Corby Groen | #044 10/12/2020

A rare medical condition nearly took the life of organic dairy farmer Corby Groen earlier this year. He shares the amazing story of how doctors raced to figure out what was killing him from the inside, and how his family and the surrounding community was able to keep the farm going while he was hospitalized for months.

Transcript

Rosella Mosby | #037 08/24/2020

Vegetable farmer Rosella Mosby grows literally tons of local food just minutes from the heart of Seattle. She shares some big challenges our food system faces to make locally-grown produce more available.

Transcript

Rosella Mosby:
He just called me up one day and he said, “Hey, you want to go have dinner?” and I was like, “Sure. Why not?” A man in my life at that point was not on my list either because here I am, I’m self-employed, I’ve got two kids. You know what I mean? And it was just one of those weird times in your life where you’re thinking, “I do not have time for this.”

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Getting locally-grown food in the city, in Seattle doesn’t have to be that hard, and in fact, there are growers producing amazing food not that far away. And that choice to buy food that’s locally grown can have an effect on the community, on workers, animals, even the surrounding environment, our rivers and fish, which ultimately impact the orcas. There’s so much to eating locally grown food and that is so much the focus of our conversation this week with a veggie farmer in Auburn, Washington, just outside of Seattle, just in Seattle’s backyard really, Rosella Mosby. I think you’re really going to enjoy this conversation and learn a lot about the reality of our local food system.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, how many different kinds of food do you guys grow at Mosby Farms?

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, that’s dwindling actually over the years.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, sure. We don’t grow no green beans, no peas anymore. It’s too labor-intensive. So, we are currently down to rhubarb, leeks, beets, zucchini, yellow squash, some hard squashes, pumpkins for fall, sweet acorn that we sell from pumpkin patch. We don’t have we a retail stand anymore either. Thanks to some regulatory requirements from King County, we were going to stay open. We would have had to put in a well and a water treatment system, and for a part-time stand, it’s like, “No, thanks.” So, we don’t grow some of those odds and end items that end up in a store too. So, yeah, we’re just down to the things that we wholesale to mostly every grocery chain and produce house in the Pacific Northwest.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that was going to be my next question, where can you find all of this food?

Rosella Mosby:
Grocery store-

Dillon Honcoop:
If I live in Seattle-

Rosella Mosby:
… restaurants.

Dillon Honcoop:
… how do I know if I’m getting something from Mosby Farms?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, you should ask for it every single time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Good idea.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. It’s fun because you do get photos from your friends that are like, “Hey, look. I found some beets in the grocery store in some random town in the Pacific Northwest,” not even remotely close to us and it’ll have a tie on it. And so, that’s cool to get those.

Rosella Mosby:
We sell to Charlie’s Produce and they have contracts with the cruise ships. Right now, that’s not happening, right? And then, restaurants and pretty much all of the players in the Pacific Northwest, we sold to. So, if it’s not in a grocery store, it’s in a restaurant.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, if it’s in a grocery store, is it going to have your sticker on it or something?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, it’ll have a tie or a sticker. Not always, it depends. Like rhubarb’s not a stickered item. It’s comical because I’m a consumer myself, right, so sometimes I’ll roll through the produce department and I’ll notice that the rhubarb will say it’s from Mexico, and I’ll say to the produce guy, “Hey, rhubarb doesn’t grow in Mexico, so why is it tagged that it’s in Mexico?” and they’re like, “Well…” And I’m like, “No, no. You can’t get away with telling me that it’s legit because it’s not. We grow rhubarb.” And so, it’s interesting to go through the produce section and just see what either your product looks like or what your fellow grower’s product looks like and how this door is marketing that product. Yeah, I don’t know. It is what it is. We’re just trying to survive.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, that’s the thing though. The labeling and the stickers and stuff, you say something’s going to have stickers on it, some things aren’t going to, but a lot of people like myself are trying to go to the store, buy as many local things as they can, and realizing that’s not going to be possible with everything. But it’s hard to know sometimes how to know-

Rosella Mosby:
You should ask. And the reason you ask is because… Oh boy, we’re going to dive in deep right in the beginning.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Do it.

Rosella Mosby:
The reason you should ask is because the produce buyer in Cincinnati, his job is to get produce in his store for the lowest price possible, right? I don’t believe he really gives a rip what is happening in Auburn, Washington on Mosby’s vegetable farm. He likes that we’re here and he likes that somewhere in the store, there’s a poster hanging with our faces and our names on it and claiming that we’re a local grower. But at the same time, that’s not his job. His job is to get product in the store for the lowest price because he’s trying to give the consumer the lowest price.

Rosella Mosby:
But wait a second, at the same time, there’s a difference between staying afloat and thriving for the farmer. And so, if you’re staying afloat year after year after year and you’re scraping, you’re rubbing your nickels together but that doesn’t turn into $1 anywhere, right? And so, we still are using equipment, we’re still using trucks, we’re still having to maintain those things and still think about going forward. How are we going to invest in better irrigation that’s more efficient, better equipment that’s more efficient? Whose trucks are we buying that are second-hand, right? Because we’re a first-generation farm, so no previous generation paid for anything where we are.

