Lydia Johnson | #015 03/23/2020

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Right, yep.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is Ethel, Washington?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Or a cowgirl.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Upper hand how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, that’s amazing.

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

Lydia Johnson:
For sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you think about staying with dairy?

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
The valley, yeah.

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

Lydia Johnson:
Right outside, so.

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

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

Lydia Johnson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you do with that?

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Probably team roping. Probably team roping.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
I intend to. I do.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So other than keeping rodeoing-

Lydia Johnson:
Rodeoing, yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
To keep feral horses from reproducing?

Lydia Johnson:
Reproducing, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not humane.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a mouthful.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You mean Bachelor of Science?

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that do to farming here?

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How did it taste?

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, thank you.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
It’s a long one.

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

Lydia Johnson:
Time Out Saloon.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Saloon.

Lydia Johnson:
In Kittitas, Washington, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much.

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane part 2 | #006 01/20/2020

He's passionate about bringing farmers back to the table, in more ways than one. In the second half of their conversation, award-winning Seattle chef Niels Brisbane and host Dillon Honcoop talk about how a facelift for farming could help reconnect eaters with the people who grow their food.

Transcript

Niels Brisbane:
Farming needs a facelift basically, essentially, and there it needs to be appreciated for what it is, but then the other piece is like it’s a lot of work and so there needs to be a financial incentive.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Hoodies, connecting with farmers and figuring out how farmers can have a seat at the table. Again, in sort of defining what is the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. Last week we got to know award-winning Seattle chef, Niels Brisbane and his unexpected journey from sports to fine dining, to reconnecting with his farm town roots in Lynden, Washington, the same town that I grew up in, even though I hadn’t gotten to know Niels until this podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, we’re sharing the second half of that fascinating conversation I had with him, where we get into in the second half into the vision, his vision for reconnecting people with farmers and reinvigorating both our regional cuisine and the farms that are growing food right here. If you miss last week, go ahead and listen to that conversation if you’d like to learn more about Nell’s background. Thanks for coming along the journey again this week and let’s dive right back in where we left off last week. So you’re involved in this world that’s like culture and art and very urban, yet you grew up in a small Podunk farming community. It happens to be the same community that I grew up in. Interestingly, we didn’t know each other-

Niels Brisbane:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… until now. What was that like? How did that speak in to what you were doing and what did people even say when they found out, you’re from Lynden, Washington? Like what?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, for me that very much roots why I cook and why I’m involved in food at all, because it really does come back to how do we create a better food system? And part of that is like for me, I always want to be able to give farmers options. And like one of my favorite farmers, Dave Hudlin is in the Skagit County and has a great vegetable farm, grows [inaudible 00:02:43]. His tomato greenhouses are, they should be the eighth wonder of the world. They’re incredible. If you’re ever in Skagit, go visit Dave Hudlin’s farm.

Niels Brisbane:
But he always says is, I’ll butcher the quote. But it was basically like, “If you’re a farm and you’re selling to one person, then you’re an employee, and if you’re selling to 100 people, now you’ve got a business.” And so farmers need to be able to, I mean, the worst thing of walking into a negotiation, whether that be, especially when it’s a buyer is if they know you can’t walk out, and negotiate that price any better because they’re like, “Well, that product is going to spoil otherwise if you don’t sell it to me at this really low price.” And so that’s not a good place to be. So developing a system where there truly is an economy around things and not just a path that’s been traveled before.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a big problem in farming.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s a huge problem in farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because different than most other economic arrangements. If we say that farmers are usually the ones with their back against the wall-

Niels Brisbane:
Usually.

Dillon Honcoop:
… they’re price takers as we here said.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you experienced that, you see that kind of from this other vantage point.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And if anyone gets the squeeze, it’s usually the “like lowest person on the totem pole.” And for a farmer that it’s because they’re the first person with the product, that’s why they’re “like the lowest person on the totem pole.” Is like, the chef doesn’t want to pay that high price, so they put the squeeze on their producer or onto their wholesaler. The wholesaler needs to keep their margin. So then they push that squeeze onto the farmer and so they by default have to take that lower price.

Niels Brisbane:
And if they got to… so we were really big on like working directly with farmers and buying, trying to work with them and it’s a headache, but like trying to figure out ways where you can be like, okay, grow all these carrots and we’ll buy all of them. Or we’ll do like what do you want to grow? What did you make a fantastic margin on last year? It was this random beat. Okay, well like maybe we can come up with a great beat dish and move this product for you.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually having those conversations. I mean, what ends up happening is like the complexity from a restaurant standpoint is again this was like a huge benefit that a place like Canlis could afford with time and money is allowing me to figure out all of those pieces and the other sous-chefs to like figure out this sourcing mayhem. I mean, we had, over 100 people that we would source from, from like farms and figuring that out logistically is a nightmare.

