop:
Scary.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you worry for your safety?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s part of why I don’t post my last name that often. I mean, you can easily figure it out if you start reading what I post. It’s not that hidden. But that’s why my name is Erica on there. It’s not my full name. And a lot of these people are actually from… I found out that Australians are very, very grumpy for some reason. They are the group that hates me. So when I found that out, I actually blocked the entire country. I wasn’t dealing with it anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
So nobody from Australia can interact with you on social media.

Erica DeWaard:
Right. And England. They don’t like me either.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would expect that to be in the US, honestly.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, I would too.

Dillon Honcoop:
But who knows what the dynamics are behind that. But I guess one of the reasons why I ask about your safety is do you think they really mean it? I would assume, I would hope that they’re just blowing smoke when they say that, but when someone says that…

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a whole lot easier to say that on a screen than actually say it to someone’s face. I really don’t think they’re going to do anything. Even when I go out in public wearing this shirt that says, “Hello, I’m a dairy farmer,” everyone’s polite. I’ve never had anyone threaten me in public because they don’t dare.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that what it is about social media? Is that why people get so nasty, because they don’t have to see you, you know, say it to your face?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, they don’t have to see me. Which actually is part of what helps on social media is to show pictures of myself, because people don’t realize I’m actually a person. They don’t get that. There’s a person behind that screen name.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you mentioned going out into the community wearing your “Hello, I’m a dairy farmer” shirt. What’s that like? Because that is the different name and that’s face-to-face. That’s the real deal. And you say people tend to be very nice. Those could be some of the same people who are nasty on social media.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, they could be. I have no idea. But they don’t. They see me as a person then, so they don’t dare attack me.

Dillon Honcoop:
I saw you post about your shirt that you wear and your note about that you do that deliberately. Talk about that, why you go into Bellingham.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Local urban community for our small area here. Why do you do that?

Erica DeWaard:
Make people put a face to who a farmer is. I actually have a lot of people that come up to me and say, “Well, you’re a girl. You can’t be a farmer.”

Dillon Honcoop:
In the city they say that?

Erica DeWaard:
In the city. I really don’t know how to respond to that. It’s like you can’t be a farmer because you’re a girl. I’m like, “Girls can be anything they want to be. Kind of been that way for a long time now, but you’re saying that girls can’t grow up to be farmers.”

Dillon Honcoop:
The stereotype, it would be that out in the country, out on the farm, that’s where the discrimination would be happening, thinking that women cannot be farmers. But you’re saying it’s the opposite. It’s when you go into the city that people will have… That’s crazy [crosstalk 00:29:11].

Erica DeWaard:
Well people have this picture in their head of this 60-year-old guy that’s a farmer. That’s what farmers are supposed to look like. They’re not supposed to be some tall blonde girl. I don’t get what their image is in their head.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much does that drive what you do on social media, part of you being kind of outside what people would expect?

Erica DeWaard:
I think a lot of people actually like to see what I post because they don’t… Or they find my page, see that, “Oh, she’s a farmer,” and they realize that I can be a farmer. They actually see me as being knowledgeable despite the fact that I’m a girl. I’m not supposed to be doing this. It’s part of why they find it interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
Also notice you mentioned that you like to hike and you like to hike with your dad and do photography. I think we touched on that before. Talk about other stuff that you do like that.

Erica DeWaard:
I go hiking about once a week. I’ve actually competed in this race called the Kill Bill Challenge, which is 25 kilometers, 3,500 feet of elevation gain. You see how fast you can do it. And I think stuff like that is fun, and it also really helps me mentally because I get away from everything for awhile.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said before we started here, you said you’re an introvert.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain that. What does being an introvert mean to you?

Erica DeWaard:
If I’m in a group of people, everyone’s talking, I’m going to be the one taking it all in. I don’t like to voice my opinion until I really know what I’m going to say. I like to think about things a lot first. For that matter, I don’t even really like to be in a group of people. I’d rather be all by myself. Like I go to Thanksgiving dinner and I’m just relieved when I walk out the door. It’s quiet.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how do you make that work being an introvert? Yet in some ways you have become a public figure with your social media advocacy.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but it’s on my phone. Like I’ll go hiking and I don’t have cell reception, so I get to go be myself for a while because I can’t go check my social media and make sure people aren’t wanting to kill me. Just makes me forget about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And normally people would think you were kidding by saying people want to kill me, but since we just talked about that-

Erica DeWaard:
It’s true.

Dillon Honcoop:
… you have proven that is a real thing. How often are you getting messages to your page, comments on your page? How much could you be checking that if you were doing that all the time?

Erica DeWaard:
If I have a post that goes viral, I’d be checking it probably every 15 minutes. Even sometimes waking up in the middle of the night making sure I don’t do that, I go block a whole bunch of people, because once one person starts, it just gets out of control.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how much of your time does that take then? That’s got to be a lot of work.

Erica DeWaard:
Probably 20 or 30 hours every week. Takes a lot of time writing what I post because I like all the little details that I post, all the little details, but then I also want to research it to make sure I’m right. I don’t want to be posting something that’s false because my page is about the truth in dairy farming, so I want to make sure I’m really posting the truth.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the biggest things that people misunderstand or don’t know the truth about dairy farming in particular that you see out there?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people that they thought we milked the cows 24/7, that these cows were always hooked up getting milked. So when I posted that in reality these cows are milked for five minutes, twice a day, that’s like it’d be like over a year, 40 to 50 hours the entire year getting milked, which farmers work way more than that. So we do everything for the cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
You spend almost that time just on your social media in one week.

Erica DeWaard:
In one week. But the cows do work you for the entire year.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are you accusing cows of being lazy?

Erica DeWaard:
They’re spoiled.

Dillon Honcoop:
Spoiled. So people misunderstand how much time cows are actually being milked. What else is it that people misunderstand about dairy farming or animal agriculture? I’m sure you’ve seen it all.

Erica DeWaard:
One thing that tends to surprise people is how much technology is actually involved. They think we’re out there milking the cows by hand, all 700 of them, which in reality that’s impossible. We can’t do that and still be able to produce enough milk to meet the demand.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your response, then, when people see all that technology and see how many cows there are and the size of the operation and then say, “Well that’s a factory farm,” or, “That’s industrial agriculture.” Just to throw a few buzzwords at you. What’s your response to those?

Erica DeWaard:
I did a post once explaining exactly how we take care of all the cows and how much we care for them and that everything we do is to make sure the cow does good. And then after that I posted that, “Oh, by the way, so this dairy farm’s a CAFO, and that-

Dillon Honcoop:
CAFO being a… What is that? Confined Animal Feeding Operation?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. And that kind of blew people’s minds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that’s like a bad word.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a bad word. You’re not supposed to use that word, but it made people think about it that, “Oh, wait. So we trust her and she’s saying that CAFOs are okay,” and it kind of changed their minds because they had no idea that CAFOs are, you know, they’re normal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is it, do you think, that people think CAFOs are so bad?

Erica DeWaard:
They seem to think that we mistreat the cows. The cows are apparently supposed to be kept in some really dark, gloomy barn all the time, which-

Dillon Honcoop:
Where are they getting that information from, though?

Erica DeWaard:
The activists. People like to believe lies. Activists know how to play on that. They know how to take this one horrible picture, making it look like we’re mistreating these cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
Shouldn’t people know better, though, or have other sources of info?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but the average person’s three generations removed from a dairy or any sort of farming, so how would they even know?

Dillon Honcoop:
So I guess that’s why farmers need to say something?

Erica DeWaard:
And I saw something recently that for a long time people didn’t want to hear about farming, so farmers didn’t say anything, but now people are taking the farmers’ silence as meaning we’re hiding something. So it just kind of went the wrong way and now we need to be out there actually saying something again to the people that actually are open to learning about what we do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because of the advocacy work that you do and more and more people in the farming community are doing to speak out and just share real stories of here’s what it’s like on the farm, and here’s what we actually care about, you think that’s starting to change?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people message me that they actually went from being a vegan, which is someone who won’t touch meat or dairy, and they actually started accepting animal agriculture as being good because of what I was posting, because they hadn’t ever seen the perspective that, well, I’m a farmer telling about farming. They’d never gotten the chance to even talk to a farmer, so they just believed what they were told. But then they realized that maybe, hey, the farmer might actually know what they’re doing better than Google does. Maybe they should actually be asking the farmer instead of Google.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what is it that you say that helps them change their mind? Because I think a lot of people feel like they try to say that, but maybe then it turns into an argument and the person may not believe them anyway. What’s the secret to you changing minds and saying, “Hey, what I’m doing is real, and I actually care about it, and we’re doing this responsibly and we care about these animals and being good farmers.”

Erica DeWaard:
Well, part of it is I love to write, so I know how to word everything in a way that people are actually going to want to read it. And another part is the pictures I share. I put a lot of time into getting those pictures to try, so if someone only looks at the picture, it kind of shares the story that I’m trying to tell and-

Dillon Honcoop:
A picture is worth a thousand words.

Erica DeWaard:
Yep. People are willing to look at that picture and sometimes after that they start reading what I actually said.