Rosella Mosby:
And so, when you think about the difference between staying afloat and thriving, the thriving part ensures that we can invest in the future, right? So, we live in Washington, our farm is 40 minutes from Microsoft. I mean, you think about what is happening in the tech world and how we can tie that into agriculture, and we’ve had people out measuring our equipment because they want to know how far apart the cultivators are and those little details because I’m sure they’re working on robotics.

Rosella Mosby:
Okay so, say, they achieve those goals, they have this great piece of equipment, well, what farmer that is staying afloat is going to be able to actually invest in those tools to make their job more efficient. But yet, the consumer expects us to be more “sustainable” and try to make those moves. But if we’re still staying afloat barely, how do we do that? How do you invest for the future?

Rosella Mosby:
So, that’s really, I think up to the customer, the consumer, to be saying at the grocery store, “Hey, I want to buy what’s in season and what’s local. Help me. Tell me what that is.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re saying people are actually asking that question at the store. What if it’s just some young guy working there and doesn’t know anything? Does it still make a difference if you ask those questions?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, it sure doesn’t make the produce guy look very smart that he doesn’t know. I think as consumers, that should be our expectation, is that our produce guys should be able to answer those questions.

Rosella Mosby:
He might come back with an “I don’t know.” I asked, I’ll go to a grocery store, I’ll go to some really higher end grocery stores because they have better cheese, and I really love cheese, and I’ll walk through the produce section and I’ll say, “Hey, where’s your rhubarb from or hey, where’s your zucchini from? Do you still have your box?” And sometimes they’ll go on the back and they’ll say, “I don’t have the box,” and sometimes they come out with ours, sometimes they come out with Richter’s, sometimes they come out with Sterino’s or whatever. I don’t care. I just like to know that it’s a locally-sourced product and that our regional farmers are being supported.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that signal go back up the chain though if I ask at the grocery store? Can that-

Rosella Mosby:
I hope so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you ever heard back from people who were asking for local stuff or your Mosby Farms stuff or anything like that?

Rosella Mosby:
I haven’t heard that directly, but I do believe that the marketing you hear on the radio is a result, or the marketing you see in a newspaper or what have you is those grocery chains trying to appeal to consumer demands, right? So, we have conventional on our farm, we have organic on our farm. Well, we’re switching slowly to organic because that’s where the market is going. And for us on our farm, I would say that doesn’t apply to every aspect of agriculture. But for us, it’s like motorboats and sailboats or bicycles and motorcycles, right?

Rosella Mosby:
So, for us… I keep coming back to rhubarb, but rhubarb is a great example. Rhubarb grows. It doesn’t… For us, there’s not really much to apply to rhubarb on a conventional end or organic end, and the organic rhubarb actually is ready two weeks before the conventional rhubarb, and we can sell it as conventional if it’s organic. And so, for us, rhubarb is rhubarb, whether it’s certified or not.

Rosella Mosby:
People are always going to pay more for designer cheese and designer wine and designer shoes, and if you go those extra steps to get that certification and people are willing to pay for it, there’s a market there. And so, if retailers start saying that that should be your only choice, that’s wrong. You know what I mean? So, I think we’re lucky to live where we live and have choices. That’s a beautiful part of living where we live is having food choices.

Rosella Mosby:
So, I think my issue to a point with the marketing part of that is that I think they steer that boat a little bit, like, “Hey, you need this because it has this label, or you need this because it was raised this way, or you need…” At the end of the day, I think if consumers really want to send the message that local agriculture is important and that I want to support what is grown here, they need to be saying that to their produce person because it should be getting back to that department manager who should be relaying that to their buyer.

Dillon Honcoop:
And honestly, the reason I often don’t think to do something like that is because I’m cynical. I think nobody’s going to care, but maybe sometimes it will actually work. I don’t know. Or can we… Is there any other mechanism to help push this local food movement along and get the market more aware of those of us who want local food or demand or desire to have local grown stuff?

Rosella Mosby:
Honestly, if I didn’t at Kroger or Safeway, whatever, I’m probably going to get cut off as a farmer. But a consumer could do that all day long when it comes to social media, like a Twitter tag or a social media post taking those companies. I think social media, especially when it comes to agriculture is underutilized. And I think as a grower, I don’t know that that’s the right direction for us because we’re depending on those companies for sales. But a consumer, they have nothing to lose and demanding that local agriculture is supported.

Rosella Mosby:
Because when you think about the carbon footprint of something that has grown at our farm, and we deliver it 15 miles to the distribution center in Puyallup, and then we deliver it 7 miles to the distribution center in Auburn, and then we deliver 25 minutes to Seattle, that’s a very low carbon footprint, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, compared to grown overseas or in Central or South America-

Rosella Mosby:
Or California.

Dillon Honcoop:
It has to travel hundreds or more likely thousands of miles to get to Seattle.

