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.

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.

Larry Stap part 1 | #018 04/13/2020

Twin Brook Creamery is famous in Western Washington for their local milk in glass bottles. But have you heard the story of how this family farm defied the odds to become what it is today? Fourth-generation farmer and co-owner Larry Stap reveals what was really happening behind the scenes to make it all work.

Transcript

Larry Stap:
It was a huge risk, and like I said earlier, I don’t know for sure, but I know that we were probably within months of the bank foreclosing on us. It was that close. I know it was.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, Twin Brook Creamery is known in Seattle and all over Western Washington for being the local dairy that has milk in glass bottles, the old-fashioned way. You may have heard of them, but have you heard their story of how they came to be and how they made the transition from more of a traditionally run dairy to the way they do things now? Welcome back to the podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and I’m glad that you’re here. This week we hear from Larry Stap. He’s a fourth-generation family dairy farmer and the co-owner and founder of Twin Brook Creamery in Lynden, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
The story of how they got to where they are now is pretty amazing. We had a really long conversation. We will be sharing it both this week and next in two separate parts. I know I’m getting into the habit of these long conversations that don’t all fit into one week, but there was just so much stuff to cover so much to the story. It’s so much insight to share from a guy who’s been around the block and he’s been doing it for a long time. His family has been doing it that much longer. It’s pretty eye opening to hear from Larry about some different things, why it’s so hard for farms to continue on from one generation to the next. We dig into that issue.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s different about what they do? Why do they do glass bottles? Why are they non-homogenized? How does the whole milk world really work and then about having a vision and taking a risk which applies to farming and anything else that people do, any other business idea? So many of us have ideas but you know struggle with taking that risk and to hear him and his family story about how they approach that is pretty fascinating. They had a vision and they stuck to it. He shares a little bit what was happening on the inside even as they were getting started, how many years it took them to get to where they are now.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast where we share every week with you conversations with real people behind your food here in Washington State. Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a family farm in Northwest Washington as well, not too far from Larry Stap, but a lot of this I had never even heard about the real personal story behind Twin Brook Creamery. Thanks for being here to learn a bit this week and next from Larry Stap.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re probably best known for Twin Brook Creamery.

Larry Stap:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously, you had a farming career before Twin Brook Creamery and we could talk about that too, but talk about making that transition to go from the traditional approach to something that around here at least had never really been tried before. What was that like?

Larry Stap:
Well, the approach that I’ll spend a little bit of time on was the transition from going marketing our milk to a coop to becoming an independent processor. Probably what started it at all was ignorance. We had no idea what we were getting into. It actually all started way back in 2006 when our daughter and son-in-law asked if we could join into the dairy and his youth and enthusiasm, which I greatly appreciate, said, “Instead of milking 200 cows, let’s milk thousand cows or keep on going.” The challenge behind that was we were boxed in as far as real estate didn’t have more land, so we couldn’t really grow.

Larry Stap:
Your barn is going to only hold so much. You only have so much storage for nutrients in the form of lagoons. It would have been a multimillion dollar expansion if we would have done something like that. I’m not opposed to big, don’t get me wrong, but it just didn’t fit into our long-term goals in my head, so I said “Let’s look at doing something different and add value to our raw commodity.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the goal was to keep family involved.

Larry Stap:
That’s right. You’re always excited to keep that next generation involved on the farm because so many of the farms, and I’m guessing two-thirds, maybe even higher, are on their last generation, sad to say. It really is and I’m not saying that that farm will go out of production, but it will probably be absorbed by a neighboring farm or another larger farm or something like that, but anyway, to keep that into the next generation and stay small, you couldn’t do it at existing commodity prices. It would have been a real challenge. It’s not like I had been dairying and was debt free and all the rest of that kind of good stuff.

Larry Stap:
Adding value to our raw commodity, we had no idea what something like that would look like, but we just threw out there everything from bottling our own milk to making yogurt to making cheese to whatever. What we stumbled across, not through any fantastic research or anything like that, but nobody was doing milk in glass bottles and glass returnable bottles.

Dillon Honcoop:
The old way.

Larry Stap:
The old way, the old school. Nobody was making cream top milk, non-homogenized, natural, the way it comes right from the cow. That’s where we started. We started with an estimated budget of $75,000, what we figured it would cost us to get up and running. $250,000 later, we finally bottled our first bottle of milk. It was quite an eye opener.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did that feel like going through that? As the bills and that price keeps getting higher and higher, you got to be thinking “Did we make a mistake here?”

Larry Stap:
Oh, absolutely because the way you’re financing this thing is equity. You’re borrowing from the bank and it’s equity and it’s equity. It just kept going. Part of it was ignorance. Part of it was the regulatory world was not very friendly at times. Some of it, I understand later, was necessary, but it was never communicated that way. It was just like, “It’s my way or the highway,” and that was very frustrating. I can remember one time being so upset that I walked out of the building and went for a walk out in the field to contain myself. It takes a lot to get me upset. I’m a pretty tolerant patient person, okay? I don’t mean that in a bragging way, but that’s the way I’ve just been brought up and learned to handle situations in life.

Larry Stap:
Anyways, that’s the way it started going. We started bottling our own milk, but you don’t instantly find a home for 200 cows’ worth of milk overnight because even if a larger grocery store chain wanted to take your milk on, they don’t know who you are. They don’t know if you’re going to be here tomorrow. They don’t know if you got a quality product. Unbeknownst to us, they were watching us. About two years into it, we started be able to expand into some larger grocery store chains. Once that happened, it just snowballed, but in the process of that time, we started bottling milk in 2007.

Larry Stap:
The first year we broke even was 2012. We sucked equity even faster and faster and faster. Of course, during that time, conventional dairy went down. Economics went down in 2009 and 2010. I never officially know, but I know that we were probably within months, if not days, of being called on by the bank …

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Larry Stap:
… but we knew the market was out there. We didn’t have access to capital because our supply or our orders were starting to exceed our ability to bottle and we were just got a little tiny plant getting started. Northwest Ag Business Center, NABC, stepped up to the plate and really helped us and got some private money. Now, this is the most amazing thing. When we asked for private capital to expand our plant to take care of production needs to fulfill orders, we put a complete financial package in front of them, including all of our losses, many years of losses and put the word out.

Larry Stap:
We sat around a kitchen table individually with about seven different parties and not one of them even questioned, loaning us money privately, even with that history. They caught our vision. They knew it. We borrowed money from a lot of private individuals. We put it on a seven-year note. Two years later, we had them all paid off because we were able to expand it. It was amazing, just absolutely amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Before that, what were you telling yourself to get through? Were you to the point where you’re thinking, “Maybe we bag it”?

Larry Stap:
Not necessarily. We knew we just had to access some capital somehow, and with a crisis going on and the economy and banking industry back at that time, even if they did catch your vision, they just says, “No, it ain’t going to happen.” It was tough, but we never gave up.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like it was because of that vision that you had that was so strong that you weren’t going to give up. Describe that vision at least. What was it at that time?

Larry Stap:
Well, I’ll give you an example of what kept us going. It was our vision, but after I told you, I told you earlier, we got started getting approached by store chains. One day, I get a call. I don’t remember if it’s call or an email, but from QFC store chain, Quality Food Center, out of the Seattle area where their headquarters in Bellevue and they said, “Can we put your glass milk bottle in all our stores?” and I says, “I would dearly love to be able to do that to you, but I don’t have the processing capacity to do that. I believe we got the cows, but I don’t have the processing capacity.”

Larry Stap:
Well, they wouldn’t take no for an answer. What they said was, “Would you start with a few stores and then slowly expand and grow into it?” I said, “Sure.” We started off with seven QFC stores, but that isn’t the end of the story. Here’s the amazing part. One of the things that my wife and I do to promote our farm and promote dairy in general and farming in general is we stand in the grocery store and interact with customers and give out samples. One day, we’re standing in one of the original seven QFC stores and these three gentlemen in black suits and ties come walking through the store with the store manager and you could obviously tell they’re corporate people.

Larry Stap:
I always never pass an opportunity to introduce myself and thank them for allowing us in and they all knew about us a little bit even though it was small at that time. As then, they proceeded on. One of the gentlemen came back and said to me, “Do you want to know why you’re in our store chain?” I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to know why.” Well, he said, “We received an order from Kroger company to look at a glass milk bottle line in your QFC stores because the stores on East Coast that we own have a very successful program in that line of glass.”

Larry Stap:
I said, “Well, I’d greatly appreciate that and I appreciate you taking the time to allow us to grow and expand into it.” One more thing he says, “If I could pay you a little bit more for your milk for a while, would you be able to grow faster into our stores?” I says, “Well, that’s a pretty stupid question to say no to.” For how many months, they increased the price of our milk to us to give us more capital to expand. We took that additional capital we got for a number of months, you take the additional money that we borrowed from the private people as well as a lot of hardworking employees, and next thing you know, we’re in all the QFCs.

Larry Stap:
Then of course, what’s also interesting is these grocery stores don’t like to beat one up to buy another grocery store chain.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was thinking about when you said it snowballed once you got a couple grocery stores.

Larry Stap:
It does. The Haggen caught the vision. QFC caught the vision. Next thing I know, Metropolitan Market has a store chain in Seattle and the Town and Country store chain. What has been so rewarding is how supportive they’ve been to our farm. I can contact the corporate offices of most all those chains. They just think the world of us. We think the world of them. It’s just been a really win-win situation for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
None of this picture that you’re describing is normal.

Larry Stap:
No, it absolutely is not.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s just not the way. Usually, the relationships are adversarial. They’re trying to get the lowest cost they can and what you described with them willing to invest in your operation and allow you to start smaller. Usually, it’s like, “Either you supply this certain need that we want or forget it,” right?

Larry Stap:
Yeah, but you got to think about the landscape that started 10, 15 years ago. Local wasn’t big way back then, but it was on a groundswell of a movement. For a large store chain to get involved local is relatively hard and they saw this as an opportunity, I do believe. The other thing by us putting it in glass milk bottles also was a marketing niche that didn’t compete with other, the plastic jugs or carts, okay? This hopefully would attract another set of customers to them. This is probably the biggest thing that sells it to these stores is the markup on our milk is far exceeding what plastic jug milk markup is and stuff like that.

Larry Stap:
They can actually take a local product, touted as local and make some money on the product that they sell which is absolutely wonderful for them and us. It opened the door. Now, I tell you all these things and I take no credit for it. We have a great faith in our God up above and it was also providentially put in place for us that I looked back at it and I thought I just still can’t believe it to this day. It just blows my mind away how everything. It’s not that we didn’t have struggles and challenges and still do for that matter, but it’s been so rewarding.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you weren’t able to move into that without taking that risk too?

Larry Stap:
Oh, no. It was a huge risk. Like I said earlier, I don’t know for sure, but I know that we’re probably within months of the bank foreclosing on us. It was that close. I know it was. It was just a challenge.

Dillon Honcoop:
After going through all of this, you’ve proven with this that there is a market for locally produced food. In a realm where people probably thought it wasn’t possible, what had the conversations been? What did the traditionalist say about all of this?

Larry Stap:
Well, I have gotten so much support from my local farmers by and large. I have a little market niche that doesn’t cannibalize somebody else’s sales. If I could show you emails that people that just for years haven’t drunk milk for whatever reason and they drink our milk and they’re coming back to it or there’s other little health reasons that they can drink our milk and not maybe some conventional milk and it’s just been so rewarding in that respect. We literally now, as I always say, have been so blessed that we created a monster we can’t get away from, but it’s been a wonderful, wonderful ride without its challenges, I say, but it’s been good and we’ve been blessed.

Dillon Honcoop:
Glass bottles, non-homogenized, explain what are the benefits of these things and how else is your milk different. What is it really that people like?

Larry Stap:
I got my main five points that I tell the customers or any perspective store chains or whatever, but number one, we know the exact source of our milk. It’s not commingled with anybody else’s farms. It’s our milk from our girls. We raise our own young stock. We have what we call a closed herd, a closed milk supply, so we control the quality. Number two, we use what we call low temperature of that pasteurization, okay? It’s a very slow process. We raise the milk up to 145 degrees, have to hold it there for 30 minutes and then we can cool it back down and bottle it.

Larry Stap:
Most all other milk is done at, let’s say 165, maybe 170 for 15 to 30 seconds or your ultra-pasteurize is around 280 and 290 for two seconds. What that low temperature gives us is retaining of the flavor of the milk, just completely different tasting milk. It’s just hard to compare, but it doesn’t cook the flavors out and it also retains some of the enzymes in the milk that higher temperatures cook out. Milk naturally contains a lot of enzymes in it that aid in the digestion. The more of those you can retain, the better the milk will be for your digestive system.

Larry Stap:
Number three is we don’t homogenize. It’s quite amazing that most people, when I say most, a lot of people do not know what’s the difference between pasteurization and homogenization is. To get technical and try to explain homogenization is, I come up with a very simple way to explain it to the consumers. When milk comes from a cow, it consists primarily of two things butter fat or cream and skim. The butterfat or cream is a larger particle than the skim and it will naturally float to the top of the skim. When you’ve heard of the sayings, “The cream of the crop,” or “The cream rises to the top,” that’s where that comes from.

Larry Stap:
Homogenization is a process that puts it through a machine at 2,000 to 3,000 psi and smashes or breaks that particle into a smaller particle and then it will stay suspended in the skim. We do not do that process. We leave it natural, so the-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your milk will separate?

Larry Stap:
Your milk will separate, so you can do one of two things. When you buy a bottle of milk from us, you can spoon the cream off and put it in your coffee or whatever you feel like doing or you just shake it back in and reincorporate it back in. Another thing that we do is glass does not alter the taste of milk. It’s an impermeable surface, you might say. There’s been some discussion on light taste alteration, but we really don’t ever get any feedback on customers for that at all. It will sit on a shelf for a couple of weeks under light and still tastes just fine.

Larry Stap:
Then, the third or one of the fifth thing that I talked about is we milk the jersey breed cows, the little brown ones, okay? They produce less volume of milk than the traditional black-and-white Holstein which is probably 90% of the dairy cows in the United States. What makes their milk different is the lower volume they produce but they also produce what we call a higher solid content. Now, milk is primarily made up of water which has no flavor, but the solids in the milk is what gives milk its flavor. To give you an idea of how much more solids are in the milk, a general rule of thumb goes like this, when you make cheese, all you’re doing is extracting the solids out of the milk.

Larry Stap:
You’re coagulating together with cultures and then the white, the whey or the water flows off. If you take 10 pounds of Holstein milk, the general yield is around one pound of cheese. You take 10 pounds of Jersey milk, the yield is around 1.5 pound of cheese. You’re talking 50% more yield. Now step back again and think about what I just said, flavor, where does the flavor come from? The solids, so when you have a higher solids content in your milk, you’re going to have a more flavorful milk. Then people have asked me, “Why do not more farmers bottle jersey milk or why the processes are not bottle more jersey milk and make it a more flavorful milk?”

Larry Stap:
It’s all driven by USDA pricing. A fluid milk has to meet a certain minimum solids content in the grocery store. If you exceed that, you’re in no way compensated by the milk pricing system. The incentive is to put in to the bottle or the jug the minimum, generally speaking, and for high-yield milk such as the colored breeds, we call them jersey, Guernsey stuff like that, the incentive is for those to go to cheese vats, powder plants, cottage cheese, ice cream because the yield is greater and that’s where they get compensated. That sets us apart. We had the jersey cows and that’s what we bottled and it also became part of our marketing niche.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do people say in the grocery store? I know like you explain this so well because I know you’ve done that thousands of times like you’re talking about earlier visiting stores and actually meeting your customers in person. What do they say?

Larry Stap:
Probably the biggest reward of going to the grocery stores is this, they’ll start talking to me and then they’ll ask me, “Well, do you work for the farm?” Then, I says, “Well, no. We along with our daughter and son-in-law and the bank, we own the farm.”

Dillon Honcoop:
And the bank.

Larry Stap:
It is a whole different appearance that comes right on their face like they actually cannot believe they’re talking with the farmer himself. That is so huge to me, not in a prideful way, but it reinforces the fact that we as farmers need to connect with the consumers. When we do, they just appreciate it that it’s not coming in secondhand information from some other party. Even a hired employee as well as they could probably do it, but when we do it ourselves, the consumer just makes that incredible bond. It’s j fun to watch. It’s fun to be a recipient on that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of questions come up usually?

Larry Stap:
There’s so many different questions and I always say the questions are reflective of what’s going in the internet at that time like calves, “How do you take care of your calves? Is your milk A1 or A2? Are your cows grass fed?” and stuff like that and you have the opportunity then to really educate people. I’ll give you an example. People say, “Are your cows grass fed?” and I says, “You bet they are, but how do you think we feed them grass in the middle of winter when it’s not growing?” Well, they drop their jaw like, “Well, I never thought such a thing.”

Larry Stap:
Then, that opens the door to explain to them how we harvest grasses during a summer. We put it in storage in the form of hay and silage. If they don’t know what silage is, I’ll explain to them, but that’s grass fed year around. It maybe not green and fresh, but they get grass year round that way, you see, and it just helps to educate consumer. It gives me great joy in doing that, not just to promote our own farm but to promote agriculture and dairy specifically in general. Never, never run down anybody else’s farm. Every farm does it different. Everybody has their own way of farming, the way they process their milk. That’s fine. The way they ship their milk, whatever, like to dispel a lot of myths about big farms because there’s a lot of misinformation about that.

