Andrew Eddie part 2 | #033 07/27/2020

Hay farmer Andrew Eddie explains how hay is made in Eastern Washington, and reveals a potential opportunity for this state's huge tech community.

Transcript

Andrew Eddie:
You run it as a business, but you’re also trying to keep the idea of being a family of people, even if your employees aren’t family if they worked for you for a long time. We have employees that have worked for us for 10 years. We’re all family at this point.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, I had a career in radio for years and years. And now that I’m back in the farming community, it’s interesting to see the people who really should probably have their own show. And this week’s guest is totally that person. Andrew Eddie, this is part two of our conversation. He’s a conversationalist, a communicator, and if you heard part one with Andrew, he wanted to get away from the farm.

He didn’t want to do the whole farming thing. He wanted to be a journalist, or an advertising, or something like that. Got his degree, but came back to the farm, and realized that he loved the farm, and the farming life, and farming with his dad as a hay farmer in the Moses Lake area, but he still loves communication as well. So, we get into that more this week, we talked about the difference between big farms and small farms.

And we have a really good conversation about technology, and some of the opportunities there. Particularly in this state, where we have such a great tech community, and such a great farming community. And we talk about how the two just need to come together even more than they already have. This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

I’m Dillon Honcoop, a farm kid who after many years working in an office job, came back to the farming community, and I just want to tell their stories. I want to share the stories directly from the real people who grow, and put together the food that we eat here in Washington State.

[Music]

So, take us through the process, just in a nutshell start to finish, how you make hay. For people who aren’t familiar with what hay, because hay is dried grass, or alfalfa, I guess. Alfalfa isn’t technically a grass. It’s what, a legume or something?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, it’s a legume. So of course, we’ll take and we’ll seed it. Water it, fertilize it, get it to grow. Typically, we’ll get it to about a stage where hopefully, get it to a stage where it’s all standing up nice.

Dillon Honcoop:
How tall?

Andrew Eddie:
It depends. Pretty much, you try to get in between bud and bloom stage, for the most part, depending on where you’re going for. And depending on what you want your cutting schedule to be. Because you could state you’re cutting schedule, but it all depends on what works for you. Some guys are 30 days, some guys are 32-day, 35-day, it all depends. But typically, you want it before that bloom stage, because you get a decent test out of it, and stuff like that. So, that’s where that’s at.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you go cut it.

Andrew Eddie:
We go cut it, let it sit there for a couple days, three, four, maybe five days, depends on the weather. And it’s all grower preference to some people, and it all depends on the equipment too. Some guys run sickle headers on their windrowers. Some people run rotary headers with single conditioner, so it only crimps it in one spot.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, actually, crimp the stem of the grass or alfalfa as it goes through?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. So, of course, since it’s plant, you want it to get all the moisture out of it. So, you’ll take, and you’ll crimp it, and you’ll take, and pretty much squeeze the moisture out of it, and just break it, and do that kind of stuff. Or we even have machines that have double conditioners. So, we’ll take and go through two sets of steel rollers that are chevron shaped. So, it’ll take, and feed it through, and crimp all the stems, and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it cracks them up a little bit so that the moisture could get out.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. And it’s all grower preference too, if you want to keep it tight, or if you want to keep it spread out, or anything like that. So, we’ll lay it off flat. On the outside, when you’re looking at a field, and you drive by it, and it’s about ready to be raked, and it’s bleached across the top, and you’re like, “Wow, that stuff looks terrible. What are they doing?” As soon as it’s raked up, it’s nice and green underneath for the most part, depending on how long it sat there.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, more color in the hay, the dry hay, even though it’s dried out, it still has color in it. That shows there’s more nutrients in it for the animals that are going to eat it.

Andrew Eddie:
No. That all depends on the test at the end when you take and do that. But it’s just the thing you want is you want those stems to be dry. When you go to bale, you want those stems to be dry because if they’re not dry and they get in the bale, they’ll start probing say 15% to 20% moisture, 30% moisture, and then you run into heating up. So, it could combust.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that happen?

Andrew Eddie:
That’s just natural process. Since it’s packed all together, so it’ll start heating up and combusting, start making mold. And then, it will just start creeping all the way out. If it’s baled too wet, it’ll combust. It’s just because it sits there in that heat, not tight-

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s so counterintuitive. You think if it’s wetter, but I know that from when I was a little kid. I remember my grandpa had a barn fire from hay that was baled too wet.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. And that’s the thing. So, typically, for us, we try to shoot for depending on what it is. Grass, we try to get a little drier. So, whether it’s 6% to 8% moisture in the bale, then that’s about right. But there’s ways to tell too. So, with the alfalfa especially, you can sit there and scrape stems, and if it scrapes off in your hand, it’s too wet. So, stem moisture is of course the biggest thing. There’s a difference between stem moisture and dew moisture.
So, stem moisture, you’re probably not going to be able to get stem moisture to dry on the bale. Dew moisture, a little bit depending on how much dew there is. If it’s a heavy dew, if it’s a heavy soaker, it’s like it just took a shower, then it’s probably too wet. If there’s a little bit of dew to help retain those leaves and everything on it, that give the best feed value, then that’s what you shoot for. So, typically, with alfalfa, export percentage is anything 12% or less, then that’s exportable.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, do you want it as dry as possible or is there such thing as too dry?

Andrew Eddie:
Too dry. There’s such a thing as too dry.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that bad if hay gets too dry? Because this is all like a curing process, right?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Technically, it’s drying, but also actually locking in the good stuff in the grass for the animal to eat.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. So, if it’s too dry, it’s pretty much just turns into sticks. All the leaves are knocked off of it. There’s nothing to hold leaf on the plant. So, it disappears. You lose that leaf. And so, it’s all just sticky, it seems like straw, same thing. So, you can bale it too dry, for sure. And then, a couple other things is just like we have some tractors pulling in so that’s also exciting.

Dillon Honcoop:
But I think this is the tractor that does the next step in the process that we’re describing here.

Andrew Eddie:
For grass, yeah, yeah. For alfalfa, we’ll typically take, and so once going back to it, once-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, yeah, we were talking alfalfa, that’s right.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. We’ll get to grass in a minute, that’s a whole different beast itself. So, typically, it’ll lay there, we’ll rake it up, and put it together, and then take, and bale it, and take the stack wagon, and pick up the bales, and put it on stack in the corner, and hopefully somebody comes and buys it. So, it’s all a challenge, every step of the process is a challenge. Getting it, going and maybe it is a challenge, but also getting it sold is another challenge.
And then grass, that’s a whole different beast. Completely different beast is, alfalfa, I hate to say it because some people don’t like it when I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway. Is the fact that you can neglect alfalfa, and it probably will still turnout decent. Grass, it’ll let you know when you mess up. And even if you look at it wrong, it’ll let you know. You can sit there and be like, “Oh, yeah, that stuff looks good.” The next day you come by and you’d be like, “Oh, never mind, thanks.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what happens?

Andrew Eddie:
Grass typically, if you over apply, under apply fertilizer, it’s very responsive to it. So, it’ll brown out, it’ll look sick, lighter color, things like that. Or when you go to bale it, and it happens to be too wet, then you’re hosed there because even with Timothy, so the Timothy plant itself, they’re 18 to 20 inches tall, at least, depending on what variety, and all that stuff.
Plus, growth stage, and when you want to cut it. So, the knuckles on it are what holds the most moisture in the stem. So, if your knuckles aren’t dry, then you’re going to be having a problem. So, you try to get those knuckles as dry as you can, and then bale it up.
And we’ve even seen where especially with grass, you start baling it and you’re like, “Oh, the moisture is good.” It’s like 8% Well, if the stems aren’t completely cured the next day, I guarantee it’ll probe double. It can grow probe 15% to 16% within a day. There’s a sweating process. So, you got to factor in for that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s the point of making hay whether it’s alfalfa or grass? Why don’t they just feed the green stuff? It’s basically to be able to store it. It’s super old-fashion process, right?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. It’s a storage technique, pretty much, for the transportation. So, you can do silage. You can chop alfalfa, they do it all the time. The problem is you’re hauling a lot of water. It’s not economical to take it to the dairy when you’re paying for a bunch of water. That’s the nice thing about dry hay is you’re paying for actual feedable product. You’re not paying for water that you’re never going to use.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, then I’ve had it explained to me even here on this podcast, we were talking with Larry Stap, a dairy farmer back in Western Washington. And he talks about people asking whether or not his cows are grass fed, and he says, “Well, sure they are, but what do you think we feed them in the wintertime when they can’t be out eating grass in the field, and it’s just mud, and rain or snow?” Well, that’s hay or silage.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Well, and that’s the thing is like it’s a product that could be used at any time. That’s the nice thing is, plus, the other thing is, if we just chopped it, we have a limit on our customers. So, that’s the nice thing-

Dillon Honcoop:
But you can’t ship it across the globe that way?

Andrew Eddie:
Well, you could, you’re just not going to make anything, and you’re probably not going to want it, and pay what you want. It’s not going to be feasible. So, there’s always possibility for everything, but it’s not completely feasible in an economic sense.
The nice thing about, especially here in Eastern Washington is the fact that we can take and stack it up in a corner, stack in a stack yard, put a tarp over the top. Say eight month later, when snow starts flying, they can come grab it. Guess what? It still has the same feed value as it did within a few little caveats, but it’s the same no matter what.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you love it, farming?

Andrew Eddie:
Farming?

Dillon Honcoop:
Making hay?

Andrew Eddie:
I enjoy it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Handling the weather?

Andrew Eddie:
I enjoy it. I think I’ve diversified, not really diversified. I’ve got a bunch of different fish in the fryer so to speak. So, I like it because I can actually show, especially through social media, and then just stuff I’m doing every day. I can show what I’m doing. I can show the interesting side of farming. I can show what we do and what I find interesting.
Even like I stated in that video, and I’ve talked to a couple other people on social media, they’re like, “I don’t know what to post. What do I show? Everything I show is boring.” And I go, “It’s boring to you, because you do it every day.” But it’s probably not boring to somebody else, or the other things it does, it does one of two things. It shows, “Hey, wow, that’s cool. I never knew that. I want to learn more.”
Or B, “Hey, here’s another way to think about it. Have you tried this, or have you done that?” Or it even does a third thing where, “Can I come see how that works? I want to come and do that. Can I just come by? Yeah, you can come by anytime.” As long as you’re civil and you’re not trying to, “Oh, GMOs are bad. Oh, this and that.” You’re not going to start a little protest. There might be a little bit of a buzzword there. But come out, see what we do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And that’s for a lot of people who aren’t around farming. That’s what they know is they know that controversy points. And yeah, we can all talk about that, and the pros, and cons, and everybody will take their positions. But you have a job to do every day. And it’s not just all about the controversial social media talking points.

Andrew Eddie:
No. And I think that’s the thing is, I think I’ve got to the point where I like showing what we’re doing. Some things, of course, I’m not going to show. I’m not going to show you my books. I’m not going to show you my-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, shouldn’t be-

Andrew Eddie:
… things like that. Yeah. Going off on another rant apparently, just in my head right now is like, some people don’t like to tell how many acres they farm. I get it. You don’t want to sound like you’re, “Ooh,” some big old thing. But at the same time, who cares? If somebody asked me, “Hey, how many acres do you farm?” I’ll tell you.
It’s not a big head thing. You can be 10 acres or you can have 10,000 acres, it doesn’t really matter. How you handle yourself shows everything about who you are. If you’re 10,000 acres, and you act like you have 10,000 acres, and you’re better than the 10-acre farmer, then why? But everybody is the same.

Dillon Honcoop:
Some people feel like though the 10,000-acre farm can’t be good because it’s so huge, it’s unmanageable, and its lost touch with the human element. Is that true?

Andrew Eddie:
I’m going to put a little disclaimer in there and say it depends. It depends on who the farm is and what the farm is. But at the end of the day, we all have one goal, right? We want to grow something for the world. Real food real people, right? We want to grow something that makes a difference. We’re not here to harm the environment.
We’re not here to sway people and say, “Oh, you’re going to buy from our big corporate farm.” No. Everybody that works for that farm that makes it what it is, is a human. They do those things. They’re there. Are they making money? Sure. But it’s a business, so is everything else in this world.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, sometimes they’re making money.

Andrew Eddie:
Sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sometimes they’re losing money, back to your casino analogy.

Andrew Eddie:
Sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, sometimes.

Andrew Eddie:
But I think that’s the biggest thing is like, and some people are like, “Oh, man, you spend a lot of time on social media, you spend a lot of time making marketing materials and things like that.” I go yes, because that’s what I like to do. But at the same time, it’s not to make it seem like farming is just this small little, like I said earlier, oh grow the crop. Yeah. It’s not just a bunch of backwoods people, it’s people.
And I think that’s the thing about farmers is the fact that you have to take and be an accountant, be a banker, be stuff like that, you got to be everything in order to make it work. So, I think that’s the biggest thing is, it’s not just somebody sitting there on a tractor. It’s not just a button a seat, it’s, if you’re going to be a grower and you’re going to be a farmer, you got to know how to do a wide range of things.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think people should know about what happens with growing their food or I guess in this case, food for their food, which is what you guys do, right? Grow hay for beef animal or a dairy animal that’s going to produce what they eat, once step removed. But regardless, people are concerned about where their food comes from, who are the people behind it?

Andrew Eddie:
I think they need to know that we try everything to get the product to be the best they can be for their animal or things like that. We do put herbicides down, we put fungicides down, we put all this other stuff, but they’re not harmful if they’re used in the correct way. We follow labels. We consult with our agronomist. We consult with our buyers and things like that.
We’re not doing anything intentionally to hurt an animal. So, another thing with alfalfa too, that can be a problem is if the nitrate levels are too high. So, nitrates are toxic to cows if they’re above a certain level. We pay attention to those. So, if we have a stack that test high nitrates, we’re going to be like, “Hey, I wouldn’t feed it to your cows, or I wouldn’t feed it to this, or I wouldn’t feed it to that, or in small amounts.”
We’re not intentional going through, and trying to cause issues, or like I said, ruin the environment or anything like that. We’re actually pretty good stewards of the land, whether we do no-till, or the fact that especially for us, all our forages are perennials. They come back every year. We don’t have to work the ground. We don’t have to do anything like that. It’s there.
We plan it once, we run it for three, four, five years. We’re going to have a Timothy stand that’s 12 years old. And we’ve never worked the ground. And that’s the thing is we’re conserving topsoil. We’re conserving nutrients. We’re conserving whole bunch of other stuff, and we’re doing less. We’re doing less, but producing more.
And I think that’s the biggest thing right now, especially as everybody is like, “Oh, there’s not enough crop, or this, or that.” Well, we’re producing more on a smaller amount due to herbicides, fungicides, all these chemicals that you’re saying, “Oh, well, they’re terrible.” They’re bad for you if you use them the wrong way. But we’re getting more out of less, and it’s not causing really too many issues.

Dillon Honcoop:
How important is soil health to the way you guys farm?

Andrew Eddie:
Soil health is huge. If we know how to soil health we know how to crop, right? So, that’s the biggest thing is soil health is probably one of the most important things that we deal with. Yeah, we can grow a crop, but if the soil is not right, we’re not doing ourselves any favors. We’re not doing the ground any favors. So, there’s a certain point of course that your return on investment for fertilizers or things like that.
There comes a point where you’re not going to be making any money, but if you can build up all that, then you’re in a good spot. You can take, and you’ll grow the crop, and you keep giving back, you keep giving it back, that it will keep growing a crop for you. You can sit and mine it out, you could. On lease contracts, sometimes people take and mine out all the nutrients, and don’t put them back.
And then, so the next grower has to come along, or the landowner has to come along, and try to build the soil back up where it was, and ends up costing an arm and a leg to do it. So, soil health is huge.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like it’s not your philosophy to just take the nutrients that are there and run.

Andrew Eddie:
No. I will-

Dillon Honcoop:
it has to be more sustainable than that.

Andrew Eddie:
I will say sometimes it does happen. And it’s not on purpose. It’s not like we say, “Oh, we’re just going to screw this guy over.” That’s not our mantra. The biggest thing is getting it to produce where we can grow sustainable crop on it, and make money, and that’s the thing, or try to make money. I should say that. So, I think, yeah, it’s a toss-up too, because how much is too much?
And what is not enough? So, where’s that happy medium? Where can we be that we give back enough, but we also keep our costs in check, and can make it back with a crop that we’re growing for the stuff we’re putting in? Yeah. Soil is the basic thing that a plant needs to grow. One of the most important pieces, of course. So, if it doesn’t have a hospitable place to live, it’s not going to grow, and you’re not going to be happy.

Dillon Honcoop:
RNH Farms, what does that stand for?

Andrew Eddie:
Really Nice Hay.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Or for 2020, it’s Really Nasty Hay. No, I’m just kidding. So, when we first started, it was Rock N’ Hay. So, we have a lot of rocks and we grow hay. So, it was Rock N’ Hay.

Dillon Honcoop:
But it sounds like rocks in the hay.

Andrew Eddie:
You got it.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you say that.

Andrew Eddie:
You got it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Andrew Eddie:
So, we have some customers come back and say, “Yeah, is there rocks in the hay?” I’m going, “No, no, no, no, no.” So, we shortened it, we’re like RNH Farms, and we just came up with the joke like really nice hay, and depending on the year, really nasty hay, right? So, I always tell people that. I’m like, yeah, really nice hay. So, it could be, it’s double meaning, but we got away from the Rock N’ Hay because it just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Rock N as in it’s rockin’, like you rock this hay?

Andrew Eddie:
It’s like R-O-C-K, the letter N’ H-A-Y-.

Dillon Honcoop:
Got it.

Andrew Eddie:
So, literally, for a culture that is a direct, like they hear something and it’s a direct translation, it’s straightforward-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s true because you’re having people buy this from, speaking all different languages across the globe, and they’re like, “What are you talking?”

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. A direct translation is like, “Oh, rock and hay, oh, well, there’s rocks in it?” No, no, no, no, no, no, no, we hope not. But no. Yeah, the portion that we live in is very… there’s a lot of calcium deposits. We’ll just say that. No, there’s a lot of rocks, and we’ve picked our fair share amount of rocks to get it to be farmable. So, that was the first initial one that came up with.
And then, we phased that out into RNH Farms. And we’re working towards more and more advocacy for what we do and our brand. People are like we talked about, “Why do you spend so much money on marketing materials, or hats, or stuff like that?” I go, “Because it’s a brand that I want to grow.” That’s the thing is like, it’s a brand that I’m proud of. So, let’s grow it.

Dillon Honcoop:
It stands for something.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. It means something to me. So, where can I take that? What can I make that into? And I think that’s the marketing advertising side of my background is, it’s taking something and how do we build it? How do we build it up? How do we grow it? And it’s not just grow it just for the publicity, it’s not just grow it for anything like that. But it’s a recognizable thing.
And like I said earlier, some of the overseas buyers are like, “We want to see RNH Farms first. Do they have any good stuff?” We know that they make good stuff. And it’s just a sense of pride. It gets you to bubble up inside and be like, “Yeah, we made that.” And then, sometimes we got to tell them no. Guess not, we don’t have anything probably.
But the biggest thing, especially with the agricultural community is the fact that it’s built on relationships, and that’s the thing. And I think that’s one of the other things that I enjoy the most is its relationships, is building that community, and building that brain trust for what we got going on. So, you can pull from different places and be like, “Okay, well, this worked for him, let’s tweak it a little bit, and then we’ll try it.”
Or no, we’re never going to do that again, because it has never worked and this and that. The old mentality, the old farmer mentality is the fact that I tried it once. 25 years ago, it didn’t work. So, I’m never trying it again. And that’s the thing, and I get it. Everybody gets comfortable. It goes back to talking about being inside a comfort zone.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, but if you tried it that way 25 years ago and lost your shorts on it, you’d have a lot of motivation to not do that again.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. But you got to keep an open mind. But yeah, and that’s the thing is like, agriculture is constantly evolving, right? And one thing about agriculture that is interesting is the fact that tech is in agriculture. But it’s about four or five years behind, where tech is everywhere else. Grain and stuff like that, technology is through the roof. For forages, it’s there, but it’s not as prominent. So, that’s the-

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Andrew Eddie:
I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s just the fact that forages are the redheaded stepchild. I hate to do that little analogy, but that’s how it is. It’s just the backseat, but interestingly enough, so alfalfa is the number three top-grossing product in the world behind wheat and corn. It’s like, “Okay, well, why are we not getting more recognition?” Right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Exactly.

Andrew Eddie:
And if you actually look, so the National Alfalfa & Forage Alliance puts together thing. So, the so the big five, so wheat, corn, soybeans, I think a tree fruit and something else, and then alfalfa. Out of those, the research funding for alfalfa is one-fifth the size of that for wheat, corn and soybeans. It’s like, “Why?” We’re up here.

Dillon Honcoop:
We need to get on that here in the state. And Washington is full of tech.

Andrew Eddie:
Right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. Hey, if anybody in Seattle who’s in tech is listening, and is looking for an opportunity where they could really be a game changer. Believe it or not, it could be in farming.

Andrew Eddie:
Well, probably a lot of people in that world don’t necessarily think of farming, just like a lot of farmers don’t necessarily think about tech. And I think that’s also one of the biggest challenges too is, especially in a smaller community is, people always question us like, “Why do you use GPS on your swatters? You can’t just sit there and drive.” I go, “We could.” But I go, even on our machines, we’ve cut down probably an hour or two, at least, of cutting time because we’re using GPS.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much fuel does that save then too?

Andrew Eddie:
A whole lot. Probably, 12 to 15 gallons an hour per machine. So, here we are. Operator fatigue goes down, the amount of money that you pay for labor, fuel, equipment costs, hours of depreciation on that piece of equipment. There’s a whole bunch of factors and the investment for it, sure, it’s a little costly upfront. But you start spreading that out and you’re like, “I got it figured it out.”

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s worth it.

Andrew Eddie:
It’s worth it, for sure. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s not just a cool thing to make sure your rows are perfectly straight.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you guys are-

Andrew Eddie:
In all honesty.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re in circles, so-

Andrew Eddie:
But still, it’s a whole lot different when you look at, even when our guys go to a field, they’re like, “Hey, did somebody not cut this with GPS?” And I got no, they got to sit there and go back and forth. But even like-

Dillon Honcoop:
I planted corn through college. That’s how I paid my way through my university degree. And dug on it, I could plant some straight rows.

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d give those GPS guys a run for their money.

Andrew Eddie:
Okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. I was going to say, “All right, let’s see what you got.”

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve run GPS tractor enough a few times to know that.

Andrew Eddie:
Well, you can come out here again. We’ll have a part two of this from the cab, and we’ll see how you do. No. I think that’s the biggest thing is like, there’s a little bit of a disconnect between tech an ag overall as a whole, for forages, especially. I don’t know if it’s just because there’s not a big push.
So, I don’t know if there’s just a bunch of smaller growers that are like, “Oh, I don’t want to adapt tech, or I don’t want to do this, or I don’t want to cater to big tech.’ Well, guess what, you’re going to have to get it. I go, do you have an iPhone in your pocket?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Well, then guess what, you’re already there. They know everything about you. So, it really don’t matter. So, I think there’s going to be a shift here the next little while that tech is going to be a bigger part. I just don’t know in what capacity.

Dillon Honcoop:
I remember a couple years ago, Knute Berger with Crosscut in Seattle, and KCTS public television came up to do an article on some farms in Whatcom County. So, I met with him, and we were hanging out, and I was taking them around to some farms.
And that was the thing that he said, once he saw the robotic milkers that dairies were using, and some of the GPS stuff, and things they were doing on improving potato varieties, and things like that, because they do seed potatoes back there. And he’s like, there needs to be more of a nexus between all of our tech community in Seattle, in the city, and what you guys are doing in farming. So, he was saying exactly the same thing.

Andrew Eddie:
But on the other hand, though, I’m wondering if it, it all comes down to money, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s cost money.

Andrew Eddie:
That’s the thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
And it’s not like farming is high margin stuff.

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, yeah. No, we just make, yeah. I’m going to go home and hop in my Lexus.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, right.

Andrew Eddie:
Lexus is life. Anyway, my expenses say that’s how out of touch it is. It’s all driven by money, of course. So, yeah, you probably would be able to do it eventually. But when is it going to happen? There’s a lot of tech coming out that we could talk about, that I know a little bit about, that product guys know a little bit about, but it’s going to be a little bit before it gets here. It’s not going to be here instantly. It takes time. I get it.
Even we work with a software company that we keep track of all our stuff, and inputs, outputs, contracts, all this stuff. People are a little uptight about that situation to is like, “Oh, you’re working with them. It’s cost me a whole bunch of money.” Yeah, but guess what, it makes my workflow easier. And it gives me all my data that I want. I’m just a data nerd. So, I’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, I like numbers.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, then you can actually know what works and what doesn’t, based on changing your practices.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. And that’s the thing is like, I know where things are at. I know you got two styles of farmers. You got the super old farmers. They don’t have to be old in age, just old style.

Dillon Honcoop:
Old thinking, yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Flip open their pocket, they would be like, “Oh, yeah, got it.” You got the new style, the younger generation, “Oh, let me just whip out my phone. Okay, got it.” It’s all right here, and I even run into that. Between me and my dad is like, “Hey, yeah, I got it on my phone. Well, why don’t you write it down on a piece of paper for me so I know.” And I’m like, “You’re going to lose a piece of paper.” I have my phone with me, yeah, I could crash. I could lose all of that. But it’s fine. It’s backed up to the cloud, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So, smartphones have changed farming in so many-

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
That would be a whole another episode to talk about even just-

Andrew Eddie:
Let me know. We’ll just talk about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. No, I think it’s changing, but it’s also getting the mentality of we’re not just backwoods. Farmers are not dumb people. Don’t get me wrong. There’s certainly few.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, there’s dumb people anywhere you go.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. There’re dumb people everywhere, but you know what I mean? We’re not just backwoods fly by the seat of our pants like, just get it done. There’s actually a lot of thinking that goes into it. And I think that’s the biggest thing is people are like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you had to cover the acreage four times.
I thought you just cut it once like wheat. Or I thought it was pretty easy. You just cut it. And then, a day later you’ll rake it, or a day later, you’ll bale it. You’d be done.” I even had a guy asked, he goes, “Well, did you bale this field all in the same direction?” And I’m going, “No, I go because there’s a pivot in the way.
So, we got to go opposite direction with two different machines, three different machines, whatever.” No. And some of the questions is like, “Okay, that’s pretty basic. Oh, it’s basic for me.” So, I think that’s the other biggest thing is I like sharing. As you can tell that I’ve talked this entire time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Certainly, that’s my gig.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve been a professional talker for a long time.

Andrew Eddie:
So, keep farmers cooped up in the tractor [inaudible 00:33:53] for too long. This is what you get. So, that’s the other thing is with communicating about things is the fact that we can show, “Hey, here’s what we do. Here’s how things are different or similar.” But like we were talking about earlier is the fact that you can go from here, and go down the road to a different farmer about the same size.
They’ll do things some the same, some completely different. It all depends. But guess what, at the end of the day, we’re doing the same thing. We’re trying to run a business and grow a business. And I think the biggest thing especially is you run it as a business, but you’re also trying to keep the idea of being a family of people, even if your employees aren’t family.
If they worked for you for a long time. We’ve we have employees that have worked for us for 10 years. We’re all family. That’s the point. So, I think that’s the biggest thing, but yeah, it’s interesting. It’s an interesting world we live in, for sure. The agricultural world is definitely one big family.
And the last thing I want to touch on is yesterday, I was sitting at home, and I happen to see a post from another farm down in Nevada. And it was like, “Hey, we only get two shots at this. We growers get one shot, dry land guys get one shot.” Things like that. How are we adapting to what life is throwing at us?
Reach out to those people and be like, “Hey, how’s it going? How are you doing? I understand the weather is not good, but what’s going through your mind? How can I help you? Can I stop and say hi? Can I have a cup of coffee with you? Can I talk with you for two-and-a-half hours or however long we’ve been here?”
But I think it’s all just one big family. I think that’s the best thing is grow a community that you want to be a part of. Surround yourself by people that make you better. Don’t sit there, and just sit behind the screen, and “Oh, my life is terrible or this or that.” Spread joy. Don’t sit there and create drama. Spread joy. Make the world the way you want to see it. Make it a good place.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Thanks for sharing your story.

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, of course. Of course. Any time.

Dillon Honcoop:
I appreciate it.

Andrew Eddie:
Any time.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s pretty fascinating, all that goes into it. And I know we’re just scratching the surface.

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, we’re completely just scratching the surface. We could probably talk for another two, three, maybe four hours, hit that happy hour groove. But no, like I said, I enjoy telling the story. And it’s not just me. And that’s another thing is you see one person from somewhere, and especially on social media, you don’t get introduced to the person behind the camera too often. So, how do you share your story for how you fit in into the operation. I can’t do it all by myself. There’s no way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, that’s why I’m going around the state to capture stories from people like yourself.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. Yeah. I think it’s big. It’s telling, telling your story, but also telling the story of what you’re doing, and where you’re at. What do you want to share about your operation, or your personal life, or things like that? It’s huge, and I think we have a good opportunity, but are we going to waste it?
And if people criticize the way you do things, or you just backlash and be like, “Oh, well, you’re dumb. You don’t know, you’ve never been on a farm.” No, hey, come out and see. I’m happy to talk to you. I’ll be civil. I’m not going to sit, and just be like, “Oh, well. You’re dumb.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They can reach you anytime on social media too, from wherever they are.

Andrew Eddie:
And that’s the thing is like-

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your handle by the way to follow?

Andrew Eddie:
So, on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, it’s just RNH Farms. And then yeah, it’s good. It’s good. That’s the farm, and then the personal one is just andrew@rnhfarms on Twitter and Instagram, but I post more on the farm side. I treat that as my own personal showcase. So, yeah, it’s pretty good content, it’s good community, great stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for doing it.

Andrew Eddie:
Of course.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for chatting.

Andrew Eddie:
Of course.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. So, we talked a little bit earlier there about technology. Are any of you in the tech world looking for an opportunity, want to apply the skills, and the knowledge, and the experience you have to creating something that helps farmers grow food more efficiently, or better somehow? Reach out to me.
I can see if I can find somebody, and hook you up, and let’s get this conversation started. That’s what I feel here in Washington. This is such a huge opportunity that is, I think, in a lot of ways untapped. Since we have so much talent here in both the technology and the farming world. dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address.
So, if you have an idea, shoot me an email, or hit me up on social media. @rfrp_podcast is our Instagram handle, as well as our Twitter handle. rfrp.podcast on Facebook. So, follow all those, subscribe on YouTube as well. You can see this interview on YouTube and watch the whole thing.
We were recording there in a field if you could hear some of the background noise. We were just out in the middle of a hay field. And you can actually see what it looked like on the tailgate of Andrew’s truck when we did that conversation a few weeks ago. Thank you for being here and supporting the Real Food Real People podcast.
We certainly could use your support to help spread the word about the podcast, get more people subscribing, following along, as we try to grow this conversation to include as many people as possible. To reconnect our food system from those of us who eat, and those who grow the food that we eat, who are actually behind who grow it, process it, package it, truck it.
And we haven’t had a trucker yet on the podcast that. I should do that. Those people are a big part of our food system, and making sure we have something to eat, and keeping our food local rather than potentially shipped in from who knows where. Again, realfoodrealpeople.org is the website. I’m Dillon Honcoop, thank you so much for supporting and listening along.

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, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Andrew Eddie part 1 | #032 07/21/2020

When Andrew Eddie turned 18, he decided he wanted nothing to do with his family's Moses Lake hay farm. But with a few years away from home and a college degree under his belt, he began to see things differently.

Transcript

Andrew Eddie:
I reached a point where I was done. I didn’t want to farm. I thought farming was probably one of the worst things I could do.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Deciding to grow food, to become a farmer, is a huge decision for most people that do it, and this week’s guest definitely that’s a part of his story where he didn’t want to be a farmer even though he grew up around it. And you hear this so many times, people who grow up around farming and decide they are done with it, usually when they’re ready to go to college or something like that, and so many people then come back to it later and see it with different eyes. That’s the story of this week’s guest. He grows food, but not food that people eat. We’re going to jump into his world, which is hay. He grows hay to feed animals and his hay is shipped all over the world, but it’s grown here in Washington State in Moses Lake. Andrew Eddie is his name with RNH Farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
We had a great chat out in a field. We actually have a full video available if you want to follow us subscribe on YouTube, Real Food Real People. Just search us up on YouTube and you can see the full video because we have planes flying over, people driving by, wind blowing over our microphones because the whole interview was done on a pickup tailgate in a hay field, literally. So you can see that there if you want to. You’ll certainly hear that as you listen to our conversation. Some interruptions come up from time to time. Please enjoy. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my journeys across Washington State to hear from, and really get to know, the people behind our food here in Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I’ve never done an interview in a field before.

Andrew Eddie:
Me either.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s this field that we’re in here.

Andrew Eddie:
Well, we’re in the corner of one of our alfalfa fields.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Andrew Eddie:
Here in beautiful Moses Lake, Washington. It’s nice and sunny out today, I mean, minus a little bit of clouds. It’s a little dark right now, but about the first sunny day we’ve had in five, six days.

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys have been battling the weather.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Mother Nature has definitely decided that she isn’t too happy. I don’t know if she just got cooped up with corona for too long, or what the deal is. But she decided she was going to make it known that she’s still around. She hasn’t left, so we’re rolling with the punches and we’ll see what happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you guys grow hay, is that pretty much it? You’re just a hay operation?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. We’re just a forage operation, so minus 100 acres of corn actually-

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Andrew Eddie:
… that we just planted this year. We’re just using it as a rotational crop, just to give our soil a little break on alfalfa or grass. Yeah, we got about, minus the trucks driving by.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, just wave. Hey.

Andrew Eddie:
We’ve got probably about 1300 acres of total crop and that’s all forages. So technically, or not technically, we try to of course get the highest quality we can out of our crop, and most of it we shoot for export quality. So we try to make the best product that we can with what we got and where we’re set up. Yeah, that’s where that’s at.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what does export quality mean?

Andrew Eddie:
Export quality is just, I mean, kind of the … It all varies. I mean, exporters take a wide variety of stuff. There’s a need for supreme, premium, feeder, dairy. It depends on what they’re looking for. so it’s broad, but we just try of course for the highest quality. I mean, most everybody tries for the highest quality, but like we were talking about earlier is about 95% of our product goes for export compared to some guys that just shoot for the domestic market like local retail sales, or anything like that. Our biggest thing is we take it, we sell it to an exporter and they ship it overseas to wherever their customers are, what they need.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what happens to that hay then?

Andrew Eddie:
So after we put it in the stack, or put it into a bale, put it in the stack, they will come and buy it, haul it into their pressing facility. There’s a bunch of pressing facilities located in Ellensburg, which is about an hour and change away from here, or there’s some local pressers here, or Tri-City’s. Just all around the state. So they’ll take it, they’ll press it down to whatever package the customer wants and then they’ll put it in a shipping container and ship it where it needs to go. So whether that’s Japan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, China. I mean, pretty much all over the world.

Dillon Honcoop:
So pressing it that’s like you take … I think people are familiar with a hay bale.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
You know? And there’s small bales. I think that’s what most people would be familiar with, which are like yay-

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yay big. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then there’s little bit bigger ones than that. There’s also big bales like actually you’re on the balers right behind the camera, so people can’t see that.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
But so which ones are you actually … And they take bales and just squish them down that much farther?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. There’s actually a bunch of different packages that they can do. So they’ll take a three foot by four foot by eight foot long bale and compress it down. They can do a half cut, a sleeve bale. They can do a double compressed, a single compressed. I mean, there’s a ton of different package that they can do to get it done to … For the most part most of it will go about to a package about yay big, which is I think a 50kg package and they’ll stack them all in the shipping containers, and then that’s how they get it over there. So, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are all these planes flying around here? Good grief.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. We’re pretty close to the airport and the military enjoys flying over and interrupting super important interviews that are happening right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. I see.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they hear when a podcast is happening.

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, they hear when you’re trying to sleep. They hear when important stuff’s happening, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
They quick scramble some cargo planes-

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… to interrupt.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. No, so all kidding aside. No they fly around all day, every day so we actually get to see some pretty cool stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Fighter jets flew over earlier today and nothing says America more like some fighter jets flying over. But yeah, it is all dependent on what the overseas customer wants for a package and it all depends on what they’re using it for too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So those bales that you’re squeezing down how much do they weigh?

Andrew Eddie:
Initially?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
So when we get them in our bales they can be anywhere from, I don’t know, probably a little over a 1,000 pounds to 1300 pounds, 1400 pounds. It all depends on the crop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Over a half ton of hay.

Andrew Eddie:
Yep, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then, they squeeze that down into … What’s the smallest that they can squeeze that down into?

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, man. You’re asking me a bunch of tough questions. I probably should know this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just roughly. Roughly.

Andrew Eddie:
If any of our buyers watch this I’m sorry, like I apologize. I’ve been doing this long enough I probably should know, but today’s one of those days. I think the smallest package is probably a 50 kilogram.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Andrew Eddie:
I think.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so they actually break the bales up into smaller pieces?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, so what they’ll actually do is so they’ll take the bale, they’ll cut all the strings off of it, they’ll put it into their thing and they’ll slice it, and then they’ll take it and put it in the press and hydraulic [inaudible 00:08:16] and push it all together. It pops out and it’s magical. It’s magic. Nobody knows how it works.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then they feed it to their animals wherever they are in the world.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. And then they’ll take and like I said put it in a shipping container and that’s what they do.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s the key to making really good animal feed hay?

Andrew Eddie:
Mother Nature cooperating in the best way possible. It all depends. I mean, weather’s a big thing, nutrition’s a big thing. Just paying attention to what you got for crops. Paying attention to water and fertilizer, nutrient plants, things like that and just management is pretty much the biggest thing. And then, hopefully Mother Nature plays nice with you.

Dillon Honcoop:
So a lot of your nutrients for your hay actually comes from manure?

Andrew Eddie:
They can. It all depends. It all depends on the grower’s program too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
I mean, there’s something to be said about manure, especially for alfalfa or things like that. Dry fertilizer, liquid fertilizer is the general thing. But that’s where that comes from, so. Or liquid manure, some people do that too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
It all depends on grower preference. Everyone has what works for them.

Dillon Honcoop:
So the manure that you would fertilize the crops with comes from where?

Andrew Eddie:
It depends on where you get it from. I mean, there’s a bunch of dairies up here if you want liquid manure. There’s also a bunch of feed lots, so we can get screened steer manure for pretty readily available. So again, it all depends on who, and what, and why, and what the price is.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then, irrigation too. You’ve got to water all these-

Andrew Eddie:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
… alfalfa and grasses that you grow.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, so luckily for us we’re on the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. So we have surface water available so we can go up and fire on a switch, get the pivots going, and we’re good to go. You know? We do have some wheel lines, we’ve got some hand lines, but nothing too major. It’s pretty nice to be able to flip it on and just have consistent water all the way across.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That’s a lot better than hand lines, which-

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for people who aren’t familiar with that, and I learned that at a young age, the joy of changing hand line, which is the actual pipes and you pick them up one 20 or 30 foot pipe at a time. Move it over however many feet you’re going, 30 feet. Whatever the next section of the mainline is from the riser if that makes sense to anybody. I don’t know, but that’s a lot work. I’m surprised you guys still, what? Is that just if you have a corner of a field or something you can’t get?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, we actually just have one field that is just like two corners that we water with hand lines and then I think we have two or three sets of wheel lines, which is the same concept except luckily it has a motor on it so you can roll it, you know?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yep, exactly.

Andrew Eddie:
Roll it and park it, but pivots. I mean, because the other thing about pivots is they’re efficient. So they’re efficient on water. They’re efficient on water pattern and they cover ground. One thing about pivots, one downfall is, there’s a little more to fix.

Dillon Honcoop:
So pivots are these things that if you’re flying over farm country you see the circles?

Andrew Eddie:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s where people talk about farming a circle?

Andrew Eddie:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Then the irrigation basically the water comes up in the middle of the circle and then there’s the big framework that goes out with all the sprinklers on it and it just goes around?

Andrew Eddie:
Yep, yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
How long does it take for one of those to go around a circle?

Andrew Eddie:
It all depends. I mean, if it were to go full hog on a 130 acres, I mean it all depends on machine too. Say just a standard pivot could take seven hours, six hours to go 130 acres all the way around, complete revolution. But it all depends on now there’s different gear boxes too. So different gear boxes, different center drives that you could actually make. There’s one company that actually makes center drives and gear boxes that actually doubles the speed, it’s constantly moving. So it can actually cover, when normally it’d take seven hours, it’d cover it in four.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they don’t normally constantly move? So they move a little bit, sprinkle and then move a little bit more and keep going around the circle?

Andrew Eddie:
They still move, but it’s all in succession. So the end tower is the lead tower, takes off and second one follows and then it’ll stop for a little bit, let it all catch back up and stay in a line.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so the pieces move separately out-

Andrew Eddie:
Yes, yeah. Out on the end. So technically your last tower moves further than your first tower because that runs through the center point.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you’re driving by you see way more water coming out of the outside sprinklers oftentimes than the inside ones.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah and it also has more ground to cover too. So, the inside ones have less, so the nozzles are smaller because they don’t need to put as much water down. So, you’re outside ones are going to be a whole lot, put a whole lot more water down in that span.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is all new to me because I grew up around farming, but it was in western Washington and we don’t do that there.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean there are just a few pivots over on that side of the mountain.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. Mother Nature cooperates with you guys, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and the fields are way smaller too, right?

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so people will use hand line or wheel line or big guns or drip irrigation or yeah, just hope and pray for rain at the right time and not the wrong time.

Andrew Eddie:
Right, right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So is that, growing hay, is that the biggest challenge is just trying to get the rain when you want it and the dry, hot weather? That’s what you need to dry the hay out after you cut it right?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah I mean I’d say that’s probably about 92% of the challenge is just weather. I mean it can take a good crop and turn it into pretty bad, pretty quick. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
So what does it do to it?

Andrew Eddie:
So for alfalfa especially, it’ll take and if it rains on it enough it’ll actually start washing nutrients out of it. So not only will it start bleaching it and cause it to lose color which is a portion of how customers buy it, it’ll actually start washing the nutrients out of the plant. So your RFV will go down, your digestible nutrients will go down. All that stuff that buyers or dairies want to see is that nutrient value.

Dillon Honcoop:
Most nutrition for their animals to eat.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. So it takes away on that. On grass, especially on Timothy. So Timothy is very … It’s bought on color. A little bit on feed value depending on where it goes and stuff like that. But it’s primarily bought on color and look and things like that. So you get a little bit of rain on it and here we are. You’re turning into a product where it’s automatically a lower grade and it can go from premium to number one, number two quality in a matter of a couple hours.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Eddie:
So, a little shot of rain, it depends.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the value difference, percentage wise? How much money can you lose in a couple hours with the wrong rain?

Andrew Eddie:
You could lose probably about 50%. So, about half its value you could just sit there and watch as it trickles off the windshield and yeah. It all depends. Everything has a home, but everything has a home for a certain price too.

Dillon Honcoop:
When I was a kid both of my grandpas, well grandparents because they both ran the farms, grandpa and grandma, they had dairy farms. My one grandpa in particular, my dad’s dad, was very much into feeding his cows alfalfa, almost exclusively other than other nutrients. But he didn’t do silage or local hay or anything. He got eastern Washington alfalfa from here and he would come out and look at the field and he wanted to know that he was getting the best stuff for his cows. This is where he would come. You talk about Timothy though, what are they feeding with Timothy? That’s not going to be for dairy cows right?