Niels Brisbane:
It took, I mean, a huge part of my job honestly was like, it was the creative part, but it was like figuring out how do we get the best product through the front doors in a consistent way. And in most places they just want to make one phone call and get the produce through the door, which means they work with a wholesaler and that’s why that business model exists, but it puts the squeeze onto the farmers and the restaurants lose the face of like, this is a farmer that’s trying to work hard to sell this product.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me that’s just like a shame. And so trying to think of new ways to structure it so that again, like these farmers can have a face in the economy again, it’s like just so that they can kind of compete again and be understood is ultimately how I kind of see a renegotiation of this food system. So whether that be, I mean, it’s either there’s small farms that are starting to figure it out of like, okay, well, I’ll sell at the farmers market and I’ll do a CSA and then I’ll do some wholesale and all these different pieces. And if any one of those were to fail, the business wouldn’t go under.

Niels Brisbane:
Like, but if Darigold declared bankruptcy tomorrow, there’d be a lot of farms that would not have anywhere to sell their milk, and that to me is like, well, that’s an issue. Like they’re not… I mean, they own their own businesses, so they’re taking all the risk, but they only have one buyer. So they really don’t have the reward of being an independent business owner on some level anymore because it’s like they’re dictated to. And so like there’s…

Dillon Honcoop:
And we have something unique hee even, like you mentioned Darigold being a farmer’s cooperative. Then in some other parts of the country where they don’t have that.

Niels Brisbane:
They don’t even have that. Right. Exactly. If anything like Darigold is the best model and so because at least you’ve got a large group that can kind of create that advocacy. But-

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s still that risk, that question mark.

Niels Brisbane:
There’s still that risk of like, well, what’s going to happen if that didn’t work out? And it’s like, well, it’s going to take a lot to rebuild it. It’s not going to happen in five or 10 or 20 years even. But like there’s the companies that are thinking about that. It’s like, well, what if we made cheese? What if we made a new dairy product or whatever it is, rethinking about it and being like, well, this isn’t less work, that’s for sure.

Niels Brisbane:
But actually creating a face of like, well, this is… I mean, it was a joke at the restaurant because I was obsessive with dairy specifically as my… we had five different milks that we kept in the restaurant based on what the usage was. So we had a milk that we would use for steaming for coffee, and we had a different milk that we would use for our basically like milk focused sauces.

Niels Brisbane:
So sauces that you actually were supposed to taste the milk. It wasn’t just like an ingredient. And then we would have a milk for desserts and each one was not just like, a random dartboard, we’ll buy from this farmer this week. It was very thought out. We had brought in 25 plus milks. I mean, it was a really unique experience to be able to even do that in the Pacific Northwest of like, there’s actually 25 plus dairies that you can go out and buy milk from and you could taste the difference between each farm and you could… people were blown away, I think it was like MyShan up in Lynden, actually it was really close to where I used to live and I actually didn’t know…

I don’t think they were an independent farm when I was living up there anyways, but or independent like as in you could buy their stuff wholesale. But they’ve got like a Guernsey farm and people had never really tasted that before, and I don’t know what their processes, but it’s like their milk has a distinct like caramel note that you don’t get from, say like a Cherry Valley, which is down here in King County, and they would have, there’s was like super grassy.

And so if you tried to make coffee with theirs, it tasted like you were licking and eating dirt, like, a little bit while you were drinking your coffee. And so it wasn’t so good for coffee even though it was a fantastic milk. But then their milk was fantastic for coffee because it just, the carameliness really meshed and really high fat content, which is also perfect for coffee versus the grassy one.

If you were matching that with, sauce that was going with beef, that grassiness and the fact that you were, the ironiness, the dirtiness of it, “like it was perfect for me.” And so it was like actually tasting those different pieces and… but people always laughed about how much milk we had in the restaurant and it was a bit of a nightmare. And the cooks would come to me and be like, “Chef, we’re out of this type of milk. How am I supposed to make this sauce?” Because they like understood how different it tasted when you did these different sauces. And so it was interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grew up in a town surrounded by dairy farms like this, and berry farms and potatoes and everything else. What was your awareness of farming at that time growing up? Like were you around farming at all?

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. So my best friend growing up was Rick Heerspink. And so he’s part of the Edaleen Dairy world. And so I spent a good amount of time on his dairy, scraping the lanes and everything else, and that was just… and also just the idea of like, it’s a Saturday evening or afternoon and you want to, go to the basketball game on Saturday night. And just like the uniform experience of everyone of basically could be like, “Well, yeah, I just have to finish my chores. I’ve got like…” just like having high schoolers that would buy their own vehicles because they’ve been working since they were 12 years old or earlier.

