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

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Usually.

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

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
And shelf stable.

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

Niels Brisbane:
And I want it in five minutes.

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

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

.

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for farming?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Or any small farming community.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So changing communities beyond just the traditional-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

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

Niels Brisbane:
Or Twin Brook

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

Niels Brisbane:
No, not at all.

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

Niels Brisbane:
Pretty much not.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Good old fashioned competition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in our system right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
I think so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
That’s what’s next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
That’s all that really matters.

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

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely.

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

Niels Brisbane:
I would love to.

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

Niels Brisbane:
Cool. Thank you so much.

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
It was the starting point, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of body manipulation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Your starting point was science more though.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, absolutely.

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

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Right. Yeah, they did.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s an artistic expression.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s a message.

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
I did, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
At UC Davis.

Niels Brisbane:
At UC Davis, yup.

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

Niels Brisbane:
No.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You can grow just about anything here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Seattle here?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
They champion that, eating local.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, they have.

Dillon Honcoop:
In fine dining in particular.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of stuff?

Niels Brisbane:
Oh man.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The scientist.

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, yeah, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
All of that development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Not something that everyone gets to do.

Niels Brisbane:
No, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s very cool.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Doelman | #001 12/16/2019

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You are in Vietnam.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Doelman:
I think I was 34-35.

Dillon Honcoop:
35 years old in Tenino, Washington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Then you had to step it up?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So this past-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How’s he doing now?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, good for him.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When we were just kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Doelman:
Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You mentioned the E word, environment?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
By state law?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So people have been supportive?

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

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

Chris Doelman:
There certain things I do as far as how I dress.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the dairy farmers style that you don’t fit?

Chris Doelman:
I’m not going to say. Do you know the irony of it today is I’m wearing plaid, but I don’t have my Romeo’s on or my Wranglers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, you’re saying my Romeos and my Wranglers, do you own Romeos and Wranglers?

Chris Doelman:
No, I don’t actually.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so that’s where you don’t fit the stereotype.

Chris Doelman:
I joke. I joke. No, so one of the neat things that I think when… an interesting thing that I… revelation, was when I went to my first kitchen meeting and that’s a meeting where all the dairy farmers in the local area get to talk to the representative at the Co-op level, so Dairy Gold will hold a kitchen meeting.

Dillon Honcoop:
That sounds so like 1950.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, Oh, we’re meeting in a-

Dillon Honcoop:
Kitchen meeting.

Chris Doelman:
In some restaurant, it’s not an actual kitchen. But there’s country music playing loud, everyone rolls up in their big pickup trucks and you’re there and my first kitchen meeting, I’m coming from Vietnam and Orange County thinking about, there was… maybe I’m a little, I don’t want to say I’m arrogant, but there’s a sense of like, “Well, I don’t know what to expect, but I doubt any one of these guys had run a software company before.” And that sounds super-arrogant and I feel so terrible for having that thought. But there was a little bit of that in my head. I wouldn’t say it consumed me, but there was just that little bit and that got wiped away immediately. The first question asked by this group that you would look… if you would look over them and you weren’t… if you were pretty judgmental, you might think-

Dillon Honcoop:
A bunch of redneck farmers.

Chris Doelman:
That’s exactly right. That’s the first thought you’d think of. There’s a lot of plaid in this room. But the minute I heard their question, I’m like, “Oh, we are dealing with intellects, there are intellects here.” And they’re talking about markets, they’re talking… and these questions where we’re deep questions. They are not what you would as the general population think a farmer would ask.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t that part of the… one of the ingredients that that city person that you’re talking about who doesn’t really know, isn’t connected anymore with where their food comes from, that’s part that they aren’t aware of that these aren’t just people bumbling around like, “Ooh, here’s some milk, I guess I’ll sell it.”

Chris Doelman:
That’s exactly right, if these people were not… The dairy farmers that I’m in the room with right now, if they were not dairy farmers, they’d be CEO, CFOs, they’d be running their own businesses, they’d be doing these things. It’s amazing how… it’s just that they have the passion for farming and so they are dairy farmers. But they could be doing different things but we judge them because it’s different. It’s because we’re so disconnected from rural America.

Dillon Honcoop:
So maybe this is part of your nonjudgmental growth in not making snap judgments about people?

Chris Doelman:
Well, I definitely have learned that, that is definitely true. You feel like you’re kind of on the other side of it. I mean, I don’t want to say by any means that I equate it to what different people groups have had to deal with. This is just, “Yeah, I’m still a white male in a white male in a white male-dominated country.” But there is something about having a little bit of a chip on your shoulder because I am a rural farmer or get perceived as a rural farmer and the negative connotations that come with that. And so that puts a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But then I think, “How am I doing that to other people?” And so it really has caused me to reflect even more. Taking an even closer look on my prejudices, and how ineffective certain stereotypes are and it’s part of my growth.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for chatting with us. I really appreciate you opening up telling this whole story. It’s a good one, by the way.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I hope you can piece it together.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean with as many elements as you have going here, at least the start of a good book or movie or something with all these different worlds and coming back and the heartbreak of losing your mom and the kind of finding your place in this world back where you started after having gone kind of… is it a prodigal son story? Well, not quite a prodigal son story but-

Chris Doelman:
No, I didn’t run away and gamble away all my inheritance.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, we’ll still let you-

Chris Doelman:
I’ve got to do that stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, let us know when you’re done with that and we can update the story. Chris Doelman, Beaver Creek Dairy, Washington State family farmer. Thank you so much for chatting with us on the podcast.

Chris Doelman:
Thanks Dillon, I appreciate the time.

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