Larry Stap:
Just tell them, “About 98% of all dairy farms, big or small, are owned by families. Most people have no idea. They just think it’s big corporate. How they care for their cows, every farm does a little bit different. I happen to do it this way, but if my neighbor does it this way and he takes good care of his cows, so be it. So be it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean, take good care of your cows? How can you tell if somebody is doing the right thing or not?

Larry Stap:
Well, just stop back and think about the cows. The girls on a farm are producing milk for you, which you have the opportunity to sell, which makes a living for you. Why would you not properly take care of your source of income. Now, that taken care of has all different aspects to it, but to say that farmers just abuse their cows or get by with whatever they can, he’s going to go out of business. He won’t be around. Even if he is, he’s going to get in trouble probably with things like regulators and stuff for other aspects of his farm.

Larry Stap:
If he has an attitude of not wanting to take care of his cows, he’s probably got not a good attitude about wanting to take care of the environment and that kind of stuff. That’s not the general way at all of dairy farmers, big or small. Almost all of them are very responsible. They’re stewards. We’re probably one of the few farms in the world that actually has a mission statement and it drives us, but it’s very reflective of most farms. Our mission statement goes like this, “We are a family-owned and operated dairy that exists to glorify God through the stewardship of the land and the animals that he’s entrusted to our care in the best way possible.”

Larry Stap:
Most farms probably do that, okay? They just don’t have a mission statement, but that’s the way most farms operate. Do they do it perfectly? No. Do I do it perfectly? No, but we try just like anybody else tries to take care of the environment in this world.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been mentioning the environment. How do you approach that realm? There’s a lot of criticism out there that in general, commercial dairy farming, which you do is bad for the environment.

Larry Stap:
It’s all based in ignorance. Once you start educating the consumer about it, most of that badness, lack of a better word, goes away. One of the things I like to talk about too is the soil amendment of choice for crops to grow and I don’t care if it’s grass, if it’s corn, if it’s vegetables, the soil amendment of choice is manure. That is the nutrient of choice, right? You can go to the grocery store and buy bags of steer manure or steer compost or whatever and that is the perfect soil amendment.

Larry Stap:
Soil is a living organism just like a cow and you need to maintain soil health to grow high-quality crops, so that you can feed high-quality feed to your cows, calves, whatever. It’s all a reflection of stewardship again. Like I say, once you explain to whose ever questioning you or challenging you, it starts to make perfect sense. I’ve often said too that there’s a lot of people that are vegan by choice and that’s fine. I says, “Number one, we live in a free country where you have that choice. Be thankful because in a lot of places in the world, they don’t have that choice. Number two, I’m never going to run you down on your choice. I will never speak badly of you, but do not do the same for me.”

Larry Stap:
I’m making this choice here and I go back into, “What is the soil amendment choice of all the produce and products you like to eat that are nonanimal agriculture oriented?” Animal agriculture provides the majority of the nutrients that are needed for optimum soil health. Commercial fertilizers can supplement it very well, but manure has the source of bacteria and organic material that so many commercial fertilizers cannot provide. Now, there’s a lot of farms that are not blessed with access to the nutrients.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which by the way, we are on a working farm, and on a working farm, it’s not just the barn where things keep going. It’s in the house too, right? Technically, this is … When I’d interviewed you on a different issue in the past, this is the corporate office, right?

Larry Stap:
Yeah. It all started one time when United Way called us and asked if they could make a presentation for participation on our farm with United Way. The young lady that I was talking to on the phone, she says, “And what is the address of your corporate office?” and I says, “9728 Double Ditch Road, Kitchen Table.” That to this day has been a fun little thing that I always tell, the kitchen table is our corporate office and that’s where our business takes place. That’s where we do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right here.

Larry Stap:
Right here.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the real deal and that’s true for so many family farms.

Larry Stap:
It is. It is very true. You can have an office in the barn or whatever, but the office in the barn usually gets dirty and there’s barn boots in it and there’s dust and there’s dirt and all that kind of stuff, but the real business takes place, well, actually two places, on the hood of the pickup or on the kitchen table.

Dillon Honcoop:
Leaning over the hood of the pickup, getting caught up on the news or making a deal or-

Larry Stap:
Signing papers, whatever.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about, you described making this decision, taking this risk to go from more of a traditional system on your farm to independent marketing of your product, direct sales to the consumer with a glass product and all these things that we’ve just discussed. That was a decision you made in large part to keep your family involved in this business, your daughter and son-in-law.

Larry Stap:
That’s correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s especially important to you guys because of the history of this farm and your family though, right? What is this, four generations now, five?

Larry Stap:
Well, I was born and raised on this dairy farm. It was established by my great grandfather in 1910, so I currently am fourth generation. Our daughter and son-in-law represent the fifth generation and they have six children, especially the oldest one, he’s 15 and he eats, sleeps, breathes cows, so we’re well onto generation hopefully number six. He’s got such a passion for cows and pedigrees and all that stuff. I hope we can keep him on the farm or we don’t lose him because some stud farm or something like that, that appreciates people like him, but he’s a fantastic kid, a hard worker, stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
I drove by one of your fields on the way here and it looked like he was out driving tractor.

Larry Stap:
Oh, yeah. They’re loving the fact that there’s no school.

Dillon Honcoop:
What a world that we live in with COVID and everything that’s changed.

Larry Stap:
Apart from the fact that there is no school with this whole thing, they are homeschooled. They have the flexibility too. If they can get their schoolwork done at home on time and they can get on the tractor or they can get out in the barn and stuff like that, there’s some real incentives or even coming over here to grandpa and grandma’s place. They know that they can’t come here until their schoolwork is done, so it’s a good driver in a lot of ways.

Dillon Honcoop:
But then a lot education happens on the farm too.

Larry Stap:
Oh, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know that because I did the same thing.

Larry Stap:
I can ask, “What are you guys studying today or something, you oftentimes can give living examples on the farm or what’s going on and stuff like that. Everything from math to geography, you name it. It can all be shared as you’re working, side by side.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re fourth generation. How did you get started? Go back to when you were a kid. How did you work into it? How did this farm evolve during your time?

Larry Stap:
I worked beside my dad all the time. Never probably really considered it work. You went out, did chores. It was part of your responsibilities growing up. You maybe didn’t like it sometimes, maybe you did. That was just part of my life. When I graduated from high school, which my parents were really thankful I did, because I hated school, I had no passion. I then worked for a John Deere dealership right here in town for about five years and then started farming. Pretty much, I’ve never looked back since. I started in 1979, worked with my father-in-law for a couple of years and we branched out onto our own.

Larry Stap:
There’s been a lot of twists and turns and hiccups in the whole process over the years, but a supportive wife who probably does as much on chores in the farm, then our kids helped us. It just kept going, but I learned a lot from multi-generations in front of me. My grandpa was on a farm when I was a little kid here and you can see his work ethic, and then, you watched my dad’s work ethic. I’ve tried to mimic that in a lot of ways and pass that on to our children and keep it going. That’s the goal. The other thing that has come really home and center is that when it’s time to pass to generation or the farm onto the next generation, you make it financially feasible for that next generation to keep it going.

Larry Stap:
Greed is not part of the philosophy of farming. If greed was part of it, we could have sold our land years ago for many thousands of dollars more and moved on and done different things, but that’s not part of the mental makeup and the heritage that I’ve inherited and I hope to pass on.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talked earlier about a lot of farms are not able to go on. Often, that is because the kids, the next generation, they don’t want to do it, right?

Larry Stap:
That is so true and you can’t blame them. If you don’t love farming and cows, there’s an easier way to make a living. It’s just plain and simple. I don’t believe that a lot of your 8:00-to-5:00 jobs are ever going to give you as much reward as 10 or 12 or 14-hour a day on a farm seven days a week with a dairy especially, but I was so blessed to have a son-in-law who asked to join in a dairy. He was raised on a dairy. His dad quit when he’s 13. He was working an 8:00-to-5:00 job, was within hours of being a licensed electrician, okay? He’s working for an electrician and then he asked if he could join in the farm.

Larry Stap:
I said, “Well, you’re welcome to join, but you have to finish to get your license first, so that’s your backup if you bail.” He has never looked back on that. He spins long days, long hours, just scrape out a living here on the farm. He’s not only putting long hours in, but it’s not inside. It’s oftentimes out in the elements to fight northeasters or blistering hot heat or schedules that can’t be met or dealing with the regulatory world or on and on it goes. There’s just a whole raft of stuff that he could have chose to go away from and he didn’t. For that, we’re so thankful.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why did he choose that?

Larry Stap:
You’ll have to ask him. I cannot speak for him.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, he must have a passion.

Larry Stap:
I think he does. He recognizes the value of raising a family on a farm. This gives them an opportunity to homeschool and have a farm and it reinforces your schooling and stuff and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Be together as a family, rather than a part most of the day.

Larry Stap:
Yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s why I was homeschooled until I went to fifth grade. With farms struggling to move onto the next generation, though, sometimes it is that the kids want to do it, but it’s not necessarily possible too.

Larry Stap:
Yeah, the generation that wants to pass it on sometimes may not be in the financial position to do that. Farming is not easy. It’s not a life where you’d pay down debt real fast because you usually wind up paying down some debt and then this comes along and you got to borrow money for that or the milk prices tank or economy or whatever. Sometimes, yeah, it just does not work out financially. I think more than the financial part is the fact that the kids watch their dad work and work hard and work hard to put groceries on the table and not have big 401Ks and stocks and bonds and all the rest of stuff. Just work and they says, “I don’t need to do that. It doesn’t interest me. My passion isn’t like my dad or my grandpa,” and so they move on.

Larry Stap:
There’s even some younger families that I know of that, when I say younger they’re in their 50s probably, that have kids that are on the farm with them, but it just doesn’t work out financially to move it on to the next generation. That may sound strange, but until you’re actually in the trenches on a farm and know what it takes for capital and you don’t just buy a tractor and have a tractor the rest of your life. It depreciate out and it wears out. Then, you need to buy another one or your milking equipment wears out or you got to upgrade this and it takes a lot of money, just us.

Dillon Honcoop:
But if a farm is operating, why can’t it just move on to that next generation? If the parents are running it, why aren’t the kids able to keep running that same thing? What happens in between?

Larry Stap:
Well, you think about the parents who put their blood, sweat and tears and that they probably got some equity built up into it. Oftentimes, the equity that is a farm has is their savings. When they decide to quit farming, they don’t have a big savings account. They have an equity account. If that equity account is not big enough to finance the next generation, it just can’t happen and a bank is certainly not going to just step right up and finance the next generation, bank to their credit, lend money, but banks don’t take on a lot of risk either. If mom and dad aren’t going to co-sign, let’s say for the next generation, they maybe can’t do it. Even if they did co-sign, sell it to the next generation, mom and dad need an income to live.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s their retirement.

Larry Stap:
That’s their retirement. All of a sudden, you got a bank payment and payment on mom and dad to borrow the rest of the money. It’s just a financial hit. It’s a challenge.

Dillon Honcoop:
Once they get taxed on that …

Larry Stap:
They get taxes on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
… transaction as well, right?

Larry Stap:
Yup, so it’s not easy. It definitely is not easy.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When you hear the backstory and what goes on behind the scenes, the financial challenges, it makes it seem not much more daunting to keep family farming going. Sometimes, it feels like the odds are just stacked against it, but at the same time, what they’ve done there at Twin Brook Creamery is an inspiration, that it is possible to think outside the box, do something different. Next week, the conversation continues. That was just part one. We get into more of the real personal challenges and some of the hardest times they’ve faced on Larry’s steps farm including the loss of his son and so much more.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s an incredible conversation. You won’t want to miss it next week. Thank you for being here. Thank you for supporting us. We sure would appreciate it if you share the podcast with a friend. Pass it on in your social media if you can. Share it on Facebook or on Instagram or on Twitter or on those platforms, rfrp_podcast is the handle, so check it out, subscribe as well. It just helps us bring this conversation to a wider and wider audience. Again, we thank you for your support just being here today.

Dillon Honcoop:
I should also thank our sponsors Real Food, Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Lydia Johnson | #015 03/23/2020

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Right, yep.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is Ethel, Washington?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Or a cowgirl.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Upper hand how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, that’s amazing.

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

Lydia Johnson:
For sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you think about staying with dairy?

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
The valley, yeah.

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

Lydia Johnson:
Right outside, so.

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

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

Lydia Johnson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you do with that?

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Probably team roping. Probably team roping.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
I intend to. I do.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So other than keeping rodeoing-

Lydia Johnson:
Rodeoing, yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
To keep feral horses from reproducing?

Lydia Johnson:
Reproducing, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not humane.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a mouthful.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You mean Bachelor of Science?

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that do to farming here?

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How did it taste?

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, thank you.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
It’s a long one.

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

Lydia Johnson:
Time Out Saloon.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Saloon.

Lydia Johnson:
In Kittitas, Washington, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much.

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Newhouse | #008 02/03/2020

Despite facing major health problems, Jessica Newhouse remains passionate about continuing her family's century-old dairy farm in Eastern Washington. She opens up about her journey from growing up in what she calls the "concrete suburbs" of Portland to becoming a family farmer near Yakima.

Transcript

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And they basically open and remove part of the bony projections on your individual vertebrae to make room for these titanium rods that stretch from, like I said, the base of my neck to about my waist.

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

Dillon Honcoop (host):
She’s faced major health problems and still battles chronic pain, but continues to keep supporting her family’s century-old dairy farm. This week I talk with eastern Washington dairy farmer Jessica Newhouse about her journey from her childhood in what she calls the concrete suburbs of Portland, Oregon to farming with her husband and has family near Yakima. Her passion for what she does, and her determination to overcome huge obstacles is so inspiring, and I’m sure that you’ll enjoy our conversation as we continue to get to know the real people behind our food. I’m Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a family farm in northwest Washington and I’m on a mission to discover and share the real life stories of our region’s farming community here on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I started 2019 pregnant, and all the sudden in February, I started getting nerve pain in my legs and pretty soon it got to the point where I wasn’t able to pick up my toes on my right foot. It started progressing and I started getting more weakness in my right leg, and then it started going to my left leg, and my surgeon … Everybody just has a surgeon that they talk to, right? I have a outstanding issue of scoliosis, and so when I was pregnant, he was saying, “Well, it could be nerve entrapment from your bones just carrying the weight of your pregnancy.” He’s like, “So we might need to do this surgery that we’ve been contemplating while you’re pregnant.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yikes. Scary.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I was like, “Okay, that’s not just me. That’s my unborn child going through surgery.” Then things started progressing really fast, and so they … I don’t know how much detail you want to go into, but-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Whatever’s good for you.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, and so he wanted me to come in for an emergency MRI, so I had a two-and-a-half-hour MRI, which that zaps so much energy out of you, just trying to lay still. And so at that time, with things the way they were progressing, they thought it was Guillain-Barré, which is an autoimmune disorder. So they moved away from my spine and started suspecting Guillain-Barré, which apparently affects pregnant women a lot. And so that’s an autoimmune condition where your nerve cells biochemically have a similar signature to the common cold, and then it starts attacking your nerve cells so you progressively start losing nerve function in your body. We were literally in the ER in Pasco and they said to us, they said, “Well, don’t go anywhere. We’re going to see where we can transfer you,” and I was like, “I’m going home. I came here for an MRI,” and I’m pregnant and I’m freaking out.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
No kidding.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Meanwhile my husband’s eating Panda Express just like, “We’re going to take it as it comes.” I was like, “Okay.” But anyway, they thought it was Guillain-Barré, and so they discharged us from Pasco and said, “Here’s your transfer paperwork.” They hadn’t told us Guillain-Barré yet, but they said, “You need to drive up to Spokane right now, to Sacred Heart. If you start feeling like you can’t breathe, pull over and call 9-1-1.” And-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You’re kidding me. And you’re like, “Why aren’t you hauling me in an ambulance?”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Well, they wanted to fly me to Seattle, but insurance didn’t want to cover it and we didn’t have flight insurance. That would be $40,000.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Oh man.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So we were like, “Screw it, we’ll drive.” And meanwhile, I’m sitting there going, “This is an episode of Dr. House, the show from …” And I was like, “I can’t feel my legs.” That’s such a common thing on that show and I’m like, “What is happening to me?”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So we get to Spokane and I was in a room, seeing a physician. I couldn’t move anything lower than my hips, so they’re like, “We need to get you to ICU and start this treatment.” Meanwhile, I’m 16 weeks pregnant and they’re saying, “If you start feeling it in your thumbs and then in your fingers, the next thing to go is going to be your ability to breathe so then we would need to intubate you.” So I’m trying to process all of this information in less than 24 hours.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So then we go down to ICU and they’re prepping the treatments and everything. Treatment only takes a week, maybe two, but because it progresses so fast and they don’t know to what extent it will progress to, they were like, “You could be in the hospital nine months, just relearning how to walk and how to do basic things.” So I’m trying to process all this. We’re in ICU about to do the treatment, and there’s, like, seven doctors standing around me going, “Hmm, huh, hmm.” And one of them says, “Let’s do a nerve conduction study in her legs just to make sure before we start this.” And I remember looking at them going, “Yeah, I vote for that option.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So they do a nerve study and they find that my nerves are able to receive the appropriate signal, and from the MRI, they’re seeing that my brain is able to send the appropriate signal, but for some reason, it’s like the signal was being transmitted and the receivers were going, “Where’s the signal?” but they were just on different planes. So I spent a week in Spokane at Sacred Heart, and then I spent a week in Spokane at St. Luke’s doing physical therapy right alongside people that had just had a stroke or an embolism of some kind, basically doing the same thing that they were doing, which is just relearning how to walk and retraining those nerves to fire again