Dillon Honcoop:
When do they actually get to the point where they tell you that they’ve changed some viewpoint that they had based on what you said? It usually takes a lot to get a person to that point.

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t know how long it takes for them to really realize. I don’t pay much attention to when one person started following me versus when I hear from them. There’s 19,000 people that follow me on Instagram, about 10,000 on Facebook. I don’t know them. It’s just these random messages, “Oh, hey, you taught me so much about farming. I had no clue, and I support you in what you’re doing and I actually went and bought a gallon of milk for the first time in 20 years.” So it’s kind of incredible that I can actually make a difference.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it feel like to have that many people following you?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s terrifying.

Dillon Honcoop:
Terrifying like in the introvert sense [crosstalk 00:37:25]?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. A little scary. Sometimes I go out to the Safeway and then if someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, Farmer Girl,” I’m like, “Do I know you?” A lot of times they won’t introduce themselves, they just start talking to me like, well they know me, so you’re talking to me like a friend, but I’m like, “I have no clue who you are.” I can’t tell you that because it’s awkward.

Dillon Honcoop:
You don’t want to be rude.

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t want to be rude and say, “Oh, so who in the world are you anyway?”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re becoming famous.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. Well, [inaudible 00:37:54] for people. I go out somewhere and people recognize me. It’s not something I really ever expected.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I was going to say, when you started this advocacy thing, you wanted to speak out, you wanted people to hear, but did you ever have any idea that it would get to this point?

Erica DeWaard:
I had no clue it would be like this, that people would actually want to hear my story.

Dillon Honcoop:
I follow people who have done similar things to what you’re doing and at some point some of them expressed a lot of burnout. What’s your take on that? Have you felt some of that? Have there been times when you’ve been like, “Maybe I’m done doing this.”

Erica DeWaard:
I felt like that, but then you get that one message that people… It changes my mind when they respond in a positive way, and part of it is the reason I go hiking is it does help me mentally and emotionally besides, obviously, physically. It’s just this good way to help myself get away from everything for awhile. Being out there in the woods, it kind of puts everything in perspective that, you know what? Yes, I’m on social media. I’m getting attacked all the time, but does that really matter in the grand scheme of things? It doesn’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a week are you feeding calves and whatnot? I’m assuming that’s at least a full-time job.

Erica DeWaard:
That’s 40 or 50 hours every week.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so you do get some time to yourself, then, to do things like hiking and whatnot.

Erica DeWaard:
They actually give you one day off a week, which is not normal for dairy farming. It’s really a nice bonus. So then I also, since I’m feeding calves, they need fed twice a day, so I’m feed them at 6:00 AM, I’m done typically by 9:00 in the morning, then I go back and I feed them at 3:30 until I’m done at night, which can be 7:00, but I have this weird time in the middle of the day that I don’t have to do anything. Sometimes I just go take a nap. Other times I’ll go hiking and obviously I have to spend a lot of that time writing what I’m going to post on social media.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think you’ll always feed calves?

Erica DeWaard:
Probably. I just love it too much to ever quit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, isn’t that what everybody says they’re trying to find is that job that they just love so much?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, and I found my dream job when I was 11. Who can really say that?

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get so lucky to find your dream job that early?

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t know. It was just farming’s in my blood. I have this old picture of my great uncle feeding calves, and I guess the whole calf feeding thing is just genetic. For some reason I got the bug, I had to do this. My aunt actually feeds calves too. One of my uncles does. My dad used to. For some reason something my family loves.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I’m catching you in the middle of the day today. You even have to go back-

Erica DeWaard:
I have to go back to work. I got up at 5:00 this morning, [inaudible 00:40:23] oh, every day, all week, and I’m not really a morning person. There’s a lot of caffeine involved.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re a dairy farmer, but you’re not a morning-

Erica DeWaard:
I’m not a morning person.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. Truth be told, how many dairy farmers are actually like that? Because that’s the assumption that a dairy farmer must be a morning person [crosstalk 00:40:40].

Erica DeWaard:
There’s a lot of us that hate morning. It’s actually pretty normal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for coming in and opening up about yourself. I really appreciate you being willing to, even though it made you nervous, being willing to come in and share your story with us here.

Erica DeWaard:
You’re welcome. Hard for me to talk, but I know I need to.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks again for joining me on this journey with the Real Food Real People podcast. It still boggles my mind to think about someone as nice and as passionate and as caring as Erica getting death threats for simply just showing what she does on a day-to-day basis.

Dillon Honcoop:
We so appreciate your support of the Real Food Real People podcast. We know that there are so many people in and around the farming community and the food community in this state in Washington that have incredible stories to share. If you know somebody with a story that would be great to share here on the podcast, please let me know. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. My name is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Just shoot me an email. Let me know a little bit about them. I would love to hear from you on that or any other feedback you have on the show. Again, Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Thanks for being here and we’ll talk with you again next week.

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

April Clayton | #002 12/23/2019

Although she has her PhD in chemistry, April Clayton is an apple and cherry farmer in Washington. But it was only after finding her voice as an advocate that she felt comfortable calling herself a farmer.

Transcript

April Clayton: I kind of resisted getting into farming at first because I didn’t want to be known as Mike’s wife. I just finished my PhD, I didn’t want to be, “Oh, the farmer… Oh, you know, his wife.” I wanted to start my own kind of career path in this area.

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

Dillon Honcoop: Finding your place on the farm, it’s something that those of us who’ve been part of a family farm at one time or another have all struggled with, I think, but nobody really likes to talk about it. My name is Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a family farm and after over a decade in media, I’m coming back to the farming community and I want to share their stories. This week on the Real Food, Real People podcast, I talk with a highly educated scientist and former college professor who now farms organic apples and cherries in central Washington. I wanted to know how she made the journey from the academic world into farming and she opens up as well about the real struggles and triumphs on the farm. So join me now as we get real with April Clayton of Red Apple Orchards in Orondo, Washington, with her farming story, and what the real challenges are right now on farms growing what is the state’s most famous food.

Dillon Honcoop: Let’s start at UC Davis.

April Clayton: Okay, so-

Dillon Honcoop: So you’re a chemist?

April Clayton: Yes, I’m a classically trained chemist. I actually have my undergraduate degree is from Florida State University in biochemistry, and then I spent a year working at Hanford, that was my first job out of college. And I did trace organic detection, and so actually there I got a lot of work and practice on gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, which is the tools that are used to test for residue on fruit and produce. So even though that’s not what I was doing, I was familiar with the concepts of how it had to be tested. And then from there I went on to university of California Davis and I got my degree in analytical chemistry.

Dillon Honcoop: What’s been the biggest challenge?

April Clayton: Finding my place on the farm, becoming the advocate. You want to get out here, you want to help, but how do you do it? How do you branch out to better inform people? It was finding the path to get started, that was difficult. I kind of resisted getting into farming at first because I didn’t want to be known as Mike’s wife. I kind of wanted my own identity away from my husband. I just finished my PhD, I didn’t want to be, “Oh, the farmer… Oh, you know, his wife.” I wanted to start my own kind of career path in this area.

Dillon Honcoop: So it was, this is interesting, it was the advocacy that brought you to the point you could fully embrace the fact that you are a farmer.

April Clayton: Oh, yeah. It wasn’t until I was in the Farm Bureau that I finally started calling myself a farmer.

Dillon Honcoop: What about the old culture of men, and farming, and sometimes Farm Bureau can be a lot of men who’ve been part of that for… How does that go?

April Clayton: The old boys club? That’s just changing more and more, especially today because farming, it’s so important for farmers to be advocates and you can see everywhere, I think it’s the women who are dominating the agricultural advocacy field right now. There are some great guys out there, but as I look around I’m seeing a lot more female agricultural advocates. So we’re really… I think women are doing great, and there are some pockets where it is still the old boys club, but here the Chelan/Douglas County Farm Bureau, I’m the president, the vice president is Vicki Malloy, our secretary treasurer is Suzanne Van Well, I mean it is… we’re female run. Yes, we have men on the board, but all the officers are female. So, yes, I understand the old boys club is still there, but just right here in my neck of the woods that’s just not the case.

Dillon Honcoop: I think that’s happening in a lot of places, too, and it’s-

April Clayton: Yeah, and like I said-

Dillon Honcoop: … a lot of people haven’t noticed that yet, but I think there’s been a big change that people haven’t noticed and it’s just starting to show that women are becoming the face of farming as much of or more than men.

April Clayton: Yes. Yes, I agree with you 100%. Yes, with females becoming the advocates.

Dillon Honcoop: When did you start trying to find that place?

April Clayton: You know, as more legislation came down, as it became harder to farm, as I could see it becoming harder to farm, it was obvious that my attention was needed here. I was having fun what I was doing, but this farm, if I want my kids to have it, I have to go out and be active in securing its future for my children’s future, so that’s why advocacy all of a sudden became so important because it’s not just my livelihood, it could possibly be my children’s livelihood. And when you start to think about it, when you start hearing more and more about different agricultural practices around the world and it made me want to get more involved to spread the message about how good we’re doing it here.

Dillon Honcoop: Much more than “Yeah, that’s what my husband does, and that’s his thing, and I have my thing.”