Niels Brisbane:
They’ve been getting paid since they were 12 years old is probably the best way to put it. They’ve been working since they could walk. But just the farming community in the way that, everyone is just like, it’s a lifestyle more than anything. It’s like there’s, cows don’t take days off. They need to be milked every day. And just how I remember, I mean, we had like hobby animals. My dad, I mean, he had a construction company, but he sold Quarter Horses on the side.

Niels Brisbane:
And so at like one point we had up to 18 Quarter Horses on the property. And we always had, more of the hobby animals, the chickens for eggs and we would always get a couple of… we’d would finish a beef cow every year and some of those other pieces where I was like, I had been on enough farms and enough of like the horse farm, that it’s like you get the ideas of farming. I won’t claim to have been a farmer like some of my peers were, but still just like the concept of getting pulled out of school because a fence broke and all of the animals are out and like you would leave and you’d go and everyone in class is like, “That makes sense.”

Niels Brisbane:
And then also just the idea of like middle of the night or early in the morning or you’ve been working all day, but you have to finish this product or a project because you have to finish it. Like it doesn’t matter how long it takes or how long you’re out there, it’ll be like put your headlamp on and keep fencing because we can’t not do it. And just like that mentality versus then working in basically less so in the restaurant.

Niels Brisbane:
Restaurants can kind of be similar to that. But even still you can be like, you got that stock on lay. Like it’s not ready but, fine. Just cool it down, we’ll start it again in the morning. It’s like, that’s not an option in farming. It’s like, there’s farmers who will cut corn for days on end essentially because it’s like a rain is coming and otherwise that is garbage if that… so that mentality of, it like, it creates this foundational work ethic that is different. And so while I don’t, like I said, I won’t claim to be a farmer, but that work ethic just kind of infuses life in Lynden and I think is a valuable life lesson.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I know you’ve said in an article I read about you that when you were at the bread lab working with farmers on developing things, that it reminded you of working with people amongst the farming community or being around that culture when you were growing up in Lynden, a county north, mind you. So how much does that influence then what you do?

Niels Brisbane:
It’s huge. I mean, I think, like I said, like it’s all, for me, the food system is built on the backs of farmers. But I do sense that there’s been this… especially, I mean the age of farmers has, I don’t know the current statistic, but basically it’s like there’s a whole generation that is getting older and is in their 60s and would love to retire soon, but they don’t have anyone coming in under them.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s our generation, in their 20s, 30s, 40s, there’s nobody that’s farming. Not nobody. There’s a lot less people that are farming in those generations. And I think part of that is just like, because farming needs a facelift basically, essentially. And there, it needs to be appreciated for what it is. But then the other piece is like, it’s a lot of work. And so there needs to be a financial incentive for how much work it is.

Niels Brisbane:
And so it’s like, nobody wants to be working 80, 90 hours a week to make 50 grand. It’s like they’re going to go to other jobs and eventually there’s going to be a reckoning with that. And so my hope is that by creating different avenues and different ways and honestly like a different mentality around how people think about farmers, we may actually be able to get people interested in farming again.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, I mean, most of my favorite people in working with the restaurant, some of my most like, nearest and dearest relationships from the restaurant were with farmers who I got to spend time with, visit their farms. They would come by once a week with their produce and you’d make them a cup of coffee and sit for two minutes and they could complain about the weather. And it’s like, that’s amazing.

Niels Brisbane:
But they need to be a community that has the spotlight shown on them a little bit more. But part of that is not just shining the spotlight on them, but actually giving them financial options and directions so that they could actually be like, well, this is, I could grow a whole bunch of this and sell it or I could, process it in a different way and may work on ways to create that infrastructure because that infrastructure has been dropping for the last 50 years, and how do we create, build up infrastructure so that it can support these small farms? And ultimately they, it’s like people want to feel proud of what they’re working on. And so if they can see that people actually appreciate it, then it’s like, well, then I think there’ll a resurgence to farming in these younger generations.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you see the future and the dark clouds over the future of farming and local farming. You see that as a real threat to the system that you’re involved with and even the food system, the restaurants, fine dining, all that kind of stuff is threatened by what’s threatening farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say hugely. I mean, the farming community has, I mean, there’s a lot of pressure on them. I mean, I’ve heard this from a good source, but it was that like suicide in the farming community is higher than suicide in the veteran community, which has traditionally been the highest kind of group in the country. And as well as like, I mean, there’s been such consolidation of farming and just kind of the loss of identity in that.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there’s just pressures being put on those farmers where it’s, again, they are getting the squeeze of the Whole Food system on top of them and everyone’s trying to keep their margin. And so then the only margin it can come out of is, the people who are actually producing the food, who have to accept that price. And so, I mean, it’s hard because we live in a country where our food system is subsidized in so many ways that it’s, as a percentage of income, the US doesn’t spend very much on food.