Andrew Eddie:
Ah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It can be?

Andrew Eddie:
It can be, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Part of their TMR?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, they-

Dillon Honcoop:
Their milk retention.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah they’ll take and put it in their mixed ration. A lot of dairies in China will take it, Japan things like that. But, Timothy has a wide use.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think of feeding horses when I think of Timothy.

Andrew Eddie:
Right, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s my experience with it.

Andrew Eddie:
Horses, race horses are the biggest. Everybody is like, “Oh, they feed it to race horses.” That’s correct, but they also feed it to camels, guinea pigs, gerbils, anything like that. Any animal they’ll eat it. I mean it’s pretty good. Yeah that’s … It all depends. Like I said it all depends on what customer is taking it and then how they want to use it and things like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So have you gotten the chance to visit any if these customers out around the globe?

Andrew Eddie:
No, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where the hay goes to? That would be, I think that would be really fascinating.

Andrew Eddie:
No, so seguing into that. So currently we’re part of the Washington State Hay Growers Association as you might be able to tell behind me. Shameless plug, it’s fine. So I’m current Vice President and then our current President actually went overseas here last year and visited a bunch of the dairies and stuff and things like that. So, at some point that’ll probably be on the docket maybe once all this … Maybe 2021, ’22, ’25 who knows when this corona deal gets over.

Dillon Honcoop:
So some day you’ll get to go see it?

Andrew Eddie:
Some day. But yeah, no and we’ve been doing this awhile. So we’ve met some of the customers when they come here and they’ll say, “Oh, yeah we like your guy’s product or we like this or we like that. Can we see that?” So that makes us feel good because we’re like okay we have repeat customers. Not just people buying directly from us, but people that are buying through us technically.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. I always thought that it was impressive that my grandpa would come all the way … dairy farmer from western Washington would come all the way over to eastern Washington to check out his hay. A little bit more impressive if you come all the way say from China to check out your hay.

Andrew Eddie:
Right, right.

Dillon Honcoop:
But I guess that’s how important it is to them to get good quality. It’s worth the trip.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah. No, and they take and they trust the buyers. They trust the exporters on what products they’re getting them. But they also like to come put eyes on it because things change when you actually put eyes on it. You can send pictures, you can make it look pretty. But at the end of the day if you put eyes on it and you’re like, “Oh, I don’t really like this part of the bale or I don’t really like that head size or I don’t like … there’s not enough leaf. There’s too much stem. They’re super thin, they’re brittle.” I mean there’s a million things that they can pick apart and be like, “Well we want it for this price” or “Oh, this looks really good we want it for a little higher.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They’ll actually say that?

Andrew Eddie:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
We hope they say it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You’re probably going to come in and say, “Hey this is awesome hay. Here’s the price.” They’re going to say, “Will you take 25% less than that?” You’ll be like, “Hm.” How much negotiating goes on with this stuff?

Andrew Eddie:
The exporters sit there constantly and negotiate about it. They’ll offer it out and they’ll see what they say and they’ll do probably three or four counter offers and see what happens. I mean it all depends. We just sold some today that they offered out a couple times and three or four, five negotiations. Middle of the night because time difference.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, true. True.

Andrew Eddie:
They’re like, “Hey here’s what we got. This is the product, here’s where we need to be at. Here’s where my grower needs to be at. Here’s where I need to be at to make some money. Here’s where you got to be.” See if it fits in where they’re thinking.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many acres are you guys growing hay on?

Andrew Eddie:
We have 1300 acres and then we do another probably 1300 acres worth of custom work. So total for last year we covered probably 8500 acres for the entire year-

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Eddie:
… after all four cuttings of alfalfa, two cuttings of Timothy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, going over those same acres.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So customer work meaning what?

Andrew Eddie:
We just, we go and we work with another custom guy and we’ll actually go cut and then he’ll rake it and bale it. The farm that has the ground doesn’t have the equipment to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I see.

Andrew Eddie:
So they just contract hired out and we go and do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s half of the acres you cover is custom work?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Eddie:
Yep pretty much. It varies a little bit depending on what their rotation’s at. But for the most part that’s where we’re at. So, yeah. It keeps us busy. If the machine’s not rolling, it’s not paying for itself.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s true.

Andrew Eddie:
So employees aren’t cheap. Labor’s not cheap, fuel’s not cheap. Equipment definitely isn’t cheap. So, you got to supplement a little bit. But it also keeps, definitely keeps us busy.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you guys get into this?

Andrew Eddie:
Farming as a whole?

Dillon Honcoop:
Or hay farming specifically? Did you not always do hay farming? Or what’s the family background?

Andrew Eddie:
So family background, technically I say I’m second generation hay farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
My grandpa he had the ground, he used to work odd jobs. I mean he did anything and everything. He was a fireman, he was a lumberjack, he was a quality control specialist somewhere. I mean he’s done a multitude of things and he ended up with farm ground. So he farmed a little bit. But my dad pretty much started the place. But, he used to work for another hay grower here in the local area and he worked for him for 25 years. Then things just weren’t working out, so he decided hey I’m going to try to go do this on my own. So like I said my grandpa had some ground and my dad said, “Hey I want to start farming.” So they started with about 200 acres, pretty much where we’re sitting at right now. Since then, and that was probably 12 years ago, 11 years ago, and since then we’ve grown from 200 acres to 13, 1400.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Eddie:
With five or six employees probably by the time you get through everything. So, yeah it was pretty much my dad. He’s been around hay for a long time. So, I mean he’s been around hay for, I’ll do some quick mental math. It would be 34 years he’s been around hay. 34, 35.

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you start farming?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah so born into it, so that’s always good. They say the biggest challenge with family farming is putting up with your family. You love your family, you do. But it takes a special nutcase to want to willingly and come and work together, right? You butt heads every once in a while, 95% of the time. But, you make it work. So, I was working here just summers and stuff like that doing normal farm tasks and things like that. Then I reached a point where I was done. I didn’t want to farm. I thought farming was probably one of the worst things I could do, which is bad to say because-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really. The wind is blowing our microphone over.

Andrew Eddie:
Here, we’ll do that. So, I was like, “No I can’t do this. I can’t work with family. I’m not going to farm. I don’t like it. It’s terrible.” Blah, blah, blah.

Dillon Honcoop:
This was when you were how old?

Andrew Eddie:
I was about 18.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
So it was time.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s a key time to be making some decisions.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah so I was like, “I’m going to go do something else.” My parents were supportive and they were like, “Okay yeah do what you want.” So I applied to go to school at the University of Oregon in Eugene and took them about a month and a half to get back to me and I had a couple other offers, a couple other places to do random things. I thought I was going to do engineering and thought I was going to do this and then realized that’s a whole lot of math and a whole lot of thinking that my brain couldn’t handle.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m not smart enough for that.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s for sure. I’ll be the first to admit.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, so I’m like, “No, let’s not do that.” So I waited and waited and waited. Got into the University of Oregon, didn’t know what I wanted to do. Went down there, had two years left. I had already gotten my Associate’s Degree from a local community college and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got down there, I ended up signing up for some journalism classes and I was literally sitting in, I think it was a 201 class, so basic first introductory class that was media studies. I’m sitting there and I’m going, “This advertising thing is not too bad. It looks pretty good.” So I was like, “You know what, I’m going for it.” So I ended up getting a degree in journalism communications with an emphasis in advertising. Then it got down to trying to find jobs. Pretty much everybody I went to school with got jobs at Nike, big old ad agencies, all this other stuff. I’m just like-

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re in Oregon too, so yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah I’m like, “Here I am, what do I want to do?” I was like, “All right well I’ll go back to the farm. Shouldn’t be too bad.” I got back here and I’m like, “Why did I leave?”

Dillon Honcoop:
Really? It was that apparent?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah and don’t get me wrong I enjoy the whole advertising world. I enjoy all that stuff. But, I think-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah you got a fan club. That guy has driven by multiple times and he wants to watch the podcast I guess.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah the boss is driving around wondering what I’m doing.

Dillon Honcoop:
That guy is the boss man? Aka, your dad?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, I didn’t recognize him.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. So, no I left and that was that. So, I came back and I’m like, “This is what I want to do. I enjoy growing crop and I enjoy doing this and I enjoy doing that. So let’s make it happen.” Ever since then I’ve been back.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did your dad say?

Andrew Eddie:
He didn’t say much.

Dillon Honcoop:
And he was happy to have you come join the operation?

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, yeah. Yeah he was happy. The first couple of years were a little rough. We’re just getting back into hey I went off and did this, so I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yep.

Andrew Eddie:
Not really completely, but it was just one of those deals where it’s like how about we do it this way? How about we do it that way? Now we’re at a decent spot. We’re getting along a whole lot better. We make things work a whole lot better because we do have different views on how to do things or we do have different thought processes when doing something. So, I think that’s one of the biggest things. But I’ll tell anybody that if you’re wanting to farm, especially with family or anything, go do something else and come back because you learn a lot more when you’re gone than when you’re there. I think if you stick around, and this is with any job, wise words of wisdom with Andrew today.

Andrew Eddie:
But, I think this is with any job is the fact that you get in a comfort zone. You get in a comfort zone in your life. You get in a comfort zone with your job so you’re like, “Well I don’t have to change anything.” Then you get out there and you experience different things. You experience different people and how they do things to get a certain task done. And you’re like, “Hey I’m going to try that. Why don’t I think about that?” So I think getting somebody out of their comfort zone is the biggest thing for sure. So, I think now the boss is staring at me. I think that’s the biggest thing is get out of your comfort zone. I think you learn more out of your comfort zone than you do in it. That’s the biggest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Anything specifically that you take away from your education that changes maybe how you do your work now? I mean people think, “Wow that’s a far cry from a communications degree.”

Andrew Eddie:
Right. No I think it’s shifting too. I think the push now is especially is being active on social media and things like that and showing our story. We’re not just some, well I tell you what we big old farmers here. We’re actually doing a job that takes a whole lot more than okay let it grow. Even when I was explaining it earlier it’s like, “Well we just put water on it. We put fertilizer on it, it’s done.” It’s a little more than that. Somebody can do it, but it all depends on how and what. So, no I think the biggest thing is yeah, it’s communication is of course the backbone of pretty much anything. I mean communication is the backbone of … as the wind picks up a little bit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey but you hay people, you love wind right?

Andrew Eddie:
I’m loving it right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t this what makes your hay awesome?

Andrew Eddie:
For sure, yeah. No, I think communication of course is the backbone of anything. Relationships, negotiations for buyers, anything like that or even relationships with [inaudible 00:31:00] or things like that. So, it all comes down to it. But the biggest thing, especially with social media, is the fact that we have the opportunity and platform to share our story, right? So, that’s the biggest thing for me is it’s allowing us as an operation to showcase, “Hey here’s what we do. We’re not saying it’s perfect, we’re not saying it’s the best thing ever. We’re not saying we’re absolutely right. But, here’s what we do, here’s why we do it and here’s our thought process.” Maybe somebody else will take it or maybe somebody else will be like, “Hey why don’t you try this or have you ever tried this?” Things like that. I’ll have growers reach out and be like, “Hey what do you normally put down on your Timothy or what are trying on your alfalfa that looks really good?” Things like that.

Andrew Eddie:
It gives me a certain sense of pride and it gives us, well not so much the social media mogul over there that searched Twitter all day. But, it gives me a certain sense of pride because it’s like hey here’s what we’re doing somebody is recognizing, “Hey that’s pretty sweet. I think we can do something.” So I think yeah, it just gives … It’s a whole new avenue. We can market it in a different way and say, “Here’s what we got. Here’s showing you the inner workings of an alfalfa operation or a forage operation.” So I think that’s cool. It’s a challenge for sure. Here last week it was just raining, that was it. It was raining and that takes a big old blow to our ego and our confidence because I mean we are losing money. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not as tough as some of these other growers like potato contracts that are currently, were cut at the beginning of the year and things like that. They’re the ones that are suffering super a lot.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
So that was my point is I know we show all the good stuff, but we’re also human and we make mistakes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah you had a good video post about that on Instagram.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah it was one of those days where you just had to let it out, you know what I mean? You had to talk to somebody and if there’s nobody to talk to that wants to listen you just talk to yourself, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
So I think that’s the biggest thing is yeah it’s tough, but we’ll recover and there’s some growers out there that it is a big hit. They can absorb some of these things. You start talking losing 100, 200 bucks a ton. Well probably about 100 bucks a ton. That’s a big deal. I mean at the end of the day that’s a lot of money that we’re talking about. I’ve even talked to some potato growers in the local area and one of the guys goes, “I just put $4,000 an acre into potato ground and I have to plant sweet corn or beans or peas and I’m not going to make a single penny back from what I already put into it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah he’s not going to be able to make as much as they had already spent on it.

Andrew Eddie:
No. Yeah and he goes, “That’s what I have to do. How am I going to make it work? I have no idea, but that’s what it is.” So we get a little bit of rain, yeah it’s a punch in the gut for sure. But, especially when it’s some of the best looking stuff that we had, that was ready to go right before it rained. But yeah, I think yeah it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well I thought your post was on point not just about farming, but about anybody on social media. That’s the phenomenon.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody just shows the best part of their life.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it makes everybody else feel like, “Oh, my life sucks.”

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
But the reality is everybody has a lot of crappy stuff in life.

Andrew Eddie:
100% and that’s the thing is yeah. I think that’s one of the biggest, what’s the word I’m looking for? That’s one of the biggest drawbacks of social media, but it’s also one of the biggest points that we can start to address is the fact that it may look all pretty and nice and the other side of the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
You might want to start digging a little deeper and I think that’s my point is we make mistakes. We’re not perfect. We have misapplication on chemical or our crop doesn’t grow or anything like that, it happens. Or Mother Nature kicks us in the butt and says, “You were feeling good. Yeah here you are. Here’s a little slice of humble pie.” So, I think social media is a double edge sword for sure and I think the biggest challenge … nobody wants to share the bad stuff. Nobody wants to say, “Hey I messed up.” It’s as simple as that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well they’re worried, number one they don’t want to look dumb.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And number two, I mean if you’re doing business you’re worried that your customers are going to be like, “I don’t know if I trust them anymore.”

Andrew Eddie:
Right, but I think that’s the biggest thing is closing that gap between where customers and us are at and getting people closer. The thing about it is even some of our overseas customers they were like, “Oh, well we’ve never actually seen alfalfa go on the bale. How does that work?” I’m like, “Here’s some videos.” Technology and all that stuff is great nowadays. You couldn’t do that in the past. I mean you could, but you’d have you know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well and as far as admitting to things not going perfectly with our generation, that’s what we’re into. We almost don’t trust somebody where things are too perfect.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s like that’s got to be fake.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, or that’s not actual reality. What is reality?

Dillon Honcoop:
Reality is doing a podcast and having wind pick up-

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and jets fly over and people drive by.

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And people call you on the phone.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah and the boss working on equipment behind you is what you get.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s reality.

Andrew Eddie:
Back of the pickup’s dirty. I mean a whole bunch of stuff. But I think that’s the biggest thing is I’ve had people say, “Hey, thanks. Thanks for sharing the bad.” I go, “It’s not even close to being terrible. I can sit here and complain all day about what goes wrong, but you look at other things in the world and you’re like my life ain’t that bad.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well that you said it earlier and now you’re saying it again and that’s something that farmers are really good at and it goes along with that farmer optimism, it’s that well things could be worse vibe.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah until-

Dillon Honcoop:
Farmers have to do that otherwise you couldn’t survive.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah we’re the biggest pessimists you’ve ever met in your life, no joke. We’ll look at something we’ll be like, “Oh, man that’s probably the worst quality stuff I’ve ever put up in my life.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re still an optimist because you’re going to try for it.

Andrew Eddie:
But, we’ll be like, “Oh, that’s terrible quality.” Then someone will come by and be like, “That’s probably the best stuff I’ve looked at so far.” You’re like, “All right, cool.” You can be an optimist and you’ll end up being fine. But that’s the thing is you reach a point where yeah, it kicks you in the shorts and you’re like, “I just want to go home and cry.” I mean it’s fine if you go home and cry it’s no big deal. But, it’s also one of those deals where it’s like what can we do about it? There’s nothing we can do about Mother Nature. If it’s something that we messed up we can fix it. Mother Nature comes through it’s out of our control. I mean you can sit there and say however Hail Mary’s you want but it ain’t going to matter about what’s going on. So the biggest thing especially this year is predictability on weather. There hasn’t been any. It’s been either 10% chance and it rains or it’s 70% chance and it’s sunny. It all depends.

Dillon Honcoop:
Such is the way of farming.

Andrew Eddie:
Such is the way of farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest time for you so far farming? What’s the most challenging thing?

Andrew Eddie:
Oh, man. I mean one of the most challenging things is of course trying to juggle home life and farm life. That’s the biggest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
We put in long hours. Farmers put in long hours. Dairy guys put in long hours. Things like that. It’s balancing how much you’re working and how much you’re at home. Also for me, so my wife works at the hospital. She’s a labor and delivery nurse. So she’ll work nights and I work days.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yep never see each other.

Andrew Eddie:
Never see each other and when she’s working I’m not working and shen she’s not working I’m working. So we got two kids at home so that’s the biggest thing. I take them out and be like, “Hey we’re going to go check. We’re going to go drive around.” Gets them out of the house but it’s also like-

Dillon Honcoop:
Daddy daycare in a pickup.

Andrew Eddie:
I got to go work. Here’s some fruit snacks, we’ll turn on some Frozen and we’ll be fine. But I’ve listened to my fair share of Frozen in this truck here. But it’s really sad when you’re off topic a little bit, when we’re driving around and the kids aren’t in the truck and the Frozen is still playing and you don’t notice. You’re like, “I really hope nobody pulls up. Let’s turn on some ACDC.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah a little awkward the farmer guy shows up and you’re listening to Frozen.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah I mean it happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
If it was from my household it would be Bubble Guppies or Paw Patrol or something like that.

Andrew Eddie:
Perfect, yeah probably mine too, yeah. Yeah, no my kid yeah. My kid definitely enjoys.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well I grew up on the seat of a tractor myself. My dad was a custom farmer when I was quite young.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I’d ride along with dad until he was doing something that was too rough to have a little kid. If he was ripping some rough ground or something with the tractor it was like, “Okay mom is going to come pick you up. You got to get out now.”

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t want you to whack your head on the steering wheel. Obviously older tractor, less room. No actual buddy seat. It was just fold the armrest down and the old 4240.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah the fender of the tractor making sure you don’t slip off onto the tire, yeah. Been there, yeah I’ve been there many times with my dad. I think that’s the biggest thing is my wife and I talk a whole bunch. I try to get home as readily as I can. I try to balance that life. It is absolutely probably one of the hardest things I deal with. Getting our guys to do whatever and getting equipment fixed and things like that. I mean I hate to say it’s easy, but it’s just a thing we do now. It’s a process for sure. So, yeah I think the biggest things is just finding that time.

Dillon Honcoop:
And your busiest time is in the summertime when everybody else in the world thinks that’s when we should be going on vacation.

Andrew Eddie:
Right. Right, right.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was my growing up too.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I grew up on a red raspberry farm. You harvest raspberries in July. You do not do anything else.

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you certainly don’t even mention going on vacation because that would be blasphemy.

Andrew Eddie:
No, no yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Even though you can get vacations in between cuttings.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe, sometimes.

Andrew Eddie:
We can get … we can sneak away for a little while. I mean going on vacation next week, but that’s beside the point. We were planning on being done for full disclaimer, not that it really matters. But one of the biggest things is that everybody is like, “Oh, well you just take the weekend off right?” Sure I could.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Andrew Eddie:
But everything is still going to be growing. It don’t matter. If the weather’s right we’re doing it. We’re going, we’re farming. Simple as that. I think the best description and I think most people have probably seen this floating around is the dad and the son like, “Oh, what is this?” “Oh, I don’t know son.” Well it’s the same thing with farming is like, “Hey dad what’s a weekend?” “I don’t know son we’re farmers.” That’s probably the best description I have because that’s the way it is. 4th of July, what is holidays right? What are weekends? People are like, “Oh, yeah did you make it there?” What day is it? Oh, Saturday well no.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, sorry.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah and then you know-

Dillon Honcoop:
I saw it on social media the next day.

Andrew Eddie:
Right? Yeah, well and then you get to the point where you’re working for a couple days straight, pretty much you leave your house, go to work, go back, sleep a little bit and come back. You’re like, “Did I take a shower today? What did I do today?” They’ll be like, “Oh, it’s Thursday.” You’re like, “I was working since Monday, what are you talking about?” So it’s just the concept of time with farming is one of the craziest things too because it’s like okay, what day is it? What time is it? What are we going to do?

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the longest day you’ve worked?

Andrew Eddie:
Recently about two hours. Just kidding, jokes. Oh, shoot probably we’ve had like last year we had a couple … If the weather’s right, actually probably 2018 was probably one of the longer ones we had some days 14, 16 hours and then we’d get down baling probably get out there and start raking at about 4:00, 4:30 in the morning. Take a little break, start baling, get down at about 10:30, 11 o’clock at night and go back about two or three the next morning. Do that for a couple days and I mean, it’s not too bad. I don’t envy the people that do night shift and have to work 12 hours on, 12 hours off and stuff like that. No, no those people, like my wife is a saint. Yeah, managing that and trying to sleep during the day. I’m just like I don’t know how you do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah that’s a tough job.

Andrew Eddie:
Some days are long, some days are short, it all depends. I mean and yeah it varies too. That’s the thing. I think that’s the biggest thing is people going back to the comment about what’s a weekend or can’t you just take a day off? Well yeah, but it’s also like it’s our livelihood. So if we don’t go now, we’re not making money and we’re not making money why are we even doing it? I mean to be honest with you it’s fun, but we don’t do it just for fun. If you did it just for fun, what’s the point?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
I mean if you had a bunch of money to blow, don’t get me wrong then it would be fun. But pretty much every business you want the business to succeed. So how do you do that? You put in the time and the effort and the hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sure would be a lot less stressful if money wasn’t an option huh?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah if the bank roll was just rolling through, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That way if you made a bad decision it wouldn’t be like, “I may lose the farm over this.”

Andrew Eddie:
But on the contrary though, even if it was bank roll and you afforded it, when you start growing a crop and you get it down and it starts getting ruined, you’re like yeah okay now I’m losing money. It’s just like going to the casino, same thing right? It’s like I won 400 bucks and then you’re like, oh never mind. I just lost all of that $400 because I wanted to play for another 20 minutes. It’s the same deal. It’s all a big gamble and a crapshoot for what’s going on. You try everything in your power to get it done right and then one thing comes through and ruins it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Next week on the podcast we’re going to finish the conversation with Andrew. There’s so much more about technology and about family and struggles and his story on the farm and coming back to the farm. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and I’m really glad that you have joined us here. I’d really appreciate it if you subscribed to the podcast on your favorite podcast platform. I just noticed maybe on one of the platforms that it wasn’t working right. So please, let me know if you’re experiencing any issues and I can get to work oh that. Dillon@RealFoodRealPeople.org and Dillon is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N @RealFoodRealPeople.org. Send me a message, let me know and I can get techy smart people, smarter than me figuring any issues out if you have any trouble subscribing or anything like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Of course RealFoodRealPeople.org is the website and you can follow us on Twitter and on Instagram and on Facebook. We’d really appreciate it and again, like I mentioned earlier you can watch this whole episode on YouTube as well. We’re working on getting more stuff on YouTube. I’m learning the whole video thing as we go here, just making it up and making mistakes and learning from my mistakes. So check us out on YouTube. Subscribe there too, that would really help us out. And again next week is more with Andrew Eddie of RNH Farms, hay farmer in Moses Lake, Washington. Thank you again for being here.

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 and by dairy farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at WAdairy.org.

Bridget Coon part 1 | #029 06/29/2020

She used to have an office next door to the White House, but Bridget Coon says she's happy to be back in Washington state, growing beef and hay near the tiny locale of Benge, WA.

Transcript

Bridget Coon:
So even though they’re going to a larger processing facility, they’re going to be marketed under a brand that you might be familiar with seeing in the grocery store, that’s coming from ranches, family ranches like ours.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
From growing up on a farm in Western Washington to working next door to the White House, then back to Seattle and now farming in Eastern Washington, our guest this week has done so many things and has so much cool professional background, but she also has a really cool personal story. Bridget Coon, she and her husband and their family raise beef on a ranch in Benge, Washington. And as she says on her website, you’re probably going to have to Google where exactly that is.

Dillon Honcoop:
She shares how she got to know her husband, how she ended up in this career in politics and how that eventually led her back to her farming roots. And we also get into some of the sticky issues too, about food and about beef and the controversy. You’re really going to love this one. She’s a lot of fun to hear from and hear her stories. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this is the Real Food Real People podcast documenting my journeys across Washington State to get to know the real farmers and ranchers. And this week we talk with Bridget Coon on her ranch in Benge, Washington.

Bridget Coon:
We raise beef out here. It’s this really dry rocky scab land, and so about the only thing you can grow on it is beef. And we also raise hay for premium and export market, and then of course, those two commodities work together on our farm and ranch where we can feed hay throughout the winter.

Dillon Honcoop:
So some of your hay is for your cows.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the rest you sell to-

Bridget Coon:
Primarily, so we have basically two enterprises or two parts of our family farm with the hay and ranch with the cattle.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how does that work? How do you determine like which land you do hay on and which you do cattle on?

Bridget Coon:
So like I said, most of this is we’re in the channeled scab lands here. It was carved out a million years ago in the Missoula floods, and it’s just a lot of rock. You can’t grow anything. You can’t till it. You can’t farm it. So cows are about the only thing that can come from it that turns into food.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s still quite a bit of grass and stuff though, around the rock, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yes. So it’s just what we’d call range land, and cattle are really good at taking what’s growing out here and we just do our part to manage the land, determine how many head of cattle can graze a pasture and keep the pasture healthy for us to be able to do this year, decade, generation after generation. That’s kind of our … that’s our job, I mean-

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you tell, like how do you know how many cows to put on a field, cattle I guess I should say.

Bridget Coon:
Cattle, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
I grew up around dairy so all the cows-

Bridget Coon:
All your cows are cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the cattle were cows, yeah. But you have boys and girls.

Bridget Coon:
Yes, we do. So we mostly have, we are what’s considered a cow calf operation or a cow calf ranch. And so what we do is we have a herd of mother cows, and then we have a little squad of bulls and the cows are bred each year to produce a calf each year. And then the calf stay here for about a year nursing their mothers. Eventually weaning, but grazing on this grass. And then those go on to finish at a feed yard before they’re ready for slaughter. And so it’s just really this continuous cycle year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, if we’re doing it well.

Bridget Coon:
And then each year it varies how many cattle we can run on a given pasture based on how much moisture we’ve had based on our decisions the year before and whether or not we are kind of on the money with moisture and that equation. So I’m learning a lot still.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happens if you have too many cattle on a certain chunk of land?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, gosh, this is where it gets so complicated because some of the better practices in range land management are actually, if you can put in the time and effort to create smaller paddocks within a pasture, and actually what we’d call intensively graze these cattle. And they come in and they do this really great work by essentially controlling. They control the weed population. They basically graze just the right amount of grass to where it’s left to where it can regrow. And then we move them on to another fresh pasture and only rotate them back to that pasture.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s maybe less about the total number of animals and more about those decisions on timing and moving animals and giving the pasture rest that it needs to come back before you bring cattle back on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because basically, and correct me if I’m wrong, if you have too many cattle on a certain amount of land for too long and they eat it down too far, you’ll basically kill all that grass and stuff, that’s they’re-

Bridget Coon:
It just won’t come back to the level that you want it to. Yeah. You’re like, oh, you’re overworking it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So yeah. So that’s what you’re managing?

Bridget Coon:
You’re really, you’re managing grass. And then of course we have a lot of … we have our animal health and we have our decision making as far as how many cows we decide to be here. Genetics, deciding what type of bulls we’re breeding to our cows. But the basic job on our level of raising beef is managing land so we can grow cattle on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, the cattle are eating this grass on scab land. I saw it driving in like there’s rocks everywhere. So like you said, you can’t farm it. You couldn’t go in there and run a cultivator and plant whatever crop. So is that grass just the grass that’s always been there, or do you kind of like put seed out there or like?

Bridget Coon:
So most of the range land isn’t seeded, but then we have some areas where we can come in and do some supplemental seeding. I know in the past, before I was here, my father in law has worked with WSU on test plots of different types of native grasses that could be seeded or could be managed out here to benefit the range and benefit cattle. So it’s a cool time to be doing this because we have a lot of tradition and a lot of knowledge from generations and generations of doing this. But then we also have some really cool research from the university level and some collaboration we can do there to keep doing what we do better, and that’s kind of the spot that we try to live in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s a whole soil health thing, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then like even climate change related.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as like carbon sequestration and all that kind of stuff that these practices accomplish, right?

Bridget Coon:
Cows are really cool in that regard. And I think it’s through that overlooked piece of our food system that it’s pretty trendy to just sort of blame everything from climate change to other environmental problems on cattle. But really what we’re able to do with cattle in the US is take ground that could not be used for food production and cattle use it. But I don’t know, I mean, luckily you didn’t hit a deer on your way here, but we have a really-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know my car looks like it.

Bridget Coon:
… healthy meal dealer population, pheasants, quail, you name it, like every everything you can think of as far as other wildlife. So it’s any ground, any land that cattle are using, it’s really a multiple use proposition.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, because a lot of people say, well, cattle are so inefficient because they use all this land to grow the feed for them to eat, to turn into beef that we eat. But I realized as I was driving here after miles and miles of this ground that I saw was loaded with these monster boulders and ravines and just all kinds of rock, like you couldn’t go out there and grow people food.

Bridget Coon:
No, no, that’s definitely a myth where cattle compete for the land we need to grow other food for people. It’s just a myth because when you actually add up the acreage of cattle on range, it’s not competing, it’s actually just adding to the party.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Really cool stuff and I’ve been learning more about the whole soil health thing too. So it was cool to hear you explain this whole like intensive grazing thing, because I had heard about that. And at first I’m like, what, like how does that actually improve soil health? And then I read some books kind of explaining the science of what happens with like a grass plant and when it gets pulled on by a cow, which is kind of like the what? Bovines, which were historically like bison across the plains here.

Bridget Coon:
Ruminant animals.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was kind of the same thing that they did on these range lands, right? In time in memorial.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, as far as this land, highest best use for sure is running cattle on it. And then it’s up to people like us to make decisions that make it actually feasible as far as environmentally. And then we have to make it somewhat profitable in order to continue to do what we do here. And so when we talk about sustainability, but I mean the definition to, I know like the cattle industry, we really think of it in that, kind of that way where we need to have environmental sustainability, just because its natural resources based.

Bridget Coon:
And we’re the first ones to notice if that natural resource starts to disappear, starts to degrade. And then taking care of the animals, animal welfare, we have to have healthy animals, otherwise it does not turn into the product that we need it to. And then it has to be sustainable economically for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the food question, then what makes great beef? I love an excellent steak. I recently did a London broil and I was like, whoa, this is really different flavor than my sirloin that I usually like to grill and just different thing. I love beef. There’s a lot of flavor going on there. There’s a lot of protein. My body likes it. I know a lot of people … For a long time red meat was like this terrible thing, but I’m more like, I’m not Keto, but like I need my protein and I need to stay away from my carbs. What does it take on your end to create that?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. A lot of people these days are on the protein train and for good reason, because they can just kind of see it’s the food that when you eat it, I mean, you feel good. You feel like it really helps you. We know scientifically it helps as far as maintaining, especially at our age, when you get to your mid 30s or later.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, are you calling me old?

Bridget Coon:
I don’t know, I don’t know how old you are. But I know for myself and some of the research we know is that as soon as we get to a certain age level, if we don’t do things to maintain or grow muscle mass, we start losing it and eating an adequate amount of protein is really important to that. So as far as beef goes, I mean, it’s kind of whatever your preference is, but in the US and on an operation like ours, we are really focused on hitting that prime or choice grade bullseye, which is indicated … the grade is determined by the amount of intermuscular fat or marbling that ends up, the flavor inside those steaks you were just talking about.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not the big chunks of fat around the edges. It’s the stuff that’s in them.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. And so what someone who’s enjoying a steak thinks about as far as quality is similar to what I would, as I’m enjoying a steak, but from the people who are actually raising it, it also, again, has to hit those other markers where the cows that we have here need to be bred to actually perform or be healthy here and raise calves each year, and that’s what helps us be sustainable in our business. And then those have calves that end up having those great beef traits as we’ve call it where they’re healthy, they gain weight well and stay healthy while doing it. And then they end up with all kinds of delicious buttery marbling.

Dillon Honcoop:
Stop, you’re making me hungry. But like, if you guys didn’t … like let’s say you manage really poorly hypothetically, would at the end of the day, I’d be able to taste that in the beef? Like oh, this isn’t as good.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not so much what you would taste at the end of the day as it is if it wasn’t an efficient process to get that animal into the final stage of being food, you kind of just end up with a product that is really useful. There’s actually really not any unsafe. Once you get to that level where an animal’s ready for slaughter and it’s slaughtered and it goes through the process when it’s graded, then it’s determined where it goes, right? So I mean, we can all enjoy a five guys hamburger too.

Bridget Coon:
We can all enjoy sort of beef in different contexts. So if you don’t do like this fantastic job with breeding and feeding and finishing and getting to that prime or choice grade, not the end of the world for the person eating, because that product ends up in [inaudible 00:14:21], you know what I mean? There’s so many different ways that beef ends up in kind of our food world that, it’s kind of all good in a different way.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is going to be one of those interviews where I just end up really hungry at the end of it.

Bridget Coon:
You staring at the taco soup, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
You just stared at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

Bridget Coon:
It’s pretty good. You’re going to have some.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just going to just forget about that because I don’t want to eat here on the microphone while we’re conversing.

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to have some.

Dillon Honcoop:
That just doesn’t sound good to those listening to the podcast.

Bridget Coon:
It’s kind of gross.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly. So I’ll eat later, but you mentioned, oh, getting like a five guys burger, there’s so many different places you can get beef. All the way from Mickey D’s to fancy fine dining. How here in Washington, my big focus is I want to get food that’s grown here in Washington, if at all possible. I’m not like mega strict about it, but when it’s possible and doable, I want to do that. How can people do that with beef? How do they know it’s say from Washington or if they don’t know that for sure that it’s at least from the US?

Bridget Coon:
Sure. So there’s a few different ways. Like I said, just like there’s as many varieties of beef that end up on the dinner plate, there’s different ways that people can go about sourcing their beef and making those choices. So the most direct way to know that your beef is coming from a local rancher is to find one that sells directly to the public.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are more and more doing that?

Bridget Coon:
So interesting you say that. There is a lot of indication as far as like search traffic online and local butcher shops that do this kind of slaughter are getting booked out months if not into next year. So definitely, I think we’ve seen people now in this COVID-19 context, going into the grocery store and seeing space in the meat case that given retailer, pick whatever retailer you go to, and there’s some space there and Americans are not used to seeing that space.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, with that panic buying like a couple months ago, I know I’d never seen empty shelves of any kind in a grocery store, like where they’re legitimately out of food. And I think most anybody in the US who has grown up here and always lived here has never, ever seen that until now. So that’s a big game changer, but from people I talked to, they were already kind of moving in the direction of, “Hey, can we like just sell it right from the ranch one way or the other? Like is there an Amazon for beef, you know?”

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. There’s a lot of cool things taking place in this space and watching consumers link up with producers, but keep in mind … So for example, the beef that is raised right out here on this ranch goes to typically a feed yard in Othello. We either retain ownership there where we pay the feeder by the rate of gain or days on feed. But we retain the ownership and then we are paid when those animals are ready and they go down to the packing plant.

Bridget Coon:
So even though they’re going to a larger processing facility, they’re going to be marketed under a brand that you might be familiar with seeing in the grocery store or generically into restaurants where you’re not seeing a brand, that’s coming from ranches, family ranches like ours. And I think people maybe the impression at this day and age, because we have this big, efficient food supply typically, other than right now, you can go into a Walmart, you can go to Fred Meyer, you can go into a Safeway and you just have like your pick of every cut of beef you could ever imagine.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, all the time.

Bridget Coon:
And-

Dillon Honcoop:
The only decision is how much do I want to spend on it, and do I go for the cheaper cut or not?

Bridget Coon:
Exactly. So we are used to all these choices, right? And so then for an outfit like ours, we’re not really close to consumers if you notice. Did you pass a lot of people on your way?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, in fact, I didn’t see anybody for like a half hour before I got here.

Bridget Coon:
So other than like my persuasion to be, I work in the digital space and I find it really fascinating. Some of the digital marketing and different things we could do. My background with my family before coming here was we fed cattle and finished cattle. And so I’m familiar with it and I like it. So it’s always kind of in the back of my mind that we could do some more direct marketing than we have in the past and make it a thing. But it’s not really that efficient.

Bridget Coon:
Like if we’re spending our time doing that, then we have less time to do like the temporary fencing it requires to make these small paddocks, to intensively graze. We have irrigation water to move with the hay. It’s really about all these individual ranches. If you have the human resources and the desire to connect with consumers that way, it’s possible and can be beneficial. But at this time, like it’s probably not the best use of our energy when we do what we do really well, the feed yard that our calves go to, they do what they do really well. They get feed right from around Othello. They get corn and hay, and they get a grape Burmese from the grape stuff. I don’t know what the word is.

Dillon Honcoop:
From wine.

Bridget Coon:
From wine making, and that’s all done closer to them than it is to us. And so feeds kind of come into those animals and they do a great job, and we get the results back that we’re hitting that choice and prime target consistently, and we’re providing that consistent product to typically the consumer desire to have that at will at any grocery store that they go to.

Bridget Coon:
So I mean, interested in it, love to see it. I have a client that we launched a website in order to help them do more of that and sold out an inventory of beef that we projected to last two months in two weeks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bridget Coon:
We have a local beef directory on the beef commission website wildbeef.org. There’s 400% increase in page views on this tool where people in Washington can do it, use a drop down by county and find people that we have listed there that are doing this.

Dillon Honcoop:
These friends of yours that just started going, trying to do some direct sales, they couldn’t have picked a more perfect time to do it.

Bridget Coon:
Totally coincidental. It’s a project we’ve been working on. I know they have been thinking about for a long, long time, and we’d been working on for about a year to get it kind of just so, and we’re kind of ready to roll with that at this time. And so, I mean, for their business and everything, I think actually they’ll be pretty successful consistently. And there’s some interest related to this and I can’t deny it just based on everything else that I see. But if anything, this situation, people who have considered buying directly from a rancher, a lot of that usually involves buying more in bulk. We can only raise … there’s only so many cuts per animal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s not the same as shopping the meat case, I’d say that people-

Dillon Honcoop:
Where you just want the rib-eyes.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. Like there’s only so many rib-eyes. So people have to think of it like going to shop their freezer for beef instead of going to the grocery store to shop it? And so it’s a shift, it’s convenient. I think most things, most foods, new food marketing has focused on convenience because people are busy. Like your life is run by work and activities and people are on the go.

Dillon Honcoop:
But COVID has totally like messed with that, because a lot of people-

Bridget Coon:
At home.

Dillon Honcoop:
… aren’t on the go.

Bridget Coon:
Like baking bread.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they’re seeing shortages in the grocery store, and even if there is meat there it’s maybe more expensive than it used to be. And so then, like you’re saying, they’re suddenly interested in, “Hey, maybe could I get this like straight from the farmer, straight from the rancher and how would that work?” So it’s totally turning a lot of those things on their head. Like maybe people will suddenly be, I guess we just don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID and how long this goes on and how much of our world continues to be turned upside down. But could this be the moment for local food and for local meat or regional even?

Bridget Coon:
It’s having a moment, and like I said, it’s really cool to see some of those connections being made. Those seeds were already there for a lot of consumers, and this is like pushing them to take action and actually buy from someone or do more in depth research too.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then once they had, they’re like, “Hey, this wasn’t actually so hard,” or like, “I have a relationship now with this ranch, that’s where I get our meat from and we like them.”

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. When it’s not really desirable. I mean, some of the consumer research that I’ve seen, people are going to the grocery store multiple times a week. Obviously I can’t relate.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It’s a bit of a drive from where you’re at to the grocery store.

Bridget Coon:
We’re out here. So I don’t-

Dillon Honcoop:
How far is it by the way?

Bridget Coon:
So there’s a little grocery store in Ritzville, it takes about 40 minutes, but then to like a Safeway, Walmart, Costco, it’s an hour, everything’s like an hour in any direction you can think of. So I don’t have those habits, but I know looking at it, people typically are just sort of going in and out of the grocery store. Well, when you have to wear a mask and there’s like arrows, it’s very, I mean, I’m a little antsy because I don’t go very often and I have to call my friend and be like, “Okay, so what are people doing? What’s socially acceptable in the grocery store right now because I don’t know, because I haven’t been since it started.”

Bridget Coon:
So yeah, you’re taking what was a convenient choice and kind of, it’s not so appealing anymore. And then here’s another choice that maybe wasn’t perceived as convenient, but maybe people will learn that it’s really not as hard. That being said, economically, there’s still only a certain set of consumers that have the savings or have the room to buy in a way that works better for the rancher typically to be efficient. Again, we’re not selling one or two … what would happen if you just only sell individual cuts just from one ranch say our size or maybe a little bit bigger than ours?

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to run out of rib-eyes, you’re going to run about tenderloins. You’re going to end up sitting on these other products. And so I think I’d say if I had any messages, it would be like learn to be a good customer to a rancher that you’re working with, and like let them lead you, expectation-wise on their offering a box that they’ve decided on or they’re offering it by the half or the quarter or the whole, it’s for a reason and it’s because they need to be able to make a living off of this. So just learn what you can. Ask questions and really listen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Buy a freezer.

Bridget Coon:
Get a freezer first. But I’ve heard there’s been a run on freezers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, if you can find one, a lot of people have gotten freezers and you’re talking about this whole convenience thing and people’s money. There’s been a big shift in that too. And I think we’re all really worried that none of us are going to have very much money in coming months and years with the economic forecasts and really scary things like that. But at the same time, like the panic buying and the staying at home changed people’s priorities with that too, where it’s like, oh yeah, I need to spend more of at least the money that I do have right now on my food, because suddenly like survival instinct comes back into play. So maybe I will spend some more money so I can get beef and good food at the store. Like all this panic buying was incredible. To watch what people bought was fascinating to me.

Bridget Coon:
I still am puzzled by water and toilet paper. It not an earthquake.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, we’ll never ever figure out the toilet paper one.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not an earthquake. It’s not as tsunami, it’s not a natural disaster. No, I think … I’m kind of the mind that, and this is what kind of annoys me about our food culture today and what I see kind of out there is that everyone wants to have an either or mentality, like this is a good way to buy beef and this is a bad way to buy beef and I have to be able to track it back to the farm, and if I can’t, then I don’t trust it or something. And that’s not how people’s actual buying habits end up taking place except then we all go to five guys or whatever.