Rosella Mosby:
And we’re growing 350 acres of… We did hand-harvested produce. And so, out of that… We’re stewarding 500 acres. And so, that 350 acres is under production, but the other acreage is either forestry buffers next to the Green River or a little bit next to the White River, or in Orting. I don’t think we’re next to anything in Orting really, but… Or it’s in cover crops. We’re trying to build soil, so I don’t think people realize that just because that acreage is there, doesn’t mean that we’re planting every little bit of it. There is this rotation plan and there is a conscious effort to invest into the soil for the future because it’s all we got.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it too much of a stretch though to say that if I go to the store and say, “Is this locally grown? Can you guys get locally grown in? Can you bring more stuff into the store that has grown locally?” and that create some sort of signal of demand up the chain. Maybe I post some things on social media and at them or whatever it takes, and they start realizing there’s an increasing demand for locally-grown food, that in turn helps support you and other local growers which helps keep local farmland in production, right?

Rosella Mosby:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
And not just all of it in production, but then in rotation or farms to be able to be here. That’s actually by asking that question and making that purchase at the store, I’m helping the rivers and the fish. Is that too much of a stretch to say that?

Rosella Mosby:
No, I don’t think so. And as long as they’re thriving, you’ve just summed up sustainability, right? So, we’re employing, I think, I signed 81 paychecks last week, and that’s 81 families that we’re helping to put food on the table for. And so, at the end of the season, when we write that check to the bank and attempt to pay everything back, if there’s a little bit left, then we’ve accomplished our goals. We’ve created something that we can invest back into the farm and we’ve helped out our employees have a roof over their head and food in their bellies and we’ve provided food for our community. And that also includes food that is donated to local food banks.

Rosella Mosby:
Because when you have boxes of zucchini in your cooler and you have sold so many but you have this little bit of extra, we could dump them in the dump truck to go to the compost pile over the bridge for [Arny’s 00:16:20] cows or we can send it to the food bank and feed people. That’s a straight-up donation. That is a loss of box, which the box is $1.75 each. And that’s a loss of labor. And so, you take this farm out of the community equation and it’s a loss. It’s a loss of land stewardship, it’s a loss of community impact when it comes to feeding people who are having food access issues, and it’s a loss to paychecks for 81 families.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I think it’s a loss to I was thinking about the river system and the water and fish and habitat here too. I mean, what happens to this valley that you’re in? You’re so close to the city. If you go away, what happens to it?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. Well, that’s up to the next owner, I guess, it would be.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, I would think, would houses come in here, pavement, development?

Rosella Mosby:
No, that’s the one thing about that you have to give King County credit for. So, this is FPP land. This has had the development rights purchased, and so it will always be farmland. It’s been preserved. That happened before we got here so everybody else… This piece, the previous owner benefited from that. The main warehouse piece is a different piece and that was sheltered dairy at one time, and they benefited from that development right purchase. But no, this will always be farmland.

Dillon Honcoop:
But it is just your farm. What about the area around it? How much of this area is protected?

Rosella Mosby:
Quite a bit of the Green River Valley. This is an agricultural production zone. And so, King County has worked hard to protect its Ag zones. And so, this whole Green River Valley which used to have hops in it and then it’s had strawberry farms, and now mostly cattle, there’s blueberry farm up the road, and then there’s us. So, we didn’t come here until, I think, Burr bought the main warehouse piece around 1990.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s when the farm started, or was he farming before then?

Rosella Mosby:
No, you’ll have to hit him up for a podcast because he’s a great story in himself. So, he was 14 when he started doing hay in the Orting Valley. His dad was a pharmacist who left the family farm when his dad would not upgrade the mules, names were Tom and Jerry, to a tractor, but he always loved equipment. And so, he was a pharmacist. And his mom grew up on a Holly farm up where the second runway of SeaTac is. And then they moved out McMillan, which is this tiny little town that doesn’t really exist anymore, on your way out to Orting, and he and his brother started baling hay.

Rosella Mosby:
And then, mentors are awesome people, right? And so, he had a mentor. Her name is [Thalia Chapa 00:19:35]. Her maiden name was Vaca. And so, we always call her Mrs. Vaca. She’s still alive. I think she’s right about 99 years old at this point. And she said, “Hey, Burr, you should be growing zucchini and leeks,” and so he delved into that at 17. So, think about that he’s still in high school, made his first delivery of acorn squash in the back of a pickup truck to Safeway in 1977.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. Which would never happen today. I mean, today you have food safety craziness, right? And you have to deliver it in a refrigerated truck and it gets temperature-checked and you have to have the little tab, the temp trail, that goes on your pallet and it tells you the temperature of the whole route of… You have to make sure it didn’t get too warm on delivery.

Rosella Mosby:
Anyway, so I have huge admiration. His brother went on to work at some new tractor and then bought into some new tractor and went that route, but Burr really just kept going on the farm and turned it into what it is now. So, I have huge respect for the guy that works harder than anybody I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you join the picture?

Rosella Mosby:
I missed all the late nights of headlights on the tractor until midnight and eating lettuce out of the field because it’s all you can afford. I came along later. Let’s see. We grew up… Actually, I grew up two miles up the road from Burr. We are 14 years to the day because we share a birthday. We’re 14 years apart. My older brother went to school with his younger sister, and our circles touched. We knew a lot of the same people, Sumner is a small town, but we didn’t really know each other.

