Bridget Coon part 2 | #030 07/06/2020

She's a digital communications expert and consultant, but she also runs a beef ranch in Eastern Washington. In the second half of our conversation with Bridget Coon we hear her dream for changing our food system for the better.

Transcript

Bridget Coon:
I have to stay connected. I have to try to bridge these two worlds because that’s who I am and who I’ve always been, but it’s just kind of grown and become a career on one end and then also carrying on this beef cattle legacy that I grew up with.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
COVID is changing our food system and it’s exposed vulnerabilities, but at the same time, it’s kind of turned us back to the importance of the food that we grow here and buying local but it’s left a lot of us with questions, is our food system something that we can trust? We heard about meat shortages and problems with meat processing. What was really going on behind-the-scenes?

Dillon Honcoop:
We tackle that and a lot of other really big picture stuff this week with beef rancher from Benge, Washington, Bridget Coon. She’s our guest again this week. This is part two of our conversation. If you want to hear some of her personal backstory and how she got to where she is now, make sure to check out last week’s episode, Episode 29 of part one with her. This is the second half of that conversation. Whether you’ve listened to that first half or not, there’s a ton of gems that come up in the conversation this week about what’s really happening with our food system and what the truth really is about how our food is produced here in Washington State and in this country.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop. These are crazy times that we live in with everything that’s going on in the world right now. Again, it’s leaving a lot of us with questions and that’s part of the focus of this podcast is to get some answers. We do some of that this week. I really hope you enjoy this conversation. We pick up right here where we left off last week with Bridget Coon around her kitchen table in Benge, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
Technically, what’s your gig now? Is it just basically freelancing stuff or what do you do, aside from the ranch stuff, your other work?

Bridget Coon:
I held on to sort of that employment level situation with the Beef Commission until about 2017 and that was after having two kids. It was just really hard to be performing at the level that I wanted to be in that job and then not shortchanging the family, not shortchanging the kids. There’s not a lot of childcare options out here. Notice and so I tried to piece it together for a long time and I think I finally just got to the point and it should be a pretty, it’s like probably a pretty relatable feeling for a lot of women in my kind of my set that I just finally realized that I couldn’t get up earlier and I couldn’t put more effort in and I couldn’t really control for sort of this ongoing feeling like I get to the end of the day exhausted, but not really feeling like I did a great job being a mom and not doing my job at the level that I’m used to doing because I’m doing this works well before this arrangement.

Bridget Coon:
What I do now, just started with actually quitting, which is probably one of the hardest changes that I had to come to and stop being stubborn and realizing that this was the change that had to be made but I just never really lacked for work and that’s kind of your farm kid, you’re just wired for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
The fun stuff to do.

Bridget Coon:
People, if someone knows that you can do something, it’s just you’re going to get that opportunity. What started with quitting parlayed into actually just sort of, I don’t have to do nothing. I just couldn’t do exactly what they needed. It ended up being a contract to buy the digital advertising, which is something we had already been doing for the commission and still getting to do a lot of that work, but it’s just a sliver of it. Then, it took less than months to get outreach from people I know in the industry that want to do more. They wanted to do more communication and more, what we call having a digital footprint, I guess, and using email communication instead of just newsletters and all these things that most organizations that are smaller organizations don’t have like the room internally to do.

Bridget Coon:
I basically had two clients from the beef or cattle world within a matter of a couple months and then have been approached. I’ve never pitched any work. I was reluctant to call it a business or call it what it was but it was really only this year that both my kids are school aged and we have a little school in Benge. It’s like six miles away but enrollment this year is higher than it’s been in a while, 17 kids.

Dillon Honcoop:
I drove past it.

Bridget Coon:
Did you see it?

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s quite small, but it looks like a very nice, newish building.

Bridget Coon:
Well, they actually just did some renovations. So sad about the kids not being in school right now. It’s like, cool. They actually-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, it’s the time to do it.

Bridget Coon:
My husband went to school there…

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh wow.

Bridget Coon:
… in elementary school. He’s pretty amazed in seeing that work that’s just been done. They got a small school or rural school grant and that work was done this last summer. But anyway, my kids then were supposed to be in school learning. I kind of had this window of six, seven hours in the day that I haven’t had in seven years. My work just sort of has ramped up naturally. Like I said, I haven’t pitched anybody. Right now, I don’t have more room for that. I’m kind of feel like I’m somewhat… I put myself back in a familiar position with this unexpected change of life where the kids were home before summer. I figured I could figure out how to shuffle a summer and get some help from family to make sure that I felt like they were having a great summer and I was still getting work done for my clients.

Bridget Coon:
Then, I had my last work meeting off, actually my new client that wanted to have some work done. I’ve since shuffled that off to someone else because there’s just no way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome to the COVID world.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, because I feel like I’m fairly well built for it because I’ve been down this road and it’s just things that I’m used to navigating. I work from home. I’m comfortable with that but that sort of abruptness, didn’t really leave room to shuffle anything around.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much has COVID changed on the ranch here?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, nothing, other than the kids being home from school instead of that school. It’s, I say short of nuclear fallout. Cows are going to get fed, water is going to get turned on, farming is going to happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s pretty easy to slow the spread when there aren’t. There aren’t any other people for miles.

Bridget Coon:
Social distancing is our way of life. I only go to the store and even my husband was having to go for parts because those stores are open in order to support agriculture. He could stop a little store in Ritzville and grab groceries and I can live along for a long time. I’m pretty crafty in the kitchen. I have a freezer full of beef.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about with the markets and stuff and then we heard about all these beef or meat plant closures? What does that mean for you guys and big picture, what’s the truth about what’s going on there?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, obviously, we have an issue in our supply chain. When this started happening and testing for COVID-19 testing around really any processing plants, but like food processing plants are about the only ones that were open still because they were essential. It’s not like it’s a national or global problem at this point but what was concerning rate of COVID-19 cases coming from meat plants. Those plants have been working with their local health department and working within the CDC guidelines and basically working in to solve a problem to make sure that workers can process meat safely and not be transmitting COVID-19 to each other. It’s kind of one of those fix the problem while it’s happening situations and that started with slowdowns with the plants, again, losing workforce because some workers were sick and then also just figuring out how to reshape their operations to make them safer for their workers. Some of that has resulted in shutdowns.

Bridget Coon:
Every time a plant shuts down, essentially, you’ve got ranches like ours feeding into feed yards, whereby cattle are at a certain point, they’re ready, they’re ready for slaughter but if our capacity to process them is diminished for any reason, in this case, it’s COVID-19 and the efforts being done in plants, you have a backup of cattle. Then, if you back that all the way up to the ranch level, the opportunities to market your calves to the feed yard shrink because there’s animals that are ready to leave. They’re taking have space at the end, so to speak.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can’t just have them keep hanging out here on the ranch?

Bridget Coon:
You can’t. At least from our perspective and I like to say there’s a million different ways to do it. Every ranch has the general responsibilities like we talked about managing lands, managing animal health, making decisions about breeding and doing that swell, that looks totally different here than it does up in Okanogan or over on the west side.

Bridget Coon:
For our part, we’re usually kind of a, we have the ability and we try to take the ability to be flexible in our marketing. When we market that, at what weight do we market? You watch the markets to see, okay, can we have them gain another couple hundred pounds here before they move on but that also depends on if we get enough moisture or we have enough hay to get through a winter.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, there’s so many factors. It’s really kind of complex but the main thing is that we’re watching this all unfold. It’s completely kind of unprecedented. It’s not as if we’re not used to markets going up and down like any commodity and you’re going to have that but there is something weirder about that prospect of, well, I have buyers when I’m ready to sell because those buyers don’t have orders because we have backup.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s so bizarre about it is there’s extra product meat in the system, animals, yet at the same time, there are shortages and prices are going up for the consumer. It’s that breakdown in between…

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, but…

Dillon Honcoop:
… that’s causing a problem like you described.

Bridget Coon:
… people can eat cattle and beef. This is really an essential step in the supply chain. It is the right thing to do whatever it takes to ensure that people can do the work safely, that they can have their health but how you actually accomplish that and not completely upend markets for people like us or the market for the consumer, that can’t be understated how complicated and complex that is and it’s challenging.

Bridget Coon:
I had a chance to go into one of the plants here in Washington last week after they had been shut down for two weeks. They tested everyone that works in the facility. We got to go in and see the specific changes to their operations, all the PPA, any of the new… A lot of it was based around employee education and awareness and doing that in multiple languages that are spoken in a facility like that.

Bridget Coon:
Again, I’ve been through processing plants several times and under normal circumstances. It absolutely felt slow. You’re slowing down the speed and affording for. They don’t have a lot of workers that are absent because they’re ill but there are workers that are not, you can’t force someone to go to work and do this work but most of the people we saw they were happy to be back at work after being gone.

Bridget Coon:
There was like a hundred percent use of masks and vinyl partitions between those positions in the processing line where people have to stand kind of close to each other. I mean, I saw a lot of buy-in for the changes. From what I can tell and from conversations and just looking at the numbers on weekly kill, we’ve gone back up from this sort of inverse bell curve. Processing capacity is up now that it looks like these interventions, again, it’s kind of waiting and seeing if they will work to keep people healthier, keep people testing negative for COVID.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are we going to see in the grocery store?

Bridget Coon:
Right now-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because there’s like a time lag, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was reading all these farmer tweets about how bad things were but it didn’t really hit what I was seeing in the grocery store for weeks after them talking about these things happening coming down the pipeline.

Bridget Coon:
Some of the changes really are I’d say more nuanced for the consumer. Yes, there’s going to be some price increases because you have these distributors and retailers vying for a more limited amount of product, supply and demand 101. You’re going to see different prices but you’ll also see maybe a different selection of cuts. Some of the extra processing, again, that requires extra people, people working next to each other and then slows the process down to get beef to the market or to the retailer, you’ll have maybe roasts instead of steaks. Then, you can actually cut most roast down into steaks. If people are willing to do it, they’re going to get a value on a roast cut.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mind blown, yeah.

Bridget Coon:
It’s really about if people can be… Honestly, it seems like pretty minor adjustments for the consumer to make in order to still enjoy beef. Grilling season is around the corner and we actually just came up with we’re getting an infographic out there that’s like called steak swap. It’s like, if you don’t see a tenderloin, you can get the same eating experience out of a strip loin or New York strip steak. If you don’t see one of the meat case, but you see the other, you can still grill it hot, grill it to medium rare.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s like the people in the store, buying at the store are having to do some of the same learning that someone who might be buying direct like we talked about earlier we’ll also have to be doing. I know I did that a while back. Well, just to back up a little bit. I grew up around the dairy farming world. Both sets my grandparents were in dairy farming so our beef naturally was called dairy cows, which isn’t the greatest beef in the world, but it serves its purpose.

Bridget Coon:
Grind it. That’s protein.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, we have a lot of hamburgers and that was the thing. We never really did a lot of stuff with those other cuts. Then, jump forward many years, this is just a few years ago, local farmer was selling an animal and my family split it up between my mom and dad and I think my sister and brother-in-law, I mean, my wife. We shared this. We got an assortment of cuts, some of which I knew nothing about but in the era of Google, and I will say this, the era of instant pots.

Bridget Coon:
Giddy up.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, there was some pretty amazing things that happened and I’m like, “Hey, short ribs?” This is cool. I would have never ever cooked that but because of that experience, I did and I think a lot of people are going to be turning onto this kind of stuff right now.

Bridget Coon:
Enter your new world of beef that you don’t even know existed, absolutely. I find few silver linings to this situation. I don’t want to talk about it. Think about it because it makes me cranky but I do see, I do like to see that. I like to see this opportunity for people to move beyond just I don’t know much but I have this preference because that’s what’s trendy or that what’s his that’s what’s acceptable in this culture, urban culture they live in but to actually dive in and be like, “I would buy that but I don’t know how to cook it,” and then starting to build that knowledge. Yeah, we’re so focused on providing convenient products. When the supply chain is working well, we can do that but when we have a hiccup like this, it is incredibly important that people start to learn more about food preparation, just a very simple basic concepts.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s so much easier with Google and granted you can get burned on bad tips on Google, just like you shouldn’t get medical advice from… Well, Google’s probably better for cooking advice than it is for medical advice but it’s like yeah, there’s no reason why you can’t, with some careful reading, figure out how to do it and then like I said, the Instant Pot thing you used to, some of these cuts in the way you’d have to cook it, you’d have to really get technical and you’d have to invest a lot of time to really do it right and when we have devices like that, it’s kind of weird that I keep bringing this one little thing out, but it’s become such a trend and everyone’s, “Oh, yeah. [inaudible 00:18:34]. First, I didn’t really get it and then I got using it and I love it.” Of course now it’s air fryers apparently.

Bridget Coon:
Oh, I’ve got both. I’ve then got-

Dillon Honcoop:
The Instant Pots are like two or three years ago and now it’s air fryers but for me, I can actually cook this for dinner and not have to start it at noon.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, think about that, you’re getting cuts of beef, for example, that are a better value as far as price per pound is lower because you’re not competing with steak houses and high end uses but people have perceived them as that convenient because they are longer cooking time to get a really enjoyable meal out of it. Yeah, bring in the technology of an Instant Pot, which is just an electric pressure cooker and we’re back.

Bridget Coon:
I think of my grandmother a lot of times. She used the pressure cooker on the stove to do different things to me like tongue and like weird stuff, [inaudible 00:19:30] weird stuff but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Using all parts of an animal though.

Bridget Coon:
That’s where, I mean, I hear a lot of this chatter and I have to pay attention to that based on my work in the industry online. Anytime like the rubber is actually meeting the road on people going out there and that’s some of the things that they’re even been choosing to share and then other people get the idea and they’re actually practical, not just like look at my very boutique steak I bought, tofu or whatever.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, there’s a sustainability angle there because you aren’t just only using, like we talked about earlier, people and they just get the rib eyes and the sirloins and then what happens everything else, grind it up into hamburger, I guess? No, it gets used and even things like tongue or cheek or all kinds of… Tripe, for crying out loud, it also may sound gross but the trend of getting into more cultural foods and learning the foodie idea of getting into different cultural ways of preparing stuff like that that you normally wouldn’t even eat at all, I like I got into pho.

Bridget Coon:
I love pho. Pho is my chicken soup.

Dillon Honcoop:
Am I really saying that right? I always get criticized on how I say it. I’m not enough of a foodie to be really hardcore about it, but I do love it. There, again, it has all different things that, I always get like, “Okay, get the adventurous one with all the tendons and everything else in it because I want to experience that but then all these other good things are happening because of it too. All that stuff isn’t just ending up in the garbage.

Bridget Coon:
No, and we don’t usually have that. That’s where our exports are actually really important to our industry. Particularly here in the northwest, we have access to Asia. As long as, trade agreements wise, that that matters but in general, there’s a high demand for US beef and different cuts that really generally US consumers aren’t jazzed about that we get a better value.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, it’s like people in other parts of the world just tend to be better at using more of the different stuff and getting a little bit more exotic than just the sirloin steak.

Bridget Coon:
Their cuisine incorporates this type of thing. It’s natural that that’s a market for some of the parts that… That’s why. I mean, there’s so much… People are really kind of, I think, fairly quick to criticize in our supply chain and like, “Oh, it’s all messed up. It’s all big,” and I’m like, “Yeah, but it starts with people like us,” and we don’t have really a desire right now to feed cattle out because we’d actually have to truck feed here to get them to that prime choice like right spot and we don’t really have a desire to safely process beef here. That specialized part of our supply chain that, again, when it works, it works and we have this really high quality beef that just about anyone in our country can get access to. I think sometimes some of our higher ideals about knowing where foods comes from and having opinions and placing value, like in a little elitist because we can afford it.

Dillon Honcoop:
True.

Bridget Coon:
We talk about things just because we can afford it but then only when there’s only a roast that we’ve never cooked and we have [inaudible 00:22:56], then we can start getting creative. Again, I try not to be hypercritical about it. I understand. I mean, I grew up in a school where like, my brother and I were the token farm kids and I understand that. People don’t have the awareness that I do about their food on this basic level. I would never give someone a hard time about that. I would never sort of think of them lesser because of that but I just would love it if people kind of didn’t like skim past these basics into these opinions about our food supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
Totally. Well, because with COVID and everything that’s happening, what we just talked about with meat processing, people are saying, “Well, it’s revealing cracks in our food system or it’s showing how our food system is broken.” You’re saying that’s not true?

Bridget Coon:
I’m saying that we should have… What I think it’s not either or, it’s and. Yes, it’s problematic when we have an issue in our food supply and then, again, these ingredients. Whether it’s potato and onion or cattle that [inaudible 00:24:09] we can’t get to people, but we have the raw product, obviously, that’s a problem but from what I can tell, based on again, this sort of inverse bell curve that we’re working with on how fast cattle are being slaughtered now, we’re already kind of on the upswing of that. It’s going to depress prices for people like us, but proteins are still going to get to people.

Bridget Coon:
I’m not I’m definitely not one to condemn it wholesale. Think about the other aspects of it. I think it would be awesome if we had more smaller processors that people could access, the producers could access and then consumers could access from but consumers will then need to change their shopping patterns and change their kind of desires. Really, our food supply has been led by consumer demand. If that demand changes, I believe that the beef industry as an example, agriculture in general, can pivot and get where people need us to be but this is like one of those things that I get. It’s been the kind of the irony of ironies to me growing up in the ’90s in Western Washington raising cattle around, the dairy farms around us and everything and as the suburban area grew, that’s where our regulatory framework and the stuff that makes it hard and more costly to locally farm-

Dillon Honcoop:
Our farming goes somewhere else.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, a lot of those guys, a lot of dairy guys I knew came over here to Eastern Washington. I think my grandfather called it, had a good time because we were having a hard time as that valley filled with warehouses and I don’t really feel bad about that either because you’re in between two major ports and freeway system and rail system, I’m not convinced that the highest best use of land that we used to farm on isn’t distribution warehouses. I may differ with people. I don’t get super sentimental about even though it was good farm ground, I mean, we did it for a long time. It’s a little bit ironic to me that in the ’90s, we saw this sort of exodus of farming and it makes it being really hard for producers to stay local based on neighbors coming in complaining about everything from smell.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where everybody when they see these things and there are issues. Our food system is as a broad umbrella term but the first people we need to look at whether I think we’re and this is me getting on my soapbox just for a few seconds, is whether we’re a farmer, a rancher or we’re a consumer who lives in the city. We all need to look at ourselves, I think, first because I think everybody can do things better. That’s what we’re being forced to learn right now.

Bridget Coon:
I love that and I love that perspective because there is, there’s a lot of like a blame game kind of running around.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody else wants to… Farmers want to say, “This is not fair.”

Bridget Coon:
The consumers, they don’t always, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
The consumers get on that farm. Why are farmers, they created such a terrible food system.

Bridget Coon:
That’s not.

Dillon Honcoop:
No.

Bridget Coon:
That’s not what we’re working with here. I truly believe that. I think with some ownership, it can do that. I’m not asking for someone to own it but it is ironic to me that the issues that we faced two decades ago, the same people are the ones that are really hopping on the local food train.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
The same people, it’s not like the next generation of people.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t think those people even put that together.

Bridget Coon:
They wouldn’t put that together and it’s really obvious to me. I had to stop, it was several years ago but I was at some meeting and I love my off ranch work because it gives me such a good perspective of not just, if you’re really easy, especially with me internet, if I didn’t have internet, I need to have internet. I do but you could get pretty sucked into our level, like in just our sector of our beef world very easily but my work has made me and I’ve enjoyed getting out there and seeing all angles.

Bridget Coon:
There’s really smart, really successful guys out here that are really surprised that the amount of time and energy that they put in to communicating about how we raise cattle to consumers. This wasn’t something that was obvious to them a couple decades ago and I’m sitting here like, I wish 10-year-old me could have gotten a time machine, came here and told these guys out here because they weren’t exposed to the Seattle media. I was. These issues that we were facing already as farmers in Western Washington, they wouldn’t have known.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nobody would believe.

Bridget Coon:
They would have not have known.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nobody would have believed you though.

Bridget Coon:
Do you think so? I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think there are still people who are waking up to that realizing no, they need to share their story. They don’t even realize what they have because it’s all maybe that they’ve known. I know, farmers who they’ve just been doing their thing and they have a great story to tell. What they do is pretty incredible but they don’t feel any sort of, they feel like why do I need to tell anybody that. I just make food and then people buy in and eat it, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, and I can’t fault them for kind of feeling that way either and I’m not faulting consumers for wanting to know more. That’s why I feel like I’ve found myself in this spot. It can be frustrating some days. Sometimes I just want to retract and go hunt mule deer. In general, I try to stay connected and I have to stay connected. I have to try to bridge these two worlds because that’s who I am and who I’ve always been but it’s just kind of grown and become a career on one end and then also carrying on this beef cattle legacy that I grew up with. I feel like I tried to give everybody on all sides a lot of grace and I use sarcasm to vent off steam. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love it because all these details are different than my story but the theme is the same because I grew up a farm kid as well. Went off, did the communications thing and I’m really passionate about advocacy and being a communicator but still love this community that made me who I am and it’s still so important to me. That’s why, that’s the story of this podcast. That’s why I’m doing it because I want to bring that together to tell these stories and do the storytelling, the communication and connect people, but have it be about our food and the people who grow it. Wow, this is like-

Bridget Coon:
I hope we’re getting there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, this is like-

Bridget Coon:
We made some progress there. No, I think what’s weird to me if I’m thinking about this whole full circle situation and feeling I’m back to my roots, but really doing that work to try to connect people, I know I’m trying to figure out my strategy because my kids are growing up in this rural environment but I knew I would enjoy rural life. I knew that I, I mean, I feel very comfortable here but I want to make sure.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, I grew up with people that were totally different. Their lifestyles were totally different. They lived in apartments or their parents worked a Boeing or whatever. I always felt like I had a different setup than the people that I was around and then out here, everyone around here is kind of rural. I feel like really, I need to figure out a strategy on making sure that my kids, because I think it’s been beneficial to me to understand all different kinds of people based on how I was brought up. I have to figure out how to do that and I actually I have to try. It was natural for me. It was not my parents. I’ve tried to do that but I can do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
But that’s healthy for kids, for anybody to be around people from a lot of different backgrounds and perspectives. That’s part of our problem with the food system, with our political system is where we have these silos and there’s the city and there’s the rural and there’s fewer and fewer people in the rural areas and more and more people in urban areas and neither side listens to each other very well because they don’t really understand.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, we can be… One of the cool beef commission projects that they do and I’ve gotten to participate in is collecting chefs, meat buyers, bloggers, media, and go through and take them to a ranch to a feed yard and through the processing plant over the course of two days and it’s fantastic and we see what their opinions are before and see what they are after. Then, it help them network with our industry after they we build longer relationships there but what I find is I’m observing our tour hosts and the other rancher types that we bring along, they’re there to be a resource and there to answer questions, is their feedback because they get so much value from this opportunity to connect with that part of the supply chain, because they’re not doing on a regular basis. They’re running a ranch or a feed yard.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s supposed to be the other way around expose the-

Bridget Coon:
It’s well the point.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
Well, the point is to educate or at least sort of build that basic level of understanding. On the restaurant menus, they’re not like oversimplifying.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, I understand what it means. They’ve actually seen it.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, it just makes it all better. It makes it better from start to finish but it really it’s so beneficial. I take it for granted because through my work, I’m forced and I enjoy it but I am forced to stay connected with our consumer mindset and trends. I’m like the average rancher out here. Why would they do that? I mean, you only have so much space in a day and so much space in your brain. In fact, that’s probably my biggest challenge right now is figuring out how much, in the digital space, obviously, it changes and everything, moves really fast there and having to stay on top of that can take a lot of energy and effort.

Bridget Coon:
I need to and on behalf of the people I do work for but I also have, I mean, my husband and my father-in-law have been out here practically their entire lives. I’m always trying to catch up on knowledge, whether it’s managing grazing or breeding or whatever. I just feel like, I grew up with cattle and with the family but that’s the only similarity because it’s a different family. If you think about any issue, take water. Obviously, there are water issues in Western Washington, completely different.

Dillon Honcoop:
So much different.

Bridget Coon:
We have drainage and we have many more. Then, here we have maybe 12 inches of precipitation all year. Managing water is like completely turned on his head and I’m fascinated by all that. I want to be engaged in that. I don’t know where I’ll go as far as like this ranch or my outside work. I have my kids that it’s awesome because they are sponges and they’re absorbing everything they see in here, out here. I’m hesitant to complain about this COVID situation because we have all this space and I have empathy for the person like in their house or in their condo with kids or without like, day after day and they’re not used to working from home or whatever their situation is, I feel really thankful and really blessed that this isn’t mine. If anything, this is sort of like really life affirming to some of my life decisions that…

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Bridget Coon:
… we discussed, those kind of rash decisions about nine years ago. I feel like I’m in a good spot if we have to be in a pandemic.

Dillon Honcoop:
Definitely. What’s the future?

Bridget Coon:
I think the future is, I just basically have an endless, just an endless pot of knowledge that I need. I want to have an experience I want to have here on our ranch raising beef. In the work I’m doing to try to connect people and using the digital space to do that. I feel really fortunate that just some of the storytelling I’ve been able to do with these other farms and ranches that I’ve been in contact with, them trusting me with their stories. I mean, that’s really like, I’ve done interesting things in my career but that’s definitely something that I feel most positive about.