Bridget Coon:
But at the end of the day, it’s not either or, it’s and, and so it’s great that there’s choices. And then that again, people are actually acting on some of those choices, but hopefully also learning more about how we raise beef. So when people get really like specific preferences, I want grass fed or finished only, I want organic only or whatever. But to me, I’m seeing a lot of these really, it’s almost like rushing to have a stance, almost like you would a political position, on beef, on food, the types of food choices we make, but they don’t know the difference between a cow and a steer and a bull and a heifer. I mean, in a lot of cases, they just don’t have like the basic knowledge of how we raise cattle. And so to me, it’s odd to like skip into, I have a very defined-

Dillon Honcoop:
They have a stance but they don’t have a-

Bridget Coon:
… preference over what type of beef I have, but I don’t really understand that cattle that are fed grain in a feed yard, spent half their life on grass at a place like this.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was going to ask you about that back when we were talking about feeding cattle and we had Camas Uebelacker here on the podcast for two weeks. I forget the numbers of the episodes, but you can go back and check in the list if you want to, but that’s what he does is like you were describing. You have a cow calf operation, cattle literally out on the range. He takes them, finishes them as a custom operator, kind of specializes in what he does and then they go to harvest.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where they’re fed corn in a lot of cases. He talked a little bit about that. Lot of people say, “Oh, well, corn is bad. I want all grass fed.” You’re explaining already that’s more of a misnomer than maybe people realize, but explain more what’s going on with this whole grass fed versus grain fed.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. It’s just over simplified, and I think some of our more over-simplified messages about food for people who are. They are trying to be conscientious for whether it’s for their health or the environment or whatever it is they feel they care about. But at the end of the day, the actual knowledge of how to take a calf and get it up to a really palatable, really enjoyable beef product it’s not as simple as slapping a label on this was grass-finished or this was, usually it’s grass fed or grain fed, and then people assume that everything else is grain fed, which means they’re like force fed corn their whole lives or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is never the case.

Bridget Coon:
Which is not a thing. In fact, I was just looking at some stats the other day, and it’s the actual amount of corn in a cattle diet over the course of its life is way overstated or just sort of generalized as this really key element in it. When really they’re always fed some kind of roughage, some kind of hay is always in a ration. Chemist did a great job explaining what a cattle feed ration is, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Only those who heard from people who would say, well, cows aren’t designed to eat and digest corn.

Bridget Coon:
That’s not a thing. In fact, so most of the corn that they’re fed is, there’s dry steam flake corn. So that’s also already been processed, think of cornflakes like we eat or whatever. And then you have most of the corn they eat is like siloed and it’s chopped the entire plant. Corn is a type of grass technically. So to say that ruminate animals can’t digest and process and convert a crop like corn into beef efficiently is just scientifically false. It’s nothing.

Dillon Honcoop:
People also say aside from the sustainability conversation, environmental concerns, et cetera, et cetera. They say that grass fed beef has, what is it? Like more omega three fatty acids or something like that? Correct me if I’m wrong on the specifics there.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. The fatty acid ratio.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Is the beef actually different. I mean, I have a cousin and her husband, they’re both nutritionists and I talked with them about it and they’re like yeah, omega threes are super trendy right now, but you don’t need too many of those, and omega six is kind of like, whoa, it’s bad. It’s from corn, but you don’t need too many of those, but you can’t live without any, like it’s way more complicated once they started explaining it.

Bridget Coon:
Right. So to simplify it, but not oversimplify it, the fatty acid ratio. So it’s that six to three ratio is what is usually referred to, is so slightly different between grain finished and grass finished beef. It’s marginal first of all. Again, the intermuscular fat that we’re talking about actually has a similar fatty acid profile too, like olive oil, which would be considered like a healthy fat, which is some people don’t really realize.

Dillon Honcoop:
I did not know that.

Bridget Coon:
But then further, because I feel like now I’ve gone down this rabbit trail, but it needs to be addressed that the beef people are never going to say like, get your omegas from beef because it’s not … beef is essential, I mean, it has essential nutrients and it’s a great source for several proteins, zinc, iron are the top three, right? But there’s actually quite a few, the omegas aren’t in there. Go eat salmon, go get a copper river salmon. Use an actual significant source to get your omegas.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s interesting you said copper river salmon. I have a good friend who’s a lifetime fisherman. He’s like a whole copper river thing. That’s just-

Bridget Coon:
Marketing, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s all marketing.

Bridget Coon:
That’s genius marketing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which we’re saying about … you’re talking about beef and I could tell you marketing things about other crops and stuff that what is really underneath it, and when you talk to the farmer, they’re like yeah, you get a whole different story. That’s why I’m doing this podcast to talk to the farmers rather than the marketing people.

Bridget Coon:
It’s to the point where you just, I literally assume when I’m seeing or reading something about an industry that I’m unfamiliar with and it feels simplified or oversimplified. I’m just like, yeah. If I want to know more about this, I need to go read some more because I have a feeling that this is meant to sell me something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That’s our generation now too, right?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, just being skeptical or just being marketed to by people who try to make you dumber.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, both.

Bridget Coon:
I do. I think of … So I do fill some marketing roles in my work and I kind of keep that mantra of, I don’t want to make people dumber. Like if I do anything with this work it’s to shed some light on areas of the process of getting food to people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are you telling me you do marketing yet you still have a soul?

Bridget Coon:
I am a soulful marketer.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, that’s good.

Bridget Coon:
I started, I mean, I really started out my career more in advocacy and more like, I’m just more of a … I was like a nerdy kid that listened to … I grew up on the west side [case 00:34:00], but we had a feed yard and a family ranch. Right? Actually, we raised hay. I think my first job in life was to sell sweet corn that we grew, pick it and sell it on the roadside.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was this?

Bridget Coon:
In the Green River Valley, Auburn and Kent. So my grandparents and my parents and my brother and I, kind of all worked together since I was a little kid. And so that’s a really urban market even back in the 90s. So it’s kind of second nature to me to be communicating to people who don’t have a firsthand understanding of like farming and ranching because I was doing it since birth. But it makes me want to help people understand. And yeah, just I’ve been attracted and had the opportunity to do work that’s allowed me to continue that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how did you end up here in Eastern Washington and on a cow calf operation, but also doing digital marketing work and all kinds of stuff online and like what was the road from there to here?

Bridget Coon:
Winding?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
Windy. Yeah, so I grew up on a farm and feed yard, family operation on the west side. I was probably influenced by obviously at that time Ag wasn’t like a growing industry over there. Again, the dinner table conversations and just sort of the activity around the farm. I was really aware of like regulatory framework that was growing, whether it was water issues or endangered species act issues, whatever it was. Seattle area is like the epicenter. I feel like everything else, as far as like our environmental culture right now, it’s just catching up to like kind of where things were a decade or two ago in the Seattle area as culturally, right?

Bridget Coon:
So I paid attention to that as a little kid, I ended up at WSU, Go COUGS. And I had been really encouraged in writing, and so based on sort of not knowing if I had this role in production agriculture going forward and being kind of encouraged in other ways, I ended up with a policy pre-law degree because I thought maybe I could be an attorney and like go fight the good fight for farmers or something, right? I wasn’t sure where it would go. And then I did some campaign work and some like rabble rouse, like conservative or Republican rabble-rousing on campus.

Bridget Coon:
And anyway, campaign jobs that beget appointment in the Bush Administration. So I went from Pullman, basically straight from Pullman to DC as a young 20 something. And so I got to spend a few years out back East where you can get a lot of experience in a short amount of time.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of stuff were you doing back East?

Bridget Coon:
So my first job back there was … I didn’t even know when I started volunteering for campaigns and then getting like staff campaign jobs. I got to run around Eastern Washington, which was really cool, that was my territory, and so I love it. I already knew I loved it out here. But I didn’t even know there was like low level appointments that you could get from supporting the president, in this case is president Bush’s re-election in 2004. And so other people I worked with were like, give us your resume.

Bridget Coon:
And so I started out at the most boring federal agency. I don’t know if you can guess which one, the GSA, the General Services Administration, we buy pencils and bombs. I worked for the Chief of Staff there and government procurement was like not like my thing. So actually my boss out here in the campaign had ended up landing a job in the Political Affairs Office, they kind of staff up during the cycle. So during the 2006 cycle, I was his what they call desk coordinator where I just wrote briefing papers, for any time like the president or vice president or first lady, whoever was traveling, we’d have to sort of update these briefing documents that they would presumably read on their way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were writing stuff that the president was reading.

Bridget Coon:
So I wouldn’t go that far because I was never on like Air Force One to confirm that. My boss was and so sometimes he’d have some stories to come back to you, but I will say I had a weird experience where I was in my office there, it’s in the Eisenhower, the EOB building next door to the West Wing. And I’m there like doing my thing at my desk and the TV was on and it was a live feed of I think it was a rally in Montana and that was in my territory that I had to cover for my work and the president’s giving his remarks.

Bridget Coon:
And I’m like, man, that sounds familiar. And I still had like the document because the speech writers, they didn’t always ask us, but sometimes they’d ask us for bullet points to incorporate. And so I was feeling pretty high on life to hear the president-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your briefing document probably made it to the speech writer who worked some of your words.

Bridget Coon:
No, we actually did talking point sometimes. So these were actually talking points that the speech writers asked for, in addition to our typical briefing papers. I do know that Karl Rove actually read them because one time this is where I also almost died and fell over on the floor because there was like a weird anomaly in one of the Montana counties and Karl’s going through this briefing paper and we put historical election results in it and he thought it was wrong because it was like a weird flip on like whatever the congressional district results was.

Bridget Coon:
And so my boss is calling me because he’s traveling with Karl Rove, they’ve just flew commercial and stuff like he wasn’t on Air Force One or anything, but he’s calling me from the road being like, “You need to look at these numbers and check them.” I was like, “Oh my God, did I just get that wrong?” Freaking out, and then luckily it was correct. But that was like weird. I mean, it’s just like I found myself in some weird spaces. And again, just getting this great experience to then I would say like some of the stuff I did out there was pretty intense.

Bridget Coon:
And again, like if people like that are reading something you’re writing it needs to be accurate. It needs to be a certain degree of it’s going to be out in public. It’s made other things that I’ve done that maybe are a little bit stressful or pressure full, is that a word?

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s a good word. I’ll keep that one if that’s okay.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not as … Not that many things seem that hard after that. Fast forward and I’m trying to like work with kids and also now being a homeschool mom, like I am humbled. I don’t care what I’ve done in the past. I am supremely humbled by trying to manage this household and everything we do at the ranch and my business and stuff, but it’s been weird I must say.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. To continue on this road though, to back up a little bit, like I know from hearing from a lot of people like, oh, the holy grail is to make it back to DC for a lot of different things that people do. And then once people are out there, they’re like, ah, I hate this city. I hate how everything works in this town and how people are so fake and yada, yada, I just want to get back home. And so how did you extricate yourself from that world and end up back here?

Bridget Coon:
I went out without an exit plan. I really wasn’t sure, I was 22, maybe when I landed out there and I have a little bit different perspective. I probably didn’t stay up there long enough to be completely jaded, maybe that’s part of it, but I really do. I think I met and worked with some of the best people that you’ll ever meet and some of the worst people, that’s universal. I feel like, so it’s not like the people are worse, I guess I’ll put it this way. I can’t be that jaded because I got my hands on some like cool stuff.

Bridget Coon:
As a very young person with just really like the best intentions to just … I’m not going to sit back and complain about things, I’m going to get in there and kind of put my energy in places. So I feel like I thrived pretty well. I sold my pickup and like flew out there with a couple of suitcases. I mean, I really, I kind of just whole sale, I lived on Capitol Hill. After that stint in 2006 at the White House, I ended up getting a job at a firm that is based in Bellevue Washington Advocates is what it’s still called. The principal’s there worked for Slade Gorton, Senator Slade Gorton. So they were awesome people to work with.

Bridget Coon:
And then that set of clients that we did public affairs work, basically were lobbyists. But we worked with dirt and water clients. So I started at that point, I started kind of like finding my way back home to agriculture, at least working on agriculture issues. They represented the PDs that run our hydropower dams, Chelan County, PUD, those kind of things I got sort of getting sharp on those types of issues that are really important here in Washington where [houser 00:43:05] at the time there was a big conflict with the tribes and the shellfish growers and so shellfish growers are farmers. I don’t think I’ve probably ever really thought about it like that when I was younger, but I was like, man, these are farmers and they have all these like similar issues, but it’s shellfish.

Bridget Coon:
And so I got to work on cool projects that directly related back to agriculture and the Pacific Northwest based on the people that this company worked for. And then I kind of got poached from there back to Dino Rossi’s gubernatorial campaign in 2008, and that’s how I ended up back in Washington. Not sure if I would stay after doing a eight month campaign stint, but I got a master’s degree in there somewhere. I don’t like-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been busy.

Bridget Coon:
I don’t know. Like I wasn’t as tired as I am now. Is that weird? I feel like, maybe I guess-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know the feeling. I totally know the feeling.

Bridget Coon:
You know it, you get it. I packed a lot in during that sort of like time in my 20s and ended up back in Washington. And then after that campaign, we lost, this happens and you need a new job or even when you win you need a new job. So from there I ended up working for Reagan Dunn on the King County council. So I worked at downtown Seattle in the courthouse and I did agriculture land use and communications for him. So I started finding my way into this sort of like jobs I didn’t know existed when I was even in college and this direction that while I had sort of just been taking great opportunities that presented themselves to me through networking and just where I was being led.

Bridget Coon:
I did stop at one point, I was like, oh, I guess I am doing what I really probably, as a young person thought I could be useful doing. And then my parents were still farming in that area. So I would just on the weekends I was at their place, but yeah, I was probably … figured out that I was like the only person on the 12th floor of the King County courthouse involved in policymaking for the council that had any agriculture background whatsoever. So I felt the need to like get in there and make sure that some of those interests were being represented. And then again, these issues that can be oversimplified walked back and explained.

Dillon Honcoop:
So then how did you end up in Eastern Washington, because we got you all the way to DC-

Bridget Coon:
We’re back.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and then all the way back to Seattle-

Bridget Coon:
We’re almost back. Sorry this is a long story. I know it’s a long story.

Dillon Honcoop:
And now we’ve got to get you … No, you said lots of twists and turns, so I wanted to hear them.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, it’s interesting. And so it’s like I find it interesting when I stopped. I don’t often stop and think about it. Nobody has time for that, but after working for Reagan, Patty over at the Beef Commission dialed me up and she was looking for someone in like in consumer information space that at that time the Beef Commission board had said, “Hey, we want to really invest in telling the production side.” Like they’re seeing that people have more interest in how food’s raised, but like the knowledge gap is really vast. And then we’re getting all these sort of negative myths developing around how we raise cattle.

Bridget Coon:
And so that’s why I was attracted to it. I mean, I like cooking beef. Like I love eating and cooking beef. But I wasn’t attracted to the job to like teach people how to make chili with five ingredients or I mean, I do, I will say like, searing, I love smoking my trigger. I mean, there’s some cool stuff to do with meat, it’s one of my hobbies, but I really was like, this is an opportunity to take things like so full circle back to the industry that I grew up in and do that communications work that clearly needed to be done and still needs to be done today. And so that was like 2010, and I just sort of right after I started that job coincidentally that my now husband, he is a rancher.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was he already doing that at that time?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. So his dad … how did this work? So it’s like literally the second or third day on the job was like the Washington Cattleman’s convention. It was over in Sancadia. And it’s one of those instances where you’re the new person and everyone meets you, but you don’t necessarily meet everyone. And I had some interaction with Dick Coon, my now father-in-law because one of my first projects that first week was reviewing some ad, some radio ads that he had voiced.

Bridget Coon:
And then also there was some copy and they’ve spelled Benge where we are now, they spelled it wrong. And I knew that because I’d been traveling 26 past the sign to Benge, to WSU, to Pullman all those years before.

Dillon Honcoop:
And now you live in Benge.

Bridget Coon:
And here I am. But anyway, so I’d had just light interaction with Dick and I didn’t know what was going on yet. I was just trying to get with my job. I mean, that’s the zone I’d been in at that point since college and so … I don’t know if I should go into this, you can cut it out, but it’s kind of funny.

Dillon Honcoop:
This means it’s about to be the best part of the interview when people say that, you know something good is coming, so you must carry on that.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s funny, it’s a little funny. This is kind of hilarious and I still find it a little bit hilarious. So my now family, my in-laws were all there at the convention. And my now brother-in-law, my now husband was on the way and he was just joining everyone. And apparently my now brother-in-law kind of like saw me in the hallway and didn’t know anything about me yet, right? But he’s texting him, like you need to get here and you need to like, maybe meet this person, you know like.

Bridget Coon:
So this is all happening, I have no idea this is happening. He gets there. So the Beef Commission meeting is going on. This is my first board meeting. And I’m like pretty like trying to figure out what I’m doing here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Zoned in on the work.

Bridget Coon:
Zoned in, and these two dudes come in to the meeting and I remember Patty leaning over to me and saying, “Who are those guys?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I just started,” because she likes to know who’s in the meetings. So I had no idea, never met him and then fast forward to January. So it was November, January, a few months later. There’s a program up that WSU did and it was for everyone from a rancher, to a feed yard employee, to a packer. It’s like this cool course about beef, everything from like genetics and like range management to, we made sausage and we looked at grading the rib-eyes that the grade that they come in with. It’s a-

Dillon Honcoop:
A beef boot camp.

Bridget Coon:
Beef boot camp, but that’s not what they called it but they should have. Anyway, so last minute-

Dillon Honcoop:
I didn’t even plan on the alliteration for that.

Bridget Coon:
So much alliteration, so good.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s awesome.

Bridget Coon:
So anyway, my father-in-law and my now husband kind of last minute decided because there were like an hour from Pullman here, decided to join as attendees, and then the Beef Commission is sponsored to a degree. And so I was kind of sent over to write it up and do some promotion after the fact. And so you’re so really new and I’m like, everyone’s just so nice, but really like he was talking me up, he was chatting me up the whole two or three days as this thing was going on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait a second. So he just happened to decide to go to this beef boot camp.

Bridget Coon:
I didn’t even know I was going until like a few days before, because we weren’t … it was kind of not essential.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, he wasn’t-

Bridget Coon:
So that part, there was no stocking.

Dillon Honcoop:
… working his angles here.

Bridget Coon:
There was like no stocking, it was actually completely … So it’s funny, is like he didn’t shoot his shot in November and I didn’t know he existed. And then in January here we are again and these circles are small in an industry like ours. So not to say that it’s completely out of the blue, but it was not, it was just sort of a coincidence. And he, yeah like by the end of the week, he’s like, “Hey, can I call you sometime or maybe come visit?” Because I lived on the west side, I lived in Auburn and so anyway, I finally let him come visit me like in February, and then he-

Dillon Honcoop:
You say that, so you let him come-

Bridget Coon:
I was in the career zone, man. I was not thinking about this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody talks about friend zone, but is this a step even farther than friend zone?

Bridget Coon:
No, no. There was a lot of text messages. Like if you were to-

Dillon Honcoop:
You career zoned him.

Bridget Coon:
Well, I didn’t obviously. This is why, so then things got real. Things got real so fast. Anyway, so finally I think he came over for like Super Bowl weekend or something and I made him go to a hockey game with like 20 of my friends and family because I’m like that person, the facilitator of fun, like in the family, like that’s kind of my role. And so I was like, “Let’s go to a hockey game, but let’s get a group rate and like get tee shirts or whatever.” So I put them through the paces. We like had to go stop at the beauty shop and like meet my grandma. And like, it was a whole thing, but he was undeterred. And so that was like the beginning of February. He proposed on mother’s day that year, so that’s how I can remember it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holy smokes.

Bridget Coon:
So that was May, and then we’re just kind of going with it. We’re just like sending it, is the only way I can describe it. And so that was May-

Dillon Honcoop:
This whole thing was moving along rather slowly until you suddenly said, you first actually really hung out in February or like dated, whatever you want to call it, and you were engaged to him by mother’s day.

Bridget Coon:
He was highly intentional.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess.

Bridget Coon:
Which I hear is not really a quality of millennials dudes these days, but he was all on board, and so we’re engaged in May and then we got married October 1st.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bridget Coon:
So I actually didn’t know what would become of like my job and which is not the greatest feeling to me because I really care about this type of work and it was really things are going in this direction. And so it was really Patty, my boss that got creative and I had been doing a lot, obviously a lot more of our work is done online. You can do it from anywhere. And so we were able to sort of do a lot of different gyrations with that job that allowed me to stay doing it to a degree. Like I said, I was pregnant 2.6 seconds after we got married. In fact, I didn’t even live here yet.

Bridget Coon:
So essentially we got married October 1st. December 1st was when I moved here and even then I had some events swing that week. And in between that time it was like Thanksgiving. And I was like, okay, I think something’s up, and he like came over for Thanksgiving. And so we had to tell my grandma, like we said, I think we announced it. Like we were thankful. You’re going around and like, what you’re thankful for. And I said, “We’re thankful for fertility.” And my grandmother whose like 90 years old at the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
She cleared in right away?

Bridget Coon:
I mean, her eyes got so big. It’s just like one of those best moments. But she’s passed now and so I just have some of these great moments to be … she was involved in and got to hold our son. But we got to do this sort of announcement on Thanksgiving.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s so awesome.

Bridget Coon:
But I thought it would be a long winter at least on the ranch. So it was really like, oh, I should probably like get doctors, and it was this-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

Bridget Coon:
So life has been pretty fast paced.

Dillon Honcoop:
In less than a year’s time, that was a lot of stuff.

Bridget Coon:
That’s a lot, but I kind of, change has never really bothered me. And I kind of always wondered where I would land in life probably because of that, because I was never like, I want to be an accountant and I will do this. And I tried to be really open minded about having like a suburban life or an urban life, and it’s just none of that ever took. So in some cases it seems like kind of crazy to be out here, but really to me it like feels right. Living next door to family, we had that type of setup growing up.

Bridget Coon:
And so to have my kids see their grandparents, their great grandmother lives next door here. We were just planting vegetables and seeds in the garden the other day. And so I go from like, “Hey, I need to focus on explaining to people why our processing plants are slowed down,” and there’s like space in the meat case, in a situation like this and work on those tougher issues. And then I’m like, “Let’s go plant some vegetables in the garden with Nana,” because I mean, we need to do these things and we have this ability to do it here.

Bridget Coon:
So I really couldn’t be more thrilled at how things kind of have shaken out. And my husband and I have these conversations sometimes. Even like after really hard days, which are just sucky days where things just go wrong and they can go wrong with your kids. They can go wrong with my work. They can go wrong with the ranch. And like some days can be pretty rough. And it’s not enough just like scenic out here well, but like there’s been more than a few times where we’ve stopped and been like, “Yeah, I don’t really care. I feel like this is where I would want to be.” And so you can’t really deny that feeling. And so I’ve kind of just started going with it, several years ago and it’s only grown it hasn’t sort of … so luckily like really short term decisions have worked out.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the part where I say, but wait, there’s more, that’s just part one of the conversation. And she shares so much more of her story and insight into food and farming and ranching and what’s going on in the world. Bridget Coon part two is next week, so make sure to stay tuned for that, make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it. People keep asking me, “Where can we find your podcasts?” Pretty much on any of the podcasts platforms out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I have been mentioning to people and I’ll say this to you as well, if there is a platform that I’m not on that you think I should be, send me a message dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address, right to my phone. I’ll see it right away and I’ll figure out if there’s any way to get on that platform, we’ll do it. Also, @rfrp_podcast on Instagram and Real Food Real People podcast on Facebook. Don’t forget to follow us there. What is it? @rfrp_podcast as well on Twitter. So make sure to connect with us there and continue to follow along as I travel all over Washington State to meet and really get to know the people behind our food.

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. And by dairy farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Derek Friehe | #028 06/22/2020

Just because a farm is big doesn't necessarily mean it's not a family farm. Derek Friehe shares the story of his family's roots, and his unconventional path back to farming.

Transcript

Derek Friehe:
I’m gonna go through some of those bad years. I’m not just… It’s my land, it’s where I grew up, it’s many cases, my parents or grandparents are buried here, it’s where I want to raise my kids. It’s more… Yeah, it’s not just a job.

Announcer:
This is The Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Every time I interview a person behind our food here in Washington State, there’s some new cool twist. This week certainly isn’t any different with Derek Friehe and his family’s roots in Europe, and how that came to Washington State, his background in the corporate world and coming back to the farm. He’s got a lot to share. We get into also what’s happening right now with COVID and how it’s affected potato… Washington State here is one of the biggest potato-growing regions in the country, and they’ve been very hard hit by all the market disruptions and things that happen with potatoes and people not going to restaurants anymore and buying French fries. That’s actually been a huge thing for folks. So, he shares all of it, lots of story to get to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for joining us this week. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this podcast, The Real Food Real People podcast, is documenting my journey all over Washington. This time we go to Moses Lake, and we hear again from Derek Friehe of Friehe Farms, a big farm but still with family roots and it’s all about the family still as large as they’ve gotten in, and that’s a really cool part of this too. So often, farms are judged by how big or small they are, and I think that’s the wrong criteria to use because there are big farms that are great. It’s not about the size of the farm and you’ll hear that in Derek’s attitude and just his whole outlook on why he does what he does in growing food. Join with me in getting to know Derek Friehe of Friehe Farms in Moses Lake, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been doing the farming thing your whole life. You’re multiple generations into this, right?

Derek Friehe:
Second generation.

Dillon Honcoop:
Second?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, so I’ve been back on the farm five years. I mean, I grew up on the farm and then has gone for like eight years down in California. I went to school down there. Yeah, second-generation farmer. My dad actually emigrated from Germany over 30 or 35 years ago and kind of settled. He married my mom who’s American. She is from Seattle and so he kind of discovered the Northwest and sold the little farm over there and started here and it was bad time to be farming, good time to have opportunities to buy land, and so he just started small and found this area just at east of Moses Lake that was started developing. And yeah, it’s grown quite a bit since he took it over 35 years ago. My brother and I are then back five to six years now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you and your brother are in the farming operation now, but had both left the farm?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We actually went to the same school down in California, and we weren’t studying ag so it’s weird. My dad was trying to figure out what to do with the farm, how to transition out of it himself while hoping to get some family back, but at the time we weren’t studying ag. We both studied business, which proved to be really helpful, but still-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

Derek Friehe:
… it’s definitely… I mean, you got to know your stuff, like agronomy-wise, if you want to be successful, so that’s been the steepest learning curve. I enjoy the business side and that’s kind of both. But yeah, farming is just a lot of experience. Just year over year knowledge gain, but yeah, it’s nice to have some of the theory behind it and I’ve got supplemented with ag classes here and there, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, do you wish that you would have gone to school for-

Derek Friehe:
I don’t know-

Dillon Honcoop:
… real agronomy or farming or something-

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in agriculture?

Derek Friehe:
In some ways, yeah. I wish I would have, but then that’s a counterfactual. You go back and what if… I met my wife there, some of my best friends, awesome experiences shaped who I am now and so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So what-

Derek Friehe:
… education standpoint, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what was your plan at that point? Like what were you wanting to do?

Derek Friehe:
I didn’t know. I was two years undecided down there, trying to figure it out. I mean, yeah, farming… You’ve heard it before. It’s always like in the back of your mind. If you’ve grown up on it, it’s kind of in your blood. So, even you, you didn’t go back to the farm but you’re still involved in Ag.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Derek Friehe:
Always in the back of my mind. Even going in business is still in the back of my mind like, “Oh, at least the farm’s a business,” and even after post college I’m going into like food-type businesses. Even if those were corporate, but it’s still the food direction with maybe the idea of going back one day and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you knew about that stuff, right?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you were a kid, what was your dad doing farming-wise? How big was the farm? What was he farming at that point?

Derek Friehe:
Every year it seemed like he was growing… I mean, potato is kind of the mainstay of the farm. That’s where a lot of the growth came from. He didn’t farm any potatoes in Germany, so he worked for a farm west of town for years, just kind of learning the ropes of this area, and then he bought one field and then another field. Then, at some point, I think he rented out his ground and somebody else farmed potatoes on his ground and he was just, I think, standing by the side of the field one day and was like, “I could do that. It’s ridiculous. Somebody coming into my field and growing a beautiful spud crop.” Again, a lot of the principles in ag are the same. Potato is a whole different level than like wheat, for example. Now, he’s a good farmer. He had educational background from Germany, and he was good at what he did.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that family history is fascinating. You said he did farm in Germany as well?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, he did. If you’ve ever been over there, all the land is farmed. There’s not a lot of new development. It’s generations of farms that had been kind of held together and there’re all small and kind of broken up. There’s not a lot of big farms. There’s not a lot of opportunity for him, and he was very entrepreneurial, risk taker. There wasn’t that there any room to grow. In those times, it was an okay farm. But for our standards, it was like one field’s worth. It was like 130 acres and that was big over there. So, I think being exposed here and marrying my mom, coming over here, he was like, “Dang, there’s a lot of room to grow here.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
Like I said, the farming wasn’t great. Wheat prices are like two bucks. It was time to get in, even though you weren’t making a ton of money, people are going broke, and so it was a combination of good timing, luck, skill, being an opportunist and risk taker.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did he meet… You said your mom’s from Seattle, how did he meet her? How did that all go down?

Derek Friehe:
She was an exchange student so she was over there, actually in a village like 20 minutes away from where he grew up. I don’t actually think they met there. I think they met in Vienna, somehow randomly. That’s where they met, connected there and then, I think after that they were like, “Oh well.” I don’t know if they ever made the connection that she was staying like… They must have made some kind of connection because when they went back, that’s when they hit it off and had a longer engagement back and forth, and eventually came back here and got married. Actually, my older sister was born over there and then a few months after she was born, they came back, settled here permanently.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you speak German?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, man, I used to be pretty good at it. No, I should’ve taken Spanish.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
No, I went to language school over there for a bit. We were always going over there pretty much every other year or so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Quite a bit of family back in Germany still-

Derek Friehe:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… that you’re connected with?

Derek Friehe:
It was mostly my grandma lived over there. He only had one sister. They only had one kid, not a huge extended family. Just when my grandma was still alive we’d go back over there. But yeah, not as much anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grow up around him, starting to grow this farm. He’s an outside-the-box thinker trying to do something different, bigger, better, and it was all potatoes when you were a kid, or was he already branching out into other stuff too? Because you, guys, do all kinds of stuff.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. And potatoes, especially if you’re on the ground, you got to rotate it so you’re doing potatoes, let’s say, every four years so you’re doing other crops in between.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Derek Friehe:
That’s just the big one that takes most the financial risk and time, money, people. He was doing wheat, corn, things to rotate around now. But yeah, now we’ve delved into organics, a lot of forage crops. Yeah, probably 15 different crops that we do. Most of it, again, is potatoes. So, it’s all kind of rotating around that for the most part.

Dillon Honcoop:
Growing up here, what was it like moving down to basically LA where your school was?

Derek Friehe:
It was a big change, but that’s part of the allure of growing up in a small town and wanting to figure things out and see the big city. I don’t know. I was into sports like high school or so. I got to play soccer down there and, I don’t know, I had the beach and tons of people and they’re just different. My sister had gone there, so I was exposed to it and knew what to expect. It was a good school and, again, I didn’t know I want to be a farmer, so I wasn’t like, “Oh, am I go to WSU or something?”

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it was good. The biggest change probably happened when we had our first kid, so that was kind of the game changer. I loved my job, I liked being down there, a lot of friends, community, but then you have a kid there. Except this tiny little house that’s way overpriced, commuting an hour and a half every day to work, and it just hits you like, “What am I doing here? I don’t want to raise a family here.” It takes, I think, a little bit for some people to go out and experience that before for coming back, so definitely I appreciate a lot more. You have a different boss, you work for a different company, you get a… I don’t know, you learn a lot as opposed to just coming straight back. So, definitely I appreciate it a lot more.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like making that decision? Like, “Okay, we’re going to pack up, we’re going to move back to the farm”?

Derek Friehe:
My brother actually moved back a year before, so he was kind of the test case, like he’s moving back. We kind of keep an eye on how he’s doing, how he’s liking it, and so that definitely helped because it’s definitely a big move. But again, after having a kid and more kids, you want to be close to family, you want to be close to grandparents and have the free babysitting and the community support, and you start thinking long term and made sense from a… and just way of life. I love working outside in my hands, but then you get the challenges of the business side, I can kind of bring my business experience to it, too. So, yeah, it was a little bit of a leap of faith, but also it’s home, it’s not crazy. A lot of people move all over the country into new places, and this wasn’t a new place, it was familiar, so it wasn’t hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
How was it for your dad? I mean, when you tell him, “Hey, yeah, I want to come back to the farm.” Was he pumped about that? Was he like, “Wow, you got to kind of prove yourself”? I know that’s how my dad would be.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. He’s pumped in his own way, he’s German, he’s stoic, he’s… He was pretty excited. You could tell you he was pretty happy. He worked so hard to build this up, and I could see you get up in age and you’re thinking about legacy and what am I passing on and built it up for what? He was wanting to retire and he’d gotten into flying, and so he was doing a lot of that. He was looking for definitely the next generation to step up. Actually, all four of us kids had at some point been all over the country and then we all came back.

Derek Friehe:
Right now, all of us are either in town or my sister is an hour away, but she was an accountant. She was a CPA down in LA, and then eventually came back to the farm for a year before getting married so she was in accounting so she’s in the farm and then… So yeah, everybody’s away and then within two years, everybody’s back. I think they are pretty happy about that. Of course, all the grandkids come and we’re the first one to have a kid and within… Well, he’s now 7 and now there’s 14 grandkids so just…

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, there’s something I love is just because you come back to a small town and get the family element, you got the support structure and let’s have kids and go down to the city and one, two kids, maybe per family. [crosstalk 00:13:19].

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

Derek Friehe:
It’s definitely easier to have bigger families and get that support.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many kids do you have?

Derek Friehe:
I got four.

Dillon Honcoop:
Four kids.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Sister has five, brother has three, youngest sister has two.

Dillon Honcoop:
It just sounds tiring to have that many children running around.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I have two but-

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. No, it’s… I mean, I tell my wife, she works way harder than I do. I can do it, so it’s up to her if we have any more because she’s the one putting in the long days and I come home, I get to play with them, and she’s the one dealing with all the fights and, yeah, pretty amazing what mothers, stay-at-home mothers, they work hard but it’s fun. I love being a dad. I can’t imagine life without them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to you come back to the farm, what does your dad have you do right away? Because on one hand, it’s like, “Well, you’re new here,” but on the other hand, you’re coming in with a business degree and business experience. Did he throw you in a tractor or did he say, “Get in the office and you’re now going to be dealing with our business dealings,” and things like that?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. I think a little bit of both. I think, yeah, it’s hard because at least I was used to that corporate-type life, making big decisions or at least being part of them and then start on the bottom a little bit. I did a little bit of tractor work. I did most tractor in high school and harvest and all that, so I had some experience there. But yeah, definitely kind of grunt doing stuff that like we have high schoolers doing now or interns. So, you do all that first couple of years and get your feet wet there.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it was frustrating, it’s like, “Ah, I should be doing a lot more,” but it’s also laying the foundation and learning a little bit of everything. It’s that tension of, “Yeah, I want to move up quick.” But you can only move up having that ground layer of experience, doing everything, so yeah. It’s also a big farm now, so it’s not like I’m coming back and having to do everything. We have awesome tractor drivers, that’s all they do. They sit on the tractor all day and they’re really good at it. And for me to come, they don’t necessarily need me to come in and do it, as opposed to just a father-son operation where you’re coming in like, “No, sorry, you’re doing everything.” I feel like I still have ton to learn. I’m already six years into this and in some ways, I’m still scratching the surface on a lot of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Interesting. You come from the corporate world. A lot of people say that family farming doesn’t really exist. They’re all big corporate farms. Having come from the corporate world, what’s your reaction to that? Now being in this operation, it’s big. You, guys, farm a lot of acres, got a lot of employees but is it the same as like working for a corporation?

Derek Friehe:
No, not at all. No. Just even you’re stuck in an office all day, you’re all dressed up. It’s meeting after meeting and you’re sitting in front of a computer doing Excel spreadsheets. There’s still a little bit of that here, but it’s not the same at all, especially for a big farm, it feels like a family operation. We got good farm managers and hopefully some amount of organizational structure, but it’s not the same deal. We’re big, we got 50 full-time employees, but I think in the corporate world, that’s pretty small from most of those big corporations.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many acres do you farm between all the different crops you, guys, have?

Derek Friehe:
Probably around 10,000.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people can’t… Even for me coming from Western Washington farming, which is so much smaller. It’s more the size of what you’re talking about your dad doing in Germany, right? That’s hard for me to fathom, but then for you to explain, “No, it’s still like a family. It’s run by the family.” Yeah, you have 50 employees but compared to a big corporation, like you say, that’s nothing.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the ethos of the company? Like when I came in here, I’m seeing signs all over, with COVID going on and thanks for what you do, essential farm employees, seems to be a really upbeat positive kind of vibe you, guys, have here.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I’d like to think so. Hopefully, it starts with leadership and there’s good leaders kind of setting the tone. Farmers by nature have to be optimist, I think, just to keep coming back year after year, so there’s definitely a positive energy, I think, most the time and I think all the COVID stuff. In some ways it’s helped, I think, with the perception of farmers. I think if people went to the grocery store and then all of a sudden, they’re not seeing food on the shelves, I think they start to, it’s just never happened before. I think most people think food grows in the groceries. I don’t know where they think their food comes from. But as soon as it’s not there then they start to wonder like, “Oh, food’s a big deal,” and then you trace it back to who’s growing it and where it’s coming from and, I think, hopefully there’s more of an appreciation for who grows it, supply chains and distribution centers that can get it to you. But yeah, it’s definitely essential. It’s definitely affected our industry for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But no, I think our folks had done a good job of trying to be safe and be smart about how we’re within six feet of each other and doing something trying to, I don’t know if you saw the guy when he first came in, he was cleaning doorknobs and just trying to keep things clean and in my mind, just common sense stuff that maybe we should probably do normally, but it’s only COVID stuff. For us, it was nice because we weren’t all that affected like we got plenty of people that are out of work and sitting at home and… We’re busy, and I don’t really feel the effects too much, which is nice.

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus, you have space. You don’t all have to be crowded together in an office most of the time.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Farming by nature is socially distant, which I prefer.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ve been hearing a lot though about how brutal COVID has been for a lot of different farm markets, meat, dairy, milk being dumped, and then also potatoes and especially here in Washington State, other places too. But I know here in Washington State, we heard stories of potatoes with nowhere to go. How’s that hit you, guys?

Derek Friehe:
It’s definitely affected us on kind of two fronts. It kind of hit during planting which is, we’re northern basin so we’re a little later planting. When we get the news, we hadn’t even started planting yet, so we are able to… I mean, you still have a quarter to a third of your cost in the field already before you even plant the seed. So, we did get cut some of our acres and the processors said, “Hey, you got to cut, let’s say, 10% of your acres.” And so we got to go out and try to find stuff that’s what can we cut that doesn’t have too much money into it. Those are real dollars that have been spent that have basically gone away. But luckily, we had some landlords that were gracious enough to either let us plant something else or just say, “Hey, you can come back next year and grow.”

Derek Friehe:
But yeah, I’ve heard numbers up to 50% on average some guys getting cut and some guys 100%. Some of those direct guys that go right from the field to the plant.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
So they cut the acreage for next year. So, this is 2020 crop but you still have 2019 crop in storage. We still have quite a bit from the fall in storage and so that was the other concern, we’ve heard guys that got basically left… I mean, their potatoes got left in storage, saying, “Hey, we don’t want these anymore. Figure out what to do with them.” That had me more concerned because when you don’t plant them, okay, you eat some of the cost but stuff that’s in storage, those are all full-cost potatoes, right? They’re sitting and if they don’t take those, you’re definitely in a world of hurt and our processors told us you’re just going to store them later. By the time we start harvest this fall, we might still have potatoes from last year in there.

Dillon Honcoop:
How long can you store potatoes and they’ll still be good?

Derek Friehe:
I think if you have a good storage and a good spud, you can go a year or more.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s amazing.

Derek Friehe:
We don’t typically do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the cool part about potatoes, right?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. In that way, yeah. We’re lucky. It’s not like the leafy greens, they’re the perishable, highly perishable stuff, mushroom.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, days if not hours sometimes to get things done with those things. If they’re cutting what they’re going to have you plant, say, now. Well, those are potatoes that will be eaten next year, right?

Derek Friehe:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And let’s hope that we aren’t having panic buying ups and downs and restaurants closed and all this disruption at this time next year. I guess how do you know how much less to plant now when in theory you should plant just as much as you have in the past for the next year?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We’re all contracting potatoes. We don’t really do anything on the open market. It’s the processor who we sell our potatoes to that dictates. They are the big companies, and they’re trying to do their best to forecast, “Hey, what it’s going to look like in a year from now? And what are French fries sales going to be?” They are the ones kind of, I mean… In my mind, they’re guessing, as much as we are, what it’s going to be and so I think they were trying to be conservative and they did not want to go along. That’s why there was definitely a drop off in demand. Obviously, restaurants close, not as many potatoes, French fries. I mean, do you cook French fries at home? It’s not many people do that so if you’re not going out, there’s definitely a demand loss there. But yeah, the big question is for next year. Did they screw themselves by shorting planting, and then all of a sudden, demand picks up and they have short product.

Derek Friehe:
That’s kind of my prediction because I feel like there’s a lot of overreactions happening with COVID and people want to return to normal, people want to go out and eat French fries and have a burger. My guess is they’re going to be short, which in some ways is good for us. We’ll see if it reflects in the price, usually it doesn’t, but it’s better than being long, I guess, for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
To answer your question, yes, I do sometimes make French fries at home.

Derek Friehe:
Nice.

Dillon Honcoop:
I found an old-fashioned, I think it was in an antique store, an old-fashioned potato fry cutter. It’s a little plunger thing, kind of those can crusher things, except it plunges the spud through like a waffle-shaped knife and yeah, it’s pretty awesome. I was thinking about that when this COVID thing was happening and I heard about the problems in the potato markets, it dawned on me. It was like, “Yeah, most people don’t make French fries at home, but they should because they’re awesome and it’s kind of a fun thing to do.”

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Of course, I’ve heard of air fryers and people have typically deep fryers in their house, but there’s different ways of doing it. But the fresh market definitely, people definitely stocked up on potatoes, it just wasn’t the French fried kind.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened to all those potatoes, and is happening I guess, that there’s still some left that there wasn’t a market for? What do you do in that situation? I know the Potato Commission was doing some pretty big events, even like at the Tacoma Dome, getting potatoes to people and stuff. There was some outside-the-box thinking going on, I know.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, but it’s still not making that much of a difference. I mean, I’ve heard numbers as much as a billion potatoes that they’re trying to get rid of and I think they’ve gotten rid of a few million, which sounds like… It is a lot, it’s just kind of a drop in the bucket compared to what they really need to get rid of. I don’t know what they’re going to do. I mean, worst case it goes to the cows but the cows could only eat so much potatoes, I suppose.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But then, I don’t know. It’s going to hurt a lot of guys.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Are there potato operations that will be forced out of business by this whole thing?

Derek Friehe:
I would imagine so. I don’t know. Guys have survived other stuff and hopefully their banks are lenient with them. I don’t know. I mean, we hate to rely on federal bailouts but, I don’t know, some of the federal relief programs haven’t really touched potatoes too much so they kind of need to get that sorted out and then figure out the guys that actually eat it and hopefully they can stay afloat. But yeah, I would imagine it’s going to hurt some guys.

Dillon Honcoop:
The potatoes you, guys, grow, what do they go to? Like French fries, food service kind of stuff, what else? I mean, are they used for [crosstalk 00:25:52]?

Derek Friehe:
I think pretty much all French fries and probably hash browns. So, the plant down the road is who we sell our potatoes to and that’s Simplot, and that’s primarily an export plant. Being in the northwest close to the port, biggest market being Japan and the East Asia, a lot of stuff gets exported that way. McDonald’s-type spec fry is what they’re going for.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean spec fry?