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So what was it? It wasn’t this Guillain-Barré thing?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No. They say that it was a … How did they put it? They said it was a conversion disorder. So that for some reason, there was some stress or trigger that triggered my brain with the excess stress that my brain couldn’t handle. My brain, instead of just saying, “Hey, I’m really stressed, I’m really anxious,” it says, “No, we’re just going to quit doing this function.” Apparently it can happen with walking. If people get super stressed, they can go blind with conversion disorder.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s just this unexplained chemical but physical miscommunication.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Is it super rare?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I don’t know if it’s super rare. I mean, I guess it’s not rare because at St. Luke’s where I was at, they have a whole unit for conversion disorder.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s not like they see one every day, but …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So had you been under a huge amount of stress? Or was it something to do with pregnancy, or …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think the only huge stress at that point was contemplating, “Okay, I might have to have major spinal surgery when I’m pregnant.” I think that was a huge part of it. I don’t want to cast blame or anything, but I think a lot of it was work, too. You’re trying to … with a … Gosh, what was he? One and a half at that point? A one-and-a-half year old an then trying to raise him and balance family and work. Then you’ve got your own structural anomalies that you’re trying to handle, and yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So yeah, what was going on … I mean, you say work. That means the farm.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right, the farm.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What was going on at the farm at that time?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, what isn’t going on? Well, it was right after the blizzard, so that was all right around the beginning of February, so it was right after that big blizzard, freak snowstorm that we had, so we were handling that. A lot of it was a lot … Our dairy farm is … How do I correctly phrase this? We are the longest continually family-run dairy in the Yakima Valley. 101 years now, maybe it’s 102. So I think my husband and I feel this huge pressure to do what we love but also maintain this farm that has lasted for so long. We really like to call it a legacy farm, not that we like to tout ourselves, but …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So yeah, the farm itself, I think, is in a little bit of a transition with the owners currently reaching an age where they’re … I don’t think talking about age or potential retirement is comfortable for anybody.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, for sure.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So I think it’s this situation where we’re needing to navigate that, and what happens to the farm because of that. Meanwhile, we keep going and we keep doing what we need to do.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Does that freak you out?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It does. It does. Sometimes it feels like this David and Goliath kind of situation. You feel like you’re kind of sitting here going, “Okay, I really like cows. I really like to milk cows. I really like being a dairy farmer.” And then you look at this oncoming wave of, okay, there’s societal pressures, there’s economic pressures. Does what I see for the farm jive with what the current owners see for the farm, and how do we navigate this and find a balance with those and then see at our current size, will we be able to survive with everything getting more expensive? It’s a whole host of things.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So how does the arrangement work with the owners, and how did you guys … You and your husband, you’re both involved with the farm, right?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yes. Yeah. He’s more of the handyman. He’s not purely a handyman, but he … If anything breaks, that’s usually … If one of our employees come to me and says, “Hey, this is broken,” if it’s not a simple plug and go, I call him and he goes and fixes it. He’s really technically savvy. I am human resources and then cow records. So basically, anything clerical for the farm with the exception of payroll and taxes, that’s me. I like to get out with the cows more, as much as I can, but all the-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
If you do, what do you do with the cows?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We move cows. I basically help train our employees how to understand how a cow sees her world and be able to effectively communicate with them.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You can talk to cows?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Well, not talking. But, I mean, you can. I mean, I call them … So whenever I move cows, like if I’m helping some guys milk in the barn, I usually call them sis or mama. Because being a mom, I understand. But yeah, no, a lot of it is understanding how she sees … so how she literally sees and how she hears her world and paying attention to those physical cues for her. Because you can move … And it’s all about asking a cow how to move. You’re not telling, you’re not demanding. You are asking her, and just by standing there with your hands in your pockets and if you’re just paying attention to how she’s using her senses to view her world, you can ask her to do things and she’ll do what you would like her to do.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Like move.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, like move forward or move backwards. It’s all about applying … just your presence next to her, if positioned correctly, invokes pressure on her “bubble.” Every cow as this comfort bubble, and if you move-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Every human does, too.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. Some are larger than others.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Some are a little too small, the close talkers.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right. I know a couple of those.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Are there cows that are like close talkers?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. Some cows are like, “Hey, I’m going to share my opinion with you,” and others are like, “Nah, you stay over there. We’re good.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So how did you get to be in this position on this farm? It’s not your farm. You don’t own it.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, no, no.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So how did both you and your husband end up there?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Well, my husband’s been … if he were here, he would probably correct me … but I think since he was 10 he was working on the farm. I don’t know when he started getting paid, but I know that he started working on the farm …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I know how that goes.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. So he’s been working on the farm since he was a kid and we actually met up at WSU in Pullman. I grew up in Portland. I like to call it the concrete suburbs, where your neighbor was literally close talking right next to you, you lived that close with each other.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you didn’t grow up on a farm.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Absolutely not. No. And I never thought I would end up here, but I love it. I absolutely love it.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you meet at WSU.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You meet this farmer guy who’s now your husband, and how does it go from there?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh gosh. We knew each other in our Animal Science 101 class. We were at the sheep lab and there’s this pen with this one ram, which is a male sheep, for lack of a better term. And so they asked for two volunteers and he hops in … and I feel so bad saying this, but he hops in and I’m like, “Man, this guy needs help.” So I just hop in there with him. You have to understand, I had sat in the front of the class for all the lectures. He was in the back making wisecracks, just kind of paying attention, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go in and help this guy.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So we get in the pen … and I don’t know whether you want the PG version or whether you want the little more scientific analytical version of this. Anyway. So the lab director says, “Do you know what you’re doing today?” And my husband says, “No, you haven’t told us yet.” And that’s when I knew. I was like, “This guy’s quick. He puts things together really fast in his head.” And he said, “Well here, take this tape measure.” So he gives my husband the tape measure. Meanwhile, this ram is still standing here. And I can see the writing on the wall, what we’re doing, and my husband takes the tape measure, he’s like, “So what are we going to do?” And the lab leader says, “You’re going to measure the reproductive efficiency of this ram by measuring his testicular circumference.” I’m like, “Okay, we’re doing this.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And so my husband … my non-boyfriend at the time … looked at the tape measure and looked at me and then just without a word hands me the tape measure.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you didn’t even really know each other at all?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, we didn’t know each other at all. We knew of each other, but we didn’t know each other.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And here you are about to measure a sheep’s … together.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, private parts. And he looks at the tape measure, looks at me, and without a word just hands it to me. And I’m like, “All righty. I guess we’re doing this.” So he basically then volunteered to just hold the ram, make sure he wasn’t going anywhere, and I got on my hands and knees and did the dirty work. Then I think it was either that day or the next day that he knew some people that lived on my floor in the dorm and he brought over a Costco lasagna and I kind of crashed their party, and then we just started hanging out from then on. Then, gosh, over time it evolved into … He started working at the Dairy Center at WSU and then I quickly followed suit and started working there. Then he started living there in the apartment above the parlor, so when I would finish with calf chores and it was so cold in the winter, I knew I had a place. I was like, “Okay, I can go upstairs and I can cuddle and get warm before my first class.” So there were perks to that.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
This is before or after you were official?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We were dating at the time.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Oh, okay.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We were officially dating. It was Facebook official. But no, so … gosh. So then we worked there together and then we got engaged a year before we graduated. At that time, we both … I think it was kind of unspoken at first that we were going to come back to the dairy. He kind of told me after we started dating, like, “Hey, my family has a dairy farm.” And by that time, I knew that I wanted to be in dairy. I didn’t go to WSU thinking that I was going to be in dairy. When I was growing up, I always felt more connected with animals than I did with people. Not that I’m not a people person, I love people, but I just felt like I had a stronger comfort level with animals.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So I knew from early on that I wanted to go to vet school, and my dad and my uncle and my grandpa all went to Oregon State, and my personality is, “Oh, well if you guys are all going to do that, I’m going to do the exact opposite. I just need out. I need to go somewhere else.” And so on an offhand comment, somebody had said, “Oh, WSU up in Pullman has a great vet school.” I’m like, “Sold, sign me up. Go.” And it was the drive up there when I was going to move up to the dorms that I realized, “Oh, there’s nothing out here.” I’m like, “What did I do?”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
But I moved in and I was so naïve in a way. We started classes and I was like, “I’m going to work on cats and dogs.” If, by all means, that’s what you want to do and that’s what you want to go to vet school for, awesome, super. WSU’s a great place for it. But then the … I guess I should have gone the biology route maybe if I-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Because you started getting into the science.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, because we went into animal science and I think one of the first labs that we did was at the dairy farm there in Pullman and I don’t know, I just got hooked.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So when you say, “the dairy farm,” that’s WSU’s?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
WSU has a dairy farm, not Dairy Center. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And so that’s where students run the whole thing, basically told.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Basically, yeah. It’s-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Learn the trade and try different stuff and …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, yeah. It’s a Dairy Center that WSU has had for … oh gosh, I don’t know how long. Decades. And then the milk from all of the cows at WSU goes to the creamery there on campus, so they make …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So that-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
… Cougar Gold cheese and the Ferdinand’s ice cream and all that good stuff.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Somebody hasn’t had Cougar Gold before.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Who? You?

Dillon Honcoop (host):
No, I’m saying if someone has.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, if someone hasn’t.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
They need to go out and find themselves … I think you can order it online or something.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
You can order it online.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You got to try that.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I want to-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Stuff is incredible.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I want to say we actually … In the dorms, you have this dining hall account, and if you have any surplus at the end of the year, it goes poof, it disappears, or you can use it up. All the sudden, my boyfriend at the time, my now husband, comes in and he’s like, “I bought 16 cans of Cougar Gold.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Wow.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And we still have them in our fridge six, seven years later, so they age really nice.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, what’s it like-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So if you want a can before you leave, you can.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s it like after it’s aged that long? Does it get sharper and sharper?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think so. I think a little bit. I think it depends on what variety you’re putting in there that’s in the can. I don’t know if Crimson Fire, which is a more spicy version of one of the cheeses that they make … I don’t think it gets spicier. I think it just gets more sharp, but it’s really good. It’s really good.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So going way back to the health stuff, you had this nerve thing going on. They figure out it’s this … Now, what was it called again?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
They figure out that it’s not Guillain-Barré.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Right it was a-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And that it was the conversion disorder.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Conversion disorder.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Was there any risk to your still-in-the-womb baby at that point?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No. No, that was purely just me.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So what were they saying about the pregnancy at that point? Everything was good?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, she was doing fine. And so after spending two weeks up in Spokane, came home and they said, “Oh, well this should never happen again,” and I’m like, “Excellent, great. Cross that off the bucket list.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yuck.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And so we come home and just get back to work and doing everything, and she was due in July, I think. Then I went in … Fast forward months and months and months and our daughter ends up showing up six weeks ahead of schedule. Our big thing at that point was that her lungs were well enough developed that she could breathe on her own. And Lord almighty, did she come out screaming. So that’s when I knew. I’m like, “Okay, lungs are good. I don’t know what else is wrong, but lungs are fine.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So yeah, she was on room air. She didn’t need supplemental oxygen at all. Her main hurdle in getting released from the NICU was just learning how to eat. She was in a huge rush to get here, and then we spent 44 days up in the NICU. Month and a half.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
44 days in the hospital.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Or jail, depending on how you want to look at it. That is one of the … yeah, one of the hardest things.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What was that like? That has to be brutal.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Brutal, brutal. It was hard for me and it was hard for my husband, too, because she just wasn’t real. She’s real to the point where you’ve had your baby, they let me hold her for a couple minutes before they had to take her to the NICU, and then I could hold her afterwards, but she just didn’t feel real. I mean, you prep your home and you think, “Oh, the crib’s ready, the sheets are on it, everything’s ready to go,” and you have your baby and then you come home and your baby’s not here. And you’re just sitting here going, “Wait, where’s my baby?” And it was hard-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So she was in the NICU …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Correct