Bridget Coon:
If I’m doing something that I think matters or is bigger than just here, bigger than myself, I really care about that. Yeah, I don’t know how much room I have for either one and I’m usually I’m like I’m in this place where I’m trying to assess where my limited… I mean, 20 somethings don’t understand the value of time and energy and how finite that time and energy feels by the time you get to, I mean, this is only my perspective, so it’s probably going to sound dumb to someone older, but to your mid-30s, with a couple of kids that grow rapidly and I’m just feel like I’m living in this space where I only have so much time and energy and I’m figuring out day by day how to use that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Budgeting is not just for money.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, adulting sucks, adulting sucks because there’s budgeting on all the things.

Dillon Honcoop:
I only have so much time and I got to figure out what I’m going to spend it on. I only have so much money and I got to figure out what I’m going to spend it on.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Things that they didn’t make you do in high school or college.

Bridget Coon:
No, I mean, I don’t know if you can. Like I said, I don’t think you can tell a 20 something. I don’t think the most eloquently written editorial piece about this topic from someone older would have, even if I was willing to read it, reach me as a 20 something running around Capitol Hill just living my best life…

Dillon Honcoop:
Totally.

Bridget Coon:
… working my butt off, but also going to happy hour because I lived in a hovel row house and we just ate at the bar every night.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, I appreciate that having those experiences. I don’t take it for granted but it also feel so small compared to what I’m trying to accomplish here with our family, with our ranch, with my work. I think that’s probably a good spot to be in.

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Bridget Coon:
I never am sitting back being like, “Glory days.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, if anything, I do feel like I’ve taken experiences that I was given earlier on and just try to keep applying them to be more useful to the people around me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing so much about food, and beef, as well as your personal story, which really resonates with me but I think it overlaps with a lot of people’s experience, particularly in our generation of going through multiple careers and kind of having to reinvent ourselves and morph with technology as it develops. I mean, we were the kids that grew up with normal TV and telephones on the wall and things like that and had to learn this all as it came about, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. I try to even put myself in a younger person’s perspective where there’s… My son knows how to log on to probably like a dozen different websites by the time he was five.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the internet has always been a thing.

Bridget Coon:
It’s always been a thing for them and it’s awesome because they don’t watch commercials. We noticed that whenever we have YouTube TV. We’re cord cutters. We actually have freakishly fast internet out here. Thanks to my husband. It’s not common out here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Lucky.

Bridget Coon:
In fact, I think if there’s anything that I’m passionate about maybe going forward if I was going to try to make an impact locally, it would absolutely be kind of diving in and seeing if there’s a way to promote better connectivity in rural areas because how do we expect farmers and ranchers to connect with consumers whether it’s to get the sort of direct marketing opportunities like we talked about or just getting that sharing that real like, these are real families, this is a real process, not sort of adding complexity to people’s understanding of our food supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
For these rural kids, like yours, to be able to have different experiences and different connections.

Bridget Coon:
Right. I wonder about and in this context, where everyone is just home, home. Maybe some folks are going into town to grip off a little internet at the library or a cafe or something and that hasn’t even been a thing. I do think that’s important. I’m not trying to be Pioneer Woman or like I do some weird stuff I make kombucha. I do weird stuff. I do things that are kind of off grid but I absolutely value that connectivity. I think that if we want these rural areas to be healthy going into the next generation, you’re going to want to have the infrastructure that an average person would expect to have and especially if you want new people or some new energy to come in, you got to have some internet.

Dillon Honcoop:
Totally.

Bridget Coon:
Satellites not cutting it. That’s why I think a lot of people around us have satellite still. It just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Dillon Honcoop:
For those of… It used to be people in cities didn’t realize how much they were taking for granted as far as connectivity. Now, it’s almost in anywhere on the west side because I don’t live in a city, but I’m now used to having at least two or three bars of my LTE all the time and unlimited internet on my phone. I’m constantly connected.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I get out here and it’s like, wow, I drive for an hour and get signal maybe one time.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, yeah, as soon as I walk out my porch, we use two way radios to kind of communicate to make sure someone’s not dead out in this expanse because we just don’t have that. Yeah, there’s a public safety. There’s a sort of a, it’s an issue that I don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t know, public, private, whatever. I haven’t really even skimmed the surface but I think I wouldn’t be doing everything that I should be doing if I don’t kind of dive in and use some of my affiliations and some of my work and some of my energy to get that make sure that it’s the awareness is there. Like you said, awareness is that’s the world that people live in that isn’t as connected. It’s not like, “Oh, it’s really expensive.” We should be able to get access cheaper. It’s like no. You could make it rain and Benge, would not get any internet because we don’t have the infrastructure available to you in 2020.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Bridget Coon:
We should work on that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, we’re going to hold you to it.

Bridget Coon:
Well, I’ll let you know what I come up with.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think we’re going to have to have you back someday on the podcast and get an update on this.

Bridget Coon:
Well, I can probably… Hopefully, I can just Zoom it from my friend’s house, the phone satellite right now. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really. Well, thank you for opening up and sharing on the podcast.

Bridget Coon:
Thanks for coming to Benge.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s awesome here.

Bridget Coon:
I think so.

Dillon Honcoop:
You might not get me to leave. We’ll have to see.

Bridget Coon:
This is not an uncommon thread of feedback, actually. You’re welcome back here anytime. We can grill.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome.

Bridget Coon:
Steaks.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, obviously I’m here now. I did end up leaving Benge but what a cool place in the middle of nowhere. Google it. Check it out on the map. See where Benge actually is and there’s not much there other than just a corner and a couple of buildings in a little schoolhouse but a really cool conversation with Bridget Coon and she’s up to so much stuff. My guess is she’ll be back on the podcast sooner rather than later because she’s got big things in mind and she wants to do so much more.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for subscribing and following along here with the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and it is my mission with this podcast and with Real Food Real People to reconnect the people who grow our food to all of us who eat it and to help heal our food system and a lot of the misunderstandings that caused problems in our food system. We started this before COVID but COVID has made that I think even more important right now. Let’s stay at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Please subscribe. Please follow us on social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to support what we’re doing really helpful if you share the podcast on any of those social media platforms to bring more people into the fold. I feel like the more people we can bring into this conversation, the better we can make our food system, the better we can become as eaters and the better our farming community can be in what they do.

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

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

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the rest you sell to-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Cattle, yes.

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

Bridget Coon:
All your cows are cows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then like even climate change related.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I know my car looks like it.

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Ruminant animals.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, are you calling me old?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
You just stared at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to have some.

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

Bridget Coon:
It’s kind of gross.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Are more and more doing that?

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, all the time.

Bridget Coon:
And-

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
From wine.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
At home.

Dillon Honcoop:
… aren’t on the go.

Bridget Coon:
Like baking bread.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How far is it by the way?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Buy a freezer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is never the case.

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. The fatty acid ratio.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I did not know that.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Marketing, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s all marketing.

Bridget Coon:
That’s genius marketing.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, both.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
I am a soulful marketer.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, that’s good.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was this?

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Winding?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been busy.

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
We’re back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And now you live in Benge.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Zoned in on the work.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
A beef boot camp.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
So much alliteration, so good.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s awesome.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, he wasn’t-

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

Dillon Honcoop:
… working his angles here.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You career zoned him.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Holy smokes.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
He was highly intentional.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
She cleared in right away?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s so awesome.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

Bridget Coon:
So life has been pretty fast paced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org. And by dairy farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Derek Friehe | #028 06/22/2020

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is The Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Second generation.

Dillon Honcoop:
Second?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
I don’t know-

Dillon Honcoop:
… real agronomy or farming or something-

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in agriculture?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So what-

Derek Friehe:
… education standpoint, yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you speak German?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… that you’re connected with?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How many kids do you have?

Derek Friehe:
I got four.

Dillon Honcoop:
Four kids.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I have two but-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Probably around 10,000.

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s amazing.

Derek Friehe:
We don’t typically do that.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Right.

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Nice.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean spec fry?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Not your whole life.

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Oh, man.

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
With overhead irrigation.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And a lot of people fed.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
All over the globe, really.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Green manure, what does that mean?

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, right, so yeah.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s Pythium?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Some soil pest.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s attacks the seed.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yep. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Always something new.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

Derek Friehe:
Wheat.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you talked about peas and wheat.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When do you plant the asparagus then?

Derek Friehe:
Well, that’s also-

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really? Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s all about-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What does a farm need internet for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
In some ways.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
But keep an eye on the irrigation.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But, it’s pretty sweet.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that’s a lifetime.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
You saw that, did you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
The nation, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
You got lucky.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think you could do that?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Oh, good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Chelsea Putnam | #025 06/01/2020

Although she's an artist and a teacher, Chelsea Putnam only really found herself when she came back to her family's farm. This is her story of renewal and passion for stewarding the land and producing food.

Transcript

Chelsea Putnam:
I had nothing. I had our suitcases and a few things, but no job, no idea what I’m doing. And so I did what I knew and that was to go work in the orchards and to help establish a new farm.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Finding rebirth and renewal on the farm. It’s something that a lot of people have found in their personal stories of farming. And this week we hear from an artist and a teacher who is also a farmer and now started a farmer’s market. She’s got so much to share in such a cool story. Chelsea Putnam is her name and she has kind of a traditional Washington farming background in tree fruit, but then they also grow lavender and have tourism and lodging on their farm. It’s a really diverse perspective that she brings and a cool story where she never expected to be a farmer. And here she is and she loves it. We’ve got a lot to get to. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People podcast. And let’s jump right in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about what it is you guys do here. What is this Trinity gardens thing and what do you guys do?

Chelsea Putnam:
There’s a lot of components to it. We started five years ago and with the idea of just planting some lavender plants, my dad’s an orchardist and my mom’s a retired nurse. And she got bored, as you-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that how she would characterize it?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. She got bored being retired and they drove by this property and it was too good of a deal to pass up, but nothing was on here except for the mobile home and a shop. And so they tossed some ideas around about what to plant, if to plant anything. And we always went to Sequim to visit my grandparents, where lavender capital of the world and we loved it. We always loved it. And so my mom and dad decided lavender, let’s plant some lavender on this property. And so year by year we planted a couple 1,000 plants each year and every year we were like, “How can we generate more revenue from this and not just have some random lavender plants in the ground? Let’s get people out here. Maybe we can make it a venue. Maybe we can hold some events like Sequim farms do.”

Chelsea Putnam:
And so it’s just evolved into this extensive venue where we rent out accommodations on Airbnb. We have a shop on site where we sell all of our handcrafted lavender products. We distill, we steam distill, not alcohol, just lavender essential oil. We will custom distill for other farmers too because the distillation setup is quite expensive.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the difference between steam distillation and using alcohol to extract the essential oil?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, that’s a great question. The steam distillation seems to be from what we’ve talked to other farmers about the way to distill the lavender to get the essential oil. Even though it is an expensive setup, it’s one of the cheaper ways to extract the essential oil or 100% oil from the lavender. And I really don’t know much about any other distillation techniques, so I can’t really speak on it too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, yeah. That was going to be my question, like what do you all do with lavender? And technically we’re cheating a little bit because this is Real Food Real People, but you can’t really eat lavender.

Chelsea Putnam:
You can.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes, you can.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. I’m learning something new already.

Chelsea Putnam:
Amongst the other things that we do on the farm, there are many uses of the lavender itself. We have five different varieties out here on the farm and they are all the same therapeutic qualities, but they have different scent profiles and flavor profiles. Some are really good for using for culinary purposes, whereas some are better for just drying or using as a fresh bouquet or distilling to use as essential oil and products. On the farm we have two really good varieties. And what you would do to use lavender for food is you could dry the buds or use them fresh and a lot of people will use it as a tea, help them sleep at night. You could-

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it taste like?

Chelsea Putnam:
It depends on the variety.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know if I’ve ever tasted lavender.

Chelsea Putnam:
We’ll have to do like a taste test for dry buds.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess, yeah.

Chelsea Putnam:
The ones that are really good for culinary purposes, they are sweeter. Some of them have a vanilla note to them. And so of course if you use it in moderation, you can definitely overdo it. If you overdo it, it’s got that soapy, tastes like you’re eating lavender soap or something. That also comes out in the variety that you choose to use for culinary purposes. But have you ever had a dessert with lavender in it or lavender ice-cream or?

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know if I have.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh my gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

Chelsea Putnam:
Maybe, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe I’m just not that sophisticated.

Chelsea Putnam:
That could be it. You did grow up on a farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Ouch.

Chelsea Putnam:
So did I.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, explain that. Where did you grow up?

Chelsea Putnam:
I grew up in East Wenatchee and we would spend our summers driving out here, working on our apple and cherry orchards where my dad, that’s his primary.

Dillon Honcoop:
Out here being the George area?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh yeah, the George area. Yeah. And we still have a couple of those farms and we still work on them. Yeah, so primarily grew up working in tree fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. What were your jobs as a kid?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh my gosh, so many. At 13, actually my dad started teaching me to do payroll, which was cool. I got to learn a lot of the backside of it, the number side. But then labor wise we would do a lot of swamping, which means our pickers will pick cherries in their lugs, put the lugs down and move on to the next tree. And then we would come through and pick up all those lugs and put them on the blue line, which takes all the bins and the lugs and goes and loads them up into the truck.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s nice, easy leisurely work. Yeah?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, sure, sure, sure. Yeah. I think I still have lower back pain from when I was 13.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, wow.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. But as we got older, we got more responsibilities and now instead of breaking our backs, picking up lugs, so my brother will probably drive the blue line or get to operate the equipment and then I’ll go through in quality control and manage what the pickers are picking. And things like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you still do all the tree fruit too?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the lavender farm?

Chelsea Putnam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot.

Chelsea Putnam:
I know. And in my spare time do pottery and teach.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re going to get into that.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re going to hear all about it. But okay, so what all kinds of tree fruits do you guys do now?

Chelsea Putnam:
So we just do apples and cherries now. At one point we did pears as well. However, my dad does not like how tedious pears can be. They’re delicate, so we just stick to cherries and apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the name of that farm?

Chelsea Putnam:
We operate under, we call Putnam Family Farms because we have three farms. We have Trinity Gardens Lavender Farm, obviously the lavender. And then we have French Camp, which was the original orchard. And then we have Liberty Ridge, which was the second ridge to come into the family.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many acres total?

Chelsea Putnam:
We’re considered a micro-farm with just under 200 acres of cherries and apples. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which to a lot of people they think of micro-farm, they’re like a half acre. Right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
A micro-farm just under 200 acres.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. And that’s the tree fruit industry. It’s just growing so rapidly, especially out in the basin. We have farms that are just hundreds of acres. You drive one straight road and it’s just all red delicious apples or all golden delicious or whatever they might be.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you guys bring in the harvest? You have to bring a lot of workers in to get that done?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Well, the beauty in being a smaller farm and established here, we haven’t really needed to take advantage of the Federal H-2A housing employees, recruiting them from out of the country. We have a lot of families that come back year after year after year. In fact, I’ve known some of these families since I was a child. We have just a rapport. It helps to have a great field manager, who’s been with my dad since they both started farming, so 30 years or so. We have a lot of local workers from Quincy, Georgia area, Royal City, Moses Lake.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about on the lavender farm? How much labor does that take? How big is the actual lavender part?

Chelsea Putnam:
We have just over three acres planted in lavender and we don’t hire anybody. It’s just us. My brother and I and my dad still does. We’ll hand harvest the lavender when it’s time to cut for distillation, usually around August, September timeframe. And we just come out here before the sun comes up because the bees wake up at a certain temperature and they swarm the place. And so we try to get up before them.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know all about that from raspberry farm youth and being a little bit allergic to honeybees.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, no. Really?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It doesn’t go very well.

Chelsea Putnam:
No, I think I’ve only been stung once out here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, you’re lucky.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, I just don’t mess with them. I just let them work.

Dillon Honcoop:
The whole thing is you need to stay calm because they don’t like it when you’re worked up, but I can’t stay calm around them. So frustrating. My dad would always say, “Oh, you’ll be fine.” I’m like, “Dad, I don’t know. I don’t want to go out to the field. If I get stung I’ll be feeling sick for a few days.” “You’ll be fine.”

Chelsea Putnam:
I was just going to ask, how allergic are you? Do you need an EpiPen or anything?

Dillon Honcoop:
They made me carry one for a while. I never had anaphylactic shock reaction, but I would swell like crazy.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, well it’s a good thing you didn’t come out here in June and July when everything was in bloom.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. But I am used to being around them still, trying to maintain my chill.

Chelsea Putnam:
Maintain your chill. That’s funny.

Dillon Honcoop:
Going back to growing up, East Wenatchee, working in fruit. Then what was your plan? Did you want to be a farmer?

Chelsea Putnam:
No, no, no. I was like so far, my ideas of having a career path was so far from farming. And I don’t know why. It wasn’t my passion. It’s not like I hated it. I love coming out here in the summers and being a part of the family business. I wanted to be an art teacher. I went off to college, got my art degree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you go to college?

Chelsea Putnam:
Pacific Lutheran University. Little liberal arts school in Parkland. Technically Tacoma is the address. But yeah. My parents weren’t too thrilled when I was like, “I’m going to major in art.” Like, “What are you going to do with your life?”

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did you do then? You got your degree.

Chelsea Putnam:
I did, I did. Actually, right when I was applying for a MFA programs because really my goal was and still is to be a college professor, teach fine arts at a university. I was applying for master’s programs and I got pregnant with my son. And so I made the choice to put that path on hold, the path to MFA. And I decided to get married and go be a mom to a sweet little boy and live the military wife life. We went to Anchorage and then we lived in North Carolina. From North Carolina we actually separated, my ex-husband and I moved home because it was my only support system. Home is here in George where my parents had just bought a lavender farm or a plot of land to be a lavender farm and the orchards. And so I had nothing.

Chelsea Putnam:
I had our suitcases and a few things, but no job, no idea what I’m doing. And so I did what I knew and that was to go work in the orchards and to help establish a new farm. Through this interesting … It was very therapeutic, I think the lavender farm especially. I have a real emotional attachment to the lavender farm because it became this planting of life and growth and newness, right in a time where I needed all that redirection and new growth. And so as we planted the lavender and it evolved, I’ve seen over the last five years, it’s been a symbol of how I’ve established here and I never thought I would, in agriculture and many other aspects of my life.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like going through all of that? Were you scared?

Chelsea Putnam:
No, I don’t think I ever remember being fearful of the massive amount of change, but it’s because I had the support of my parents. They’ve been my absolute rock and foundation to even the disappointing decision to major in art. They were like, “Okay, well if that’s really what you want.” That’s the approach they’ve always taken. They’re just open armed people and they greet everybody with love and support. And of course they’re going to do that for their daughter and grandchild. They’re like, “We don’t actually care about you. We just want Michael in our lives.” I never really felt intimidated. I still wanted to teach art, hence the reason why we’re sitting in the studio because before I got the job at the school district, I built this with my dad and decided to start teaching art to small groups as a small business. And it brought more people out to the lavender farm where we could entice them and educate them on all things lavender.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you do art and ceramics? Is that kind of your big thing?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, clay is my big thing for sure. Yeah. I’ll do all the other art forms and I teach all the other art forms. But clay, I don’t know, there’s something full circle about clay. You can make something sculptural and abstract and create something wonderful from your imagination and try to sell it for lots of money, if someone’s interested. My favorite thing to do is throwing on the wheel and making functional pottery because that’s the full circle piece, I think where you’re taking something from the ground, from the earth and creating it into a form that’s usable and you can eat out of, you can drink out of, you can serve people and sit around a table and enjoy as just what it is. Yeah. The cat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that the cat? Where is the cat?

Chelsea Putnam:
Outside.

Dillon Honcoop:
I hear a cat and the cat wanted to join the podcast. That’s awesome.

Chelsea Putnam:
I know, I got all distracted too. I was like, “Wait, sound like a baby crying.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s funny.

Chelsea Putnam:
We have two boy cats and they’re absolutely wild out there. They’re the farm cats. They get all the gophers and their rats and my mom likes to feed them. She said, “Oh, they can’t starve.” I’m like, “Well, if you feed them, then they’re not going to get the gophers. You have to starve them a little bit.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What a cruel person.

Chelsea Putnam:
They’re fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re going to be hungry.

Chelsea Putnam:
Did you see them? They’re kind of fat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think they’re doing all right.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, they’re fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
You love the art?

Chelsea Putnam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
And you teach now. Talk about what that experience has been like, becoming a teacher.

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, it’s been one of those experiences where you really just don’t know until you’re in it. There’s no amount of education or training that can prepare you to be in front of 30 kids six times a day that are in middle school, seventh and eighth grade. I get to teach anywhere from 11 to 13-year-old kids. I didn’t think that I would just absolutely adore this age range because like I said, my goal was to go onto college and it still is. Now, I think I envision myself being in this age range to gain experience for a good 10 years or so, at least. Unless, I don’t know. It’s kind of funny. We make all these plans for our lives and then like, I don’t know the universe or God or whatever you believe in, likes to throw monkey wrenches in just for-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s the story of COVID too, right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes. And so this is my first year teaching and it’s like all this like amped up, amped up, doing all this stuff and working until exhaustion actually ruined a relationship I was in. Maybe I let it, but [inaudible 00:18:38]. I just really devoted all my passion and time into being good at this job and I could, because all the farms are seasonal. It works out perfectly. Go teach in the winter time, come out here in the spring and fall or excuse me, spring in summer. And it was just like a perfect little, the missing puzzle piece. Anyways, I just poured everything of myself into this and then it was like, “Oh, this pandemic is happening. Schools are closed for six weeks.”

Chelsea Putnam:
And I was like, “Oh, that’s sad, but I’ll see you in six weeks, it’ll be a good break.” And then without even getting to say bye or anything to all these kids, they’re just like, “Yeah, actually we’re not going back to school.” And it has been interesting, absolutely interesting and emotional and all the words.

Dillon Honcoop:
Emotional how?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, it wasn’t at first. I actually didn’t realize the emotional impact it actually had on me until recently. Emotional in a lot of ways. I see the kids and how they grow up in our area. We’re a low income perverse area and we have about, I think it’s about 85 to 87% of our students are under the poverty line. And so when they started talking about this distance learning thing and having kids do online learning, like we have kids that live in houses with 10, 15 people and they’re not even housed well. They’re single wide mobile homes. They don’t have internet or a phone that they can Zoom meeting their teacher. Are you kidding me?

Chelsea Putnam:
It was just so privileged to just be like, “Oh, they can just distance-learn from their laptops.” And so we had this big push on getting kids free meals. We have kids they don’t eat unless they’re at school. They don’t get food. And which like just makes me so … Oh, I could just go into it. It was really emotional trying to reach these kids and not only checking on their welfare and their living situations and, “Are you getting food? Are you getting your basic fundamental needs to survive because we’re not going to get to see you for months and months and months?” But now we’re trying to get them laptops, hotspots, things like that to get them on board with this technology and learning and getting them information. And then it’s just been confusing for everybody because there’s so many questions and it feels like there’s never an actual solid answer. And as soon as there’s an answer, something else changes. And it’s a domino effect of more questions and no answers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you heard anything about next year?

Chelsea Putnam:
There’s a lot of speculation and talk about not going back to school at the beginning of the year. Yeah. I really try to not invest a lot of my time and energy into planning for that because just like I said, everything just keeps changing. Everything just keeps changing.

Dillon Honcoop:
What has COVID meant for you guys here on the farm?

Chelsea Putnam:
It has impacted us a lot more than I thought it would, negatively as far as generating revenue. We’re eight miles from the Gorge Amphitheater. That’s where a lot of our people come that rent the Airbnbs here on the lavender farm, which then directly correlates to customers in our shop. People learning about it, buying our products, whatever. The cancellation of concerts has decreased.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would have never thought of that.

Chelsea Putnam:
Right. Oh my gosh. Also, we can mark up the prices a lot because there’s nowhere to stay around here. There’s nowhere. They are building a hotel in George. Did you see that?

Dillon Honcoop:
I did.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. And a Five Guys Burger.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I did not see that.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
In George Washington.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Imagine that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Very cool.

Chelsea Putnam:
We’ve noticed a decline in our normal clientele, our normal foot traffic, but we’ve gotten a lot of longer stays out here, which is nice. People working in the area for a month or two weeks at a time. But we haven’t gotten a lot of people just coming and visiting us, which is so frustrating because we paid a crap ton of money to get signs on the freeway and we waited an entire year to get them up and they got up this season right before we opened. And then it was like, “Oh great. That was kind of for nothing because no one wants to break the rules.”

Chelsea Putnam:
And we have some people coming by. As far as the orchards though, that’s the one that surprised me that it’s already impacting us because sales have gone down drastically of produce and food everywhere. You hear about all these potatoes and onions getting dumped because all the restaurants are in business. There’s a huge portion of the market that is no longer buying produce and we’re seeing it in our apple prices because it’s our last year’s crop being bought now. And it’s been very disappointing.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s too bad.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, it is. It is. Not to mention, it’s a really light crop for cherries this year, all around the basin. And so couple that with just mother nature and then the economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think is going to happen?

Chelsea Putnam:
I think that my dad’s going to do a lot of praying. Yeah. A lot of praying because at this point it just takes one bad storm and the small crop gets demolished and then bad season.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big are cherries versus apples for you guys?

Chelsea Putnam:
How big are they?