Derek Friehe:
Like the McDonald’s is the gold standard. They have really tight specs for… I mean they want every fry obviously [crosstalk 00:26:26] to look the same, so you need pretty high quality. It has to meet all the quality attributes for them to be able to ship it there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, let’s talk about market disruption and stuff with COVID challenges. It takes me back to your comment about farmers being optimists, and it also makes me think of your background in corporate business. Some of these risks and difficult situations that farmers end up in trying to grow food, would a corporation even make some of those moves that you see farmers saying, “No, we’re going to go forward even though we’ve lost money for a few years, but we think there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Derek Friehe:
That’s an interesting question because even corporation… I mean, there’s all sorts of ways to take risk. A lot of corporations, at least I kind of felt that way. I mean, a lot of times you’re not the one, let’s say, taking the risk. You got a good salary, sometimes you might have stock options, but you’re not necessarily the one, at least where I was at, I was kind of working for a big restaurant chain. It was the franchisees. It was the folks that are investing a bunch of money that were the ones risking a lot and potentially making a lot. I mean, the corporate, you’re more of a cog in the machine a little bit, you’re not as… I think, they’re a little more risk averse.

Derek Friehe:
When it comes to farming, I think there’s something about being tied to the land and that rootedness that gives you the ability to weather stuff or there’s a longevity to it that’s worth seeing through as opposed to something like, “Hey, I’m going to build this house or I’m going to spec it out and see if I can take a gamble. Well, if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to give the keys to the bank and move on to the next thing.” I mean, your land, your livelihood and maybe there’s generations, there’s history, there’s memories there, there’s something about that that I think, yeah, maybe it makes you take the long view in investing in it and saying, “I’m going to go through some of those bad years. It’s my land, it’s where I grew up, it’s many cases, my parents or grandparents are buried here, it’s where I want to raise my kids. It’s more…

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it’s not just a job that I want to risk my future. I mean, you have plenty places, people go out and risk and they have to declare bankruptcy and then move on to the next thing, not farmers as much. I don’t know the statistics on that, but that’s my general sense now that I’m out on the farm. You raise your kids here and it’s a way of life. It’s not just a passive investment that I’m just going to invest like stock market. I have skin on the game but it’s nothing to do with my day-to-day reality-

Dillon Honcoop:
Not your whole life.

Derek Friehe:
… family and tradition and [crosstalk 00:29:20] speculation-

Dillon Honcoop:
I often ask farmers because times can often be tough for farmers. It’s not huge margin stuff. It’s hard work. Then the question sometimes is, “Well, why do farmers keep doing it?” You’ll see these farmers take losses sometimes year after year. It’s like, “Why do you keep doing it?” But I think what you’re explaining there kind of gets at some of the answer, that there’s more to the equation than just the dollars.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. In any business, yeah, you have to make money to keep operating and you can only go so long with the equity of your land before it runs out if you’re not doing a good job or if the markets don’t allow you to succeed. But I think farmers, I think they love what they do, I think it’s not just business that I’ve invested in that can be here one day then gone the next. I mean, I think they love it, they’re passionate about it. It’s typically type of family and I think they like being on a tractor. I think they like touching the dirt, and it’s physical, it’s something you can stand on. And there’s something kind of romantic, fulfilling about like seeing something from start to finish like that where you’re kind of stewarding, kind of a co-operator with the land, with nature.

Derek Friehe:
There’s something kind of beautiful about even being dependent on weather and you definitely play a role, but you’re not in control. I mean, you do as much as you can do, but at some point like the others outside external things that dictate your future, but it’s fun. Come harvest time after a year of planning and trying to do everything right, and weather cooperates and you get to kind of see harvest, I mean, kind of standard cliché, like reap what you sow and you can see the fruits of your labor. I mean, it’s a cliché for a reason. There’s something, yeah, kind of romantic and beautiful about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the secret to growing awesome potatoes?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, what’s even just the process in a nutshell for people who don’t know how potatoes are grown? Like you plant them from basically pieces of potatoes.

Derek Friehe:
You plant them from… yeah. So, it’s pretty amazed when you get into the seed piece of it because I mean, that seed is a third generation seed. So it’s like three years ago, they started with a nuclear like kind of stem and then grew tiny seed from that and then another generation of seed from that. It’s a long process even just to get the seed and that’s a big deal, too because there are certain regions, Montana, someplace in Idaho, Canada that grow really good seed that aren’t infected, don’t have a lot of disease, so that’s a really big deal where you get your seed. And yeah, that’s the first big part of it is getting good seed, doing a good job planting. It’s a lot more complicated than just going down the road and getting some wheat seed or corn seed or something like that.

Derek Friehe:
So, you have to do a lot of research, you have to a lot more. I mean, and then you got to cut it. So, I mean, for four or five weeks we have a whole bay that’s like a little mini factory in there and that’s conveyors and belts and cutting equipment and people on the line cutting, taking bad seed out. I mean, it’s a whole process just to get the seed ready to put in the ground.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, they get the actual full sized seed potatoes and then cut them into pieces?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you can get multiple plants out of one potato that way?

Derek Friehe:
Right. Right. Your seed cost would be astronomical if you’re going big seed, so you’re going for about 2.5 ounces average, that’s what we go for anyway. But obviously, potatoes come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so you’re trying to do your best to cut them down either once or twice to get them in that range.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the key is they need at least a couple of eyes on them because it’s those eyes on the potato.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. You want your eyes on there. If you don’t have eyes, you’re just planting some little piece of potato, that’s not going to do anything. But yeah, about two, two and a half ounces will get plenty of eyes and you’ll be good. So yeah, we plan April and pretty much the whole month and then it’s a long growing season. We’d start harvest September 15 usually and go for a solid month, so it’s one of our actually longer crops. And yeah, it just takes a lot of babies and I think it’s not necessarily a secret, but I think the key is you’re just always checking it. I mean, you just got to babysit.

Derek Friehe:
I have heard it said the most important thing you could put in the field, like the most important input is either your shadow or your boots, or I mean just being there. It’s not a special fertilizer, which you got to get all that stuff right, but you got to be in there. Moisture management’s huge, but yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you got to irrigate a lot to keep them going?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. It would take a lot of water. I mean, some people say 30 inches of water per year, which is on the higher end versus weed that do 17 inches and be fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s what you have those big circles for?

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
With overhead irrigation.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We only get like eight or nine inches of rain here, so we’re absolutely dependent on canal systems, wells to produce enough water for all that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That’s what I was going to ask. Where does that water come from here? Like, if you have those sprinklers in a big pivot, one of those big circle irrigators that goes around, where is that water coming from? Is that from a well that’s underneath that irrigator?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, a couple of different sources. So, we got a canal that runs close to our farm, so we’ll pull out of there for some ground and then we got deep wells for some of it, too, so kind of a combination between those two things. It’s all sorts of water.

Dillon Honcoop:
And out here, where does the water in the canal come from? Is that part of the whole system of dams and rivers?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, so Columbia River, just behind Grand Coulee right there. So, they’ll pump it up, and then it will go into banks, Banks Lake, and that’s a massive reservoir, and then it will go through canal systems. And Billy Clapp Lake down into a whole network of both big and small canals. So, we’re close to the East Low, so one of the biggest canals will pump directly out of. That’s a really good source of water. I mean, it’s I think, 600,000 acres irrigated out of that whole system. And I think we’re only using like 3% of the Columbia River. So, it’s amazing how much water’s going through there and proportionally how little we’re actually using of the river to irrigate all that and create economy that’s pretty massive in this area.

Dillon Honcoop:
And a lot of people fed.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
All over the globe, really.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thinking about all the controversy over the dams and stuff and a lot of people think, “Oh, well, we can replace that hydro power,” but those dams are so much more than just hydro power, right? Hydro power isn’t necessarily for some of the dams in our region. The first most important use, right? It’s irrigation, flood control, and lot of those other things. Well, what did those mean to you in being able to farm here?

Derek Friehe:
I mean, that’s everything. I mean, that’s the only reason people are here. This is a desert. I mean, I don’t know how big Moses Lake was before, but it was pretty small and I don’t think people liked living here for that reason. The dust blows and you can’t even do dryland wheat, really. I mean, you’re getting 40-bushel dryland wheat here, just because we don’t get enough rain. So, you completely transform the whole region of the state that produces food, like you said, for the nation, for around the world. And then families, communities, recreation. I mean, sometimes I complain about the west siders that come over here to kind of get out of the city and fish, hunt, because I mean, there’s boat, recreation, all that stuff. So, it provides for a whole state in a lot of ways, so a pretty amazing area.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of a focus do you guys have on environmental issues with your farm?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I think it’s both. It’s in our self-interest. I mean, yeah, stuff gets mandated that we don’t always like, because they don’t make sense and they’re pretty burdensome. But yeah, big picture, I mean, we want to take care of stuff. I mean, even big push on like soil health and raising organic matter and all that. I mean, yeah, we will run to that. I mean, all that stuff helps us grow crops and keeps things around for again, I go back to the generational thing. I mean, farmers typically are kind of family businesses that they want to keep for generations. So you are thinking long term, you’re thinking, “My kids and grandkids, what are they going to be farming?”

Derek Friehe:
It’s not just, “Hey, I’m going to take a short term, mind the soil and abuse things just, so I can get a short term profit gain. I literally am short handing my kids and my grandkids.” So, there’s like a built in, I think, check on that and you’re looking at the short-term like my decision to put more manure down or green manure crops might not pay off by next year, but you do know like, “Hey. This is the science behind it and this is good,” like a long-term investment that that will pay off at some point, again for future generations and all.

Dillon Honcoop:
Green manure, what does that mean?

Derek Friehe:
Like a plant that’s not necessarily a cash crop, so like after I’d take off wheat or something I could plant like a lagoon or something that builds the soil. I’m not necessarily taking nutrients off, but it could fixate nitrogen, it could kind of build the soil and you’re putting it back in and I mean, that’s a real cost. I got by the seed, I got a plant it, I got to fertilize, sometimes I got to water it, all that stuff just to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Also, the opportunity cost of not getting some other crop off of there, right?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, right, so yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
But that builds the soil, and ultimately, you’re fertilizing your soil in a more natural way.

Derek Friehe:
Yep. Yep. So, that’s a long-term play. I can’t put that on the spreadsheet and say, “Hey, I know my cost and this is, I got a 5% return on that investment.” Like yeah, no, but it’s still good and I’m thinking long-term.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys are doing some organic stuff?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you get into that? What does that involve? And is that potatoes or is that other things?

Derek Friehe:
We haven’t done potatoes yet. We have another processor down the road that does a lot of fresh or processed sweet corn and peas, and so, we’ve gone the sweet corn. It got us into it and then that’s actually my brother’s expertise and what he’s gotten into, so he’s really taken the bull by the horns on the organic and we’ve the three-year process to transition conventional to organic. And so it’s again a long view of like, “All right. We’re going to invest in this and probably take in the shorts and lose money for those three years while we transition.” But definitely a big learning curve on it’s a different way of farming and it definitely has its value and benefits and hardships. I mean, I tried to plant a circle of peas this year and had to plant twice and second time even failed to, so it’s sort of-

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, it was farm conventionally a long time and I think there was some like Pythium build up and because it’s organic, you can’t put any seed treat on it, so I think it just attacks the seed and-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s Pythium?

Derek Friehe:
It’s like bacteria that’s in the soil. I mean, there’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Some soil pest.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s attacks the seed.

Derek Friehe:
There’s all like hundreds of them, thousands that are in there that they’re everywhere. It’s just peas are a little more susceptible. Yeah, that’s organic. I mean, down the road, I did exact same variety with a seed treat and it looks awesome. So, just the cost of doing organic sometimes, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
And such is the way of farming, too where you’re going to do one thing and then you try something different and find out, “Oh, there’s this issue,” some issue that you hadn’t dealt with before.

Derek Friehe:
Yep. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Always something new.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. And I mean, as long as you’re learning from it. I mean, you try to sometimes those are expensive mistakes and yeah, you try to imagine what you’re going to do different next year, even though the second time planting, I thought I had fixed that, I think and apparently not, but yeah, that’s what’s great about farming, right? You’re not producing a widget. I mean, it’s everything’s changing. There’s a hundred different variables that go into producing good crop. So, there’s always something different and you’re always puzzling, always trying to figure it out and it keeps you on your toes and sometimes awake at night, but it’s fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what do you all grow? I guess we’ve talked a lot about potatoes.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you mentioned sweet corn and you mentioned something else, too.

Derek Friehe:
Wheat.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you talked about peas and wheat.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Bluegrass seed is another big one, so Kentucky Bluegrass seed is another big rotational crop. And then we’ve gotten into organic asparagus is a new growing emerging crop on our farm, which is interesting because it’s like a spring harvest, so while we’re planting everything else, we’re harvesting the asparagus, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
When do you plant the asparagus then?

Derek Friehe:
Well, that’s also-

Dillon Honcoop:
In the fall or in the middle of winter, or what?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, we just actually got done planting another field.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Derek Friehe:
But it’s going to be three years until you’re in production.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really? Wow.

Derek Friehe:
It’s a long, it’s a perennial crop, so it could stand in the ground for 10, 15 years, but yeah, that’s the latest and greatest on our farm. But yeah, like I said, alfalfa, Timothy hay, sometimes we do beans if fits in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s all about-

Derek Friehe:
Canola seed, a couple of fields of that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s all about the rotation or which dirt given field is or what makes the call on that?

Derek Friehe:
Well, because potatoes the big one, we’re rotating around that, so you got that every four years, so the other three years, you’re figuring out what to grow. And sweet corn works really good in rotation. It’s good before potatoes. It builds up the soil before going to potatoes. And again, some of us markets. We got a processor down the road, so it makes it really easy to deliver to them. Wheat, I don’t always like to do wheat. It’s not that profitable, but it works really well before bluegrass. And the Bluegrass is good from both the soil health standpoint and seed crops. You can sometimes make more money. So, kind of between those solid four and then you can mix it up here and there.

Derek Friehe:
And doing a lot of alfalfa because it transitions really well to organic, so your number one issue in organic is weeds. You’re just constantly dealing with weeds and so alfalfa because you’re cutting it four times a year, you’re constantly picking out weeds. So it’s an easier way to transition and you still have a crop that you’re hopefully breaking even on or making some money on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where does that alfalfa go? I mean, that’s bailed up as hay or is it forage, like forage crop?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. So, it’s also mostly exported, too if it’s high enough quality. So, down the road, we got some friends that run a press and a lot of times we’ll sell our alfalfa to them. They’ll press it, cube it, put it into containers and ship it overseas, so to Asia and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And they’re feeding it to cattle over there?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, dairy cows. I think dairy cow is a big one. Sometimes horses, but cattle. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So much stuff to keep track of. How do you track at all?

Derek Friehe:
I don’t. I can’t. Yeah. No, we got it we got a good team. We got a lot of guys that keep track of different things. And so, that’s probably, yeah. No one person can keep track of it all, that’s for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you came in coming from the business world and got involved in some of the business stuff here, did you make some changes, kind of say, “Hey, here’s some new ways of going about things,” or how do you manage that kind of stuff?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I mean, not… I see little things that I could have done. Like I took over it stuff, I was like, “We need an IT company. We need better internet.” I mean, people are always complaining about the internet. So, I don’t know. I just found little things that people had issues with that weren’t up to my standards, I guess. We need good internet here. That’s important.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does a farm need internet for?

Derek Friehe:
Oh, my gosh. Well, that’s a good-

Dillon Honcoop:
I could probably answer that question, but you can probably answer it better than me.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, well, especially well, our accounting. We have a really good accounting team and they’re pretty connected with all that stuff. But I mean, you’re a big thing, well, this relates to another issue I saw like utilizing technology was like on pivot, like pivot control, having stuff on your like telemetry, having it on your phone. It’s expensive to get it on your phone. We use field net, so that’s a thematic product and that’s all the circles that we have mostly. But basically getting the panel, the circle panel on your phone and being able to control it from there was like huge. And I definitely made a push to get that done and we tested on a few fields and I was like, “This is a no brainer.” like this is-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what can you control them from your phone, like you could actually irrigator?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. You can start it, you can stop it, you can set programs, you can set when it stops, you can view it from anywhere to figure out where it’s at. If it breaks down, you get a text. I mean, it’s just real time. And having to drive in every single time, wear and tear and pickups. It’s pretty amazing like how much. I mean, sometimes I’m lying in bed, like checking it and I can set a call stop and start, so that it stops at a certain time and that saved me a whole trip out there, like it’s definitely paid for itself. And it’s just one of those technology pieces that is pretty amazing that 15 years ago didn’t have that huge productivity efficiency gains.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that save water? Like being able to make sure that you don’t have issues there and you have your timing right for irrigation?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. I suppose it can save. Yeah, yeah. It can save. I mean, you could just be more precise, you can plan a little better, you can make sure it’s off when it needs to be or check it quicker and make sure either it’s on or off, but more so just for the crop itself. If something happens, you can respond a lot quicker if it’s on and not moving and watering in one place. I mean, just from a crop man, I mean, I think you can do a better job irrigating, get better crops from it, for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus if it breaks down in the middle of the night and just sits there pouring water into one spot and you have a big mud hole and you wasted a bunch of water and you have a big mess on your hands.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah. Yeah or if it really needs water, and it shuts off in the middle of the night, and maybe I wasn’t getting to that field until midmorning, but I can first thing right there, turn it up. It’s going to get hot and needs it, and so yeah, your response. So, ideally, you should be able to get better crops.

Dillon Honcoop:
It makes it hard to get away from work, though.

Derek Friehe:
In some ways.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess, you’d have to wake up in the middle of the night and adjust your irrigation if you wanted to fumble out in bed.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. No, in some ways… Yeah, but yeah. No, but in some ways, it makes it easier like I can take off for weekend and still monitor stuff I need to or make some changes and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Spend actually a little bit of time with your family.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
But keep an eye on the irrigation.

Derek Friehe:
Exactly. Well, I love it. I can’t go back, even though it costs a little bit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But, it’s pretty sweet.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest thing on the farm since you’ve been back? And farming has its challenges, what’s been the most challenging time for you so far?

Derek Friehe:
It’s just the learning curve is steep. I mean, it’s one of those things I want to figure out. I want to solve it a lot quicker than just the seasonality of farming allows for. I encounter problem with planting like, I don’t come around to that specific thing for another year and so it takes me five years to get just those five events to happen as opposed to if it was replicating itself more often. I could really feel like getting up to speed quicker and just the long process and just long enough for years, so that you forget and having to relearn it, and it’s just… I mean, that’s why these good farmers, I mean, they’ve been doing it 50, 60 years. They’d just seen everything and there’s no book that can teach that to you.

Dillon Honcoop:
Even though, them, I mean, 50 years, that’s only 50 chances.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you got to make each one of those count.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that’s a lifetime.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. That’s not very many. I mean, it is and it isn’t. I mean, it’s yeah. You really got to be on top of it and try to ideally take notes or I don’t know. I mean, it’s just, yeah, a lot of it’s by gut for a lot of these guys just because they’ve done it so many times, but it’s taken so many years to get to that point. So, that’s been the toughest thing. I wish I could learn way faster and it’s just sometimes slow.

Dillon Honcoop:
You set some kind of record or something with wheat growing, right?

Derek Friehe:
You saw that, did you?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, what was the story there? As a potato grower, well, obviously you guys grow wheat on your rotation, but it sounds like you’ve really honed in on some cool stuff that you’re doing with growing wheat.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. So I became the wheat guy a couple of years ago and I take this on and managed it. And so, I did and I looking around and I saw that that competition, a lot of the winners were coming out of this area and it’s like, “Man, are we missing something?” They’re literally miles away and they’re getting yields like that, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the competition? Like what’s-

Derek Friehe:
It’s just a national wheat yield competition. I mean, it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s like to see who can get the most off of an acre or how?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, it’s small plots so it’s like three-acre test plot that you got to set it aside, harvest it, weigh it, have it certified by a third party and if it’s a tie enough, you can win the competition. So, it’s not like a full field but it’s still kind of a small sample size. And anyway, I saw that. I saw some of the ground mist, who were involved in that and just reached out to him like, “Hey, we got to grow wheat. Can you help us out?” And so, I brought him in. Yeah and like first year, we took part in it. We got a combination of picking the right spot, good year, good field. And yeah, won it with 180 bushels to the acre, so not that the whole field did that but that three-acre plot that did it. Yeah, it’s cool. Won a trip to San Antonio and yeah, kind of fun for the farm, I think for the guys to see that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, this is what the highest wheat yields in the country?

Derek Friehe:
The nation, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
For certain class oats irrigated spring wheats, so as opposed to either dryland spring wheat or winter wheat or irrigated winter wheat and all that, so in that class, it got the highest. But yeah, it was kind of amazing, because we’re only potato growers, so I think it was surprising for the guys, it’s like, “Oh, okay.” Because we do other crops pretty well too, but it’s kind of fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Something like that though, does that change the way the things that you discover when you’re doing that. Does that change the way you farm the rustier wheat from little the test plot or?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. We’ve definitely made some changes. I mean, it’s a small sample one year. I mean, you take that with a grain of salt, like you need to replicate that for a few years, different fields, see if we can get the same results. But yeah, yeah, I made some changes to the program. And again, I think our farm is more like, “Hey, we’re not going to spend a ton of money on wheat.” It’s low cost. Let’s just plant it because we have to, and it’s a good rotation, but not spending a ton of energy, time on it.

Derek Friehe:
So yeah, I kind of took it over, and I’m still learning a lot and that was part of it, too, is bringing in somebody that can teach and compare notes with and see what they’re doing. So yeah, it’s helpful and yeah, icing on the cake to witness something like that, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What did the long-time wheat farmers in the neighborhood say to you about that really? What are you doing, you young buck?

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
You got lucky.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, pretty much. Yeah, I know. Sometimes, I think it was lucky, but no, it’s a good area. I mean, like I said this area, I think some of the neighbors have worn it before and they’re at the right latitude. We got the right temperatures. I mean, it’s got good water, soil. It all adds up. I mean, I listened to a deal yesterday, I think UK and New Zealand are the highest grossing wheat yields in the world and a guy in New Zealand got like 250 bushels or something. So anyway, that puts in perspective, there’s still a long way to go, but it’s pretty amazing to be able to get those yields.

Dillon Honcoop:
So now, are you gunning for 250 bushels.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think you could do that?

Derek Friehe:
No. Not right away. We’ll get there.

Dillon Honcoop:
[crosstalk 00:54:49], isn’t it?

Derek Friehe:
If I can get it to 200, I’d be happy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. I don’t know if that’s ever happened in the U.S., probably not.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thanks for sharing your story. There’s a lot of cool stuff you guys have going on here and I could sense it right away when I drove onto the farm, just signage and the people here, and it was a really positive vibe.

Derek Friehe:
Oh, good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, I could tell it you guys really care about what you’re doing here.

Derek Friehe:
Good. Yeah. No. It’s a hopefully a good play. I mean, you don’t know what employees are saying behind locked doors, but you hope you create a culture that they look forward to coming to work to and feel taken care of, and feel part of the family.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I appreciate you being willing to open up and share the personal side of all of it, too.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Derek is so relaxed, and it’s just… I mean, obviously, he’s faced challenges and done a lot of different stuff, a lot of hard work, but you can tell he’s just the person that can take it as it comes and keeps a positive attitude and it really was cool visiting the farm there because they’re a big operation but it doesn’t feel like that. Everyone’s communicating and talking. It’s a really positive atmosphere and I really enjoyed my visit there at Friehe Farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you enjoyed this conversation with Derek, make sure to check out our YouTube channel. I’m just starting to get it up and going, so I’ll be adding more stuff as I go here, and hopefully I’ll even be able to add some of the conversation that went on even beyond what we have here on the podcast, some extra conversation that we had. I want to say before it was over, but it’s only over when it’s over and I get my car and drive away. The conversation just continues, so I’ve got more of that to share on our YouTube channel. Just Real Food, Real People on YouTube, just search it up. It should be easy to find.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for your support. Thank you for subscribing Google podcasts, on Spotify, on Apple podcasts, you name it. Also, following our social media channels Real Food, Real People on Facebook, on Twitter and on Instagram, and checking out our website realfoodrealpeople.org. Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop, grew up on a family farm and I just want to share the stories of family farmers and all the other people behind our food, in the restaurant world, in the research world, we’ve had here people who distribute food. All kinds of stuff that is part of bringing food grown here to our tables.

Announcer:
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Andrew Schultz part 2 | #027 06/15/2020

When you have wine from Washington, know that there's a lot of science and a lot of work that goes into it. Viticulturist Andrew Schultz explains in detail the secrets to growing great wine grapes, and how he's always challenging the status quo.

Transcript

Andrew Schultz:
There’s no such thing as retirement. I washed that off a long time ago. I’m just going to get up and I’m going to try and do the thing that I enjoy most every day. This seems to be something that really challenges me, so I’ve stuck to it.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
What gets you up in the morning? I know for me, one of the things is my continuing mission here with the podcast to meet farmers, talk with farmers all over the state, and share their personal stories of how they got to do what they do, all the humanity that they put into the food that we then eat. For Andrew Schultz, our guest again this week, what gets him up every morning is the challenge of growing amazing wine grapes, and in often cases, growing them in a way that maybe no one has ever tried before. He’s always pushing the envelope, doing something different. He gets pretty technical in this part two this week.
Honestly, I’m not sure if he may have shared some trade secrets in the conversation really in how he does what he does, but he’s really open on what he does. He’s not trying to hide anything at all. So, he shares a lot about the technical aspect of growing wine grapes, but don’t be intimidated by all the technical details. Maybe people more familiar with some of that stuff will really get into that, but just listen to all the… I mean if you hear anything from all this technical stuff, how he handles irrigation and managing the crop and the soil and all of that, if you take anything from that, it’s just understanding the challenge that someone growing food is up against, even a non-staple like wine, how much goes in to that between the science and the art and people and everything.
Really, really eye-opening to me as a farm kid to hear all the particulars. So, I really enjoyed this conversation myself. I hope that you do too from whatever background you’re coming from, just to appreciate what goes into growing the incredible wine grapes produced here in Washington.
Of course, as Andrew said, I think last week and says again this week too, so much of what you taste in that wine that you buy in the store is a result of how the grapes were grown, the soil that they were in, the weather. So, many things are determined by a grower like Andrew and his team at Brothers In Farms. They’re out in Benton City, by the way. If you didn’t catch last week, that’s part one. You may want to do that for some background, even though I’m sure you can appreciate some of the things he ends up talking about here in part two.
My name is Dillon Honcoop, I should mention that, host here of Real Food Real People Podcast. I grew up on a raspberry farm here in Western Washington. Like I said earlier, I’m just going on a personal mission to go all over Washington state and share the real stories of the real farmers who are producing our food. I really do hope you do, and I think you will enjoy this conversation this week.
What’s your future? What’s your vision for Brothers In Farms and what you guys are doing with custom viticulture? That has to be closely tied then with the future of these wine markets and this region and all of this stuff comes together, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. What I forgot to mention, which I was going to mention earlier, is even in this marketplace, for example, work with one property. They sell their grapes for about twice what anybody else sells them for. Even in this “tight or bulked out marketplace,” those grapes are sold out. So, what I see on the higher end growing side of the people that are more discerning is yeah, absolutely they want to value and there’s ways that they can get there. They have a product line to build, but for some of these real particular things, they’re still being particular on where they buy them from and who’s growing them and what the values are behind growing those.
So, they are still purchasing up, so they’re buying that farmer’s consistency to be able to produce this thing for their customers every year. The price, it obviously matters at some level, but it doesn’t matter as much. So, that’s the same for [inaudible 00:04:52]. This is kind of our niche. We’re willing to do things that other companies aren’t, or maybe they’re so big that they aren’t, or they can’t. So, it’s like the battleship maneuvering in a bathtub type theory. So, where we can turn a corner fast and they may not be able to turn a corner fast or maybe they’re not willing to take a certain type of a measurement to be able to manage a field, that’s how we’re hammering down into our niche, is being willing to do the things or listen to the customer.
I mean, the whole reason I started this business was because a company came in and they bought out a family vineyard. They were like 75 years old, they were ready to sell. So, they sold, they got their uptick on their property. I think they bought it at $250 or $2,500 an acre or something. They sold it for… Would have been 200 or 300 X that value in the end. The person that’s going to buy that to a company. But that company, when they came in, they wanted a farm in certain way. The people that existed in Washington that were farming those properties, they said, “We aren’t willing to do those things.”
Anywhere somebody says, “We aren’t willing to do it,” is an opportunity for somebody to start a business and go do something, and that’s essentially all we did. We said, “Hey, what do you want done? We’ll listen to you. We can build a company to service your needs.” So that’s essentially what we’re looking for, is people like that.
We’ve been successful at finding those people. So, as the future grows, there’s going to be more people asking more discerning questions. We want to put ourselves in the position to be able to answer those questions for those companies or those individuals that need those questions answered.

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys are kind of new kids on the block to this world. Even though the Washington wine world is younger than California and other places, there’s still some people who’ve been around here for a while. What’s the reaction been to you guys coming in, doing things different?

Andrew Schultz:
I mean, to be honest, I don’t pay attention to a lot of stuff, whether it’s pundits on the sideline or whatever it is. We just try to keep our head down and do the right thing every day. I mean, you hear things and probably some of the comments, not that they were direct comments towards me or whatever. I’ve had conversations with guys that have been growing in the state for a long time. One of the comments I had was, “We don’t even really know what to do with this data, necessarily when people take these things and so, what are we going to do with it? It’s a waste of time.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you’re collecting all of these. You’ve got spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of info that you’ve gathered, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah. Essentially, my point was let’s say that none of it’s worth anything, right? We can’t do anything with it. Let’s just say for a second, which we think we can, but let’s say we can’t. If we have those points in the future, we’re going to be able to go back and learn something from what we’ve done in the past, because we’ve taken the data points. I guess to go back, part of our program or why we do what we do or how we got to how we do what we do is I have developed an irrigation model essentially over the last 10 years. The company that came in that we started our business under mainly, that company, that guy had been working on same issues for about 35 years. Him and I saw eye to eye on one of the major factors.
When you look at a great plant in the world and this is the way I looked in, it took me a couple of years to answer this question. What’s the most important factor when you start looking at chaos theory, which is what farming is like. What’s the most important factor? What’s the thing that I can change at the fulcrum to change the whole picture at the end of it? So, I started dialing down. I said, “Okay, what are the three main things in a grapes’ life? It’s sunlight, it’s nitrogen, and it’s water. Sunlight comes in two forms, that which we can’t control, how much heat or how much sun hits the property in an individual a year or timing wise.
And then there’s the amount of sunlight that’s inside the canopy. In Washington state, what I look at is control or any time in a system is what I look is how much control you have is you look at the extremes. So, we don’t irrigate it at all. The plant die, or it’s significantly reduced in size, and the canopy’s 5, 10 inches tall. On the other side of it, we irrigate it all we want and the thing’s 60, 80 inches long. It’s blocked out all the sunlight and the grapes are never going to ripen. The answer’s somewhere in between. So, we can manage that and that’s managed largely with water. And then you go to nitrogen, nitrogen stops in the soil with the absence of water.
So, anything subservient to something else is not as important as the master, which means that water is the number one key. So, then the question becomes how can we manage water and what do we do with water? So, then we get into vine spacing mainly in row, not necessarily from one row to the next, but in row. And then timing and what the soil actually does. What I found on the soil, at least in my opinion, is it’s less about this real sexy version that they give you in the media about all this minerality comes through and all these other things.
Really what has the biggest effect is the physical properties of that soil. How fast does the water go in? How fast doe the water come out? Is the soil compact enough or have enough clay or silt to actually limit the row growth? What happens when you have gravel in it? That structure’s changed. I mean, those are the things that make the biggest impact. So, we kind of hammered down on that. When we started working with the company from California, they came in. They gave us some data sheets on some other things to measure to understand.
So, we started doing that. I built a program for them, which they hadn’t done, or we hadn’t done for measuring the breathing of the plant. That was important, but the models that existed out there in the world before us were all models that were created from these areas that have 40 inches of rain a year. Their model basically said that in the beginning of the year, you start out with all this water in the soil and there may be some more that comes. At some point, you cannot irrigate it enough that you reach some stress threshold that’s key. And then you go back to irrigation, and that’s what quality is. Yet, in Washington, like we could reach that point by the time the grapes go into bloom. So, now what do you do, right? So, we took some-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s stress point of lack of water.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which does what to the plant? You want that to do what?

Andrew Schultz:
Just like a human. You know what I mean? Or any other biological processes, you take something, and you put it underneath stress. And then what happens? In the plant’s version, skins thicken. They create more color to withstand more sunlight, which these are all polyphenolics and things like that. That build up in the plant and that berry size is smaller, because basically the plant just wants to reproduce. So, you’re using it against its rules. Once you reach certain biological points, the plant can’t walk back through that in an individual season. So, once that plant tip shuts down on those shoots, you can’t get them to start again.
Once it’s completely shut down and they’ll shoot, side shoots if you go back to full irrigation at the wrong time or something like that, but the tip won’t regrow. So, we’re kind of using the plant against itself and there’s ways that we’ve measured. So, we had to go back, and we had to take these parameter readings. We had to move them down. We would say, “Okay, well we have this different system. What’s the most efficient way to use that system? And then are the stress levels that they said, are they real? Are the numbers the same?” So, we started looking at research correlation and all that stuff to what that is. To go back to your point on what happens is, it’s like a human and this is the way we look at irrigation. It’s really frequency and timing when you think about it.
So, if you decide to go to the gym like once every two weeks and workout super freaking hard, right? After about six weeks or a year or something like that, you probably won’t have created much of a biological reaction with yourself, at least not as much as if you decided to go to the gym and workout moderately five days a week. You’re going to see a lot more, especially after about 21 days. Plant’s the same way.
So that’s what we do, is we’ve kind of figured out a really nice stress threshold. We hold that plant there for about 21 days, and then we’re able to start building the water back up in the soil. Once that plant walks through that door, it can’t walk back through. We go back to full irrigation. Many times, this puts us in a really good spot in Washington state where we’ve built back the water up in the soil at least on that top 12 inches to where as soon as the heat comes, the plants can withstand it. They don’t have any issues with sour, shrivel, or overstress or something like that when the stress hits the plant.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yup. Is anybody else doing this this way?

Andrew Schultz:
Not in particular. We chose that particular measurement. There’s other ones that are on the cusp, some of these micro-tensiometers and things like that, that can be measured on a 15-minute basis that are the future. That technology is not quite there. We’re also looking at stuff to be able integrate these into a basically like A&M, like these neural networks that can self-learn for a specific location and stuff like that. Because if we can do that, we’re completely automated. But we chose these measurements specifically, because they see past certain things.
A lot of guys will read the measurement of how much water is in the soil, but that doesn’t mean anything. If you have flocks run the soil, which is a real issue in Washington, say starting last year, but the reality is it was here before that. Those attack the roots, and of course that keeps the plant from uptaking enough water.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that bacteria?

Andrew Schultz:
It’s a root louse basically. So, it’s a fly that lives on the… They pupate and all that, live on those roots. We haven’t found the flying version yet. They’re still moving in Washington state vineyards, nonetheless. It’s wiped out the California industry, I think once or twice, and then it’s wiped out France twice in two different times anyway. We’re largely owned rooted here, so we don’t have any rootstocks or anything, which is a real benefit to Washington to a certain extent, but really less is known about that.
There’s nematodes that mute the tips of all the small roots that are out there, and then that affects the water uptake of the plant. They mute the tips and they leased the roots. So, that basically stresses them out and you don’t get as big a root network. So, it doesn’t have the ability to pull out as much water over time. Especially when only start forming groundless, nematodes come up a population. So, there’s issues like that.
There’s cold damage issues and everything. If you read what’s in the soil, it doesn’t necessarily mean what the plant’s actually seeing. So, that’s why we measure the breathing of the plant, because that tells us exactly what that plant is seeing. This is independent of once you started getting into the rootstock conversation, these rootstocks that are going to be going in it and real heavy numbers in Washington state. Each one of those rootstocks deals with water differently. So, that’s going to affect the root mass below and how that plant’s breathing on the top of it. So, those are the things, so that’s why we want to measure what that plant’s actually seeing, and then we backed that up.
The best way to look at it is none of these things… I think some of the colleagues out there, at least the people I’ve talked to, have pointed to some of the measurements that we take and they’re like, “Oh that’s not a cornerstone. That’s not the magic pill.” In reality, none of this stuff is a magic pill and it’s not why we’re doing it. The reality is, is how you figure out where you’re at in black spaces. You take as many data points as possible, and then you can try to triangulate your most probable location and make a decision from there. That’s essentially what we’re doing. We have about four or five measurements that we take during the year to understand what the long-term health of the plant is to keep it doing the same thing that we want it to do.
There’s some indications there with our protocol that we put in place. So, we’ve had to compensate for our compensation. Anyways, so it’s really fun to be able to do it and it’s challenging to see. What’s really cool is when you’re able to come back and reproduce these every year and on different varieties and on different properties, and we’ve done it on about nine different soil types. We played in the rocks last year, which is a really high-end wine region, a common, interesting wine region of Washington. We played in that last year. I found out that soil is actually just as if not more predictable than some of the other soils in Washington. Predominantly everybody thinks that it’s a super wet soil.
To be honest, we did a really good job about getting the water out of there last year and faster than we did on the Ellensburg silt loam, which is their stuff that they consider as really high end down there. Warden’s nice. Some of these different soil types have these different periods of time where things pop up and some of these nematodes too even by variety. Typically speaking, there are some really over-vigorous Merlot blocks out there, and there’s some really under-vigorous Merlot blocks.
What we’ve found on some of these under-vigorous Merlot blocks is the nematodes for whatever reason tend to like them versus other varieties over time. How that ends up coming to fruition is some time in the back end or middle of May, when you wouldn’t even think about doing an irrigation, because you think that there’s water in the soil, those plants pop hot for having a lot of stress. Then you go back in and you do one really small four-hour irrigation, plant goes back to normal and you get everything you want. It’s really cool to see in action.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy. Still this stuff about water is boggling my mind, because everything else seems to be focused on making sure you have enough water and always bringing in enough. Your management isn’t just that. In fact, quite often, it’s about making sure you don’t have too much, which is not what I’m used to at all, but it makes sense when you explain the science of what’s actually going on in the plant there.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. In our case, based on numbers I’ve seen or whatever, we’re probably 20 to 25%. In a lot of cases, less water than say a standard farmer that’s trying to grow decent grapes. So, some guys will say 12 to 15 inches a year or something like that. I mean, I’ve grown some crops on as little as 8 or 9 inches in a year and had excellent results with those grapes too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s an environmental impact even there possibly as well.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, but you know what? I mean, absolutely it’s got an environmental, but from an economic impact standpoint too, it’s fantastic. If we can avoid creating problems that we don’t have to go in there and find solutions for with either chemicals or extra inputs, we’re absolutely going to do that. I mean, every time, hands down. One of the things I like to point to is a property that I ran for about five years. I was tracking all the different forms of labor on that property. Actually, all the properties that we’re running for that guy, but I would break them down at the end of every year. Because otherwise, when you look at labor, it’s just this like big $600,000 pile of money.
But when you start breaking it down to whether it was done with hand work or tractor work or what type of hand work or this part of the season or the other part of the season, we start breaking down those numbers and you look at them over a five-year period. We went in and this is when I was developing that protocol. What we ended up doing in that business was we actually dropped $50,000 of labor off of a 100-acre property.
What’s important about that is that’s $50,000 that we saved, but when I look at labor and this comes from an employee standpoint, you don’t necessarily want to reduce your labor because people’s lives and families and all that stuff are affected. So, what we did in that particular case was we still had some acres to develop. So, we took that same crew and they would have been working on one property to do these certain things. We built another 35 acres over a two-year period on this other property that allowed us to put the time into building this other or extra or additional revenue stream for the business. And then once that came to fruition, we were farming 175 acres of grapes with the exact same number of people. We were farming 110 or 115 to begin with.
This is one of the things I like looking at is how many men per acre does it take the farm it? The year I left, we were farming 1 man for every 15 acres, and 1 to 10 is considered pretty, pretty efficient in hand done farming. So, this is the kind of power that we have with water or some of our inputs. I think it’s an important thing in life in general, like whether it’s farming or anything else. When you look at it and you say, “Okay, Hey everybody’s ready for the new magic bullet or the thing out there that’s going to get us to whatever level or something,” the reality is, is what we should be doing is saying “What can I do better with what I have right now? How can I make me more efficient or a better person or whatever it is?”, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
That applies to so many things.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you tell the consumer out there that’s kind of skeptical? What’s really going on our farms here in the state?

Andrew Schultz:
In general, in Washington state because of our dry conditions where the majority of the stuff has grown at least on this side. I don’t know much about the farming on the West side, so I’d leave that to you. But on this side, I mean, man, because of the lack of water and the no rain and stuff like that and having good growing soils, I mean by and large, we are really efficient. We’re way more sustainable than a lot of growing regions. I think that’s a huge benefit to Washington across the board.
I mean, as a case in point, some of these other regions, they’re spraying 8 to 12 times in a season. The average farmer over here, even for the production stuff, is at 6. We’ve been getting away for the last five years. I’ve sprayed 3 times per season and 2 of those aren’t even chemicals. They were like sulfur in the beginning of the year and then some oil in the mid part. And then at one point, chemical that attacks only mildew. And then after that, we don’t do anything.

Dillon Honcoop:
You do any organic?

Andrew Schultz:
I don’t do organic. Although I had a client that talked to me within the last two months. They’re really interested in trying to produce about 100-acre organic grape vineyard. I look at as like, it’s a challenge for me. But I think with good irrigation practices and pruning practices and stuff like that, I think we could get some organic grapes, and really not have to spray them at all or very, very little if we even did. Because I think that that could happen here in Washington and there’s definitely some guys that have been doing it in the state.
I’d like to do it on a high end level and see what happens with that, because I think it’d be a really fun project to see how efficient we can get and how much we can actually reduce as far as inputs are concerned. So, yeah. So, maybe here in the future, we’ll be working with somebody on that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can the food consumer trust the food that they’re getting from this state?

Andrew Schultz:
Can they trust the food they get from the state? I mean, I think so. I don’t know what’s done in other places. Because I dealt with tree fruit and stuff like that too, when I was farming in the Yakima area. The US in general, we’re being held to these Global GAP standards and they are a pain in the rear end to deal with. You know what I mean? I got audited every year I mean, there’s some stuff that’s even on a ridiculous level. You know what I mean? For example, we had to test all the water sources as far as irrigation water, even for E. coli bacteria and stuff.
For the lay consumer that may not be privy to the research behind that is they looked at… I mean, we’re talking astronomical levels of E. coli in water, like somewhere around 1,200 colony forming units and stuff like that. They were putting it straight on and seeing if it actually went into the apple. What they found is even at these astronomical rates that don’t even exist in an open ditch in the state, they would literally have to put it on like that day. It was more coming in through water, actually sitting on the apple than it was inside of the fruit.
As a case in point, Washington state farmers or farmers in general, at least to my knowledge, we don’t irrigate at least a couple of days before we go pick, because you don’t want the ground to be soft when you’re in there trying to carry around, bends and stuff like that. So, there’s no water even going on these things. In many cases, it’s during the fall where you’ve cut back the irrigation and maybe like once a week anyway. But I mean, we were being held to these standards.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think there’s all the concern about that?