April Clayton: Yes. Right. Exactly. We’re a team.

Dillon Honcoop: How did you meet your husband?

April Clayton: So actually we are set up on a blind date because we’re both very tall, so…

Dillon Honcoop: Really?

April Clayton: Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: Hey, they’re tall, [crosstalk 00:05:32] it must be a good match.

April Clayton: Exactly. So yeah, that’s what we kind of like to joke about. So yeah, and it just kind of took off from there.

Dillon Honcoop: So you meet Mike, you get married-

April Clayton: Correct.

Dillon Honcoop: … and then what did you marry into? What’s his background? What’s he doing?

April Clayton: So Mike is a second generation apple and cherry farmer. His father was retired from the air force, he was actually a Thunderbird. So he flew all over the world and when he retired, the military was offering all this wheat land to grow tree fruit on. So this, Brays Landing, used to originally be called Military Hill because it was all military personnel. And so my father in law used to help run orchards for his friends in the area and then slowly bought some, sold some, and we’re actually the last remaining military people on the hill now.

Dillon Honcoop: So how long have you guys been married?

April Clayton: 14 years.

Dillon Honcoop: And for a long time you didn’t want to really embrace the-

April Clayton: The agriculture side.

Dillon Honcoop: … the farmer title for yourself.

April Clayton: Well, I had spent 10 years in school gaining a degree in chemistry, I didn’t want to turn around and you know, okay, do what my husband’s doing. I kind of wanted to branch out on my own. And so, but I did come back to it and I’m glad I did. I mean, I love farming. It’s awesome. The farm community here is amazing too. And my advocacy has gotten me so far too that some people in some circles people are like, “Oh, you’re April’s husband.” So it’s kind of nice.

Dillon Honcoop: Turns the table on your husband, what does he say in that case?

April Clayton: Oh, he loves it. He thinks it’s great. So actually, yeah, it’s kind of funny because my son had to fill out a report, first day back at school, “What do your parents do?” “My dad farms, my mom’s the president of farming.” Like, “You go son.”

Dillon Honcoop: President of farming, Dr. April Clayton.

April Clayton: Yeah, I know I never really liked being called doctor, even when I taught, I made my students call me professor instead of doctor just because, well, that whole I’m a PhD, I’m not an MD, so there’s a difference.

Dillon Honcoop: Talking about your family too, you got kids.

April Clayton: Yes, we have two kids. John, my firstborn is nine and my daughter Johannah AKA Jojo, she is seven going on 13 as she likes to tell everybody, my son definitely, he wants to be a farmer. I don’t know if it’s because he really wants to be a farmer or he likes the idea of riding motorcycles up and down the orchard scouting. He really enjoys that. Johannah she, one day she wants to be a vet, the next day she’s going to be a singer, so she’s at that happy age right now.

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah.

April Clayton: So it’s definitely fun. They definitely enjoy the orchard and I think it’s a great lifestyle. I love the fact that what I do, at the end of the day I say, “Here, I grew this.” I mean that’s really a great accomplishment. I like that and I want to have it for my kids, something tangible that you can touch.

Dillon Honcoop: That’s interesting, your son says he wants to become a farmer and I know from experience having been that kid myself, we’ll see what happens.

April Clayton: Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: Who knows what he decides is his calling or what he wants to do is. Your daughter, not necessarily so much.

April Clayton: Well, I think it’s because the son’s more into the big equipment, the bulldozers and things like that. And she rides, she loves her motorcycle, don’t get me wrong, but she’s not going to go crawl around the loader like he is.

Dillon Honcoop: But is there, I wonder is there kind of a gender thing going because it’s, for whatever reason, we just don’t have it as much ingrained in our head that women are, or could be, or are going to be farmers when they grow up. That’s what you are, when you grew up.

April Clayton: Right.

Dillon Honcoop: Did you see yourself being a farmer? What do you think about women in farming in particular?

April Clayton: I have to say it growing… I grew up in the city, I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, so it’s quite urban. And so yeah, farming was actually the last thing on my mind that I even thought about. Both my parents were army brats, so coming from a military, I kind of thought that if I didn’t make it in the chemistry world that I’d probably end up in the military world somewhere because that was kind of our family, what they did. So yeah, so when I moved out here it was really different and it was definitely a culture change for sure. I enjoyed it. I went from living behind a grocery store to now being 45 minutes from the nearest grocery store, so-

Dillon Honcoop: But being the person that supplies the grocery store.

April Clayton: Yes, and being a person who supplies it. So I appreciate so much more the produce section than I ever did before. And it’s also different, how I buy food is different now. Now that I know so much about the industry, before I used to just go for whatever was pretty and cheap. Now I actually make sure that, “Hey, this was grown in the United States.” Just because I, like I said before, I deal with the regulations, the codes, and the standards, I know exactly what’s going into produce grown in the United States and that is what I want to focus on. Especially being an organic grower, people always come up and ask me, “What do you buy for your kids?” And they’re kind of shocked when I say, “Produce from the United States. I don’t care if it’s organic or not.” Conventional is just as good as long as it’s grown here.

Dillon Honcoop: Talk about organic. You guys are not entirely organic, some of your stuff is, some isn’t.

April Clayton: This is first year we’re not a hundred percent organic. Our cherries used to be organic, but this is the first year that we pulled them from organic. We were having mildew issues and the organic inputs that you use to control mildew weren’t working and we are actually damaging our tree because of the amount of sprays we are putting on to try to control the mildew.

Dillon Honcoop: Hold on, you’re saying you were spraying with organic products and that was causing harm to the trees?

April Clayton: Yes, and because of the amount that we were spraying. People don’t realize organic orchards, organic farming is just a different way of farming. It’s not actually this great all healthy star that everyone thinks of. If you look at the original, the origin of it, it started in Europe, it actually started as a way to reuse and recycle. If it was found in nature, you can use it in your orchard. No big deal. Well, when the organic movement came here to United States, it got changed into messaging, healthy, different. But that’s actually not true. Organic farming, you have to use actually a much less concentration, so you’re actually in the orchard three times more with the sprayer spraying, and just that constant being in the orchard spraying just damaged our trees, so now we’re going back to conventional so we can spray less, get the trees healthy again and we’ll go from there. If we keep production up, prices stay good, we’ll stay with it.

Dillon Honcoop: So was there a point in time where you guys decided to go organic from conventional and switch over? Has it been an organic operation from the very beginning?

April Clayton: We went all organic about 10, 20 years ago. And so he, my father-in-law, kind of dabbled in it, but nothing really. It was actually my husband who really kind of took off with it.

Dillon Honcoop: Why did he choose to do that? That’s a lot of work. Isn’t it?

April Clayton: It is. It is. It’s a lot harder to farm organic than it is conventional, just because of all the different inputs. I mean, you can’t use a herbicide, so you have to either burn weeds, or hand hoe weeds, or till weed, so it’s a lot more intense. So yeah, it is a lot more involved. But the premiums were there. Well, the premium market really isn’t there anymore for cherries, so it just didn’t make sense for us to not make as much money. If we get the trees healthy again, get production up, we’ll have more cherries, we’ll make more money.

Dillon Honcoop: So people won’t pay more for organic cherries anymore?

April Clayton: They will, but the market is so flooded with it that buyers of grocery stores aren’t willing to pay more for it. And that’s where I get my money from.

Dillon Honcoop: So what the consumer pays at the store isn’t what you get?

April Clayton: Oh no, farmers… okay, so for an organic apple, I get about between five and 10 cents. I need 9 cents to clear to be even-

Dillon Honcoop: To break even on it?

April Clayton: … to break even. 10 cents would be a little bit of a profit, that would be nice.

Dillon Honcoop: And that same Apple, what could I buy it for in the store?

April Clayton: You’re probably buying $1.99 for in the store.

Dillon Honcoop: $1.99 for the same apple that you give five to 10 cents for.

April Clayton: Correct. And this is a common of all of agriculture, farmers are typically the ones who get what’s left over, and as the cost of doing business increases, gas, transportation, employees wages going up, storage, basically we pay all along the way as it goes. We’re the last ones in the line, after the truckers get paid, after the bills are paid at the storage shed, after the bills are paid at the grocery store, then we actually get an income.

Dillon Honcoop: Why? Why don’t you say, “Sorry we’re charging more for these apples.”?

April Clayton: It’s just the way of the way the industry. It’s the way the industry works, unfortunately. The apples go the shed, they box them and make them look pretty, then they’ve got a sales desk that goes and calls and says, “Hey, how much apples would you like? We’ll send you 10,000 pounds.” And that’ll go to a distribution where it’ll get… Safeway will take it and distribute it to all their stores. We’re pretty lucky in the fact that we’ve been organic, that most of our stuff has stayed on the West Coast, but actually it’s kind of funny, this year our cherries went to Japan for the first time in a long time. So yeah, it’s kind of interesting too, because I heard that even though tariffs have affected China and stuff like that, what they buy is the premiums, the best of the best, they’re-

Dillon Honcoop: Japan?