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… in Tri-Cities 45 minutes away, and you were having to come home.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I would go every day. I’d try to be there for .. I would take our son to daycare, and that’s where he normally went so that I could go to work. I would take him to daycare, drive 45 minutes to go see her, be there for two or three feedings, and then be back in time to pick him up and then come home, and then do it all over again 44 days in a row.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Who was covering all your stuff on the farm?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
My husband. It got him out of harvest equipment. He got to be the office lady for a little bit. He liked it. But-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And who took care of the harvest equipment, then?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Our dairy’s a unique situation where we dairy, but we also do custom harvesting. So for our own cows, we harvest 1000 acres randomly dispersed throughout the area, and it grows corn, we grow alfalfa, we grow triticale. I don’t think we grow any other form of grass. And so we do that. In spring and in fall, we have to harvest our own feed for our own cows, milk cows day in and day out. There’s no seasonality in that. And then we do custom harvesting for other farms, too.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So your daughter was born super early, but that wasn’t it for 2019 and its health issues for you, right?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, no. So-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
The punches kept coming.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, yeah. It was crazy. When she came home, I did a few weeks with … I think I was home with our son for two, maybe three months. He was actually coming to the dairy with me and I would actually clear off a bunch of records off my desk and he would sit in his little chair on my desk. And talk about … I have a boss. I mean, my boss is my father-in-law because he’s the owner. But talk about somebody staring at you being like, “Are you going to get your work done today?” A two month old just kind of doing nothing, staring at you. But he ended up going to daycare so I could work full time, and so with our daughter being technically a preemie … a healthy preemie, but a preemie … I stayed home with her for a few weeks, and then I was like, “I need to get back to work. I can’t do this. I love you but I need to get back to the cows.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So then we went back to work and I started having a lot of pain that I had had after our son was born, a lot of the nerve pain and a lot of pain right in my hip. I was like, “Great, this pain is back.” And going backwards, after my son was born, they found that my lowest lumbar vertebrae is compressing the inner vertebral disc … kind of the spongy cushion that it shares with my sacrum … and so that disc was pushing on my sciatic nerve, causes the sciatica. So I had-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Not a nice thing, if anybody’s experienced that kind of pain.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, no, it’s like fire just running through your legs. So I had an epidural steroid injection for that, which relieved the pain, and then I got pregnant. Then with the limited real estate of the human body, everything kind of went, “Okay, we’re going to stay in this position because we have to carry a baby.” So then when our daughter was born, everything had more room to relax and loosen, so then all that pain started coming back. So I had another X-ray done, thinking that we would have another injection, only to find out that my scoliosis has gotten a lot worse, which opened a whole other host of issues.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Now, scoliosis, that’s something you find out you have when you’re a kid, right? If I remember.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I think it was fifth grade, they were doing scoliosis screening …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, and see, they never-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… and this awkward thing where you had to take your shirt off and they had to look at your back and it’s like, okay.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I think thy gathered everybody up in the gym for that and they’re like, “Hey, everybody …” obviously boys with boys and girls with girls. But I had been complaining of really low back pain. Usually it’s not symptomatic and you start noticing a difference in shoulder height or a difference in where your waist falls compared to your left side versus your right side. And if you bend over, typically you have what they call a rib hump, which is … So scoliosis is really a three-dimensional problem. It’s where the vertebrae that make up your spine curve, and then they also twist and rotate, so it’s a three-dimensional issue. The rib hump comes from the third dimension, which is the twisting of your vertebrae. So as your vertebrae twist off center, they rotate and twist your ribcage off center, which makes it look like a hump on your one side.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We found out when I was in sixth grade, and at that time the curves were not bad enough that they wanted to do surgery right away, so I wore this rigid torso brace for all summer. Still insisted on doing horse camp, so I was riding horses while wearing this rigid torso plastic brace. But despite all that, my curves kept getting worse, so that’s when they said, “You’re going to need surgery.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What was that like at 12 years old, to have that?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I was actually, coincidentally, having this discussion with my mom last night as I’m prepping for this next surgery. I don’t know how much you can really tell a 12 year old at that point. You don’t want to keep them completely blind from the situation because it’s their body and they have a right to know, but I remember thinking, “I’m getting filtered answers to my questions because they don’t want to scare me.” And I’m like, “Well darn it.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Were you scared? Was there any sort of fear with that?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think there was. I think it was the unknown. In a way, being naïve and not knowing what it was going to be like on the other side was kind of a blessing, too.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Totally.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think at first … I remember being in the car with my mom when they diagnosed me and we were headed home, because I hadn’t been to my pediatrician for years because I was so healthy. And that’s, I think, my parents’ one big regret is they were like, “We should have been taking you in even though you weren’t sick. We should have been taking you in for yearly checks.” It just wasn’t something they thought of. But I remember being in the car when I was first diagnosed and saying to my mom, “All the kids are going to make fun of me.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
That was the second thing I was thinking about, was first being scared about it and secondly, I remember being so painfully insecure at that time in my life.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, going into middle school.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It’s just brutal.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Leaving sixth grade … I mean, this was at a time where I was leaving elementary school and going into middle school and I was like, “Yeah.” Then all of a sudden this happens and I’m like, “Oh, wait.” When you see these subtle differences that scoliosis gives … unless it’s really severe and really progressive, really fast … it’s hard to notice. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to notice. So it was one of those situations where I’m sure looking back on it, once I knew that I had it and I stared at myself in the mirror, I’m like, “Oh, this is so obvious. Everybody’s going to see it.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Right, because you’re keyed in on it.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right, exactly. But yeah, I was talking with my mom last night and gearing up for this next surgery. I was thinking, “Do you remember me being scared at all that morning going into it?” She’s like, “No, you were really quiet. You were just kind of like, ‘Okay, if we got to do this.'” I mean, there was an option not to do it, but for my long-term health, there was no option. And in surgery, they are … I don’t know if this is a correct term, but filet would be a good term. I mean, my scar runs from … depending on where your curve is, it runs from the base of my neck to about to where my waist is, and they basically open and remove part of the bony projections on your individual vertebrae to make room for these rods, these titanium rods that stretch from, like I said, the base of my neck to about my waist.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And they put screws in your vertebrae with hooks and then … It’s so medieval describing this, but have these rods attach to these hooks to force your spine to straighten. Then they took part of my iliac crest … which is the top portion of your hip … made this kind of paste or jelly, and then basically stuffed it in between all those vertebrae.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
To encourage those bones to fuse together into one long column of bone, essentially. So by the end of that, I think that surgery was 10, 11 hours long and I was two inches taller getting wheeled out as opposed to going in.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Wow.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And then between 2003 and 2019, my lumbar … so the curve unfused beneath my current hardware … has gone from 20 to 40. So we’re a little back to where we started, maybe a little worse.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And that’s what’s been causing you so much pain?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s the pain like?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh gosh. It depends. I mean, the sciatica is constant. With more aggravated kind of activities … so bucking hay and moving cows and milking cows … I know that I’m going to hurt later.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Are your legs feeling like they’re on fire right now sitting here talking?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh yeah. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. And it’s a different kind of pain sitting versus standing or standing versus walking. Essentially, the only pain-free avenue that I have is laying down watching Netflix. So …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, at least there’s that.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, there’s that.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But seriously, you’re a pretty happy person most of the time when I’ve seen you. If I was in pain all the time, you wouldn’t want to talk to me because I would be so just grumpy and angry all the time.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, my wick is short. And that was kind of one of our reasons for doing this surgery now. My husband was like, “This is not long term, not sustainable.” The pain already limits me in what I physically can do, and just when you’re in pain, you’re crabby. You’re just not happy. I mean, you’re happy but your tolerance for different things gets shorter and shorter. At this point, it’s a self-preservation technique. We know that unless this new fusion happens, my spine will continue to do wild and wonky things come heck or high water. That’s just the nature of the beast. And so if I know it’s only going to get worse, why not go through three or four months of trial and tribulation to solve the problem once and for all.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, that’s what I was going to ask. How bad is it going to be?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I’m hoping that the pain will be less than the first time. I remember waking up delirious from pain meds the first time, screaming at my parents, “Take them out, take them out, take them out,” because it’s like you’re being stretched. Your body is forced to being stretched. So I’m hoping that it is better this time. I would hope that pain mitigation in hospitals has come a long way in 16, 17 years. But yeah, it’s going to be around three to four months of no bending, lifting, or twisting. So anything as far down standing up or sitting down as far as I can reach versus as far as I … in both directions, that’s what I’m going to be limited to, which means no picking up my baby off the floor, no dishwasher.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Will you be able to hold her at all?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I’ll be able to hold her if somebody gives her to me. I’ll basically sit here and say, “Hey, could you hand me my baby, please?” Which will be hard. But I would rather do this when the kids won’t remember, so that when they get older and they want me to teach them soccer or swimming or anything like that, that I’ll have limitations but I’ll be pain free.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Are there risks going into this surgery?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, for sure. For sure. Unlike my first surgery, this surgery will involve removing the cushion, the gel-like cushiony discs between each vertebrae. And so to do that, they have to go through the front, so anterior through my belly. The risk with that is that your aorta and your vena cava, the two largest veins and arteries in your body, lay right on top of your spine right in that area. So there’s a big risk of you can bleed out and you can die.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Like if they make a wrong move and-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
If somebody had one too many cups of coffee that morning and they get a little jittery and …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You laugh, but that’s scary.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
What can you do, though? What can you do? I’m trying to look at this … I am a firm believer that your attitude going into something like that is a huge determining factor for what your success is afterwards. If I go into this thinking, “My life is over. I’ll never be able to do this and do that,” then I’m going to come out a victim and I choose not be a victim. Will I have limitations? Yeah. Are they insurmountable? Well, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to paint my toenails for the rest of my life, but I-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I mean, all of my bending … because I will be extending that metal in my back all the way down to my pelvis, and then six-inch screws in each side of my pelvis to preserve my hips … my bending will be limited to basically a deadlift. I will be deadlifting everything for the rest of my life.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s that going to mean for the farm and what you do on the farm?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, a lot of my job right now is being behind a desk, so I don’t think it’ll change that aspect as much. I think I will have more of a … like we were talking about, bubbles. I think I’ll have a bigger bubble around myself as far as, okay, I need to protect myself in these certain situations, like-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Like if you’re out with the cows?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, if I’m out with the cows or if I’m in a pen with cows, I probably won’t be letting myself shimmy between a cow and a fence really fast. I need to protect what I’ve worked so hard to have. My husband and I call cows … they’re like giant cats. They’re really, really curious. Cows are so interesting because they’re curious yet they’re timid. I just love cows. I’m such a nerd. I just love cows.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
When did you realize that, that you loved cows …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh man.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… that you were a dairy farmer? Here, a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Portland.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh man. It has to be when we first visited the dairy farm at WSU. My first very vivid dairy memory was we would always go to church on Sunday and then we’d go grocery shopping. It was, like, a block away. So we’d go and get our groceries, and I always knew when we were getting to the dairy aisle, not because I saw the milk case in the dairy section, but above the milk case, there was this mural of these green hills and a red barn and a nice, sunshiny sky, which is awesome, and these cows. Then there were these cow butts above the milk case and the tails would wag. And so my first very vivid dairy memory was, “This is where milk comes from.” Yeah, the cows are right there and it just plops … As a five year old or whatever, you’re like, “This is where milk comes from.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s just so funny to think that … Oh man. Do I have to admit how old I am? However many years later that I went from consumer to producer and consumer. So it’s awesome.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You see you doing this for the rest of your life?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. Lord willing. It’s hard. It’s hard right now. There’s a lot of pressures from a lot of different angles that make it hard.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
How many cows do you guys have?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right now, we milk about 850. We have right around 150 dry cows, so cows that are about two months away from calving. We give them a two-month break from producing milk, just to let them recharge and reboot their batteries and that kind of stuff. Milk 850, 150 are dry. As far as replacements … So our herd of heifers, so any calf that’s an hour old up to a heifer who isn’t producing milk yet that’s just about to have her first baby, we have probably about 1000 head. It’s a year-round, day in, day out, keep on keeping on kind of system, so …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What about your kids? If things continue to go … I would say well, but I know how the good days and bad days all the time with farming. If things continue to go forward with the farm, are you going to encourage them to do that?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, for sure. For sure. I don’t think that my husband had any outright pressure to come back to the farm. I think both of my in-laws made it very clear to him, “We want you to go to school. We want you to discover what your calling is, and if it happens to be the farm, then great. Come back.” But I think he for himself felt a very strong pull to come back to the farm.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So he’s passionate about it.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, for sure. Yeah, yeah, for sure.So I think with our kids … We haven’t really talked about that. We’re just trying to survive toddlerhood. It’s-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I hear that. I have-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
That is a day in, day out, keep on keeping on.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I have toddlers.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. It’s crazy. But no, we would definitely … I think our goal with our kids is to encourage hard work. I feel like going through that is one of the huge differences I see in my husband and I. He grew up working, I did not. I got my first job when I was 15. He had already been working for five years. He was already saving up money for his first car. There’s just regional and for whatever reason differences in how kids are raised. I am so thankful for how I was raised with my parents, but in a way, I wish I could do it all over as an ag kid. There’s just such a hardworking, down to earth work ethic that I admire, and that even though I did not grow up an ag kid, I strive to have that for myself and for my children.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s not like you go to school, you come home, and you work until 11:00 at night and then you go to bed and then you go to school. I think you gain a lot. I think you gain a lot of, “Okay, I am earning my way. It’s not being given to me.” And that’s not to say that non-ag … I’m not trying to say that non-ag kids get things handed to them, but you value things so much differently when you know the work that you put into it. It’s like in going to college, my husband had to pay for 50% of his college tuition, so he was working. For me, my parents had saved some funds ever since I was born and we used those, and then we took out loans, so then I had student loans to pay.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Looking back on it, I wish I would have paid for part of my way through school because I don’t feel like in the mornings when I had a 6:00 class, I was like, “Ugh, I can catch up on it later. No big deal.” Whereas my husband, he’s like, “No, gosh darn it. I’m paying for 50% of my education. I need to go to that class.” So I think there’s a huge value in working for what you have. I wouldn’t underestimate it or undervalue it for anything, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you don’t long to move back to the city?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No. And I know that it is for … I mean, a lot of people are drawn to it. It’s interesting to see Portland now. I grew up in Portland. It’s interesting to see Portland now from this perspective. We drive through the Gorge to go visit my parents. They still live in Portland. We drive through the Gorge. We start getting a little white knuckled because we know the traffic’s coming and we’re like, “There’s so many people. There’s so many cars.” I don’t know. I like having my space, my wide open space, and it’s just so … I feel like I can breathe here. Meanwhile, my dad, when I told him when I was back in school … my dad was like, “You’re going to do what?” He’s like, “I raised you in Portland. What happened? Why?” And I’m just like, “I don’t know. I’m just following what I feel is right and this is what I love.” He’s like, “I just don’t get it. I don’t understand. What did I do wrong?” And I’m just sitting here going, “I don’t think you did anything wrong. I think we’re fine.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So were they not supportive when you decided you wanted to …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think they didn’t-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You marry this dairy farm kid and move to the country?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think they didn’t understand. I think they’ve always been supportive, but they didn’t understand.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, thank you for opening up and sharing a bit of your story. Good luck to you, too …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Thank you.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… with the whole surgery thing.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Thanks. Thanks. We’re going to take it as it comes and it can only get better.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And hopefully it goes smoothly …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… and the result, you heal up and you have as much movement as possible and you don’t have to worry about these things anymore, right?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I might have gotten myself out of bucking hay for the rest of my life, but I’ll still be there.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Jessica is just so tough. Seriously, I couldn’t do what she does and I am really inspired by her awesome attitude with everything she’s had to deal with. Thank you for joining us this week, and make sure to subscribe to Real Food, Real People on whatever platform you prefer to get your podcasts. Also, check out realfoodrealpeople.org and feel free to reach me any time by email, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org.

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

Felipe Garcia | #004 01/06/2020

Growing up in Mexico, Felipe Garcia never expected he would one day be the human resources manager for a dairy farm in Washington state. He shares his personal journey to find his passion, as well as what he thinks is sometimes misunderstood about the people who produce food here.

Transcript

Felipe Garcia:
If you don’t know the subject, it’s easy for you to point a finger or to just judge something when you’ve never done it, or you don’t even have the background, what’s going on, how did this product get to my table?

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the podcast, I’m Dillon Honcoop. And as I continue my journeys around Washington state, to hear from the real people behind the food that we eat and produce here in Washington state. One of the things that’s interesting to me is their take on issues that can be controversial, and in this case immigration and the treatment of workers came up in a conversation I had as I made my way to Pasco and 5D Farms. I talked with Felipe Garcia, he’s their HR manager at 5D Farms, it’s a dairy farm, again, near Pasco.

And what Felipe shared was fascinating, telling his story of coming from Mexico to the United States, and what it means to him to work on a dairy farm and produce food for people here in Washington State. So join me as we continue on Real Food Real People, hearing from the real people behind the food that we produce and eat here in Washington state. Talking with Felipe Garcia at 5D Farms near Pasco.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want to talk about the things that you do on the dairy now, but first I want to go back a little bit more.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said you were in inventory, or what was your job before they offered you the job here, when you just came up to [crosstalk 00:01:51]?

Felipe Garcia:
So my job, I used to work in front of a desk and a computer, catching errors on a company inventory, catching the red numbers, and we call it the blue numbers too. The blue numbers is when somebody made a mistake and instead of one, they put 100. So I was just doing that, a daily basis, eight hours a day, five days a week.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of industry was that with?

Felipe Garcia:
It was a candle factory.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. Fragrance candles.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
Arizona.

Dillon Honcoop:
Let’s go back even a little further than that. You said you were born in Mexico.

Felipe Garcia:
I was born in Mexico.

Dillon Honcoop:
What brought your family to Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
Well, my dad, all his life was back and forth, but it was to a point that we were growing up, me and my two sisters, where my mom, she didn’t want to be that far apart, so that’s when they decide, “You know what? Come on over, try it. See if you guys like it. You can stay, if not you guys can go back.” So that was back in 2001 and we’ve been here since then.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you went to high school… So how old were you when you came?

Felipe Garcia:
I was 16.

Dillon Honcoop:
16.

Felipe Garcia:
16 years old.

Dillon Honcoop:
So then you finish high school…

Felipe Garcia:
I finish high school.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
Arizona.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Felipe Garcia:
And then I went to a community college, Gilbert Arizona, and I’m supposed to be a teacher.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, so that’s what you were going into education…

Felipe Garcia:
I was going… Yeah, because I didn’t know what I want. I knew I was going to be something related to people, customer service. So teaching was my first option. Now that I’m working in human resources, now it clicks, it’s related.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
It’s hand by hand, so that’s what I went to school for.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did your dad do? And your family, you had status already to come into the US?

Felipe Garcia:
At that time, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Felipe Garcia:
And you can obviously work through the time [crosstalk 00:03:40].

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. And I know my wife is from Canada, and the immigration process is so confusing.

Felipe Garcia:
It takes a long time. But yeah, it’s not easy, because it’s… One thing people confuse, it’s not just go knock on a door, “Hey, I want to come in. I need papers to work this out.” There’s no option.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
There’s only a very limited ways to do it. That’s why a lot of people has to do it the other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly. And [crosstalk 00:04:10]-

Felipe Garcia:
It just misinformation, and that’s a whole new story.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
But it’s misinformation. There’s only a few different ways that you can become legal, but like I said, they’re limited.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what line of work was your dad in?

Felipe Garcia:
So my dad, he was working at that time, it was a lumber place, they build the frames for the houses before they send them in, that’s what he was working at that time. But he’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
In Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
… Arizona.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what about in Mexico?

Felipe Garcia:
Back in Mexico, well, we have farms and a small ranch, so we would usually work for ourselves, like farming and cows and stuff like that. But even back in Mexico I never done anything related to farming, because I was always focused on school, which was convenient for me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But same thing, in farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you didn’t want to do the farming when you were a kid?

Felipe Garcia:
No. That was hard work, because even like… that I did it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
When kids were on vacation, I was working the ranch. I wasn’t very happy about that, but I learnt to make some money, since I’m a kid, so I like that. I like to be independent, so I start working on my own since very young age.

Dillon Honcoop:
So in some ways you don’t have farming in your professional background-

Felipe Garcia:
No, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
… but in your family background you do.

Felipe Garcia:
My family, yes. All of them. Well, my dad, when he came here he was doing farm work, he worked in dairys too. Actually to this day, my dad is 67 years old, he doesn’t need to work, but he still works in the fields.

Dillon Honcoop:
[crosstalk 00:05:41]

Felipe Garcia:
He’s not a 15 year old boy, but he still works in the fields. And I keep telling him, “You got to stop at some point, that’s hard work.” And he doesn’t want to, and he’s just still there.

Dillon Honcoop:
He just loves it?

Felipe Garcia:
He just likes it. He doesn’t like to sit at home, he wants to do something. But what’s funny, is that he’s working just like everybody else. Actually they like him because he never misses work, he always show up early and leave late.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
So he’s consistent. He’s not the fastest, but he’s consistent. So that’s one good thing I learn from him, “Never say no until you try something.” So that’s why I didn’t quite when I start working in the farm. I used to complain for eight hours a day in a office, and here it was 15-16 hours, because harvest, it’s a small, short window.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Felipe Garcia:
You can’t play with it, when it’s a good weather, it’s a good weather. You got to take it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly.

Felipe Garcia:
So again, that’s why I learn the meaning of work. But again, for some reason I like it. You see the progress on a day. When you’re in the office, you send something and you got to wait for a response, it takes a couple days. And the farming industry, when you do something you can see it, you plant something you can see in a couple of days, you can see something growing, so that’s… I don’t know, I can’t explain that. It just a feeling that I never thought that I was going to have again. I’m from a city, from office, work here in a dairy farming industry.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know exactly what you mean, because I miss that in my… I have a lot of things that I like about what I do, but I miss being able to have that tangible, “I can see what I accomplish today.”