Andrew Schultz:
The biggest part of the concern is these other countries that are producing fruit and produce in the world. Apples aren’t one of them, but there’s definitely some vegetables out there that are really prone to have issues like E. coli. One of those is lettuce. Of course, it’s low growing and then there’s ton of irrigation. There’s water that’s held in between those leaves and stuff like that. I don’t know whether it actually goes inside the lettuce, because I’m not in that industry necessarily.
The standards that these other countries are held to isn’t as strict as what the US is, but you know what I mean. We’re required to have bathrooms for so many people and cleaned on a regular basis and stuff like that. I mean, that stuff that is standard and has been before a Global GAP even existed. So, largely our produce is done right at least from that standpoint or from a health standpoint. It’s when some of those logistics are dropped or whatever that you largely start having issues. By and large, I mean, there’s large farmers in Washington, but nowhere near what there is in other places.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are workers being taken care of well? I know that’s a concern as well. Are people being compensated fairly and treated humanely as they’re doing hard work in the field?

Andrew Schultz:
I was just back in Iowa at a meeting not too long ago. This is a land expo meeting. So, they had a lot of bigwigs there and people that farm thousands of acres over there for soybeans and corn and all that stuff. I happened to stop by a bar when I got there that night. I just wanted a pint after flying over there, so I sat down at this Irish pub. I was having a pint and I chatted with a bartender for a minute. I said, “Hey, man, what’s the minimum wage over here?” They were like, “It was $7.25,” which is a federal rate. I was like, “Are you crapping me?” He said, “No.” I said, “You got to be joking me. Our minimum wage here this year is $13.50.” That’s one of the highest in the States.
Arguably, you’d say cost of living is probably a little bit increased too, but yeah, by and large Washington’s doing a really good job of keeping pace and making sure that people will be in compensated correctly or at least as correctly as possible. You see that in the guys here in Washington. I feel like a lot of the farmers are being treated fairly.
As we transitioned into more mechanical stuff and what that does is that deletes jobs, but those guys don’t go away. They still have a lot of experience. They learn how to work on those pieces of equipment. They learn how to operate them. They’re out there just doing more acres but getting paid a little bit better and doing a little bit of work that’s probably less hard than from the standpoint of that stuff.
Like when I was a kid and not that I spent a lot of time in, but my dad, he’s telling me stories about how they used to pick watermelons. You go out there and you stand in a line. One guy toss 20-pound watermelon to the next guy. The next guy toss to him and next guy to him, and it went all the way into the back of a truck. Some guy would be catching up there and stacking them. So, the backbreaking work isn’t backbreaking anymore, at least in large part so.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about environmental sustainability? Are we doing what we can here in Washington?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. As far as I’m concerned, yeah, absolutely. Actually, the chemicals and things that are out there are really good. We’ve seen a lot of stuff that we’ve done, even though we’ve reduced normal pesticides or chemicals or something like that just by our irrigation practices. Yeah. So, the one thing that we see for what we do is we’ve reduced that, but these chemicals are more pointed. When they go out there, they’re just out there attacking the mildew. They’re not attacking the bees and stuff like that, which is fantastic. This is what I would do if I played this game with organic grapes, is I’d looking at some other options out there other than sulfur, because sulfur even though it’s allowed for organic, a new chem nowadays would just go after the mildew in one way or another, one of its modes of action.
Sulfur goes out there and it’s broad spectrum. It wipes out anything or can affect the fecundity of these other bugs. You might end up with another issue in the vineyard, plus they only last seven days. So, the diesel footprint, because a lot of the tractors run on diesel. The diesel footprint is like three times higher. So, it’s a real question. If I was playing the organic game with organic viticulture, that’s the kind of stuff that I would try to do, is reduce the economical of the diesel footprint and actually try to get the plant to do everything we want it to do, essentially with this low input as possible.
So, typically in these vineyards, we’ve seen really excellent… As a case in point, in last several years, a lot of guys will have to spray for… Which any time, you spray pesticide, they’re bad, because it kills bugs in general, even if you have them that are fairly pointed. Mites is a big issue for dust and stuff like that especially out here in the desert, the dry side of things. But what we’ve seen is by staying as low input as possible, doing a lot of this farming up front in a year, what you end up getting is this really nice abundance of other bugs in the vineyard. So, we’ve seen in many cases, the vineyards I’ve run for last 10 years that those populations will come up in the fall.
I have a fantastic guy that does all my chemical recommendations and everything. He comes out and he’s looking at the beneficial populations. He’s looking at the populations of the bugs that we don’t want, right? As he sees those come up, he’s like, “Hey, don’t do anything right now. Let’s wait another week. I’m going to watch the populations, the beneficials.” In many cases, those beneficials come in as soon as the bad ones come up. They’re eating and taking care of the other guys, and then guess what? Nature balances itself, and it works out in the end.
So, that’s the kind of stuff that we’re trying to wait for to use, to see if it happens naturally. Because if we went in there one time and we sprayed those, now we’ve just upset what population of the beneficials they were before they ramped up to take care of the bad guys and we just wiped out everything that we want. And then we would have to do remedial action and the year after, and the year after, and the year after. And then you ended up in this downhill spiral that you don’t want to be in.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the one thing that person who isn’t on farms at all, doesn’t know anything about farming, but buys and eats food, what should they know about well, I guess with you guys in particular? The wine that they’re drinking from Washington state and any food and farming, what should they know?

Andrew Schultz:
Probably one of the biggest things from a standpoint of why or how we farm is there’s nobody out there. You know what I mean? I can’t speak for the big companies that sell everything to the people, but the individual farmers that are out there, like we’re trying to make a living and we’re trying to do the right thing. We’re not going to do something that is going to screw up our one plot of land that we have, because that’s what we live on. That’s our livelihoods. So, we’re going to try and make the best decisions we can every day. There’s no reason for us to go out there and do more than we have to or not pay attention enough. So, that’s probably the biggest thing. We’re real people out here and we’re trying to make the best decisions possible.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for opening up and just sharing so much about what you do. It’s so obvious that you have a ton of passion for this. Are you going to keep doing this forever?

Andrew Schultz:
I don’t know, man. Yeah, I think so. You know what I mean? Life changes and life does stuff. I try to stay open minded with that, but yeah, absolutely. As far as am I going to stop doing anything? No, I’ll always be doing something until the day I die. There’s no such thing as retirement. I washed that off a long time ago. I’m just going to get up and I’m going to try and do the thing that I enjoy most every day. This seems to be something that really challenges me, so I’ve stuck to it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thanks for sharing some of that with us.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, there’s a good chance that if you have some Washington wine, especially some of the really fancy stuff, you may have had wine from grapes grown by Andrew Schultz and his team at Brothers In Farms. I should have mentioned earlier, I recorded this conversation with Andrew before COVID stuff got crazy. So, I bet some of those answers would be a little bit different as far as just the things that they’re dealing with right now to keep workers and people safe. So, it’s not like they’re ignoring that. I just wanted to mention so that some of that stuff makes sense. Maybe we should even follow up with Andrew. I’d be curious to hear how things are going, because it certainly has presented additional challenges.
Also, I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, but if you do want to catch it, we earlier talked with one of Andrew’s team Javier Valencia. Should look up, see what my Googling skills are to quickly check what episode number that was. I should have checked. Oh, episode 11. Episode 11 was Javier. So, if you want to hear more about Brothers In Farms and from another team member there, check that one out. That’s at realfoodrealpeople.org, of course. What a cool guy. I don’t know if I said it on the podcast yet, but I said it on social media. Previously that after I got done talking with Andrew, I felt like can I get a job here? I’d like to work for you. You just seem like a really smart guy, really organized, and really cutting edge and just willing to try new stuff, not just doing it the same old way.
That gets me pumped up about doing something, whatever it is. I don’t have any particular passion for growing wine grapes. I grew up on a red raspberry farm, so I guess it’s not that much different. I think the whole red raspberry thing is pretty cool. So, yeah, I don’t know.
I’d be interested to hear what your reaction is and certainly feel free to anytime send me a message, a direct message or post something in the comments on any of our social media posts on Instagram. It’s @rfrp_podcast, RFRP, Real Food Real People, @rfrp_podcast on Twitter as well. And then Real Food Real People Podcast on Facebook, or I think technically it’s RFRP.podcast if you want to use the specific handle. Also, you can email me, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Yeah, I think it would be really cool to hear what you think. Maybe if you’ve got questions for people too.
I’d really like to start doing that, start making this more of an interactive process, maybe questions or kinds of farmers or specific farmers you think I should go interview and talk to, or just categorically, like what kind of farmer. I’d love to take your suggestions. Also, if you have any questions for our farmer out there and even farmers that we’ve talked with before, I guess it’s not just farmers on those podcasts either, but people we’ve talked with before. If you have questions for them, we can certainly follow up either with a podcast episode or like a short little Q&A or something on social media. So, let me know.
I want to involve you in this process as well. That’s what it’s all about other than this podcast is documenting my journey, is sharing these people’s stories. I want it to be involving you in the story and in the conversation and in our food system here in Washington and the Pacific Northwest as well. So, thank you again for checking in, being with us this week. We will catch you next week back here 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 and by dairy farmers of Washington supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Andrew Schultz part 1 | #026 06/08/2020

His journey to farming took him to Iraq and back, and now he's changing the way wine grapes are grown in Washington state. Meet Andrew Schultz, US Army veteran and founder of Brothers in Farms near Benton City.

Transcript

Andrew Schultz:
It still felt like maybe I’m not a farmer. I’m pretending or something, but after about year three, year four, after we dealt with some pretty hard curveballs that were thrown to us, I was like, “Okay, I think I’m in this and I think I’m good at it.” Now, I’m a farmer so [laugh].

Announcer 1:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
The amount of work and science and art that goes into those Washington wines that we’ve all grown to love so much is incredible. Our guest this week gives us an eye into what’s going on behind the scenes with all that, how it really works and how they grow amazing grapes here in Washington to make wine. Andrew Schultz is our guest this week and next. I learned so much about growing grapes and how it makes amazing wine in this conversation. I kind of geeked out as a farm kid. Also, some people are just natural born leaders and that’s Andrew.

Dillon Honcoop:
By the end of this conversation, I was feeling like, “Can you hire me?” His vision for what they’re doing, I just wanted to be a part of it. It was magnetic. So, join me in this conversation, really cool stuff. You’re going to learn so much about what really goes into wine and really be inspired by Andrew and his backstory, the things that he went through to lead him to where he is now, incredible stuff. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast and we’re glad that you’re here this week. Don’t forget to subscribe. I know you’ve got a long backstory, but let’s just start with how did you get into farming?

Andrew Schultz:
Farming in general? So, I got out of the service, was where I actually started, were actually I was farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
You served in the Marines?

Andrew Schultz:
I was in the US Army.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the army, yup. Okay.

Andrew Schultz:
I got out. We had the GI Bill and I actually wanted to be a brewer. I became a brewer within six months of exiting. I basically listened to a bunch of podcasts from California while I was driving back and forth, going to school. Then I sat down at a local brewery, I didn’t know I was sitting next to a head brewer. Him and I started having a conversation. He was supposed to teach me how to distill. Instead he calls me up in like a month and asked me to work for him. It was kind of interesting working for him because he liked doing all the production brewing and all that stuff for the main products, but he kicked down the majority of the odd beers to me and brewing club and stuff. So, I ended up brewing 12 to 14 styles, probably on average per year.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was your thing? What was your favorite? I mean, you’re talking odd stuff, what kind of stuff were you working on?

Andrew Schultz:
One of my favorite beers is an Altbier from Germany and reason why I like the Altbier is it’s like the predecessor to the red beer. I’m not even really that much of a red beer fan, but it’s a predecessor to it, which is really cool because Louis Pasteur came out with basically a yeast. It was for pilsners and stuff like that, produces a lot more phenolics and that’s why they have a lagering process. Back in the day, they didn’t have temperature control for grain to be able to roast it. So, it was either really heavily toasted or it was really lightly toasted.

Andrew Schultz:
So, how they created these red beers out there back in the day was it was built and fermented and treated just like a Pilsner except for in the process, in the beginning, they had a small portion of really heavily roasted grain essentially. So, what you end up getting is this really light bodied beer that has this roastiness to it. So, that was one of my favorite styles of beer that I like brewing.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re making me thirsty for beer already. We’ve just started talking. This isn’t good.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, I should have brought some beer along with.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So, you were in brewing, and then how did that lead to farming?

Andrew Schultz:
Well, so I was going to community college in Pendleton for the first six months to pick up classes because I needed to do something after I got out. I basically took nine months off of not working or whatever. Started at WSU in the fall, had that conversation with that brewer sometime around August or September right after I’d started classes, and was living in Tri-Cities and bought a home. So, I actually accepted that job to be the brewer and I did it on the weekends.

Andrew Schultz:
And then at the same time, I’d send an email to a professor that worked at IAREC which is Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Prosser, one of the largest research centers in the US for agriculture. It was Dr. Naidu Rayapati. He was interested in having somebody basically help him do grape leaf roll virus epidemiology, and I accepted that as well. That was flex time during school. So, basically, in the afternoons during the week, I would go out and I would count these fields based on this visual identification. We put them in Excel sheets to map the virus spread over a number of years.

Andrew Schultz:
I’ve worked with him for about 11 years now in different capacities over the last three or four years because I’ve had different jobs but we still do research on our properties and use him quite a bit to help him understand how to deal with that major virus in the wine industry. It was funny because they put me on this property that we’re out right now, which is Klipsun Vineyards. I met the GM at the time which was Julia cook, and she ended up hiring me for a job because she liked me. So, so now I got three jobs, right? Plus, I was taking full time classes 15, 16 credit hours in school.

Andrew Schultz:
What I said when I was going into essentially school, “If I’m going to go to school for this thing, I’m going to work in the industry that I’m going to school for so that I can cut the curve of actually getting a good paying job when I get out and all those other things.” I wasn’t planning on forming yet at the time by picking up those two jobs, the epidemiology job and then work in flex time as a VitTech at Klipsun. I actually fell in love with farming. I was looking for a solution, I don’t want to be in an office anymore, sitting behind a desk. I found out I was pretty good at, so I just kind of hammered down on that. So, then I said, “Well, brewing seemed to be pretty easy. I think I’m going to go this farming path.”

Dillon Honcoop:
You wanted more of a challenge.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah, I think that’s really what it came down to in the end based on the other jobs and stuff I’ve had to pass, I’m a systems thinker. So, the ultimate system is one that takes away a lot of control, and you still have to get the same outcome in the end. That’s essentially a really concise way to put farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
There are so many things that are just entirely out of your control, aren’t there?

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest thing for you guys that’s you can’t control it and it could totally mess you up?

Andrew Schultz:
Trying to understand how much heat’s going to be in a particular year, you can build your crop a different way. But for the most part, now we’ve kind of systematize the whole thing, at least the way that my company looks at growing grapes. So, we measure a bunch of different factors in the vineyard essentially that help us understand how much light is coming into the canopy. We really do that on how many shoots are per lineal foot within a canopy, and then the trellis equation basically says that you have to have 40 inches of canopy so we do what we can to get there. And then the fruit load should be as far as what we’ve seen for really high-quality stuff between 1.6 and 1.8 pounds per foot of court on out there.

Andrew Schultz:
So, if you can hit all those parameters in any one year, then by and large you’ll get what you want in the end. But we create all those systems, because every year and I have yet to see anything different, these are all decisions. If we hit these, then we should be in some pretty high-quality bracket. What that allows us to do is that systematizes a lot of our normal decision-making process and that kind of allow us to basically manage the anomalies. They happen different every year. 2016 and 2017 were some of the highest winter rain for our area in the last 20 years. So, getting rid of that water is probably the biggest trick that we have is. Essentially what we do is we let the plant farm that, so we won’t irrigate during that time. So, the plant pulls out and uses as much as possible.

Andrew Schultz:
When we get down to where there’s near zero plant availability, then we basically manage and control that stress over about a three-week period, and then we go back to full irrigation for the rest of the year. So, the biggest trick is being able to get rid of the water and years where we have a bunch, or understand that we don’t have enough, or maybe it’s evenly distributed in the soil and how we’re going to approach those things. So, those are usually the biggest decisions, those types of anomalies. There’s other ones too that pop up some really odd ones. One of them was for example, it would have been 2016, we had a really warm start to the year. So, soil temperatures in the valley were sitting right around 47 degrees.

Andrew Schultz:
A lot of the plants start to come out of dormancy, but it’s a biological system. So, not everything comes out of dormancy evenly. What ends up happening is part of those buds came out of dormancy, and we’re working at a really slow metabolic rate because the temperature went back down for about a month. Part of them hadn’t come out of dormancy. So, when the temperature warmed up, the canopy was uneven a on a per plant basis, which means that it’s not human created. And then two months later, we’re trying to make decisions on how to shut the canopy down or when. You’ve got canes in there that are at your 40 inches, and you’ve got canes in there that are at 30 inches. Which one do you manage to?

Andrew Schultz:
So, what we ended up doing in that particular case was we just bit the bullet on the cost. We managed to the shortest canes, because that was going to get everything to where we wanted. We went back and it ended up not being as bad as we thought. We ran some guys through some machetes real quick. They knocked off the tips of a lot of those canes that were long, and then everything was great.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does this all mean for the wine drinker? All these things that are changing and you’re dealing with, is that changing the flavor, what they experienced when they open that bottle? Is it changing just how much of it’s available?

Andrew Schultz:
So what I can speak to is or at least what my job is or how I view my job is what we do is we try to give the winemaker as much material to use as possible to make the best wine possible. So, some of those things that are, I call them non-purchasable. They absolutely are purchasable. These large companies buy things like mega purple and stuff like that to make wine have more color or tannins that are derived from either other plants or the same plant. A lot of those are a single type of tannin or maybe a single type of acid and not what you actually get in nature, which is this really nice wide breadth of natural acids or natural tannins, different sizes and things like that. So, we try to give that to the winemaker, so they can make the best wine possible.

Andrew Schultz:
One of those things is essentially the skin of the berry has all the stuff in it that makes a wine in case of red wines makes a wine red. It makes a wine have mouthfeel and all these other things that people want, flavor. So, that’s essentially what we’re trying to increase. There’s arguments with the way people look at these things or whatever, but what I kind of view is total polymorphic pigments is really what we’re trying to increase, because that’s the hardest thing from a wine quality standpoint, are the thing that can be washed out by over-irrigation or not enough stress in a particular point in the year.

Andrew Schultz:
So, you can literally have two crops side by side on the same property, same environmental conditions, everything, and one crop will be four tons per acre and the other crop will be four tons per acre. There’s a huge quality difference. The four on the left might take 35 clusters to get to four tons per acre, and the other one might take 25 clusters to get to four tons per acre. At surface to volume ratio is huge so you want-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s going to change the flavor.

Andrew Schultz:
Absolutely. So, you want the one that’s got 35 clusters, because you’ve got more skin in that. So, when they press it out, in many cases with the stuff that we’re producing, and whether it’s a property or part of our management, could be in contention but essentially the numbers that we’ve returned back consistently as high end stuff is considered somewhere around 3,000. Low end management might return about 1,200 in this concentration of total polymeric pigments. Really decent management somewhere in 1,600 to 1,800 range. Our stuff over the last several years, we’ve been producing is somewhere between 25,000 and 28,000.

Andrew Schultz:
The finished product of a lot of these high end wines, they actually take our grapes and manage it down to about 2,100 to 2,200, in some cases 2,300, as opposed to like basically getting those grapes in and then trying to beat the skins to get as much stuff out of them as possible or bleeding off some of the juice and replacing it with water to get the alcohol and concentration to be correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
What makes an amazing wine? I mean, you’re talking about high end wines, what does that mean? What’s a high-end wine? How do you define that? What really kind of separates the wheat from the chaff so to speak?

Andrew Schultz:
That’s a difficult question. A large percentage of Washington State is, say 90+% actually goes to three main companies in the state. So, they formed those grapes completely different. A lot of with machines and stuff like that, and that’s three main wineries. I think, to date, maybe there’s somewhere around 1,000 wineries in Washington State. So, it kind of shows you the breath that exists out there even on that 5 to 10% level. So, the guys that we deal with primarily and what we try to do and what they’re looking for is they want to have the right property that naturally gets to the right bricks and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Bricks being the amount of sugar, of sweetness.

Andrew Schultz:
Absolutely, yeah. They want him to get to right amount of sweetness so that they’re not under ripe and so they produce these flavors. Certain sites lend to that easier every year and some sites don’t, but through correct irrigation and stuff like that, you can essentially build this grape where the winemakers actually take it in and they just try not to screw it up. That’s kind of like what my version of a high-end wine is.

Andrew Schultz:
It doesn’t necessarily mean price point either, because there’s some winemakers out there that are making $25 and $30 bottles that are absolutely worth every penny and more based on their flavor and their winemaking style and how consistent they are. And then there’s guys out there that charge $100, $150, or $200 per bottle. Some of those are really great and some aren’t worth the money either.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was going to ask you. These really high dollar bottles of wine, if I go to a restaurant and see that I can go to the… Well I guess, I was going to say top of those. Usually, it’s the bottom of the list, that bottle that’s $100 and some dollars. Is that really going to be that? But I never buy that one because I can’t afford it. But does it really taste that much better and why?

Andrew Schultz:
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of people give me wine or be in tastings where we’ve done these things and compare them side by side. Yeah, so it’s hit and miss. It’s really hard for the consumer to know. I mean, the reality is, is when they walk into a grocery store and I don’t know what the average is now, but a few years ago, the average was like 1,600 skews or something like that of just wine in one store. When they’re purchasing a $10 or $25 or $30 bottle, even at that end, they don’t want to make a mistake and get something that they don’t like necessarily. So, once they find something that they do, a lot of times they’ll stick-

Dillon Honcoop:
Stick.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, or maybe they go on tasting.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I do. I go there, and I’m like overwhelmed by all the different brands. I try to do some reading for a while. Usually, I’ll spend a few minutes there reading bottles and trying to understand and looking at years and stuff. And then I’m just like, “I don’t know,” and either just kind of pick something that looks cool based on what the graphic design, or something that I’ve had before?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. For people in Washington, I mean, Woodinville’s an excellent resource. Walla Walla, if you want to make a trip, or even in the Tri-Cities area, there’s some major outlets that have a ton of wineries. Now, I think they’re charging some tasting fees, but it’s fun to go out, find something that you like that’s local. Ask the people there and get the story and taste the wine. If you like it, great. I’m sure that anybody can find something that tastes great, is locally produced, and a really high-quality wine at many different price points in Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, when did it hit you that “I am a farmer and I’m passionate about it,” like it became an identity thing for you?

Andrew Schultz:
So, I ended up dropping out of school. I went to four years of college for Viticulture and Enology. I brewed that whole time on the weekend, ended up quitting that job. When I picked up my job to go basically be a General Manager at a farm and where it was 110 acres at the time. In over five years, we built it up to about 175 acres. There’s other properties and tree fruit and stuff that we dealt with besides grapes, but 175 acres of grapes is what we dealt with there in 23 varieties. Part of that was done in test blocks and things like that, but it was a really cool undertaking because you kind of understand all the personalities of these grapes.

Andrew Schultz:
They all have different personalities, and how they grow, or why they want to grow, or how much they want to produce, or how to control them, how they deal with water, or the season. I mean, some like wind, some don’t. Some like a lot of water, some don’t. So, once I moved to his property after the first year, I was like, “Okay, I really kind of dig this.” And then the second year, it was like, “I’m really digging this.” It still felt like maybe I’m not a farmer. I’m pretending or something, but after about year three, year four, after we dealt with some pretty hard curveballs that were thrown to us, I was like, “Okay, I think I’m in this and I think I’m good at it.” Now, I’m a farmer so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you grow up? You didn’t grow up around farming, did you?

Andrew Schultz:
Indirectly. I grew up in Hermiston, Oregon which is a big farming town. I’ve had aunts and uncles. I come from a big family, so aunts and uncles and everything that had been in farming. Some of them currently build stuff for processing facilities and things like that, but other than hanging out with my dad when I was a kid… He worked for a place called Circle C, which did hay cubes. They sold those hay cubes to Japan, but he did that job for 17 years. Probably 5 or 6 of those years, I was old enough to remember. We’d go on truck rides and stuff together. I go out to the farm and stuff, but really wasn’t directly related to or didn’t spend a whole lot of time in any way.

Andrew Schultz:
My grandfather was big farmer, but he died when I was really young, right around 1988 or 1989. He was a German guy, he loved his sheep. He had pigs and a lot of watermelons and stuff that are grown down in Hermiston. But again, I was really young, and I didn’t get exposed to a lot of that. And then going to high school and stuff, I didn’t hang out in FFA or with any of those guys necessarily. I had cowboy friends that farmed wheat and all this stuff, but again wasn’t directly in…

Andrew Schultz:
When I came back from Iraq, because I came back from Iraq and literally was like 8, 10 days later, I out-processed and left Germany. I was back in the US. In that spring, among attending and going into school at Pendleton, I took a greenhouse class, which I really enjoyed. We produce stuff for the local market and so there was timing and all these things that we had to plan for it. It was fantastic. Yeah, so that was kind of when I first started. So, I really wasn’t exposed to it much other than I grew up around it, but I never really dealt with it.

Andrew Schultz:
I was more into going snowboarding and bike, stuff like that when I was a kid, or fishing really, that was my main thing. I think I used to joke, because I fished like 300 days a year or something on the local route. We weren’t even catching anything good. I mean, I could count on my hands. Maybe twice a year, I might get some smelt or something that was running up the river. I might get a smallmouth bass like once a year or something, but the rest of it was all squab fish so.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you were having fun fishing.

Andrew Schultz:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fishing is more about the process, right? Which is why I’m no good at it, because I have no patience. Talk about the army. Did you go into the army right after high school?

Andrew Schultz:
No, I didn’t, kind of took an odd path. I went in at 24, which is a lot older. So, they had to put me right around 2004. I didn’t go into the army. There’s a lot of people at that time when they were going in the army, they were going in because of country pride or family tradition type of deal, or something that’s probably the main stuff. I went in at that time mainly because, one, I think I was trying to escape my situation. Somewhere on the back end, now that I look back at it, not that I was in a bad situation, just that I felt like I needed to change or do something.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have you been doing after high school then up until 24? How was enlisting?

Andrew Schultz:
I was fairly successful. I’ve always been put in charge of stuff. The same thing happen when I went into service too, but at 16 years old, I was supposed to be a busboy. Within three months of getting hired there, they fired the chef. He asked me, “Hey, kid, are you hungry?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well then cook it yourself,” and he used an expletive when he did. The guy was kind of a jerk. He was a Type A individual, so he’d written all these notes all over the kitchen. So, he taught me how to read all of his notes. Three months later, when he got fired on a Thursday night, the owner thought that he was going to come back. He didn’t. It was like Friday.

Dillon Honcoop:
Called his bluff.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, and it was a steakhouse in Echo, Oregon, called the Echo Hotel that used to be an operation. It was a pretty good steakhouse. It was four-star at one time, but when I was there, it probably wasn’t. Anyways, so really long pause when the owners like “Hey, does anybody know how to cook prime rib?” Nobody says anything, and the 16-year-old kid is like, “Yeah, I know how to cook it.” We cooked 5-, 6-, 30-pound prime ribs every Friday and Saturday night plus during the week and everything. So, that’s what I did while I was in high school, and I got done doing that. I went into warehousing essentially.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I worked for Walmart Distribution System Center in Hermiston for two years. I was put in charge of the dock within six months, not as a manager or anything, but I ran all the doors. So, we bring in and out, unload 50 trucks in a day. So, that was kind of my first foray into management. So, I had 15 people that would take all the pallets around the warehouse, off of the dock, and 15, 20 people that would unload those trailers. Then I left there and decided to go to school in Portland for art school, which was kind of an odd move, but that was kind of what my passion was at the time. So, I went down there, and started going to that, and started lifting weights when I was in Portland, and ended up dropping out of that school.

Andrew Schultz:
The main reason why I dropped out of that was I basically sat there and for me, I was like, “Well, as a graphic designer, how am I going to sell anything to a world that I don’t know about?” I realized that I didn’t know anything about the world yet, because I’m only 20 years old and lived in a small town all my life except for the last six months or a year or something like that in a big city or a larger city. So, that’s when I kind of dropped out of school and I started working for Sears and warehouse. I did that for a couple years. And then I went into beer and wine distribution, which is actually what I got into. I did that for another year. And then I enlisted in the service and left. I did it for leadership purposes.

Andrew Schultz:
By that point, I’ve been put in charge of warehouses and people and things like that, that I started piecing together how this whole thing worked, even though I wouldn’t really consider myself a real good leader at that point. But yeah, I started piecing all these things together, and I said, “Well 232-year-old organization at the time,” I was like, “they got to know something about leadership.” So, I went in, and that’s exactly what I got schooled on. There was excellent leadership and there was absolutely terrible leadership at the same time. I learned just as much from each one of those individuals as I could. I went in the service. In basic training, I ended up most distinguished honor graduate.

Andrew Schultz:
And then when I went to training for another six or eight months for the radar stuff that we dealt with, I was put in charge of platoons there, and then I was put in charge of the next platoon that I was in on that base. And then I showed up to my unit in Germany. Within about a year, I was put in charge in my section, and then put into a sergeant role at about two and a half years. In the day I was promoted to E-5, they put me in E-6 role to run the division for what we did. And then we were sent to Iraq. And then there was supposed to be an E-7 in charge of us and he got augmented out to Baghdad. So, I ran his show and it’s like an E-5. It was 25 different vehicles. We had two different groups per hours and six different radars and told that we were managing in theater.

Andrew Schultz:
Of course, this came down to a lot of computer programming. We’re doing a reset. We’re basically moving from old internet and things like to actual Category 5 cables and real internet connections, which seems kind of late to be doing that around 2007, but that was a reality. Yeah, and so that was really fun. So, I learned a ton. I didn’t have the dangerous job necessarily in Iraq, but because of where the radars were located and our teams were located, I went to just about every single base. Some of them were absolutely terrible ones, not much bigger than a dog kennel in the middle of the desert in Northern Iraq. So, pretty much everywhere in Baghdad North where we had a base, I’ve stopped by there probably at one time or another.

Dillon Honcoop:
What a unique perspective or at least it seems like it to me, because I don’t think of people going in, enlisting in the army thinking, “I’m going to get basically professional development on leadership.” It makes a ton of sense looking at it from this view, but I know especially at that age, I would not have thought about it that way. Certainly with what was going on in the world at that time, I would have been scared like, “I’m going to be put in harm’s way if I do this,” with what was happening with the Iraq war. That had been going through your head at that point, like, “What am I signing up for here?”

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. To be honest, I mean, the reality is I was just young and dumb. Not that it’s dumb, it’s absolutely fantastic job. There’s great professional development, a lot of pluses for going in and serving the country and doing those things. So, I’m not taking away any of that or anything that anybody else puts in, whether they stay in the whole time or not. Even during a time of war, I mean we don’t really know what that is until we go and see it. So, I didn’t understand it completely and I didn’t understand what the full commitment really is. Because even after you get out, there’s stuff that you have to deal with on a personal level that you didn’t even… I like planning ahead. There’s things that I didn’t understand that I didn’t plan for that happened to me after I got back, and we had to deal with that stuff.

Andrew Schultz:
One really interesting one, I mean, obviously, I don’t know if you’ll get this in this interview or not, but I have a really good memory typically. I don’t know if that’s because I read a ton or not, but I lost it temporarily after I got back. I mean, literally, it was as bad as the day or two after I got back, I mean, I park my car, go into a subway or something like that, and come out. I’d have to search for my car, every single time. I mean, it was really weird.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? What did that?

Andrew Schultz:
What I ended up figuring out later, it took me about six months. It wasn’t quite that apparent. The first few weeks were really apparent, and then after that, I still had issues. One of the issues when I started going to college, WSU during that summer course that I took was I told the teacher. I just said, “Hey man. I’m not trying to be disrespectful or anything like that, but if I don’t show up to class, I may just have forgotten.” That was real, I told him. I said, “I really enjoyed the class, and I really enjoy you as a teacher, but sometimes I just forget this stuff. It’s hard for me to remember and it was. It was four or five years later, I found that old schedule and I looked at it. It was literally it was five days a week at 11:30 AM.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I mean, it was the easiest schedule to remember, but literally I’d be… I lived 40 minutes away at the time or something like that, but it would be like noon and then I’d realized that I forgot my class. So, what I found out what had happened, it really had nothing to do with me lose my memory. But once you’re over there and your priorities are different, remembering where your car parked is parked and stuff like that isn’t a priority, as opposed to the other things that are going on. And then you get back after you haven’t… Because you’re over there and something may happen or whatever.

Andrew Schultz:
So, when you get back, it’s like your mind has built all this stuff of potential or what you can do or whatever when you get back. So, in my mind, I figured out it was just rolling so fast that I just wasn’t paying attention to the things were right in front of my face. So, I kind of retrained my brain to slow down, and take the opportunities that come, and pay attention to the present. It was a real thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically, living and working in a warzone in that capacity, you have to be so keyed up to be managing that.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, and you don’t even think about it. I mean, all the normal things that somebody has is basically taken off your plate. I mean, foods in the same place every day if you’re on a base or something like that, or it might change if you’re on a different base. But you don’t have to worry because foods provided, so you’re not really worried about going to the store. There’s nobody hammering you with marketing or advertising, because you’re not watching TV. I mean, there’s no cell phones or anything back in the day that had any capabilities like that. So, we weren’t doing any of that. The internet still was fairly marginal at that time, especially for what you could get over there plus communications were bad.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I mean, literally, you’re removed from the world. Which is was a good thing too for me, because I saved all my money while I was in Iraq exactly for that reason. We didn’t have to spend it, so I didn’t. I saved and I had probably $40,00 to $50,000 that was saved between… And then I was injected back in January of 2009 to one of the worst economies in American history. I took that money and I bought a house. It’s $57,000, which is ridiculous to think nowadays, because they went up. All those same houses now are selling for like $180,000 and I sold mine after I went to school with a little mortgage and all that stuff. I sold it for $140,000 and that kind of got everything paid off.

Andrew Schultz:
Essentially, I went back to zero but with an education which was fantastic, because I have four years of school and didn’t owe anybody anything. So, then I could start building from there. That’s where the ideation for building a business and stuff like that came from. This is like, “Hey, I’m on a level playing field and I made some smart moves, even though I didn’t realize I was making them when I was that young. We’re going to roll with this.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you see some scary stuff over there in Iraq?

Andrew Schultz:
Personally, no. I mean, I say personally, no. My version in being mortared is probably different than most people’s. Four hundred or 500 feet away is not being mortared in my mind. But to somebody else, it may be or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Like having a mortar hit that close to you?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. Sometimes you don’t even see.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that would be mortared for me. Yikes.

Andrew Schultz:
You don’t even you don’t even see them. I mean, that’s the scary part, right? Yeah, you don’t even see them. It could be at night, like you’re leaving it 12:00 midnight or something like that. You’re walking back to your containerized housing, what they call the CHU. That’s protected by these hesco barriers, which are filled with dirt and stuff like that to keep any shrapnel. Anyways, one could hit, and you don’t know where it hit necessarily. It was fairly close, but didn’t rock your world, so you’re good. I mean, I’ve had to call up. I had a team of sergeants that I was in charge of that would go out and repair these radios.

Andrew Schultz:
There are several times where I had to call up and see whether those guys had… Because there’s several people that died on a base or something like that. We had make sure that our guy was okay and all that. So, I mean, that stuff kind of jerks you in. Of course, we’re dealing with division operation center. So, we’re watching a lot of stuff that happens. We’re seeing a lot of stuff. It’s actually a really good point when we started talking, I’m not saying whether I’d PTSD or not. But when we started talking about that, the battlefield has changed from what it used to be. It used to be there’s this what they call the FLOT, Forward Line of Troops. Bad guys are over there, and good guys are over here. They’re going to clash and something’s going to happen. Now, it’s kind of all around.

Andrew Schultz:
From that standpoint, the safety of the troops and the equipment stuff that they have is I mean, it’s massive. I mean, literally a guy can get shot with an AK-47. If he gets hit in the plate and fall down and he might have a bruise and be a little bit rattled or whatever, but like he’s good, or they can get wounded in other senses and still make it home because of the medical that we have and how fast response time is and all those things that came up. So, what ended up happening is this smaller portion of people go into battle and experiences being a thing. So, maybe in the past, it was like 80% of people on the front line and 20% people in support.

Andrew Schultz:
Now, it’s more like 20% of the people on frontline and 80% in support. So, you concentrate all these experiences into this small number of people, but what’s important is that small number of people, they only see what’s right in front of them and how horrific it may be. The people in the back don’t necessarily see that, but instead of seeing just one or being in one individual scenario, you got all these people that they’re fed information from every area. They’re looking at all these or they’re hearing the response come into these facilities that are making the responses to help these guys out, but they’re doing it for 5 minutes or 10 different areas and all week long and working longer hours too, 18 hour days in some cases doing this stuff. I mean, it just takes a toll on you.

Andrew Schultz:
I mean, even for what we did, I think the most I’ve ever worked was when I was in Iraq. I did 400 days in a row or something ridiculous like that. All of them were 18-hour days. Some of them were 20-hour days. So, that kind of stuff has a toll on the human body in the end. So, you come back and you have some fatigue issues and things you got to figure out how to reset, probably the biggest thing aside from the pills they try giving you or these other things. It’s just exercise, eat right, and try to keep moving.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that affect you now in what you’re doing, that whole experience? I mean, it sounds like there’s definitely some bad, definitely some good as well with the leadership stuff that you were able to do.

Andrew Schultz:
Now, there’s massive amount of humility with people in general. Especially some of the stuff I’ve learned over the last several years, it’s like the world will try and tell you that there’s all these things coming up or they might have priorities for you. But priorities are big, being able to pick and choose which ones are the right priority, where you’re going to put your time and energy, and where you’re not going to put your time and energy. That allows you to get a lot of stuff done. There was, at the time, probably self-judgmental, things like that. I think being self-judgmental on anything is not going to get you going in the right place.

Andrew Schultz:
So, sometimes just dropping that expectation that you’ve created in your mind and just trying to wake up, do the best thing you can in the moment. List your priorities and just keep rocking and rolling. That’s probably how it’s affected me the most but having a really wide experience background as far as that’s concerned and some of the other things I’ve done. I find it funny, especially when I talk to either soldiers or other people. They say, “Well, I’ve done all these things, but I can’t do that, because I don’t have the experience in that.” But the reality is, is those are the backgrounds… Everybody has a really unique background. All of those things when you’re trying to build a team, they come into play.

Andrew Schultz:
So, having all these unique backgrounds put together, you can get some really interesting solutions for and build some teams that have a really strong from taking all these parts and pieces of their lives that they’ve learned and trying to get them to work in unison towards a single goal. So, I think that that kind of realization is good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys do customed Viticulture, and it’s called Brothers in Farms, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is kind of an homage to your military background.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah. One of the questions I asked is “How can we help veterans and stuff like that?” One of my answers to that was okay, let me build something that’s as strong as possible, and then we’re going to start integrating in ways to help service veterans as they get out and all of that. I’ve got some buddies that I met through the school and stuff like that that I went to that are doing some great things in Washington for veterans. So, we’ve been reaching out to those. We may start doing some scholarships for some of these vets that come back to help ease any of the cost and stuff like that as they go through school.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can farming be a good thing to do when you get out? You talked about having that time where you kind of needed to reset.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, first thing I started doing was growing a garden. For veterans that are dealing with stuff… I also picked up a dog too, have had a dog by my side for the last 11 years now that I’ve been out, or it’s been 11 years. Anyways, having something that you need to go out and water and take care of and something that says, “Hey, there’s something out there that’s bigger than you,” that gives you humility and keeps you less focused on yourself and more focused on the things that need to happen. Her name’s Blue. The most inspiring thing I learned during that hard period of my life was every day, she would come in and she would eat the exact same dog food every single day. She was just as happy, if not happier to eat it at that moment than any other time. So, that’s inspiring to see.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of dog is Blue?

Andrew Schultz:
She’s a German Shorthaired Pointer.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys do customed Viticulture, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean?

Andrew Schultz:
Essentially, we do custom farming for clients. So, if a company or person owns a property and they aren’t necessarily interested in taking all the liabilities and all that stuff to grow the grapes or maybe they want a specific product off of that property, my company comes in. We offer the solution to do everything on that property for them and say for doing the sale of grapes essentially everything to get it to harvest and then we harvest it. Their clients come and pick it up and take it back to the winery. Some of the clients are real discerning, and some are less discerning. We take a lot of data and stuff like that, which is different. We’re trying to integrate the newer world into what we do. Part of that is the communications and the computer science and stuff like that.

Andrew Schultz:
So, we built databases in the background of the business to deal with the payroll stuff, and legalities, and chemical records, and all that stuff. So, literally, my guys are going out. If we’re taking a shoot length measurement on a property, they’re doing it on an iPad, and it goes in. Literally the end of the week, we print off a PDF report, send that to the client, shows them exactly what’s going on the property and why we’re making those decisions. So, it’s pretty cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, these are people who want to be able to own a vineyard kind of thing.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup, some are people, some are companies. A lot of them already exist in the marketplace, but as labor price is obviously going up, we’ve taken $1.5 increase this year alone. But over the last five, six years,, we’ve went up about $3 or $4. So, labor gets pretty expensive. For us to come in and say we’re farming 450 acres currently, but we build a crew as such that those people are on and off that property. The tractors are on and off those properties. So, a company or an individual doesn’t have to go in and buy an $80,000 tractor and use it for 500 hours on a property. We can use it for 1,000 hours between all of our properties.

Andrew Schultz:
We might have three or four tractors and have the implements and things like that to do it, not only that, but the labor to be able to go in there and get things done in a timely fashion. So, essentially, we’re leveraging time and creating efficiency through scale. So, several small guys can get a cost that would be economical while we’re taking the brunt of the work and moving it around to properties on an economical level.

Dillon Honcoop:
At that level, it’s just like the custom farming I grew up around. Actually, when I was quite young, my dad was a custom farmer. I mean, his version was he had a tractor and some dirt work implements. He’d to go out and work people’s fields for them, because they were maybe a small dairy farm. They couldn’t afford to have that tractor and implements. He couldn’t either if he was just doing that small amount, but because he was driving on… Yeah, same thing.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Spreading that around and letting somebody else kind of deal with that part of it. Does that put more risk on you though without the reward of being the owner?

Andrew Schultz:
I think if you guys listen to much of my story, I’m not really that worried about risk. I’ve always been kind of a risk taker. I’m pretty good at hedging downsides. The biggest thing as far as risk is concerned is I probably am at some larger amount of risk, but we do a lot of things to hedge those. I mean, we have contracts in place that are put in by attorneys and stuff like that to make sure that that I’m hedging on my bets in the right direction. Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of money floating out there, and making payroll, and stuff like that. I mean, it’s a real deal. That’s why when we look at the values of why we do what we do or how we do what we do, we go back to the original values and that’s what we make decisions on.

Andrew Schultz:
The biggest thing is providing a product to our customers that people like or they want but more importantly, it’s communication and it’s being real with the people. The people being either those in the management level of my business or the people that are actually out doing the work. We’re trying to provide a really solid job for them. From that standpoint, there’s definitely jobs out there that they can get in farming. As the cost increases, what we’ve seen for these other businesses, we’re actually driving a lot of employees from tree fruit or whatever towards us or operations like us. Because as that price increases, those farmers are in many cases asking those employees to do more or by the piece and faster.