Rosella Mosby:
I worked at the local pharmacy, he would come in. I always thought he looked like Tom Selleck because he had this big mustache and dark hair. It was dark, now he’s all grayed out. Anyhow, he looked right through me, talked to the pharmacist in the back. And we had some mutual friends that got married. So, one of my really good friends from school got married to a local turf farmer. And so, we chatted, I think, the first time there but I was there with a boyfriend, didn’t end up marrying that boyfriend, but we would run into each other for probably 13 years at weddings because I have relatives that are farmers in the Sumner Valley, weddings, funerals and McLendon hardware, which is just weird. And so, we talked to each other-

Dillon Honcoop:
That still happens. And it’s not even that far from the big city, but those meetings where there’s community around things like a hardware store. I love that.

Rosella Mosby:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love that.

Rosella Mosby:
And I love the hardware store. I had a decorative painting and plastering business, so I’ve always worked in a man’s world, I guess. Backing up a little bit, my little brother played football in high school and then ended up at Western playing football. That time, my dad got cancer. And so, I went to school locally and never went off to college. It’s like I was the only girl, I was the middle girl. I’m going to stay and help my mom. The priority was my little brother because he had this great opportunity, right?

Rosella Mosby:
So, my dad passed when I was 20. And so, here’s my mom. She worked for the sheriff’s department, and we had cows. She’s up and trying to feed these cows at 4:00 in the morning so she can go to work and I’m going to school. It was just chaotic. So, that’s about the time that I talked to Burr at that wedding. Anyhow, so just different. I just had this path where I ended up getting married, had a couple of kids, eventually started my decorative painting and plastering business, ended up divorced. Chapter 1, Chapter 2 situation, right?

Rosella Mosby:
I would go to this coffee shop early in the morning and Burr’s foreman work there, or his mechanic guy, one of his foremen. I was there for my 30th birthday and I was like, “Hey.” I go, “Guys, I’m…” and it was not a time in my lifetime to have a party. And I said, “Hey, I’m so glad you guys are here. Hey, happy birthday. It’s my birthday today, my 30th. That’s a milestone.” And Boyd said, “Today’s your birthday? Today is Burr’s birthday. ” So here I knew for 13 years, we would have these 20-minute conversations in the middle of McLendon Hardware, and never knew that we shared a birthday.

Rosella Mosby:
So, anyhow, he just called me up one day. I mean, there were a few other weird coincidental things that happened in there that made him call me up one day, and he said, “Hey, you want to go have dinner?” and I was like, “Sure. Why not?” A man in my life at that point was not on my list either because here I am, I’m self-employed, I’ve got two kids. You know what I mean? And it was just one of those weird times in your life where you’re thinking, “I do not have time for this.” I’m cleaning trowels and brushes at 11:00 at night and trying to do bids and get my sample boards done.

Rosella Mosby:
But Burr was an easy relationship for me. It was almost like going home because we’re both from Sumner, we knew a lot of the same people. Our conversations were great. And when I left my parents, I was like, “Oh, I’ll never have to put hay in a barn again.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Little did you know.

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, yeah. Well, I still don’t have to put hay in a barn, but I move bales for pumpkin patch every year, but I can handle that. Had an uncle who had a tremendous garden and he would always try to give me leeks. I’d say, “Uncle Gil, I don’t know what to do with the leeks. Can I have some grapes off your grapevines?” Then, I end up marrying a leek farmer and I have so many leek recipes, and it’s not even [inaudible 00:26:11].

Rosella Mosby:
So, anyhow, yeah, so I came along. I was about 30, 31, so that’s 17 years ago. And I think because of just having a taste, my dad was definitely more of a gentle man farmer, he worked in construction and was a foreman, and so he handled big project kind of stuff, I just have respect for the industry and respect for the process and respect for what happens here. And I think he appreciates that. It’s like he gets home when he gets home, and he’s the first guy to go to work. Well, except for during zucchini season. Those guys show up at 5:00 in the morning. But he’s always the last one to come home.

Rosella Mosby:
I took a picture from our house of the warehouse last week and the office lights were on, and everything was dark. And here he is volunteering his time because he’s the chair of the King Conservation Board of Supervisors. And I’m like, “So, here’s this guy who’s worked his ass off all day, and he’s sitting there, hopefully drinking a beer while he’s doing his meeting.” But sitting there, trying to take care of something that is all volunteer hours. I think that’s another thing that people don’t always realize is the amount of volunteer time that farmers contribute to agriculture issues. They sit on boards about water issues, or they… So, yeah, I have huge… There’s my Burr Mosby plug.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, how did you get into the actual farming part of it though? How did that go? Because I guess you had some kind of farming experience, but you hadn’t done farming like this.

Rosella Mosby:
Right, because I had my own business.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re kind of an artist, right? It sounds like with your business.

Rosella Mosby:
What happened is we got married, and I was running my own business and doing well. I mean, I did it for 13 years, and I liked it. I had lots of flexibility. And so, Burr says, “Hey, so the gal who’s going to run our farm stand isn’t going to come back. Will you run it?” And I was like, “No, hire somebody. I have a job. I like my job. No.” And he’s like, “Oh, come on.” I’m like, “Dude, I want to be married to you 10 years from now.” We have very different styles when it comes to leadership and working. No, I’m not going to work for you or with you ever. Yeah, a total fail on that.