April Clayton: Yeah, and China, all of Asia. They don’t buy the small, ugly fruit, they get the biggest, the prettiest. And our cherries actually got sold individually. But we still haven’t gotten our paycheck for the cherries yet, so we don’t even know. So hopefully around October we’ll get all of our cherry money and then hopefully in March we’ll have all of our apple money.

Dillon Honcoop: What month did you pick them?

April Clayton: July, all of July.

Dillon Honcoop: And you still don’t know, and won’t know for some time yet, how much you’re even going to get paid for them?

April Clayton: Yeah, that’s my farmers don’t gamble. We do it every day on our farm.

Dillon Honcoop: That’s crazy.

April Clayton: Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: That’s crazy. What does that feel like? I mean, to me that says stress.

April Clayton: It’s tough. It is. For us, the stress is once we get in the shed, we get in the shed. We’re kind of, can’t really do anything about at that point, so now we just got to sit back and let it ride. So yeah, it’s tough.

Dillon Honcoop: What’s harvest like?

April Clayton: Cherry harvest is crazy because we start when the sun is up, so we’ll start as early as 4:30 in the morning. Cherries do not like do be picked after 80 degrees, after it gets 80 degrees the cherry doesn’t like to do anything, so we’ll stop harvest around noon pretty much. But it’s every day during the month of July because we are fast and furious trying to get the fruit off. We try to give our crew… the crews have the afternoons off, all the afternoons off and we try to give them one day off every two weeks, but during the month of July it just gets, we’re so backed up, we’re so short on labor that it ends up being, unfortunately, every day. But the pickers are happy because they’re making money the whole time, so they do appreciate that. And then apple harvest is much… it’s a little bit slower. It’s not such a fast pace. We have different apple varieties that are spaced out a little bit better.

Dillon Honcoop: So is there one thing or are there a few things that could knock your farm out of business, or is this more a story of which straw is going to break the camel’s back?

April Clayton: Yeah, it’s kind of… yeah, definitely losing a certification, that would hurt. If we were to ever lose our Global G.A.P certification, that would definitely be a nail in the coffin. I think it’s the small things that’s going to destroy farming. I don’t think it’s any one thing, the lack of labor is definitely an issue, the ever increasing costs just to do business. I mean, the H2A program is… I can’t even use the H2A program because it’s too expensive for me.

Dillon Honcoop: Well, let’s talk about labor a little bit because H2A, that’s a labor issue.

April Clayton: Guest worker.

Dillon Honcoop: The federal guest worker program. So what is the scoop on labor? You guys just can’t find enough people to work?

April Clayton: We can’t. And right now we’re short crew and if they don’t like the job that they’re having to do that day, or they don’t like the pay, they know they can go to the next farm over who is an H2A employee and they’ll get $15.03 an hour, so we’re having to compete with that. But I do want H2A to be here and stay here because my neighbor who uses H2A, that’s awesome, he’s bringing in guest workers. So I have a chance to actually pick up the local migrant help that wants to come and work the harvest and things like that. So you know, if H2A were to go away, we’d all be fighting for the same people and that there just isn’t enough, there is a shortage. Every year we have a labor shortage. The last time we had a full crew to pick everything we needed was eight years ago, eight or nine years ago. We were much bigger than we kind of divided off since then.

Dillon Honcoop: So you’re saying even though you aren’t in the H2A program, it helps you to have it in the local-

April Clayton: Yes.

Dillon Honcoop: … being used by local neighboring farms?

April Clayton: Right. Because there is a small pool of laborers here in Washington State. And we actually are very lucky because we have several people from Northern California that actually come to our farm every year, and we are so thankful that we have them. But if H2A were to go away, those guys, thankfully they know our farm, they’re coming back to us, but their friends may not come to us. They may jump ship and go to the shed that can offer those higher prices. Like the people who are using H2A right now, not only is it the $15 plus hourly wage, it’s also transportation to and from country of origin, living. We provide housing for our employees, but we don’t provide transportation to and from country of origin.

April Clayton: So that’s extra money that someone who uses H2A can use to bump up their cost even more, because it’s not uncommon to get into bidding wars with your neighbor to keep people. We’ve seen it locally, we’ve heard about it. Everybody on the hill pretty much pays the same price, but if someone’s down on labor and he can afford it, he’ll pay an extra 50 cents and you’ll see a couple of people jump ship and go there, and it hurts, it’s hard. But I can’t blame them, they’re going to go for that more money. And I can’t blame the other farmer for raising their wages because they need help too. It’s just, it’s a vicious cycle.

Dillon Honcoop: Some people say though, that there isn’t actually a labor shortage. If you would just pay workers more then it wouldn’t be a problem. What’s your response to that?

April Clayton: That’s just not true. As an organic grower, 75% of our cost is labor, everything from medical, to housing, to payroll, all of that included, it’s about 75% of our costs. I can’t go much higher. I can’t spend that much more. I wish I could, but I just don’t have the money in my bank. And when I hear people say, “Oh, you just want cheap later.” That just bugs me more than anything. I mean, last year just to get people to show up to pick Honeycrips, we gave people $25 if they brought someone with them, it didn’t matter if they-

Dillon Honcoop: Just as a bonus.

April Clayton: … just as a bonus. “Okay, you brought somebody with you, here, $25. Great, thanks. Here’s a bucket, go pick.” And not only was it $25, we were also paying upwards of I think 35 bucks a bin. So they were averaging closer to, the really fast guys can do a bin an hour, it’s typical a bin every two hours though is more like it.

Dillon Honcoop: So anywhere from $17, $18 bucks an hour to some people making $35 an hour?

April Clayton: And $25 just to show up that day at work-

Dillon Honcoop: Plus a bonus.

April Clayton: … first thing, yeah. I mean, no one’s coming. That’s the thing. I mean, we’re throwing all the money out there, but people just aren’t showing up. We just literally did not have people willing to come out and do the work.

Dillon Honcoop: Now about the controversial H2A federal guest worker program, you say that you like it even though you don’t use it.

April Clayton: I like that it’s there, I don’t like the policy of it. Four years ago no, five years ago now, we actually have housing on our farm that’s H2A specific because we were going to use the H2A program because we saw the shortage of labor, built it, finally got in, and it was actually right around the Hirst thing, so water was a big issue for us as well. So finally got everything done, ready to go, H2A comes back and tells us, “Yeah, that’s not going to work. We know you built it for 16 people, but that’s only going to hold 12 people.” I mean, that’s a huge hit. I mean, we built it to code and then for them to turn around-

Dillon Honcoop: And then they changed the code.

April Clayton: … change the code, it’s kind of like we would’ve had to add on another bathroom and another building. I mean, seeing as how we bought, just finished building that five years ago that has newer and better appliances and structure than my own house and I’m being told it doesn’t work. I mean, it’s very frustrating. It’s hard to deal with. True, these are bunk situations, but they’re only here for a month, they’re not staying for the whole year. Our crew that stays the whole year, they have houses that they live in on the farm, which is different from the cabins.

Dillon Honcoop: What about how the program actually works for the people that are using it? You have an interesting vantage point because you’ve almost kind of been in the program, but you aren’t now, you have people nearby who are so you can see what they do.

April Clayton: Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: There’ve been a lot of accusations about how horrible this program is. Where does that come from and how does that fit with reality? Have you seen problems?

April Clayton: No, that just doesn’t fit with reality. I mean, we all have, like I said, we’re all regulated like you would not believe down to the bone as far as what housing looks like. If my housing was kicked out because it couldn’t, it was too small, it needed to be bigger for 16 people. I mean, when you keep changing the field gold, it makes it harder, you know? And these can… Yes, it’s hard work. We know that, we know that it’s hard work, and we try to pay them as best as we can for what we’re actually getting from the fruit. But farmers are not intentionally being mean or hurting their employees, if we do not have them, we don’t get the fruit in the shed. If we don’t get the fruit in the shed, we don’t get money.

April Clayton: We appreciate and love the help that we get. We know we can’t do it without them, so it really bothers me when I hear people saying that, oh, we’re just out there abusing them. We’re not. They’re the ones who make this farm run. We’re the ones taking the risk, they’re the ones who make it run. That’s the beauty of how it works. So I really get bugged and I don’t know where it’s coming from because it’s just not true. There are bad lawyers, there may be bad farmers, but if you’re a bad farmer, you’re not going to stay in the game very long because you’re not going to get anybody to come work for you. And the H2A program, they’ll kick you out if they think that you are being bad to employees, disrespecting them, and not giving them great living conditions, then you’ll get kicked out. It’s not like you can just go and say, “Hey, I want it.” Someone’s going to come on your farm and make sure and look to see if your housing, is it acceptable, or is it not acceptable?

Dillon Honcoop: What’s the thing on the farm that that will keep you up at night?

April Clayton: Market return prices.

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah.

April Clayton: You have no control over that, and you just have to sit there and wait because we’re currently… we currently have an operating loan, every paycheck that we sign we’re borrowing money from the bank to do that and hopefully when I get paid my cherry money in October, I’ll be able to pay off that loan and keep going again. And hopefully there’ll be enough money that I won’t have to get another loan, but unfortunately I see that’s what keeps me up at night because if I can’t pay down that first loan I’m carrying a loan and getting another one to try and start over again, I mean, that’s going to bankrupt me faster than-

Dillon Honcoop: That was like a one year loan kind of thing?