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as like how much-

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, like the size? As like smaller?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, like as a percentage of your operation.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, I see, I see. We’re converting slowly to more cherries than apples. But right now is pretty close to equal and we have a range of varieties within each fruit. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy. We don’t know what’s going to happen next. Right?

Chelsea Putnam:
I know and that’s just kind of farming in its nature though because we’re always dealing with the unknown. Looking at the 10-Day Weather Forecast, preparing for a sudden frost or some crazy. Out here in the basin, the weather patterns are very interesting and we’ll get hail. We get in a bad spring and rain, not a whole lot, but it’ll happen in the spring. We don’t have a lot of rainfall, but it just takes one of those bad storms and it’s all gone. Where our farms are, we see this really interesting weather pattern where it will actually see storms just go around us. It’s very frightening looking at these black thunderclouds and we’re like, “Oh no, is it going to go over us?” There’s something about just the geography and the wind and then it has to do with the Gorge and then the mountains. It just skates around us.

Dillon Honcoop:
Weird.

Chelsea Putnam:
We watch it go around and then go over to [Afrada 00:26:38], or Moses like. We’re like, “Well, it sucks to be them.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But what if you want those storm? What if you need the irrigation?

Chelsea Putnam:
I don’t think that’s ever an issue. No, we never want a storm.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
Unless for some reason we ran out of water, but I don’t think that’ll happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How do you guys irrigate your crops?

Chelsea Putnam:
That would be a really good question for my dad, because he has this really cool nerdy interest in the way this … We have like a federal water project that happened out here, but we get our water from canals. Most people think, “Oh, they live right next to the Columbia River. They probably just get their water from the Columbia River.” No, we get it from lakes farther away from here that they have situated to irrigate the basin through canals, a series of canal systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have to like do the tubes and stuff to get the water out of the canals or like how-

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. In fact, we have it here. I could show you a very small scale version of that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. We do like floating the canals in the summer though. That’s fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your own lazy river?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you go too far though and-

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, yeah, you don’t want to go under the road. There’s spots where they stop. Yeah. You have to just get out of it at some point.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s interesting that you brought up the Gorge in George. Everybody knows the Gorge. Right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would have never thought that would have that kind of impact on your farm. What’s that like having that huge concert space in this little tiny community?

Chelsea Putnam:
I’ll speak personally first. It’s freaking awesome. If you know the right people, you can get in with the right crowd and cheaper tickets or maybe the tickets all didn’t itself. Here’s a couple.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s nice.

Chelsea Putnam:
It is amazingly fun. We all look forward to it. We get groups of friends together, we go meet down there. We’ll camp down there even though we all live like 15 minutes away. And it is such a blast. It’s a great time. Then economically it helps our community big time. Who drives to Quincy? I mean, not semis basically. It’s not like we have a main freeway coming through here. I-90 just misses it by 15 miles. We have a really small town with some cool things to do, but not a lot of people coming through to experience them. In the summertime, when the Gorge is up and running on the weekends, we have people coming down and staying at Crescent Bar and staying in those like little river side towns, like Sunland.

Chelsea Putnam:
They’re not towns they’re like basically towns. Sunland and coming to Cave B and coming out here to do stuff like, “Oh, let’s check out this random lavender farm and cruise into Quincy and get something to eat.” So, we have this really cool rotation of more touristy people, but feeding our economy in a different way than we get the other months of the year.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Who’s the best show at the Gorge?

Chelsea Putnam:
There’s rotation, but watershed’s always fun as a whole, just as a whole experience. Even if it’s not my favorite person playing, it’s the atmosphere. That’s pretty cool. The best show I’ve seen there was … Well, who am I thinking of? Have you ever heard of Shovels & Rope?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, I haven’t.

Chelsea Putnam:
They’re newer-ish. They played. Kings of Leon was really good. Let’s see. There’s some that I only remember part of.

Dillon Honcoop:
I won’t ask.

Chelsea Putnam:
I went home early. I have not honestly seen a bad show there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dave Matthews is famous for playing. Does he do in there every year still?

Chelsea Putnam:
Every year. There was one year he didn’t, but he came back from retirement or whatever.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it like his favorite place to do a show?

Chelsea Putnam:
He’ll like rent out the entire Cave B area just for him and his crew and his family.

Dillon Honcoop:
Cave B is like a little resort?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. It’s a winery that’s grown over the years. Interestingly enough, Cave B originally owned by a surgeon and his wife. They had the original stage where the Gorge Amphitheater is now. They had their Cave B winery and then they had the stage where it was so small, but they would have people come and then they got bought out by Live Nation or whatever. I think it was Live Nation or maybe there was a company before Live Nation. And then it grew to what it is now. There’s a 26,000 people occupancy is huge. And so Cave B sits right next to the Gorge Amphitheater, still is just separated by a chain link fence. And they have an in where there’s a nice fancy restaurant. Then they have all these yachts out there looking out on the Gorge. They have these cliff houses and now they have in that area, it’s not owned by Cave B.

Chelsea Putnam:
Also, they have a winery with a tasting room, really good wine. And it’s gone through ownership changes where actually it’s now separated the winery is separate from the in now whereas it didn’t use to be, but they have these kind of tiny houses, not really tiny houses. They’re just a really smaller version of a modern looking apartment. And they’re all separated. And they’re just separated probably by, I don’t know, 20, 30 feet. And there’s a few of them out there. People have bought in them and rent them out on Airbnb for people going to the concert. It’s kind of turned into this little Villa resort thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think I’ve looked out in that direction at a concert, but not like, “What is that over there?”

Chelsea Putnam:
One a lot of those things are kind of hidden is, kind of hilly or whatever. And you have to drive down in it to really, to really get it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So many people have been right here in your neighborhood basically.

Chelsea Putnam:
Don’t go anywhere other than Cave B and the Gorge.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s crazy. What’s on your a playlist right now. What are you listening to these days?

Chelsea Putnam:
Good question. I’m on this kick. I listen to Pandora a lot and I go between podcasts and music. And when I start feeling a little like weird, I’m like, “Oh, I just need to listen to some music.” So I have my two favorite is Jack Johnson in Pandora station, which plays some really good upbeat stuff I like to listen to when I’m in the studio. I have a highly suspect, which is a little harder. And I like to listen and like scream sing along in my car or in the shower or whatever. And then actually a third one being when I’m just like chilling Iron & Wine. Have you heard of that?

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh yeah.

Chelsea Putnam:
I love, love, love them. And no matter what mood I’m in, I can turn them on. And the whole station’s good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Very chill.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. We’ve got like a chill middle of the road unlike super hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’ve got a lot of tattoos?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into that?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, when I was 18 I made some regrettable decisions. Yeah. It wasn’t so much a rebel. I didn’t go out partying or anything. I just went and got tattoos without permission, but I was 18.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you didn’t need permission?

Chelsea Putnam:
My first one was 18. I got with my sister and it just, I don’t know. I just love putting art on my body. And there’s that weird addicting adrenaline thing that goes along with the pain that people talk about, the pain being addicting or whatever. Yeah, what’s the word? Masochist? I’m not one of those. That’s the word I’m thinking of? I got my first tattoo when I was 18. And then from there I just, I don’t know. I’d get just like a little itch. I was bored and just go to different artists, check out their work and get a tattoo. And as I got older and appreciated it more and also made more money, because tattoos are expensive. I started finding people that did way better work and made my other ones look a little better. But the one funny, not funny, very irresponsible story on one of my tattoos. At PLU, my freshman year, I was dormed with a junior and she had a boyfriend that was a tattoo artist.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh boy.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m worried about where this is going.

Chelsea Putnam:
It’s not so bad. He played soccer for Wenatchee Fire actually. And my parents still lived in Wenatchee at that time. And so when I drove home, I would take them and they would just carpool with me and to repay me for all that, he was like, “Oh, I’ll give you this awesome tattoo that you’ve been wanting.” And I was like, “Great. Where should we do it?” He said, “Oh, we’ll just do it in the dorm room.” And so we did it in the dorm room. It was fine, he would do his girlfriend’s tattoos in our dorm room too. Definitely breaking a lot of rules. But he was clean about it and it was set up very professionally.

Chelsea Putnam:
However, the caveat to that was that I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did. And he actually had a really bad drug problem. And I don’t know if he was withdrawing or too high or something, but he absolutely did the worst job I’ve ever seen. I stopped him in the middle. I was like, “You can’t keep going. I don’t know what’s wrong with you right now, but this looks horrific.” And over the years, I’ve gotten it kind of covered up.

Dillon Honcoop:
No way.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many tattoos do you have?

Chelsea Putnam:
I don’t count anymore because they blend together.

Dillon Honcoop:
You count that as one or three?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I’ve sat in the chair probably 25 times.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. What’s your favorite?

Chelsea Putnam:
My favorite is I have this big piece on my leg and it goes from my knee to my hip and it was about, Oh gosh, this girl that did the ta, we were like best friends at the time it was up in Alaska, just two peas in a pod. And just one of those really cool connections. She’s incredible artists. We sat for 13 hours. I think it was straight. And that was probably the most intense thing I’ve done ever, other than birthing a child. But I would say they’re equal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really that intense?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. It was interesting experience. That’s my favorite and I think it has a lot to do with, I mean, the art is beautiful, but there was a lot of meaning. Like she drew this original piece for me on a piece of paper and it wasn’t even for a tattoo. She just was like, “I made this for you.” She’s an incredible artist. And I was like, “I’ll make you this sculptural piece, clay artwork if you tattoo that on my leg.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Art trade?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. She tattooed it on my leg. I made her a sculpture and we have a little piece of each other forever and ever. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you tell someone like me who has zero tattoos and is very scared of getting a tattoo?

Chelsea Putnam:
Are you, oh you-

Dillon Honcoop:
I have two things against me. Number one, I’m a total wimp like-

Chelsea Putnam:
With needles or pain?

Dillon Honcoop:
Pain. I’m just total wimp with pain. And secondly, I could never, I think tattoos look cool but I could never commit to something that-

Chelsea Putnam:
That would be my first advice because I’ve-

Dillon Honcoop:
If I could get one for a year or five years even then it would be like, “Okay. Yeah, we can do this.”

Chelsea Putnam:
It’s the commitment thing to a design. I think that would be my biggest piece of advice, especially because I’ve made really spontaneous decisions to get tattoos that have very little meaning, just because it looks cool. And that might be someone’s thing. It’s like, you don’t have to have a meaning. It could just look cool on your body or whatever. But just know that that’s what you want and think about it and think about it again and think about it again, because now that I have, I call it a real job where people see me in the public eye and kids see me and they see my tattoos and they’re like, “Where did you get those Ms. P? Are you in a gang?” Like, “No. Dark.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I used to be more of a thing, but I think it’s getting less and less as more people learn to appreciate the art of tattoos.

Chelsea Putnam:
I think so, yeah. Some are very tasteful for sure. I have some finger tattoos that I can’t necessarily hide super well, some of my rings hide them, but that’s probably the most unprofessional ones that I have. Another piece of advice is consider what you want to do with your life, how you want people to see you. If you want people to look at you and be like, “Sick face tat bro.” Then get your face tat, then do it. You do you. But I don’t know it’s subjective to the person, but if you have any doubt, don’t do it. Actually in my boredom or as some of my stir-craziness, I shouldn’t say boredom, only boring people get bored. In my like being stir-crazy. I have been a millisecond away from getting a tattoo gun and like just training myself to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And doing it on yourself?

Chelsea Putnam:
Well, my brother actually volunteered himself as a canvas.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Chelsea Putnam:
I’ve talked to a lot of tattoo artists. You don’t just jump in and start doing it on people. There’s ways, you can train on pig skin or you can train on, I think there’s some melons that even you can like tattoo into and has some consistencies that’s correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Get a little practice?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Yeah. I was just thinking, a couple hours tried on some pigskin and then get my brother to lay down for me.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have a brave brother.

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, I know. Or stupid, I don’t know. Maybe both.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest time on the farm, this whole journey that you’ve been on?

Chelsea Putnam:
The hardest time. It’s all been challenging, which is good. The definitely the lavender farm has been challenging in the sense that the four of us, my mom, my dad, my brother and I work through a lot of ideas together. But we do a good job. It’s not been hard. It’s just been, like I said, challenging. I think the hardest time that we’ve experienced is we had a couple of years ago, three really bad years in a row on the orchards. Crops not great, return not good, just all the components that it really has to the stars have to kind of really aligned to get to turn a really good profit generate revenue, especially when you’re just a small, private farm.

Chelsea Putnam:
We thought we were going to have to sell everything, everything all of it. And the banks wouldn’t loan us any more money because we’ve had multiple bad years. It was really, really frightening to imagine all of it getting sold. Because, well now what do we do?

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you doing during that time to deal with that?

Chelsea Putnam:
Just continue to putter along and work and do the best we can to keep it moving and keep it going. And during that time it was when we were establishing the lavender farm, it wasn’t generating revenue like it does now. We didn’t have weddings out here yet. We didn’t have the Airbnb. We were still trying to dump money into it to make it what it is. We were just like, “Maybe we have to carrying it to the lavender farm too. And my brother and I always got paid though, we always got paid. My dad made sure of that, my mom made sure of that, which is good. Again, always very the rock they are the foundation. They’re providers for sure.

Chelsea Putnam:
Lots of praying on my dad’s end that’s for sure. And my uncle is involved in the farm, my dad’s brother. And so he has a fairly large role on the orchard side of it. Lots of talking, lots of trying to just figure out solutions. That’s more of my dad’s role than us just kind of waiting is waiting to see how the next season turned out. And fortunately right when we thought we were going to have to sell everything … My cat.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can hear the cat.

Chelsea Putnam:
Is it going to show up on here?

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know. We’ll have to find out.

Chelsea Putnam:
Right. When we thought we were going to have to sell everything, my dad was like, “One more year. We’re going to give it one more year and give it everything we’ve got. And if it’s another bad year it’s done, we’re done.” And that year we had the best season we’ve ever had. One of the orchards produce the best crop of cherries my dad had seen in the 28 years of farming it. It is unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. And it kept us afloat just enough. We had to have the best season of his whole farming career to just barely keep us afloat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, it was crazy and then the year following that we actually had another great year. It just kind of put us one more step up and which is good because this year does not look great.

Dillon Honcoop:
I remember a year or two, one year in specific when I was a kid, I was like, “We’re not sure if we’re going to survive.” I remember my dad had to let go of the rest of his crew and was like, “Okay, we as a family, we’re just going to do the rest of the harvest ourselves.”

Chelsea Putnam:
Wow.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was scary. Because that’s all I had known. Think of like, what are we going to do? Like move into town? That sounded the most depressing thing in the world to me at the time.

Chelsea Putnam:
With all that towny people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dad would just go to a job. We couldn’t be together on the farm all the time. I don’t know. I think there’s something that people don’t understand about the togetherness of farming with your family.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. Oh yeah. It’s very strengthening because you go through moments like that. It’s not just all the people think, “Oh, you farm apples and cherries. You guys are probably so loaded. You’re so rich.” No, not at all. Not at all. We’re broke and tired. What do your parents do?

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, but then people honestly will say, and this is a little bit harsh, but this is either they’ll say it or they’re thinking it they’ll say, “Well, so why do you do it then?” And that’s the hard part to explain.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah, how do you explain that? I kind of think it goes for me and this is how I answer that question. It goes back to what I was saying earlier about that needing new growth and change in my life. It was a beautiful, symbolic, physical way to see that through in my life. It’s kind of like raising a kid almost to, you’re putting something in the ground. You’re nourishing it. You’re loving it. You’re over time growing it into something that will have an end result that people will enjoy, especially berries. Oh my gosh. Right?

Dillon Honcoop:
What they don’t enjoy apples and lavender and cherries?

Chelsea Putnam:
I’m just saying. Yeah, I guess that was more personal. I love berries. I get a little tired of apples and cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you love berries.

Chelsea Putnam:
I love berries.

Dillon Honcoop:
Don’t like apples or cherries.

Chelsea Putnam:
I do like apples and cherries and so TMI probably. But I have like an iron train got to cherries. Some people can’t eat a whole lot. I can eat them all, all day long.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yes. I endorse this. I do love cherries. It’s just interesting that you say that, because you say, “Oh, I love berries, raspberries in particular, which my dad grows I’m a huge fan of.

Chelsea Putnam:
You’ve just been around them too much. Huh?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like smell is, everyone else likes it. And to me it just smells like work. It smells like, “Okay, this smells like harvest.” Which, I mean, it has its own like good memories associated with it, but not like I want to eat that. I can’t explain it beyond that.

Chelsea Putnam:
I will not pay for apples and cherries in the store. I won’t, unless my son really wants apples, but also and I’m sure you understand this too. Your standard of seeing that produce in the stores on their shelves. It’s like, “What? Those cherries are 899 a pound and they’re like being cherries and they’re tiny and they’re kind of wrinkly. I’ll get some tomorrow at harvest.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I see berries in a plastic clam shell in December and they’re pale and they’re from South America. And it’s like, “Why?”

Chelsea Putnam:
You’re like $10.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally. Expensive.

Chelsea Putnam:
But that, I think that’s a component that we’re really lucky to have growing up. Producing those things is we get to experience that produce in its most highest quality form right off the tree. There’s nothing better. And once you pass through and get the stuff, that’s good for the stores and all … I don’t know about berries. You know how much fruit is left on those trees at the end of the season? It’s a devastating amount. I just want to pick it all and take it to all the food banks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is it left behind?

Chelsea Putnam:
Not good enough. “Not good enough.” It’s not up to standard. Now, our consumers are so picky, so picky that is a Granny Smith apple, that when you look at a Granny Smith apple on a store general public views of Granny Smith apple is a nice, vibrant green with some speckles on it, but there shouldn’t be any pink or yellow. When we’re delivering to our warehouses, our packing sheds, if it has a spot of discoloration, any color other than green they throw it out because the consumer doesn’t want that. But what people don’t understand is those spots of color are from where it sat in the sun and soaked and formed more sugars than the rest of those apples and they taste better. Oh, I could get on a so box about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
But this is kind of like the ugly produce movement. Right. Isn’t that kind of a growing thing?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yes, and I’m so happy for that. I like that movement. I used to grow a lot of produce out here actually and sell it at farmer’s markets and to the restaurant at Cave B. Oh my gosh, so much work, very little return. And it was just me doing it on an acre of land.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like, what would you grow?

Chelsea Putnam:
Anything I could. And I just really wanted to see what would grow out here and how I could farm it and organically to. I learned a lot trial and error. But stuff that grows really well out here; Cucumbers, lemon cucumbers, tomatoes broccoli will not grow out here. We have some insects that are attracted from other circles and crops and maybe even the trees around us that would just demolish any kind of cauliflower or broccoli before it could even come up. Eggplant grows really well out here. Let’s see, lettuces grow very well out here. Any leafy greens really. I got to really trial and error that and gain this appreciation for the ugly produce movement.

Dillon Honcoop:
You had been involved with the whole farmer’s market thing too, right?

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. My closest friend here in town and I started it four years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Started what?

Chelsea Putnam:
The farmer’s market. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like which one?

Chelsea Putnam:
The only one Quincy’s ever had.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s a Quincy-

Chelsea Putnam:
Quincy farmer’s market.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tell me about it. How did you do it?

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh my gosh. In fact, we have some evolving changes that are about to occur with that too, that I’m very excited about. Interestingly enough, the heart of one of the most thriving agriculture towns in our state, there was no farmer’s market. And when I first moved here, I was like, “Why hasn’t anyone tried to do this?” There’s been talk about it. And some people that are like, “That’d be cool. I’m going to do that one day.” Well, I was at a school district event and I met my friend who’s around my age and my mom was like, “Hey, I know you want to start a farmer’s market. Meet my daughter, this Chelsea, she wants to do one too.” And then we’ve been inseparable ever since. And it was quite the process and we wanted to do it right. We approached city council said, “Here’s our presentation. Here’s our plan. Do we have your approval? We want to use one of your parks.”

Chelsea Putnam:
We went around. Obviously got their approval. We went around asking for sponsorship from the businesses in town. And we raised about $15,000 from the business of supporting us and being what we call charter members. And in six months from meeting each other and talking, we started the farmer’s market. And we started out with 12 vendors, nothing big, pretty small. And we had some entertainment at the park. And then the next year we had a top amount of 24 vendors. And then the year after that, we had up to like 42 on one of our markets vendors from all over only selling handmade or home grown, no commercial stuff. And this year is looking like there’s going to be a lot of big changes because the parks are closed and the city doesn’t want us to be at the park if they’re not allowing the public to be there.

Chelsea Putnam:
It looks hypocritical, which I agree. Now, we’re looking at kind of redesigning the market and relocating it to a separate section in the city, which we were at a park kind of off. It was a really obscure location. We had a hard time directing people out there. This new move would bring business to the local businesses on the main street in Quincy. It would be on the oldest street in town where my apartment is actually 1906 building. And some restaurants, a winery, a catering business, a sandwich shop. It would be on a street with all of that and space enough for families to play in the grass areas, sit and hang out, have music. And the whole street would accommodate up to like 48 vendors, very comfortably with social distancing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that was the whole issue. Even like in Seattle, following the farmer’s markets there, they were closed for a while and people were like, “Well, if the grocery store is open, why not the farmer’s market?”

Chelsea Putnam:
Oh, yeah. I have lots of feelings about it too. And all this essential vendors stuff like there’s a list of essential businesses I have to turn down some of my most loyal vendors that have been with us from day one, because they’re not “Essential.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Because why they’re growing something different?

Chelsea Putnam:
No, because they’re crafting certain things that aren’t essential, but I’m like, “Hey, can you bake some cookies real quick? Because he can sell food.” Obviously.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s about food? Food has to be the thing?

Chelsea Putnam:
Food can be sold, especially obviously produce and then we can have a home improvement/home decor, which is interesting because that kind of incorporates some of our crafters. They make stuff to decorate your home or improve it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy. Maybe I can see home improvement, but home decor is that really essential?

Chelsea Putnam:
Lowe’s and home Depot are open.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Chelsea Putnam:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And health and sanitation. People that make soap, our farm can be there. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Interesting.

Chelsea Putnam:
It’s very interesting. It’s so wishy-washy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s the future for you?

Chelsea Putnam:
The future for me, I would like to stay close to this area so I can keep being involved in the farms. I’ll never leave the farms, but I would like to go back to the Wenatchee Valley and live there. I would like to teach there in one of the school districts over there. I just, I love the Valley. I love the area. I love Quincy too. Like my heart will always have a place here. Or I have a place in my heart for Quincy. I would like to, I am going to get my master’s degree this summer and it’s like an online program, so it’s not affected by this COVID crisis, thanks goodness.

Chelsea Putnam:
That’ll just get me more established, in the education system. And then I’d like to eventually once Mike’s grown up and I mean, he’s almost eight, so in 10 years I would love to go get my MFA like I planned be a college professor.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome.

Chelsea Putnam:
Yeah. And so as you can see with all the things that I have a lot of, I like a lot of irons in the fire. I really like to stay busy and engaged and challenged. It’s a downfall sometimes. Because then I really spread myself really thin. I don’t believe that we can multitask. There’s only half- assing. And so I can tend to get a little dense sometimes. I would like to cut back on some of my involvement in things and really what I see for myself is teaching maybe even at central, because it’s so close and farming here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I love that that cat interrupted us at one point in that interview. And I actually, if you didn’t catch it on our Instagram, I shared that as kind of a sneak preview to this episode, make sure to follow us for more content like that. Sneak previews, behind the scenes stuff. We’re going to work on getting more pictures and info of the guests we have and the stuff that’s going on behind the scenes with the podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop, super glad that you’re subscribed and you’re plugged into what we’re doing here to share the real stories of the people who grow our incredible food here in Washington State.We think it’s just so important to know who your food is coming from. Again. Subscribe, follow us on Instagram, Facebook and check out realfoodrealpeople.org, and also give a big thank you to our sponsors.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org and by dairy farmers of Washington supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Krista Stauffer | #024 05/25/2020

She didn't grow up around farming, and never expected to run a farm herself. But Krista Stauffer is now a widely-followed farmer and blogger from northeast Washington who is passionate about showing the truth about farming.

Transcript

Krista Stauffer:
Honestly, didn’t really care for him at first.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. He was so cocky. He’s so cocky, and all the girls are like, “Oh, he’s so cute.” And I’m like, “He’s a jerk.”

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody knows that Washington is really famous for its apples. But it should also be famous for its cheese, and for its butter, and cream, and you name it because dairy is the second biggest crop, I guess if you want to call it that, that that Washington farmers produce. And so, when you eat that delicious cheese, oh my goodness, for instance, cheese, there’re so many awesome artisan local cheese producers, cheese makers here in Washington in the last several years.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s really turning into a cool thing, but lots of other dairy products too. When you’re eating those things, you want to know, okay, who is the person behind this? Who was making this essentially? And how did they care for those animals, and what was their farm like? We get to know a little bit this week about Krista Stauffer. And she and her husband have a small family dairy farm in the northeast corner of Washington State.

Dillon Honcoop:
We get to hear her whole story, and how she came from no farming background, and got involved in farming, and now loves it, and is actually very well known for her blog. And she talks about that blog, and how she wishes she would have given the blog a different name, but how much success she’s had. It’s a really cool conversation this week with Krista Stauffer. So, thank you for being here and joining me. I’m Dillon Honcoop.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this whole podcast is really documenting my continuing journey around wine Washington State to get to know the actual farmers, the people producing the food that we eat here. So, enjoy this conversation with Krista Stauffer, and this chance to get to know a bit better the people producing the dairy products that we eat here in Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys, you and your husband have a farm. It’s old school, as far as I could… it’s the small family farm, you guys do most everything yourselves, and explain what the farm is like.