Rosella Mosby:
So anyhow, I said, “Okay, fine,” because he’s really good at procrastinating, I said, “Okay, fine.” I have a business. And so, here I am, business, I have two kids, right, who are already in school, because I have two older kids, and then I have this new baby. And I’m trying to run this business. I said, “I will run your farm stand. I will not stand behind the till. I will hire, I will fire. I will do your produce order. I’ll carry your tills down. I’ll make sure that things are done, but I am not going to be there 24/7.”

Rosella Mosby:
Oh my gosh. So, there was a day, in particular, that my babysitter fell through for Lily, number three out of four. I’m on a ladder in a Forza coffee shop, which was one of my commercial clients, and I’m moving glaze on a wall, and my phone is in the crook of my neck. And I’m making a produce order, and I got a screaming kid in a stroller. I’m like, “What the F am I doing with my life right now, seriously? Why? Why? Why?” And so, I made a really… It was a hard decision for me, but I chose to give up my business, which was probably better for my shoulder anyway. Eventually, did have to have surgery. And the farm became the priority. It was better for my family and we eat lunch together most days.

Rosella Mosby:
So, I jumped into the produce stand end of the farm. And Burr was so happy because I increase sales 50% the first year. And then, he’s like, “Oh, hey…” And so, he took me to Italy thinking we’d get pregnant with Henry, and actually went to Italy six months pregnant with Henry. So, whatever. Anyway, he’s trying to talk me into doing it again, and I was like, “Oh.”

Rosella Mosby:
And so, I did it until about six years ago. It grew a ton. But 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers, and that was their missing link, the gal that was there before. It’s like if you’re going to make a stir fry, you have to buy peppers. People are coming through. We may not grow them, but you need to supply them. People will buy peppers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because they just want to go to one place. They won’t to have to go to five places to put their stir fry together.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. And so, I mean, I started carrying wine and beer and cheese and meat and doing borrow a basket, where people could borrow this basket and then they could buy a little picnic and go out and there was a tablecloth and a deck of cards or a little tiny backgammon, little book for comments, two wine glasses, and a cutting board. And people would spend money buying their snacks, enjoying a space on the farm, and then they come back through, buy what they ate again, because they thought it was so good the first time and they have to take some home. And then, they would leave. I mean, it was because I put a basket together.

Rosella Mosby:
And so, I think what I bring to the farm is Burr’s very linear thinking and concrete and I’m all over the place, so I’m definitely more abstract. And so, when it came to the retail end, I was like, “No, let’s do this and let’s do that.” Unfortunately, for me, sometimes I’m like, “Let’s do this,” and I say it and then I have to own it, right? You say it, you own it. So definitely then I’m like, “Oh wait, whose idea was this? I think it was mine. Oh no, why did I say it out loud?” So, I’ve had a few moments like that along the way.

Rosella Mosby:
How I got into the more of the advocacy end was because the labor issue became a bigger, more profound problem for our farm. And so, we started becoming much more vocal about “Wow, this is really a problem.” We’re in South King County, where there’s plenty of people, and we still can’t get people to come to work. And so, that just became my drum to beat. And that’s how I got more involved in the speaking out and the advocacy part of the farm.

Rosella Mosby:
So, Burr’s like the guy who’s trying to do the day-to-day stuff and I try to fill in on all of the retail end and the community outreach and I’m typically the one who sits on boards, the cabinet communicator.

Dillon Honcoop:
The communicator.

Rosella Mosby:
He’s a good communicator too. He just doesn’t have the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Lots of farming to do when you have 300 acres in production.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How would you describe the size of your farm? What category does that fit into?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, if you ask people in King County, we’re probably the big evil entity in the county.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, I think so. A little bit. There’s a bigger farm. I’d say we’re one of the bigger farms in King County. But scale-wise, in the real world, we’re small.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just surprised that people don’t like, because you’re growing local food here basically in Seattle’s backyard.

Rosella Mosby:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). People are like-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s frowned on because you’re too big?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, I think there’s the element of either other agriculturalists or consumers who really like that super small CSA style farm that get a little bit judge-y, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s too bad because those are great too, but we can’t especially afford it. I’m saying this as somebody who’s not made a money, I can’t always afford the high end super small farm stuff. I think it’s really cool that people are doing that and that some people can afford that. I can’t always afford that, and I want just local food. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I just want to know it’s grown close-by.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. And I think that’s something too that usually goes unrecognized is that all aspects of agriculture have value. When you think about the biggest restaurant in your town, it’s likely your school district, and people don’t always think about it like that, right? And so, if your school district is your biggest restaurant in town, think about the hotels, the convention centers, hospitals, those kinds of things.

Rosella Mosby:
Those buyers or chefs or whoever is coordinating their food part of that business or organization isn’t going to go shopping at a farmer’s market, isn’t necessarily going to take the time to buy direct from a farm. They want to call the middleman produce guy and be like, “Hey, I need your order guide. I need three boxes of zucchini. I need 50-pound bag of potatoes. I need so many bags of onions.” You know what I mean? And they’re going to have it show up on a pallet because that’s what’s efficient and that’s what’s affordable, because they have a bottom line to meet too.