Felipe Garcia:
Well, if tomorrow I go work somewhere else in a office, I don’t think I will be able to. The reason I do it here is because I work in my office, get my work done, and the rest of the day I’m outside with the guys. I’m working myself. I’m driving a truck, I’m doing something. I just don’t get bored. It’s just something different. If I got stuck in a office for the whole day, I can deal with it for a couple days, because we have to some times.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
But I don’t think I will keep up with it, so…

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like it’s in your blood a little bit.

Felipe Garcia:
Well, like I said, I’m a workaholic. I like office work, but only so much.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I know it’s in my blood too. My family is the same way. What did your dad say when he found out you were going to go work for a farm?

Felipe Garcia:
It was a surprise for him. He helped me, but he didn’t know how far I was going to get. He know I will try the best, and he was going to be okay if I say, “You know what? I don’t like that job anymore,” because he know how hard it is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Felipe Garcia:
But little by little he’s been seeing the success, and better a little bit a time. And now he’s happy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did he laugh saying, “You didn’t want to do the farming when you were a kid, and now you’re farming.”

Felipe Garcia:
No, because he saw the experience firsthand. I see him every day. And he just didn’t know, he was surprised how much work I can get done in a day, again, because I used to complain for just a couple hours of work. And now he sees me come home late at night, leave early in the morning, and he was just surprised. And he was happy because he knows the feeling. He was pretty happy. I guess as a father, you want to see your kids grow and do better-

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
… but I think working in the industry that he loves, it’s even better.

Dillon Honcoop:
So did the rest of your family then move here, your parents?

Felipe Garcia:
I move them up here.

Dillon Honcoop:
You did?

Felipe Garcia:
Yes. About almost six years ago. They put out for a long time, they didn’t want to. They were so used to Arizona, but I keep pushing, “You guys got to move up here.” And finally they’re like, “Okay, let’s try it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They can handle the cold?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s cold here, compared to Arizona especially.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. Well, right now what I do, I just send them back to Arizona with my sister in the winter.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Felipe Garcia:
They come back when it’s a little bit better.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk about your family. Are you married, have kids?

Felipe Garcia:
I’m married. I have two daughters. I just got a newborn two months ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Congratulations.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, it’s a journey.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how old is the oldest?

Felipe Garcia:
She’s six years old. They’re fun, they’re girls. It’s just girls in the house, just me as a man. That’s important.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s like my house too. I have two girls.

Felipe Garcia:
But it’s good, and they support me, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy isn’t it, having kids? It just changes so much.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes. And my wife, I give her credit because again, our industry’s demanding on time, and I work six days a week, sometimes seven days a week, and she’s okay with it. We’ll learn to work each other, and that’s probably the best thing, because when you’re getting short time at home, they need time, and they start complaining. But the freedom about my position is that if I need a day off I can just take it and then go take care of my family. But we’ve been like this since ever, so it’s not new to them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But my wife is very supportive.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, farming can be hard on family life, right?

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
For the reasons that you’re saying.

Felipe Garcia:
Well, here’s the difference between just farming and dairy farmers, the farming stoop at some point, and the maintenance is not as much as the rest of the year, but dairy doesn’t stop. It’s still the same no matter what day it is. So it’s not like I stop November and then I take time off, it doesn’t work that way. But I still take vacation with them, we go out on the weekends, we do stuff. We make it work. But again, this is what I like, this is what I do, that’s how they met me, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So you say you’re working six, seven days a week, is that year round then?

Felipe Garcia:
No. Like I said, I’m a workaholic. I work Monday through Saturday. Saturday is most likely just couple hours, just to make sure everything’s okay, and then I go back home. Only on the harvest time, it’s when I’m here a little more often.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
Again, I don’t have to, because we have guys that take care of everything, but once in a while you need the extra hand, and I just jump in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So your main job is HR?

Felipe Garcia:
My main job is human resources, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
For people who aren’t familiar with HR, what kind of stuff do you do? And I guess, HR on a farm, what does that look like?

Felipe Garcia:
Well, that’s no different than any company or corporation. The HR, we get all the fun. We hire, unfortunately we have to fire too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
All the documents, all the legal stuff, a little bit of accounting, payroll, all the personal problems with employees and employers too, because we are right in the middle line. We’ve got to look for the good on the company, but also in the employees. So we’re the one in between. And we’re the ones that enforce the rules in the company, so that’s why we get all the fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the hardest thing about doing HR?

Felipe Garcia:
Letting people go, that’s probably the hardest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
Because we all come here to work, we all need the income, we all need to support the families, but that’s probably the most difficult thing, for any reason. Some people, they’re not as good as the other employees at showing up or just missing to work, and you have to let them go. But you know that person has a family, that needs to take care of, and that’s probably the hardest part. But you got to think different, sometimes you didn’t cause that, they did it theirselves, but that’s probably the hardest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it take to be really good at human resources?

Felipe Garcia:
You got to be very partial on the decisions, so no different than a judge. You got to look at what’s the rule, but how much can you play with it, or how much… That’s the thing, that one you take a decision for a person, it has to be the same for everyone, so that’s the hardest thing there. You have to be really good at judging that stuff. You can’t have friends in this type of work. If a friend ask you for a favor, well, it doesn’t work that way, because you got another 50, 60 people right next to you that they may want a favor too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
And if you already did it to one, you have to do everyone. So you have to be good at looking at the situation, and you go to be good at solving problems, because sometimes you get those problems, right away you got to get a solution in that instant, that’s not something you can wait sometimes. And you have to be a good people person, good communication. You have to be good at communicating. There is one thing as explaining something, but if the person doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand it, you’re not really good at it.

Felipe Garcia:
So culture wise, here has a lot to do with culture. By my fortune I got both of them, I got American culture and I got Hispanic culture.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the trick to balancing that? I would imagine part of it is just being able to understand people, what they’re really thinking, what they’re… mean when they say certain things, what they’re really trying to accomplish. I know that could be misunderstood, when people are communicating across cultures.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, that’s the thing. Something I notice on HR is, I do a lot of interpreting, translation, not just because you speak the language, you can be an interpreter, and I seen that, because I have people that have interpreter right in front of them, they explain them, they still don’t understand.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
So I have to come out with different words or different ways to explain so he can understand the same thing. So it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Words aren’t always the same as ideas.

Felipe Garcia:
… No. And culture wise too, understanding our believing, or the way of thinking. Again, I can’t explain it because I was raised with both of them, so I can understand both of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is important to understand then, for someone like myself coming from American culture, communicating with someone from Hispanic culture? What’s an important thing for them, for me, to even recognize is a difference in culture to be able to communicate clearly?

Felipe Garcia:
There is one thing that we’ve been trying here at the farm, is Hispanic people, they’re not used to see like a person that speaks a different language, the same, maybe because they feel inferior. Or most of the time… For example here, employees are not used to seeing their boss close enough, or even talk to it. I heard that a lot from the employees. Back in their country they just see the boss driving a very nice pickup far away, and that’s all they get. Here they have that person right in front of them, they shake their hand. They’re not used to that.

Felipe Garcia:
And culture wise, that never happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
They’re never allowed to see or talk to the owner. Here you can approach to anyone, you can shake their hand.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of misunderstandings does that difference lead to? I would imagine it might be surprising then for some people coming from that culture to say, “Hey, what’s the owner doing here? Is there a problem?”

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, most likely. They think there is something wrong, especially with the new guys that come in, they don’t know. But the guys that have been working here for a couple years, they know how close this person is. They’re always driving by, checking, talking to them, their office is always open to anyone to come in and talk to them. But again, our culture, it’s a little bit different on the Hispanic side, but they’re still afraid. They’re still afraid to come and talk to one of them, or ask something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
They feel comfortable with someone that speak the same language, that’s something I noticed too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many people are you working with as far as HR? How big is the team here that you oversee?

Felipe Garcia:
About 150 people.

Dillon Honcoop:

  1. And what kind of jobs are those people doing?

Felipe Garcia:
All kinds of work on the farming industry. There’s truck driving, tractors, we got guys walking pens looking for cows, we got milkers, we got shop mechanics, we got supervisors, we got management, we got parch runners, all kinds of stuff here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. What’s the key to managing farm workers, because whether it’s American culture or Hispanic culture, farm workers are kind of a different breed in some ways, right?

Felipe Garcia:
Well, I will say just respect, respect the people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
Respect their culture, respect their thinking. We have a way to work and it’s the same for everyone. So we got to respect their thinking too. And I will say most likely it’s respect, not because they look different, they speak a different language, or they think different, you treat them different, so that’s probably the key. And treat them good. I’m an employee as well, the way I want to be treated, that’s the way I’m going to treat them too. And knowing their work, what they do, it makes it easier for us to take the decisions. We don’t take decisions based on, “Oh, let’s see if it works.” We know how hard it is at work, so we try to make things better for them.

Felipe Garcia:
So there is not a exact key, but our success is that we treat people right, the best we can, because that’s their way they want us to treat us. It’s an exchange. If we treat them bad, they’re going to treat us bad too.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like your boss wants to be closely connected with the workers, and is involved and will actually be hands on.

Felipe Garcia:
He is, but he only can be involved to a certain point. Again, if he has a person that is in charge of human resources or managing the people, he has to respect their decisions too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
So he’s been really good at that too. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
So he has to respect your decisions?

Felipe Garcia:
… Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
So that’s why nobody can just come into him and say, “Hey, I want to do this.” And then he want to delegate something, knowing we have rules, that’s not going to happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
So he has to say, “Hey, Felipe, what’s going on with this issue?”

Felipe Garcia:
Pretty much, that’s what he does, said, “Hey, there’s a concern here. Can you check into this?” At the end, we’re working on it. And it’s been very few times, but it’s good to keep him involved, because he’s the owner, he owns this place, and we run his place, but we got to respect him too, can’t push him out of the game. His decisions matter because he’s the one that leads everything, but he understands there’s rules, and he has to follow rules too, that’s what he created. For example, just to having an HR department on the dairy farming industry, well, that’s a bit step.

Felipe Garcia:
And that’s one of the good things, that they don’t hesitate when it comes to safety, because we’d know, we work with livestock and it’s hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
We understand that we got to keep the guys safe and send them home safe as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do the people like working here? You talked about these workers that you oversee, and you work with their concerns, you do their payroll, all of these different things. Do they like the… It’s hard work, as you say, you’re out on the farm too.

Felipe Garcia:
That’s something I never understood, the past, until I start working here, because there are long hours. What we’ve been doing is, we change the way it work, we try to minimize those hours, so they’re not too tired, but there is something that they like. For you to be working here is because you like it. We understand some people, they need some money-

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
… and they try, and a couple months later, they’re gone. Well, these guys, they’ve been here for years. The turnover has been less every year, and that’s because they like what they do, they enjoy this. That’s just like… I don’t know, you liking some dessert, well, you eat it because you like it. You can’t be here just because you have to. But we’re been creating ways to make this easier for the employees, better equipment, better process, because we understand that the better for the employees, the better work they’re going to do, the better we can present the owner.

Felipe Garcia:
And then we can keep this place up, because our families need this place, they eat from here. We all like our food and our milk especially.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And what’s it like to know that what you’re doing ultimately is providing food for people?

Felipe Garcia:
It’s a big responsibility, but there is a satisfaction to it. Every year on Christmas, we make a Christmas party for the employees and their family, and we gather probably a little bit over 300 people every year. And to see all the people, that they all depend on this place, it’s a big satisfaction, but at the same time it’s a big responsibility, because we got to make sure we provide them tomorrow and the day after and every single day. So it’s a big satisfaction.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about knowing that this farm is producing food for people in Seattle, for people all over? That I think changes things too. Yeah, you’re in human resources, but it’s for feeding the world, for producing food.

Felipe Garcia:
Again, it’s the knowing that you’re doing something good, you’re producing something good. It’s not just for you and your family, it’s for everybody else. So the best we do it here, the best quality gets out there too. And again, a lot of people like their milk, so it has to be good milk. But there is a lot of work behind it, but it’s a good satisfaction, knowing, “Hey, this product’s going everywhere.” We use it ourselves, and if you don’t consume what you produce, well, there’s something wrong there. But no, it’s good knowing that it spreads out.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your favorite dairy product?

Felipe Garcia:
I love quesadillas, I love that cheese. Yeah, and obviously chocolate milk. I like the sweetness.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who can’t say no to chocolate milk?

Felipe Garcia:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you said when you were growing up in Mexico, there were cows. Was there any dairy stuff around the family farms that you-

Felipe Garcia:
No, not that I know. Everything was obviously raw milk.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
And Mexico, they use a lot. To go in the mornings and milk your cow, and drink straight out of the cow. Just grab your cup, fill it up and good to go. But nothing at this level, not like dairy farms. It was everything just local.

Dillon Honcoop:
So farming was so much different?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah. Here I got the opportunity to plant corn, and I can get 200 acres in a day. Back in Mexico I was able to plant corn, and it was just with tools and a sack on the side for the corn seeds. And that’s how we plant corn. And it was hard, so that’s a big difference. It was harder back then.

Dillon Honcoop:
What you’re talking about, hard work, is reminding me. A question I was going to ask you a couple of minutes ago, when we were talking about hard work, it seems like… And I don’t know if you notice this, there’s something going on with American culture in the view of people working hard.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you actually, you grew up around farming. That wasn’t your plan career path, but now here you are in the farming world, and you are just, like we talked about earlier, it’s just in your blood, you like to work hard.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
And me too, that’s what I grew up around, that’s what I appreciate. And some days I miss it, as strange as that might seem to someone, because a lot of people say, “Oh, I’m so glad I don’t have to do physical labor.” There’s something that just feels good to get out and do some physical labor sometimes.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
What is it about American culture that is starting to say, “That’s somehow demeaning or bad.” It seems weird to me.

Felipe Garcia:
I think we judge too much, and we judge too easy. Our workforce is changing. Back in the day we had kids from high school wanting to work in a farm, because they can make some money and buy stuff. You don’t see that anymore. Now the workforce, from average was 25, 30 years old. It’s moving up, now it’s 45, 50. You don’t see young kids anymore, maybe because of that. They’re just judging it too much or just too hard. I think we’re trying to make everything so easy that you don’t want to struggle anymore, and the way you see it, that’s the way you treat it.

Felipe Garcia:
So I think that’s the problem, we judge too quick and too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
And people just don’t seem to want to work hard anymore.

Felipe Garcia:
No, not anymore. And then, again, it’s misinformation. And also because people don’t want to learn. You like to judge of a commercial, or something you saw really quick, or they told you in a way that you like it, and that’s how you judge, without knowing what is behind it. In the farming industry, that is the same thing, “You work too many hours. Oh, you’re working too much.” And then you judge based on that. Or you work too much because that’s your window, but that doesn’t mean it’s all year long, or it’s… I don’t know, that’s my feeling, that’s my understanding of how we judge things.

Dillon Honcoop:
I wonder if some people make that judgment because they have the luxury of being able to do that, and maybe they have their job in an office somewhere, and they make enough money, and they haven’t been in that position that some of us have been in, where it’s like, “No, I just need to make as much money as I can to support my family.”

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, pretty much. And again, if you don’t know the subject, it’s easy for you to point a finger or to just judge something when you never done it, or you don’t even have the background. What’s going on? How did this product gets to my table? Talking about farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
A lot of people like their salads. Do you know what work behind, it’s implicated in this?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
It’s a lot of work, it’s really, really hard work, but somebody has to do it. With technology, we’ve been getting better, but doesn’t do everything, doesn’t do it all. You still need that labor, you still need that person down there. And if we don’t want to do it here, well, they got to come from somewhere else.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you deal with that in HR? Because people have these jobs, this is a farm where you’re working, and you’re doing HR, so they have to do hard jobs, does that become an issue? If people say, “I don’t want to work that hard.” And well, it’s like, “Well, this is a farm. This is what we do here.”

Felipe Garcia:
No, because again, key is information. Since day one, this is what we do, this is what we require, do you think you’re capable of? Do you want to try it? If it doesn’t work out for you or for us, it’s fine, but it’s already ahead. He knows what he’s going through, it’s not going to be like, “Oh, just come in and we’ll try it, we’ll find out how it goes.” No, we do the training, we explain what’s going on, how many hours you’re going to work, this is what may happen. So you know on front while you’re getting into it.

Felipe Garcia:
So people that starts working here, they’re already expecting either long hours, which we try not to, because milkers, they’re only working eight hours a day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
It’s not like we’re working 12 hours a day or 15 hours a day. If you’re in harvest, you’re going to have your schedule of normal hours, but on the harvest time it may go up a little bit. But even like that we try not to push it more than 12 hours a day. Again, a person that gets tired, you can lead to an accident or mistakes, so we just prevent that. But you know that ahead, people doesn’t come in blind and just start working. And again, we have an HR department.

Dillon Honcoop:
You know the HR manager here.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. I… Familiar with him.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that make it hard to find people? Do people say, “Oh…”

Felipe Garcia:
There is-

Dillon Honcoop:
“Maybe I don’t want to do all that work.”

Felipe Garcia:
… Yes and no. Again, we can judge by the cover. I had young kids who never done this type of work before, and even like that, we give them the opportunity and they turned out to like it, they turned out to work here for a couple years, and they’re still here. There is some people who has experienced some farming and they just last week. Maybe because the rules. Again, we have rules, you got to follow them. And it’s the same thing for everybody else. Some people that like to follow rules, some people, they just like to work more in a different way.