Krista Stauffer:
We are very much old school. So, currently, we milk 200 cows. Just my husband, myself, and we have five kids. And we do have two part-time employees that help us because we do like to try to get off the farm every once in a while. Our three oldest kids are very active in the farm, our oldest two our calf care specialists as we like to call them. So, they’re out there every day.

Krista Stauffer:
One of them goes out in the morning. One of them goes out at night. They’re feeding calves, bedding calves, taking care of newborn calves, taking care of sick calves, anything that needs to be done, those who are doing it. And then, our middle child who is eight, he is out there milking cows, pushing cows, raking stalls, getting all the manure out of the stalls, bossing people around, doing all that stuff.

Krista Stauffer:
So, yes, we are very old school in the fact that we are the main caretakers of the animals, and so are our children, and as far as old school goes, so as our buildings, our equipment, you name it, it’s all old school.

Dillon Honcoop:
That reminds me of my childhood. Both my grandpa’s farms are a bit smaller yet than that, but that was what I did. I grew up on a red raspberry farm, but my grandparents had a dairy farm right down the road. My other grandparent is like a mile away. So yeah, feeding calves. That’s what I did when I was your kid’s age, all the time. Mixing up milk replacer, and bottle feeding the new ones, and all that fiddling around, dumping hay out of the hay mill.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. They do a great job. I would actually trust my kids more than I would trust most adults that showed up on our farm. They pay attention. They’re doing it the right way, the way they were trained to do it, and they’re invested in it because they know that if that animal gets sick, and it’s their fault, ultimately, the animal’s life could be in their hands type of a situation.

Krista Stauffer:
And they also know that they also want to take over someday, or be involved to some extent, and they have to do a good job in order for us to get there. So, they’re very invested, and they know what their job is, and how important it is.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you mentioned earlier you like to be able to get off the farm sometimes.

Krista Stauffer:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Realistically, how often does that actually happen?

Krista Stauffer:
Oh, well, this year, it’s not going to happen at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Krista Stauffer:
No, I don’t think we’re going to be able to leave at all with everything going on, and just having to buckle down, and cut costs, and be really responsible about our funds even more so than we have in the past. But mostly, when we get off the farm, it has to do with our three older children.

Krista Stauffer:
They’re very active, they have Irish dance, wrestling, basketball, you name it, they are involved, 4-H. So, that’s mostly where we have our little get off the farm moments is to go and support them. And they do a lot on the farm. They do a lot for our family. So, we try to make sure that they get to do their things as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you just like, not even go into town at all, or how often-

Krista Stauffer:
Oh, I go to town, I’ll even just have moments where I’m like, “Okay, Brandon, watch the kids. I’m going somewhere.” Or we’ll just look at each other, and we’re like, we need Arby’s, and Arby’s is like an hour drive, and we’ll just go drive to Spokane, and go get Arby’s just to get out of here. But we do try to occasionally go back to Whatcom County to see family, and we actually haven’t done that for a couple years.

Krista Stauffer:
And I think we’ll probably be doing that here when everything opens back up to go attended grandma’s funeral. She passed away recently. With everything going on, we haven’t been able to do anything like that. So, we try to get off the farm, but mostly, that just entails going and supporting our kids in their activities.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, sadly, not the only effect of this Coronavirus pandemic for you guys, right?

Krista Stauffer:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain what this has done to your world.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. It turned our world upside down when this first came about. We’ll just go back to last year, we took on some pretty big projects, made some pretty big moves. We bought another farm to have more control over our own feed supply. We put in a big large manure storage tank to be more efficient, have more storage, become more environmentally friendly, try to do as much as we can there.

Krista Stauffer:
And just some other upgrades that were really necessary after buying the farm, and we had a lot going on, and we were feeling very good about where we were in the things we’re doing. And we knew that this year was going to be a really good year for milk prices. It was looking great. And we were looking to make some money, and make some more upgrades, changes, things like that.

Krista Stauffer:
And when this all hit or shortly after it hit, the futures of the milk prices just crashed. And we just were like, “Oh my gosh,” I for one had just had maybe like a little mini meltdown, and was like, “We’re all going to die.” And my husband is like, “Oh, no, no, the eternal optimist is we’re going to get through this, we’ll figure it out.”

Krista Stauffer:
And then even then, as it progressed, and the prices weren’t looking like it was going to come back, and it was looking like these stay-at-home orders, and restaurants being closed. We’re going to be a lot longer than we were expecting. He then also, started being like, “Uh, maybe we’re all going to die.”

Krista Stauffer:
And so, it’s been rough, but we’ve gotten creative, we’ve done some things to help push us through, and I think we’re going to be fine. I think we’re going to do just fine. I think we’re going to come out on the other side of this, and look back and be like, “Whoa, that was hard, but we did it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, that’s good to hear. Because last time I talked with you, I remember you were feeling like, “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to keep going.”

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. And I didn’t feel like that. And we’re seeing right now with the different states opening, different phases, things like that. We’re seeing future prices start to go up. So, we’re a little bit more optimistic that milk prices, even if they just went up $1 or $2 would be very helpful for us. We’ve worked really hard on what it costs to produce the milk, and we’ve changed a whole lot of things with our feed rations.

Krista Stauffer:
We’ve sold some extra heifers as backyard cows, we’ve been selling cow manure, we have been so creative on all the different things that we can do to make this work. And we were very fortunate to get the PPP, the protection program for the payroll, and different things like that, just putting all these different things in place. We’re not quitters. We’re not going to roll over and just take it. We’re going to fight to the very end.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow, with as tough as things have been in dairy for the past several years, survival of the fittest, you couldn’t have made it to this point if you weren’t already wired that way.

Krista Stauffer:
Exactly, exactly. And when we started, we had low milk prices, lower than they are right now. That’s when we started. But we also didn’t have debt, or anything like we didn’t have a new foreign payment, or a second foreign payment, or we didn’t just complete a large project. So, going into lower milk prices are going to depend if you’re going to come out on the other side based on how you’re set up going into those low prices so, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You say if prices could go up $1 or $2, but you’re not talking about $1 or $2 on that jug of milk that people buy at the store?

Krista Stauffer:
No, no, no. We get paid per 100 pounds a milk, it’s called up 100 weight of milk and we get paid. If we could get just $1 or $2 more per 100 pounds a milk, it would definitely help us with our feed costs, our normal cost of business. Just to get us to the other side of this, we just need just a little bit more, just a little bit more to be able to pay for that feed, to keep that truck coming, to keep the fuel, and the tractors to get through our first cutting of feed for the cows, things like that.

Krista Stauffer:
So, just a little bit more on that end of it. Definitely, not on the per gallon price that you see in the store.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Which is there much of a connection even between those prices?

Krista Stauffer:
No. It’s very complex. From how farmers are paid, and what you see in the store. Because, for example, you go into Walmart, and you buy that great value jug of milk. Well, that milk is being bought by Walmart through a cooperative, for example, Dairygold. They buy that, and they buy it in bulk. So, they get it at a set rate of whatever for that milk.

Krista Stauffer:
And once they purchase that milk, they can do whatever they want with that price in the state of Washington. They can mark it up to what they want. They can drop it down. They do a thing called what’s a loss leader. So, what they’ll do is some places some states, they will allow them to drop it down, like you’ll see 99 cents.

Krista Stauffer:
And what that store is doing is they’re trying to get people to come in, and buy that staple product, and in the process, they’re going to make that money up somewhere else. You don’t really see that here in Washington. I honestly can’t recall if that’s even legal in the State of Washington because I know some states do not allow that.

Krista Stauffer:
But yeah, once they buy that milk, they can do what they want to do. And then, all that profit goes in their pockets, not unnecessarily into the farmers because they’ve already purchased it at a bulk rate discount and amount.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, and I don’t know exactly where prices are at right now, as far as what farmers get. But I know in the last few years with prices being really low at times, there are times when farmers are getting what, a few pennies out of a jug of milk, out of a couple of dimes, maybe?

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. I played around with the numbers last year, and I don’t honestly recall what it was. But it was definitely way less than $1. I think it was in the 45 cents, 50 cents, something like that as what we get out of that. And that’s going to, of course, depend on what the price the farmers getting at the time, and what the store selling it for. But yeah, it’s not very much at all.

Krista Stauffer:
There’s a whole lot of people from the time the milk leaves the farm to when it gets on that grocery shelf that have their hand out in the middle of that, have to make money, truckers, processors, marketing, all of that. Even the grocery store workers, everybody’s all getting paid somewhere along lines.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is it like knowing that you’re making food, growing food, whatever you want to call it, farming milk, essentially, for other people to eat, drink, whatever?

Krista Stauffer:
Honestly, I think it just depends on the day. Some days I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is so awesome. We’re playing such a small part in this big huge picture of feeding people.” And then other days, when I’m grumpy, I’m just like, “Yeah, no, this isn’t worth it. And then, nobody cares. Nobody likes us. Poor me.”

Krista Stauffer:
But it is really cool to know that what we do not only gets to benefit our family, and our children, and we get to do what we love to do, and raise our family doing this, that it benefits other people, and especially other people in our communities that buy our products, or benefit from us doing business within the community.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your cows, or where your milk comes from. Do you guys have Jersey?

Krista Stauffer:
We have everything now.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. So, we started out with Holsteins, and then Jersey-Holstein crosses, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Holsteins being the black and white-

Krista Stauffer:
Black and white. Yeah. And then, we had some Jerseys along the way, but like the Jersey-Holstein crosses are going to be more black, and more colorful, and unique that way. But along the way, I was begging my husband for some Brown Swiss, and he’s like, “Absolutely no, not having Brown Swiss in our herd.”

Krista Stauffer:
And we went to buy cows, gosh, maybe five years ago, and we went to this farm where they breed Brown Swiss and Jersey crosses, and I talked him into bring in a few of those home. And since then, we have been crossbreeding. We have been cross breeding our Holsteins to Brown Swiss.

Krista Stauffer:
We have been crossbreeding our Jerseys to Brown Swiss, and then obviously, our Jersey-Holstein crosses to Brown Swiss. So, we have been mixing it up a bit, and the calves, and the heifers are just absolutely beautiful, and I cannot wait to see them as milk cows in our herd.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why Brown Swiss? Why are they so great?

Krista Stauffer:
Well, in the beginning, I was mostly concerned about cute cows, not necessarily what he did far as production, or if they even could get bred, things that are important to business of a dairy farm. But I just always loved to look at them, and we actually had a fellow farmer. He since has gone out of business right up the road from us that had a beautiful Holstein and Brown Swiss cross that they would always bring to the fair.

Krista Stauffer:
And I just love that thing, and I just knew that I had to have something like that in my herd, and my husband is like, “Brown Swiss are dumb. We’re not having those.” And I’m like, “no, they’re so cute. We need them.” And we started breeding jersey into our herd quite a few years ago. And our herd size just started going small.

Krista Stauffer:
The size of animal that we were getting was just too small for what we needed, and calves, and the harsh winters that we have up here just wasn’t a great mix. And when milk prices get low, my husband always says, “You’re a beef farmer.” So, you call all the cows, and those cows get sold, and that goes into hamburger, which you’re going to find in the stores like lean beef type of a thing.

Krista Stauffer:
But you send a Jersey to the sale barn, and you’re not getting anything for it. So, we just knew we needed to go back up in size, and we needed to have an animal that was going to give us a decent amount of milk, but still have great components, and then give us a good beef chuck at the end.

Dillon Honcoop:
Components meaning what?

Krista Stauffer:
Butter fat, protein, higher butter fat, higher protein mix, you get paid better for those particular-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s in the milk is what it’s all about.

Krista Stauffer:
Yes. What’s in the milk, yeah. That’s what we were looking for.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because I know Holsteins are famous for producing a lot of milk. Jerseys are famous for producing really rich milk with lots of butter fat.

Krista Stauffer:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about Brown Swiss?

Krista Stauffer:
They actually are higher in components as well, and then also, higher and milk production. So, I can’t say that I am an expert on Brown Swiss as far as all that goes. Like I said, I just knew that I wanted them because they were cute. But going into it, and now that I’ve really been interested in breeding, and picking up bulls, and looking at all their different details of what makes them so great.

Krista Stauffer:
And I just know that having that cross between that Jersey and Brown Swiss, you’re going to have a higher component than you would just to go in Brown Swiss or Brown Swiss-Holstein, and you’re going to have higher milk production. But ultimately, you’re just going to have a hardier animal.

Krista Stauffer:
And that’s what we really need is we just did want a hardier animal. Milk production is great, but we actually love longevity. We’d rather have a cow for six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years, than have a cow for a couple years, and that’s just our strategy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are Brown Swiss like personality-wise? I know that Jerseys are famous for being zany, crazy, silly cows.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. Jerseys are insane. They can get into everything. They do get into everything. They leak everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Super friendly.

Krista Stauffer:
They’re super friendly. Holsteins can be too, depending on how you handle them. But they’re dumb. They’re just like do-do, do-do, like high. They’re just not all there. It doesn’t seem like, but Brown Swiss, they’re along the lines of the Jersey, not maybe as much. They’re a cross between the two of those. But when you cross them with a Jersey, that’s basically like you have a Jersey. It doesn’t matter how much Brown Swiss is in there.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do you work with the cows yourself?

Krista Stauffer:
Oh, that’s going to depend on the season of life here on the farm. We have five kids. So, right now, especially with our older three being older, and wanting to be so active, and basically taking over my primary responsibility on the farm, I’m not out there as much as I used to be. I’ve gone through times where I was out there working side-by-side with my husband dragging kids along same amount of hours as him.

Krista Stauffer:
And I’ve gone to where I haven’t been down there at all, or I’ve had a job off the farm. The last 11 years, we’ve just had so many different scenarios. And it also depends on the type of help we have, if we have good help, if we don’t have any help. But right now, no, I have a two-year-old, and I have a six-month-old, and I-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s going to keep you busy.

Krista Stauffer:
It keeps me busy. Yes. So, while I am with a nicer weather, definitely getting down there more, especially as she gets a little bit older, the youngest. I’m going to get more involved. We’re looking at maybe throwing me in the chopper this year depending on how that goes. Different truck situations. I fully intend on this summer being back there, as back involved as much as possible because-

Dillon Honcoop:
With an under one-year-old child?

Krista Stauffer:
Yes, yes. Hey, we’ve done it before.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s intense.

Krista Stauffer:
Yes, yes. I just want to be out there, and be more involved, and sitting in the house is not for me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, since I have little kids in my home too, I know how much that outstanding to me that you’re going to be able to be out helping with harvest, you’re saying being in the forage harvester, or chopping grass and stuff.

Krista Stauffer:
That’s the goal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Those are long hours.

Krista Stauffer:
We’ll see how that goes. Actually, thing about where we farm is, we’re not a huge agriculture area. So, maybe where most people see thousands upon thousands of acres or things like that, that they’re harvesting or whatever. We have 20 acres here, 40 acres here. So, we can go out, and go, and do what we need to do in just a few hours, or maybe the day, or break it up here and there.

Krista Stauffer:
It depends on what elevation because between our farm where we dairy and our farm where we have our hay farm is quite a drop, in elevation. So, there’s a lot of different factors to play. We’re not going to be out there 14-hour days chopping.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, do you guys grow all the feed for your animals or?

Krista Stauffer:
No, we do not. We do not have enough land to do that. We’re working on getting there. As like I mentioned before, we purchased a hay farm last year, and we would like to purchase a couple more areas here and there depending on how that works out in the future. But we have some leased land, some different places we rent from other people and no, we’re not where we would need to be, but we’ll get there.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you grow what, grass and corn for the cows, just grass?

Krista Stauffer:
Nope. We’re mostly alfalfa. We do alfalfa salad, which is fermented alfalfa, and then we do some grass alfalfa, Brandon has got a combination of different things he’s got going on this year that I can’t even keep up with. Basically, the strategy this year is to put as much seed down as possible, and get as much forages, and he doesn’t care what it is. That’s the goal this year.

Dillon Honcoop:
As long as the cows eat it.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. They’ll eat it. But we don’t do any corn silage or anything like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into this whole farming thing? Because you didn’t grow up on a farm like this, right?

Krista Stauffer:
No, I did not. I grew up here. And I actually remember driving by this very farm as a kid on the bus, or with my parents. And we used to call it the stinky old dairy because there’s a manure pond right next to the road. And honestly, other than the stinky old dairy, never gave it much thought.

Krista Stauffer:
My husband, Brandon, grew up in Whatcom County, and he wanted to start a dairy, and he knew that he would not be able to compete with Barry’s or anything like that, and purchase land over there, or even rent anything over there. Just starting out in 2009 with such low prices, it just wasn’t going to happen.

Krista Stauffer:
So, he has a relative over in our area that said, “Hey, there’s this old dairy that you might be able to rent,” and everything fell into place. So, he moved over here in May 2009. And we met a couple months later at the local feed store, and just been together ever since.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you doing at the feed store? I

Krista Stauffer:
I was working there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. I actually just had recently become a single mom, and needed a job, and they had an opening, and I didn’t know anything about anything that have to do with farming or agriculture. And I had to learn so much stuff, and fumble my way through the interview honestly, pretending I knew what I was talking about because I just needed a job so bad. But I met Brandon at the feed store. Honestly, didn’t really care for him at first. He was-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. He was so cocky. He’s so cocky. And all the girls are like, “Oh, he’s so cute.” And I’m like, “He’s a jerk.” But yeah, we started-

Dillon Honcoop:
I thought girls like the bad boy, the cocky guy.

Krista Stauffer:
Not me, I had my fill. I was like, No, thank you, no more.” I just am going to take care of my daughter, I don’t need none of this in my life, and just got to know him, and actually tried to set one of my friends up with him. And obviously, that didn’t work out, and just got to know him over the summer, and I was just amazed at how hard working he was, and motivated, and he invited me out to bring my daughter to see the calves.

Krista Stauffer:
He’s like, “She would just love these baby calves, you should bring her out to see them.” And I guess I just instantly like, I don’t want to say instantly fell in love with him because we had to work, we had to work really hard on our marriage, and our relationship. And especially, through hard years of farming, but just seeing how amazing he was with her, and she showing her around the farm.

Krista Stauffer:
And just seeing how hard working he was, and motivated, and just all that cockiness. I’m like, “Well, no wonder how you’re here so cocky because you’re cool.” So, that’s how I got into it. I met him at the feed store, and it just went from there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think maybe sometimes it’s better that way, or is it just like the sweep you off your feet thing, where you have to work at it?

Krista Stauffer:
Absolutely. Like I said, I had just recently become a single mom, and I did the whole sweep you off your feet thing, and it doesn’t always work out. And sometimes it leaves you in a rough spot. And I think meeting somebody, and starting a relationship that you don’t instantly like, this is the man of my dreams or anything like that, having to work at it, and having to really try to get to know each other, and work through some hard stuff together.

Krista Stauffer:
Because we had both come out of situations where we had to work together, and I think it makes you appreciate each other more. And it makes you be able to go through things like we’re going through right now with everything, with this low milk prices, and these hard times. It makes you glide through it together. I don’t know how to really explain it. It just makes you appreciate it more.

Dillon Honcoop:
You don’t have those expectations that everything is just going to be fun all the time.

Krista Stauffer:
And sometimes when you’ve been hurt before, it makes you appreciate people, and it makes you maybe want to fight a little bit harder, things like that. So, that was a lot more personal than I think. Not what we’re going to get into.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, that’s all good. So, before you met him, where did you see your life going growing up? Did you have another plan or?

Krista Stauffer:
Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. And then, as things progressed and life had its changes, I just wanted to be in some career that was possibly in the city, like I had interest in being a legal assistant. I had worked in the insurance industry. I’d work in a bank, moved my way up through there a little bit. And I just really liked being in that setting. I liked being in town. I don’t know. I just liked being in the office setting, I guess. So, when I met him, being on a farm never even crossed my mind growing up either or anything. I don’t even know. It was just-

Dillon Honcoop:
But now-

Krista Stauffer:
Yes. I love it. I love it. And it’s so surprising. Even my friends and family, especially my relatives, my aunts and they’re like, to this day, it’s like, “Come on, guys. I’ve been here for almost 11 years, and I’m totally rocking it.” You think they would be like, but no, they’re like, “Oh, it just feels so surprising that you ended up on a farm. We just never thought we’d see you on a farm.” But yeah, so no, nobody expected me to be here. I didn’t expect me to be here, but I’m so glad, and I’m even more so that I get to raise my kids on the farm. Jealous of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, is that the number one thing? If you had to pick your favorite thing of doing the farm life, it’s being together with your family all the time?

Krista Stauffer:
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. I love being with my husband. I love having our kids around every day, even all day, and it’s not always easy. And there’s days where we all want to strangle each other or whatever, but it’s amazing, and I just love having them home. We homeschool, we decided to homeschool this year, and it just has brought our family so much closer together.

Krista Stauffer:
And we have some of the most awesome bonds between our kids, and we do extracurricular activities. They’re doing things off the farm. So, it’s not like they’re just here doing just our thing. But no, I think that is absolutely the number one, is just having my kids and my husband together all the time, working together for the same goal. It’s amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Some people have never experienced that until just now with this whole COVID thing.

Krista Stauffer:
It’s so different. It’s so different. I keep telling all my friends, we decided to homeschool this year. And there’re so many parents that have their kids home right now. And they’re just struggling, and I just want to tell them that it’s not the same as homeschool. It’s not the same as making the decision for yourself, and planning for it, and having everything set up for you.

Krista Stauffer:
And everybody else is in crisis mode. And we’re just still chugging along because we had already made that decision. We made it for ourselves. We’re still doing the same curriculum, and the same thing every day that we normally have. It’s totally different.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys really haven’t had to change much of anything?

Krista Stauffer:
No. The only thing that’s really changed is just the kids having all their stuff cancelled. And that, I will be honest, at the beginning, it was like, “Thank God, I don’t have to drive somewhere tonight,” every night going one way or another and-

Dillon Honcoop:
The soccer mom thing?

Krista Stauffer:
Totally, totally, totally. And we live in an area where we have three different towns, and they have activities in three different towns. So, there’s some nights I’m going to multiple towns. So, it’s been really nice to have that break, and reconnect, and get our schedules, like eating dinner together again, and things like that. And I’m just looking forward trying to figure out how to continue that when everything starts back up. But yeah, no, it’s not the same as what everybody else’s experience. I just know that for a fact.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, in some ways, it is the same. They’ve just never experienced it before.

Krista Stauffer:
True, true.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the normal for you guys, togetherness.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. True, true, true.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and really, that’s what I’ve said about my family a bit too. I grew up that way on a farm, and we’re doing that even though I’m not really farming anything. I do live on my grandparent’s old farm, and we’re just doing the… granted, we have little kids. But yeah, it’s just like, “Hey, everyone is self-isolating, and they don’t know what to do with themselves.” Yeah. We’ve been bummed that well, we can’t ever go out to eat or shop at some stores where we might want certain things, but other than that, it’s been business as usual.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. That’s pretty much where we’ve been as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s cool, even though some people may be here deciding they don’t like the whole togetherness thing right now.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. I can imagine. And especially, just having the stress of either having to try to work from home, and having your kids be at home, or some schools are trying their best, but they maybe don’t have it quite figured out yet. And so, there’s a lot of families that are really struggling through some stuff. And I really feel for them, honestly.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your advice to them, since you have a lot more experience that, “Hey, the whole family is here almost all the time thing?” How do you survive some of those times when things get crazy? Because they do, right?

Krista Stauffer:
Kick them out in the backyard and lock the door. That’s what I’d do. Do not come back in this house until I come and get you. You think I’m joking? I’m not.

Dillon Honcoop:
No.

Krista Stauffer:
Kick them outside. Sometimes I think we overthink all the stuff that they’re supposed to do, especially education-wise. Read a book with them. Teach them some life lessons. There’re so many kids that don’t know how to cook. They don’t know how to do their own laundry.

Krista Stauffer:
They don’t know how to take care of themselves. Take this as an opportunity to teach them how to eventually go out in the world, and take care of themselves, and reading, reading is so important. Just read a book with them. There’s so much benefit to that. Something I’ve learned a lot over the last year is how important reading with your kids is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So, a while back, you started blogging. How long ago was that? When did you start?

Krista Stauffer:
I did my first blog post, I think, it was November of 2013.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you called it The Farmer’s Wifee.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah, I did.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain how did that happen, and how has that gone?

Krista Stauffer:
Well, it was like, you had all these industry people saying you need to tell your story. Get out there and tell your story. You need to have a blog name or whatever. And it should tie into who you are, and I thought, “Well, becoming a farmer’s wife is how I got to where I am now. And it’s what made me who I am as far as being involved on the farm, and meeting him, and things like that.”

Krista Stauffer:
And so, I’ve always thought wifee was cute. And so, I just did The Farmer’s Wifee and honestly, hindsight is 20/20, I probably would have come up with something different. Having known, I didn’t know anybody would listen to me, or even care what I had to say. I had no idea where it would go, or it’s taken me all over the country.

Krista Stauffer:
It’s taken me to all these amazing places, and I’ve met so many amazing people. And I think if I could go back, I would have probably picked something different. But it is what it is. And that’s what people know me by, and so I’m just going to stick with it, and hold my ground. And for all the people that hate the whole term, farmer’s wife, I’m just going to just go with it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like to be famous?