April Clayton: And operation loan is about a one year loan, basically yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: So is that pretty normal for farming?

April Clayton: It’s pretty standard for the industry to have an operation loan because I’ll all of a sudden go up to 40 employees at, $14, $15 an hour, plus payroll tax. I don’t have that money sitting in the bank. Farmers are land rich, we’re not cash rich. We don’t have that cash flow that everyone thinks we have. And one of my pet peeves is people are like, “Oh, that fifth generation farmer, he’s just sitting there on a cash pile of gold.” Well, that fifth generation farmer has probably also paid for the farm two and a half times already because of the death tax each time a generation dies.

April Clayton: In farming we’re so resilient, we don’t think we’re going to die, so we don’t need to plan. And then all of a sudden the generation goes and the next generation is hit with the death tax, which is 51%, so the kids are going to have to sell off part of the farm to help pay for that tax. And so when you think about a fifth generation farmer, that’s two and a half times they’ve already had to pay for the farm. So I don’t think people understand that, yeah, we may have inherited this, but we have paid a lot to get it.

Dillon Honcoop: I asked what will keep you up at night and you talk about market conditions, do you have any stories of having gone through that where you’re actually up at night and wondering what’s going to happen and if you’re going to make it?

April Clayton: Yeah, last year was definitely that year because we were still farming organic cherries and we had to walk away from about 30 to 40 acres because of the mildew, so this was something that we had spent all this time farming, pushing money into, we only got half the crop of what we wanted and we’re still down production, fighting to get labor. And what labor we did have, we had to pay through the nose for, and so it was kind of like, “Man, please just can we get a little bit of money to help cover that?” Because all this farming, all this paychecks I’ve been doing, those were on loans and I had to watch half my crop go bye, bye, that hurts. It’s hard. So that last year was definitely a hard year, and then in the years past hail, whenever we have hail damage, that’ll keep you up at night because there’s nothing you can do. It’s lost. And, yeah, we have insurance, but insurance never makes you whole. It helps with the damage, but it doesn’t take care of the debt that you’re in.

Dillon Honcoop: Walk away from acres and acres of cherries. What does that look like? What do you do when you walk away? You just leave them to rot?

April Clayton: Unfortunately, yeah. Unfortunately we have to, I mean, because we don’t have the labor to go in there and pick it to begin with because it’s so expensive, we’re already losing that crop. We can’t afford to pay someone to go in there, pick it, and then give it away. We’d love to do that, we’d love to give it to the food banks, and we open, we tell our friends when this happens, “Hey, come out here. Come get as many cherries as you want.” But in all reality, they’re not going to… I mean, we produce half a million pounds of cherries a year, so we’re talking about… so losing a third of our crop, that’s a lot of pounds you’re not going to be able to get rid of. You’re not going to be able to get rid of it at just giving it to your friends and you’re not going to be able to get rid of it trying to pick it going to a farmer’s market.

April Clayton: And it’s really bad for the trees too, because if you have old fruit that’s sitting on there rotting, it stresses the tree out, so it’s not going to be as in good production for next year. And you’ve got this fruit that is now the perfect breeding ground for bad bugs. So it’s a very bad situation to be in, you’re just, you’re in knots because you’re like, “Okay, I lost this year’s crop. How much of next year’s crop did I lose too by not being able to take care of my trees properly by getting the fruit off them?” And I’m leaving this fruit in there that could potentially damage my crop next year by breeding bad bugs, so it’s a vicious cycle.

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah. You said you’re in knots, what does that really… what does it feel like when you’re there?

April Clayton: You’re in bed and you can’t sleep because your mind keeps running over other things. “Well, how am I going to pay for this? Well, what am I going to do for that? Well, how am I going to cover this for tomorrow, and if I can’t pay for this spray…” And that’s the other thing, these chemicals we use are highly concentrated and highly expensive. They’re not cheap. We’re not out there just throwing them around willy nilly because we think it’s great. No, we’ve got this, you know, like my husband always says, “You measure it with a micrometer and you unfortunately have to cut it with an ax.” So we’re doing as many calculations as we can to save money, to not overuse chemicals when you don’t have to, but unfortunately, these things cost money. And if you can’t afford that spray at that time, like calcium is important for apples because we get bitter pits.

April Clayton: Bitter pits are those, they’re little black dots in the center of an Apple. It goes through pretty far. So it’s not really good for processing either, because you can’t just peel it and get rid of it.

Dillon Honcoop: That’s from a lack of calcium?

April Clayton: It’s a lack of calcium in the soil. And sometimes calcium can bind together in the soil, and so you may get this reading of, “Oh yeah, you’ve got calcium.” But it’s just not being… the tree just can’t absorb it. So there’s all these other issues you have to think of and you’re sitting there worrying about that, so not being able to afford something could put you in danger for next year’s crop. So you just sit there and you’re like, “Oh man, what do you do?”

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah, there’s nothing that you can do-

April Clayton: No.

Dillon Honcoop: … except in a lot of cases feel awful. And I know that can put, having lived through these kinds of things in the kind of farming I grew up around, I know it can put so much pressure on everything else, relationships, around the house, other decisions that aren’t necessarily even directly connected.

April Clayton: You know, I have a friend who jokes every July that she becomes a cherry widow because her husband’s gone during the entire cherry harvest, so she’s kind of like a widow at home waiting, hopefully hubby will come because he’s out there working. And so I understand that, and luckily I’m on the farm and can help out and work too. I mean, one year there’s a picture of me pregnant with my son on the backpack behind me and I’m sitting there in the field hosing down bins of cherries, writing tickets for everybody. So thankfully it’s a family business where we can work together, but it is stressful. It can be stressful at times for sure. I mean, like I said before, that’s why farmers don’t gamble, we do it every day.

Dillon Honcoop: You do a lot of social media. What’s that like? Is that a positive experience to be out there in public that way? She’s shaking her head no.

April Clayton: No. Yeah, no. Social media is tough, I got to tell you it because I do kind of take it a little personally when I read people saying, “Oh my gosh, you are so bad. You’re not paying your laborers anything. You’re treating them horribly.” And it’s like, “No, that’s not the case. They’re actually… we’re trying to give them a decent wage.” There’s been, I don’t think people realize, there are times when we don’t take home a pay check to make sure that this is covered, that’s very common for owners and I don’t think people realize that. And plus we don’t have a, like you said, we only get paid once a year. Once harvest is in, is in, and that’s our paycheck. And we don’t always know what it’s going to be, we can’t calculate it out, so it’s definitely a tough field.

April Clayton: And so to have people on social media just sit there and trash you for it, is hard. Yeah. And I mean, sometimes, especially with social media today, because it’s no longer, “Oh well, I don’t think that’s right.” Blah, blah, blah. It’s like, “Oh, you’re a terrible person.” I mean, they can get downright insulting, so it is tough and it hurts because I have some friends that aren’t quite so much friends anymore because they think I’m a slave owner.

Dillon Honcoop: Really?

April Clayton: Well no, they just, they’re like, “Your employees…” They just, they believe what they’ve been told and it’s like, “No, come to my farm, come talk to them.” You know?

Dillon Honcoop: But they’re your friends. They don’t know your character?

April Clayton: I mean, they know my character and they know me, but you know, they’re the activists who have their belief system. It’s hard to change someone’s mind who is ingrained, “That’s the way it is.” But I am lucky because a lot of my friends who do know me, they’re like, “Oh wow, I had no idea. That’s amazing.” So it is fun, and I am thankful for my good friends who… and I actually have a couple friends who have become agricultural advocates, not because they have a farm, but because they find what I do so fascinating. And so that’s always, that’s positive and I appreciate that, but it’s the negative Nancys on social media that just kind of wear you down.

Dillon Honcoop: So you’ve actually lost friends because of the false things, the false accusations, that activists have made about you?

April Clayton: Well, it’s not like all of a sudden they stopped talking to me, but it’s like I can tell you’re not following me on social media anymore. I can tell. And it’s sad because it’s actually a couple of family members and I think also it kind of, in today’s political climate too, it’s easier to go for a dagger than it is for a handshake.

Dillon Honcoop: Well, thank you for opening up and telling your whole story. Fascinating your journey from Tallahassee, Florida to here in Orondo, Washington, and all points in between.

April Clayton: Well, Dillon, thank you for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me here today.

Dillon Honcoop: This was really cool, and thanks for showing me around your farm as well. It’s really cool what you guys are doing here, so-

April Clayton: Thank you. Come back anytime.

Dillon Honcoop: … keep up the good work.

April Clayton: Thanks.

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

Dillon Honcoop: Thanks for listening to the Real Food, Real People podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe and we’ll be back with another episode next week. Also, check out our website, 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.

Chris Doelman | #001 12/16/2019

He led a tech company with operations around the globe, but when faced with losing everything, Chris Doelman chose to return to the family dairy farm in Washington.