Rosella Mosby:
And so, when I say that there’s always going to be that consumer who buys more expensive cheese and more expensive wine and better shoes, that is true within every aspect of what we buy. It’s true for cars, it’s true for clothes, it’s true for our food. And so, supporting whatever you want to support is a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing that we have those choices. And so, I don’t like that we…

Rosella Mosby:
Even within agriculture, everybody goes, “Oh, well, they do this and they do that,” and it’s like, “Oh, stop, stop, stop,” because it should never be an us in them kind of thing. The us in them should actually be we’re in agriculture and there are people out there who don’t like us. And while we’re busy fighting amongst ourselves, which I don’t think we fight amongst ourselves too much, but while we’re busy nitpicking each other, there’s this whole other entity out here that is trying to attack us as a whole.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that attack? Who are these people? What’s their motive?

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, I don’t know exactly who they are.

Dillon Honcoop:
But just generally.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, yeah. But I mean, there’s groups out there that are trying to undermine the work of local agriculture. I mean, look at regulation, look at carbon taxes that are just going to make it super expensive for farms to be able to operate their machinery. We had a group of leadership people who came up from California last summer, who were ooh-ing and ahh-ing at our little tractors, because we have little tractors with implements that are set up for everything. So, we have one that’s set up to cultivate beets, one set up for leaks, one set for zucchini, and they’re all these little small, old, first generation. We’re back to that whole thing, right? But they all have this purpose. And these guys from California we’re like, “Wow, this is so cool.” You can’t operate this kind of tractors on our farms-

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Rosella Mosby:
… because there’s too much emissions. They can’t utilize older equipment because the regulations are too strict.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, they have to get new?

Rosella Mosby:
They have to get new and it has to meet these emission requirements. And so, when you think about how hard it is for a new farmer to get started or anybody to get started, right, so what are those barriers? Well, equipment. New equipment’s expensive. So, when you think about an older piece of equipment that you can make use of to just get going, are we setting ourselves up for failure by having these regulatory issues be so strict that we aren’t growing ou agriculturalists?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So, instead of going from that old tractor carbon footprint to a newer tractor carbon footprint, you’re going to food from Mexico carbon footprint or food from-

Rosella Mosby:
Which we have no control of.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I’m just saying, yeah, it’s like apples and oranges on scale if you’re really worried about what the carbon footprint of your food is. I don’t know, obviously I’m biased on this. That’s why I’m doing all this. But to me, advantage local food times 10 right here, even if the tractor isn’t the most efficient and it won’t last forever anyway. Eventually, it will have to be replaced by that more efficient tractor. But even if its carbon footprint is a little bit bigger, it’s so much more important to have that food grown locally than have a truck or a train or a ship bring it thousands of miles here.

Rosella Mosby:
Absolutely. And the older tractors, typically you can work on those easier, right? You don’t have the whole right to repair issue. I don’t know, think too about when it comes to food safety regulations. We control what we grow here, right? We are a farm. We’re responsible. We do third-party audits. We have this whole food safety thing that takes a tremendous amount of time and paperwork and effort to track and yearly audits that we go through. And so, we adhere to that and we’re proud to do that. We’re proud to grow safe food here.

Rosella Mosby:
When we are bringing food in from another country, we can’t control what they’re doing in another country. And they may say, “Oh, yeah. No, we do it this way. Oh yeah, checked the boxes, whatever,” but are they really? Do they really? I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the question is what food can you really trust?

Rosella Mosby:
I don’t know. I’d rather eat something from here than anywhere else. I mean, I think, don’t they still put [inaudible 00:42:01] on grapes and chili or something like that?

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Rosella Mosby:
I don’t know if somebody told me that. Yeah. So, we’d have to check that factoid out. But we don’t do that on apples here and everybody had this big huge thing, but then we’re happy to eat grapes grown and chili that are imported here. And so, just because something isn’t approved to use in the United States doesn’t mean-

Dillon Honcoop:
As long as it’s not happening in my backyard. If it’s happening in another country, I’m not going to care, which doesn’t really make sense at the end of the day, because it’s about the food that you’re putting in your body.

Rosella Mosby:
Right. I mean, look at farms that spread manure, there’s regulation on that. Don’t ask me what it is, but there is. You can only spread certain times a year and you can only spread so much per acre. I mean-

Dillon Honcoop:
To protect the streams and things like that.

Rosella Mosby:
Sure. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s not as simple as just, “Yeah, go throw some manure out there.”

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know that from having grown up around dairy farms, and still living in a dairy farming community.

Rosella Mosby:
I heard a statistic the other day that blew me away. 7% of American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that true? Really?

Rosella Mosby:
When you think about it, it blows you away. But when you actually put the number that that’s over 16 million Americans-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s scary.

Rosella Mosby:
… that’s a problem.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s scary.

Rosella Mosby:
But the same… Here’s another good one for you. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Are those adults or are those kids?

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, these are adults. It said adults.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

Rosella Mosby:
So, the other good one that my good friend, April Clayton, loves to share is that the number of farmers in the United States is the same number of people who believe in aliens. I love that statistic. It’s brilliant. It’s little over 1% or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are you saying that farmers believe in aliens?

Rosella Mosby:
No, I’m saying-

Dillon Honcoop:
No, I know what it is. That is how small the farming community has become.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. And when you think about, when you define that 1%, I think it’s half of them really gross like $10,000 a year or something like that. So, when you think about the ones who are actually in production living off of it-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, grossing $10,000 a year and you back all the costs out and your profit’s maybe, what, 100 bucks?