Niels Brisbane:
And so we don’t spend much on foods. So then we pay taxes that can then get subsidized. So it’s like we do spend a lot on food, but it’s like, it’s not a realized cost yet. And so it’s not helping, but the small farmers are not the ones receiving the subsidies. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and it’s a system that really kind of wants its cake and to be able to eat it too, if you use one of my dad’s favorite phrases because we want our food cheap, but we want it healthy. And we want it locally sourced and produced and grown on a small farm where people care and all this stuff. But at the same time we want it available year round.

Niels Brisbane:
And shelf stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
And shelf stable and we want it to be in beautiful packaging and all this and close to home. All these things and-

Niels Brisbane:
And I want it in five minutes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And a lot of those pressures are what’s pushed in some of these farms to get bigger or it to be tough for small family farms because they’re forced to try to survive with those demands. Yet at the same time that consumer is coming to them saying, “Hey, why are you getting so big? Why you’re making money on this?”

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, don’t get me started on that.

.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you keep coming back to that and I think that’s so important. But it’s something that people tend to balk at because they feel somehow there’s this idea of the small farmer, just making food and that’s what they do. And then very quickly, if it’s recognized that, that farmer is making some money at that, then it’s like, well, that’s-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. “You’re a sellout!”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the sus… It makes them suspect. Is that maybe part of what you think needs to happen when you talk about a face left-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I think it is like, I mean, figuring out ways where people need to realize that like what is the farmer bringing to the table? And it’s A, our whole food system, but have selling products that are directly recognized. I think. So creating more individual self identity and venturing out, which is scary, especially in Lynden. It’s like there’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Or any small farming community.

Niels Brisbane:
Any small farming, doing something different is like, because if you succeed then people are like, well, then it’s like that can almost be, there’s like a Danish term where it’s like the tallest tulip gets cut. And so it’s like, it’s not even… sometimes even succeeding above the average is not even a good thing in those small communities because it’s like, well, you’re not helping the community then.

Niels Brisbane:
But then it’s, if you try something and fail, then you don’t want that because you’re like, I should’ve just stuck with what I wanted to do. And so like I get that, that is a real struggle and a real conversation. But there needs to be tools for people to start investigating that. And this is another way that I think more… I mean, you made a perfect point of like what the customer demands and how many things the customer demands it’s like, so now you can’t just produce a delicious vegetable anymore. You have to produce a delicious vegetable and have a well, like a good Instagram feed and like it has to be in the right packaging and-

Dillon Honcoop:
I won’t trust it unless it’s marketed the way that I like.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And so it’s like, but to me, yes that’s really hard because it just keeps kicking up that overhead and making that a bigger and bigger slice of the pie. But it also does create an opportunity for all of these, “non farmers” who have grown up in the farm. Like if you grew up in Lynden and you loved to draw and you went to art school and you feel like there’s no place for you back in Lynden now because you don’t farm and you have no interest in farming, like no because all these farmers need to redo their packaging and rethink about that.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, a really talented graphic designer may be exactly what those farms need. And so it actually allows people to, not just stay in Lynden if you farm, sell equipment or repair equipment. Like there could actually be these, you can create this own independent economy right there that actually supports all of these pieces. But that’s hard. There’s no place for an independent graphic designer and labeled designer in Lynden if there’s only, 10 independent farms. But if there’s 50 independent farms, 100 independent farms, like each one of those needs a new graphic every couple of years and now you’ve actually created a position for someone who, “didn’t have any place in Lynden,” in the traditional economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So changing communities beyond just the traditional-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… farming community. At the same time, you’re talking about pushing the farming community into a place where some have gone, like you talked about MyShan, they’re an example.

Niels Brisbane:
Or Twin Brook

Dillon Honcoop:
From our community that both you and I grew up in examples in there are across the state people who have decided to go direct and really embrace that and brand themselves. But really that’s not the lion share of farms yet.

Niels Brisbane:
No, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s definitely not the comfort zone of a lion’s share of farmers in the state.