Krista Stauffer:
I am not famous, not famous at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, your blog is incredibly, widely followed, as well as your social media. And like you said, you’ve traveled across the country with this. What was that like as that developed?

Krista Stauffer:
When everything started to take off, it was crazy, and like a whirlwind. And there was a whole year where I was gone two to three times a month traveling to different things, via speaking engagements, blogger events, just various different things. And it took off so fast. I felt like I just needed to accept everything that came my way because I was like, this is going to be done at any moment.

Krista Stauffer:
The newness is going to wear off, and the reason would be like, yeah, that girl is annoying, or she’s boring, or whatever. And so, I just accepted everything that came along with it. And then, I had to take a step back because it wasn’t stopping. It just kept going. And about a year and a half into it, I was so burnt out.

Krista Stauffer:
I was so tired. I’d go on to all these amazing places, and had this great experience. And even, my husband got to go with me, and do some of the stuff as well, but I just wanted to be home. I just wanted to be home with my kids, and be back on the farm. And so, I just had to take the step back, and I had to learn to start saying no.

Krista Stauffer:
And unfortunately, I felt maybe it was too late that I was too burnt out by then. Because I ended up having to take a much needed almost two-year break, just to get myself back in order, and figure out how I wanted to tell my story. And if I wanted to even continue, and I’m not 100% back in the game, but I feel like lately, I’ve been stepping it up, and trying to get back in into everything, but I don’t know where it’s going to go, or how far it’s going to go.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, telling your story, and it’s called The Farmer’s Wifee still, what’s the web address if people-

Krista Stauffer:
The Farmer’s Wifee, so wifee is W-I-F-E-E.com. And I haven’t been blogging as much as I thought I would be. It’s mostly just through Instagram and Facebook. I would like to start doing videos because the social media platforms are really pushing for videos. And so, I got to try to get comfortable back in front of the camera. It’s not something I really want to do.

Krista Stauffer:
So, just trying to figure out, a lot changes in two years. When you take that time off a lot with social media, it’s constantly changing, constantly evolving. And so, just try to figure out where I fit in to all of this, and what’s the best way to start fresh.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you started, what stuff would you talk about?

Krista Stauffer:
I talk about everything. I talked about all the hard stuff, all the fun stuff. I had so many people upset with me all the time because I would talk about euthanasia, putting an animal down. I would talk about a down cow, a cow that goes down and is unable to stand on their own. I wanted to talk about it all because I was so tired of… it felt like everything was always sugarcoated that everything we did was just like these cows next to these red barns in the middle of a big, grassy field.

Krista Stauffer:
And I wanted everybody to know the truth of how we farmed, and how everybody does it differently, and that it’s okay that we do it differently. And then, it’s not all rainbows and butterflies that there’s a lot of hard days on the farm. So, I felt like maybe that was part of why it took off is because I was just honest about it, and I didn’t sugarcoat it.

Krista Stauffer:
And I said some days suck, and some days are awesome. And we lost this cow, and we lost this set of twins, different scenarios that happened on the farm, and just every day, sharing a little bit of our life, just a little glimpse into it. But I wasn’t sugarcoating it. So, maybe that’s why it took off. Maybe because people wanted to know the truth.

Dillon Honcoop:
But then, not everyone was so nice with that either-

Krista Stauffer:
No, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
… if I recall talking with you about this in the past, things got ugly.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. And I was really surprised. So, when I first started, I was still really new to farming, and I was still learning a lot. And I just was so excited about everything I learned, and everything that we were doing that I just wanted to share all that with everybody else. I just thought it was so cool. All the farmers that I met, I just thought the world of them, and how hard they worked, and everything that they did day in and day out.

Krista Stauffer:
And I just thought we’re just this big, huge family, and I’m going to share our story, and I’m going to stand up for farmers, and I was incredibly shocked. Especially, at first when it started to happen, but I got a lot of pushback from farmers. Don’t talk about that. Don’t say this. Don’t do that. You shouldn’t do it this way. You should do it that way.

Krista Stauffer:
And I was just really caught off guard by… and then the stuff, the whispers in the background that ultimately get back to you about what people are saying about you, and things like that. So, yeah, no, people were not nice, and I felt like myself, and other farmers that were being like that online, and being open and honest were getting a lot of blowback because we’re supposed to be painting our industry as this perfect industry, where nothing bad happens, and everything is great, and the sun is always shining, and yeah, that we got a lot of pushback, we got a lot of pushback.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve also been attacked really, from the other side of things too, with people who aren’t from the farming world, right?

Krista Stauffer:
Yes. Activists. They’re fabulous. Yeah. I’ve had my share of run-ins with vegan activists on social media, and even a few along the way of environmental activists, but it’s mostly animal rights activists that show their faces, and their tactics are basically what they do is they take a post that goes viral or something like that, and they share it in their groups with thousands or hundreds of thousands of vegans, and basically say, “Hey, go attack this farmer.” That’s how they operate.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do they say to you then, they start sending you messages?

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. So, for example, just recently about, I’d say that I know of, five or six other farmers and myself were attacked. And what they were doing is they were sharing our posts in their group, and then having everybody come, and attack our pages, and they’ll say their copy-paste rhetoric from PETA, you kill babies, and you torture animals, and I’m not sure exactly what I’m allowed to say or not on this podcast, and I’m sure you don’t want to know half the stuff that they say.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, vulgar material?

Krista Stauffer:
Very vulgar. Farmers, myself, not recently, but in the past have had my family attacked, or horrific things said about my children, or recently, another dairy farmer had his family attacked, and they said that they hoped their whole entire family died of COVID-19. So, they are very vicious. They are very mean. Ironically, a lot of them are not even from the US, they come from the UK or Australia. So, yeah, they’re pretty vulgar.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think they’re trying to do by doing that?

Krista Stauffer:
Their ultimate goal is to end animal agriculture. The way they go about it, I don’t see how they are going to ever further their cause because all these people see how they’re talking to other humans, and the things that they’re saying, the things that they wish upon them, and people are just completely turned off by how they’re doing it.

Krista Stauffer:
But yeah, that’s their ultimate goal is they want our farms to go under, and they don’t want us to be able to have farm animals. So, I think, maybe typing Facebook comments is going to do it. I don’t know. I don’t know the reasoning behind what they do.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kinds of things are they picking on that you do, that you talk about in your social media and on your blog?

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. So, the number one thing I would say is obviously, taking calves away from the moms. They believe that we should not be separating calves from cows. So, on dairies, we separate cows and calves so we can milk the cows, and then we feed, obviously, the calves are still being cared for. They’re just being cared for separately.

Krista Stauffer:
And ironically, they believe that we take the calves away from their mothers and kill them, when they don’t understand that those calves are the future of our farm, that they have to receive the best care possible. And then, taking care of them is ultimately going to continue our farm. And so, that’s one thing that they really go after, they think that calves and cows should be able to live together.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why can’t they? What’s the problem with that?

Krista Stauffer:
Well, there’s a lot of different things that go into the decision to separate, and the main one, being safety. We’re set up to milk cows twice a day. So, for example, we have 200 cows, we’re going to get those 200 cows up in the morning. So, we would have to go in there and separate 200 calves from 200 cows, and then safely do that with whoever the human is doing that, as well as keep those animals safe in the process.

Krista Stauffer:
In addition, a lot of dairy cows, they just don’t make the best mothers. For some reason, they’re just not as nurturing as you would think they would be. I think that was one of the biggest shocks to me coming onto the farm is I saw beef cows and calves out in the field just like everybody else, and I just assumed that’s how it was. And obviously, if you’re going to milk dairy cows, they’re going to produce more milk than what a calf would need.

Krista Stauffer:
And obviously, it makes sense to separate them so you could milk them, and then use whatever you need for the calf. And I guess the first time on the farm, we had this cow give birth, and I was so excited. I was just like, “The whole new process of life is just great.” And I just remember sitting there going, “Okay, she just dropped this calf on the ground,” and she just walked away. And she just walked away to the feed bunk, this calf is still covered in placenta.

Krista Stauffer:
And she didn’t clean it off. She didn’t do anything. She just walked away. And so, I remember bringing, and going, and grabbing a towel, and getting this calf all cleaned off, and we’re going to take this to the calf barn. And I’m like, “Okay,’ and I just couldn’t believe that she just walked away. Well, we were still dating then. And as I spent more time on the farm, I started seeing that much more.

Krista Stauffer:
And so, yeah, just removing that calf, and there’s times where other cows will try to claim that as theirs, and they just have a lot of concerns of being stepped on. We’ve had calves get stepped on if we didn’t get it out of the pin, quick enough. There’s just a lot of different things.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you actually have to protect them from their mothers?

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. You have to protect them from their mothers, if their mothers decide they don’t want to take care of them. You have to protect them from other cows that might step on them being too lovey-dovey on them. And there’s just a lot of different reasons. And I think, honestly, if you put all those reasons aside, and you just look at it, honestly, what is wrong with somebody else taking care of that calf?

Krista Stauffer:
Why does the cow have to take care of that calf? In society, they want to compare humans to animals all the time. But humans raise other people’s babies all the time, and they do a fabulous job. There’re people that can’t have children that adopt. There’re people that adopt just because they can.

Krista Stauffer:
They have people that do foster care. All through society, people are taking care of other people’s babies, or animals, puppies, kittens, you name it. Just because we’re taking care of those calves separately from the cows, doesn’t mean that they’re not well cared for, or that they’re not loved.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then on top of it, you’ve got people who maybe don’t understand all of that.

Krista Stauffer:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they’re opposed to it, which okay, fine, but then they get nasty to you about it.

Krista Stauffer:
For me, there are a lot of things in life that I don’t agree with. There are a lot of people that I don’t have the same opinions on. And there’re some things that I feel very strongly about, but I would never attack that person, or wish harm on them just because I disagree. No matter how serious of the issue I thought it was, there’re some very controversial issues out there that I feel very strongly about.

Krista Stauffer:
But I would never wish harm on somebody. I would never go, and attack them, and call them every name under the sun, or anything like that. So, that’s the part I don’t really understand. Especially, another human being like, how could you do that to another human? I just don’t understand it. I just don’t comprehend how they think that that’s okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was all that negative energy a big part of why you burned out? Was it all that?

Krista Stauffer:
Yes, absolutely. Yeah. It just was a combination of doing too much volunteer. I volunteered for a lot of different things. I had volunteer burnout, and then just not always feeling supported by farmers, constantly being attacked by activists. It just was a combination of everything. I just needed to step back and determine what I was willing to put myself through in order to tell our story to fight for our way of life, and needed a little bit of a refresh. And I feel like two years was enough.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, because some of that stuff sounds like it was bullying, like cyber bullying.

Krista Stauffer:
It is totally bullying. And this is one thing that I myself am trying to figure out. I want to do something about it. I want to figure out what we can do to change this because farmers, and not just farmers, people are being attacked on social media all the time, depending on what industry they’re in. But farmers, there’re just been all these names, and all these things that people are saying to them.

Krista Stauffer:
And you go, and you have your post shared in a group with thousands or 100,000 people, and they’re being told to go attack you, to go say things to them. And Facebook is not doing anything about it. You can report their groups, you can report the people, you can do all this as harassment or bullying, and they don’t do anything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Krista Stauffer:
No, they don’t do anything. And so, yes, I wholeheartedly believe that it’s harassment. I do believe it’s bullying. And I think that something needs to change because these people are just telling their story. They’re just trying to be open, and transparent to people, and they’re being just brutalized for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s the future for you, and the farm, and you, and the blog, and all this stuff?

Krista Stauffer:
We are taking it day-by-day. That is my new motto.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Krista Stauffer:
Yeah. With the blog, I love to write. And now, I probably have 100 drafts because even though I’m not publishing things, I’m still writing. And so, I really would like to try to actually, I know last time we talked or maybe even two times ago, I said I really wanted to do this. So, I wanted to start publishing those blog posts, and I really just need to do it.

Krista Stauffer:
But I really want to start more with videos, doing more videos again, and showing people online what we’re doing day in, day out, just little things here and there. The farm, the farm is going to be just fine. I think we’re just going to keep trucking, take it day-by-day, and our family has just pulled together, and we’re going to make it through this, and we’re going to look back, and we’re going to be like, “We did it. What’s next?”

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Well, thank you for sharing your story, and how this all came to be. Everybody’s story is so different, right?

Krista Stauffer:
It is, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
With all the unexpected twists, and turns, and who would have expected someone like yourself who didn’t even grow up in farming to be a widely followed, internationally followed blogger on farming.

Krista Stauffer:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
If I would have told you that 15 years ago, what would you have said?

Krista Stauffer:
I would have laughed at you. Like, “What? What’s a blog and farming?” No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. Well, thank you for sharing everything. I appreciate it.

Krista Stauffer:
Thanks for having me.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What I love about Krista is that she doesn’t want to sugarcoat anything like she said. She just wants to tell the full story, and let the chips fall where they may. I love that. And that’s the vibe of this podcast too. Let’s just hear people out, and actually listen. Maybe that’s part of the whole thing with this podcast for me is, is not telling people anything, and that’s how I do the episodes. It’s just me listening.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously, I ask a lot of questions because I want to know, but then just listening, and finding out where people are really coming from, and what their real heart is behind the food that they produce. Thank you for supporting Real Food Real People podcast by subscribing, and by checking out our website, by following us on Facebook, and on Instagram, and on Twitter.

Dillon Honcoop:
We really appreciate your support, and we’ve got a lot more still to come. So, stay with us. Next week, well, I don’t know if I’m quite ready to spill the beans on next week’s episode, but we’re working on it. We’re putting it together. And in due time, pass that info along to you. Thank you so much for connecting with us this week and subscribing.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Ashley Rodriguez | #021 05/04/2020

Ashley Rodriguez isn't a farmer, but she has a passion for food all the way from the field to the plate. The Seattle-based chef, food blogger and show host shares her food journey, finding inspiration in her family's farming roots.

Transcript

Ashley Rodriguez:
That’s definitely part of what I do is wanting to honor the ingredients and the work that the farmers do, the work that the earth does to get these beautiful, beautiful ingredients.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m not sure if I’ve ever met someone more passionate about food and the art of food and where it comes from. Our guests this week on Real Food Real People podcast is not a farmer. She is a chef as well as a blogger. Now she’s on a show as well as has her own podcast. She’s got lots of stuff going on and she’s all about food and the ingredients. Even back to the farmer. Ashley Rodriguez is her name.

Dillon Honcoop:
And man, she has a cool story. Again, she’s not a farmer, but she does have farming in her family background. And so, it’s really interesting to hear. She feels it’s in her DNA. Some of this stuff. Great conversation. We talk a lot about what’s happening right now with COVID and the changes that’s doing. Not just to our food system more on a technical sense, but in a human sense and the way we’re thinking about food changing because of this Coronavirus pandemic, as well as just her background and how the show Kitchen Unnecessary came to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
How her blog, Not Without Salt got started. There’s a lot to the story and it goes way back to even while we talked about photography. It goes back to the pre digital camera days, when she started taking pictures of food, there wasn’t Instagram, and in fact there wasn’t. Well there were, but she wasn’t using a digital camera. They were using film. So she’s been doing this for a long time and it’s really important to her and she’s got a lot of cool stuff to share. I’m Dillion Honcoop, and this is the Real Food Real People podcast. Again, our guest this week is Ashley Rodriguez, a Seattle area chef and food blogger as well as now a show host and a podcaster as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Looking back, when was it that you became a foodie would you say? Because you are like the embodiment of a foodie, right?

Ashley Rodriguez:
I have a foodie. What does that even mean? When I started enjoying food, is that?

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, yeah, I suppose there’s two times. When you realized you were foodie, but then maybe when you actually were a foodie before you recognize that you probably fell under that moniker?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, I’ve never called myself that so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, so maybe I shouldn’t be saying that you’re a foodie?

Ashley Rodriguez:
I don’t honestly really, what is the exact definition? I don’t know. I am someone who really enjoys food. And that began at an early, early age. I remember asking for a pasta maker when I was probably about 10, and really I wanted that one that was the Ron Popeil. Like I’d seen the infomercials, right? I want it that one that you just like press it and forget it. But my grandmother got me the Italian style, like clamp it to your counter top hand crank. And I was kind of disappointed, and then I was not because I just had so much fun with it. But I remember attempting to make my parents a really fancy meal. I made them like go out and sit in the garden and I had a menu and I’m going to make all of this.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I made homemade pasta like at 10 years old, all by myself. It was disgusting. It was like lobby. So gross and my parents just like ate it out of the goodness of their hearts. They were so kind. But now, I just remember it being super slimy and gross. But, I just was always so fascinated with the kitchen and what you could create. My grandmother, my mom’s mother was an incredible Baker and my mom had a confidence in the kitchen. That’s, I recognize now is quite uncommon. And so, she wouldn’t cook with recipes very often.

Ashley Rodriguez:
She baked a lot. So, I just remember watching that. And I think my biggest takeaway from all of that was to not have any fear in the kitchen. And so, I took that with me into just continuing to follow my curiosity and, “Oh, can I make homemade chocolates? How does chocolate get made?” And I even like played around with making chocolate at home, by ordering the cocoa beans. It’s always my curiosity that has sort of led me down all these paths. And then while in college I was studying Art. I want it to be a high school art teacher, and part of that education brought me to Italy and that’s really, really where I fell in love with food and fell in love with food as sort of the medium that brings people together and around the table.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And that’s where I also kind of made this connection coming home, realizing, “Oh, some people make a career out of like cooking and playing with food all day. That’s amazing.” So things sort of shifted for me then.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s still under the art umbrella, culinary art.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Totally. And I think I didn’t want to waste all the money that me and my parents had been spending on my liberal arts, art degree. And so, I sort of used that as an excuse to pursue pastry art. Because I felt like that was a really nice way of combining like the artistry and my love of food, plus, I mean, who doesn’t love sweets? So, I didn’t go to culinary school because I didn’t have the money after I just finished up my liberal arts degree, but I wanted to jump into this. So, I just jumped in full force.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And for my graduation present, my parents got me this like encyclopedia set of French pastry, like the classic how to make everything basically. And then I started working in bakeries, and my husband and I, we moved to LA, got a job at a restaurant there and just start working my way and learning that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where did you go to college?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Seattle Pacific.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. So you were in Seattle then, but moved down to LA with the purpose of pursuing this whole food pastry thing?

Ashley Rodriguez:
My husband and I, we got married young and we wanted to go off and sort of have our own adventure. And so, it was kind of like where do we want to live? And I wanted to live in a place that I could work in a great restaurant and get that sort of education. So we were looking at New York or LA, but New York was far too expensive. So, we settled on LA, but I ended up getting a job before we moved down. And it was like I put together this ridiculous resume because I had no experience whatsoever.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So, it was like a book that I made with images that I had taken them for, that my husband had taken. Like all these homemade chocolates and stuff. And I just attempted to woo the pastry chef who, she was walking pups, pastry chef at the time. So, Sherry Yard. So, I got a job at Spago in Beverly Hills. So we moved to LA for that job basically.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. So, that was like your first real gig doing that?

Ashley Rodriguez:
That was my first real restaurant job. I had worked in a bakery for about six months. Kind of worked my way up and got bored real quickly with that. And then yes, Spago was my first restaurant job, which was such a trip.

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as working your way up. That’s starting on a pretty high run.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Like just being thrown into-

Dillon Honcoop:
Off the ladder.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I liked the photos though, because, correct me if I’m wrong, amongst various things, your hubby is a photographer, right? So, he probably took some pretty incredible photos of what you’re doing too.

Ashley Rodriguez:
He did. He did take some really good photos. Yeah. Yeah. He’s a wedding photographer, photographer of all sorts. So yeah, he did lots of weddings down there. And then he also worked for, he managed this high end boutique cause he was also kind of toying around with the idea of getting into fashion. So, we lived a very, very crazy life down there. It was fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then you came back North.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or I guess you had a few other positions down there before you came North?

Ashley Rodriguez:
No, actually, I see it at Spago and it took a long time for, sorry to hear the dogs wrestling?

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re getting tired of the quarantine life too?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. Very. No, they love having us on all the time. They’re like, “This is great. This is the ideal life.” Yeah, so it took a while to get acclimated to living in LA and sort of get accustomed to restaurant life. But once we did, I was kind of moving up quickly or in that realm. And I actually told my husband, I was like, “Hey, Gabe, once I become pastry sous chef, like we’re buying a convertible. We just got to do this.”

Ashley Rodriguez:
Like fully, fully digging into, we have no money, no money whatsoever. So, conversations were happening. Wolfgang was planning to open up another restaurant and I was on my way moving up to the pastry sous chef position. So, we started looking for a convertible. We found this great deal. This woman was selling her son’s car, so we bought this beautiful black Saab convertible. And then two weeks after we bought it, we found out we were pregnant. So, things definitely shifted for us at that point. Then we didn’t have any family down there.

Ashley Rodriguez:
I was working, long, long hours. And then once you kind of become sous chef or chef, then you’re given longer hours. So, not necessarily something I wanted to do as a young mother. So, then we decided to move back home.

Dillon Honcoop:
And Seattle is home?

Ashley Rodriguez:
We actually moved back to Bellingham. So, Bellingham is where I grew up.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. And then we lived in Bellingham for several years, and then we ended up back in Seattle where we are now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, motherhood kind of jumped on the screen, took over for a bit, but you still had that love of the whole food thing. When did that start coming back? Because I know the whole motherhood gig is all consuming.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, it never went away. It was always there in some aspect. So, when I moved back to Bellingham, I partnered up with a local catering company called Ciao Thyme and they so graciously took me under their wing, and I started a business under their business doing wedding cakes and dessert catering. And then eventually I became their pastry chef. And so, I was pursuing those avenues while we had our first child, and then that’s when I started kind of dipping my toes into the world of blogging as well. Excuse me.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So I started a blog after our first son was born and that was sort of a way of like a free website, free marketing for my wedding cake business. Then by the time our second son came around, the story that I wanted to tell was shifting. It was getting back to that feeling that I had while living in Italy of, food is amazing and I’m so passionate about it. But what I really want to write about and pursue, and to tell the story about it is my heart behind all of it, which is to connect to people and to feed people.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I had some incredibly intense, deep spiritual moments at the table. And I think I’m always trying to pursue those moments and to use food as a way of sort of helping other people tap into those experiences as well. Because I just think that food is such an incredible gift. So, that changed the story for me, and that’s when the blog, Not Without Salt was born. I started really developing my own skills as a photographer, as a writer, as a recipe developer. And I use that platform to experiment and to practice those skills.

Dillon Honcoop:
Being a blogger, being in the world of food, a foodie, if you’re comfortable with that term?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yes, you can say it.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re okay with that?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. It often comes back, like you said to photography, you’ve mentioned this multiple times, and being able to show that food because presentation, what the food looks like on the plate is a big part of the art. Right? But that didn’t really spread until this phenomenon of taking pictures and you know, we millennials have made fun of for taking pictures of our meals for a long time, but it’s really become a thing. Right? Well when you, when you started in this and you talk about your husband taking photos of your early creations as part of kind of your resume to get that job down in LA, that was kind of even before this whole trend, right?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, for sure. Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like when would that have been? What year?

Ashley Rodriguez:
That was 2004.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that was like what the birth of Facebook year, if I want to say. Or three or four or something. It didn’t even exist before then. Well, MySpace, I mean people were doing this whole thing then.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
Instagram was years away.

Ashley Rodriguez:
It was.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how big of a role does that play? What it looks like in beautiful photography. And how much has that been a thing that has kind of made your blog as well?

Ashley Rodriguez:
That’s an interesting question, and I don’t often think of it in that way because for me it’s always food first. But I am such a visual person, and of course I have a huge collection of cookbooks, and I love flipping through the pages and admiring the pictures.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So, fairly early on in my blogging career, I started taking over the photography side of things because with a background in art and I had taken some photography classes, I could get by, and I knew what I wanted. I knew what I wanted the end result to look like, and sometimes it was easier for me to just grab the camera from my husband’s hands rather than try to like communicate with words what I wanted him to try and get. So, I started just playing around more. And as digital photography became bigger, it was a lot easier because then I could like take a picture, look at the back of the screen and say, “Oops, nope, that’s not quite right.” And then that’s really how I learned, because when we were just doing, film photography can get really expensive to make all those mistakes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the Gen Z’ers listening right now, or like there’s a kind of photography where you can’t see the picture right away. What’s this?

Ashley Rodriguez:
I know, it doesn’t make any sense. It sounds old, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
It changes everything though.

Ashley Rodriguez:
It’s romantic.

Dillon Honcoop:
How you shoot stuff.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that was becoming my question. Those first photos that you sent off to get that first gig, where those on film or digital?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh they were film.