Felipe Garcia:
So that’s a different thing. But it’s not hard, it takes a little bit of time, but again, once we hire someone, there is not end period of time, you’re here as long as you want, as long as we keep our rules the same. We’ve been getting people with more seniority the last couple of years. The turnover has been less and less, and it’s because the way we treat the people. We treat them good, they treat us good back.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about harvest, and that’s the extra busy season.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of things go on? I guess for people who aren’t familiar, that’s harvesting corn, grass, other things.

Felipe Garcia:
We harvest corn, hay. Well, the only difference is you work a little bit longer. Again, we have equipment that it makes everything easier, but we still need the drivers, we need somebody to operate the equipment. And when you cut hay, you only have so much time to pick it up, otherwise it goes bad. If it goes bad, it’s not good for your cows. So that’s why you got to time ahead how much you’re going to do. So planning has a lot to do, but it’s just driving a truck, but you have to do that all day back and forth, and it takes you 10, 12 hours a day. So that’s the harvest season.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just go, go, go, go.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. Keep on doing the same thing all day long back and forth.

Dillon Honcoop:
The rest of the time… You’ve talked about you have your office work, your HR work, and then what do you do once you… You say you can often get that wrapped up in the morning and maybe have the afternoon to work outside. What kind of jobs do you pick up?

Felipe Garcia:
So I like to help the guys around. Sometimes we got to either drive a semi, or sometimes we got to haul cows back and forth. I’ll jump in the truck and I’ll drive them up and down. Also we need parts for this place to keep running, because like every other place, sometimes equipment fails, or pipes break, or we need stuff. So that’s where I can help, I can go get stuff for them. And I’m mechanic inclined, that I can take some decisions like that. So we’re just back and forth bringing up stuff, picking up parts. I do help a lot of our employees, just with simple stuff as translating a letter, reading a letter for them.

Felipe Garcia:
So this is where I like my employers. They’re okay with employees coming in, in work hours, and have a question, a personal question. So I do donate a little bit of my time when I can to them for personal issues, so that’s where also a chunk of my time goes into. Sometimes it’s just doctors appointments, that they don’t even know how to schedule one. I’ll just grab the phone and schedule it for them. So that gets me busy sometimes. I never say no, because if I can do it during the day, I can do it after work.

Felipe Garcia:
But that’s pretty much what gets my day around. And that’s funny, because time flies. I come in at six, seven in the morning, and when I realize it’s already five o’ clock, and by the time I get home it’s almost six, but flies when you’re having fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of background do a lot of these workers come from?

Felipe Garcia:
It varies.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were saying in some cases like you were just mentioning, they might need help even scheduling an appointment.

Felipe Garcia:
Most of them is agriculture, construction. I seen a lot of people that work in restaurants. Warehouse people. But mainly, farming and construction. Those most of the background.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they are people who are used to hard work.

Felipe Garcia:
Pretty much, yeah. And this is something they like, because here in this country, you can do whatever you want. You can go learn how to work in construction, you can learn to work in a warehouse, but they just choose to work in a farm, which is good. The thing is stability. The income, it gets to your hand every two weeks, it’s secure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
I think that’s one of the main reasons too. This place, no matter what, you get paid the same day, and that’s some income you can count with. Again, hours. You get your hours no matter what. That’s another reason. People that work construction, restaurants, they only get so much work, and if it’s slow, there’s no more work. Here, no matter what day it is, what season, you still work the same, you still get paid the same. And the more you learn, the better you do and the better wages you get.

Dillon Honcoop:
And when you have to make a rent check every month.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, pretty much.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know how that goes.

Felipe Garcia:
That one doesn’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said, “In this country people can do whatever they want,” how is that different than where these workers are coming from? You’re saying that they may come from a different background on that.

Felipe Garcia:
It’s different. Rules are different, how they respect the rules is different too. Knowing my country, it’s the same way, you work hard, but you don’t make as much. They’re probably stuck on something, they don’t want to learn, they don’t want to grow up. Here for some reason they realize, “Oh, I can do better. And everything’s possible, you can even make your own company if you want.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So in Mexico there’s not the freedom to do that?

Felipe Garcia:
Yes, but it’s harder. It’s harder to get a loan, it’s harder to get people invest on you, and it’s just different. If you don’t have somebody to help you, it’s hard. Here, as long as you work hard and you get a good record, good credit score, you can do whatever you want, you can buy whatever you want, you can work wherever you want, so…

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think a lot of people just think about wages.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
“Wow, you make more here or there,” but there’s so much more than just wages-

Felipe Garcia:
Oh absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for a person.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes, and it’s hard to understand sometimes. But sometimes it’s not. If you’re making more, is it stable? Is it all year long? Or it’s more for a season or a period of time, but then there’s nothing. So that’s the other side of the coin.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what you said about getting loans, too.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
I think we take that for granted-

Felipe Garcia:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… here in America.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. It’s not how much do you have, it’s what does it show? What’s your credit score? “It’s high? Oh yeah, whatever you want. It’s low? Oh, it doesn’t matter how much money you got in your pocket.” It’s just the way it works.

Dillon Honcoop:
That can also be deadly too.

Felipe Garcia:
Ah, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
As many of us have found out, especially in the…

Felipe Garcia:
On the highway, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the crash of 2008 and nine, when a lot of us had a wake up call of, “Oh yeah, we can get a lot of money, but…”

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), you got to pay it back. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I guess that can cut both ways. You talk about all the different jobs you do and how many different things you get to do, and you like the variety, what’s your favorite job on the farm?

Felipe Garcia:
Driving or operating heavy equipment, that’s the best. And that goes from a semi to a loader to an excavator or a dump truck, I guess… I don’t know, I like the… I wouldn’t do that for a living, but I like it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about tractors, do you like to do field work?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah. Yeah, I do. Again, tractors, planting stuff, it’s exciting. Just the knowing that you can operate such a big piece of equipment, and how much you can do with them, that’s probably the good feeling.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s my favorite growing up. Anytime I got to drive the tractor, I was happy.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, no. And I guess, not to prove points, but sometimes when new guys come in, and they see me driving a big semi or something, because they see me in the office all the time, and they think that’s all I do, and just drive the pickup back and forth. But once they see me driving a piece of a equipment or working with them, it earns a little bit of respect with them. Not what I’m looking for, but it’s good for them to know and say, “Hey, I know what you’re doing, because I can do it as well. I understand the things you’re going through.” So that makes a big difference, and I like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think that shows a lot for, like you said, respect.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
And then to show that it’s, “I don’t think I’m better than you because I work in an office job.”

Felipe Garcia:
I like to be an example for them, because I keep telling them, “Hey, when I start working here, I was picking up garbage,” because that’s the only thing I had to do at that time. It was cold, not much to do, and there was a lot of cleaning. And now I’m in HR, the HR office, so there is no limit here. If you want it, it’s there. It’s how much you want to do. All the management in this company, they start from the bottom. We all start doing something here, we didn’t just come into that position.

Felipe Garcia:
So that proves that there’s always improvement, there’s always opportunities. We’re always looking for leaders, supervisors, it just not everybody’s up to that responsibility. But hey, opportunities are there, we’re proof of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think people in Seattle or in the big city anywhere need to know or should know about where their food comes from? Places like this, is where their dairy product… where their milk and cheese comes from.

Felipe Garcia:
They just need to know the truth, the good and the bad. A place like this is long hours and that’s just the way it is. Well again, define long hours.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
I used to think nine hours a day was long. Long hours means that you work eight, nine hours a day, but it’s hard work. That is what we mean with long hours, not that somebody is working here 19 hours a day, that doesn’t happen. I mean it’s physically… it is possible-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
… but it’s not good, because we do things ourselves so we understand. They just need to know what’s a good thing and a bad thing. Obviously a place like this doesn’t smell as pretty as other places, so that’s the thing. Some people are tolerant to that, some people don’t. Like I said, my first job was at [Can 00:40:10] the company, it was a fragrance place. Same thing, smells good, but it was too strong. So they just need to know the real workers, what the real work is, not just commercials for 30 seconds and they think they know everything. We’ve just got to share a little more information, we’ve just got to share how we treat our animals, how we treat the people, how we treat everything, so they can learn a little more.

Felipe Garcia:
But it’s more like people wanting to learn. Some people, they just don’t want to. Some people, they just like to have their glass of milk in front of them and that’s it. Some people, they really care where that come from-

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
… how much work is it. Maybe they think it’s too expensive. Well, if you see what’s behind it, eh, or maybe they think it’s too cheap. Every person has a different perception or mentality, but I think that information is key, showing them the good and the bad. What’s the good, the good product that we produce. What’s the bad? Well, it’s hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
Since you’re in human resources, what do you think people outside of the farming world should know about labor issues, when they hear about farming labor issues in the news or things going on with farm workers? What would you say about how that’s being talked about?

Felipe Garcia:
I think it’s just third parties trying to create misinformation for a personal gain, that’s the way I see it. And that’s what I’ve noticed too, because again, I’m human resources, so I work very close with that, and I’ve been seeing the real truth about that. The employees are the ones not getting all the benefit, which… it’s wrong. It would do something, is for the benefit of the employees, no over third person to get money in their pockets. That’s the way I see it, that’s the way I’m seeing it. That’s why when we do something here in our company, it’s to the best of the employees, because it goes straight to the employees, not to someone else.

Felipe Garcia:
So it’s all about money and political…

Dillon Honcoop:
So you think people who are saying, “Farm workers are mistreated,” are saying that because they can profit from it?

Felipe Garcia:
Some of them. And also, there was an issue years ago, and I think at this point with every rule and regulation that comes, we are no different than any other company, we got to follow rules. And we got to get better for ourselves and our employees. So I can talk for my company, I can put my hands on fire for my company, I can’t really talk for everybody else.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But as far as I know, is that if we have a regulation or a rule, we got to follow it. So I don’t know, I think some people try to work the system too, and I see it on a first hand. But the labor issues is just miscommunication between the employers and the employees. They’re not as lucky as we are having an HR involved. One of the things that I think is, it’s when employers work directly with employees, that means communication, it’s a big issue. Like I told you early, making sure they understand the rules, make sure they understand their rights, that’s a big thing too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
I have people come here from [LL9 00:43:15], talk to them, “Hey, this is LL9, this is what it is, this is what it works for. “They need to know, they need to be free to talk to the owners or the supervisors or their managers, because I think it’s very important. Information is key.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talked about misinformation and you talked about third parties getting involved, and it’s political. What kind of misinformation do you see or hear out there from these people?

Felipe Garcia:
They see just a handful of people saying, “I got mistreated.” But that people don’t talk for the rest of them. You cannot judge one thing for four, five people when you have thousands… and employees. They can go and ask them, you can go talk to him. You can go see what’s a real deal. That’s the problem now, how you spread your information. You can take a picture and put a description to it, and that’s what you’re going to think. You could put the same picture, now put something wrong, something bad, that’s the way you’re going to see it.

Felipe Garcia:
So that’s the way I think they’ve been treating this labor issue.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s a really strong farm worker community here, especially in eastern Washington, right?

Felipe Garcia:
It is. It is pretty strong. Everybody knows everybody, that’s why we are so comfortable here, because we just do the best and it spreads out. And because of that we have a lot of people wanting to work here, because they know it’s a good place to work. It’s a small town so everybody talks to everybody.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would happen to that community if these dairys or other farms went away?

Felipe Garcia:
I don’t know. I can’t even imagine, because I do this for a living. I’ll be thinking of doing something different and I don’t think I can. I don’t think I want to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Do people worry about that? Is there a fear of what happens in the future if they’re pushed away from here?

Felipe Garcia:
We do the best we can here, because I want to keep feeding my family. I want to make sure that my employees are able to feed their families, so we just try to get everything as best as we can. And the best for them is knowing that they have work tomorrow.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know this is a family that runs this farm.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that extend to the workforce? Does that extend to you? Do you feel a part of that-

Felipe Garcia:
Oh absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… community?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah. And again, culture wise, they try to separate theirselves to work.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But me, actually I live for a while in this farm, like actually live here. And when the owners tell you, “You’re part of the family,” you’re part of the family. You are in their family events, you are. Again, you kind of… Because you got to get used to it, you got to get to know the people, and you know it’s real, it’s not just saying that because they want to look good. You become part of the family. And they see their workers the same way, but obviously they’re not going to see it, like that cultural wise, like I say, they see the boss pretty far away, but living on it first hand, they treat you good. They treat you like family.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s something I think that’s special about farming too, that…

Felipe Garcia:
Absolutely. That’s one of the main things. If a farmer can help you, he will help you, he won’t say no. And he’s not looking for anything in exchange. And that’s one of the reasons I like this place. They can help you, they will help you.

Dillon Honcoop:
Felipe, thank you so much for-

Felipe Garcia:
Oh, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
… sharing your story and all the stuff about how this works and what you do. It’s pretty incredible how this all works together. And I think it works a lot better than maybe some people have been led to believe.

Felipe Garcia:
Oh absolutely. I’m happy to be here to share a little bit of my experience, and hopefully it’s good to someone.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What an amazing story of cultural diversity, and working his way up from just a general laborer to the HR manager of the entire company. Felipe Garcia was so awesome to talk with. And we just appreciate you joining us for these conversations on Real Food Real People. We’d love for you to visit realfoodrealpeople.org for more episodes, more info from behind the scenes and to subscribe to our blog. Again, realfoodrealpeople.org. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is documenting my journey to get to know and hear the real stories of the people behind the food that we produce and eat here in Washington state.

Dillon Honcoop:
So please check out our website. Also, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. D-I-L-L-O-N is how I spell my name, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Shoot me an email with any feedback that you have on the show, things that you’d like to hear talked about, people with incredible stories. I’d love to have nominations for guests on the program, I’d love to hear from you as we continue this journey.

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

Erica DeWaard | #003 12/30/2019

Despite her quiet personality, dairy farmer Erica DeWaard is known around the world for her touching and informative social media posts about her work feeding dairy calves. She opens up about her passion for farming and why she continues to speak out in the face of negative pushback.

Transcript

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people threaten to kill me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Death threats?

Erica DeWaard:
Death threats. They don’t want me on there. I figure that they’re scared of the fact that I’m telling the truth and I’m threatening their agenda.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the Real Food Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this week I talk with probably one of the quietest, most reserved people I’ve ever met but with an incredible story to share and such a huge voice via advocacy on social media.

Dillon Honcoop:
She opens up to me about why she does that, about her passion for her job, helping produce food by raising calves. She loves dairy calves. That’s what she does professionally, and it’s her life passion to care for those animals as well as speak out about it. And yes, she does talk about death threats that she’s received via her advocacy.

Dillon Honcoop:
She’s known as Farmer Girl on Facebook and Instagram, her real name Erica DeWaard, and she shares all of this plus a lot more about the background and what it really takes to raise calves on a dairy farm in this conversation. So join me as I continue this journey to hear from real farmers about what turns their crank, why they do what they do, and why they’re so passionate. We produce amazing food in this state, and Erica has such an incredible perspective to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you decide to start speaking out about farming?

Erica DeWaard:
I [inaudible 00:01:52] there was one guy, Andrew Campbell, who started this #farm365 try show people about farming, and I was watching it and he was just getting attacked, so I decided to join him. He needed help. A lot of farmers came and helped him.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re saying-

Erica DeWaard:
[crosstalk 00:02:09]

Dillon Honcoop:
… here’s somebody getting attacked and you-

Erica DeWaard:
And I went in there and fought.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s funny. I didn’t expect that to be the starting point.

Erica DeWaard:
Oh, it was. I couldn’t stand seeing one guy get attacked, so people had to help.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how did you start? What were you doing at that time? You were feeding calves?

Erica DeWaard:
Yep. I’ve raised calves since I was 11, so I’ve been doing that for 16 years.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how old were you or how long ago was it that you started, you decided I’m going to start speaking out on farming stuff?

Erica DeWaard:
About four years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Four years ago. So you decided to start speaking out. Where do you start with something like that?

Erica DeWaard:
I made my own Instagram account and just started using his hashtag and it grew like crazy. People like to know the truth from a farmer, which I hadn’t really thought people would even care.

Dillon Honcoop:
How’d you come up with the name?

Erica DeWaard:
Well-

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that, like, from the beginning?

Erica DeWaard:
Farmer Girl, because I’m a girl and a farmer. A little bit obvious.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, dumb question on my part.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah. And my Instagram name is @ericad429, so that’s my first name and then my last initial, and 429 was one of my favorite cows at our farm, so I used her ID number as my name.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why was she your favorite cow? Tell me about-

Erica DeWaard:
She was-

Dillon Honcoop:
… 429.

Erica DeWaard:
… born on my birthday and I watched her be born, so she kind of became mine.

Dillon Honcoop:
So she was your cow.

Erica DeWaard:
She was my cow.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, describe her. For a non-farming person, what are they supposed to be visualizing here when they think about your cow, number 429?

Erica DeWaard:
She was very, very friendly and she trusted me. I could take her on walks without a halter and she’d just follow me like a little dog. So we’d walk down to the pond all the time and behind our farm and she was just my pet.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so that became part of the name, 429, and then homage to that cow.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is she still around?