Niels Brisbane:
Pretty much not.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re saying that’s kind of what’s needed?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean that’s what I think is needed. I’m embracing the difference and not to say that, that won’t… I mean, I don’t know if every single farmer in Lynden could be independent. I don’t know. Like at the end of the day people will still need bulk milk. But I think that there is, a market for someone to do some value added products that, like who’s to say that Lynden… maybe it’s one farmer starts selling a blue cheese or something like that, that just goes wild and Danish blue or Dutch blue or whatever you want to call it.

Niels Brisbane:
And all of a sudden there’s such a demand that they require, more milk from, but they can pay a little bit higher price because it’s a premium product that they are getting that higher price for. And now all of a sudden they can create their own little cooperative that, of 10 dairies or 20 dairies that are all feeding into this specialty milk or specialty cheese product. And then you’ve got, maybe a yogurt maker that kind of does the same thing and eventually you could create a system where a farmer, there’s a plethora of co-ops that they could join essentially or they could then totally go independent and launch like, okay, I want to go elbow to elbow with, [inaudible 00:26:04] and I think I can, make a better product than them and my eggnog recipe is twice as good as theirs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Good old fashioned competition.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And like actually support that. And so maybe it’s not, if there’s 100 dairy farms, we’ve got 100 different cheeses coming out of Lynden. Like maybe that’s not necessarily how it goes, but there is room to create specially like, I mean, Lynden is adorable. It’s like it’s a cool town. And like, honestly, the brand of Lynden just isn’t being like flexed. I mean, that’s one small little. I mean, you could take that-

Dillon Honcoop:
And you can say that about a lot of towns around-

Niels Brisbane:
A lot of those towns what Twin Sisters is doing in Ferndale like that what they’re doing is very cool. And you could potentially… I mean, you go to France and again it’s taken generations of commitment, but there’s over 100 different types of cheese, not only just like producers of cheese, but literally types of cheese like in France. And you go to all these little different areas and each one is producing a different type.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me, if you can create that brand of like, it’s essentially what like goat milk did of like, getting people aware of the milk industry, but it’s like, okay, we need to hyper focus it though and be like, what is unique about this place? Like let’s embrace what we do differently. Let’s embrace the fact that like, well, if we feed our cows a little bit differently, we can get a change in the finished cheese that makes us totally unique.

Niels Brisbane:
And we know the 10 farmers that produce our milk and so we can get them all on a really regimented feed, process and you can create these systems that have a lot more flexibility and in the end give, if a farmer can sell to five different places and has those options, then they can actually shop around for the highest price.

Dillon Honcoop:
And giving them the incentive to do things like something that otherwise may be a big financial risk, it may be a pain in the butt, will require a lot of, investment and infrastructure, whatever on the farm. It’s like why am I going to do that if that’s really not going to get me anything?

Niels Brisbane:
You’re spinning your wheels to just get to the same place.

Dillon Honcoop:
But if there’s a system that will reward that, and I think there’s a lot of people who want to do that, but just feel like, I don’t know where the reward is going to be-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in our system right now.

Niels Brisbane:
And that’s the thing is you’ve got a lot of great business people in that area. I mean, basically if you own a business, you have to be. You get a quick primer on becoming a business person. And so like, they’re not going to do it if they don’t see the payoff. So people, working in the university where you have a lot of academics that are like, “Well, why don’t the farmers just do this?” And I’m like, “Because do you know how much equipment that would cost?”

Niels Brisbane:
And they’re selling things and making literally like pennies per gallon, and once they pay for all their costs then they’re like, do you know how long it would take for them to pay off $1 million piece of equipment making pennies per gallon? Like you’re talking generations. Like there’s no payoff for that. Or they could just, keep making that money, take the little bit of profit and put it in the stock market and it’s going to grow faster than… So it’s like they’re good business people. So they’re not going to be foolish with their money. And so again-

Dillon Honcoop:
And then when you pay off that piece of equipment too, you’re just going to be like, well, you-

Niels Brisbane:
Then you don’t have to replace it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And also it’s going to be like, well, you’re huge. Look at this huge equipment that you have. You’re just a factory. Well, no, it’s we just had… I don’t know. What do you think about the criticisms for farmers too? I mean, I’m sure you hear that a lot in the urban community, even in the foodie community and environmentally focused world, and that disconnect of what it takes to actually make some of those things happen.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s a very interesting conversation I’ve had. So just as I’ve been moving to the more business development side of things and realizing that there’s a minimum size of profitability, even like, if you want to be a whiskey maker that and you want to spend this whole time making whiskey and you just want to make like one barrel of whiskey a month, at the end of the year you’ve got 12 barrels of whiskey and to make back all your costs and pay for your living wage and it’s like you’re going to have, each bottle is going to be thousands of dollars, and nobody’s going to pay that.

