Podcasts

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.

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 Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families.