Transcript

Chris Doelman:
My exact thought was, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t have a home to go back to. If I have a chance at trying to save the marriage, it’s bringing it back to something that’s more of like a farm, a family-friendly thing.” And so that’s what I did. I’m like, okay, I just went for it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Hello, I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is the Real Food, Real People podcast, episode number one. Where do you start with something like this? I’m setting out to have genuine conversations to try to create a connection. To make the people who grow food here in the Pacific Northwest real to everybody who eats their delicious products every day but doesn’t get the chance to know what really goes on with growing them, what the farmers are really like and how amazing this community that I got to grow up in really is. Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a Washington farm and after over a decade in media, I’ve come back to my local farming community and I want to share its stories with you.

Dillon Honcoop:
I personally know so many great people with incredible stories, but I wanted to start with someone that I don’t really know, with a fascinating story that I barely knew anything about. So you and I can set off on this journey of connecting with real Washington farming together. So please join me in getting real with Chris Doelman, a young dairy farmer from the Olympia, Washington area with an incredible story of how he came back to his roots… I want to start, I think, in Vietnam.

Chris Doelman:
There’s no better place to start than in Vietnam.

Dillon Honcoop:
You are in Vietnam.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What the heck are you doing in Vietnam? Because you’re a dairy farm kid, right?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I grew up on a dairy farm. When I graduated high school, I went to college and I said, “There’s no way I’m going to be working on a dairy farm.” Can you cuss in here? I mean not that I would cuss, but is this…

Dillon Honcoop:
Nobody’s going to fine you or anything.

Chris Doelman:
I mean, you set the precedence early. Anyway, no. So I just got all of the poor jobs when I was younger. The jobs that were less desirable.

Dillon Honcoop:
As in you didn’t make… Oh, less… not that you didn’t make as much money. Did you make any money growing up?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I mean, my dad paid me.

Dillon Honcoop:
It wasn’t that child slave labor that I had to do from time also.

Chris Doelman:
No, I mean, I’m sure I got paid less than he would pay someone else, but also, I learned more too. I got more out of it than everyone else, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re in Vietnam, you’re working a tech job?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, so I was a partner in a software company, we came to a point where-

Dillon Honcoop:
So Software, what kind of… any kind of software?

Chris Doelman:
Business software, our biggest product was a learning management system that we deployed for Flextronics, which was a huge assembler. Let’s see here, you guys know Foxconn is a pretty popular one, at one point, Flextronics was significantly bigger than Foxconn.

Dillon Honcoop:
So Foxconn’s like the iPhone, amongst other things.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, so Flextronics assemble all kinds of stuff and I don’t know how much I’m even allowed to say what they assemble but.

Dillon Honcoop:
Were are you actually living in Vietnam then?

Chris Doelman:
So I would live in… I lived in Orange County and then I would travel to Vietnam once a year to work with the team. As owners, you want to show your face, you want to work with the team, you need to help strategize. But at this point we were trying to deploy a mergers and acquisition strategy in Vietnam to where we were going to consolidate the development teams over there. So we were going to go and buy and merge with other big groups of developers so that we can be instead of 200 plus developers, we want it to be over 2000, so that we could land significantly larger contracts and do a pivot on our business. In order to execute that plan, we needed to move to Vietnam because we were going to start consolidating a bunch of these software groups and that… So I had moved over there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re thinking, maybe this isn’t for me all of a sudden. I mean, you’re a legit tech sector, jet-setter flying back and forth from Southern California.

Chris Doelman:
I wouldn’t call it a jet-setter. It wasn’t as extravagant as a… it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I think anybody who’s done the jet-set lifestyle knows that it’s not as extravagant as they say in the movies.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I mean, we’re still bootstrapping everything too, it’s not that we’re rolling the Silicon Valley money, we’re not doing that. But it was a plan that we thought was a good plan until we actually went through our first merger with another group in Vietnam. So I was in Vietnam and things just got terrible. There’s some personal stuff and I was at a point where I was going to lose my company because we just went through this huge merger and I was going to lose my family and I was in a foreign country that… And my home basically, and I had already kind of moved out of my home and so I had no home and my family or my wife at the time was in the process of leaving me as well. And I just-

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean you’re talking about everything that’s happening externally, what’s going on inside you then?

Chris Doelman:
Well, honestly I thought, “Well, what am I going to do next?” I just keep plugging away and then I got-

Dillon Honcoop:
You weren’t scared or feeling kind of like what, what am I doing?

Chris Doelman:
I definitely had a feeling of what am I doing here? What is all this struggle for? Is this really what God called me to do? Are these his plans are these mine that I’m just trying to will my way through? And within a couple of days of that contemplation, I got a, I believe it was either an email or… I don’t even know the exact mechanics of it, but basically through my mom, my dad asked me if I wanted to come back to the family farm and just to see what it was like to learn the family business. And I hadn’t shared any of this with my mom and dad.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they didn’t know what was going on with you personally?

Chris Doelman:
They knew I was in Vietnam, yeah, but they didn’t know anything with was going on personally.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you have a close relationship with them? I mean-

Chris Doelman:
Oh, yeah, again, they lived in Washington State and I was in Southern California. You see your parents maybe twice, three times a year maximum and I’m not on the phone with them every day of the week, so. I didn’t really… they just kind of out of the blue, kind of brought this up and I thought, well… my exact thought was, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t have a home to go back to. If I have a chance at trying to save the marriage, it’s bring it back to something that’s more of like a farm, a family friendly thing.” And so that’s what I did, I’m like, “Okay,” I just went for it. Okay, go for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about extremes though. I mean, tech sector, other side of the globe, back home. And you said, “All right, forget it. I’m going back to my roots.”

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I’m going back to the farm and I moved from Orange County or Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City and moved back to good old Tenino, Washington. So Tenino is very rural America for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
As you’re making those flights and those drives and everything in that process, in those days, what’s going through your mind? I mean, you have to be thinking, “What’s going on?”

Chris Doelman:
What is going on? Yeah, you know what, honestly, I thought, “Okay, God is in control, he’s in control. I’m going to just do it and I will adapt.” And sure enough, I got on the farm, I started learning some of the… I started on the heifer farm, so raising the replacement animals and my dad was great about it and he said, “There’s no commitment, just come here, you can live here, live on the heifer farm work on it. You don’t have to commit to running the dairy farm, just take a break.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But that’s what he ultimately wanted. I mean, that was kind of his game plan.

Chris Doelman:
I think he wanted to see if that’s something I wanted to do. So his game plan wasn’t to actually have me do it, to run the dairy farm, but was to see if that’s something I wanted to do, which is great, he did some great dadding right there.

Dillon Honcoop:
He knows how to do the dad thing, obviously.

Chris Doelman:
And so I did that for several years, so 2010, I met my wife New Year’s Day, or actually New Year’s Eve, and then got married at the end of 2010 and then had some of our own kids. So now, I went from, at one point I was thinking, “Okay, I’m in Tenino, I’m never going to meet anybody. Why was I single in Tenino?

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re how old at this point?

Chris Doelman:
I think I was 34-35.

Dillon Honcoop:
35 years old in Tenino, Washington.

Chris Doelman:
And single I’m like, “Well, I’m going to be single my whole life.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But it didn’t turn out that way?

Chris Doelman:
It didn’t turn out that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
And there’s such a cool part of this story of maybe a glimpse now in hindsight, why this all happened.

Chris Doelman:
Oh, and it gets even deeper than that too. This is super-personal, so my ex-wife… I always wanted to have kids, we found out later that my ex-wife was never able to have children. We tried and never could, now, she’s still can’t have kids. And she basically released me because she thought I wasn’t happy and she’s like… I was a little angry with her early on, but I kept moving on and was able to find just an amazing woman and have three amazing children of our own.

Chris Doelman:
But the really neat part that I think started to take place in how I felt really, it was God’s hand that moved me there was, not only did I really enjoy the work of being on a farm and being able to work with your hands and your brain, it really kind of scratched all the itches for me. But on top of that, in 2012, I think it was 2012, 2013, my mom got diagnosed with cancer. It’s cancer and okay, and it became it as they looked into it as triple negative cancer, which is really hard to fix, to get rid of. And so my dad had to spend more time with my mom. So we just… that really-

Dillon Honcoop:
Then you had to step it up?

Chris Doelman:
Well, at that point I had already kind of decided that I’m going to start… I really want to do this dairying thing. And so I’d already started taking over the dairy before that even happened. And it felt like it was an opportunity, it basically freed up my dad to take care of my mom. And so yeah, he got to take care of her until actually the Christmas of 2018, my mom passed away because of it. But my dad-

Dillon Honcoop:
So this past-

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, this past Christmas. Yeah, so my mom fought it for six years. So it’s just 2012 I think 2012, 2013, so she fought it for about six years and my dad was able to spend all the time he needed to with her. So I really felt like that was an opportunity to give back to my dad, number one, but also to like, it really felt like God opened that a door for me so that my dad can have that opportunity to spend with my mom.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like then being in this position of still learning and still taking over the farm as you were losing your mom? That has to, all of a sudden, I would think, flip a switch like, “This is way more serious all of a sudden.”