Erica DeWaard:
When our dairy sold, she ended up in Eastern Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Erica DeWaard:
So I have no idea.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you start to speak out. What was it like at first? Again, where do you start? What’s the first thing you posted? Do you recall first kinds of things that you were talking about?

Erica DeWaard:
Well I really like the medicine side of things, so I was posting a lot about how to raise a calf and keep them healthy. Mostly it was helping other farmers do a better job at what they do, but then other people, they look at what I post and they realize how much there is involved in farming. Calf raising, people think it’s simple. There’s so much science in it, there’s so much math and people just have no idea how much knowledge it takes to actually raise a calf.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess what’s interesting to me, thinking about you speaking out, is because that doesn’t necessarily come to you naturally because you’re a quiet person.

Erica DeWaard:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or shy, or whatever. I don’t know what term you would prefer to use for that. Some people, they say shy is offensive, or something.

Erica DeWaard:
Well I’m definitely shy, so I’ll just go with that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s kind of outside your comfort zone.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but the same time I’m kind of hitting behind this media screen, just people don’t actually have to see me. I can think about what I’m going to say. And I also love the photography part of Instagram. You have to post a picture with what you post, so I love actually trying to get those pictures and trying to tell a story just with those.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’ve been doing photography for a long time.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why do you love photography?

Erica DeWaard:
I like capturing the story in the picture. It’s not just pointing my phone at a calf and trying to get a picture of it. You have to know how to take it. A lot of the times a lot of my pictures, I’m sitting on the ground, or laying on the ground looking like an idiot trying to get the perfect picture. So much of it is the angle of the picture that you’re taking. If I took it from higher up, you’d see the top of its head. If I take it from its level, it looks so much better.

Dillon Honcoop:
So let’s go back. You grew up on a farm.

Erica DeWaard:
I-

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about that.

Erica DeWaard:
… grew up about a mile from our family farm, so it was my grandparents’. They actually lived on the farm. My aunts and uncles, they lived… All of us were within about a mile of our farm. It was my grandpa’s rule that we had to be able to walk there in a snowstorm. So that’s why all of us just live in the exact same little area.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of farm? Talk about what the whole scene was like when you were a kid.

Erica DeWaard:
Most of my time on the farm was actually just riding in the silo truck with my dad, but then driving through our farm, I always stare out the window watching these calves be born, and when I was 11 I asked my dad if I could actually start helping at the farm raising those calves, because I fell in love with them just by seeing them while you’re driving past them all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
So a dairy farm, how big? What was kind of the…? You said it was your grandpa’s farm.

Erica DeWaard:
It was my grandpa’s farm as well as my dad and three brothers that actually owned it at the end, so actually none of my cousins were really involved. My sisters never got involved, but I was actually liked doing it. And part of that was because I was not forced to actually help at the farm. It was my choice.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so there you were from a very young age doing anything you could on the farm, anything they’d let you? What kind of stuff were you doing, other than writing in the silo truck once you could start to help?

Erica DeWaard:
Feeding the calves bottles. Well, I was 11, so those calves were ginormous. They could easily knock me over. I was actually kind of terrified for awhile trying to figure out how to not have these calves beat me up. They weighed 100 pounds, I weighed 80.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you were a kid on the farm, did you ever expect that that farm wouldn’t be there?

Erica DeWaard:
Not really. They actually didn’t tell me our farm was quitting until about a month before, so I didn’t even have a clue.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because I noticed you mentioned that “until the end”, or you talked about “at the end” it was your dad and his brothers. So what happened? What was that like, the end?

Erica DeWaard:
The end. Actually, I think they ran it for 10, 15, 20 years before it quit. But two of the brothers wanted to retire. The bank wouldn’t let my dad and another brother take it over. We didn’t have the money.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. And so how does that go down? How do you bring something like that to a close?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s hard. Actually, one of the guys that helped us was the nutritionist for our dairy, so he helped mediate this whole issue between four brothers, some of them wanting to quit, some of them not. He just sat in the middle and tried to keep war from breaking out between them and he found the farm that wanted to buy our cows. He was there when the trailers picked up our cows, so he actually helped us a lot just dealing with losing our farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
I bet the emotions had to have been huge that day in particular.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, it was. I actually saw the cattle trailers on my way to school and I lost it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did the rest of your family handle that?

Erica DeWaard:
Oh, turns out we never really got out of farming, so the three brothers that wanted out, or two of them wanted out, they ended up started working for another dairy. The one that wanted to stay, he found another dairy to work for, so we never really managed to quit. We thought we could. We couldn’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t that the way, though, for people who have been in farming?

Erica DeWaard:
Like you can’t get out of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s in your blood.

Erica DeWaard:
Actually, when our farm quit, the next day I was already working for another dairy. I just couldn’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what were you doing there? Feeding calves right away?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about that. How does that job work? If somebody wants to get a job feeding calves, what’s involved?

Erica DeWaard:
Biggest thing is that you really have to actually care. You can’t train a person to care about the calves. You have to really actually just be that kind of person that you can care about one calf out of 200. It’s still an individual, you still have to worry about it. I go home at night, I worry about the calves all the time. They’re just my babies. So they become more like your kids. They’re like your pets.

Dillon Honcoop:
Since you know so much about them, what kinds of things are you worrying about for them? Like health stuff, like medical kind of things for them?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s mostly if I have a sick calf, I go home thinking about her. I pray for them. They’re my life.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many calves are you responsible for right now?

Erica DeWaard:
About 200, so under the ages are six months. I worked for one farm for awhile that I was in charge of everything under a month old, and that was 350 calves. So I’ve had quite a different variety of jobs, but it’s all been just raising calves.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is the line when a calf stops being a calf? Like, how old do they have to be?

Erica DeWaard:
It depends who you ask. I’d say probably about six months old and then they are called a heifer instead.

Dillon Honcoop:
Until they…

Erica DeWaard:
Until they have their first calf and then they’re called a cow.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot of calves to keep track of. Does that take a lot of record keeping? Is a lot of that in your head then?

Erica DeWaard:
Most of it’s in my head. A lot of my favorite calves over the years, I can still tell you exactly which stall she lived in. I could tell you who her mom was. It’s just all this stuff that for some reason is still stuck in my head. I can’t get it out.

Dillon Honcoop:
So when a calf is born, what do you do? Are you involved with it right from when she’s born?

Erica DeWaard:
I am in charge of also watching the maternity pen, which is where they’re going to have their calves, so I’m involved for probably couple hours before they’re even born, just making sure the cow is okay and checking to make sure the calf is coming in the right position, deciding if we need to call a vet. So I’m there when the calf is born and make sure it’s going to be okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the first things that you do?

Erica DeWaard:
Make sure it’s breathing. I’ve given a calf CPR. Not very fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. Like, mouth-to-mouth?

Erica DeWaard:
Mouth-to-nose, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, wow.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s putting it on the line right there.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
See, I don’t know [crosstalk 00:11:42]

Erica DeWaard:
… you [crosstalk 00:11:42] do it to save their life.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Is that gross though?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you care that much that you do that.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, a lot of the times the calves that come out not breathing, they were stressed before they are born, so the calves that are stressed before they’re born, they poop inside the cow and they come out literally covered in poop. So you’re giving mouth-to-mouth to this thing that looks absolutely disgusting.

Dillon Honcoop:
Whoa, that’s brutal. I’ve been around for quite a few calves being born, but I haven’t had to do any of that.

Erica DeWaard:
Well you’re lucky.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, thank goodness.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s not fun. You need to do it, but it’s not… I’d much rather not have to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ll pass on that. I’ll leave it to the experts like yourself. So you make sure they’re breathing, and then what else do you have to do?

Erica DeWaard:
One of the first things is you have to disinfect their umbilical cord so they don’t get an infection, and typically the cow keeps the calf with her for an hour or so, if she actually wants anything to do with it. I’ve had a lot of them, the cow has tried to actually kill their calves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

Erica DeWaard:
They don’t have the maternal instinct that beef cows do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Erica DeWaard:
They’re not bred for it. We want to breed them for better [inaudible 00:12:49] or to produce more milk, where beef cows, the farmers want to make sure they’re actually [inaudible 00:12:55] take care of their own calves, so they breed for the motherly instinct, which dairy cows don’t need, so we don’t breed for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, with certain activist groups, shall we say, this can be a controversial point, right?

Erica DeWaard:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a common refrain: Well why do you take the calves away from their mothers so quickly? It’s inhumane. It’s cruel. But you’re saying quite the opposite. You’re trying to protect the calf by doing that?

Erica DeWaard:
You’re trying to protect the calf. You got an 80 pound calf, 1500 pound cow. She can easily hurt the calf without even meaning to. I’ve had calves that their legs were broken because the cow stepped on them. I’ve taken dead calves out of the pen because the mom accidentally laid on top of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be hard.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s hard. That’s actually how my dad taught me that we need to do this, as he made me take one of the dead dead calves out of the pan that the cow had killed. Because I didn’t really get it until I was the one that had to deal with the consequence.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that really drove the point home that this is a big deal to-

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
… protect the calf.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a huge deal.

Dillon Honcoop:
So not just a talking point to refute the activists, this is the real thing.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah. I mean, yes we take the calves away from the cows, but you also have to realize dogs and cats, we take away their puppies and kittens. No one says a thing about that. I mean, they’re a little bit older, so actually the dogs are attached to the puppies, but people don’t say anything about that because that’s considered normal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think it is? Because you, in your involvement on social media and being so outspoken about particularly dairy cows and calves that you care for, why do you think it is that that is such a thing for people that some people get so upset about that issue about the calf being separated from the cow?

Erica DeWaard:
People like to put their human emotions on to animals, and cows aren’t people. They just aren’t. They don’t have the emotional capacity we do. They really live in the here and now. They don’t worry about tomorrow. Cows, when we take away the calf, you go check on her, five minutes later she’s eating, she’s chewing her cud. She doesn’t care. The calf has gone. She doesn’t even notice.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that hard, maybe, to see? Because in some ways you know these animals so well, and like I think we all experience with pets and stuff, there is a certain emotional attachment, but then to realize, objectively, that’s not necessarily shared or returned from the animal because they just aren’t built that way.

Erica DeWaard:
No they’re not. Just like you can leave your dog in your house for hours on end, and does it care? No, it’s just excited because you got home, because that’s what it’s living for. Just living in the moment.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So after that, the calf is on its own. What do you have to do?

Erica DeWaard:
I have to make sure it gets enough colostrum, which is the first milk that a cow produces, so if we let the calf nurse from the cow, you have no idea if the colostrum was good enough, if it got enough, and the colostrum is the calf’s entire immune system for six weeks. It comes from that colostrum. So if they don’t get it, they can easily die because they don’t have the immune system to fight off any diseases.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know from having children in the last, well, not me personally, my wife having children going through that process, the same thing with humans. That’s why some of these things are so important for survival and health and all that kind of stuff. And you did say, you just mentioned that the calf does get to nurse off of the cow immediately after-

Erica DeWaard:
If they-

Dillon Honcoop:
… being born?

Erica DeWaard:
… would choose to. But a lot of the cows, they don’t even let the calf nurse. They’ll ignore it or they’ll kind of kick it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Swat them away?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s painful. The calves are born with teeth, so imagine that, that your baby’s trying to nurse and you’re sore and all these hormones are going crazy and then the calf pretty much bites you, so it’s not really that fun for the cow.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where do you get the colostrum from, then, that they need so badly?

Erica DeWaard:
Well the cows go through the milking parlor about anywhere from a couple of hours to 12 hours after they have the calf and then we save all of that colostrum. So typically if there’s a new calf being born, we’ll actually go heat something up that we had saved in the fridge, so it’s coming from a different cow than the calf’s mom. But colostrum’s colostrum.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think humans have figured that out too. People sell and trade breast milk, and I know that grosses some people out, but it’s the real thing. It doesn’t necessarily matter who it’s from. It’s the health.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, then people take cow colostrum as a supplement all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. A lot of the colostrum that we have extra is sold and it’s actually processed for human medicine.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really! I did not know that.

Erica DeWaard:
They ship it out to Saskatchewan and people pay a lot of money to actually take that as a supplement.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do they take it?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a powder.

Dillon Honcoop:
As a powder?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really. Do they mix it into things like a protein powder?

Erica DeWaard:
I have no idea. I only learned about that like a month ago. I assumed our colostrum that was getting sold was going into powdered colostrum for calves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s actually not. Most of it’s used for people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you know what the health benefits are that they’re-

Erica DeWaard:
It’s supposed to-

Dillon Honcoop:
… apparently getting from it?

Erica DeWaard:
… help your immune system.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which makes sense-

Erica DeWaard:
It does.

Dillon Honcoop:
… based on what you’re saying.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s the antibodies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, so after the colostrum phase, then what do you do with the calves? Are they in their own pens?

Erica DeWaard:
They’re in their own pens, so about six months out of the year when it’s cold enough, one of the first things I do is put a blanket on the calf to help keep them warm.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then they just kind of hang out for a few months, and you keep them well fed and they can grow?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, they live in a individual dome for the first six weeks and then we have a barn that they move into that has stalls that are meant for two calves to live together, so they can kind of bond with another calf, figure out this whole what we are thing, how to act around each other, and then they’ll move into a bigger group. But typically I’ve found that those calves that were buddies just in a stall together, they hang out together for years.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there is like a bond experience.

Erica DeWaard:
There’s a bond, this weird bond between them. They’ll actually typically [inaudible 00:18:48] around the same time as each other. They’re just so in sync with each other.

Dillon Honcoop:
Interesting, because you’ve just got done talking about how cows don’t have the same emotional capacity that we do, yet they do still have some [crosstalk 00:19:02].

Erica DeWaard:
They still have buddies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Erica DeWaard:
Well they have a hierarchy in the herd, so you’re going to have the dominant one, you’re going to have the one that’s picked on, but for some reason a lot of times the calf will bond with just one specific other calf. I’ll find them always sleeping next to each other, with each other. They feel comfortable just around that one. So they hang out together because they know it’s safe.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about a hierarchy in the whole herd of cows. Can you tell who’s going to be who when they’re calves? Like are they already showing if a calf is going to be more dominant calf or something like that, or does that develop later?

Erica DeWaard:
You see some in how they act around people, so some of them they’re so sweet and they love me and others could care less that I exist, but it’s more later when they end up in a group that they have to figure out who they’re supposed to be within that group.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think is the most unexpected thing, maybe for people who aren’t familiar with it, about raising calves?

Erica DeWaard:
A lot of people don’t even realize that we actually feed these calves milk. They think we take all the milk from the cows and use it for humans. So the farm I work for, we actually feed a formula which is made out of all milk. Some farms feed milk straight from the cows. The calves need milk. They need to have milk in order to grow. We don’t just take all of it away.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are some of the things that have gotten the biggest response as far as details about your job when you’ve shared it in public, on social media? Have you been surprised by things that you’ve shared that you maybe took for granted?

Erica DeWaard:
There’s a lot of stuff that, well, I grew up farming, so I thought everyone knew this kind of thing. Find out people don’t know, and a lot of that is they don’t have someone to ask. So it was just simple things.

Erica DeWaard:
Like this morning I posted about how calves are born with this soft cover over their hooves so they don’t hurt the cow when they’re born. That’s something that I’ve known forever, but people are finding even just that so interesting that calves are created that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how do you decide what to post on social media?

Erica DeWaard:
Whatever I’m dealing with at the time and stuff that I think people are going to find interesting. Sometimes I think, “Oh, people are going to love this,” and no one even cares. Other times it’s like, “Well this is incredibly boring. I don’t know even why I’m saying this,” and people love it. So you have no idea how people are going to respond.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can you recall what’s been your biggest post ever? What was it? What was the one thing that people were just crazy about?

Erica DeWaard:
Feeding calves Go-GURT. I took a video of this calf eating Go-GURT straight out of the tube and it went viral.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have showcased on your social media quite a few human things that you feed to… like the Go-GURT.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Recently I saw something. You were giving a calf a beer.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Things that people wouldn’t expect, and even within the farming community not everybody knows about. Where do you come up with these things?

Erica DeWaard:
Well the beer was, I had this calf that she was not doing good. I had done everything I could possibly do to save her, but she was losing weight and we were ready to actually put her down. But then I started messaging all these vets on Instagram, bugging them, asking, so what can I do when everyone’s telling me, “Well you need to put her down because she’s suffering,” except for this one vet in Ireland who told me that this sounds crazy, but you need to go to the gas station. You need go buy that calf a beer. You give it to her. I thought, “Well, she’s going to die anyway, so why not try it?” Next day this calf, she actually wants to drink her milk. She’s eating grain.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what was it about the beer? Why did that work?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s all the fermenting yeast inside the beer, so their rumen is basically, it has all these bugs, the good bacteria and stuff in it. The beer replaces all of that and makes their whole gut work again.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, you say the rumen, and cows have…

Erica DeWaard:
Four compartments in their stomach.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s the last one? Which one is that? I forget.

Erica DeWaard:
That’s the one they’re supposed to digest all the grain and hay and forage.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically all the stuff that we can’t digest. A lot of animals, even horses, right, can’t digest the same things that a cow can.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, and then the rumen in a mature cow, it’s about the size of a 55 gallon drum. It’s huge.