Dillon Honcoop:
I figured there’s a good chance that was film back then.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Sure. Yeah, we got them printed. I mean, who does that with photos anymore? Yeah. And blogging is really changing, people are on Instagram these days. And so, I haven’t been, I haven’t blogged anything on Not Without Salt this year, which is really crazy for me to admit because it’s been, gosh, I’ve had that blog for, I always make the connection between how old my middle son is. He’s almost turning 12, so I’ve had that blog for 12 years, and it has been a journal for me. But my passion is shifting and the medium of Instagram is such that I can connect with a community there, and share recipes and inspiration and the same way. I miss longer form writing, but I’m doing that in other ways as well. So, I’m not saying the blog is dead, but definitely isn’t what it used to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talked about your grandma and how she was kind of a food inspiration for you. Tell me a little bit about her. What was her thing? What was her life? What brought her to that place where you said she was like, really excellent Baker and cook?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Both of my grandmothers, I have such wonderful food memories of each of them, and their recipe collections sit right next to me in my kitchen. And every time I pass by those old boxes of handwritten recipes, it’s such a gift that I cherish. Because the other day I was sitting in my house, and for some reason there was this strong, like meaty smell and immediately came hit me like walking into my my dad’s, mom’s house, on Sundays when we’d come over for dinner, like roast beef, just like slowly cooking, in the slow cooker. And it’s like, “Oh my gosh.” It was just such a strong, intense smell memory. And when we’d come over for dinner, she would love to ask like, what we wanted to have for dinner.

Ashley Rodriguez:
She loved making us happy through, through food. And then my maternal grandmother, she was the Baker and I remember, but she was such a humble cook and Baker. She never thought, I mean she always apologized for whatever it was that she made. And you know it was the most incredible, I mean, her pies were unbelievable. And I remember, I was in my 20s I’m sure. And I was like, “Grandma, can you please teach me your pie graphs?” And she just never thought that she was like, her knowledge was worthy of sharing or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Did she have a recipe or it was just off the top of her head?

Ashley Rodriguez:
It was completely by feel, and it defied all my baking science. Because I’m like, your crust is so flaky, how’s it so flaky? And I would say, I knew that cold butter handled with care and all the cold ingredients and you bake it well, blah, blah, blah, blah. All this knowledge that I had garnered from working in bakeries and restaurants and reading tons and tons of baking science. It got thrown out the window when she just dumped like a half a day cup of oil and milk into the dough and then just mixed it by hand.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And then, I was like, “Wait, no, what’s happening here?” And I was trying to get the measurements and she’s like, “Well, you just do it till it feels right.” And yeah, I have her pie dough recipe is in my second cookbook juxtaposed right next to my pie recipe. And actually, I wrote that cookbook while she was still alive. And she passed away shortly before. I guess it was shortly after it had been published. But I read that section from my cookbook as her eulogy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Hard. And it still is hard, but I connect with her every time I’m in the kitchen. I feel her. And you know, that’s the power of food, right? Is that it’s such a necessity, right? We need to eat to live, but it can transcend so much if you allow it. And I think that’s what my time and working in restaurants, it was about consistency and getting the food out in a very timely manner and writing about food and taking pictures of food, taught me how to be mindful and present in the kitchen. And that’s such a powerful experience.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I think about the food memories that were created from the lives of these two incredible women in my life. And I hope that my children and hopefully someday I’ll get the pleasure of having grandchildren, that I can sort of help to shape their lives through these memories. And you know, that’s the gift that I get to have with my own children and I do not take it for granted that I get the joy and the honor of having a platform and to be able to inspire and get people excited about being in the kitchen. Especially now, goodness, people are cooking and baking like crazy these days. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right? This quarantine life has changed so much and a lot of awful things have come out of it, but definitely some good things too.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So many beautiful things.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t there something that just feels really retro about it? Like the togetherness, and the home cooking, and just a quieter, slower way of life?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. I’ve not thought of it in the retro sense because it’s something that I’ve always pursued in the nowtro. It’s something that I think, again, going back to those times in Italy saying like, “Oh, this is really what’s important.” They stop their lives. The things that we say, “No, it’s too important. We need to be open, keep our businesses open during all waking hours.” And it’s like, “Nope, we’re going to stop and spend three hours in the middle of our workday, to sit around the table to acknowledge one another’s humanity, to cherish the gifts from the earth, and just have a moment to enjoy this day because every day is worthy of savoring.”

Ashley Rodriguez:
And it’s like, man, it’s something that I want to pursue, and I think in these times of quarantine, it just allows for more of that. And when so much of our regularly scheduled programming has been taken away, then it allows for us to really quiet out a lot of the external noise, so that we can see things for what they really are.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like I said, it felt very retro to me. It reminds me more of my life when I was a kid. And I actually want to connect that back to, because I know that your grant both sets of your grandparents are like mine. They’re both Linden area dairy farmers. Right? This was the scene that you grew up with, your grandparents being in the dairy farming community?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). More so my mom’s dad for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much did that influence the whole perspective on food, where it comes from, and that farming way of life to where you work hard and you get up early, but there’s also coffee time, and there’s people who swing on the yard, and you chat for half an hour, that work hard but still a slower way of life kind of thing.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Right. I think, it wasn’t out of the norm for me. I loved going down and visiting grandpa’s cows, and saying hello to them. And I think it’s in my DNA more than it’s in my, more than I even recognize that I know where food comes from. I’m not invisible to the hard work that it takes to grow and produce these food items. And I think that’s definitely part of what I do, is wanting to honor the ingredients and the work that the farmers do, the work that the earth does to get these beautiful, beautiful ingredients.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I kind of see myself as sort of a last piece of that cycle of and/or the artist who gets to paint with the most luxurious, silky paints of the highest quality that then, it just makes the final product that much more beautiful. And I think if you are passionate about food, you have a deep and utter respect for every aspect of that ingredient.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the food world. How much is that recognized? I mean you recognize that because of your family background. What about others? And what about the things that we have here in Washington State where there are so many incredible things that are produced here?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, again I think if you have a passion for food, you take that back to its literal roots and you you want to honor that ingredient every step of the way. I think it’s hard for people who don’t have the luxury of, I mean, this is my career, this is my job, right? I get to have the pleasure of talking with food producers of being really, really connected to my food. I think not everyone has that the mental capacity, the interest or the time to really be able to sit and think about where everything comes from-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you just got to pick up something at the store and get home and make it.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Right. But I hope in a kind and loving way, part of the work that I do is to help people sort of acknowledge and appreciate the ingredients all the more. And I think that’s why I continually also, I want to be creating unique and creative food, but I also want to keep it really, really simple and for it to taste good, you got to use the best quality ingredients. And so, I want to continue to highlight the story of the ingredients throughout the entire process and not just, I don’t want it just to be an ends to the meat or means to the end. Sorry.

Dillon Honcoop:
How different is that here in the Pacific Northwest than when you were down in LA?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, man. It’s hard. I never was so wrapped up into the LA community that I feel like I got a good pulse on it because I was living and breathing the restaurant. But I was really fortunate enough to develop a really great relationship with my pastry chef, with my boss at the time, Sherry. And she was working on her second cookbook at the time. And so, I got to spend some time working on that with her. And she took me all around to the farmer’s markets, and we even went out to this farm in San Diego to meet the farmer who grows these strawberries that, honestly, I think she’s one of the first people that taught me how to truly honor and care for the ingredient.

Ashley Rodriguez:
We would get these strawberries into the restaurant and they were like treated like newborn babies. The moment they came in, we would take them out of their carton, and prepare a nice bed for them on a sheet pan. And so, that they all couldn’t be touching one another. They all needed their own space, and they were treated like royalty. And with one taste, you understood why?

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, you have to be like that with strawberries too because they’re so soft. Especially if they’re grown all the way ripe on the vine and they’re one of these really sweet varieties that’s designed to be picked ripe. A lot of the stuff that we get in the store from who knows where, some of the times is picked not quite right.

Ashley Rodriguez:
They’re red on the outside, and white on the inside.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, yeah. These were like a mirror to bra for us to block like these tiny little, they were like strawberry candy. That’s what it tasted. Well, it tasted like what strawberry candy tries to be. It was so good. I grow some in my garden just so, I mean and it’s like never enough to do anything with. It’s just to be wandering around your yard and putting it in your mouth and then you just have this like quintessential taste of like, “This is what a strawberries taste tastes like.” And luckily for us living in Washington, we get to have those moments, those like two weeks at the end of June where it’s like strawberry season is here. But I love that, my kids when they were really little, they see strawberries in the store and it’d be December and they’d be like, “Can we get strawberries?” I’m like, “No, it’s not time.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you. Thank you.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Right? Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nothing against those folks, and fine if you really got to have the strawberries, but the real strawberries are in June.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Remember it’s so worth it to like wait until you have that, and then it’s like we’re standing in the sun and it’s like, “No children, no, no. This is why I’ve said no to you for the last 12 months. This is the reason.” And then of course you can freeze them, and join them or make jam or and yes, I can buy strawberries out a season too. But nothing compares to that like first taste of a strawberry where it’s just like that Ruby red intensity all the way through. Oh my gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m really into this because strawberries are my favorite. I grew up on it. My dad’s a red raspberry grower, and believe it or not, I’m not in love with rasp. I don’t hate them. It’s just really not my thing. But strawberries-

Ashley Rodriguez:
See, Rapsberries are my favorites.

Dillon Honcoop:
See, that’s what everybody says.

Ashley Rodriguez:
But I mean strawberries are so good.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s probably because I grew up picking them and just the smell to a lot of people is like, “Oh wow, that smells so good.” And to me it smells like work and long hot.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Smells like hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you talk about these strawberries, and you talk about the seasonality of when produce, whether it’s fruits or veggies or whatever, are actually ripe here locally, that’s something that’s being talked about lately with this whole COVID situation, and the disruption in our food system. People are saying, “We’re so used to being able to have any fruit and any vegetable available, 24/7, 365. And this time, and the disruption of that system is showing us that maybe that’s not what our future should look like. And maybe we need to start recognizing that, “Hey, we have strawberry stuff in June, but no, we don’t have it in October. And that’s okay.”

Ashley Rodriguez:
Absolutely. For me, it’s worth the wait. It’s worth, and every season. Listen, I recognize we live in one of the most bountiful and beautiful parts of the world, and so, that there are places that are definitely food deserts where things are just hard to come by anytime. But every season there’s something to look forward to. And I love living off of like, “Okay, this is spring. We’re in the heart of rhubarb season, and young greens and there’s always something to be enjoying and looking forward to.”

Dillon Honcoop:
And we should be doing that here in the Pacific Northwest. Because, like you say, there are other parts of the country and world where they don’t have that luxury at all. And we tend to take it for granted, and then we don’t really take advantage and we go to the store and get strawberries and rhubarb that’s grown in South America. And it’s like, “Why, when we can do it here?”

Ashley Rodriguez:
I think it’s cyclical, going back to thinking about my grandparents, I don’t fully know how hard life was for them. I mean I saw and I know things were challenging and especially as farmers, and with large families and all of that. But, I recognize that, when the food conveniences first started coming, it was a lifesaver. I mean it was like it saves so much time and energy, but I think we’re also now coming to see the ramifications of some of those conveniences. And maybe it’s not worth it. And maybe, we can sort of readjust our lifestyle a little bit, to sort of reconnect to that seasonality-

Dillon Honcoop:
Pendulum. All the other way a little Bit.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And hopefully people can find some joy and satisfaction in being in the kitchen and not see it as the chore that so many of can see it. And listen, I love cooking, but it can still feel like a chore, feeding my family day in and day out. But that’s why I do also try.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wants to keep It real.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. I try and make it accessible and hopefully people feel that.

Dillon Honcoop:
When is it now, you’re in Seattle, you’re in the food world, foodie, blogger, et cetera. When do you actually connect with farmers now in your life? Do you ever, I mean, farmer’s market, anything beyond that? How do those worlds collide in our current culture?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Well, in the times of quarantine, not very often. Although, yes, I love going to the farmer’s market. I love going to the farms in the summer to pick the berries. And every year we do the that big farm festival that happens up and welcome in Skagit County. So I love reminding my children and connecting the dots then that this is where, this is where the food comes from. I just started working with my friend Devin, who just started a company called Small Food Drop where he’s connecting farmers directly to the consumer.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So I can get farm fresh eggs, meat, flour directly from the farmers, from the producers right to my door, which is so incredible, especially during these times where we’re just trying to stay home and even limit our exposure going to the grocery store. So, if I can get eggs or the yolks just are like the sunset, it’s so gorgeous. And this flower from up in Skagit from Cairnsprings that it’s like I’d have to drive, miles and miles in order to go get this. Or anyways, there are ways and that is really, really exciting to me.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re talking about Devin Day, by the way who is episode 10 on the Real Food Real People Podcast here we talked to them.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, that’s awesome.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So we’ve had his Valley Farmstead Rabbits and the Neil’s Big Leaf maple syrup that they do.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, my gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
We talked all about that, but it’s been, since we had that episode that he’s developed a Small Food Drop thing. So, I’ve been talking to him a lot about it, and that’s a good mention for people who are interested to check that out. I know it’s small now, but he’s wanting to grow and grow that.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, he’s just, he’s a go getter, that one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, it’s really, really exciting. I mean, the fact that I can get that syrup, I have a couple of bottles sitting on my counter right now and it’s like, “Ah, why do I need to leave the house?” I’ve got… it’s really, really, really exciting, what he’s doing.

Dillon Honcoop:
He texted me right after he launched the Small Food Drop thing because we were talking about this kind of stuff, like after our podcast episode, we just kind of kept talking for like two hours after that episode.

Ashley Rodriguez:
That’s awesome.

Dillon Honcoop:
And about all these things, and a few weeks later really it wasn’t that much longer. We were in all of a sudden COVID world and he’s like, “Hey, check this out.” And so yeah, I ordered some Cairnspring Mills flour, and then he texted me a little bit later and said, “Hey, it’s on your front doorstep.” I’m like, “You delivered it yourself?” He’s like, “Yeah, we had to go over there and check. We were up in your area, have to check out some chickens that were going to raise. So I dropped it off.” So, it’s really cool and it’s kind of bringing the local personality back to food there and I hope he has a lot of success with that. What about Kitchen Unnecessary? Talk about how that came to be in this whole cooking outside thing. I’m a huge fan of that but not nearly as gourmet as you are. But I do love cooking over an open fire.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, I’m happy to talk about Kitchen Unnecessary. This is a project that my brother and I started about three years ago, and it started around the campfire. We go camping every year. I have two brothers and we all have three kids. So, between all of them and my mom and dad, there’s 17 of us that just go out into the woods and start up a fire. The moment we get there and just keep it going the whole time. And I’m cooking breakfast pretty much breakfast and dinner over the fire, and it started because with my love of food, I want to eat good food no matter where I am.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And of course, I love those classic campfire dishes as well. But I wanted to see what I could do within the limitation of only having a cast iron pan and a fire to cook with. And I think one of the first years I did like a braised chicken thigh over the fire and we had some fondue or just threw some cherry tomatoes with some shallots into the pan, let him blister and then melted Fontina cheese, and we just all sat around the campfire dubbing Costco pretzel buns into that big pot of cheese. And It’s like, Oh my gosh!

Dillon Honcoop:
Now you’re really killing me. You were getting me with the strawberries earlier, but this has really put me over the edge. Like can we take a time out so I can go get some munchies right now? Because you’re making me hungry.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. Exactly. So Chris and I, my brother were just sitting around the fire and he’s an incredible filmmaker. Like, “What can we do with this?” And so, Kitchen Unnecessarily was born, and we both have a love of the outdoors. I have a continual growing with wild foods and they had like played around with mushroom foraging was some people that I’ve met down here in the Seattle food community and just love this idea that food surrounds us. And so, we connect with these local or just guides these experts and we go out and we find a wild food ingredients and learn with them and then go start a fire and cook a feast in the middle of the woods, or by a river or wherever the case may be. We’ve fly fished in Montana, fished forged, hunted in Alaska, and of course living in the Pacific Northwest, we have such a bounty.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So we’ve done, gathered gooey ducks and clams and oysters on the beach and then within a few feet just lit up a fire and smoked some clams and boiled some pasta for a smokey clam Carbonara. And I mean, it’s really, really fun. And it’s a project that I’m so excited about, and we’re working right now, we can’t go out and do the episodes in the same way that we’ve been able to, now that we’re kind of in quarantine. But again, we can all get out in our backyards and have these cool, unique experiences. So, Chris and I are working on developing a series to really teach you how to cook over your fire pit or even over your grill and to kind of take it beyond what you thought it was capable of in the comfort and safety of your own backyard.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So be looking for that. And we just launched a podcast as well, which has been super, super fun to continue the conversation with some of our guides and to connect with people in the outdoor and food space to talk about the joys of being outside and the bounty that really surrounds us. It’s really, really incredible. Chris and I-

Dillon Honcoop:
Now it’s called Kitchen Unnecessary as well. Right? It’s like Kitchen Unnecessary, the TV show essentially-

Ashley Rodriguez:
The podcast. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And Kitchen Unnecessarily the podcast.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Exactly. Yeah. So, it’s been really, really fun. I’ve been now in the food space for about 15 years, and it’s really incredible when you can kinda do a little deep dive into it, into a whole new Avenue of it. So, it’s keeping me excited about all things, food.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s next? What else do you have up your sleeve?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Well, right now, it’s hard to see much beyond the day in front of you, but I’m fishing next week since fishing is opening up.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, nice.

Ashley Rodriguez:
No, I think that, that is what’s right in front of me. I mean I’m going to continue to be inspired by food and hopefully, share the things that are getting me excited, and I hope that looks like more cookbooks, more adventures with Kitchen Unnecessary, just more of the same. I am having so much fun in this space and I just want to see it continue. As long as people are there, then I will… Even if people aren’t there. But it really helps us out financially when people are there, and excited about what I’m doing and buying the books and cooking the recipes and eager to watch the episodes and all of that. So, it’s a gift to be able to do this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you so much for opening up. What a cool story and I think this is the first podcast episode here for Real Food Real People where I’ve gotten hungry like four different times. Enjoying the conversation.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Good. That’s part of my job.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re succeeding On that front.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. I wish we could be together and I could actually feed you rather than just tease you. But.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, someday I’ll hold you to that. But in the meantime, I guess we are talking over digital connections here is going to have to do. But thank you so much for sharing-

Ashley Rodriguez:
My pleasure, thanks for the opportunity.

Dillon Honcoop:
… the personal side of the story. Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Seriously. I wasn’t making it up. I got hungry multiple times throughout that conversation and I think shortly after we did that chat, I had to quickly get out and get some lunch or something. I don’t remember what I ate, but I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as gourmet as anything that Ashley makes. What a cool person though. Right? And a cool perspective on food, that it’s not just a chore. It’s not just something that we do automatically, that there’s art there, and there’s humanity there. She brings so much to that and even caused me to think about things differently than I have in the past.

Dillon Honcoop:
We need people like that in our food system, if we want to call it that. After a conversation like this, makes it kind of sound impersonal. But we need people like that to remind us of those things and to remind us of the importance of growing the food and working the soil of picking the food or whatever harvesting, however that’s done, processing it into stuff that’s edible and able to be bought at the store, and the people who are actually buying it and selling it and cooking it. This whole thing all the way to those of us. Well, all of us who eat it at the end of the whole process.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for being here on the Real Food Real People podcast. There are a lot of ugly, terrible things happening with this global pandemic right now. But I guess we’re just trying to maintain some positivity here and look toward those silver linings. And I think one of those is a change in the way that we’re thinking about food. And we want to be part of that change. We want to help give, it’s so interesting that we just launched this podcast at the beginning of the year. Or actually just before the beginning of the year, just before Christmas.

Dillon Honcoop:
And here we are now. Totally, we had no idea this was coming, but here we are in a time when people are rethinking where their food comes from, and we want to help be a way for people to get reconnected to their food. As people, including myself, I mean, as much as I grew up around farming and I host this podcast and all this. I had had plenty of reminders recently too, just how near and dear our food and where it comes from and whether it’s safe and produced with high quality and protections. I’ve been reminded of that as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what we want to do with this podcast, and that’s why we would really appreciate your support. Not only to subscribe and we certainly appreciate that on whatever podcasts platform is your preferred way to get it in. A lot of people, I’m just looking at the stats. A lot of people are subscribing like on Apple podcasts, but people are listening on Spotify. iHeartRadio or podcasts or whatever they call it, Google podcasts as well as looking pretty popular, but there’s a lot of other ones too. So whatever your favorite is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Anyway, it helps for you to subscribe. But even more as we try to get more people reconnected to where their food comes from in this time of pandemic and uncertainty about the future, share it on social media if you could. Maybe send it out to your followers in a post or in a message or whatever works and tell them something about what kind of spoke to you in our conversations here, and let me know too. You can find us on social media, Real Food, Real People podcast. Of course, it’s probably just the easiest way to search it. RFRP_podcast on Instagram. Same handle on Twitter. And then what is it? RFRP.Podcast on Facebook. Basically the same thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So find us there. Shoot us a message there. Share our stuff and let’s continue to grow this circle of people who appreciate the people who are growing our food and making our food for us here in Washington State.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org. And by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at Wadairy.org.

Chad Kruger | #020 04/27/2020

He's now a key leader in the same university research system that his farmer grandpa would look to for guidance on his strawberry farm decades ago. Chad Kruger shares how WSU scientists and farmers are working together to grow food better.

Transcript

Chad Kruger:
Before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing. He always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he was such an inspirational person.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re to get kind of sciency. We’re going to get into some science stuff this episode on the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m host, Dillon Honcoop. Glad you’re here. We’re talking with a guy who’s basically a farming scientist, for lack of a better term. His team is made up of the key people who are studying scientific issues in farming and growing food here in Washington State. These are scientists who are trying to help farmers make better food and make their food better, if that makes sense. Improve the quality of what we’re able to produce, as well as improving the process of growing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this is so much about the technology now that’s involved in farming and knowing every little thing about the plants and the soil and the food and what makes it good and what makes it not good and what the impacts are. It’s really extensive, and it’s pretty amazing. Chad Kruger is our guest this week, and he actually grew up in a farming family in Eastern Washington. It was kind of cool, during the conversation we realized we had this family roundabout connection that we would have never otherwise recognized other than this talk, about how what his grandpa was doing was actually connected to my family as well as my wife’s family.

Dillon Honcoop:
My wife didn’t even grow up in Washington State, but she’s connected to this story, so you’ll hear that part, and I thought that was super cool to find out. Chad has a really great perspective on what’s happening with technology and science and farming and the production of food and why it’s uniquely challenging here in Washington, but also why we have such incredible opportunities. We talk about climate change as well, that could actually end up being an opportunity for farming in Washington State in the future.

Dillon Honcoop:
But he also has some warnings with how we’re handling that and if we’re taking action soon enough on issues. So we get into all of it this week, again with Chad Kruger. He’s with the Washington State University Center For Sustaining Agriculture And Natural Resources. He’s based in Mount Vernon, Washington, here in Western Washington, North of Seattle, and he’s got so much cool stuff to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
First, talk about what you do now and how you are connected to the food system in maybe a way that people don’t recognize. What is it that you have been doing for the past, what has it been, 10, 15 years out here?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. Maybe starting right now and working backwards a little bit, I’m currently the director of Washington State University’s research and extension centers in Mount Vernon and in Puyallup, which are both in Western Washington. Puyallup is the original off-campus agricultural experiment station and Mount Vernon is the newest of the off-campus agricultural experiment stations, and we call them both research and extension centers now, but essentially they’re labs and research farms. And so my role as director of those is kind of an unusual thing in terms of a university system, in that it’s really focused on oversight to facilities and operations management for these entities where a whole bunch of faculty research programs and extension programs operate out off of.

Chad Kruger:
So it’s not quite the same as you might expect with an academic program at a university, these are really research-based programs and my role is really responsibility for the overall campus operations and big picture investments.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sounds pretty complicated and technical.

Chad Kruger:
Yes and no. Bottom line is, it’s still just a leadership opportunity trying to work within the university system and with our partners and the agricultural community and the broader community to make sure that the partnership between the land-grant university and the community is mutually beneficial and that we’re doing things that matter in the real world and that the real world is bringing things that they need help on to the university.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the real world ultimately is producing food, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, exactly. The vast majority of what we do in our college, it’s College Of Agricultural, Human And Natural Resource Sciences, but we really are the land-grant college of agriculture that many people would have historically understood in including both the academic, the research, and the extension dimensions of that. But we’re also in the process of evolving into a future that’s not alike every other part of the food world, things are not the same as they used to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
So basically, it’s where science and farming come together, right? These are farming scientists in a way at the university level, is that fair to sum that up? Like you’re managing basically a group of farming scientists?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I might say that we’re getting more and more to the end where it’s the scientist’s side of that equation relative to the farming science dual factor, whereas 20, 30 years ago, I think you might’ve said that the science farmer was as much science as farmer. I think based on just the evolution of research needs and capabilities, we tend to focus more on getting the scientists that can help the farmer at this point in time, but you still have to have a pretty good understanding of, how do you actually grow a crop? And you need to understand your crop in the way that a farmer has to understand the crop in order to actually be able to do research on that crop that’s relevant to the farming world.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess how scientific is farming right now then?

Chad Kruger:
It’s becoming more and more science-based, more and more data-driven. And I think what we’re seeing in the ag and food world right now is, all of the technology that’s in the broader world around us is looking for its opportunity within the ag and food production and ag and food system at a level that even five years ago it wasn’t quite looking at it as intensely. And I think it’s going to continue to be that way where technology and data and understanding becomes more and more important to success in farming be able to grow a crop or produce a product that goes off into the marketplace, whether that market is local, regional or global.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are some of the biggest things that you and your team that you work with have found or discovered or tested? What kind of stuff are we talking about when we’re talking about data and science of farming and growing plants in particular? I think a lot of this is plant stuff, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. WSU historically has been very well known on the plant science side, not that we don’t have strength in animal sciences too, but historically, WSU’s expertise and reputation really has been on the plant sciences side. And that crosses everything from the grains to the specialty crops, fruits and vegetables, with a lot of background and focus on that. And so the facilities that I’ve been in charge of and a lot of the work that I’ve been involved with really is plant science focused, quite a bit of animal systems as well. People work on everything from breeding and genetics to crop protection; diseases, insects and pests and weeds, to soils and environmental issues, economics, the whole nine yards.