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I felt like it was a really hard time because I still trusted that in the end, God has his plan for me and this is still good, but there is a lot at stake, a lot of responsibilities because now, not only am I… we’re in the process of I’m learning the farm, so I now have… I’m responsible for the farm, my dad’s number two love, and my dad’s number one love, is dying of cancer. So my dad’s losing his wife, and he’s kind of turned over control over to me. So I felt a pretty heavy load of responsibility for all of that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s like, “I can’t screw this up.” And it’s not under the auspices of, “Hey, here’s the farm, don’t screw it up.” It’s under the cloud of my mom is fighting the fight of her life. And I don’t know at what point you guys knew that she wasn’t going to win that fight, that is so heavy just to deal with whatever you’re doing, but you’re… It’s kind of like two huge things happening in your world at the same time.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, and then knowing the state of the dairy industry the last three years, it was very challenging. So you know, my dad was hoping not to lose a farm and a wife. And so we were going through all of that and it was challenging because not every day was rosy. And so when you see problems on the farm and that’s the one thing that you can kind of control, you kind of go after it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did you and your dad talk about during that time?

Chris Doelman:
We would talk farming every day. Usually almost every morning we would sit and kind of go over what’s going on on the farm. And then my dad would then kind of talk about what’s going on at home. And so we just get a chance to make sure the dialogue is open between both of us so there are no surprises, I think that was important.

Dillon Honcoop:
How’s he doing now?

Chris Doelman:
So now with my mom passing away, I think my dad is now at a point where it’s no longer a holding pattern, but it’s a chance to kind of recover and to heal. So I can see it seems as if he’s healing.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the grieving process takes a long, long time. And some people say, well it never is really entirely over.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I don’t know if it will ever be over, but I also know that you can… I could see him put on a little bit more weight again. He didn’t eat very much when he was taking care of my mom, he didn’t sleep very much, and now he has that opportunity to kind of sleep and eat and just not stress near as much as he did before.

Dillon Honcoop:
So is he back on the farm a little bit more?

Chris Doelman:
Honestly, he’s actually not on the farm as much anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, good for him.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, because I think his chance… He would come to the farm because that was his only chance to kind of escape it for just a short period of time. And so now he doesn’t have to escape it and he can just be.

Dillon Honcoop:
He can go to town, hang out buddies, do the coffee shop. I don’t know how what dad’s like if he’s like the dairy farmer-

Chris Doelman:
Honestly, I don’t know what he’s like either, I don’t need to dive into that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you talk about what’s going on with the dairy community right now and the business that is dairy farming. Explain that, what’s going on right now?

Chris Doelman:
Well, we’ve been suffering with low milk prices for about four years now, where at one point we… milk prices were as low as they were over 30 years ago with nothing else being that low, that includes feed prices, costs of living, employees. So we were trying to live on what they paid for milk over 30 years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
When we were just kids.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, right, when we were just kids. Now that’s hard, that’s hard to do as a business. I don’t know how many other industries can operate that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody knows that it’s hard and says that it’s hard, but what do you actually do? How do you make it? Do you eat Top Ramen every night? That’s what I did in college to survive.

Chris Doelman:
That’s what I did in college to thrive, if I was eating Top Ramen, I was thriving. Now, what do you do? Well, I think you look at any inefficiencies in your operations and you try to fix them. You have an opportunity, one, to try to make more milk. But I think that compounds the problem overall. So it’s really trying to maximize the margin that you do have. And at that point you just hold on, you hold on, you borrow if you need to borrow and you look for those moments to pay it back when milk prices go up, try to weather the storm. And we did things, we made some pretty good decisions when we did in 2014 when the money was good, we invested it in the right spots and allowed us to start feeding cheaper and milking cows-

Dillon Honcoop:
In the dairy world, you say invest, what does that mean?

Chris Doelman:
That’s that putting money back into your farm, we built a new commodity shed that allowed us to store a lot more feed. And in the Northwest, our competitive advantage here is that we get access to export grain byproducts. And you get those in railcar loads. So if you don’t have the capacity to store it, you’re going to have a hard time trying to buy it. So we built a lot of capacity so we could buy a lot of byproducts cheap when they were available. And that’s what we did and that’s how we kept going. So we buy a lot of cheap feed and we’re able to make some good decisions. Up until this last year when hay prices went through the roof and then the feed prices or the farming season was pretty dry so it kind of impacted our yield and our grass, that kind of hurt us this year. But we-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re talking about feed prices, I think that’s the thing that a lot of people never calculate into their understanding of how tough it is to keep, in particular, dairy farming working. Because they think, well how much money are you getting for your milk? That’s only half, it’s certainly even less than half of the equation really.

Chris Doelman:
Right, so to us what was important isn’t just the price we get on our milk, but it’s the margin between what our cost is to feed our animals versus what we get out of it as far as the milk is concerned. And so if you can’t control the milk prices, you can’t control the feed prices, but you can control how you feed and what you do to make that margin, improve that margin.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how much different is it, at least this business side of it, than the world that you came from in tech? A lot of different elements but it’s still costs, and prices and market.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah. You’re still dealing with markets and prices, and employees, and running projects and… there’s a lot of similarities.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yet it’s a lot more personal than working in tech?

Chris Doelman:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s your family, your animals, your employees that you’re working, you getting dirty-

Chris Doelman:
But I have the same sense of responsibility I have for my employees in Vietnam and my employees that were in our software company. You get that sense of pride that you’re creating these jobs that are allowing to feed this group of people. And in Vietnam especially because we were a big part, let’s say we were a big part, the software industry was a big part of raising the middle-class in Vietnam. There wasn’t a middle-class, there were the elites and then there were whatever was left. And so the software industry came and started to raise that bottom up to a middle class, to be part of that was really neat. We also have that same feeling here on farm.

Chris Doelman:
Because we’re dealing with a lot of immigrant workers and we’re giving them an opportunity to be able to raise up, raise a family, send their kids to schools and there’s that sense of pride being able to do that for your team, your employees. And those success stories are the things that I really like. That’s where I get my… I get in my happy place when I’m able to be able to provide a job that is going to help raise a family up. I have an employee that, he immigrated over here when he was younger. Now his son is the first in his family to go to college. He owns his own house, it’s just, that story to me, makes me happy, I love those stories. So we want to be able to raise up… we want to be a benefit, a blessing to our employees, to our neighbors, to the world.

Dillon Honcoop:
We haven’t talked about your farm much, Beaver Creek Dairy, give us the stats. How many cows you milk and what kind of, what’s the lowdown?

Chris Doelman:
We’re anywhere from 900-1000 cows milking. We’re in Olympia, Washington, kind of right next to, say right next to, probably within eight miles. Five miles of labor and industries, Department of Ecology, the governor’s mansion. Yeah. I mean, I’ve literally had the Department of Ecology director standing on my manure lagoon when we’re talking CAFO permits. So we’re real close right in the thick of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they don’t have to go far to know who to keep their eyes on.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah. Good old Jay’s eyes start watering when we spread manure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, so it’s you that’s causing the problem.

Chris Doelman:
I’m like, ” Hey guess what? I’m making the economy green buddy.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So 900-1000 cows, a lot of people call that a mega-dairy. What’s your response to that when someone’s like, “That’s a huge, we shouldn’t have that, that’s an industrial blah, blah, blah, whatever.”

Chris Doelman:
Yes, that’s a great question. And this is where I think education is essential, we need to do our… So first of all, 900-1000 cows on the West side of the mountains, it’s a good amount of cows, on the east side, it’s a small dairy farm. Regardless, whether it be small or a good-sized, it is… they’re all family farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean? How do you define a family farm?

Chris Doelman:
Every one of these farms are run by families, their mom or dad started it, or grandparents, their mom and dads are working on it, the kids are working on it. Even though it may seem like 1000 cows is a lot, with automation, we’ve been farming cows for over 10,000 years. We’ve been dairy farming as a people group for I think at least 10,000 years, they talk about how long a cow has been domestic, not domesticated, but used for. Yeah, so I think that as… The problem I see is that each generation, we’re growing further and further away from dairy farms, from farming, from our food source.

Chris Doelman:
So it used to be like, “Well, I grew up on a dairy farm, I know where my milk comes from.” That’s great, you go to store and you buy it. And then it was like, “Oh, my parents grew up on a dairy farm, now it’s my grandparents.” And now we’ve got people that have no clue what a dairy farm is. You tell them that a cow has to have a baby before she gets milk and they’re blown away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they say that terrible. There’s a lot of people who claim that that’s animal abuse, right?

Chris Doelman:
I don’t know how to respond to that though. I mean, how do you respond to someone saying that a cow having a calf is animal abuse? Are they the same people that say that chocolate milk comes from a brown cow? Some of them are and there was a poll that said 20% of people polled, said that chocolate milk came from a brown cow. So I think what needs to happen is there just needs to be massive education on where people’s food comes from and dairy farmers need to start engaging in that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So one of the places that food and milk comes from here is from your family.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, from our family. We make milk, it gets processed by a processor by our co-op Dairy Gold and it goes out to the stores, the milk that you drink, it goes into the ingredients you use to make your cakes, to do your things, it’s in the ice cream, it’s in the butter, it all comes from here.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean you’re just down the road from Olympia, and Tacoma, and Seattle, and Everett, and Bellingham to Portland, and Portland the other way. These people have to have some awareness that milk is coming from cows, don’t they?