Niels Brisbane:
So it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s just not profitable. So you’re going to have to build up a little bit. And so, but yes, there is this like romantic idea of how big a farmer is, size wise and I think people don’t understand that you need to be a certain size to even break even or be profitable hopefully. And as far as changing the perception of that, I don’t know. People need to… That people don’t view farming as a business, which is a little bit sad.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know. Maybe because it was like subsistence farming used to be a thing. So it’s like if you can cut down the trees, you need to build your house and grow the food you need to eat for a year, then “you’re a farmer.” But I’m like, that’s more of a settler.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and really if you’re a subsistence farmer then everybody has to be a farmer.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you’re just growing the food for yourself.

Niels Brisbane:
You’re just growing food for yourself. So it’s like realizing that, and again, this probably feeds back into the problem of why we have less and less farmers is like, we need more farmers so then, or maybe the farms we have can just produce more, and so then less people have to farm so they produce a little bit more, so then less people farm. It like feeds into itself.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I think we’ve been seeing.

Niels Brisbane:
I think so.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I think it gets worse than when people start to demonize that.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually criticize the beast they’ve created, which is interesting. It’s like, if you want the farms to be smaller, you should go start farming. It’s maybe the answer. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it feel like to be at this place where you have this growing understanding of not just the science, not just the nutrition, not just the food and the art, but now looking at the business side of it and all of these things coming together. That’s kind of where you start talking about the word system. Right?

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Focusing on food systems is kind of a project that’s the next phase. It kind of gets back to the, “How do we make a million of them” question. I mean, restaurants are so great because you have a small, like you only have to feed 150, like in Canlis’s case, like we feed 150 people a night. That’s it. And if it’s different from one night to the next, they enjoy that. You don’t get a slap on the wrist for that.

And so it allows you to be very dynamic. But on the downside, you’re feeding only 150 people a night, and 150 people can’t consume that much food. And so it’s like you spend a lot of time. So like, I spent all this time sourcing five different types of milk but at the end of the day I’m serving people these tiny little portions and telling them this huge elaborate story, which is super fun and great. But it’s like, I’m only buying a couple gallons a month or maybe a week, like maybe three gallons a week.

That is not going to substan… like, and that’s not going to help any farmer really on their bottom line. I mean, I’m sure they love the press. I’m sure they love the Instagram post, but like ultimately they’re running a business and they need to sell more than three gallons a week. And so that made me realize like, okay, the next step is figuring out how to create a larger buyership essentially because I know that’s something I can do, is how do we create a system that can actually, move product and start to work on those outlet things that I was, you know…

How do we create those products through great marketing and great, having just really delicious products to start? And how do we then take the burden off of farmers needing to take that leap of faith and be like… I mean, how is a farmer getting produce the world’s like next greatest cheese where it’s like they have zero… they’re starting from zero? Just because they produce milk doesn’t inherently mean that they know how to make chees

So there’s a disconnect for some like I come from the food world. Like I know how to make cheese, I know how to make a delicious wheat product. And so one of my… I had taken a huge amount of inspiration from the head baker at Grand Central, actually it’s a local bakery here in the city, Mel. And she’s the head baker there and has been doing it for like over two decades and has been working really hard.

I mean, I think she’s got it down to this point where she’s only sourcing Washington flour and it’s like, that is taken 20 years of nonstop work. And now she’s not only getting it down to Washington flour, but she’s getting it down to like individual. Like there’s a farm out in Walla Walla, Small’s farm that’s doing a really, really incredible job with flour. And he built a little mill and he’s a character and a half. And I would laugh.

He would come into the restaurant and he’d talked to you about, why the flour is going to be a little different this year because it’s coming from here. And it’s like she’s working really hard to continue to narrow down. But she’s also baking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of loaves per day. And they’ve got multiple cafes. And so she actually represents a pretty big buyership.

And so she actually carries some weight in the flour world, and she can go to different markets or she could approach a farmer and be like, plant, I don’t know, 600 acres of wheat and I’ll take it in the first quarter. And it’s like, wow, that pencils out really nicely for me and that’s a great option. And here’s a mill that we can get it milled at and cleaned at. And so building more models like that, which again, like, yes, it’s not the rustic bakery where he’s producing 25 loaves a day and like that’s really beautiful on Instagram stories and all those different pieces.

But you’re not feeding people that drives costs up and you just aren’t, it helps one farmer maybe. But it’s like, if you really want to create these larger food systems, you have to be thinking about that next size up. And so Mel’s done it. She’s my food hero and she’s done a really incredible job at Grand Central working on that. And to me that level of thought and care needs to be put into every other area. So the dairy industry, the fishing industry, the meat industry, the vegetable growers, berry growers, they all need a Mel type person that can actually dictate change and support it financially on the backside and is willing to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So is that what’s next for you? I know you’re working-

Niels Brisbane:
That’s what’s next.