Andrew Schultz:
Ours isn’t necessarily about that, we’re more about quality. We’re trying to give them as much work as possible throughout the year. People in general, it doesn’t matter whether they’re working in a field or whether they’re working for business, they want to work for somebody that’s organized. Whatever they do in the field, somebody doesn’t come in and make another decision and say, “Undo that and go do this.” It gets real confusing for somebody. So, those are the types of things that we try to provide to the workers. So, we’ve been successful driving people towards us in a short labor economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How does that go? Are you able to find enough people?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, I mean, we just turned down a couple guys the other day, because we just picked up four to help us with some stuff that we’re trying to get off our plate this spring. We had guys that contact us last year and I said, “Hey, we work in tree fruit. We’d like to come over to you guys because things are getting real tight over there and we see what you guys are doing.” By and large, a lot of these families at workforce, they all go to the same church locally. So, everybody talks behind closed doors, and they find out what’s going on where. So, our perception is good from that standpoint.

Andrew Schultz:
Right now, we’re capping the business at 50 people for the time being, and then we’re going to walk over that 50-person line as soon as I feel comfortable to. But for this year, based on how fast we’ve grown, what I want to do, and what I am doing is we’re investing back into the infrastructure of the business as I build out the administrative side. That’s going to create a really nice concrete, solid launchpad, and then we’re going to ramp it up from there.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future look like? I know, the wine community here in Washington is kind of coming of age from what I’ve heard and read. That it was growing like crazy because it used to be a California thing, and then it became a Washington thing, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Washington on the world stage has been doing amazing. There’s one major reason behind that amongst others, but one of the major reasons behind that is essentially we don’t have very much rain over here in this part of the state. Six inches per year is probably the average. Some cases, we have a little bit more. Some case, we have a little bit less. But again, we go back to what’s the number one thing that’s going to improve quality and it’s water, how much water you have there. So, if you don’t have enough water to grow a great plant, then you get to choose whatever you want to put on it. That’s going to change quality in the end.

Andrew Schultz:
As a case in point, first irrigation in many cases for say Napa Valley is 7/15, so say July 15th or something like that. They’ve already grown up, set the fruits, fruits going in close to Verizon at that point. For us, if we don’t irrigate that grape, by the time it even gets into bloom, we’re not going to have any bloom. So, we get to choose how fast and how long those canes grow, which is going to give us a canopy density not only reduce cost, but canopy density. From a canopy density standpoint, you’re going to get more sunlight into grapes on average year in and year out. If somebody managed to do irrigation correctly, we have the ability to hit really tight brackets on how big those berries are and what kind of concentration levels they have. That’s been playing out.

Andrew Schultz:
As the farmers get better and they have over the last 10 or 11 years, we’ve seen a lot of really good farmers come out and start improving some of their operations, even putting in some of these new trellising system stuff like that that kind of naturally gets the grapes to where they want to be. I think Washington’s got more 90-point wines in this state than any other wine region in the world on a yearly basis is what I’ve been told. That’s massive, that means that we’re just creating a massive amount of really good wines every year. That’s hard for anybody to go back and say, “Well, knock that area.” So, we’re kind of emerging this big power. I think it’s fantastic from a quality standpoint, which is fantastic.

Dillon Honcoop:
But some things are starting to slow down as far as the market for Washington wines, right?

Andrew Schultz:
It’s not just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Or changing.

Andrew Schultz:
It’s not just the Washington market. Essentially, we had several really good years or high crop quantity years. So, the bulk market is full right now. But based on some of the economists that we’ve looked at typically or I’ve talked to or listened to, it happens every so often. They only last two to three years or something like that, and then we bounce back from them. We actually went a fairly long time without that. Although we’re feeling a little bit of pain right now as far as those things are concerned, not a concern over the long run in my opinion.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is part of it what variety is cool at a given time and the amount of time that it takes to get a variety up and producing which is years, right, that the market may have moved on to something else that’s trendy?

Andrew Schultz:
When you start talking about time for planning and investment and stuff like that, in general, I look at crops that you can get a full crop within one year, or say even 18 months or two years or something like that. Typically, those crops have huge swings in varieties and changes and stuff like that, because they’re a lot cheaper and faster. Not they’re necessarily cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than say a vineyard pulling out or something like that. But hops is a big one or has been. Now, there’s some reasons why that market stabilized more than it has in the last 400 or 500 years of its history. With the microbrew’s taken over as opposed to a lot of the large farmers in quantity and volume used.

Andrew Schultz:
But in the grapes, I mean, yeah, it takes three years to get up and get a partial crop. By the time you’ve taken all that cost and about the 25,000 or 30,000 an acre to input that stuff, you’ve got a significant investment. So, most people that are planting are planting safe bets. There are people that will plant out there and they’ll plant some funky stuff. Some of it goes overwhelmed. Some of it doesn’t. Some of it gets changed. But yeah, by and large, when a property goes in, people will make some pretty safe bets as to what they’re going to put in.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the trending for righties over the last few years and how has that been evolving?

Andrew Schultz:
I mean Cab is king. That’s kind of the nature of the beast in the hot wine growing areas of the world. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the cooler growing areas, but Chardonnay is still in the warm growing areas for a while. So, those really haven’t changed a whole lot from the standpoint of what varieties there are. The big thing has changed probably over the last 5 or 10 years is the number of clones that we’ve got that we have of those varieties. So, there’s a lot of opinions floating out there about was it clone 8 or is it close whatever, you name it. I mean, there’s tons of them out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
All that stuff the consumer never sees, because they just see, “I’m buying a bottle of Cabernet.”

Andrew Schultz:
Yup, yeah. We do those tastings and stuff like that to see if there’s any reliability there in one year or the next. Some of them are non-perceptible or would probably be largely non-perceptible to standard customer that’s out there buying it. But essentially a winemaker, the biggest part of their palate or what they’re going to create is… I mean, obviously, they could do it from a clonal standpoint, but the difference is less significant there than if they just chose different growing regions.

Andrew Schultz:
So, you might buy something off of Red Mountain, which is really hot growing region. You might go down to Benton City and buy something else that you’re going to put in that blend that’s maybe a different variety. It might keep a little bit better acid down there. You’re going to blend it with something you get from Walla Walla or maybe higher elevation or down at White Salmon or something like that. That’s one of the cool things about Washington is we have so many microclimates. There’s a lot of really hot and cool places.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what you mean when you talk about a hot growing region and a cool growing region that can just be down the road here, basically.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s two hours right now from here to White Salmon, and we can drop the number of heat units that is received in a year by half.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Schultz:
We’ve got 33,000, 35,000, or 38,000, or whatever the long term is here. We can go down there, it’s literally like 1,500 or 1,600. That affects the types of varieties that you can grow and ripen and changes to season parameters. There’s this heat that’s accumulated over time, but probably the best way to look at what these different growing regions can do is what time bud break happens and then what those temperatures are out or like throughout that period of that grape’s life every day on average, the highs and lows. That’s really going to affect what happens with that grape.

Andrew Schultz:
So, if you have Cabernet Sauvignon that comes out on some property two weeks earlier than on another property, every temperature for the rest of the season is going to be at a different part of that particular plant’s growing cycle. That’s going to end up making the flavor different in the end. So, there’s going to be different parameters that come with that. When a winemaker goes out there, he’s picking and choosing these regions. In many cases, if they’re doing a blend, sometimes they do bend your designates from a single vineyard or something like that.

Andrew Schultz:
But for the most part, he’s going out there and he’s picking Cabernet Sauvignon from three maybe particular locations or maybe it’s three particular growers that he really trusts. And then he’s going to put something together for us customers that hopefully they’ll enjoy.

Announcer 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Doesn’t that change the way you think about Washington wine? I just want to go have some now. Since that conversation that we had, which by the way was pre-COVID, it wasn’t time yet to talk about the impacts that COVID had on the future. It’d be interesting to go back and talk with Andrew now. But it just makes you think different things about the wine that you’re drinking. Andrew Schultz, awesome guy. We get into more big picture stuff next week, so you won’t want to miss that one either. Make sure to check out our website, realfoodrealpeople.org. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow us on social media as well.

Announcer 2:
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 and by dairy farmers of Washington supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Chelsea Putnam | #025 06/01/2020

Although she's an artist and a teacher, Chelsea Putnam only really found herself when she came back to her family's farm. This is her story of renewal and passion for stewarding the land and producing food.

Transcript

Chelsea Putnam:
I had nothing. I had our suitcases and a few things, but no job, no idea what I’m doing. And so I did what I knew and that was to go work in the orchards and to help establish a new farm.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Finding rebirth and renewal on the farm. It’s something that a lot of people have found in their personal stories of farming. And this week we hear from an artist and a teacher who is also a farmer and now started a farmer’s market. She’s got so much to share in such a cool story. Chelsea Putnam is her name and she has kind of a traditional Washington farming background in tree fruit, but then they also grow lavender and have tourism and lodging on their farm. It’s a really diverse perspective that she brings and a cool story where she never expected to be a farmer. And here she is and she loves it. We’ve got a lot to get to. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People podcast. And let’s jump right in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about what it is you guys do here. What is this Trinity gardens thing and what do you guys do?

Chelsea Putnam:
There’s a lot of components to it. We started five years ago and with the idea of just planting some lavender plants, my dad’s an orchardist and my mom’s a retired nurse. And she got bored, as you-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that how she would characterize it?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. She got bored being retired and they drove by this property and it was too good of a deal to pass up, but nothing was on here except for the mobile home and a shop. And so they tossed some ideas around about what to plant, if to plant anything. And we always went to Sequim to visit my grandparents, where lavender capital of the world and we loved it. We always loved it. And so my mom and dad decided lavender, let’s plant some lavender on this property. And so year by year we planted a couple 1,000 plants each year and every year we were like, “How can we generate more revenue from this and not just have some random lavender plants in the ground? Let’s get people out here. Maybe we can make it a venue. Maybe we can hold some events like Sequim farms do.”

Chelsea Putnam:
And so it’s just evolved into this extensive venue where we rent out accommodations on Airbnb. We have a shop on site where we sell all of our handcrafted lavender products. We distill, we steam distill, not alcohol, just lavender essential oil. We will custom distill for other farmers too because the distillation setup is quite expensive.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the difference between steam distillation and using alcohol to extract the essential oil?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, that’s a great question. The steam distillation seems to be from what we’ve talked to other farmers about the way to distill the lavender to get the essential oil. Even though it is an expensive setup, it’s one of the cheaper ways to extract the essential oil or 100% oil from the lavender. And I really don’t know much about any other distillation techniques, so I can’t really speak on it too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, yeah. That was going to be my question, like what do you all do with lavender? And technically we’re cheating a little bit because this is Real Food Real People, but you can’t really eat lavender.

Chelsea Putnam:
You can.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes, you can.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. I’m learning something new already.

Chelsea Putnam:
Amongst the other things that we do on the farm, there are many uses of the lavender itself. We have five different varieties out here on the farm and they are all the same therapeutic qualities, but they have different scent profiles and flavor profiles. Some are really good for using for culinary purposes, whereas some are better for just drying or using as a fresh bouquet or distilling to use as essential oil and products. On the farm we have two really good varieties. And what you would do to use lavender for food is you could dry the buds or use them fresh and a lot of people will use it as a tea, help them sleep at night. You could-

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it taste like?

Chelsea Putnam:
It depends on the variety.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know if I’ve ever tasted lavender.

Chelsea Putnam:
We’ll have to do like a taste test for dry buds.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess, yeah.

Chelsea Putnam:
The ones that are really good for culinary purposes, they are sweeter. Some of them have a vanilla note to them. And so of course if you use it in moderation, you can definitely overdo it. If you overdo it, it’s got that soapy, tastes like you’re eating lavender soap or something. That also comes out in the variety that you choose to use for culinary purposes. But have you ever had a dessert with lavender in it or lavender ice-cream or?

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know if I have.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh my gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

Chelsea Putnam:
Maybe, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe I’m just not that sophisticated.

Chelsea Putnam:
That could be it. You did grow up on a farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Ouch.

Chelsea Putnam:
So did I.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, explain that. Where did you grow up?

Chelsea Putnam:
I grew up in East Wenatchee and we would spend our summers driving out here, working on our apple and cherry orchards where my dad, that’s his primary.

Dillon Honcoop:
Out here being the George area?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh yeah, the George area. Yeah. And we still have a couple of those farms and we still work on them. Yeah, so primarily grew up working in tree fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. What were your jobs as a kid?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh my gosh, so many. At 13, actually my dad started teaching me to do payroll, which was cool. I got to learn a lot of the backside of it, the number side. But then labor wise we would do a lot of swamping, which means our pickers will pick cherries in their lugs, put the lugs down and move on to the next tree. And then we would come through and pick up all those lugs and put them on the blue line, which takes all the bins and the lugs and goes and loads them up into the truck.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s nice, easy leisurely work. Yeah?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, sure, sure, sure. Yeah. I think I still have lower back pain from when I was 13.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, wow.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. But as we got older, we got more responsibilities and now instead of breaking our backs, picking up lugs, so my brother will probably drive the blue line or get to operate the equipment and then I’ll go through in quality control and manage what the pickers are picking. And things like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you still do all the tree fruit too?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the lavender farm?

Chelsea Putnam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot.

Chelsea Putnam:
I know. And in my spare time do pottery and teach.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re going to get into that.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re going to hear all about it. But okay, so what all kinds of tree fruits do you guys do now?

Chelsea Putnam:
So we just do apples and cherries now. At one point we did pears as well. However, my dad does not like how tedious pears can be. They’re delicate, so we just stick to cherries and apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the name of that farm?

Chelsea Putnam:
We operate under, we call Putnam Family Farms because we have three farms. We have Trinity Gardens Lavender Farm, obviously the lavender. And then we have French Camp, which was the original orchard. And then we have Liberty Ridge, which was the second ridge to come into the family.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many acres total?

Chelsea Putnam:
We’re considered a micro-farm with just under 200 acres of cherries and apples. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which to a lot of people they think of micro-farm, they’re like a half acre. Right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
A micro-farm just under 200 acres.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. And that’s the tree fruit industry. It’s just growing so rapidly, especially out in the basin. We have farms that are just hundreds of acres. You drive one straight road and it’s just all red delicious apples or all golden delicious or whatever they might be.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you guys bring in the harvest? You have to bring a lot of workers in to get that done?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Well, the beauty in being a smaller farm and established here, we haven’t really needed to take advantage of the Federal H-2A housing employees, recruiting them from out of the country. We have a lot of families that come back year after year after year. In fact, I’ve known some of these families since I was a child. We have just a rapport. It helps to have a great field manager, who’s been with my dad since they both started farming, so 30 years or so. We have a lot of local workers from Quincy, Georgia area, Royal City, Moses Lake.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about on the lavender farm? How much labor does that take? How big is the actual lavender part?

Chelsea Putnam:
We have just over three acres planted in lavender and we don’t hire anybody. It’s just us. My brother and I and my dad still does. We’ll hand harvest the lavender when it’s time to cut for distillation, usually around August, September timeframe. And we just come out here before the sun comes up because the bees wake up at a certain temperature and they swarm the place. And so we try to get up before them.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know all about that from raspberry farm youth and being a little bit allergic to honeybees.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, no. Really?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It doesn’t go very well.

Chelsea Putnam:
No, I think I’ve only been stung once out here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, you’re lucky.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, I just don’t mess with them. I just let them work.

Dillon Honcoop:
The whole thing is you need to stay calm because they don’t like it when you’re worked up, but I can’t stay calm around them. So frustrating. My dad would always say, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” I’m like, “Dad, I don’t know. I don’t want to go out to the field. If I get stung I’ll be feeling sick for a few days.” “You’ll be fine.”

Chelsea Putnam:
I was just going to ask, how allergic are you? Do you need an EpiPen or anything?

Dillon Honcoop:
They made me carry one for a while. I never had anaphylactic shock reaction, but I would swell like crazy.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, well it’s a good thing you didn’t come out here in June and July when everything was in bloom.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. But I am used to being around them still, trying to maintain my chill.

Chelsea Putnam:
Maintain your chill. That’s funny.

Dillon Honcoop:
Going back to growing up, East Wenatchee, working in fruit. Then what was your plan? Did you want to be a farmer?

Chelsea Putnam:
No, no, no. I was like so far, my ideas of having a career path was so far from farming. And I don’t know why. It wasn’t my passion. It’s not like I hated it. I love coming out here in the summers and being a part of the family business. I wanted to be an art teacher. I went off to college, got my art degree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you go to college?

Chelsea Putnam:
Pacific Lutheran University. Little liberal arts school in Parkland. Technically Tacoma is the address. But yeah. My parents weren’t too thrilled when I was like, “I’m going to major in art.” Like, “What are you going to do with your life?”

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did you do then? You got your degree.

Chelsea Putnam:
I did, I did. Actually, right when I was applying for a MFA programs because really my goal was and still is to be a college professor, teach fine arts at a university. I was applying for master’s programs and I got pregnant with my son. And so I made the choice to put that path on hold, the path to MFA. And I decided to get married and go be a mom to a sweet little boy and live the military wife life. We went to Anchorage and then we lived in North Carolina. From North Carolina we actually separated, my ex-husband and I moved home because it was my only support system. Home is here in George where my parents had just bought a lavender farm or a plot of land to be a lavender farm and the orchards. And so I had nothing.

Chelsea Putnam:
I had our suitcases and a few things, but no job, no idea what I’m doing. And so I did what I knew and that was to go work in the orchards and to help establish a new farm. Through this interesting … It was very therapeutic, I think the lavender farm especially. I have a real emotional attachment to the lavender farm because it became this planting of life and growth and newness, right in a time where I needed all that redirection and new growth. And so as we planted the lavender and it evolved, I’ve seen over the last five years, it’s been a symbol of how I’ve established here and I never thought I would, in agriculture and many other aspects of my life.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like going through all of that? Were you scared?

Chelsea Putnam:
No, I don’t think I ever remember being fearful of the massive amount of change, but it’s because I had the support of my parents. They’ve been my absolute rock and foundation to even the disappointing decision to major in art. They were like, “Okay, well if that’s really what you want.” That’s the approach they’ve always taken. They’re just open armed people and they greet everybody with love and support. And of course they’re going to do that for their daughter and grandchild. They’re like, “We don’t actually care about you. We just want Michael in our lives.” I never really felt intimidated. I still wanted to teach art, hence the reason why we’re sitting in the studio because before I got the job at the school district, I built this with my dad and decided to start teaching art to small groups as a small business. And it brought more people out to the lavender farm where we could entice them and educate them on all things lavender.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you do art and ceramics? Is that kind of your big thing?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, clay is my big thing for sure. Yeah. I’ll do all the other art forms and I teach all the other art forms. But clay, I don’t know, there’s something full circle about clay. You can make something sculptural and abstract and create something wonderful from your imagination and try to sell it for lots of money, if someone’s interested. My favorite thing to do is throwing on the wheel and making functional pottery because that’s the full circle piece, I think where you’re taking something from the ground, from the earth and creating it into a form that’s usable and you can eat out of, you can drink out of, you can serve people and sit around a table and enjoy as just what it is. Yeah. The cat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that the cat? Where is the cat?

Chelsea Putnam:
Outside.

Dillon Honcoop:
I hear a cat and the cat wanted to join the podcast. That’s awesome.

Chelsea Putnam:
I know, I got all distracted too. I was like, “Wait, sound like a baby crying.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s funny.

Chelsea Putnam:
We have two boy cats and they’re absolutely wild out there. They’re the farm cats. They get all the gophers and their rats and my mom likes to feed them. She said, “Oh, they can’t starve.” I’m like, “Well, if you feed them, then they’re not going to get the gophers. You have to starve them a little bit.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What a cruel person.

Chelsea Putnam:
They’re fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re going to be hungry.

Chelsea Putnam:
Did you see them? They’re kind of fat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think they’re doing all right.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, they’re fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
You love the art?

Chelsea Putnam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
And you teach now. Talk about what that experience has been like, becoming a teacher.

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, it’s been one of those experiences where you really just don’t know until you’re in it. There’s no amount of education or training that can prepare you to be in front of 30 kids six times a day that are in middle school, seventh and eighth grade. I get to teach anywhere from 11 to 13-year-old kids. I didn’t think that I would just absolutely adore this age range because like I said, my goal was to go onto college and it still is. Now, I think I envision myself being in this age range to gain experience for a good 10 years or so, at least. Unless, I don’t know. It’s kind of funny. We make all these plans for our lives and then like, I don’t know the universe or God or whatever you believe in, likes to throw monkey wrenches in just for-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s the story of COVID too, right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes. And so this is my first year teaching and it’s like all this like amped up, amped up, doing all this stuff and working until exhaustion actually ruined a relationship I was in. Maybe I let it, but [inaudible 00:18:38]. I just really devoted all my passion and time into being good at this job and I could, because all the farms are seasonal. It works out perfectly. Go teach in the winter time, come out here in the spring and fall or excuse me, spring in summer. And it was just like a perfect little, the missing puzzle piece. Anyways, I just poured everything of myself into this and then it was like, “Oh, this pandemic is happening. Schools are closed for six weeks.”

Chelsea Putnam:
And I was like, “Oh, that’s sad, but I’ll see you in six weeks, it’ll be a good break.” And then without even getting to say bye or anything to all these kids, they’re just like, “Yeah, actually we’re not going back to school.” And it has been interesting, absolutely interesting and emotional and all the words.

Dillon Honcoop:
Emotional how?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, it wasn’t at first. I actually didn’t realize the emotional impact it actually had on me until recently. Emotional in a lot of ways. I see the kids and how they grow up in our area. We’re a low income perverse area and we have about, I think it’s about 85 to 87% of our students are under the poverty line. And so when they started talking about this distance learning thing and having kids do online learning, like we have kids that live in houses with 10, 15 people and they’re not even housed well. They’re single wide mobile homes. They don’t have internet or a phone that they can Zoom meeting their teacher. Are you kidding me?

Chelsea Putnam:
It was just so privileged to just be like, “Oh, they can just distance-learn from their laptops.” And so we had this big push on getting kids free meals. We have kids they don’t eat unless they’re at school. They don’t get food. And which like just makes me so … Oh, I could just go into it. It was really emotional trying to reach these kids and not only checking on their welfare and their living situations and, “Are you getting food? Are you getting your basic fundamental needs to survive because we’re not going to get to see you for months and months and months?” But now we’re trying to get them laptops, hotspots, things like that to get them on board with this technology and learning and getting them information. And then it’s just been confusing for everybody because there’s so many questions and it feels like there’s never an actual solid answer. And as soon as there’s an answer, something else changes. And it’s a domino effect of more questions and no answers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you heard anything about next year?

Chelsea Putnam:
There’s a lot of speculation and talk about not going back to school at the beginning of the year. Yeah. I really try to not invest a lot of my time and energy into planning for that because just like I said, everything just keeps changing. Everything just keeps changing.

Dillon Honcoop:
What has COVID meant for you guys here on the farm?

Chelsea Putnam:
It has impacted us a lot more than I thought it would, negatively as far as generating revenue. We’re eight miles from the Gorge Amphitheater. That’s where a lot of our people come that rent the Airbnbs here on the lavender farm, which then directly correlates to customers in our shop. People learning about it, buying our products, whatever. The cancellation of concerts has decreased.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would have never thought of that.

Chelsea Putnam:
Right. Oh my gosh. Also, we can mark up the prices a lot because there’s nowhere to stay around here. There’s nowhere. They are building a hotel in George. Did you see that?

Dillon Honcoop:
I did.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. And a Five Guys Burger.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I did not see that.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
In George Washington.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Imagine that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Very cool.

Chelsea Putnam:
We’ve noticed a decline in our normal clientele, our normal foot traffic, but we’ve gotten a lot of longer stays out here, which is nice. People working in the area for a month or two weeks at a time. But we haven’t gotten a lot of people just coming and visiting us, which is so frustrating because we paid a crap ton of money to get signs on the freeway and we waited an entire year to get them up and they got up this season right before we opened. And then it was like, “Oh great. That was kind of for nothing because no one wants to break the rules.”

Chelsea Putnam:
And we have some people coming by. As far as the orchards though, that’s the one that surprised me that it’s already impacting us because sales have gone down drastically of produce and food everywhere. You hear about all these potatoes and onions getting dumped because all the restaurants are in business. There’s a huge portion of the market that is no longer buying produce and we’re seeing it in our apple prices because it’s our last year’s crop being bought now. And it’s been very disappointing.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s too bad.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, it is. It is. Not to mention, it’s a really light crop for cherries this year, all around the basin. And so couple that with just mother nature and then the economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think is going to happen?

Chelsea Putnam:
I think that my dad’s going to do a lot of praying. Yeah. A lot of praying because at this point it just takes one bad storm and the small crop gets demolished and then bad season.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big are cherries versus apples for you guys?

Chelsea Putnam:
How big are they?

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as like how much-

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, like the size? As like smaller?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, like as a percentage of your operation.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, I see, I see. We’re converting slowly to more cherries than apples. But right now is pretty close to equal and we have a range of varieties within each fruit. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Right?

Chelsea Putnam:
I know and that’s just kind of farming in its nature though because we’re always dealing with the unknown. Looking at the 10-Day Weather Forecast, preparing for a sudden frost or some crazy. Out here in the basin, the weather patterns are very interesting and we’ll get hail. We get in a bad spring and rain, not a whole lot, but it’ll happen in the spring. We don’t have a lot of rainfall, but it just takes one of those bad storms and it’s all gone. Where our farms are, we see this really interesting weather pattern where it will actually see storms just go around us. It’s very frightening looking at these black thunderclouds and we’re like, “Oh no, is it going to go over us?” There’s something about just the geography and the wind and then it has to do with the Gorge and then the mountains. It just skates around us.

Dillon Honcoop:
Weird.

Chelsea Putnam:
We watch it go around and then go over to [Afrada 00:26:38], or Moses like. We’re like, “Well, it sucks to be them.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But what if you want those storm? What if you need the irrigation?

Chelsea Putnam:
I don’t think that’s ever an issue. No, we never want a storm.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
Unless for some reason we ran out of water, but I don’t think that’ll happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How do you guys irrigate your crops?

Chelsea Putnam:
That would be a really good question for my dad, because he has this really cool nerdy interest in the way this … We have like a federal water project that happened out here, but we get our water from canals. Most people think, “Oh, they live right next to the Columbia River. They probably just get their water from the Columbia River.” No, we get it from lakes farther away from here that they have situated to irrigate the basin through canals, a series of canal systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have to like do the tubes and stuff to get the water out of the canals or like how-

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. In fact, we have it here. I could show you a very small scale version of that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. We do like floating the canals in the summer though. That’s fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your own lazy river?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you go too far though and-

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, yeah, you don’t want to go under the road. There’s spots where they stop. Yeah. You have to just get out of it at some point.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s interesting that you brought up the Gorge in George. Everybody knows the Gorge. Right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would have never thought that would have that kind of impact on your farm. What’s that like having that huge concert space in this little tiny community?

Chelsea Putnam:
I’ll speak personally first. It’s freaking awesome. If you know the right people, you can get in with the right crowd and cheaper tickets or maybe the tickets all didn’t itself. Here’s a couple.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
It is amazingly fun. We all look forward to it. We get groups of friends together, we go meet down there. We’ll camp down there even though we all live like 15 minutes away. And it is such a blast. It’s a great time. Then economically it helps our community big time. Who drives to Quincy? I mean, not semis basically. It’s not like we have a main freeway coming through here. I-90 just misses it by 15 miles. We have a really small town with some cool things to do, but not a lot of people coming through to experience them. In the summertime, when the Gorge is up and running on the weekends, we have people coming down and staying at Crescent Bar and staying in those like little river side towns, like Sunland.

Chelsea Putnam:
They’re not towns they’re like basically towns. Sunland and coming to Cave B and coming out here to do stuff like, “Oh, let’s check out this random lavender farm and cruise into Quincy and get something to eat.” So, we have this really cool rotation of more touristy people, but feeding our economy in a different way than we get the other months of the year.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Who’s the best show at the Gorge?

Chelsea Putnam:
There’s rotation, but watershed’s always fun as a whole, just as a whole experience. Even if it’s not my favorite person playing, it’s the atmosphere. That’s pretty cool. The best show I’ve seen there was … Well, who am I thinking of? Have you ever heard of Shovels & Rope?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, I haven’t.

Chelsea Putnam:
They’re newer-ish. They played. Kings of Leon was really good. Let’s see. There’s some that I only remember part of.

Dillon Honcoop:
I won’t ask.

Chelsea Putnam:
I went home early. I have not honestly seen a bad show there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dave Matthews is famous for playing. Does he do in there every year still?

Chelsea Putnam:
Every year. There was one year he didn’t, but he came back from retirement or whatever.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it like his favorite place to do a show?

Chelsea Putnam:
He’ll like rent out the entire Cave B area just for him and his crew and his family.

Dillon Honcoop:
Cave B is like a little resort?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. It’s a winery that’s grown over the years. Interestingly enough, Cave B originally owned by a surgeon and his wife. They had the original stage where the Gorge Amphitheater is now. They had their Cave B winery and then they had the stage where it was so small, but they would have people come and then they got bought out by Live Nation or whatever. I think it was Live Nation or maybe there was a company before Live Nation. And then it grew to what it is now. There’s a 26,000 people occupancy is huge. And so Cave B sits right next to the Gorge Amphitheater, still is just separated by a chain link fence. And they have an in where there’s a nice fancy restaurant. Then they have all these yachts out there looking out on the Gorge. They have these cliff houses and now they have in that area, it’s not owned by Cave B.

Chelsea Putnam:
Also, they have a winery with a tasting room, really good wine. And it’s gone through ownership changes where actually it’s now separated the winery is separate from the in now whereas it didn’t use to be, but they have these kind of tiny houses, not really tiny houses. They’re just a really smaller version of a modern looking apartment. And they’re all separated. And they’re just separated probably by, I don’t know, 20, 30 feet. And there’s a few of them out there. People have bought in them and rent them out on Airbnb for people going to the concert. It’s kind of turned into this little Villa resort thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think I’ve looked out in that direction at a concert, but not like, “What is that over there?”

Chelsea Putnam:
One a lot of those things are kind of hidden is, kind of hilly or whatever. And you have to drive down in it to really, to really get it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So many people have been right here in your neighborhood basically.

Chelsea Putnam:
Don’t go anywhere other than Cave B and the Gorge.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s crazy. What’s on your a playlist right now. What are you listening to these days?

Chelsea Putnam:
Good question. I’m on this kick. I listen to Pandora a lot and I go between podcasts and music. And when I start feeling a little like weird, I’m like, “Oh, I just need to listen to some music.” So I have my two favorite is Jack Johnson in Pandora station, which plays some really good upbeat stuff I like to listen to when I’m in the studio. I have a highly suspect, which is a little harder. And I like to listen and like scream sing along in my car or in the shower or whatever. And then actually a third one being when I’m just like chilling Iron & Wine. Have you heard of that?

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh yeah.

Chelsea Putnam:
I love, love, love them. And no matter what mood I’m in, I can turn them on. And the whole station’s good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Very chill.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. We’ve got like a chill middle of the road unlike super hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’ve got a lot of tattoos?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into that?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, when I was 18 I made some regrettable decisions. Yeah. It wasn’t so much a rebel. I didn’t go out partying or anything. I just went and got tattoos without permission, but I was 18.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you didn’t need permission?

Chelsea Putnam:
My first one was 18. I got with my sister and it just, I don’t know. I just love putting art on my body. And there’s that weird addicting adrenaline thing that goes along with the pain that people talk about, the pain being addicting or whatever. Yeah, what’s the word? Masochist? I’m not one of those. That’s the word I’m thinking of? I got my first tattoo when I was 18. And then from there I just, I don’t know. I’d get just like a little itch. I was bored and just go to different artists, check out their work and get a tattoo. And as I got older and appreciated it more and also made more money, because tattoos are expensive. I started finding people that did way better work and made my other ones look a little better. But the one funny, not funny, very irresponsible story on one of my tattoos. At PLU, my freshman year, I was dormed with a junior and she had a boyfriend that was a tattoo artist.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh boy.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m worried about where this is going.

Chelsea Putnam:
It’s not so bad. He played soccer for Wenatchee Fire actually. And my parents still lived in Wenatchee at that time. And so when I drove home, I would take them and they would just carpool with me and to repay me for all that, he was like, “Oh, I’ll give you this awesome tattoo that you’ve been wanting.” And I was like, “Great. Where should we do it?” He said, “Oh, we’ll just do it in the dorm room.” And so we did it in the dorm room. It was fine, he would do his girlfriend’s tattoos in our dorm room too. Definitely breaking a lot of rules. But he was clean about it and it was set up very professionally.

Chelsea Putnam:
However, the caveat to that was that I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did. And he actually had a really bad drug problem. And I don’t know if he was withdrawing or too high or something, but he absolutely did the worst job I’ve ever seen. I stopped him in the middle. I was like, “You can’t keep going. I don’t know what’s wrong with you right now, but this looks horrific.” And over the years, I’ve gotten it kind of covered up.

Dillon Honcoop:
No way.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many tattoos do you have?

Chelsea Putnam:
I don’t count anymore because they blend together.

Dillon Honcoop:
You count that as one or three?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I’ve sat in the chair probably 25 times.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. What’s your favorite?

Chelsea Putnam:
My favorite is I have this big piece on my leg and it goes from my knee to my hip and it was about, Oh gosh, this girl that did the ta, we were like best friends at the time it was up in Alaska, just two peas in a pod. And just one of those really cool connections. She’s incredible artists. We sat for 13 hours. I think it was straight. And that was probably the most intense thing I’ve done ever, other than birthing a child. But I would say they’re equal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really that intense?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. It was interesting experience. That’s my favorite and I think it has a lot to do with, I mean, the art is beautiful, but there was a lot of meaning. Like she drew this original piece for me on a piece of paper and it wasn’t even for a tattoo. She just was like, “I made this for you.” She’s an incredible artist. And I was like, “I’ll make you this sculptural piece, clay artwork if you tattoo that on my leg.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Art trade?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. She tattooed it on my leg. I made her a sculpture and we have a little piece of each other forever and ever. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you tell someone like me who has zero tattoos and is very scared of getting a tattoo?

Chelsea Putnam:
Are you, oh you-

Dillon Honcoop:
I have two things against me. Number one, I’m a total wimp like-

Chelsea Putnam:
With needles or pain?

Dillon Honcoop:
Pain. I’m just total wimp with pain. And secondly, I could never, I think tattoos look cool but I could never commit to something that-

Chelsea Putnam:
That would be my first advice because I’ve-

Dillon Honcoop:
If I could get one for a year or five years even then it would be like, “Okay. Yeah, we can do this.”

Chelsea Putnam:
It’s the commitment thing to a design. I think that would be my biggest piece of advice, especially because I’ve made really spontaneous decisions to get tattoos that have very little meaning, just because it looks cool. And that might be someone’s thing. It’s like, you don’t have to have a meaning. It could just look cool on your body or whatever. But just know that that’s what you want and think about it and think about it again and think about it again, because now that I have, I call it a real job where people see me in the public eye and kids see me and they see my tattoos and they’re like, “Where did you get those Ms. P? Are you in a gang?” Like, “No. Dark.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I used to be more of a thing, but I think it’s getting less and less as more people learn to appreciate the art of tattoos.

Chelsea Putnam:
I think so, yeah. Some are very tasteful for sure. I have some finger tattoos that I can’t necessarily hide super well, some of my rings hide them, but that’s probably the most unprofessional ones that I have. Another piece of advice is consider what you want to do with your life, how you want people to see you. If you want people to look at you and be like, “Sick face tat bro.” Then get your face tat, then do it. You do you. But I don’t know it’s subjective to the person, but if you have any doubt, don’t do it. Actually in my boredom or as some of my stir-craziness, I shouldn’t say boredom, only boring people get bored. In my like being stir-crazy. I have been a millisecond away from getting a tattoo gun and like just training myself to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And doing it on yourself?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, my brother actually volunteered himself as a canvas.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Chelsea Putnam:
I’ve talked to a lot of tattoo artists. You don’t just jump in and start doing it on people. There’s ways, you can train on pig skin or you can train on, I think there’s some melons that even you can like tattoo into and has some consistencies that’s correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Get a little practice?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Yeah. I was just thinking, a couple hours tried on some pigskin and then get my brother to lay down for me.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have a brave brother.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, I know. Or stupid, I don’t know. Maybe both.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest time on the farm, this whole journey that you’ve been on?

Chelsea Putnam:
The hardest time. It’s all been challenging, which is good. The definitely the lavender farm has been challenging in the sense that the four of us, my mom, my dad, my brother and I work through a lot of ideas together. But we do a good job. It’s not been hard. It’s just been, like I said, challenging. I think the hardest time that we’ve experienced is we had a couple of years ago, three really bad years in a row on the orchards. Crops not great, return not good, just all the components that it really has to the stars have to kind of really aligned to get to turn a really good profit generate revenue, especially when you’re just a small, private farm.

Chelsea Putnam:
We thought we were going to have to sell everything, everything all of it. And the banks wouldn’t loan us any more money because we’ve had multiple bad years. It was really, really frightening to imagine all of it getting sold. Because, well now what do we do?

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you doing during that time to deal with that?

Chelsea Putnam:
Just continue to putter along and work and do the best we can to keep it moving and keep it going. And during that time it was when we were establishing the lavender farm, it wasn’t generating revenue like it does now. We didn’t have weddings out here yet. We didn’t have the Airbnb. We were still trying to dump money into it to make it what it is. We were just like, “Maybe we have to carrying it to the lavender farm too. And my brother and I always got paid though, we always got paid. My dad made sure of that, my mom made sure of that, which is good. Again, always very the rock they are the foundation. They’re providers for sure.

Chelsea Putnam:
Lots of praying on my dad’s end that’s for sure. And my uncle is involved in the farm, my dad’s brother. And so he has a fairly large role on the orchard side of it. Lots of talking, lots of trying to just figure out solutions. That’s more of my dad’s role than us just kind of waiting is waiting to see how the next season turned out. And fortunately right when we thought we were going to have to sell everything … My cat.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can hear the cat.

Chelsea Putnam:
Is it going to show up on here?

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know. We’ll have to find out.

Chelsea Putnam:
Right. When we thought we were going to have to sell everything, my dad was like, “One more year. We’re going to give it one more year and give it everything we’ve got. And if it’s another bad year it’s done, we’re done.” And that year we had the best season we’ve ever had. One of the orchards produce the best crop of cherries my dad had seen in the 28 years of farming it. It is unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. And it kept us afloat just enough. We had to have the best season of his whole farming career to just barely keep us afloat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, it was crazy and then the year following that we actually had another great year. It just kind of put us one more step up and which is good because this year does not look great.

Dillon Honcoop:
I remember a year or two, one year in specific when I was a kid, I was like, “We’re not sure if we’re going to survive.” I remember my dad had to let go of the rest of his crew and was like, “Okay, we as a family, we’re just going to do the rest of the harvest ourselves.”

Chelsea Putnam:
Wow.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was scary. Because that’s all I had known. Think of like, what are we going to do? Like move into town? That sounded the most depressing thing in the world to me at the time.

Chelsea Putnam:
With all that towny people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dad would just go to a job. We couldn’t be together on the farm all the time. I don’t know. I think there’s something that people don’t understand about the togetherness of farming with your family.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Oh yeah. It’s very strengthening because you go through moments like that. It’s not just all the people think, “Oh, you farm apples and cherries. You guys are probably so loaded. You’re so rich.” No, not at all. Not at all. We’re broke and tired. What do your parents do?

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, but then people honestly will say, and this is a little bit harsh, but this is either they’ll say it or they’re thinking it they’ll say, “Well, so why do you do it then?” And that’s the hard part to explain.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, how do you explain that? I kind of think it goes for me and this is how I answer that question. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about that needing new growth and change in my life. It was a beautiful, symbolic, physical way to see that through in my life. It’s kind of like raising a kid almost to, you’re putting something in the ground. You’re nourishing it. You’re loving it. You’re over time growing it into something that will have an end result that people will enjoy, especially berries. Oh my gosh. Right?

Dillon Honcoop:
What they don’t enjoy apples and lavender and cherries?

Chelsea Putnam:
I’m just saying. Yeah, I guess that was more personal. I love berries. I get a little tired of apples and cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you love berries.

Chelsea Putnam:
I love berries.

Dillon Honcoop:
Don’t like apples or cherries.

Chelsea Putnam:
I do like apples and cherries and so TMI probably. But I have like an iron train got to cherries. Some people can’t eat a whole lot. I can eat them all, all day long.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yes. I endorse this. I do love cherries. It’s just interesting that you say that, because you say, “Oh, I love berries, raspberries in particular, which my dad grows I’m a huge fan of.

Chelsea Putnam:
You’ve just been around them too much. Huh?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like smell is, everyone else likes it. And to me it just smells like work. It smells like, “Okay, this smells like harvest.” Which, I mean, it has its own like good memories associated with it, but not like I want to eat that. I can’t explain it beyond that.

Chelsea Putnam:
I will not pay for apples and cherries in the store. I won’t, unless my son really wants apples, but also and I’m sure you understand this too. Your standard of seeing that produce in the stores on their shelves. It’s like, “What? Those cherries are 899 a pound and they’re like being cherries and they’re tiny and they’re kind of wrinkly. I’ll get some tomorrow at harvest.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I see berries in a plastic clam shell in December and they’re pale and they’re from South America. And it’s like, “Why?”

Chelsea Putnam:
You’re like $10.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally. Expensive.

Chelsea Putnam:
But that, I think that’s a component that we’re really lucky to have growing up. Producing those things is we get to experience that produce in its most highest quality form right off the tree. There’s nothing better. And once you pass through and get the stuff, that’s good for the stores and all … I don’t know about berries. You know how much fruit is left on those trees at the end of the season? It’s a devastating amount. I just want to pick it all and take it to all the food banks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is it left behind?

Chelsea Putnam:
Not good enough. “Not good enough.” It’s not up to standard. Now, our consumers are so picky, so picky that is a Granny Smith apple, that when you look at a Granny Smith apple on a store general public views of Granny Smith apple is a nice, vibrant green with some speckles on it, but there shouldn’t be any pink or yellow. When we’re delivering to our warehouses, our packing sheds, if it has a spot of discoloration, any color other than green they throw it out because the consumer doesn’t want that. But what people don’t understand is those spots of color are from where it sat in the sun and soaked and formed more sugars than the rest of those apples and they taste better. Oh, I could get on a so box about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
But this is kind of like the ugly produce movement. Right. Isn’t that kind of a growing thing?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes, and I’m so happy for that. I like that movement. I used to grow a lot of produce out here actually and sell it at farmer’s markets and to the restaurant at Cave B. Oh my gosh, so much work, very little return. And it was just me doing it on an acre of land.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like, what would you grow?

Chelsea Putnam:
Anything I could. And I just really wanted to see what would grow out here and how I could farm it and organically to. I learned a lot trial and error. But stuff that grows really well out here; Cucumbers, lemon cucumbers, tomatoes broccoli will not grow out here. We have some insects that are attracted from other circles and crops and maybe even the trees around us that would just demolish any kind of cauliflower or broccoli before it could even come up. Eggplant grows really well out here. Let’s see, lettuces grow very well out here. Any leafy greens really. I got to really trial and error that and gain this appreciation for the ugly produce movement.

Dillon Honcoop:
You had been involved with the whole farmer’s market thing too, right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. My closest friend here in town and I started it four years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Started what?

Chelsea Putnam:
The farmer’s market. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like which one?