Chris Doelman:
They know milk comes from cows, but they don’t know how, it’s that simple. And they think it’s been… large farms have been demonized as corporate dairy farming and I have yet to see a corporate dairy farm. Not anywhere that I’ve been.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, what would that even look like? I’m trying to think of-

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, a bunch of men in suits, I think, just running around-

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you wear a tie while you’re milking at this farm?

Chris Doelman:
No, obviously there are some… I believe size is important, we don’t want to get so large that we lose control over how we handle our people, our environment, our animals. So there is a sense of we need to make sure we are being good stewards of all of those things. So there is a size when maybe that’s too hard to do. I don’t know what that size is though.

Dillon Honcoop:
You mentioned the E word, environment?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s another one of the big criticisms is, “Well, you can’t have that many cows and protect the environment around where your farm is.” What’s your response to that and what do you guys actually do about that? You said earlier, that’s one of kind of, one of your key things is environmental sustainability.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, that’s right. We don’t look at our… So for those who don’t really know about cows, cows poop. That poop goes into a lagoon so you could-

Dillon Honcoop:
I can vouch for this, I’ve seen it.

Chris Doelman:
We use that poop to grow feed for those cows. So if you don’t have crowding and you have enough land base, you can use that manure as an asset to the environment not a liability. So manure makes the grass grow, if you don’t have the nutrients in the soil that comes from the manure, you’re not going to be able to have those green fields everywhere. You’re not going to be able to grow the stuff you need to grow, period.

Dillon Honcoop:
But what do you do to make sure that manure doesn’t end up in the Creek, in the river, in the bay [crosstalk 00:30:38]-

Chris Doelman:
That’s just having good farm practices, you just stay on top of when you spread your manure, how much you spread it on your fields. I think every farmer is given these nutrient management plans and understands when and where you’re supposed to spread your manure. Now there are times and there’ll be a bad actor here and there.

Dillon Honcoop:
So the state actually has a plan for how you-

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, you have to have a nutrient management plan in order to spread your manure. That’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
By state law?

Chris Doelman:
By the state, it’s the… the Department of Agriculture requires it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s not, you don’t just go put this stuff out wherever.

Chris Doelman:
You don’t just Willy nilly put manure wherever you want. I mean the farmers that I know, we all want to keep the environment as sustainable and as good as possible because it’s where we gain our… it’s how we feed our families. So we wouldn’t want to do anything that jeopardizes our environment, our water quality, none of that stuff because we drink the water. Of all the chances of ruining water quality, who is it going to affect? It’s going to affect me because I drink the water. I drink the water out of my irrigation line. I trust in our practices that much that I’ll drink water that comes right out of the well.

Dillon Honcoop:
So managing all of this environmental sustainability, how much of your time does that take up? How much of your brain space does it take to kind of keep your whole farm on track for this?

Chris Doelman:
Well, again, it’s something… it’s every day we’re thinking about what we’re doing with our manure because you need to make decisions daily and know every year is different, the weather causes you to adapt to it, you don’t control the weather. So every day you put some brain time into, “What are we going to do with our manure?” And you game plan it, just so you know, “This is what I’m going to do when I’ve got the crop off the field, and that, this and that.” But yeah, I’d say you invest a little bit of time every day to figure out what you’re doing with your manure at that time.

Dillon Honcoop:
So here you are a guy who had been working in tech in Vietnam and you’re back here in Washington State managing cow poop and milk.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, what am I doing with my poop today? I actually had that same thought while I was working for the tech company though.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can about imagine how that would have gone on.

Chris Doelman:
It wasn’t to the same [inaudible 00:33:24] but unless I ate some bad [inaudible 00:33:28] never mind I shouldn’t [inaudible 00:33:29].

Dillon Honcoop:
We won’t ask about Vietnam. Do you stay in touch with any of those people from kind of your previous life?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, a little bit. I do actually, yeah. I’ve made some good friends when I was in California and-

Dillon Honcoop:
I hope that’s okay for me to call it your previous life, but really that’s kind of what it seems like.

Chris Doelman:
No, I stay in touch, not as often, but as a farmer it’s… you don’t talk to a lot of people.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do they think? What do they say about all of this?

Chris Doelman:
So one of my friends from college actually, when I found out that… when I decided to make the move he goes, “You know what, that seems such a crazy jump for most people but I think that’s something, that seems right up your alley.” Because he ran a software company as well out of college and we had a common thing. And then when I told them I’m moving to the dairy industry, he’s like, “That seems such a far jump for people, but its seems right up your alley.” So he’s like, “I kind of expected that out of you.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So people have been supportive?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, and most people are blown away that like, “Wait, what you ran a software company?” Or, I don’t dress a lot of dairy farmers, I still kind of carried that through. And so they’re usually more shocked that I am a dairy farmer if I said I worked in the tech sector.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you don’t quite fit the dairy farmers stereotype as far as the style?

Chris Doelman:
There certain things I do as far as how I dress.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the dairy farmers style that you don’t fit?

Chris Doelman:
I’m not going to say. Do you know the irony of it today is I’m wearing plaid, but I don’t have my Romeo’s on or my Wranglers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, you’re saying my Romeos and my Wranglers, do you own Romeos and Wranglers?

Chris Doelman:
No, I don’t actually.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so that’s where you don’t fit the stereotype.

Chris Doelman:
I joke. I joke. No, so one of the neat things that I think when… an interesting thing that I… revelation, was when I went to my first kitchen meeting and that’s a meeting where all the dairy farmers in the local area get to talk to the representative at the Co-op level, so Dairy Gold will hold a kitchen meeting.

Dillon Honcoop:
That sounds so like 1950.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, Oh, we’re meeting in a-

Dillon Honcoop:
Kitchen meeting.

Chris Doelman:
In some restaurant, it’s not an actual kitchen. But there’s country music playing loud, everyone rolls up in their big pickup trucks and you’re there and my first kitchen meeting, I’m coming from Vietnam and Orange County thinking about, there was… maybe I’m a little, I don’t want to say I’m arrogant, but there’s a sense of like, “Well, I don’t know what to expect, but I doubt any one of these guys had run a software company before.” And that sounds super-arrogant and I feel so terrible for having that thought. But there was a little bit of that in my head. I wouldn’t say it consumed me, but there was just that little bit and that got wiped away immediately. The first question asked by this group that you would look… if you would look over them and you weren’t… if you were pretty judgmental, you might think-

Dillon Honcoop:
A bunch of redneck farmers.

Chris Doelman:
That’s exactly right. That’s the first thought you’d think of. There’s a lot of plaid in this room. But the minute I heard their question, I’m like, “Oh, we are dealing with intellects, there are intellects here.” And they’re talking about markets, they’re talking… and these questions where we’re deep questions. They are not what you would as the general population think a farmer would ask.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t that part of the… one of the ingredients that that city person that you’re talking about who doesn’t really know, isn’t connected anymore with where their food comes from, that’s part that they aren’t aware of that these aren’t just people bumbling around like, “Ooh, here’s some milk, I guess I’ll sell it.”

Chris Doelman:
That’s exactly right, if these people were not… The dairy farmers that I’m in the room with right now, if they were not dairy farmers, they’d be CEO, CFOs, they’d be running their own businesses, they’d be doing these things. It’s amazing how… it’s just that they have the passion for farming and so they are dairy farmers. But they could be doing different things but we judge them because it’s different. It’s because we’re so disconnected from rural America.

Dillon Honcoop:
So maybe this is part of your nonjudgmental growth in not making snap judgments about people?

Chris Doelman:
Well, I definitely have learned that, that is definitely true. You feel like you’re kind of on the other side of it. I mean, I don’t want to say by any means that I equate it to what different people groups have had to deal with. This is just, “Yeah, I’m still a white male in a white male in a white male-dominated country.” But there is something about having a little bit of a chip on your shoulder because I am a rural farmer or get perceived as a rural farmer and the negative connotations that come with that. And so that puts a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But then I think, “How am I doing that to other people?” And so it really has caused me to reflect even more. Taking an even closer look on my prejudices, and how ineffective certain stereotypes are and it’s part of my growth.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for chatting with us. I really appreciate you opening up telling this whole story. It’s a good one, by the way.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I hope you can piece it together.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean with as many elements as you have going here, at least the start of a good book or movie or something with all these different worlds and coming back and the heartbreak of losing your mom and the kind of finding your place in this world back where you started after having gone kind of… is it a prodigal son story? Well, not quite a prodigal son story but-

Chris Doelman:
No, I didn’t run away and gamble away all my inheritance.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, we’ll still let you-

Chris Doelman:
I’ve got to do that stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, let us know when you’re done with that and we can update the story. Chris Doelman, Beaver Creek Dairy, Washington State family farmer. Thank you so much for chatting with us on the podcast.

Chris Doelman:
Thanks Dillon, I appreciate the time.

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