Dillon Honcoop:
… on a project that hasn’t been launched, isn’t really public yet. How much can you share with us right now?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, so right now I’m working with several companies doing like business development and product development. So it’s all about, and a couple of them are more of my babies than others. And we’ll potentially take over all of my work. But it’s all about leaning on how we can really move product and checking all those boxes that you talked about earlier. It’s like how do we make something that’s healthy for people and shelf stable and produce locally and has nice packaging and actually is moved in a volume that, we can go to farmers and make requests and have them again perk up and be like, you want that? Like nobody’s ever asked me for that before. Let me do the numbers. That makes sense. That works for me. Like let’s do it. And that’s how you can move the needle and then all of a sudden-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where the disconnect usually happens, because farmers are like, “Hey, we can do this in quantity,” and consumers are like, “Well, but no, we want something that’s more artisan and more hands on. And so farmers, why don’t you do this. Farmers, this is what we want.” And farmers are like, “I can’t afford to do that. Well, maybe I could, but I’m not sure if I can make the risk to switch to something like that.” So that’s where that gap always seems to where that gap is. So one of the-

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s a huge disconnect. And that was like, that was something we would come into conflict with at the restaurant, because even with… I mean, we even were willing to like finance things for farmers like, great, let’s buy all your seeds so that you can grow this specialty thing for us. And figuring out ways to play ball with them so that the risk wasn’t all in their court. But people don’t realize it’s like, I mean, farming is not a high margin industry, and so trying something new, a small margin on a small number is not worth their time and headache and amount of effort to like… I mean, doing something new takes a lot of mental energy and if it’s not going to pay off, they’re just going to stick to the bulk thing and as they should because that’s what makes sense. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had to explain that to people who don’t understand? Well, what do you say to people who are like, well, why don’t farmers do X?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say I’m getting better at explaining it to people. I mean, it’s an uphill battle and part of it is people don’t understand business well enough. And to me that should be like, that should be what high school is, is like teaching you business and probably mostly through like getting jobs. But people that don’t understand business is probably the biggest disconnect. And they just think that, these farmers are swimming in money or honestly that business people are swimming in money, like starting a business it’s just instantly makes you rich and it’s like, nothing’s further from the truth. My uncle has a say. He’s like, “The fastest way to make $1 million is to start a $5 million business.” So 4 million in the hole and you got 1 million leftover. So there you go, you’re a millionaire. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So true.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s that piece in just trying to explain the economics of it, but honestly like experience is kind of the only real teacher in that. So encouraging people to be like, great, put some numbers on a page and like, show me a business plan where what you want makes sense. And there’s no farmer that, if you have a business plan that makes sense, wouldn’t try it. Those are not farmers, but most of them are going to give it a shot and they’re going to be like, “Well, if it makes sense on paper, it’s good enough for me. I’ll give it a shot.” So that’s trying to get people to actually wrestle with the problem of like, even in there, trying to come up with analogies can help, but there’s no real experience. Like experience is the teacher.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this whole journey, what’s been the most challenging, difficult, hard thing for you personally?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, probably this thing that makes life hard, which is people, and trying to… like the politics of all of it and figuring out how to move things forward when there’s 100 reasons not to. And it’s like an asking, trying to get groups to, everything from like you’ll work really hard to get to groups of people to finally like, mutually trust and get excited about a project and then have it fall through. And then, you’re just adding to the distrust of that’s already out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what’s the distrust? What does that look like?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, even just like simple things like, it’s not like a systemic problem, but just like of one person. If a farmer needs a piece of equipment and they’re like, well, if you like, I need this piece of equipment and I’m willing to buy it because I’ve got that CapEx sitting on hand, but you have to promise me that you’re going to buy for the next three years like this much so that my business plan works out, and everyone’s excited and everyone’s like, okay, we’re going to do it.

Niels Brisbane:
And then, from the higher ups on the other side, the product gets pulled and they’re like, sorry, we have to back out. Like, even if we’re going to get beat up on this contract a little bit, but it’s like then the farmer’s stuck sitting on that piece of equipment and they just took a huge loss and it’s like all understandable because somebody has to take that risk and that just adds. So then it like, it makes those farmers like, I’m not going to do that again. That was really dumb. So it’s like, it creates a distrust between… honestly like a distrust of like change and a distrust of trying new things, which is fair.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about trust of farming from the public? I think about that in terms of you saying that farming needs a facelift. That tells me that there’s a problem and I feel that too. I guess I’m just curious from your perspective, what is that problem? What do they see farming as right now, and how is that right and wrong?