Chelsea Putnam:
The only one Quincy’s ever had.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s a Quincy-

Chelsea Putnam:
Quincy farmer’s market.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tell me about it. How did you do it?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh my gosh. In fact, we have some evolving changes that are about to occur with that too, that I’m very excited about. Interestingly enough, the heart of one of the most thriving agriculture towns in our state, there was no farmer’s market. And when I first moved here, I was like, “Why hasn’t anyone tried to do this?” There’s been talk about it. And some people that are like, “That’d be cool. I’m going to do that one day.” Well, I was at a school district event and I met my friend who’s around my age and my mom was like, “Hey, I know you want to start a farmer’s market. Meet my daughter, this Chelsea, she wants to do one too.” And then we’ve been inseparable ever since. And it was quite the process and we wanted to do it right. We approached city council said, “Here’s our presentation. Here’s our plan. Do we have your approval? We want to use one of your parks.”

Chelsea Putnam:
We went around. Obviously got their approval. We went around asking for sponsorship from the businesses in town. And we raised about $15,000 from the business of supporting us and being what we call charter members. And in six months from meeting each other and talking, we started the farmer’s market. And we started out with 12 vendors, nothing big, pretty small. And we had some entertainment at the park. And then the next year we had a top amount of 24 vendors. And then the year after that, we had up to like 42 on one of our markets vendors from all over only selling handmade or home grown, no commercial stuff. And this year is looking like there’s going to be a lot of big changes because the parks are closed and the city doesn’t want us to be at the park if they’re not allowing the public to be there.

Chelsea Putnam:
It looks hypocritical, which I agree. Now, we’re looking at kind of redesigning the market and relocating it to a separate section in the city, which we were at a park kind of off. It was a really obscure location. We had a hard time directing people out there. This new move would bring business to the local businesses on the main street in Quincy. It would be on the oldest street in town where my apartment is actually 1906 building. And some restaurants, a winery, a catering business, a sandwich shop. It would be on a street with all of that and space enough for families to play in the grass areas, sit and hang out, have music. And the whole street would accommodate up to like 48 vendors, very comfortably with social distancing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that was the whole issue. Even like in Seattle, following the farmer’s markets there, they were closed for a while and people were like, “Well, if the grocery store is open, why not the farmer’s market?”

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, yeah. I have lots of feelings about it too. And all this essential vendors stuff like there’s a list of essential businesses I have to turn down some of my most loyal vendors that have been with us from day one, because they’re not “Essential.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Because why they’re growing something different?

Chelsea Putnam:
No, because they’re crafting certain things that aren’t essential, but I’m like, “Hey, can you bake some cookies real quick? Because he can sell food.” Obviously.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s about food? Food has to be the thing?

Chelsea Putnam:
Food can be sold, especially obviously produce and then we can have a home improvement/home decor, which is interesting because that kind of incorporates some of our crafters. They make stuff to decorate your home or improve it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy. Maybe I can see home improvement, but home decor is that really essential?

Chelsea Putnam:
Lowe’s and home Depot are open.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Chelsea Putnam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And health and sanitation. People that make soap, our farm can be there. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Interesting.

Chelsea Putnam:
It’s very interesting. It’s so wishy-washy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s the future for you?

Chelsea Putnam:
The future for me, I would like to stay close to this area so I can keep being involved in the farms. I’ll never leave the farms, but I would like to go back to the Wenatchee Valley and live there. I would like to teach there in one of the school districts over there. I just, I love the Valley. I love the area. I love Quincy too. Like my heart will always have a place here. Or I have a place in my heart for Quincy. I would like to, I am going to get my master’s degree this summer and it’s like an online program, so it’s not affected by this COVID crisis, thanks goodness.

Chelsea Putnam:
That’ll just get me more established, in the education system. And then I’d like to eventually once Mike’s grown up and I mean, he’s almost eight, so in 10 years I would love to go get my MFA like I planned be a college professor.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. And so as you can see with all the things that I have a lot of, I like a lot of irons in the fire. I really like to stay busy and engaged and challenged. It’s a downfall sometimes. Because then I really spread myself really thin. I don’t believe that we can multitask. There’s only half- assing. And so I can tend to get a little dense sometimes. I would like to cut back on some of my involvement in things and really what I see for myself is teaching maybe even at central, because it’s so close and farming here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. 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:
I love that that cat interrupted us at one point in that interview. And I actually, if you didn’t catch it on our Instagram, I shared that as kind of a sneak preview to this episode, make sure to follow us for more content like that. Sneak previews, behind the scenes stuff. We’re going to work on getting more pictures and info of the guests we have and the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes with the podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop, super glad that you’re subscribed and you’re plugged into what we’re doing here to share the real stories of the people who grow our incredible food here in Washington State.We think it’s just so important to know who your food is coming from. Again. Subscribe, follow us on Instagram, Facebook and check out realfoodrealpeople.org, and also give a big thank you to our sponsors.

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 and by dairy farmers of Washington supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Chad Kruger | #020 04/27/2020

He's now a key leader in the same university research system that his farmer grandpa would look to for guidance on his strawberry farm decades ago. Chad Kruger shares how WSU scientists and farmers are working together to grow food better.

Transcript

Chad Kruger:
Before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing. He always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he was such an inspirational person.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re to get kind of sciency. We’re going to get into some science stuff this episode on the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m host, Dillon Honcoop. Glad you’re here. We’re talking with a guy who’s basically a farming scientist, for lack of a better term. His team is made up of the key people who are studying scientific issues in farming and growing food here in Washington State. These are scientists who are trying to help farmers make better food and make their food better, if that makes sense. Improve the quality of what we’re able to produce, as well as improving the process of growing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this is so much about the technology now that’s involved in farming and knowing every little thing about the plants and the soil and the food and what makes it good and what makes it not good and what the impacts are. It’s really extensive, and it’s pretty amazing. Chad Kruger is our guest this week, and he actually grew up in a farming family in Eastern Washington. It was kind of cool, during the conversation we realized we had this family roundabout connection that we would have never otherwise recognized other than this talk, about how what his grandpa was doing was actually connected to my family as well as my wife’s family.

Dillon Honcoop:
My wife didn’t even grow up in Washington State, but she’s connected to this story, so you’ll hear that part, and I thought that was super cool to find out. Chad has a really great perspective on what’s happening with technology and science and farming and the production of food and why it’s uniquely challenging here in Washington, but also why we have such incredible opportunities. We talk about climate change as well, that could actually end up being an opportunity for farming in Washington State in the future.

Dillon Honcoop:
But he also has some warnings with how we’re handling that and if we’re taking action soon enough on issues. So we get into all of it this week, again with Chad Kruger. He’s with the Washington State University Center For Sustaining Agriculture And Natural Resources. He’s based in Mount Vernon, Washington, here in Western Washington, North of Seattle, and he’s got so much cool stuff to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
First, talk about what you do now and how you are connected to the food system in maybe a way that people don’t recognize. What is it that you have been doing for the past, what has it been, 10, 15 years out here?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. Maybe starting right now and working backwards a little bit, I’m currently the director of Washington State University’s research and extension centers in Mount Vernon and in Puyallup, which are both in Western Washington. Puyallup is the original off-campus agricultural experiment station and Mount Vernon is the newest of the off-campus agricultural experiment stations, and we call them both research and extension centers now, but essentially they’re labs and research farms. And so my role as director of those is kind of an unusual thing in terms of a university system, in that it’s really focused on oversight to facilities and operations management for these entities where a whole bunch of faculty research programs and extension programs operate out off of.

Chad Kruger:
So it’s not quite the same as you might expect with an academic program at a university, these are really research-based programs and my role is really responsibility for the overall campus operations and big picture investments.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sounds pretty complicated and technical.

Chad Kruger:
Yes and no. Bottom line is, it’s still just a leadership opportunity trying to work within the university system and with our partners and the agricultural community and the broader community to make sure that the partnership between the land-grant university and the community is mutually beneficial and that we’re doing things that matter in the real world and that the real world is bringing things that they need help on to the university.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the real world ultimately is producing food, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, exactly. The vast majority of what we do in our college, it’s College Of Agricultural, Human And Natural Resource Sciences, but we really are the land-grant college of agriculture that many people would have historically understood in including both the academic, the research, and the extension dimensions of that. But we’re also in the process of evolving into a future that’s not alike every other part of the food world, things are not the same as they used to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
So basically, it’s where science and farming come together, right? These are farming scientists in a way at the university level, is that fair to sum that up? Like you’re managing basically a group of farming scientists?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I might say that we’re getting more and more to the end where it’s the scientist’s side of that equation relative to the farming science dual factor, whereas 20, 30 years ago, I think you might’ve said that the science farmer was as much science as farmer. I think based on just the evolution of research needs and capabilities, we tend to focus more on getting the scientists that can help the farmer at this point in time, but you still have to have a pretty good understanding of, how do you actually grow a crop? And you need to understand your crop in the way that a farmer has to understand the crop in order to actually be able to do research on that crop that’s relevant to the farming world.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess how scientific is farming right now then?

Chad Kruger:
It’s becoming more and more science-based, more and more data-driven. And I think what we’re seeing in the ag and food world right now is, all of the technology that’s in the broader world around us is looking for its opportunity within the ag and food production and ag and food system at a level that even five years ago it wasn’t quite looking at it as intensely. And I think it’s going to continue to be that way where technology and data and understanding becomes more and more important to success in farming be able to grow a crop or produce a product that goes off into the marketplace, whether that market is local, regional or global.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are some of the biggest things that you and your team that you work with have found or discovered or tested? What kind of stuff are we talking about when we’re talking about data and science of farming and growing plants in particular? I think a lot of this is plant stuff, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. WSU historically has been very well known on the plant science side, not that we don’t have strength in animal sciences too, but historically, WSU’s expertise and reputation really has been on the plant sciences side. And that crosses everything from the grains to the specialty crops, fruits and vegetables, with a lot of background and focus on that. And so the facilities that I’ve been in charge of and a lot of the work that I’ve been involved with really is plant science focused, quite a bit of animal systems as well. People work on everything from breeding and genetics to crop protection; diseases, insects and pests and weeds, to soils and environmental issues, economics, the whole nine yards.

Chad Kruger:
We touch a little bit in a lot of places. We tend to be most focused on the actual crop production systems as opposed to, at least in the entities that I’m responsible for, as opposed to up the value chain if you will, of the food system, though there has been some work on food processing, value added, and that kind of thing. But the majority of our investment really has been growing a plant and keeping a plant growing successfully, ensuring that that’s done in an environmentally appropriate way and that we’re minimizing impacts on the larger environment.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. When you talked about the processing stuff and whatnot, I do think of stuff that you guys have done even there in Skagit where you are like the Bread Lab, that we talked about here on the podcast with Nels Brisbane several episodes ago, but really cool stuff there. But that tends to not be the main thing, the main thing is more on growing the plants and the farming side of it, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think that’s a little bit of legacy in terms of where the long-standing partnership between, at least WSU and the ag community has been, is really the help is always been needed on the production system side. I think we are thinking more and more about the bigger picture and where other dimensions of our work need to be. We did have a faculty member in food science who had joined us for a short period of time at one of the research centers recently. So it’s something that’s on our mind and we do have a food science department, food engineering, and then of course entities like the Bread Lab that really are trying to wrap their mind around this bigger picture of agriculture isn’t just about the production system but it’s about the whole system as it comes together and then the need for the market to facilitate success on farm and becoming more intentional about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the coolest thing that you feel like in your time there you have been a part of or worked on as a team?

Chad Kruger:
For me, particularly at the Mount Vernon center, I think one of the coolest things that I’ve been able to work on is helping to bring the first soils’ faculty to the center there. The Mount Vernon center has a long history in working in Northwest Washington on a number of the cropping systems that are important here, and it always seemed to me to be a bit of an oversight not to have a soils’ person in the mix. Well, there’s always been a soils’ person in the mix at the Puyallup center and in many of the other areas where I’ve worked over the years, it just felt like a key missing ingredient, if you will, of a viable cropping systems team.

Chad Kruger:
And so bringing soil’s faculty to the table in Mount Vernon that can work with the faculty that are more focused on the plant or the organism that affect a plant above the soil or in some cases below the soil, I think that was a really important thing to do. Part of that is, there’s a lot of questions that are emerging about crop performance that can’t be answered with a simple approach of diagnose and add a chemical and solve the problem. They really are systemic problems that we have to think about from a systems’ perspective. And bringing a soil scientist into the mix enables our team to have all the pieces that they need to go about asking bigger picture tougher questions that 30 years ago maybe you didn’t need to figure all that out, but we really do need to do that going forward.

Chad Kruger:
And then I think the other piece of this is as these Northwest Washington farming communities continue to move forward, the pressure around environmental issues is going to just keep increasing, and it’s already very, very tight in terms of what a farmer can and can’t do and the impacts that farming has on the environment. And one of the best tools from a research perspective that we can bring to the table is soils research because so much of what happens in terms of impacts on the environment happen through the soil as a lens or a gateway into water quality, other issues like that. And so having soil’s members as part of the team better enables us to serve an ongoing partnership between the agricultural community, the farmers, as well as the larger community that’s living around agriculture in the region.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about how important soils are as affecting so many things. And you talk about water quality. Then there’s the huge issue that everybody’s talking about, which is climate change, that’s another big soil-focused issue, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. There’s certainly an interaction between soils and vegetation and climate, or the global carbon system. I think a lot of people don’t understand that the relative amount of the global carbon budget that’s fixed in the soils versus the atmosphere, it’s much greater in soil. Soils are a much bigger reservoir of carbon than the atmosphere. And while we talk a lot fossil fuels in the context of the global carbon cycle, soils and vegetation are pretty big part of it. And while soils aren’t going to solve the whole problem, they are part of a solution. And the beautiful thing is, the kinds of things that we want to do from a farm-level perspective to improve soil management, help crops perform better, potentially help on the financial side for the farmer, those kinds of things tend to be good for the global carbon system as well.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s one of these very seemingly rare things where being focused on healthy soils is a win, win, win kind of scenario, and that is why-

Dillon Honcoop:
Rather than some trade off where it’s like, “Oh, well, you have to do the right thing, it’s going to cost you, but it’s the right thing to do.” Well, here it may benefit on both ends, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, definitely. And yet we still don’t know very much, and I think that’s the other big picture issue is, if we’re going to make progress that’s beneficial to farmers or the environment in soils, we need to know a whole lot more than we currently know. And that’s both a general issue everywhere and a specific issue in this region where we haven’t actively had soil science just working in these cropping systems, is really to understand what do we not know how to do and how do we increase that knowledge and give producers more tools that they can to improve their soil management?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like you said, there’s a lot that we don’t know, but how much is farming going to change with all of this focus on soil and learning about soil and all the science that you guys and so many other universities and agencies are doing? Is it going to change the face of farming in the near future?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer to that question. My suspicion is there will be changes, but they may not be readily observable in the sense of looking at one field compared to another field and saying, “Oh wow, that’s a big difference.” The soils don’t tend to reflect changes quickly, and so it takes a lot more time to understand how a management intervention or a management change affects the soil positively and negatively and whether or not you’ve achieved something that you’re trying to achieve. And that’s one of the great challenges that we talk about in the context of agricultural research, is soils and cropping systems types of research questions don’t tend to be easily solved with a quick experiment, and you really have to keep after them for awhile.

Chad Kruger:
And I don’t think it’s just the soil questions at this point in time anymore, I think some of the disease questions and even some of the weed management questions that historically may have presented fairly simple solutions… We’ve answered a lot of the simple questions, and we’ve done that. And the questions or the challenges that we’re dealing with today don’t have simple answers and often the answer is in the interplay between the plant and the soil or the other organisms that interact between the plant and the soil. And that’s much more complicated and not quite as easy to find solutions to. I have high hopes, but I’m not quite so convinced that there’s going to be overwhelming discoveries that really quickly help us figure out how to change things.

Chad Kruger:
And perhaps a way to think about this is thinking about it in terms of human health, it used to be you got sick, you went to the doctor and there was a new medication that the doctor could give you and all of a sudden you were better. And in agriculture and food, we were in that place for quite a while where the technology coming out of the science world was able to come up with some fairly quick fixes, but we’ve used up a lot of that. And now we’re at the point where if you talk about human health, a lot of it is about diet, exercise and other things that you can do that are focused on making a whole person healthier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holistic health.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, holistic. And that’s also, I think where we’re at in terms of farming and food production and food systems, is we’ve got to start thinking a lot more about the big picture and the interactions between the different pieces of that big picture.

Dillon Honcoop:
And talk about the soil stuff and the holistic way of thinking. I’ve gotten passionate about that over the years because of my dad. And I’ve talked at a time or two on this program about… probably more than a time or two, about how I grew up on a red raspberry farm here in Northwest Washington where you are a scientist, and I grew up on a red raspberry farm where my dad was very passionate about these issues and plugged in with what you guys are doing there at Washington State University. So I’ve been exposed to some of this stuff and been thinking about it for a long time. What’s it like working with farmers like that and seeing some of these things happen on the ground in the real world, like for instance on my dad’s farm?

Chad Kruger:
I personally think that’s one of the most exciting about this whole wonderful opportunity I’ve been dropped into the middle of, is people like your dad who just have an incredibly curious and inquisitive mind and yet are doing their best with the state of knowledge right now to produce a crop that goes into an existing system but is never quite satisfied with the feeling that we know everything we need to know, and he’s always asking new questions, he’s always observing something in the field and then saying, “Hey, I just saw this. What do you think that is?” And most of the time, we can’t answer that question when he asks it. And I think it’s really valuable for our side of the partnership to have people like him who are out there trying things who are…

Chad Kruger:
And I’m trying to think of a way to explain this, but they say farming is a pretty unusual thing and that you basically have 40 chances in your life to figure it out, and each of those 40 chances ends up looking very, very different. And the 40 chances of course are that the number of seasons that you have to grow a crop. And to be successful, you really have to be observant and thoughtful and you have to record your data, if you will, and understand how what you’ve observed in the past might be similar to or different from what you’re observing in the future, and know when you need to ask the right question or what specific observation that you’re seeing in the field you need to pursue that one.

Chad Kruger:
And having producers like him that work in partnership with us where you can have these conversations and dig deep into what we do know to figure out where are the important, critical emerging questions that we need to start doing research on in order to help solve a problem before it’s another crisis or to be able to capitalize on something that someone’s observing that they say, “Hey, I’ve been doing this and it seems to be helping. Can you tell me why?” And I think one thing that’s evolved within the ag research world, and as I point back to one of the things I said earlier about the science farmer thing where I think we’re getting more and more on the science end of that partnership, is the questions that are being asked now take a lot more knowledge and a lot more technology in order to answer them.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s becoming more and more specialized on the science end of the equation in order to run an experiment that gets an answer that a producer needs. And so whereas 30, 40, 50 years ago, there was this sense that the land-grant university was going to do research and come up with new practices and technologies that would then get extended out to the farm and the farmers would pick them up and use them. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I think what we’re seeing now is the producers that are observing things and asking those questions are bringing those things to the scientists now.

Chad Kruger:
And what our job is becoming more and more about is helping the producer understand the phenomenon that they’re observing and helping them figure out what management strategies could be employed to minimize the negative things that we see and maximize the positive things that we see. And I think going forward, producers are going to have to be more and more knowledgeable in order to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
They basically have to be scientists themselves, it sounds like.

Chad Kruger:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re farmers, does a farmer make a good scientist? What you’re describing here is a switch from a top down approach, which it sounds like you were saying the old school approach is more top down, now this is more like bottom up, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, and I think that’s the way it should be. We’re long since passed the point where the university system knows more about these crops than the farmers do. I think we’re at the point where the farmers know a whole lot more than we do, but we have what I’d call cool tools to be able to answer very specific questions that the producers are not going to be able to answer themselves. And so I think as we go forward, we’re going to see more and more of that character to the partnership between the science community and farming community.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about scientists? Do scientists make good farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I know a lot of scientists who could do a pretty good job farming, but I think for the most part, most of them will tell you that they’re really glad they’re scientists and not the farmers themselves because farming is a much more complex and challenging thing than I think most people give it credit.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the misunderstanding is there from those of us who just go to the grocery store and buy food about the science that goes into it? What you’re describing is pretty extensive as far as the amount of research and data that’s going up.

Chad Kruger:
Yup. Part of it I think is very few people ever grow a plant to me more or care for an animal at any level. And so a lot of the historic, what’s often called indigenous knowledge doesn’t exist within the greater population anymore. And so I think there’s just a lack of full appreciation for how complicated it is to produce food and to do it at the scale and with the proficiency and quality that we do. And so I think anybody can read a book or watch a video and come to a conclusion and think they know something, but 40 years of experience, 40 chances is a wealth of knowledge that I think is just often underappreciated and undervalued.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been your favorite time working with farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I think one of the things I have always appreciated the most, and this comes in all the different roles that I’ve had, is the chance to sit down with farmers and talk about the future, talk about where their concerns are about continued viability, where their concerns are about sustainability issues, whether those are profitability environmental issues, big picture, global markets and other things like that. The opportunity to sit down with a group of farmers, especially a group of farmers that come from different perspectives and can sit down and have a good conversation around what is the future looking like and how do we ensure that we have a successful future and that we’re able to continue to improve what we’re doing and continue to put a good product out for consumers and do a good job with stewardship.

Chad Kruger:
I think overall, that’s why I get up in the morning and that’s why I do what I do, is the opportunity to work with forward-looking farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that future look like? I guess, there’s challenges and maybe this is a weird way of asking it, but I almost want to say like pre-COVID, what were the dark clouds in the future that we need to deal with as far as producing food here in Washington State?

Chad Kruger:
Everything. And I say that facetiously, but in reality it’s true, it’s economic profitability. At the bottom line, if a farm can’t make money, it’s going to go out of business. And I think one thing that a lot of people don’t understand is the more and more farms that can’t make money can go out of business, the more it takes with them. So there is this strange thing about competition amongst farms, even within an area, but also that there’s a critical mass where a certain amount of cooperation of the farms in an area is important to everyone’s success and health. And the pressure around cost of production, the pressure around the value of the product is never going to let up.

Chad Kruger:
I just don’t see that ever letting up, even as we’ve gone through this recent little bit upset where people are thinking about things like, “I can’t go to a restaurant,” or “I need to get a particular type of food.” Or, “I can’t get something that I want.” While we’re thinking about this now about maybe the least cost product isn’t necessarily the best choice all the time, a year or two years down the road, I wonder how that’s going to come back to us. Are we still going to be thinking about the fact that there may be reasons that we need to not just take the least cost producer of food in order to ensure that we’ve got some resilience and robustness in our food system.

Chad Kruger:
So that’s a big one, that’s bigger than any of us, and how to address that is monumental. It’s a wicked problem. The environmental side and obviously, I’ve worked on the side, the pressure is going to continue to amount for many people in the broader public to the point where the idea that farms have any impact on the environment that’s negative is a problem. That’s a challenge, it’s an almost an insurmountable challenge because the very act of producing food has an impact. The very act of eating food has an impact. And so how do we continue to work with that challenge and continue to improve and do better, which drives up the cost of production?

Chad Kruger:
And so I think that’s a big one. And a lot of that tends to come out in terms of practical, real world impact on farms. There’s regulation, and so every time we interviewed or surveyed farmers about big issues, it doesn’t matter if they’re a wheat farmer or a tree fruit producer, a dairy farmer, a potato grower, a berry producer, it doesn’t matter if they’re big or small, conventional or organic, anywhere in between, regulation tends to come up as one of the biggest challenges to sustainability in farming. And it is what it is. We’re in a world where regulation is becoming ever increasingly the mechanism by which we do everything. And so how do we help our producers navigate that world of regulation.

Chad Kruger:
Competition. We’ve really seen this in some of our key Northwest Washington industries, that competition isn’t just local, it’s global. And there are a lot of other places in the world that can produce the same things we produce and do it cheaper. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing it better, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re protecting the environment in the same way, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re producing a product that’s as high of quality as we are, but in a marketplace that’s looking for the least cost producer, that’s a real challenge to address for Washington farms.

Chad Kruger:
And I’ve got a number of colleagues who’ve talked about the fact that Washington State will probably never be the least cost producer on a lot of the things that we produce. And that just is what it is, and it’s because we have pretty high level environmental regulations. Our labor costs are much higher than much of the rest of the world, they’re much higher than much of the rest of the country. And environmental issues, regulations, all of these things make it so that we’re never going to be competing on the same playing field as a lot of other locations around the world. And in many cases, around the country. And so we’re just going to have to do better and we’re going to have to have a better product than everybody else is producing in order to be competitive.

Chad Kruger:
I could keep going down the list, energy issues, they tend to rear their heads up and down. Right now, energy is not a problem, but that’s not going to be a long-term trend. It’s going to come back, climate is going to be an issue. Relatively speaking, we seem to be insulated from some of the more dire predictions on the climate side, but sooner or later there’s going to be direct effects, there’s going to be indirect effects, water supply. The fact that we look relatively good compared to a lot of other regions means that a lot of food production in a lot of other regions is going to start looking at the Northwest and saying, “Hey, we need to move there.” So what are the dynamics that that’s going to create?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Why other than, and I’ve heard that elsewhere too, that Washington really hasn’t been as effected by climate change as other parts of the world to date. So far it seems to be a slower thing here than maybe elsewhere, but beyond that issue, what are the advantages for growing food here in Washington? And you’re talking about the challenges, I guess maybe some of those challenges are also insight into some of the benefits too, but ultimately, yeah, what’s so great about growing food here in Washington?

Chad Kruger:
On the climate side, that is one of the things is, if you think about our geographic location in the globe, we’re pretty far north. There aren’t a whole lot of regions further north than us that are big fruit and vegetable production regions. There’s some grain producing regions that are further North than us, but generally speaking, the fruit and vegetable production regions are South of us. And so if you think about climate in terms of getting warmer… Another way to think about it is moving south. So if you think 10, 15 degrees of warming, you are in the Central Valley of California, that looks pretty good for us.

Chad Kruger:
So I think that’s something that may not be on a lot of people’s radar or screens yet, but as we move forward, there are going to be opportunities in our region, in part, because we’ve got a lot of good viable farming land and we’ve got a lot of resiliency and the resources that are necessary to produce fruits and vegetables like water supply. So I think we do have some opportunities in front of us, but we need to be thinking about them and planning for them. And one of the things that concern me a little bit about the COVID-19 situation hitting was, all of a sudden, everybody’s focused on an immediate crisis, which is a big thing, very serious, but if we don’t quickly address this crisis and get our eyes back on the big prize of the long run, we’re going to miss key investments that we need to be making relative to our future success.

Chad Kruger:
And that’s something that’s always difficult to do in the crisis as you get so caught up in the day to day that it’s easy to forget about thinking one, two 10, 15, 30, 50, 100 years ahead, which in order to continue being successful, you’ve got be looking ahead all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can see that in a couple of decades down the road, we could be saying, “Well, why didn’t we get that going back then?” “Well, because remember we were in the middle of that whole virus thing.” “Oh yeah.” That would be a sad and really at that time looking into the future, a really frustrating thing to look back on and say, “Yeah, we were worried about that and it was a bad thing, but now we’re suffering here in the future from things that maybe we didn’t have our eye on the ball enough with at that time.”

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think this virus thing is one of those, we should have seen this comment. In fact, some people did see this coming, and we should have been ready for it and this is not going to be the last time it happened. But we have this thing that we do that we tend to focus on, recent experience as the guide to the future and we tend to forget things that were really important until they hit us again. And we’ve got to get better about learning from our experiences and being ready and prepared for the next time. A good example of that was drought in the region. 2005 was a pretty rough drought and then we were in pretty good shape in the region for about 10 years.

Chad Kruger:
And then we had a big drought again in 2015, and it was surprising how much had been forgotten. Between 2005 and 2015, response options and strategies and infrastructure and institutional knowledge that should have been there, ready to respond wasn’t there. And coming out of the 2015 drought, there was a lot of learning that happened that should make the next time we deal with drought because it’s coming again, should make it easier to deal with in the future. And yet I’m not so sure that we’ve got that one figured out yet either.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into this world of food and farming and obviously, you’re so passionate about it. Did you grow up around farming?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I have the immense blessing to come from a family that has generational farms in Washington State in both my mother and father’s side. So my mom’s dad was a very grower from Lynden, Arneson Farms. He was a really innovative guy, he came out after World War II and started a diversified farming operation and ultimately got into strawberries. And so growing up, I got to spend quite a bit of time with him and learn from him. And in fact, he used to tell me stories of working with the WSU scientists at the Puyallup and Mount Vernon experiment stations where I’m currently the director.

Chad Kruger:
So I knew about those stations and I knew about Ag science before I ever knew what the land grant was. And so that was a pretty important thing. And then on my dad’s side, we were an Eastern Washington wheat and cattle ranching family, the family came out at the end of the civil war. So I think I’m sixth generation relative to the ones who came out, first settled in the state,

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to your mom’s side, the Arneson, I remember them. I remember that farm, my uncle worked for the Arneson. In fact, my wife who is from BC and I met her in college, she remembers coming down from BC to the Arneson Farm to pick strawberries. That was her memory of Lynden, before I knew her. It breaks my heart now to see that original Arneson homeplace covered in homes, but I understand that’s the way of the world these days, but every time I drive by it’s like, “Yeah, that used to be a strawberry field right there. What do you think… So that was your grandpa on your mom’s side?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think he would say about you seeing you’ve being the director of these things that he was interacting with as a professional, as a farmer back then?

Chad Kruger:
Well, he knew that he was a big part of my curiosity and push towards this direction and before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing, he always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he such an inspirational person, he always had a new thing he was going to try, a new approach. He loved the farming, but he loved the people too. He talked a lot about all of those customers that came down, particularly customers from Canada who crossed the border every year for decades to come and pick strawberries.

Chad Kruger:
And the relationships he developed over the years. And for me, that was a big thing because while I was interested in the farming and the science, he taught me that the relationships were probably as/or more important than all of it. And it’s a juxtaposition from my other grandfather who were out in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Washington, there was a saying that anytime he was more than seven miles from the homeplace, he was stressed. And I feel a little of that too, so it’s this interesting juxtaposition of two foreign families, two grandfathers that had a lot of influence on me and where I’m at.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do you think about that day-to-day? Does that cross your mind sometimes when you’re doing stuff?

Chad Kruger:
Every day, every day. I think about it every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you want your legacy to be?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and it’s one that as I get older I’m more and more thinking about. And part of this is watching my dad who’ll recently retire and he’s thinking a lot more about his legacy. And so I’m starting to think about, “Maybe that’s something I should be thinking about too.” It’s doesn’t come naturally to me, I tend to do the thing that’s right in front of me, to do that needs to be done at that time. And if that means sticking a shovel in a pile of manure, half the time, that’s what it is. But I think more and more and the leadership opportunities that I’ve been blessed to have is I’m more effective when I’m helping someone else figure out how to solve the problem that they have in front of them.

Chad Kruger:
And so more and more as I grow older and have more opportunity, I’m seeing that what I feel success in is when other people are able to succeed in part because they figure out how to work together, whether that’s the farmer-university partnership, that kind of thing, or to other people however they come together, helping people figure out how they get over these hurdles that we tend to throw up in our human organization and make sure that we can succeed going forward.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you actually grow up? Where was home for you as a kid?

Chad Kruger:
I grew up in Eastern Washington, I grew up in a little town called Othello. We’re about 90 minutes from our Eastern Washington ranch, but Othello is the place you stop to get gas between Ellensburg and Pullman. And so I grew up there and actually my first official experiences in Ag research were for WSU as a high schooler working at the Othello experiment station, doing some field work in potatoes. And so I worked on an experiment that was looking at irrigation rates and fertility rates and potatoes and another experiment looking at some of the early root imaging for potato work. So trying to understand what’s going on underneath the surface of the soil as potatoes grow.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy. We just recently had on the podcast, Camas Uebelacker from Othello. He’s a feedlot owner and operator out there, so hey, you’re from that same town, that same neck of the woods that maybe a lot of us haven’t necessarily spent a whole lot of time in, but man, a lot of the food that we eat here and all over the place comes from that part of the state, between the potatoes, the beef and everything else, and the fruit and everything.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. If you really think about it, the central part of Washington where it’s irrigated, a lot of that was broken out within the lifetimes of many people who are still farming. And it’s become one of the most productive areas of the world in terms of a lot of vegetable and fruit production systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for you?

Chad Kruger:
Well, I’m not totally sure yet, as I said earlier, I tend to do the thing that’s in front of me, very soon I might find out. I did announce last fall that I was going to step down from the Mount Vernon and Puyallup Research Centers. It had been five years at Mount Vernon and three years at Puyallup, which I was doing from a distance and the call to go back to Eastern Washington and be a little closer to that family ranch was getting more and more powerful. So we’ll see where I end up, but fairly soon, I think we’ll know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You want to be back to that family road. Are you going to farm yourself? What do you think?

Chad Kruger:
Probably not going to farm myself, I don’t think my wife would take the finances of it. It’s a little joke, but someday, I’ll go ride fences and be a cowboy again.

Dillon Honcoop:
There you go. That’s awesome. Well, thank you for sharing and opening up. We just really touched the surface of a lot of really big things that I know that you’ve spent years working on. So I appreciate you being willing to take that summary look at it because maybe some of the stuff doesn’t do it justice, but I think it’s so important and something that maybe a lot of people aren’t aware of is part of really the food system here is the university involvement and the science. And I don’t know, some people even get scared with how it’s so scientific and technical. I really view it as a good thing, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I don’t see how going forward it’s avoidable, and whether it’s the university or private sector or someone else, the pressure on the agricultural and food systems to be able to answer questions with data and to be able to manage with data are just going to increase. And so I think the long term partnership between the land-grant university and the farmers gives a bit of a leg up in that, but it’s something that we’ve got to double down and invest in to ensure that we’re going to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for sharing your story and talking with us and also with this whole COVID thing going on, stay safe and healthy out there.

Chad Kruger:
All right, thanks, Dylan.

Speaker 4:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I still think that’s so cool that his grandpa was all about and would talk about people like my wife and her family, who had come down and pick berries, and here, years later, me and Chad ended up connecting over that. What a cool guy though, and somebody who is really accomplished as a scientist but also a manager. And to do that, you have to be about all the data and all the technical stuff, but you also have to understand the people and the big picture, where this is all going and why even are we applying science to food? Well, it has to do with our future as a community, as a state, as human beings, and doing the right thing and producing food the right way, but also efficiently and competitively.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s just so cool to hear his focus on all of that, and we need to keep track of what he does next if he’s headed back to Eastern Washington. I have a hunch he’s going to find himself farming in one shape or form one day, but we’ll see. It’s just one of those things that’s in your blood. Thanks for joining us this week on the Real Food Real People Podcast. Please stay safe out there, stay healthy, follow the guidelines, and we’ll get through this thing together. Oh, and I should also thank our sponsors, Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Larry Stap part 1 | #018 04/13/2020

Twin Brook Creamery is famous in Western Washington for their local milk in glass bottles. But have you heard the story of how this family farm defied the odds to become what it is today? Fourth-generation farmer and co-owner Larry Stap reveals what was really happening behind the scenes to make it all work.

Transcript

Larry Stap:
It was a huge risk, and like I said earlier, I don’t know for sure, but I know that we were probably within months of the bank foreclosing on us. It was that close. I know it was.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, Twin Brook Creamery is known in Seattle and all over Western Washington for being the local dairy that has milk in glass bottles, the old-fashioned way. You may have heard of them, but have you heard their story of how they came to be and how they made the transition from more of a traditionally run dairy to the way they do things now? Welcome back to the podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and I’m glad that you’re here. This week we hear from Larry Stap. He’s a fourth-generation family dairy farmer and the co-owner and founder of Twin Brook Creamery in Lynden, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
The story of how they got to where they are now is pretty amazing. We had a really long conversation. We will be sharing it both this week and next in two separate parts. I know I’m getting into the habit of these long conversations that don’t all fit into one week, but there was just so much stuff to cover so much to the story. It’s so much insight to share from a guy who’s been around the block and he’s been doing it for a long time. His family has been doing it that much longer. It’s pretty eye opening to hear from Larry about some different things, why it’s so hard for farms to continue on from one generation to the next. We dig into that issue.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s different about what they do? Why do they do glass bottles? Why are they non-homogenized? How does the whole milk world really work and then about having a vision and taking a risk which applies to farming and anything else that people do, any other business idea? So many of us have ideas but you know struggle with taking that risk and to hear him and his family story about how they approach that is pretty fascinating. They had a vision and they stuck to it. He shares a little bit what was happening on the inside even as they were getting started, how many years it took them to get to where they are now.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast where we share every week with you conversations with real people behind your food here in Washington State. Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a family farm in Northwest Washington as well, not too far from Larry Stap, but a lot of this I had never even heard about the real personal story behind Twin Brook Creamery. Thanks for being here to learn a bit this week and next from Larry Stap.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re probably best known for Twin Brook Creamery.

Larry Stap:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously, you had a farming career before Twin Brook Creamery and we could talk about that too, but talk about making that transition to go from the traditional approach to something that around here at least had never really been tried before. What was that like?

Larry Stap:
Well, the approach that I’ll spend a little bit of time on was the transition from going marketing our milk to a coop to becoming an independent processor. Probably what started it at all was ignorance. We had no idea what we were getting into. It actually all started way back in 2006 when our daughter and son-in-law asked if we could join into the dairy and his youth and enthusiasm, which I greatly appreciate, said, “Instead of milking 200 cows, let’s milk thousand cows or keep on going.” The challenge behind that was we were boxed in as far as real estate didn’t have more land, so we couldn’t really grow.

Larry Stap:
Your barn is going to only hold so much. You only have so much storage for nutrients in the form of lagoons. It would have been a multimillion dollar expansion if we would have done something like that. I’m not opposed to big, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t fit into our long-term goals in my head, so I said “Let’s look at doing something different and add value to our raw commodity.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the goal was to keep family involved.

Larry Stap:
That’s right. You’re always excited to keep that next generation involved on the farm because so many of the farms, and I’m guessing two-thirds, maybe even higher, are on their last generation, sad to say. It really is and I’m not saying that that farm will go out of production, but it will probably be absorbed by a neighboring farm or another larger farm or something like that, but anyway, to keep that into the next generation and stay small, you couldn’t do it at existing commodity prices. It would have been a real challenge. It’s not like I had been dairying and was debt free and all the rest of that kind of good stuff.

Larry Stap:
Adding value to our raw commodity, we had no idea what something like that would look like, but we just threw out there everything from bottling our own milk to making yogurt to making cheese to whatever. What we stumbled across, not through any fantastic research or anything like that, but nobody was doing milk in glass bottles and glass returnable bottles.

Dillon Honcoop:
The old way.

Larry Stap:
The old way, the old school. Nobody was making cream top milk, non-homogenized, natural, the way it comes right from the cow. That’s where we started. We started with an estimated budget of $75,000, what we figured it would cost us to get up and running. $250,000 later, we finally bottled our first bottle of milk. It was quite an eye opener.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did that feel like going through that? As the bills and that price keeps getting higher and higher, you got to be thinking “Did we make a mistake here?”

Larry Stap:
Oh, absolutely because the way you’re financing this thing is equity. You’re borrowing from the bank and it’s equity and it’s equity. It just kept going. Part of it was ignorance. Part of it was the regulatory world was not very friendly at times. Some of it, I understand later, was necessary, but it was never communicated that way. It was just like, “It’s my way or the highway,” and that was very frustrating. I can remember one time being so upset that I walked out of the building and went for a walk out in the field to contain myself. It takes a lot to get me upset. I’m a pretty tolerant patient person, okay? I don’t mean that in a bragging way, but that’s the way I’ve just been brought up and learned to handle situations in life.

Larry Stap:
Anyways, that’s the way it started going. We started bottling our own milk, but you don’t instantly find a home for 200 cows’ worth of milk overnight because even if a larger grocery store chain wanted to take your milk on, they don’t know who you are. They don’t know if you’re going to be here tomorrow. They don’t know if you got a quality product. Unbeknownst to us, they were watching us. About two years into it, we started be able to expand into some larger grocery store chains. Once that happened, it just snowballed, but in the process of that time, we started bottling milk in 2007.

Larry Stap:
The first year we broke even was 2012. We sucked equity even faster and faster and faster. Of course, during that time, conventional dairy went down. Economics went down in 2009 and 2010. I never officially know, but I know that we were probably within months, if not days, of being called on by the bank …

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Larry Stap:
… but we knew the market was out there. We didn’t have access to capital because our supply or our orders were starting to exceed our ability to bottle and we were just got a little tiny plant getting started. Northwest Ag Business Center, NABC, stepped up to the plate and really helped us and got some private money. Now, this is the most amazing thing. When we asked for private capital to expand our plant to take care of production needs to fulfill orders, we put a complete financial package in front of them, including all of our losses, many years of losses and put the word out.

Larry Stap:
We sat around a kitchen table individually with about seven different parties and not one of them even questioned, loaning us money privately, even with that history. They caught our vision. They knew it. We borrowed money from a lot of private individuals. We put it on a seven-year note. Two years later, we had them all paid off because we were able to expand it. It was amazing, just absolutely amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Before that, what were you telling yourself to get through? Were you to the point where you’re thinking, “Maybe we bag it”?

Larry Stap:
Not necessarily. We knew we just had to access some capital somehow, and with a crisis going on and the economy and banking industry back at that time, even if they did catch your vision, they just says, “No, it ain’t going to happen.” It was tough, but we never gave up.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like it was because of that vision that you had that was so strong that you weren’t going to give up. Describe that vision at least. What was it at that time?

Larry Stap:
Well, I’ll give you an example of what kept us going. It was our vision, but after I told you, I told you earlier, we got started getting approached by store chains. One day, I get a call. I don’t remember if it’s call or an email, but from QFC store chain, Quality Food Center, out of the Seattle area where their headquarters in Bellevue and they said, “Can we put your glass milk bottle in all our stores?” and I says, “I would dearly love to be able to do that to you, but I don’t have the processing capacity to do that. I believe we got the cows, but I don’t have the processing capacity.”

Larry Stap:
Well, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. What they said was, “Would you start with a few stores and then slowly expand and grow into it?” I said, “Sure.” We started off with seven QFC stores, but that isn’t the end of the story. Here’s the amazing part. One of the things that my wife and I do to promote our farm and promote dairy in general and farming in general is we stand in the grocery store and interact with customers and give out samples. One day, we’re standing in one of the original seven QFC stores and these three gentlemen in black suits and ties come walking through the store with the store manager and you could obviously tell they’re corporate people.

Larry Stap:
I always never pass an opportunity to introduce myself and thank them for allowing us in and they all knew about us a little bit even though it was small at that time. As then, they proceeded on. One of the gentlemen came back and said to me, “Do you want to know why you’re in our store chain?” I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to know why.” Well, he said, “We received an order from Kroger company to look at a glass milk bottle line in your QFC stores because the stores on East Coast that we own have a very successful program in that line of glass.”

Larry Stap:
I said, “Well, I’d greatly appreciate that and I appreciate you taking the time to allow us to grow and expand into it.” One more thing he says, “If I could pay you a little bit more for your milk for a while, would you be able to grow faster into our stores?” I says, “Well, that’s a pretty stupid question to say no to.” For how many months, they increased the price of our milk to us to give us more capital to expand. We took that additional capital we got for a number of months, you take the additional money that we borrowed from the private people as well as a lot of hardworking employees, and next thing you know, we’re in all the QFCs.

Larry Stap:
Then of course, what’s also interesting is these grocery stores don’t like to beat one up to buy another grocery store chain.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was thinking about when you said it snowballed once you got a couple grocery stores.

Larry Stap:
It does. The Haggen caught the vision. QFC caught the vision. Next thing I know, Metropolitan Market has a store chain in Seattle and the Town and Country store chain. What has been so rewarding is how supportive they’ve been to our farm. I can contact the corporate offices of most all those chains. They just think the world of us. We think the world of them. It’s just been a really win-win situation for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
None of this picture that you’re describing is normal.