Dillon Honcoop:
That is huge.

Erica DeWaard:
So all this stuff, it ferments in their rumen and they digest it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s almost like giving this calf a little starter yeast to get that process going in her stomach.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that changed everything?

Erica DeWaard:
It changed everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they act weird, like they are feeling the effects of the alcohol if you have to do this?

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t [inaudible 00:23:37] it really affects them, but they absolutely love it. They become your best friends. They get alcohol anytime they see you.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did people say on social media to you about that?

Erica DeWaard:
A lot of people were just amazed. They had never thought of that. But basically beer is like rumen fluid. Now it’s going to change your mind when you think of drinking that again.

Dillon Honcoop:
So does that mean that I should drink more beer because it’s good for my stomach?

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t know. You’re not a ruminant.

Dillon Honcoop:
So on social media when you hear from people, what’s your philosophy of how to manage…? And everybody these days has a social media account. Some people think about how they’re managing it and people who do it for their job, like myself, think about it. Obviously, people like you that are trying to do advocacy-

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
… think about it. How do you approach dealing with people, people who are surprised, people who are angry? You know, there’s so many responses. How do you manage-

Erica DeWaard:
I try-

Dillon Honcoop:
… people?

Erica DeWaard:
… judge whether these people actually want to learn or not. So if I get a negative response, I try choose, well, do they just not know, or are they going to be someone that doesn’t even want to learn? I don’t put up with much. I will easily block a person from seeing my account, because I have a lot more to deal with than people calling me names and I just don’t need that kind of negativity in my life when all I’m doing is try to teach people about what I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously I’m not asking you to repeat absolutely inappropriate things, but what have been some of the worst things that people have done? I know Facebook and social media can just showcase the worst of humanity. How does that manifest itself around what you do on social media?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people threaten to kill me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really!

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Death threats?

Erica DeWaard:
Death threats. They don’t want me on there. I figure that they’re scared of the fact that I’m telling the truth and I’m threatening their agenda.

Dillon Honcoop:
So wait a sec. How does that go down? Like you make a post, somebody comments right away with a death threat, or is there some back and forth that leads to that? How would someone get to that point?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve found that if I go on like a vegan group, I’ve actually found my name on there saying that, “Oh, we need to go attack Farmer Girl for awhile,” and they move on to another person, then another person.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is on their behind the scenes message boards?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can find those on Google? Or how did [crosstalk 00:26:02].

Erica DeWaard:
I looked up my name once and I found myself on there. I thought, “Well, this is awkward.” No wonder I was getting attacked like crazy for a couple of days because they actually organized it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s those people who will then go on and send you a death threat? Are they doing that publicly? Is that a private message? What do they say when they do this?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s sometimes public, sometimes a private message.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they will say, “I want you dead.”

Erica DeWaard:
Basically.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s nuts.

Erica DeWaard:
That’s social media.

Dillon Honcoop:
Scary.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you worry for your safety?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s part of why I don’t post my last name that often. I mean, you can easily figure it out if you start reading what I post. It’s not that hidden. But that’s why my name is Erica on there. It’s not my full name. And a lot of these people are actually from… I found out that Australians are very, very grumpy for some reason. They are the group that hates me. So when I found that out, I actually blocked the entire country. I wasn’t dealing with it anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
So nobody from Australia can interact with you on social media.

Erica DeWaard:
Right. And England. They don’t like me either.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would expect that to be in the US, honestly.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, I would too.

Dillon Honcoop:
But who knows what the dynamics are behind that. But I guess one of the reasons why I ask about your safety is do you think they really mean it? I would assume, I would hope that they’re just blowing smoke when they say that, but when someone says that…

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a whole lot easier to say that on a screen than actually say it to someone’s face. I really don’t think they’re going to do anything. Even when I go out in public wearing this shirt that says, “Hello, I’m a dairy farmer,” everyone’s polite. I’ve never had anyone threaten me in public because they don’t dare.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that what it is about social media? Is that why people get so nasty, because they don’t have to see you, you know, say it to your face?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, they don’t have to see me. Which actually is part of what helps on social media is to show pictures of myself, because people don’t realize I’m actually a person. They don’t get that. There’s a person behind that screen name.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you mentioned going out into the community wearing your “Hello, I’m a dairy farmer” shirt. What’s that like? Because that is the different name and that’s face-to-face. That’s the real deal. And you say people tend to be very nice. Those could be some of the same people who are nasty on social media.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, they could be. I have no idea. But they don’t. They see me as a person then, so they don’t dare attack me.

Dillon Honcoop:
I saw you post about your shirt that you wear and your note about that you do that deliberately. Talk about that, why you go into Bellingham.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Local urban community for our small area here. Why do you do that?

Erica DeWaard:
Make people put a face to who a farmer is. I actually have a lot of people that come up to me and say, “Well, you’re a girl. You can’t be a farmer.”

Dillon Honcoop:
In the city they say that?

Erica DeWaard:
In the city. I really don’t know how to respond to that. It’s like you can’t be a farmer because you’re a girl. I’m like, “Girls can be anything they want to be. Kind of been that way for a long time now, but you’re saying that girls can’t grow up to be farmers.”

Dillon Honcoop:
The stereotype, it would be that out in the country, out on the farm, that’s where the discrimination would be happening, thinking that women cannot be farmers. But you’re saying it’s the opposite. It’s when you go into the city that people will have… That’s crazy [crosstalk 00:29:11].

Erica DeWaard:
Well people have this picture in their head of this 60-year-old guy that’s a farmer. That’s what farmers are supposed to look like. They’re not supposed to be some tall blonde girl. I don’t get what their image is in their head.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much does that drive what you do on social media, part of you being kind of outside what people would expect?

Erica DeWaard:
I think a lot of people actually like to see what I post because they don’t… Or they find my page, see that, “Oh, she’s a farmer,” and they realize that I can be a farmer. They actually see me as being knowledgeable despite the fact that I’m a girl. I’m not supposed to be doing this. It’s part of why they find it interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
Also notice you mentioned that you like to hike and you like to hike with your dad and do photography. I think we touched on that before. Talk about other stuff that you do like that.

Erica DeWaard:
I go hiking about once a week. I’ve actually competed in this race called the Kill Bill Challenge, which is 25 kilometers, 3,500 feet of elevation gain. You see how fast you can do it. And I think stuff like that is fun, and it also really helps me mentally because I get away from everything for awhile.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said before we started here, you said you’re an introvert.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain that. What does being an introvert mean to you?

Erica DeWaard:
If I’m in a group of people, everyone’s talking, I’m going to be the one taking it all in. I don’t like to voice my opinion until I really know what I’m going to say. I like to think about things a lot first. For that matter, I don’t even really like to be in a group of people. I’d rather be all by myself. Like I go to Thanksgiving dinner and I’m just relieved when I walk out the door. It’s quiet.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how do you make that work being an introvert? Yet in some ways you have become a public figure with your social media advocacy.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but it’s on my phone. Like I’ll go hiking and I don’t have cell reception, so I get to go be myself for a while because I can’t go check my social media and make sure people aren’t wanting to kill me. Just makes me forget about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And normally people would think you were kidding by saying people want to kill me, but since we just talked about that-

Erica DeWaard:
It’s true.

Dillon Honcoop:
… you have proven that is a real thing. How often are you getting messages to your page, comments on your page? How much could you be checking that if you were doing that all the time?

Erica DeWaard:
If I have a post that goes viral, I’d be checking it probably every 15 minutes. Even sometimes waking up in the middle of the night making sure I don’t do that, I go block a whole bunch of people, because once one person starts, it just gets out of control.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how much of your time does that take then? That’s got to be a lot of work.

Erica DeWaard:
Probably 20 or 30 hours every week. Takes a lot of time writing what I post because I like all the little details that I post, all the little details, but then I also want to research it to make sure I’m right. I don’t want to be posting something that’s false because my page is about the truth in dairy farming, so I want to make sure I’m really posting the truth.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the biggest things that people misunderstand or don’t know the truth about dairy farming in particular that you see out there?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people that they thought we milked the cows 24/7, that these cows were always hooked up getting milked. So when I posted that in reality these cows are milked for five minutes, twice a day, that’s like it’d be like over a year, 40 to 50 hours the entire year getting milked, which farmers work way more than that. So we do everything for the cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
You spend almost that time just on your social media in one week.

Erica DeWaard:
In one week. But the cows do work you for the entire year.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are you accusing cows of being lazy?

Erica DeWaard:
They’re spoiled.

Dillon Honcoop:
Spoiled. So people misunderstand how much time cows are actually being milked. What else is it that people misunderstand about dairy farming or animal agriculture? I’m sure you’ve seen it all.

Erica DeWaard:
One thing that tends to surprise people is how much technology is actually involved. They think we’re out there milking the cows by hand, all 700 of them, which in reality that’s impossible. We can’t do that and still be able to produce enough milk to meet the demand.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your response, then, when people see all that technology and see how many cows there are and the size of the operation and then say, “Well that’s a factory farm,” or, “That’s industrial agriculture.” Just to throw a few buzzwords at you. What’s your response to those?

Erica DeWaard:
I did a post once explaining exactly how we take care of all the cows and how much we care for them and that everything we do is to make sure the cow does good. And then after that I posted that, “Oh, by the way, so this dairy farm’s a CAFO, and that-

Dillon Honcoop:
CAFO being a… What is that? Confined Animal Feeding Operation?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. And that kind of blew people’s minds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that’s like a bad word.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a bad word. You’re not supposed to use that word, but it made people think about it that, “Oh, wait. So we trust her and she’s saying that CAFOs are okay,” and it kind of changed their minds because they had no idea that CAFOs are, you know, they’re normal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is it, do you think, that people think CAFOs are so bad?

Erica DeWaard:
They seem to think that we mistreat the cows. The cows are apparently supposed to be kept in some really dark, gloomy barn all the time, which-

Dillon Honcoop:
Where are they getting that information from, though?

Erica DeWaard:
The activists. People like to believe lies. Activists know how to play on that. They know how to take this one horrible picture, making it look like we’re mistreating these cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
Shouldn’t people know better, though, or have other sources of info?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but the average person’s three generations removed from a dairy or any sort of farming, so how would they even know?

Dillon Honcoop:
So I guess that’s why farmers need to say something?

Erica DeWaard:
And I saw something recently that for a long time people didn’t want to hear about farming, so farmers didn’t say anything, but now people are taking the farmers’ silence as meaning we’re hiding something. So it just kind of went the wrong way and now we need to be out there actually saying something again to the people that actually are open to learning about what we do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because of the advocacy work that you do and more and more people in the farming community are doing to speak out and just share real stories of here’s what it’s like on the farm, and here’s what we actually care about, you think that’s starting to change?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people message me that they actually went from being a vegan, which is someone who won’t touch meat or dairy, and they actually started accepting animal agriculture as being good because of what I was posting, because they hadn’t ever seen the perspective that, well, I’m a farmer telling about farming. They’d never gotten the chance to even talk to a farmer, so they just believed what they were told. But then they realized that maybe, hey, the farmer might actually know what they’re doing better than Google does. Maybe they should actually be asking the farmer instead of Google.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what is it that you say that helps them change their mind? Because I think a lot of people feel like they try to say that, but maybe then it turns into an argument and the person may not believe them anyway. What’s the secret to you changing minds and saying, “Hey, what I’m doing is real, and I actually care about it, and we’re doing this responsibly and we care about these animals and being good farmers.”

Erica DeWaard:
Well, part of it is I love to write, so I know how to word everything in a way that people are actually going to want to read it. And another part is the pictures I share. I put a lot of time into getting those pictures to try, so if someone only looks at the picture, it kind of shares the story that I’m trying to tell and-

Dillon Honcoop:
A picture is worth a thousand words.

Erica DeWaard:
Yep. People are willing to look at that picture and sometimes after that they start reading what I actually said.

Dillon Honcoop:
When do they actually get to the point where they tell you that they’ve changed some viewpoint that they had based on what you said? It usually takes a lot to get a person to that point.

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t know how long it takes for them to really realize. I don’t pay much attention to when one person started following me versus when I hear from them. There’s 19,000 people that follow me on Instagram, about 10,000 on Facebook. I don’t know them. It’s just these random messages, “Oh, hey, you taught me so much about farming. I had no clue, and I support you in what you’re doing and I actually went and bought a gallon of milk for the first time in 20 years.” So it’s kind of incredible that I can actually make a difference.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it feel like to have that many people following you?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s terrifying.

Dillon Honcoop:
Terrifying like in the introvert sense [crosstalk 00:37:25]?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. A little scary. Sometimes I go out to the Safeway and then if someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, Farmer Girl,” I’m like, “Do I know you?” A lot of times they won’t introduce themselves, they just start talking to me like, well they know me, so you’re talking to me like a friend, but I’m like, “I have no clue who you are.” I can’t tell you that because it’s awkward.

Dillon Honcoop:
You don’t want to be rude.

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t want to be rude and say, “Oh, so who in the world are you anyway?”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re becoming famous.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. Well, [inaudible 00:37:54] for people. I go out somewhere and people recognize me. It’s not something I really ever expected.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I was going to say, when you started this advocacy thing, you wanted to speak out, you wanted people to hear, but did you ever have any idea that it would get to this point?

Erica DeWaard:
I had no clue it would be like this, that people would actually want to hear my story.

Dillon Honcoop:
I follow people who have done similar things to what you’re doing and at some point some of them expressed a lot of burnout. What’s your take on that? Have you felt some of that? Have there been times when you’ve been like, “Maybe I’m done doing this.”

Erica DeWaard:
I felt like that, but then you get that one message that people… It changes my mind when they respond in a positive way, and part of it is the reason I go hiking is it does help me mentally and emotionally besides, obviously, physically. It’s just this good way to help myself get away from everything for awhile. Being out there in the woods, it kind of puts everything in perspective that, you know what? Yes, I’m on social media. I’m getting attacked all the time, but does that really matter in the grand scheme of things? It doesn’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a week are you feeding calves and whatnot? I’m assuming that’s at least a full-time job.

Erica DeWaard:
That’s 40 or 50 hours every week.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so you do get some time to yourself, then, to do things like hiking and whatnot.

Erica DeWaard:
They actually give you one day off a week, which is not normal for dairy farming. It’s really a nice bonus. So then I also, since I’m feeding calves, they need fed twice a day, so I’m feed them at 6:00 AM, I’m done typically by 9:00 in the morning, then I go back and I feed them at 3:30 until I’m done at night, which can be 7:00, but I have this weird time in the middle of the day that I don’t have to do anything. Sometimes I just go take a nap. Other times I’ll go hiking and obviously I have to spend a lot of that time writing what I’m going to post on social media.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think you’ll always feed calves?

Erica DeWaard:
Probably. I just love it too much to ever quit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, isn’t that what everybody says they’re trying to find is that job that they just love so much?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, and I found my dream job when I was 11. Who can really say that?

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get so lucky to find your dream job that early?

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t know. It was just farming’s in my blood. I have this old picture of my great uncle feeding calves, and I guess the whole calf feeding thing is just genetic. For some reason I got the bug, I had to do this. My aunt actually feeds calves too. One of my uncles does. My dad used to. For some reason something my family loves.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I’m catching you in the middle of the day today. You even have to go back-

Erica DeWaard:
I have to go back to work. I got up at 5:00 this morning, [inaudible 00:40:23] oh, every day, all week, and I’m not really a morning person. There’s a lot of caffeine involved.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re a dairy farmer, but you’re not a morning-

Erica DeWaard:
I’m not a morning person.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. Truth be told, how many dairy farmers are actually like that? Because that’s the assumption that a dairy farmer must be a morning person [crosstalk 00:40:40].

Erica DeWaard:
There’s a lot of us that hate morning. It’s actually pretty normal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for coming in and opening up about yourself. I really appreciate you being willing to, even though it made you nervous, being willing to come in and share your story with us here.

Erica DeWaard:
You’re welcome. Hard for me to talk, but I know I need to.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks again for joining me on this journey with the Real Food Real People podcast. It still boggles my mind to think about someone as nice and as passionate and as caring as Erica getting death threats for simply just showing what she does on a day-to-day basis.

Dillon Honcoop:
We so appreciate your support of the Real Food Real People podcast. We know that there are so many people in and around the farming community and the food community in this state in Washington that have incredible stories to share. If you know somebody with a story that would be great to share here on the podcast, please let me know. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. My name is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Just shoot me an email. Let me know a little bit about them. I would love to hear from you on that or any other feedback you have on the show. Again, Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Thanks for being here and we’ll talk with you again next week.

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

Chris Doelman | #001 12/16/2019

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You are in Vietnam.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Doelman:
I think I was 34-35.

Dillon Honcoop:
35 years old in Tenino, Washington.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Then you had to step it up?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So this past-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How’s he doing now?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, good for him.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When we were just kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Doelman:
Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You mentioned the E word, environment?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
By state law?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So people have been supportive?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Doelman:
No, I don’t actually.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That sounds so like 1950.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Kitchen meeting.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
A bunch of redneck farmers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Doelman:
Thanks Dillon, I appreciate the time.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for listening to the Real Food, Real People podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe and we’ll be back with another episode next week. Also, check out our website, realfoodrealpeople.org.

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