Chad Kruger:
We touch a little bit in a lot of places. We tend to be most focused on the actual crop production systems as opposed to, at least in the entities that I’m responsible for, as opposed to up the value chain if you will, of the food system, though there has been some work on food processing, value added, and that kind of thing. But the majority of our investment really has been growing a plant and keeping a plant growing successfully, ensuring that that’s done in an environmentally appropriate way and that we’re minimizing impacts on the larger environment.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. When you talked about the processing stuff and whatnot, I do think of stuff that you guys have done even there in Skagit where you are like the Bread Lab, that we talked about here on the podcast with Nels Brisbane several episodes ago, but really cool stuff there. But that tends to not be the main thing, the main thing is more on growing the plants and the farming side of it, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think that’s a little bit of legacy in terms of where the long-standing partnership between, at least WSU and the ag community has been, is really the help is always been needed on the production system side. I think we are thinking more and more about the bigger picture and where other dimensions of our work need to be. We did have a faculty member in food science who had joined us for a short period of time at one of the research centers recently. So it’s something that’s on our mind and we do have a food science department, food engineering, and then of course entities like the Bread Lab that really are trying to wrap their mind around this bigger picture of agriculture isn’t just about the production system but it’s about the whole system as it comes together and then the need for the market to facilitate success on farm and becoming more intentional about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the coolest thing that you feel like in your time there you have been a part of or worked on as a team?

Chad Kruger:
For me, particularly at the Mount Vernon center, I think one of the coolest things that I’ve been able to work on is helping to bring the first soils’ faculty to the center there. The Mount Vernon center has a long history in working in Northwest Washington on a number of the cropping systems that are important here, and it always seemed to me to be a bit of an oversight not to have a soils’ person in the mix. Well, there’s always been a soils’ person in the mix at the Puyallup center and in many of the other areas where I’ve worked over the years, it just felt like a key missing ingredient, if you will, of a viable cropping systems team.

Chad Kruger:
And so bringing soil’s faculty to the table in Mount Vernon that can work with the faculty that are more focused on the plant or the organism that affect a plant above the soil or in some cases below the soil, I think that was a really important thing to do. Part of that is, there’s a lot of questions that are emerging about crop performance that can’t be answered with a simple approach of diagnose and add a chemical and solve the problem. They really are systemic problems that we have to think about from a systems’ perspective. And bringing a soil scientist into the mix enables our team to have all the pieces that they need to go about asking bigger picture tougher questions that 30 years ago maybe you didn’t need to figure all that out, but we really do need to do that going forward.

Chad Kruger:
And then I think the other piece of this is as these Northwest Washington farming communities continue to move forward, the pressure around environmental issues is going to just keep increasing, and it’s already very, very tight in terms of what a farmer can and can’t do and the impacts that farming has on the environment. And one of the best tools from a research perspective that we can bring to the table is soils research because so much of what happens in terms of impacts on the environment happen through the soil as a lens or a gateway into water quality, other issues like that. And so having soil’s members as part of the team better enables us to serve an ongoing partnership between the agricultural community, the farmers, as well as the larger community that’s living around agriculture in the region.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about how important soils are as affecting so many things. And you talk about water quality. Then there’s the huge issue that everybody’s talking about, which is climate change, that’s another big soil-focused issue, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. There’s certainly an interaction between soils and vegetation and climate, or the global carbon system. I think a lot of people don’t understand that the relative amount of the global carbon budget that’s fixed in the soils versus the atmosphere, it’s much greater in soil. Soils are a much bigger reservoir of carbon than the atmosphere. And while we talk a lot fossil fuels in the context of the global carbon cycle, soils and vegetation are pretty big part of it. And while soils aren’t going to solve the whole problem, they are part of a solution. And the beautiful thing is, the kinds of things that we want to do from a farm-level perspective to improve soil management, help crops perform better, potentially help on the financial side for the farmer, those kinds of things tend to be good for the global carbon system as well.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s one of these very seemingly rare things where being focused on healthy soils is a win, win, win kind of scenario, and that is why-

Dillon Honcoop:
Rather than some trade off where it’s like, “Oh, well, you have to do the right thing, it’s going to cost you, but it’s the right thing to do.” Well, here it may benefit on both ends, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, definitely. And yet we still don’t know very much, and I think that’s the other big picture issue is, if we’re going to make progress that’s beneficial to farmers or the environment in soils, we need to know a whole lot more than we currently know. And that’s both a general issue everywhere and a specific issue in this region where we haven’t actively had soil science just working in these cropping systems, is really to understand what do we not know how to do and how do we increase that knowledge and give producers more tools that they can to improve their soil management?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like you said, there’s a lot that we don’t know, but how much is farming going to change with all of this focus on soil and learning about soil and all the science that you guys and so many other universities and agencies are doing? Is it going to change the face of farming in the near future?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer to that question. My suspicion is there will be changes, but they may not be readily observable in the sense of looking at one field compared to another field and saying, “Oh wow, that’s a big difference.” The soils don’t tend to reflect changes quickly, and so it takes a lot more time to understand how a management intervention or a management change affects the soil positively and negatively and whether or not you’ve achieved something that you’re trying to achieve. And that’s one of the great challenges that we talk about in the context of agricultural research, is soils and cropping systems types of research questions don’t tend to be easily solved with a quick experiment, and you really have to keep after them for awhile.

Chad Kruger:
And I don’t think it’s just the soil questions at this point in time anymore, I think some of the disease questions and even some of the weed management questions that historically may have presented fairly simple solutions… We’ve answered a lot of the simple questions, and we’ve done that. And the questions or the challenges that we’re dealing with today don’t have simple answers and often the answer is in the interplay between the plant and the soil or the other organisms that interact between the plant and the soil. And that’s much more complicated and not quite as easy to find solutions to. I have high hopes, but I’m not quite so convinced that there’s going to be overwhelming discoveries that really quickly help us figure out how to change things.

Chad Kruger:
And perhaps a way to think about this is thinking about it in terms of human health, it used to be you got sick, you went to the doctor and there was a new medication that the doctor could give you and all of a sudden you were better. And in agriculture and food, we were in that place for quite a while where the technology coming out of the science world was able to come up with some fairly quick fixes, but we’ve used up a lot of that. And now we’re at the point where if you talk about human health, a lot of it is about diet, exercise and other things that you can do that are focused on making a whole person healthier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holistic health.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, holistic. And that’s also, I think where we’re at in terms of farming and food production and food systems, is we’ve got to start thinking a lot more about the big picture and the interactions between the different pieces of that big picture.

Dillon Honcoop:
And talk about the soil stuff and the holistic way of thinking. I’ve gotten passionate about that over the years because of my dad. And I’ve talked at a time or two on this program about… probably more than a time or two, about how I grew up on a red raspberry farm here in Northwest Washington where you are a scientist, and I grew up on a red raspberry farm where my dad was very passionate about these issues and plugged in with what you guys are doing there at Washington State University. So I’ve been exposed to some of this stuff and been thinking about it for a long time. What’s it like working with farmers like that and seeing some of these things happen on the ground in the real world, like for instance on my dad’s farm?

Chad Kruger:
I personally think that’s one of the most exciting about this whole wonderful opportunity I’ve been dropped into the middle of, is people like your dad who just have an incredibly curious and inquisitive mind and yet are doing their best with the state of knowledge right now to produce a crop that goes into an existing system but is never quite satisfied with the feeling that we know everything we need to know, and he’s always asking new questions, he’s always observing something in the field and then saying, “Hey, I just saw this. What do you think that is?” And most of the time, we can’t answer that question when he asks it. And I think it’s really valuable for our side of the partnership to have people like him who are out there trying things who are…

Chad Kruger:
And I’m trying to think of a way to explain this, but they say farming is a pretty unusual thing and that you basically have 40 chances in your life to figure it out, and each of those 40 chances ends up looking very, very different. And the 40 chances of course are that the number of seasons that you have to grow a crop. And to be successful, you really have to be observant and thoughtful and you have to record your data, if you will, and understand how what you’ve observed in the past might be similar to or different from what you’re observing in the future, and know when you need to ask the right question or what specific observation that you’re seeing in the field you need to pursue that one.

Chad Kruger:
And having producers like him that work in partnership with us where you can have these conversations and dig deep into what we do know to figure out where are the important, critical emerging questions that we need to start doing research on in order to help solve a problem before it’s another crisis or to be able to capitalize on something that someone’s observing that they say, “Hey, I’ve been doing this and it seems to be helping. Can you tell me why?” And I think one thing that’s evolved within the ag research world, and as I point back to one of the things I said earlier about the science farmer thing where I think we’re getting more and more on the science end of that partnership, is the questions that are being asked now take a lot more knowledge and a lot more technology in order to answer them.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s becoming more and more specialized on the science end of the equation in order to run an experiment that gets an answer that a producer needs. And so whereas 30, 40, 50 years ago, there was this sense that the land-grant university was going to do research and come up with new practices and technologies that would then get extended out to the farm and the farmers would pick them up and use them. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I think what we’re seeing now is the producers that are observing things and asking those questions are bringing those things to the scientists now.

Chad Kruger:
And what our job is becoming more and more about is helping the producer understand the phenomenon that they’re observing and helping them figure out what management strategies could be employed to minimize the negative things that we see and maximize the positive things that we see. And I think going forward, producers are going to have to be more and more knowledgeable in order to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
They basically have to be scientists themselves, it sounds like.

Chad Kruger:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re farmers, does a farmer make a good scientist? What you’re describing here is a switch from a top down approach, which it sounds like you were saying the old school approach is more top down, now this is more like bottom up, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, and I think that’s the way it should be. We’re long since passed the point where the university system knows more about these crops than the farmers do. I think we’re at the point where the farmers know a whole lot more than we do, but we have what I’d call cool tools to be able to answer very specific questions that the producers are not going to be able to answer themselves. And so I think as we go forward, we’re going to see more and more of that character to the partnership between the science community and farming community.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about scientists? Do scientists make good farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I know a lot of scientists who could do a pretty good job farming, but I think for the most part, most of them will tell you that they’re really glad they’re scientists and not the farmers themselves because farming is a much more complex and challenging thing than I think most people give it credit.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the misunderstanding is there from those of us who just go to the grocery store and buy food about the science that goes into it? What you’re describing is pretty extensive as far as the amount of research and data that’s going up.

Chad Kruger:
Yup. Part of it I think is very few people ever grow a plant to me more or care for an animal at any level. And so a lot of the historic, what’s often called indigenous knowledge doesn’t exist within the greater population anymore. And so I think there’s just a lack of full appreciation for how complicated it is to produce food and to do it at the scale and with the proficiency and quality that we do. And so I think anybody can read a book or watch a video and come to a conclusion and think they know something, but 40 years of experience, 40 chances is a wealth of knowledge that I think is just often underappreciated and undervalued.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been your favorite time working with farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I think one of the things I have always appreciated the most, and this comes in all the different roles that I’ve had, is the chance to sit down with farmers and talk about the future, talk about where their concerns are about continued viability, where their concerns are about sustainability issues, whether those are profitability environmental issues, big picture, global markets and other things like that. The opportunity to sit down with a group of farmers, especially a group of farmers that come from different perspectives and can sit down and have a good conversation around what is the future looking like and how do we ensure that we have a successful future and that we’re able to continue to improve what we’re doing and continue to put a good product out for consumers and do a good job with stewardship.

Chad Kruger:
I think overall, that’s why I get up in the morning and that’s why I do what I do, is the opportunity to work with forward-looking farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that future look like? I guess, there’s challenges and maybe this is a weird way of asking it, but I almost want to say like pre-COVID, what were the dark clouds in the future that we need to deal with as far as producing food here in Washington State?

Chad Kruger:
Everything. And I say that facetiously, but in reality it’s true, it’s economic profitability. At the bottom line, if a farm can’t make money, it’s going to go out of business. And I think one thing that a lot of people don’t understand is the more and more farms that can’t make money can go out of business, the more it takes with them. So there is this strange thing about competition amongst farms, even within an area, but also that there’s a critical mass where a certain amount of cooperation of the farms in an area is important to everyone’s success and health. And the pressure around cost of production, the pressure around the value of the product is never going to let up.

Chad Kruger:
I just don’t see that ever letting up, even as we’ve gone through this recent little bit upset where people are thinking about things like, “I can’t go to a restaurant,” or “I need to get a particular type of food.” Or, “I can’t get something that I want.” While we’re thinking about this now about maybe the least cost product isn’t necessarily the best choice all the time, a year or two years down the road, I wonder how that’s going to come back to us. Are we still going to be thinking about the fact that there may be reasons that we need to not just take the least cost producer of food in order to ensure that we’ve got some resilience and robustness in our food system.

Chad Kruger:
So that’s a big one, that’s bigger than any of us, and how to address that is monumental. It’s a wicked problem. The environmental side and obviously, I’ve worked on the side, the pressure is going to continue to amount for many people in the broader public to the point where the idea that farms have any impact on the environment that’s negative is a problem. That’s a challenge, it’s an almost an insurmountable challenge because the very act of producing food has an impact. The very act of eating food has an impact. And so how do we continue to work with that challenge and continue to improve and do better, which drives up the cost of production?

Chad Kruger:
And so I think that’s a big one. And a lot of that tends to come out in terms of practical, real world impact on farms. There’s regulation, and so every time we interviewed or surveyed farmers about big issues, it doesn’t matter if they’re a wheat farmer or a tree fruit producer, a dairy farmer, a potato grower, a berry producer, it doesn’t matter if they’re big or small, conventional or organic, anywhere in between, regulation tends to come up as one of the biggest challenges to sustainability in farming. And it is what it is. We’re in a world where regulation is becoming ever increasingly the mechanism by which we do everything. And so how do we help our producers navigate that world of regulation.

Chad Kruger:
Competition. We’ve really seen this in some of our key Northwest Washington industries, that competition isn’t just local, it’s global. And there are a lot of other places in the world that can produce the same things we produce and do it cheaper. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing it better, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re protecting the environment in the same way, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re producing a product that’s as high of quality as we are, but in a marketplace that’s looking for the least cost producer, that’s a real challenge to address for Washington farms.

Chad Kruger:
And I’ve got a number of colleagues who’ve talked about the fact that Washington State will probably never be the least cost producer on a lot of the things that we produce. And that just is what it is, and it’s because we have pretty high level environmental regulations. Our labor costs are much higher than much of the rest of the world, they’re much higher than much of the rest of the country. And environmental issues, regulations, all of these things make it so that we’re never going to be competing on the same playing field as a lot of other locations around the world. And in many cases, around the country. And so we’re just going to have to do better and we’re going to have to have a better product than everybody else is producing in order to be competitive.

Chad Kruger:
I could keep going down the list, energy issues, they tend to rear their heads up and down. Right now, energy is not a problem, but that’s not going to be a long-term trend. It’s going to come back, climate is going to be an issue. Relatively speaking, we seem to be insulated from some of the more dire predictions on the climate side, but sooner or later there’s going to be direct effects, there’s going to be indirect effects, water supply. The fact that we look relatively good compared to a lot of other regions means that a lot of food production in a lot of other regions is going to start looking at the Northwest and saying, “Hey, we need to move there.” So what are the dynamics that that’s going to create?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Why other than, and I’ve heard that elsewhere too, that Washington really hasn’t been as effected by climate change as other parts of the world to date. So far it seems to be a slower thing here than maybe elsewhere, but beyond that issue, what are the advantages for growing food here in Washington? And you’re talking about the challenges, I guess maybe some of those challenges are also insight into some of the benefits too, but ultimately, yeah, what’s so great about growing food here in Washington?

Chad Kruger:
On the climate side, that is one of the things is, if you think about our geographic location in the globe, we’re pretty far north. There aren’t a whole lot of regions further north than us that are big fruit and vegetable production regions. There’s some grain producing regions that are further North than us, but generally speaking, the fruit and vegetable production regions are South of us. And so if you think about climate in terms of getting warmer… Another way to think about it is moving south. So if you think 10, 15 degrees of warming, you are in the Central Valley of California, that looks pretty good for us.

Chad Kruger:
So I think that’s something that may not be on a lot of people’s radar or screens yet, but as we move forward, there are going to be opportunities in our region, in part, because we’ve got a lot of good viable farming land and we’ve got a lot of resiliency and the resources that are necessary to produce fruits and vegetables like water supply. So I think we do have some opportunities in front of us, but we need to be thinking about them and planning for them. And one of the things that concern me a little bit about the COVID-19 situation hitting was, all of a sudden, everybody’s focused on an immediate crisis, which is a big thing, very serious, but if we don’t quickly address this crisis and get our eyes back on the big prize of the long run, we’re going to miss key investments that we need to be making relative to our future success.

Chad Kruger:
And that’s something that’s always difficult to do in the crisis as you get so caught up in the day to day that it’s easy to forget about thinking one, two 10, 15, 30, 50, 100 years ahead, which in order to continue being successful, you’ve got be looking ahead all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can see that in a couple of decades down the road, we could be saying, “Well, why didn’t we get that going back then?” “Well, because remember we were in the middle of that whole virus thing.” “Oh yeah.” That would be a sad and really at that time looking into the future, a really frustrating thing to look back on and say, “Yeah, we were worried about that and it was a bad thing, but now we’re suffering here in the future from things that maybe we didn’t have our eye on the ball enough with at that time.”

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think this virus thing is one of those, we should have seen this comment. In fact, some people did see this coming, and we should have been ready for it and this is not going to be the last time it happened. But we have this thing that we do that we tend to focus on, recent experience as the guide to the future and we tend to forget things that were really important until they hit us again. And we’ve got to get better about learning from our experiences and being ready and prepared for the next time. A good example of that was drought in the region. 2005 was a pretty rough drought and then we were in pretty good shape in the region for about 10 years.

Chad Kruger:
And then we had a big drought again in 2015, and it was surprising how much had been forgotten. Between 2005 and 2015, response options and strategies and infrastructure and institutional knowledge that should have been there, ready to respond wasn’t there. And coming out of the 2015 drought, there was a lot of learning that happened that should make the next time we deal with drought because it’s coming again, should make it easier to deal with in the future. And yet I’m not so sure that we’ve got that one figured out yet either.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into this world of food and farming and obviously, you’re so passionate about it. Did you grow up around farming?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I have the immense blessing to come from a family that has generational farms in Washington State in both my mother and father’s side. So my mom’s dad was a very grower from Lynden, Arneson Farms. He was a really innovative guy, he came out after World War II and started a diversified farming operation and ultimately got into strawberries. And so growing up, I got to spend quite a bit of time with him and learn from him. And in fact, he used to tell me stories of working with the WSU scientists at the Puyallup and Mount Vernon experiment stations where I’m currently the director.

Chad Kruger:
So I knew about those stations and I knew about Ag science before I ever knew what the land grant was. And so that was a pretty important thing. And then on my dad’s side, we were an Eastern Washington wheat and cattle ranching family, the family came out at the end of the civil war. So I think I’m sixth generation relative to the ones who came out, first settled in the state,

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to your mom’s side, the Arneson, I remember them. I remember that farm, my uncle worked for the Arneson. In fact, my wife who is from BC and I met her in college, she remembers coming down from BC to the Arneson Farm to pick strawberries. That was her memory of Lynden, before I knew her. It breaks my heart now to see that original Arneson homeplace covered in homes, but I understand that’s the way of the world these days, but every time I drive by it’s like, “Yeah, that used to be a strawberry field right there. What do you think… So that was your grandpa on your mom’s side?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think he would say about you seeing you’ve being the director of these things that he was interacting with as a professional, as a farmer back then?

Chad Kruger:
Well, he knew that he was a big part of my curiosity and push towards this direction and before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing, he always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he such an inspirational person, he always had a new thing he was going to try, a new approach. He loved the farming, but he loved the people too. He talked a lot about all of those customers that came down, particularly customers from Canada who crossed the border every year for decades to come and pick strawberries.

Chad Kruger:
And the relationships he developed over the years. And for me, that was a big thing because while I was interested in the farming and the science, he taught me that the relationships were probably as/or more important than all of it. And it’s a juxtaposition from my other grandfather who were out in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Washington, there was a saying that anytime he was more than seven miles from the homeplace, he was stressed. And I feel a little of that too, so it’s this interesting juxtaposition of two foreign families, two grandfathers that had a lot of influence on me and where I’m at.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do you think about that day-to-day? Does that cross your mind sometimes when you’re doing stuff?

Chad Kruger:
Every day, every day. I think about it every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you want your legacy to be?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and it’s one that as I get older I’m more and more thinking about. And part of this is watching my dad who’ll recently retire and he’s thinking a lot more about his legacy. And so I’m starting to think about, “Maybe that’s something I should be thinking about too.” It’s doesn’t come naturally to me, I tend to do the thing that’s right in front of me, to do that needs to be done at that time. And if that means sticking a shovel in a pile of manure, half the time, that’s what it is. But I think more and more and the leadership opportunities that I’ve been blessed to have is I’m more effective when I’m helping someone else figure out how to solve the problem that they have in front of them.

Chad Kruger:
And so more and more as I grow older and have more opportunity, I’m seeing that what I feel success in is when other people are able to succeed in part because they figure out how to work together, whether that’s the farmer-university partnership, that kind of thing, or to other people however they come together, helping people figure out how they get over these hurdles that we tend to throw up in our human organization and make sure that we can succeed going forward.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you actually grow up? Where was home for you as a kid?

Chad Kruger:
I grew up in Eastern Washington, I grew up in a little town called Othello. We’re about 90 minutes from our Eastern Washington ranch, but Othello is the place you stop to get gas between Ellensburg and Pullman. And so I grew up there and actually my first official experiences in Ag research were for WSU as a high schooler working at the Othello experiment station, doing some field work in potatoes. And so I worked on an experiment that was looking at irrigation rates and fertility rates and potatoes and another experiment looking at some of the early root imaging for potato work. So trying to understand what’s going on underneath the surface of the soil as potatoes grow.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy. We just recently had on the podcast, Camas Uebelacker from Othello. He’s a feedlot owner and operator out there, so hey, you’re from that same town, that same neck of the woods that maybe a lot of us haven’t necessarily spent a whole lot of time in, but man, a lot of the food that we eat here and all over the place comes from that part of the state, between the potatoes, the beef and everything else, and the fruit and everything.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. If you really think about it, the central part of Washington where it’s irrigated, a lot of that was broken out within the lifetimes of many people who are still farming. And it’s become one of the most productive areas of the world in terms of a lot of vegetable and fruit production systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for you?

Chad Kruger:
Well, I’m not totally sure yet, as I said earlier, I tend to do the thing that’s in front of me, very soon I might find out. I did announce last fall that I was going to step down from the Mount Vernon and Puyallup Research Centers. It had been five years at Mount Vernon and three years at Puyallup, which I was doing from a distance and the call to go back to Eastern Washington and be a little closer to that family ranch was getting more and more powerful. So we’ll see where I end up, but fairly soon, I think we’ll know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You want to be back to that family road. Are you going to farm yourself? What do you think?

Chad Kruger:
Probably not going to farm myself, I don’t think my wife would take the finances of it. It’s a little joke, but someday, I’ll go ride fences and be a cowboy again.

Dillon Honcoop:
There you go. That’s awesome. Well, thank you for sharing and opening up. We just really touched the surface of a lot of really big things that I know that you’ve spent years working on. So I appreciate you being willing to take that summary look at it because maybe some of the stuff doesn’t do it justice, but I think it’s so important and something that maybe a lot of people aren’t aware of is part of really the food system here is the university involvement and the science. And I don’t know, some people even get scared with how it’s so scientific and technical. I really view it as a good thing, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I don’t see how going forward it’s avoidable, and whether it’s the university or private sector or someone else, the pressure on the agricultural and food systems to be able to answer questions with data and to be able to manage with data are just going to increase. And so I think the long term partnership between the land-grant university and the farmers gives a bit of a leg up in that, but it’s something that we’ve got to double down and invest in to ensure that we’re going to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for sharing your story and talking with us and also with this whole COVID thing going on, stay safe and healthy out there.

Chad Kruger:
All right, thanks, Dylan.

Speaker 4:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I still think that’s so cool that his grandpa was all about and would talk about people like my wife and her family, who had come down and pick berries, and here, years later, me and Chad ended up connecting over that. What a cool guy though, and somebody who is really accomplished as a scientist but also a manager. And to do that, you have to be about all the data and all the technical stuff, but you also have to understand the people and the big picture, where this is all going and why even are we applying science to food? Well, it has to do with our future as a community, as a state, as human beings, and doing the right thing and producing food the right way, but also efficiently and competitively.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s just so cool to hear his focus on all of that, and we need to keep track of what he does next if he’s headed back to Eastern Washington. I have a hunch he’s going to find himself farming in one shape or form one day, but we’ll see. It’s just one of those things that’s in your blood. Thanks for joining us this week on the Real Food Real People Podcast. Please stay safe out there, stay healthy, follow the guidelines, and we’ll get through this thing together. Oh, and I should also thank our sponsors, Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Larry Stap part 2 | #019 04/20/2020

He's faced some monumental challenges, including losing his son to cancer. In this second half of our conversation with Twin Brook Creamery co-owner Larry Stap, he opens up about some of the personal side of family farming.