Niels Brisbane:
I think they see farming as this like old system of that’s like archaic on some level and has no, I don’t know the best way to put it. But it’s like it’s an archaic way of thinking and operating. And so like trying to think of a way where people can view that as the trade that it is and the skill and the amount of knowledge that’s there and the amount of hard work that’s there and the amount of stress that’s there.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there are ultimately a whole bunch of small business owners, which I think is what this country is supposed to prize as like the most championed group, but it doesn’t right now and that’s a little sad. So I don’t know. I don’t know exactly. I mean, I know how to like, or I have some ideas of how to potentially create that facelift of just two groups of people not really knowing each other is maybe what like the best way to describe it.

Niels Brisbane:
And so they need to interface with each other too because it’s like nobody, it’s the same problem of like the divisiveness that’s going on is because people aren’t sitting in a room talking. And it’s like you can often, you realize how similar people really are when you’re sitting across from each other sharing a meal or buying their product or anything else. And so that is it’s two groups of people that don’t understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
If you grew up in a city, it’s like going to another country, going to Lynden sometimes. And not in a bad way. Like it’s just very different. And honestly, I think a lot of Seattleites would really enjoy their time there, and a lot of Lyndenites would, if they could get around the traffic, would really enjoy the city. Like they’re two great groups of people and they need to understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
And I mean, for me, food is all about bringing people together and it’s about creating community. And when you share delicious food, pretty much all other things fall away. And so when you have farmers producing fantastic food and needing to sell it to large amounts of people, they are two groups of people that should get along very, very well. And there’s just that middleman that’s been, that’s difficult.

Niels Brisbane:
So it’s like, I mean, the amount of money that people will pay for something at like a farmer’s market can be astronomical because they’re looking at someone in the face and they know how much work it was for them. And they’re like, $12 for a gallon of milk, no problem. Like, I’ll pay that. And that’s just doesn’t exist in the current system. And so not that I think all farmers should go to the farmer’s market, like that’s not a business model that will work for everyone either. Like this is still the 21st century and we have to operate accordingly. But there’s businesses that can be created to help bridge those gaps and tell those stories and move things forward in a different way.

Dillon Honcoop:
I feel like there’s so much we could talk about here and I’m just loving the things that you’re saying because you’re coming from this different perspective. But it resonates so much with my experience and the things that I’ve been seeing, and I like the optimism too that you’re bringing not just talking about the problems, but you’re so much more focused on the solutions.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s all that really matters.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for opening up about your passion for all of this and all the work that you’re doing. Really, you’re kind of between two worlds and working to connect them. It sounds like it’s what you’re all about. So I’m really excited to see what happens with your ventures and I’m pumped for when we can find out more specifics-

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and open door for when you want to come back on the podcast-

Niels Brisbane:
I would love to.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and tell us more about some of that stuff because I think you’ve got got cool stuff ahead.

Niels Brisbane:
Cool. Thank you so much.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t Niels such an interesting person, such a talented guy? And so crazy for me to meet somebody like that through this podcast who grew up in the same small farming town as I did. I think my sister, if I remember right, was in high school across country with his older brother. But seriously, that conversation we just heard was the first time that Niels and I had actually met in person.


So as I listened back now to that conversation with Niels, I realize we didn’t get very much out of him about how his new ventures to reconnect eaters with farms will actually work. But because of his passion for food and farming and because he’s obviously such a tenanted leader, I’m really excited to see what he does with that. I have a feeling we’ll be talking with him again down the road.


Make sure to subscribe to the Real Food, Real People Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and basically just about any other podcast platform you prefer to make sure you don’t miss any future conversations with Niels. And of course all of the other amazing conversations with farmers and people behind the food that we eat here in the Pacific Northwest. Also, feel free to email me any time with thoughts that you have on the show. Whatever it is that you’re thinking about, good, bad, otherwise, I’m all ears. dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. Dillon is, D-I-L-L-O-N @realfoodrealpeople.org.

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

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

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
It was the starting point, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of body manipulation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Your starting point was science more though.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, absolutely.

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

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Right. Yeah, they did.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s an artistic expression.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s a message.

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
I did, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
At UC Davis.

Niels Brisbane:
At UC Davis, yup.

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

Niels Brisbane:
No.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You can grow just about anything here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Seattle here?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
They champion that, eating local.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, they have.

Dillon Honcoop:
In fine dining in particular.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of stuff?

Niels Brisbane:
Oh man.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The scientist.

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, yeah, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
All of that development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Not something that everyone gets to do.

Niels Brisbane:
No, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s very cool.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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