Larry Stap:
No, it absolutely is not.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s just not the way. Usually, the relationships are adversarial. They’re trying to get the lowest cost they can and what you described with them willing to invest in your operation and allow you to start smaller. Usually, it’s like, “Either you supply this certain need that we want or forget it,” right?

Larry Stap:
Yeah, but you got to think about the landscape that started 10, 15 years ago. Local wasn’t big way back then, but it was on a groundswell of a movement. For a large store chain to get involved local is relatively hard and they saw this as an opportunity, I do believe. The other thing by us putting it in glass milk bottles also was a marketing niche that didn’t compete with other, the plastic jugs or carts, okay? This hopefully would attract another set of customers to them. This is probably the biggest thing that sells it to these stores is the markup on our milk is far exceeding what plastic jug milk markup is and stuff like that.

Larry Stap:
They can actually take a local product, touted as local and make some money on the product that they sell which is absolutely wonderful for them and us. It opened the door. Now, I tell you all these things and I take no credit for it. We have a great faith in our God up above and it was also providentially put in place for us that I looked back at it and I thought I just still can’t believe it to this day. It just blows my mind away how everything. It’s not that we didn’t have struggles and challenges and still do for that matter, but it’s been so rewarding.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you weren’t able to move into that without taking that risk too?

Larry Stap:
Oh, no. It was a huge risk. Like I said earlier, I don’t know for sure, but I know that we’re probably within months of the bank foreclosing on us. It was that close. I know it was. It was just a challenge.

Dillon Honcoop:
After going through all of this, you’ve proven with this that there is a market for locally produced food. In a realm where people probably thought it wasn’t possible, what had the conversations been? What did the traditionalist say about all of this?

Larry Stap:
Well, I have gotten so much support from my local farmers by and large. I have a little market niche that doesn’t cannibalize somebody else’s sales. If I could show you emails that people that just for years haven’t drunk milk for whatever reason and they drink our milk and they’re coming back to it or there’s other little health reasons that they can drink our milk and not maybe some conventional milk and it’s just been so rewarding in that respect. We literally now, as I always say, have been so blessed that we created a monster we can’t get away from, but it’s been a wonderful, wonderful ride without its challenges, I say, but it’s been good and we’ve been blessed.

Dillon Honcoop:
Glass bottles, non-homogenized, explain what are the benefits of these things and how else is your milk different. What is it really that people like?

Larry Stap:
I got my main five points that I tell the customers or any perspective store chains or whatever, but number one, we know the exact source of our milk. It’s not commingled with anybody else’s farms. It’s our milk from our girls. We raise our own young stock. We have what we call a closed herd, a closed milk supply, so we control the quality. Number two, we use what we call low temperature of that pasteurization, okay? It’s a very slow process. We raise the milk up to 145 degrees, have to hold it there for 30 minutes and then we can cool it back down and bottle it.

Larry Stap:
Most all other milk is done at, let’s say 165, maybe 170 for 15 to 30 seconds or your ultra-pasteurize is around 280 and 290 for two seconds. What that low temperature gives us is retaining of the flavor of the milk, just completely different tasting milk. It’s just hard to compare, but it doesn’t cook the flavors out and it also retains some of the enzymes in the milk that higher temperatures cook out. Milk naturally contains a lot of enzymes in it that aid in the digestion. The more of those you can retain, the better the milk will be for your digestive system.

Larry Stap:
Number three is we don’t homogenize. It’s quite amazing that most people, when I say most, a lot of people do not know what’s the difference between pasteurization and homogenization is. To get technical and try to explain homogenization is, I come up with a very simple way to explain it to the consumers. When milk comes from a cow, it consists primarily of two things butter fat or cream and skim. The butterfat or cream is a larger particle than the skim and it will naturally float to the top of the skim. When you’ve heard of the sayings, “The cream of the crop,” or “The cream rises to the top,” that’s where that comes from.

Larry Stap:
Homogenization is a process that puts it through a machine at 2,000 to 3,000 psi and smashes or breaks that particle into a smaller particle and then it will stay suspended in the skim. We do not do that process. We leave it natural, so the-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your milk will separate?

Larry Stap:
Your milk will separate, so you can do one of two things. When you buy a bottle of milk from us, you can spoon the cream off and put it in your coffee or whatever you feel like doing or you just shake it back in and reincorporate it back in. Another thing that we do is glass does not alter the taste of milk. It’s an impermeable surface, you might say. There’s been some discussion on light taste alteration, but we really don’t ever get any feedback on customers for that at all. It will sit on a shelf for a couple of weeks under light and still tastes just fine.

Larry Stap:
Then, the third or one of the fifth thing that I talked about is we milk the jersey breed cows, the little brown ones, okay? They produce less volume of milk than the traditional black-and-white Holstein which is probably 90% of the dairy cows in the United States. What makes their milk different is the lower volume they produce but they also produce what we call a higher solid content. Now, milk is primarily made up of water which has no flavor, but the solids in the milk is what gives milk its flavor. To give you an idea of how much more solids are in the milk, a general rule of thumb goes like this, when you make cheese, all you’re doing is extracting the solids out of the milk.

Larry Stap:
You’re coagulating together with cultures and then the white, the whey or the water flows off. If you take 10 pounds of Holstein milk, the general yield is around one pound of cheese. You take 10 pounds of Jersey milk, the yield is around 1.5 pound of cheese. You’re talking 50% more yield. Now step back again and think about what I just said, flavor, where does the flavor come from? The solids, so when you have a higher solids content in your milk, you’re going to have a more flavorful milk. Then people have asked me, “Why do not more farmers bottle jersey milk or why the processes are not bottle more jersey milk and make it a more flavorful milk?”

Larry Stap:
It’s all driven by USDA pricing. A fluid milk has to meet a certain minimum solids content in the grocery store. If you exceed that, you’re in no way compensated by the milk pricing system. The incentive is to put in to the bottle or the jug the minimum, generally speaking, and for high-yield milk such as the colored breeds, we call them jersey, Guernsey stuff like that, the incentive is for those to go to cheese vats, powder plants, cottage cheese, ice cream because the yield is greater and that’s where they get compensated. That sets us apart. We had the jersey cows and that’s what we bottled and it also became part of our marketing niche.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do people say in the grocery store? I know like you explain this so well because I know you’ve done that thousands of times like you’re talking about earlier visiting stores and actually meeting your customers in person. What do they say?

Larry Stap:
Probably the biggest reward of going to the grocery stores is this, they’ll start talking to me and then they’ll ask me, “Well, do you work for the farm?” Then, I says, “Well, no. We along with our daughter and son-in-law and the bank, we own the farm.”

Dillon Honcoop:
And the bank.

Larry Stap:
It is a whole different appearance that comes right on their face like they actually cannot believe they’re talking with the farmer himself. That is so huge to me, not in a prideful way, but it reinforces the fact that we as farmers need to connect with the consumers. When we do, they just appreciate it that it’s not coming in secondhand information from some other party. Even a hired employee as well as they could probably do it, but when we do it ourselves, the consumer just makes that incredible bond. It’s j fun to watch. It’s fun to be a recipient on that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of questions come up usually?

Larry Stap:
There’s so many different questions and I always say the questions are reflective of what’s going in the internet at that time like calves, “How do you take care of your calves? Is your milk A1 or A2? Are your cows grass fed?” and stuff like that and you have the opportunity then to really educate people. I’ll give you an example. People say, “Are your cows grass fed?” and I says, “You bet they are, but how do you think we feed them grass in the middle of winter when it’s not growing?” Well, they drop their jaw like, “Well, I never thought such a thing.”

Larry Stap:
Then, that opens the door to explain to them how we harvest grasses during a summer. We put it in storage in the form of hay and silage. If they don’t know what silage is, I’ll explain to them, but that’s grass fed year around. It maybe not green and fresh, but they get grass year round that way, you see, and it just helps to educate consumer. It gives me great joy in doing that, not just to promote our own farm but to promote agriculture and dairy specifically in general. Never, never run down anybody else’s farm. Every farm does it different. Everybody has their own way of farming, the way they process their milk. That’s fine. The way they ship their milk, whatever, like to dispel a lot of myths about big farms because there’s a lot of misinformation about that.

Larry Stap:
Just tell them, “About 98% of all dairy farms, big or small, are owned by families. Most people have no idea. They just think it’s big corporate. How they care for their cows, every farm does a little bit different. I happen to do it this way, but if my neighbor does it this way and he takes good care of his cows, so be it. So be it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean, take good care of your cows? How can you tell if somebody is doing the right thing or not?

Larry Stap:
Well, just stop back and think about the cows. The girls on a farm are producing milk for you, which you have the opportunity to sell, which makes a living for you. Why would you not properly take care of your source of income. Now, that taken care of has all different aspects to it, but to say that farmers just abuse their cows or get by with whatever they can, he’s going to go out of business. He won’t be around. Even if he is, he’s going to get in trouble probably with things like regulators and stuff for other aspects of his farm.

Larry Stap:
If he has an attitude of not wanting to take care of his cows, he’s probably got not a good attitude about wanting to take care of the environment and that kind of stuff. That’s not the general way at all of dairy farmers, big or small. Almost all of them are very responsible. They’re stewards. We’re probably one of the few farms in the world that actually has a mission statement and it drives us, but it’s very reflective of most farms. Our mission statement goes like this, “We are a family-owned and operated dairy that exists to glorify God through the stewardship of the land and the animals that he’s entrusted to our care in the best way possible.”

Larry Stap:
Most farms probably do that, okay? They just don’t have a mission statement, but that’s the way most farms operate. Do they do it perfectly? No. Do I do it perfectly? No, but we try just like anybody else tries to take care of the environment in this world.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been mentioning the environment. How do you approach that realm? There’s a lot of criticism out there that in general, commercial dairy farming, which you do is bad for the environment.

Larry Stap:
It’s all based in ignorance. Once you start educating the consumer about it, most of that badness, lack of a better word, goes away. One of the things I like to talk about too is the soil amendment of choice for crops to grow and I don’t care if it’s grass, if it’s corn, if it’s vegetables, the soil amendment of choice is manure. That is the nutrient of choice, right? You can go to the grocery store and buy bags of steer manure or steer compost or whatever and that is the perfect soil amendment.

Larry Stap:
Soil is a living organism just like a cow and you need to maintain soil health to grow high-quality crops, so that you can feed high-quality feed to your cows, calves, whatever. It’s all a reflection of stewardship again. Like I say, once you explain to whose ever questioning you or challenging you, it starts to make perfect sense. I’ve often said too that there’s a lot of people that are vegan by choice and that’s fine. I says, “Number one, we live in a free country where you have that choice. Be thankful because in a lot of places in the world, they don’t have that choice. Number two, I’m never going to run you down on your choice. I will never speak badly of you, but do not do the same for me.”

Larry Stap:
I’m making this choice here and I go back into, “What is the soil amendment choice of all the produce and products you like to eat that are nonanimal agriculture oriented?” Animal agriculture provides the majority of the nutrients that are needed for optimum soil health. Commercial fertilizers can supplement it very well, but manure has the source of bacteria and organic material that so many commercial fertilizers cannot provide. Now, there’s a lot of farms that are not blessed with access to the nutrients.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which by the way, we are on a working farm, and on a working farm, it’s not just the barn where things keep going. It’s in the house too, right? Technically, this is … When I’d interviewed you on a different issue in the past, this is the corporate office, right?

Larry Stap:
Yeah. It all started one time when United Way called us and asked if they could make a presentation for participation on our farm with United Way. The young lady that I was talking to on the phone, she says, “And what is the address of your corporate office?” and I says, “9728 Double Ditch Road, Kitchen Table.” That to this day has been a fun little thing that I always tell, the kitchen table is our corporate office and that’s where our business takes place. That’s where we do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right here.

Larry Stap:
Right here.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the real deal and that’s true for so many family farms.

Larry Stap:
It is. It is very true. You can have an office in the barn or whatever, but the office in the barn usually gets dirty and there’s barn boots in it and there’s dust and there’s dirt and all that kind of stuff, but the real business takes place, well, actually two places, on the hood of the pickup or on the kitchen table.

Dillon Honcoop:
Leaning over the hood of the pickup, getting caught up on the news or making a deal or-

Larry Stap:
Signing papers, whatever.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about, you described making this decision, taking this risk to go from more of a traditional system on your farm to independent marketing of your product, direct sales to the consumer with a glass product and all these things that we’ve just discussed. That was a decision you made in large part to keep your family involved in this business, your daughter and son-in-law.

Larry Stap:
That’s correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s especially important to you guys because of the history of this farm and your family though, right? What is this, four generations now, five?

Larry Stap:
Well, I was born and raised on this dairy farm. It was established by my great grandfather in 1910, so I currently am fourth generation. Our daughter and son-in-law represent the fifth generation and they have six children, especially the oldest one, he’s 15 and he eats, sleeps, breathes cows, so we’re well onto generation hopefully number six. He’s got such a passion for cows and pedigrees and all that stuff. I hope we can keep him on the farm or we don’t lose him because some stud farm or something like that, that appreciates people like him, but he’s a fantastic kid, a hard worker, stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
I drove by one of your fields on the way here and it looked like he was out driving tractor.

Larry Stap:
Oh, yeah. They’re loving the fact that there’s no school.

Dillon Honcoop:
What a world that we live in with COVID and everything that’s changed.

Larry Stap:
Apart from the fact that there is no school with this whole thing, they are homeschooled. They have the flexibility too. If they can get their schoolwork done at home on time and they can get on the tractor or they can get out in the barn and stuff like that, there’s some real incentives or even coming over here to grandpa and grandma’s place. They know that they can’t come here until their schoolwork is done, so it’s a good driver in a lot of ways.

Dillon Honcoop:
But then a lot education happens on the farm too.

Larry Stap:
Oh, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know that because I did the same thing.

Larry Stap:
I can ask, “What are you guys studying today or something, you oftentimes can give living examples on the farm or what’s going on and stuff like that. Everything from math to geography, you name it. It can all be shared as you’re working, side by side.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re fourth generation. How did you get started? Go back to when you were a kid. How did you work into it? How did this farm evolve during your time?

Larry Stap:
I worked beside my dad all the time. Never probably really considered it work. You went out, did chores. It was part of your responsibilities growing up. You maybe didn’t like it sometimes, maybe you did. That was just part of my life. When I graduated from high school, which my parents were really thankful I did, because I hated school, I had no passion. I then worked for a John Deere dealership right here in town for about five years and then started farming. Pretty much, I’ve never looked back since. I started in 1979, worked with my father-in-law for a couple of years and we branched out onto our own.

Larry Stap:
There’s been a lot of twists and turns and hiccups in the whole process over the years, but a supportive wife who probably does as much on chores in the farm, then our kids helped us. It just kept going, but I learned a lot from multi-generations in front of me. My grandpa was on a farm when I was a little kid here and you can see his work ethic, and then, you watched my dad’s work ethic. I’ve tried to mimic that in a lot of ways and pass that on to our children and keep it going. That’s the goal. The other thing that has come really home and center is that when it’s time to pass to generation or the farm onto the next generation, you make it financially feasible for that next generation to keep it going.

Larry Stap:
Greed is not part of the philosophy of farming. If greed was part of it, we could have sold our land years ago for many thousands of dollars more and moved on and done different things, but that’s not part of the mental makeup and the heritage that I’ve inherited and I hope to pass on.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talked earlier about a lot of farms are not able to go on. Often, that is because the kids, the next generation, they don’t want to do it, right?

Larry Stap:
That is so true and you can’t blame them. If you don’t love farming and cows, there’s an easier way to make a living. It’s just plain and simple. I don’t believe that a lot of your 8:00-to-5:00 jobs are ever going to give you as much reward as 10 or 12 or 14-hour a day on a farm seven days a week with a dairy especially, but I was so blessed to have a son-in-law who asked to join in a dairy. He was raised on a dairy. His dad quit when he’s 13. He was working an 8:00-to-5:00 job, was within hours of being a licensed electrician, okay? He’s working for an electrician and then he asked if he could join in the farm.

Larry Stap:
I said, “Well, you’re welcome to join, but you have to finish to get your license first, so that’s your backup if you bail.” He has never looked back on that. He spins long days, long hours, just scrape out a living here on the farm. He’s not only putting long hours in, but it’s not inside. It’s oftentimes out in the elements to fight northeasters or blistering hot heat or schedules that can’t be met or dealing with the regulatory world or on and on it goes. There’s just a whole raft of stuff that he could have chose to go away from and he didn’t. For that, we’re so thankful.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why did he choose that?

Larry Stap:
You’ll have to ask him. I cannot speak for him.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, he must have a passion.

Larry Stap:
I think he does. He recognizes the value of raising a family on a farm. This gives them an opportunity to homeschool and have a farm and it reinforces your schooling and stuff and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Be together as a family, rather than a part most of the day.

Larry Stap:
Yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s why I was homeschooled until I went to fifth grade. With farms struggling to move onto the next generation, though, sometimes it is that the kids want to do it, but it’s not necessarily possible too.

Larry Stap:
Yeah, the generation that wants to pass it on sometimes may not be in the financial position to do that. Farming is not easy. It’s not a life where you’d pay down debt real fast because you usually wind up paying down some debt and then this comes along and you got to borrow money for that or the milk prices tank or economy or whatever. Sometimes, yeah, it just does not work out financially. I think more than the financial part is the fact that the kids watch their dad work and work hard and work hard to put groceries on the table and not have big 401Ks and stocks and bonds and all the rest of stuff. Just work and they says, “I don’t need to do that. It doesn’t interest me. My passion isn’t like my dad or my grandpa,” and so they move on.

Larry Stap:
There’s even some younger families that I know of that, when I say younger they’re in their 50s probably, that have kids that are on the farm with them, but it just doesn’t work out financially to move it on to the next generation. That may sound strange, but until you’re actually in the trenches on a farm and know what it takes for capital and you don’t just buy a tractor and have a tractor the rest of your life. It depreciate out and it wears out. Then, you need to buy another one or your milking equipment wears out or you got to upgrade this and it takes a lot of money, just us.

Dillon Honcoop:
But if a farm is operating, why can’t it just move on to that next generation? If the parents are running it, why aren’t the kids able to keep running that same thing? What happens in between?

Larry Stap:
Well, you think about the parents who put their blood, sweat and tears and that they probably got some equity built up into it. Oftentimes, the equity that is a farm has is their savings. When they decide to quit farming, they don’t have a big savings account. They have an equity account. If that equity account is not big enough to finance the next generation, it just can’t happen and a bank is certainly not going to just step right up and finance the next generation, bank to their credit, lend money, but banks don’t take on a lot of risk either. If mom and dad aren’t going to co-sign, let’s say for the next generation, they maybe can’t do it. Even if they did co-sign, sell it to the next generation, mom and dad need an income to live.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s their retirement.

Larry Stap:
That’s their retirement. All of a sudden, you got a bank payment and payment on mom and dad to borrow the rest of the money. It’s just a financial hit. It’s a challenge.

Dillon Honcoop:
Once they get taxed on that …

Larry Stap:
They get taxes on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
… transaction as well, right?

Larry Stap:
Yup, so it’s not easy. It definitely is not easy.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When you hear the backstory and what goes on behind the scenes, the financial challenges, it makes it seem not much more daunting to keep family farming going. Sometimes, it feels like the odds are just stacked against it, but at the same time, what they’ve done there at Twin Brook Creamery is an inspiration, that it is possible to think outside the box, do something different. Next week, the conversation continues. That was just part one. We get into more of the real personal challenges and some of the hardest times they’ve faced on Larry’s steps farm including the loss of his son and so much more.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s an incredible conversation. You won’t want to miss it next week. Thank you for being here. Thank you for supporting us. We sure would appreciate it if you share the podcast with a friend. Pass it on in your social media if you can. Share it on Facebook or on Instagram or on Twitter or on those platforms, rfrp_podcast is the handle, so check it out, subscribe as well. It just helps us bring this conversation to a wider and wider audience. Again, we thank you for your support just being here today.

Dillon Honcoop:
I should also thank our sponsors Real Food, Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Camas Uebelacker part 2 | #017 04/06/2020

Growing food takes an emotional toll on farmers, and Eastern Washington cattle feeder Camas Uebelacker has experienced highs and lows as a first-generation farmer. In the second half of our conversation, Camas opens up about the struggles he's faced.

Transcript

Camas Uebelacker:
All those dreams and thoughts that you had are gone and it’s not that somebody stole them from you. You know? It wasn’t like my house got broken into, and I got robbed. It’s nothing like that. It’s just literally gone, and there’s nobody to blame. There’s no fingers to point other than mother nature. She can be fickle.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be stressful, though.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a complete pain in the ass, man.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the Real Food Real People podcast. Farming is tough and, of course, there are a lot of the reasons that we often think about, out in the elements, dealing with weather, hard, backbreaking work, but sometimes it’s the emotional toll and the stress, the uncertainty, the impact on families. We get into that more this week as we talk with Camas Uebelacker.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the second half of our conversation. Last week was the first where we talked more about the nuts and bolts of his operation, what his views on the environmental impacts of feedlots is, and how much he cares about doing the right thing with his operation producing beef for, as he mentioned last week, 65,000 people.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, he opens up a bit more about the personal stuff. It gets a little bit more into what this means for his family and his future, what he’s going to tell his kids about getting into farming someday when they get to that age, and he also lets us in a little bit on his own kind of internal struggles with doing this sometimes. So, stick around for this half of the conversation.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you want to know more about how Camas’ operation works, listen to last week’s episode. You certainly don’t have to listen to that one first to have this one make sense for the most part. I think there are a couple of things maybe that we referenced in the second half that go back to the first, but for the most part, you can listen to this first if you want to, but if you want to know more about Camas and what he does, the kind of operation he has and how he runs it, you’ve got to listen to last week’s part one episode with him.

Dillon Honcoop:
He’s a cattle feeder, a feedlot owner in Othello, Washington. Great guy that somebody connected me with and I said, “He’s got to be on the podcast,” and I was so happy that we were able to make this conversation happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
My name is Dillon Honcoop, and this podcast is documenting my journey to places all over Washington State to talk with the real people behind our food. A lot of those are farmers, understandably, like Camas, but other people as well, like Niels Brisbane in the world of the culinary arts, and trying to connect farms with eaters, and like Sandi Bammer in Wenatchee selling food from her small local grocery store.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for me on this journey, and I’m sure that you will enjoy this part of my conversation with Camas Uebelacker. Fascinating stuff. Some of the things he says really give a good idea of the mindset of farmers and the things that they face and the reasons why they do some of the things they do. So, buckle up for another great part of the conversation.

Dillon Honcoop:
What has been the hardest thing through all this? What was the hardest time?

Camas Uebelacker:
The hardest time? I would say anytime we’ve decided to make any growth decision, and I don’t want to scare anybody young off that is deciding or thinking about going into ag, but it is probably the toughest nut you’ll ever crack to get your … Everybody says, “Oh, I want to help you. I want to help you,” but when the rubber hits the road, you have to have enough acres, you have to have enough equipment, you have to have enough of that stuff, and you can rent ground, you can rent tractors, and you can rent all those things, but the cost is just, it’s mind blowing.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, some crops you’ll have $1,250 an acre. If you’ve got a couple of hundred acres of it, there’s a lot of coin wrapped up. The other hard part is you get that wrapped up in it and you get paid once a year. So, you got to make it last and you got to have a budget. I mean, you really got to nail it down.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s one of those things that when weather screws you up, and I’ve had it happen. We had an our entire corn crop blow down flat one year when we had a lot of wind come through. It took two years to dig out of that hole. As you know, it was one of the better crops I’ve grown, and then you wake up in the morning and it’s flat. You’re like, “Man! Now, what do I do?” Well, we harvested as best we could. We lost a lot of corn. We lost a lot of money that year.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are you telling yourself in a situation like that?

Camas Uebelacker:
No joke, I mean, some days I was like, “Man, it’d be so much easier to work for somebody else. If I could just get a paycheck right now, that’d be cool.” Typically, I mean, when that had happened, we had some history farm and we had some history with our bank. They understood and you just work through it, but at the time, there’s a lot of head scratching, and then the other hard part is … So, you lost your crop, right? Now, well, it wasn’t lost. It just became extremely difficult to harvest.

Camas Uebelacker:
Well, then you just get your teeth kicked in from getting it all blown down and then you’re going to get a bill because it’s going to cost more to harvest it because it’s laying down flat. So, it’s like the beatings just never stop coming, right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Until it’s done and then you wipe that slate clean, but the beauty of farming is there’s always next year, right? “Well, we’re going to change this. What did I do wrong? Was my fertility wrong? Did I need more phosphate or potash in the soil to help for stock strength?” You start second guessing what it is that you’ve done in the past that worked great, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe it was just the freak storm.

Camas Uebelacker:
It was, and that’s what it boiled down to because I took tissue samples and we took them in and had them checked, and I was like, “Man, well, it wasn’t something I … Maybe I didn’t screw that up,” but there is a lot of those lessons learned that when you get … That particular year, that was it. That was a tough one. We also had hay cut at that time, and that circle typically on that cutting should have done two and a half ton to the acre dry hay, and I think I got like 29 bales off of it and the rest of it I had a pitch fork out of my neighbor’s front yard. So, it-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the rest of it just blew away?

Camas Uebelacker:
As gone. Literally, I couldn’t find it. It was gone, loaded all the way. So, I mean, literally, you’re making decisions off of that crop while you’re cutting it, looking at it like, “Man, this is nice. Hey, this is going to go up really good. The weather looks great. I’m going to sell this and we’re going to get some money. Maybe I should buy a new pickup. Maybe I should take my wife out to dinner.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are all the things that are going through my head, and then you go out there to bale it, and you’re like, “Where in the hell did it go?” All those dreams and thoughts that you had are gone, and it’s not that somebody stole them from you or it wasn’t like my house got broken into and I got robbed. It’s nothing like that. It’s just literally gone, and there’s nobody to blame, there’s no fingers to point other than much mother nature. She can be fickle.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be stressful, though.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a complete pain in the ass, man. I mean, it is. We’ve had blizzards in the feedlot, where cattle walked over fences and walked away, but I tell this to my kids that I’m super proud to be part of an industry that when the weather gets as bad as it gets, we go outside, we don’t go home.

Camas Uebelacker:
You might be going out and checking to make sure your circles are pointed in a direction where the wind won’t blow them over, but you’re out there in it, right? It’s funny because it’ll be evening here and we’ll get a storm or something like that, and then all of a sudden, you start seeing headlights driving around on the county roads and things because all the guys are out checking stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I’m proud to be part of an industry that when the weather hits and it’s crappy and it’s blowing sideways and it’s snow, we’re out there. It’s cool. I try to tell that to them because it’s not the norm. Most of the time, they’ll close work or, “Hey, school’s closed today. You got a snow day.” Well, guess what, guys? Get your gloves. We’re going.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s extra work today in the snow.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah, and I’m proud of that. I mean, I’ve got no problem doing that. I’m happy to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
When it does get stressful, whether it’s a storm or a crop loss or anything like that, what do you do to deal with the stress?

Camas Uebelacker:
I go fishing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where?

Camas Uebelacker:
On the Columbia, that’s no joke. I got a boat and I go fishing. That’s my golf. I mean, I can sit in that boat and think about things and you can scream and yell cuss words as loud as you want and nobody’s going to hear it, and I come, and I’m happy, but you don’t really get, I wouldn’t say there’s no escape, right? I mean, it hangs over. It’s in the decision. The hard thing that I had to learn was that it’s whatever you do today basically is going to affect you a year out.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, if we have that crop loss, and you’re supposed to be paid for it at a certain time, I mean, it basically takes a year to dig out of it or offset it somehow. Diversity is huge. That’s why I like to farm and I like to have cattle because we’ve got our hands in a little bit of everything. We grow some seed crops. We do some other things. Diversity is a good thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever expect to be, I mean you, you said from a young age you were interested in cattle and stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would your young self say about where you’re at now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, man. I think he’d say he’s proud of me. I think. I don’t know. Either that or … You got a 50/50 chance.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, did you ever expect to be doing what you’re doing now?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. So, you’ll get a kick out of this. So, like I said, my father-in-law helped me buy our original home place. That was a gentlemen’s agreement hee and I had. My wife wasn’t even really privy to that when we did it, but he kept asking me like, “Where’s your business plan? How are you going to model this? How are you going to make this work?” I had never really ever gave him one.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think now when he comes and visits, to be honest with you, I think he went into it thinking, “All right. I’ll help this kid out. He can work a job in town and do it part time and this and that,” but we’ve turned it into something that it’s a full-time job not only for me, but we have three full-time employees also. I think it probably blows his mind more than it does mine. So, I mean, I didn’t-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you had more faith in yourself.

Camas Uebelacker:
I did. I knew that if we got a shot, I could take care of cattle. That’s what we’re good at, and that’s, like I said, that’s because we care for them so well that’s why we exist. I mean, we have an extremely low death loss, a really good conversion, a high average daily gain. We have everything that a customer wants, and we have the great facility to do it. It’s clean, it’s tidy. When they drive in, we have an open door policy. There’s no secrets. If they got a question, come find me and we’ll answer it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I have that with my bank, too. They’re welcome anytime. I think that’s the other beauty of our industry is there’s, literally, I mean, there’s no hiding anything. I mean, it’s all out in the open, right? I mean, I can’t tell them like, “Man, look how good my corn crop is.” How are you going to hide 200 acres of corn, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they can drive by and be like, “Man, I can see you can grow corn,” or “That looks like crap.”

Dillon Honcoop:
“What did he do?”

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. So, it’s an open door policy, right? “Come on, drive by, take a look. We’ll tell you what happened or we’ll go take a look at it,” but especially on the feedlot side of it, when they drive through, I’m never nervous. We’ve got nothing to hide. I encourage them to come. They come once a week and it’s a cool deal. We drive through, we eat lunch and go on about our day.

Camas Uebelacker:
The younger me, I don’t know. Maybe the younger me should have said, “You should’ve started this younger.” I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud of what I do every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you would’ve never gotten that break with the wheat?

Camas Uebelacker:
With the wheat or even the opportunity to buy the place? I couldn’t tell you. At hindsight, I have no idea what I’d be doing. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10 years. I don’t know what it’ll grow into.

Camas Uebelacker:
The other thing that I think a lot of younger guys need to remember or need to get the mentality because all my neighbors, they’re all really good farmers. They’ve got modern equipment. Everyone’s … In this day and age, if you’re still farming, you’re a good farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have to be to survive.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. I think of the guys that were struggling and for whatever reason, crop loss knocked them out or age or any of those things., I mean, if they’re still going in this day and age, they’re doing a damn fine job, and that’s the bottom line because we have all the regulation in the world on us. Everybody we’re trying to feed thinks we’re trying to kill them, and it’s some of the most suppressed prices we’ve ever had with the highest costs on everything else we’ve ever had.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, somebody’s doing something right, right? I think the younger me knowing what I know now would have said buy more land 10 years ago if it was at all possible, but it wasn’t. So, I think that’s what I would have said.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think of the impossible burger beyond meat?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I could get on my soapbox on this, and this could go a couple of different ways, but the beauty of America is you get a choice, right? So, if you want to eat that, eat it, but don’t knock me for not eating it, and I’m not going to knock you for eating it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I I think that that is good marketing. I think if the person that wants to eat that should really look at what’s actually in it. I don’t think it’s as great as for the environment as what is in beef or how beef is raised. I’m not going to throw stats out there and stuff, but the the US cow herd and the US cattle feeding industry feeds more people today with less cattle because we’re so efficient at it and good at it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I don’t see how making something out of 900 or I don’t even know. I’m not going to say numbers, but I don’t know how many products are in an impossible burger, but it’s a lot. Beef is beef. So, you want to eat it, eat it. I won’t. No way.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you say to folks say across the cascades in Seattle who are a little skeptical about where their beef comes from or where their food in general comes from? What’s your message to those people?

Camas Uebelacker:
I think if I had something to tell them, I would say that be proud of where you live in Washington. The packing houses that we do have here are the highest quality grade and some of the highest yielding plants in the United States. So, your Washington farmers and cattle feeders are on the nationwide level are higher than most. So, if they’re my neighbors across the hill, you should be proud, proud to live here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can they trust you to provide them safe food?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, yeah, all day long, all day long. There’s a lot of checks in place that, I mean, it’s mind-boggling when you tour a processing facility where they harvest cattle, the lengths that they go to to make sure that that product is safe for somebody to eat, the recall state, the stuff that they have. If there isn’t a need for a recall, the things that are in place for that, it’s amazing. I mean, it’s a very safe, very clean, very well-managed, very well-handled industry.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’ve got a guy that we actually feed cattle for always says this. He says, “Everybody wants their food produced like it was by their grandpa.” The truth of the matter is you don’t want your food produced like it is today. You want it going to be produced like it’s going to be tomorrow.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, this stuff that we do now is so cutting edge in comparison to even when I first started and the evolution of even processing facilities, the feeding industry, I mean, it’s amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re saying you don’t want the stuff the way that your grandpa produced it?

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why not? What’s wrong with that?

Camas Uebelacker:
Well, I mean, for one, we’ve got refrigeration. We can freeze stuff. We can do all. I mean, we’ve got all this modern technology at our fingertips that we can trace stuff, we can track stuff, we can test things. We have all of these insurances in place to make sure that when I sell my animal to a consumer or through the packing process and it ends up on a consumer’s plate, I would be happy if they had to look at my face on the package when they opened it. I’d be proud to put my name on it. I mean, I believe in it that well. It’s a safe quality, well-produced, well-managed product.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t the idea, though, that, “Oh, back in grandpa’s day or even dad, previous generation, a generation ago, the operations were smaller and it was maybe more hands on with the farmer. It was maybe more environmentally friendly because of that.” You’re saying that’s not true?

Camas Uebelacker:
I would say that the way we monitor and how we utilize the things that we have at our fingertips today are better. Like I said, my small facility feed 65,000 people. My grandpa sure as hell didn’t do that and he had the same amount of land. So, with what we produce in a narrow window of time, I mean, the US farmers, US ranchers, US cattle feeders, we produce a surplus.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, we rely on an export market. We’re good at making food, really good at it to the point that we can feed everybody here and still have them complain about it, but we can still sell it over overseas and we can feed other countries. It’s phenomenal. So, no.

Camas Uebelacker:
If we go back to that, I would rather those people that are saying that they should have to pick out who starves to death, not me. I don’t want to. I’m going to keep making it, but that’s not the road that you can go down to feed the masses of people that we have. You can’t. That’s not the answer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family. You talked about your wife and she’s very supportive of what you do. You have kids, too, now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep. My wife’s awesome. She works in town full-time at an agriculture bank. She’s been there ever since we started this. So, she’s been there about 12 years. Got three kids. My daughter, she’ll be nine in November. My son just turned six, and I got another daughter that just turned two here in July. So, yeah. I got three of them running around.

Dillon Honcoop:
I bet that can be a zoo.

Camas Uebelacker:
It is. It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know it is around my house, anyway. I’ve got little munchkins, too.

Camas Uebelacker:
They’re all into different stuff. My daughter likes soccer and she’s about a year and a half away from being a black belt karate. My son just wants to play basketball and ride four wheelers. My youngest, she just likes to color. So, I mean, just color and pet the dogs. That’s it. So, they’re all very unique. It’s pretty cool. I mean, we’ve got a little orchard here back at the house, and they’ve got chickens and rabbits and goats and horses and cats, and we’ve got a little greenhouse.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they got chores every morning that they got to do before they go to school. They got them every night when they come home. Something as simple as feeding three cats can take an hour because you get sidetracked by … I mean, the cool part, I love where I’m raising him. We can throw them outside and there’s nothing that’s going to hurt, I mean, they’re safe, and they can go be kids.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you see any of them becoming farmers or ranchers following in your footsteps?

Camas Uebelacker:
My daughter shows some interest in the health side of animals. She’s not a big fan when we ship them, but she likes the health side of it. So, I don’t know if she’d ever become a veterinarian or not, but I think if she was going to lean towards something in agriculture, it would be more on the animal health side of things.

Camas Uebelacker:
My son, it’s equipment. He likes tractors, he likes loaders, he likes bulldozers and he likes the circle irrigation. He’s wired to know why that stuff works, but he tells me all the time he wants to be a farmer. My youngest daughter, I think, she’s only two. So, she’s still learning how to talk.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. See where she goes when she gets into, really, with all of them. When it comes time, and let’s say your son keeps doing this farmer thing, wants to keep doing this farmer thing, what are you going to tell him?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, it’s funny you say that. I’ve sat down with my wife before and we’ve had that conversation like you were saying in those low times. I think to myself, “There’s no way in hell I would wish this upon my kids.” It’s so much easier to go get a job, work for somebody else, find a different trade, but then there’s the great days where you get all your jobs done and it’s noon and, you got all this land to enjoy. So, it wouldn’t be a decision to make lightly that come home and farm because you’re going to make all this money and life’s going to be great. That isn’t the case, but you’ll make a living and it’s an interesting part of the US economy where less than 2% of us in ag feed 98% of the US or the world. I mean, it’s pretty cool.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, when we get together like our cattle feeders association, the joke is we can fit everybody in the super cab pickup because there were many of us, right? It’s a small industry in the Northwest but it’s very significant. I mean, we feed it. There’s a lot of cattle on feed in Washington, but I would have no shame and encouraging my son or my daughter, I mean, any of them, any kid to get involved in ag. I think there’s a great future in it. I think people are going to keep having babies and there’s going to be more of this that we have to feed.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I think I would encourage him. I do think that in the future, smaller acreage farms are going to be more viable. I think it will be easier, I shouldn’t say easier, but I think it’ll be more financially stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you say that? A lot of people are saying the opposite of that, that things are just going to keep getting bigger.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I disagree, and the reason I do is because there’s just going to be more people and if you can produce a certain amount of food off of one or two acres and make a little bit of live and doing it, I mean, by all means, go do it, right? So, I mean you’ve got other states that are in droughts that are huge producers of vegetable crops that people eat. The beauty of Eastern Washington is we’ve got water and there is a great future in this area for my kids to come back and do, and I think that the opportunity to be there on a smaller scale also.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think big farms are going to be big. That’s just how it is, but behind all of those big farms, I mean, all the farms that are around me are big farms, and I know those people that own those and run those, they’re my neighbors, right? It’s still a family farm, but they might farm 6,000 acres or 11,000 acres or 20,000 acres, but it’s still a husband and a wife and kids that are keeping that ball rolling.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s cool because we’ve been here long enough now that I’m seeing some of those kids are coming back and they’re good kids and they’re working hard and the employees enjoy them. They have a little maybe a different outlook than their dad did, “Dad, you can’t work them on Sundays like this. Let’s give them a half day or get them on a schedule.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Ag has evolved a lot in that manner as well. They’re not bad jobs. They’re great jobs. They pay really well. Matter of fact, when the minimum wage increases in our state have happened, it didn’t affect anybody out here because nobody makes minimum wage. If you are a skilled worker that has a talent or even a drive, no one’s going to start at minimum wage. It just doesn’t exist.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I would encourage this younger generation coming up. I mean, buckle up, it’s going to be a ride, but I think there’s definitely a future in it, for sure. People got to eat.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s hard to have more leverage than that issue.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right? Yeah. I mean, it’s tough. Like I said, it’s hard to hear people complain with a full belly. It’s hard to even fathom that, that they can sit there after they ate lunch and say that we’re bad for the environment and all of these. It’s frustrating. This is the easiest way to say that.

Camas Uebelacker:
I read this stuff on Facebook and it just drives me nuts. I mean, maybe I need to try harder on that social media deal, but I just wish they’d call me and be like, “Hey, man. Is this true?”

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m like, “No. Hell no. That’s not true. Where do you hear that or where did you read that or who even is dumb enough to write that?” I encourage everybody. Ask a farmer, ask a cattle feeder, ask a rancher, but just ask them. We do this every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if somebody does ask you and you tell them, and tell them the facts as you know them and that still doesn’t change their mind? What do you say to them then?

Camas Uebelacker:
I did my part. I tried. Beyond that, there’s really nothing more that you can do. I’m not going to get on a soapbox because I produce beef and tell everybody that’s a vegan. That’s a terrible idea. I’m not that guy. That’s your choice, man, but don’t beat me over my choice. I’m not going to beat you over yours. Just don’t do it to me. I think that there’s a certain, a very small percentage of organizations make the loudest noise, right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are the ones that there’s no way in the world that I as a cattle feeder in my remote area where we’re at will ever change their mind. If I even did engage with them, all it did would probably just stoke the fire. I’m not that guy. I mean, we’re just going to do what we do, but if somebody is on the fence and has some questions like that, I would encourage him to look up some of these associations.

Camas Uebelacker:
Washington Cattle Feeders Associations got a website. Washington Beef Commissions got a website. I mean, all these. The information is out there. Just look in the right place, please. That’s what I would encourage.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for opening up, talking about your family and your history and your farm and everything. It’s really been a great conversation and really interesting. I appreciate it.

Camas Uebelacker:
No problem, man. Happy to do it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, does a conversation like that make you want to get into farming? I know. If you’re like me at all, it leaves you conflicted because part of it sounds so incredible to be growing food that people eat. I don’t know. Maybe is that just because I grew up on a farm? It’s in my blood. I know that for sure, but then part of a conversation like I had with Camas makes it sound pretty scary and like, “Why would I ever want to sign up for that? That’s something that would take over my life and could potentially lead to really hard times and a huge amount of hours and a lot of physical pain and the threat of bankruptcy.” Why?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like he said, at some points he just feels like, “I should just work a regular job, clock in, clock out, and this whole farming thing is not worth it,” but then he has his good days where he’s like, “Wow. I wouldn’t want my life to be any different.”

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d love to hear your reaction to a conversation like this or any of the conversations that we have. Share your comments on our social media posts with this or other episodes or shoot me an email. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email. My first name Dillon is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N, not the Bob Dylan way, the Matt Dillon way, if that makes sense. Not that I necessarily identify with either of those people, but people always ask. So, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. We’ve got some really cool conversations coming up in soon weeks here, too, and more and more about how COVID-19 is impacting the farming world and the people in the farming world, both on a personal level and then on a business level and even beyond business like on a bigger economy level.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s going to happen here is pretty unclear at this point and there are a lot of people who are worried. In some ways, just to give an advanced heads up of some of the things I’m hearing from the people who we’re hopefully going to be having on the podcast here in coming weeks, there may be some really cool opportunities right now for local food and farmers because of what’s happening with this virus, and the way it’s changing markets, and the way it’s causing people to think differently about their food and where they live and if they’re secure, but especially with what’s happening to the bigger national and global markets.

Dillon Honcoop:
There are some very scary times ahead for farming as well. I’m also very worried about a lot of local farmers. So, it’s a mixed bag. We’re going to be hearing more about it certainly every week as we go because it’s on everybody’s mind right now. So, expect that in the next few weeks coming up as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for joining me on this journey of mine to really get to know these farmers of all different stripes, as well as other people in the food chain, the food system, whatever you want to call it, other people behind our food here in Washington state. That’s what the Real Food Real People Podcast here is all about.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop. It’s a privilege to have you join me for these conversations. Listen in, download, subscribe on whatever you’re subscribed on if you haven’t already. I sure would appreciate it. I sure would appreciate a share on social media, too. If anything that we talk about on the podcast, one of our guests says, whatever, if it strikes a chord with you, I’d really love it if you shared it on your social media platform. It just helps us grow this conversation to more and more people. That’s part of our mission is to get more and more people reconnected to their food and where and who it comes from.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the more people that we can get plugged in on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, the better job we can do to change the landscape of at least people’s awareness about food and farming here in Washington State. So, I’d really appreciate that and don’t miss next week as we continue here on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, and I should also thank our sponsors. Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.