Transcript

Larry Stap:
… the cancer just destroyed his body, just destroyed it, invaded every aspect of it. There’s nothing that I wish on any parent ever, is to lose a child.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, it’s a really emotional conversation this week on the podcast. Last week was the first part of the chat with Larry Stap of Twin Brook Creamery, small dairy farm and glass mild bottling operation in Lyndon, Washington. And he told us all about how Twin Brook came to be, and the risks they took, and all the work they put in, and the uncertainty for a while where it looked like where it looked like they might not make it. This week, things get a bit personal, including Larry opening up about the passing of his son, who passed away only a year after graduating from high school from Cancer. Larry also talks about what’s happening right now with COVID-19, and how that’s affected their business, including one unexpected change that became a lot more complicated than you might think.

Dillon Honcoop:
So he gets into that later, as well as talking about other challenges his farm has faced over the years. And, will he ever retire? We get to it all this week, as we continue part two of our conversation again with Twin Brook Creamery co-owner Larry Stap, longtime, fourth generation, family dairy farmer in Lyndon, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest time on the farm?

Larry Stap:
The hardest time on the farm probably is your responsibility to take care of things, and you have to sacrifice sometimes pleasures. I can remember when we started way back in the ’70s, ’80s, you’re doing everything starting out yourself. You’re milking the cows, your feeding them, you’re doing this, you’re doing that. I mean, it’s just push. And then, one time, I can remember to this day, my wife said to me, “Don’t figure on doing anything for a couple of certain days,” and she secretly had booked a motel and we went away for three days. Lined up the milker and all that stuff, and that was the most pleasurable thing. I can remember that to this day. I mean, that is huge in my mind. I wouldn’t say there’s any specific low moment, but it’s just, you look back on it, and I would say, I probably overworked myself sometimes to the detriment of playing with my children.

Larry Stap:
But a lot of that comes as grandparents, you realize how precious your kids were, and even how more precious your grandchildren are. And you look back at it, and I said, “Boy, I love to spoil my grandchildren, I should’ve spoiled my kids a lot more too.” That’s probably one of my regrets a little bit, but I think most parents have that in some ways, [inaudible 00:03:31] farm too. So yeah. I mean, I know my parents, if I want to lay a guilt trip on them, all I have to do is remind them how much had to work on the farm. And I do that in fun, because they’re going through probably the same thing I did, is how we worked our kids way too hard.

Larry Stap:
I never, ever looked at it that way when I was a kid, I just enjoyed it. I mean, on a tractor and driving, and making hay bales, and killing field mice with your bayonet, and building forts up in the hay mound during the winter, going up in a silo and pitching the sides down. I thought that was a great lot of fun, in actuality, it was a lot of work that I did for my dad. I mean, it’s all right.

Larry Stap:
So no huge regrets in a lot of ways, it’s just that you sacrifice some family time that you probably shouldn’t have, but yet on the other hand I don’t hear my kids complaining too much either.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well you talk about your daughter and her husband being involved in the farm, but they’re not the only family of yours that’s involved in this operation, right?

Larry Stap:
No, they’re the only one financially involved. They’re full partners with us. Our oldest son also works full-time here on the farm with us. He’s got a degree in accounting, so he’s slowly taking over a lot of the bookkeeping, and a lot of the administrative work, and all of the government regulatory world that we live in, in terms of reporting and farms, and on, and on that, that goes. That’s huge, and so he’s doing more and more of that kind of stuff. And then we have another daughter that she randomly comes and helps us out here, does some things on the farm for us. So we have lots of family involved.

Larry Stap:
It’s kind of nice, our one daughter right now, she was working in a restaurant, and of course with this whole COVID pandemic, she’s off work right now, so I’m able to give her some odd jobs to do around here and help out, you see. So I feel privileged to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know, and this may be tough to talk about so I’m not sure if you want to talk about it, but what about your son that passed away?

Larry Stap:
That was a tough… That was probably one of the… It was the lowest point I’ve ever had in my life, okay? I mean, it was not easy, but two things, number one was, it really made me appreciate the community that we live in. You cannot believe the support and the things that were done for us. To this day, it just boggles my mind. I mean, they always talk about small community, everybody knows what everybody else is doing, and this and that, and the gossip and stuff like that, but if you can look beyond that, yes, everybody else knows what everybody else is doing, but it’s generally speaking because they care, not because they’re nosy. And that was a huge eye-opener for us.

Larry Stap:
So having said that, he passed away in 2003, and there is no doubt that he would be the one sitting behind the mic right now and not me, because he had a passion for farming. But that also opened the door for my daughter and son-in-law to step in, which I’m sure was a reflection of his passing. And it’s been so much fun, because I can see so much of my son-in-law and the way my son acted too. I can see a lot of that kind of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
I remember Mark, your son, he was a grade behind me in school.

Larry Stap:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, we weren’t big friends or anything, but we were acquainted, we knew each other, so I remember him, and I remember him in shop classes, and FFA-

Larry Stap:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and stuff like that. How did that happen, what was it that took his life?

Larry Stap:
When he was in Grade School, he had a massive tumor growing inside of his head, massive, but it was not cancerous, but it was so large that they could not surgically eradiate it… surgically remove it so they had to eradiate it, okay? They shrunk it down, and it went away but they kept monitoring it. And then a few years later it started growing again, but since they were monitoring it, they were able to surgically remove it. And then when he was a senior in high school, just after graduation… just after he graduated, he graduated in 2002, it started growing a third time and this time it was cancerous. And so they went in and did surgery, and it was an incredibly invasive surgery.

Larry Stap:
I mean, you can’t begin to describe the removal of an eye, and on and on, and stuff like that. And then when he got through that surgery, then they started chemo and radiation together to aggressively attack it. But it was such an aggressive cancer, that it just grew right in the face of all that stuff they were throwing at him. And then in June of 2003 he passed away just because the cancer just destroyed his body, just destroyed it, invaded every aspect of it. There’s nothing that I wish on any parent every, is to lose a childe. That is the most heart wrenching hard thing. And you can’t believe how many people in the community have laid a child in a grave, it’s pretty astounding.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like on the farm at that time?

Larry Stap:
On the farm that time-

Dillon Honcoop:
I actually can imagine.

Larry Stap:
This is where community came in, and one day it was so overwhelming and it was in the Spring, [inaudible 00:09:48] just started, and I couldn’t focus on what I had to do, just couldn’t. So I called up one of my neighboring farmers, a gentleman by the name of Steve Ewen, and I said, “Steve, I need help,” and he came over and he said, “Go in the house, we’ll take care of it all.” So crops got planted, crops got harvested, and the fellow farmers around the community, dairy and non-dairy, they all lined up to get out there to do something, and some of them had to wait till second and third cutting just to get their donated time and equipment in. It was just absolutely the most amazing thing I could… That’s where the community just stepped up. I mean, just one small part that they did for me.

Larry Stap:
I mean, it is beyond belief what they did, but my mind was just so overwhelmed I literally could not function.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think Mark would think of all the stuff that you’re doing now?

Larry Stap:
I don’t know, I don’t know. I think he’d be right in the middle of it. He would just be loving it. That kid, he was something. But you can’t dwell on what-if’s because they aren’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know you’ve mentioned a few times struggles dealing with regulation, what does that mean? What kind of stuff have you actually had to deal with?

Larry Stap:
Well, a lot of the regulatory world responds to hype, I guess for lack of a better word. A story gets out there about farms [inaudible 00:11:34], so then the legislature thinks they’ve got to step up and pass laws to protect the environment, and so much of it can be done in air. They do not realize the consequences oft times of a lot of the things that are passed upon us. Just to kind of give you an example, I always say, every law passed, or every action taken, whatever, has consequences, but they also have unintended consequences.

Larry Stap:
All right, here’s a really simple example, people think we need big buffers for application of our manure, or our nutrients on the field away from waterways and stuff like that. We call them big dumb buffers, because there’s no science behind it basically. So you take a field, and let’s just say you take a 20 acre field surrounded by drainage ditches, which I have a lot of because I farm a lot of pecan, and you put 100 foot buffers in there all the way around that field, you’ve basically taken away half or maybe even more, of my land application base for my nutrients. So what do I have to do, I have to go find more land further away, probably cause more environmental damage by trucking it up and down the road with trucks, or tractors, or whatever, or over-apply, and that’s no good either because then you can have more service runoff and stuff.

Larry Stap:
When in actuality, just by applying a buffer that is, let’s just say, big at the appropriate times of the year, small at the appropriate times of the year, make them flexible, make them driven by common sense, I call it for lack of a better word. But there again, some of that stuff can be just passed through ignorance, not really thinking about the unintended consequences. And so a lot of times you have to try to educate your politicians, your elected officials. And to be honest with you, sometimes right in the offices that are in charge of enforcing the regulations, a lot of times those people can have their own agendas too, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good. But I always find that 99% of it, is communication. Talk with them, figure it out. I’m not afraid to bring people onto my farm that are especially in the regulatory and political world, to explain to them, show them what’s going on. And it makes all the difference in the world when they can actually see what’s going on, and they understand it.

Larry Stap:
And then the other thing that you can do, is build a relationship so that if you have concerns, they know who you are and we can talk, or they can call us and stuff like that. And that’s really been good over the years. I used to have more of a confrontational attitude when I was younger, but I’ve kind of matured and said there’s better ways.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, don’t you want to protect the environment?

Larry Stap:
Absolutely. I mean, one of the things I’ve learned is, we farm close to a creek called Fish Trap Creek, and it flows into the Nooksack River, which flows into the bay out there by our lovely Indian Reservation friends, and they have oyster beds and shell fish beds out there that they harvest. Well, if we contaminate the waterways here, it gets dumped on top of their shell fish beds. That’s just another form of agriculture, why would I want to destroy one form of agriculture at the experience of another? That doesn’t make any sense to me. So there’s just an example of why to keep it good.

Larry Stap:
The other thing too is, I have a couple of streams that borderlines on my property, they’re fantastic salmon spawning streams, and there’s nothing more fun than in Fall especially to see all them salmon spawning stuff here. Why would I want to destroy that habitat? I mean, it gives me great joy just to watch them period, and then in the Spring to see all the little fingerlings running around that ditch and stuff like that. It’s all part of our mission statement, be stewards, maybe not just to the land that we purposely farm, or the cows that we purposely take care of, but it’s all around us, it’s all part of our mandate.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about lawsuits, I know that’s become a big thing in the farming world. It’s not talked about much, but I know farms, I hear it time and again, are concerned about litigation.

Larry Stap:
Yeah, litigation is brought on by poor laws. And when I say poor laws, the laws themself are not bad, but the law also allows for what they call third-party lawsuits. And a third-party file a lawsuit against a farmer because they think that they’re not following the law of some sort of pollution, or whatever, okay? And the challenge of it is this, that oft times, even if you’re innocent, which most farmers are, it will cost you more to go all the way through the legal system than it will to settle out of court. The settling out of court is cheaper, but it accomplishes generally nothing, except lining a lawyers pockets, because they’ll get fully compensated for their legal costs typically.

Larry Stap:
One of the things that a lot of people don’t understand, is on a federal third-party lawsuit, let’s just say a group decides to sue a farmer because they’ve caused damage to a harmed party, and let’s just assume that the third-party wins and the farmer loses, the third-party can receive no financial compensation out of that lawsuit, but the lawyers typically don’t tell them that. Okay? But the lawyers get fully compensated for all their work, and then there’s all these other little programs that get part of the settlement and stuff like that. So that’s why if you want to improve the environment, if you want to do it, you sit down and you talk about it and you work out before lawsuits ever happen. That’s the way things get done. When lawsuits happen, people just back their backs up against the wall, and it becomes a legal fight. And really, nothing oft times would get accomplished in terms of benefiting the environment. It’s a sad way to go.

Larry Stap:
I mean, there is sometimes a legal need for that, and I’m not disputing that, there are places for that, but oft times it’s used as a legalized form of extortion, not so much as a productive lawsuit to accomplish an environmental upgrade.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the future of our food system is?

Larry Stap:
Well you know, I do not like this COVID-19 pandemic that we’re in, but all of a sudden people are waking up to, “Wow, we better keep our food supply local,” because all of a sudden all the pharmaceutical stuff, and the medications and all this stuff that we’re dependent on in foreign countries, we’re kind of at somebody’s mercy all of a sudden. I mean, it happened a number of years ago with the oil embargo in the Middle-East. And so I think it’s probably been a little bit of an eye-opener, in terms of a lot of people recognizing the fact that we need to keep our food supply on our home soil.

Larry Stap:
I’ve talked with a lot of people over the course of this time, and one of the things I’ve said is, sure when I grew up as a kid, the only time we got strawberries, was in strawberry season. The only time we got green beans, was when green beans were in season. The only time we got corn on the cob, was when corn was in season. Now you can go to the grocery store and buy it year round just about anytime. Where does it come from? It doesn’t come from your backyard anymore, it’s probably imported. And is that the way we want to go? Is that really necessary? I mean, we are incredibly spoiled as consumers, and what we can get in a grocery store. And maybe we don’t need all that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sadly, I heard recently with what’s happening with COVID, a CSA in our region, a Community Supported Agriculture farm that does CSA boxes, their orders went way up, but right away also these new subscribers, they got calls apparently within the first week of people saying, “Well, I want strawberries.” “It’s not strawberry season.” “Well, what the heck, why can’t I have strawberries?” To me, I don’t want to believe that people are that far disconnected.

Larry Stap:
They are, and it’s… Well, it’s good and it’s bad. I mean, it’s an incredible success story to the grocery stores, and the whole support network behind moving food around this country and around the world. I mean, now we can just do it incredibly well with refrigeration, and freezing, and all that kind of stuff, and we got spoiled as consumers, there’s no doubt about it. But maybe it’s time to step back and say, “You know what, maybe it’s not so important I have strawberries year round, or whatever.” Milk’s year round, we can get that anytime, that goes around 24/7.

Dillon Honcoop:
At the same time, you guys have dealt with… you’ve proven that it’s possible, but you’ve dealt with the challenges of going local, of bringing that local product to market, to those more mainstream stores that people are used to shopping at.

Larry Stap:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would guess when you’ve learned how that works behind the scenes, maybe you realize it’s not as easy as some people might think. I know the grocery stores get demonized quite a bit, and it’s not always their fault that the system works the way that it does.

Larry Stap:
No, it doesn’t, but on the other hand, we talk about smaller and fewer, and bigger farms, it’s the same thing that’s going on in the grocery world. So the bigger you get, the less flexibility you have and stuff like that, but you are able to offer some other services that other stores might not be able to do. I got a lot of sympathy for the grocery community. One of the things that they struggle with is the same thing we talked about earlier, lawsuits. Consumers are looking to pretend they slipped on a banana peel, or they got sick eating this berry, or this cereal or whatever.

Larry Stap:
So liability is a huge thing for the grocery stores, it’s huge. And then as part of that liability too is, it’s kind of a reflection of our society, but if you’re big and corporate, you owe me so I have the ability to go in and steal, and it doesn’t bother my conscience, because you’re so big and so wealthy, that you have to share some of that wealth with me. And I’ve talked to so many grocery store managers and stuff like that, and what it costs them in terms of legal, and documentation and stuff the way the laws are set up, to stop a shoplifter, that sometimes it’s cheaper for them to let that shoplifter to walk out the door than it is to prosecute. And that’s a sad side of our society, very sad, not only because that person thinks that, that’s okay that they do that, but our society, or our legal world, or whatever, has become so rigid, and so structured that we actually allow that to happen because of costs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus the principle.

Larry Stap:
Versus the principle, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
With COVID happening, this pandemic, what’s that changed for your farm and your operation?

Larry Stap:
At first we thought, “This will be just fine because we process our own milk and we sell it to the stores.” And in actuality, the first week after, I don’t know if it was a stay home or whatever, when all the businesses and restaurants and stuff that had to close, our milk sales made a significant jump. And then the second week into it, we got a call from a major grocery store chain, that said that they do not want to take our empty glass returns into their store, because they’re concerned of what that empty glass bottle could possibly bring in, in terms of contamination such as the COVID virus.

Larry Stap:
I thought it might have been a little bit of an overreach, I thought there was ways that we could manage around it, but it was made at levels way higher that I care to know about in the corporate world, and they said, “Not only do we not want to take glass at this time, but then we would not like to even sell your glass off the shelf.” Well this store chain that told us that, was probably one of our largest single group of stores that constitutes a pretty significant portion of our business. So we got that call at 10:30 on a Monday morning, that our milk sales were done in that store, so I immediately got on the phone, and this was the beauty of building relationships over the years with those people, they said if we could find an alternative package that they would carry our milk, because they absolutely loved our farm and what’s it done for their stores, and the local and the profitability.

Larry Stap:
So by Tuesday afternoon at two o’clock, we were bottling milk in plastic bottles. And I tell you what, it was chaos, it was crazy, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
You can’t use the same equipment to do that.

Larry Stap:
You can’t use the same equipment, you have to hand apply labels, you’ve got to find plastic jugs, you’ve got to… We had to design a label, get it printed, and then find people to start putting them all on our jugs and stuff like that. So even to this day now, we’re doing about half maybe in plastic to satisfy those stores during the crisis time, and half is still in our glass. But it’s a significant cost hit to us, because of all these additional costs that we have to incur just to bottle our milk again. But you know what, we’re bottling milk, it’s being sold, and it’s maybe not being sold at quite the previous volume it was. We have a very, very loyal, and now happy even bunch of employees, because we’re able to fully keep them employed at this rate, and doing this kind of stuff.

Larry Stap:
So it was a stressful couple of weeks around here, there’s no doubt about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
How are you protecting your employees with the threat of the virus? A lot of people are staying home, but you guys are an essential business, so they’re still coming for-

Larry Stap:
There’s not… I mean yeah, there are things you can do, but we have safety meetings, we talk about reinforcing how many times you wash your hands every day. We completely during the end of the day, we’re just sanitizing everything. We’ve got a foaming machine, and we’re just spraying it all over with sanitizer. And then we have safety meetings, and I really stress to our employees to think about what you’re doing when you’re not working here, be aware of it.

Larry Stap:
And what I try to impress upon them, and I’ve learned this from myself is, if get the virus I may survive, because if you’re young enough and healthy enough typically it will feel like a flu from what I understand. I think there’s so much misinformation out there. But if I were to get it let’s just say, and I continually see my parents who live right next door to me, they’re 87 and 89, and if I were to expose them to it, I would feel pretty bad. So you have to think beyond yourself with this COVID-19 thing. And I’ve got a great bunch of employees, and they’re doing a great job for me, and I think they’re very, very mindful about it all, very much so.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, a lot of people would never have thought of the glass bottle thing, back to that hiccup.

Larry Stap:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain how that works too. I mean, we talked about the benefit of glass bottles earlier, and then that was your kind of niche, but how does that… You guys market this stuff in a glass bottle, and then it’s available in the store, and you get basically a refund price when you bring that glass back?

Larry Stap:
Yeah. When a consumer buys our milk, you might say they’re actually buying two things, they’re buying milk that’s in the jar for a set price that the store determines, and they pay a deposit on that glass jar. Now, the consumer can do one of two things, they can decide to keep that glass jar if they want, or they can return it back to the store and get their deposit refund, and then we refund the stores and bring them back here to our little bottling plant, and wash and sanitize and refill them again. That’s part of our sustainability. That’s how the whole system works, but then the fear of what the bottles would be bringing into the stores, is what stopped it for a pretty significant number of stores, I will say that. So many stores.

Dillon Honcoop:
And it wasn’t on the front end, because they’re sanitized and clean when they come, it’s about people bringing them back from their homes.

Larry Stap:
Bringing the empties back from their homes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh yes.

Larry Stap:
That was their fear. I can’t argue with the stores, but I do know that there are a lot of suggested ways that they could mitigate by doing things a little bit different, but that’s their choice.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I don’t know what kind of a bin they have to put them in, but can you put it out front or something so they don’t have to come in the store? I think about all these things.

Larry Stap:
There’s a lot of ways, and we’ve sent out suggestions to the stores how to accommodate it and still be safe, but some of them are doing it, some of them aren’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do people like the glass bottle?

Larry Stap:
Well, part of it is the sustainability, they can return it, it’s not filling a landfill, okay? It’s not a plastic jug, it’s not a carton. I always say, a glass bottle is one step above recycling, it’s reusable. And that’s huge, and that’s an ever growing concern in our nation and our world, at least nowadays. You hear about the plastic blobs out on the ocean, and you hear about… see trains and trucks running up and down the road full of garbage, bringing it to landfills. We live in a terrible throw away society, and if one little part that we can do is this, we’re thankful for that. And so that’s why we went to the glass.

Larry Stap:
It also gave us a marketing opportunity that we would not have had otherwise, so it opened a door for us to a lot of stores, for which we give much thanks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, things have really changed. You were talking about recycling, things have really changes recently with plastic too in recent years, where that market just isn’t there anymore, and it’s not necessarily going to China where it was being recycled or who knows what was happening with it there. So that’s been a bit of a wake-up call for-

Larry Stap:
Yeah, you know.

Dillon Honcoop:
[crosstalk 00:33:49] assuming that you keep putting stuff in a disposable jug, I think more and more people are going to be interested in that part of what you guys do.

Larry Stap:
And a lot of it is driven by economics, good, bad or otherwise, but when it costs more to recycle and remake something than what the original is, unless you are driven to pay more for that reused or recycled product, it ain’t going to happen. So that’s why I think you see a lot of… like you say, the plastic has gone downhill, because to recycle the plastic and remanufacture an item is very costly. And when then take, for example, a plastic milk jug is probably… I’ve never looked into it, because I don’t know if they even make such a thing, but probably it would be half price for a new one versus a recycled one. I mean, that has been melted down, and reformed, and all that stuff, so it’s driven by economics.

Larry Stap:
One of the things that kind of always bothers me just a little bit too is, so often it seems like the more stable and necessary an item is in a consumer’s life, the cheaper it has to be. And example is food, people don’t want to pay much for food, but their travel trailers, and their vacations and all that stuff, usually is not too much of a price issue, but well, we can’t pay much for food. And that’s why sometimes I think we need to refocus or priorities-

Dillon Honcoop:
It is the stuff that keeps us alive.

Larry Stap:
That’s right, yeah. That’s right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever think about retiring?

Larry Stap:
As I said earlier, I want to retire. I’m 65, I created this monster, I don’t how to get to away from it yet. But we’re in the process of beginning the stages of planning that out, and how that will all work. So yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you can’t keep up the pace that you’ve done forever.

Larry Stap:
No, and in actuality, I have had the ability to transfer a lot of my responsibilities off already. I mean, I’m not in charge of the processing plant anymore. I go out there and know exactly what’s all going on, but I’m not in charge. Same with my oldest son taking over a lot of the administrative, he’s doing a lot of that. And my son-in-law, he pretty much takes care of the cattle and the land end of it, so I’m starting to shed more, and more of my responsibilities and delegate them out. The hard part is the things that you have built relationships up, and dealt with over all these years, that’s my struggle, is how to transfer that to someone. I mean, my ideal would be to transfer it to a family member, but there’s nobody ready in the wings and waiting to do that, so that’s how we’re… We’re just beginning to have some meetings on how to make that thing work. So yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much for sharing your whole story, and everything that goes into this, it’s fascinating.

Larry Stap:
Thank you, I enjoyed doing it. As I said, we are truly blessed beyond what we deserve.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What an incredible story, right? And people think Twin Brook Creamery is so cool already with their glass bottles, and small farm vibe, and Jersey Cows, and cream-top non-homogenized milk, but when you hear all of that, the human story behind Twin Brook Creamery, it just takes it to the next level of appreciating what goes into that milk that you can buy at the store.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop, and this is the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m really thankful that you’re here, and follow us on social media if you haven’t. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast, so you never miss an episode. We’ve got a lot more ahead, and we’re figuring out ways to get the podcast to keep on going, even in this age of the Coronavirus pandemic. We certainly hope that you are staying safe, and healthy out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Take care everybody, and if you have a little extra time, maybe you’re quarantining, catch up on a few episodes of the podcast as well. This is a great time to do that, and if you do have the time again, make sure to subscribe. Maybe if you have a lot of time, shoot me an email, I’d love to chat. What are your thoughts on local food, and Washington grown food, and farmers, and maybe you have questions that you’d like answered. Maybe I can go dig up a farmer or two who could answer your question, and either get back to you in an email, or talk about it on the podcast. Maybe you’ve got a suggestion of a farm to talk with, or an issue to cover. I would love to hear any of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can email me… Well, you can message me on any of the Real Food Real People social media platforms, right now we’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or you can just email me directly, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. That’s my email address, I get it, it’s on my phone. So anytime you send that I will get it pretty much right a way, unless for some reason my daughters are distracting me or something, but I would really love to hear from you. Again, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Dillon is spelled, D-I-L-L-O-N, by the way. And yes, realfoodrealpeople.org is the website, so go check that out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And just mentioning that reminds me, I need to get blogging too and share some of my own story, and some of the things I’ve been ruminating on and learning, and some of the things going on even behind the scenes as we develop and continue to grow this podcast. So thanks for being a part of this, and we will catch you back here next week.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, and I should also thank our sponsors. Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at safefamilyfarming.org. And by, Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadair.org.