Rosella Mosby:
So, it’s like a schedule H or something they file for their taxes. I don’t know. I think especially with our current situation and coronavirus and when you’re looking at empty shelves, people should be asking more questions. They should be saying, “Hey, I want to see local. I don’t just want to see the poster hanging in the store. I want to see you actually…” It’s not just a marketing tool. Sometimes I feel like that poster is a marketing tool as a farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, back to the farm stand thing. You don’t do that anymore.

Rosella Mosby:
No, no. And we have the intention of building a new one with a partner right next to the freeway where our pumpkin patch is, but oh my gosh, just the cost of doing it within the city just turned into an astronomical. Oh my gosh, I came home one day, and I said to Burr, “Hey, so this whole retail thing is in my lap, and I have one question.” I go, “Do you like that your wife is home when you get home from work?” And he said, “Well, yeah,” and I go, “If we do this, I’ll never be home when you get home from work because we’re going to be in this new hole we’re going to create for 20 years probably.”

Rosella Mosby:
I mean, I don’t know, we’re just at the point… We’re trying to get our farm set up for second generation. We have a 25-year-old and a 22-year-old and then Lily’s 13, almost 14, and a 12-year-old, and everybody’s working on the farm. And so, it’s like we need to be figuring out what our next step is and how we become more efficient on the farm. We decided adding something new like that was going to be a lot.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the one that you had couldn’t keep going?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, we would still have to put in this new well and water treatment system and that’s before you even apply for a Risk 1 grocery permit, so that is to carry anything with an expiration date. So, you’re not cutting anything. You’re not-

Dillon Honcoop:
You mean something that’s just grown on the farm here?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, but then you’re just doing produce and the money really is, it’s all those other things. It’s the guy who comes by and he picks up corn, and a 22-ounce microbrew, and it’s the cheese, and picking up a bottle of wine, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, like you were saying earlier, having a variety of things, your own stuff and then other stuff, so keep looking. And so, then that puts you in a different category as far as the rules you have to follow?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, anything refrigerated with an expiration date. So, if you’re talking cheese-

Dillon Honcoop:
Packaged stuff.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so, what would it take to do all that to be able to-

Rosella Mosby:
About $75,000 and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Rosella Mosby:
… doing a well and getting a water treatment system in. This is crazy. So, if you have a distillery, people want a natural water source, right, water spring, that’s awesome. Well, we have a natural water spring, but that’s not good enough for the store’s situation. We would have to drill a well and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Even though you already have a natural water source?

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, yeah. And the water is tested because we’re a farm. We have all of our water tested. It’s part of our food safety program. I mean, that’s a perfect example of regulatory inconsistency where you have one agency that’s like, “Oh, hey. No, this is cool. You’re good,” and then you have another agency that’s like, “Oh, no, we require this.” It’s dumb. Maybe we’ll go back to it at some point.

Rosella Mosby:
But at the time, going into the time that that was, it was a tough… There’s been some pretty lean years on the farm in the last few years, especially when you’re dealing with you can grow cucumbers and beets, but when… This is the thing about exporting, right, we can export but you can’t just export. You have to import too. Part of the problem with that is that you have cheap cucumbers or cheap beets that come into your area. I mean, you guys see it and walk with berries. Well, it happens with vegetables too. And so, you can’t compete with that when our wages are way bigger than what they make there. So, they can grow that product for less, and when they’re flooding your market with cheap product, it’s like, “Okay, great.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not a fair level playing field.

Rosella Mosby:
Mm-mm (negative). No. And they certainly aren’t living in your zip code to know what your expenses are. And so, I think we figured out that in the last four or five years, the minimum wage has gone up little over $4 and our produces either gone down or gone up, at the most, a buck. So, when you think about that, okay, so when minimum wage goes up… And we pay more than minimum wage on our farm because we’re in South King County. You compete with warehouses. You know what I mean? We have to. And in the past, we’ve paid per hour bonus if you stay all season because we’re trying to get people to stay all season.

Rosella Mosby:
And so, when you think about wages are going up, okay, well, they don’t just go up for us, they go up for everybody. So, they go up for the propane people and the fertilizer people and the seed guys and the mechanic guy and our tire guy. You know what I mean? Everybody goes up. So, things become more expensive, your labor becomes more expensive. And if your box price for your produce stays the same or goes up 25 cents, or goes down, which we have that happen-

Dillon Honcoop:
Why doesn’t that go up then too because there are people buying stuff in the store should have more money to spend and that kind of…

Rosella Mosby:
Because we’re price takers, not price makers. And so, you got… Back to the guy in Cincinnati, his job, right? And if you have somebody else who will sell it for less and he’s selling volume, right, then he’s going to say, “Okay, fine. I’ll sell it for that,” because you have a buyer who’s just, “Oh, this guy will sell it for whatever.” And the farmers don’t talk to each other enough, and they need to be. You can’t set prices, but you need to be talking to each other more and you need… Just so that it’s like, “Hey, I’m going up. Period. We should all go up.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for you and for this farm?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, like I said, we’re trying to get to the second generation. We’re trying to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Any of your kids interested in…

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, yeah. There’s discussion. We have first generation growing pains, right? So, we have dad who’s, “I’ve been doing it this way. It was a 40-plus-year-old farm.” He has his way of thinking. And then, you have younger people who, because they’re adults now, I can’t call them kids, right, who are trying to think out of the box, “Hey, maybe we should try this or maybe we should try that.”

Rosella Mosby:
My son, Casey, he’s 22, and he… I mean, they’ve all worked on the farm since they were 12. Casey’s worked on pretty much every crew. He was 17 and putting in 100 hours on irrigation crew and loving these big paychecks and his buddies are like, “Wow, man, I want to work on the farm.” He’s like, “You can’t. I can because I’m the family.” You can’t, that would be child labor, right?

Rosella Mosby:
So, we’re trying to wait and see how it all plays out, and there’s a lot happening right now. There’s a lot happening. It’s interesting times, and it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out and how the regulatory end of agriculture stuff however that heads, right? And so, I don’t know. It’s like that book we talked about, right, Who Moved My Cheese. Our cheese might move a little bit and we have to figure out where it went.

Rosella Mosby:
And as far as me, personally, I’m going to keep advocating for agriculture. I think it’s our most valuable industry. You can’t work or put food on your table or clothes on your back or a roof over your head without food in your belly. That’s where it all begins. And so, if we don’t recognize that as a society, we have a big problem. So, that’s my goal. I am trying to figure out how to work smarter and not harder in that department, and school is going to be interesting this fall and we’re going to take a little bit different direction there. And so, that’s going to impact my time. I’m figuring out what boards to drop and what commitments that I need to figure out how to get out, in a way, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
The shifts caused by COVID in our lives, right?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. And I think that applies to a lot of industries. But at the end of the day, I mean, we’re still here and we’re still growing food. And our kids, we’ve been packing USDA farm to families boxes. Lily and Henry, they’re 12 and 14, almost 14, and they’ve been putting together boxes for us to pack, and they have 1,000 boxes. So, today is Thursday, and we’ll pack again on Monday. They’ll put together 1,000 boxes for that project, and then they’ll have two days to put together 1,000 more boxes, and they’re getting paid to do that. It will go down as a memory for them.

Rosella Mosby:
We all have perspective changers, right? I think my first big one was losing my dad at 20 and going through that experience, and I think these guys are having their first real perspective changer in their life where they’re like, “Wow.” We’ve had some really interesting conversations about food and food security, and when your 12-year-old son is like, “There’s a reason we have freezers,” and I only get it. There’s a reason you actually put stuff in the freezer. Because when you can’t get something at the store, that’s a scary prospect, and we are blessed and lucky to be able to do that.

Rosella Mosby:
You think about families in little tiny apartments that are pretty stuck in there and can’t… Especially, Auburn is one of the least healthy cities in the state of Washington, and so when you think about how families in a town with 30 different languages spoken and I’m sure there’s a lot of food security issues, those are things that we care about on the farm and we try to be a positive impact in our local community. So, I don’t know. It’s going to be interesting going forward to see how it all plays out.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story and keeping this farm going.

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, absolutely, Dillon. I’m glad you finally got it around.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I know we’ve been talking about having this conversation for a long time. But what you guys do here is pretty cool, especially in my mind, because of how close you are to the Big City and how much different local food you guys grow. I mean, that list at the beginning was… Even though you said it’s shrunk, it was still a pretty long list, in my mind. I had come from a farm where we did one thing, raspberries, so it’s cool to hear about all that.

Rosella Mosby:
We can’t do it without our team, and I say it often, we can sign our name on the dotted line, but it takes a career to make it all happen and we are lucky to have a three generation family that works on this first generation farm and it is a farm family, for sure. We have huge respect for them and vice versa, and we all work together for that common goal of being successful every year. We try hard. It doesn’t always work but we try hard.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, some pretty big takeaways from this conversation with Rosella. Ask where your food is coming from, ask at the store. Even if that one conversation doesn’t do it, multiple conversations, if people keep asking, more and more people are interested in it, stores will respond and will put more emphasis on that. That will eventually go up the chain. And also, you could takeaway that buying local does make a difference on so many levels that we talked about. So, it is worth doing that. And it is important in our community and to change in our food system.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then also, one other important takeaway is that some ideas as far as changes and rules and things like that may sound good on the surface, like they’re supposed to help things, but may have unintended consequences that actually hurt more than help. So, we need to be careful when we’re putting new laws and regulations. What is the global impact of this? Will it accomplish a small thing over here while causing a much larger harm elsewhere? We need to ask those questions before we back ourselves into a corner. Again, Mosby Farms, Rosella Mosby. You can check them out online. You can check out their pumpkin patch in Auburn.

Dillon Honcoop:
And please subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t already on whatever your favorite podcast platform is. Follow us on social media. We’re on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and make sure to check us out on YouTube as well where you can watch the full video of this episode and see the gorgeous historic barn that we recorded the whole conversation in. Thanks so much for following and supporting Real Food Real People.

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

Steve Pabody | #035 08/10/2020

A freak incident almost killed Steve Pabody, completely changing his perspective on how he manages his small farm in Ferndale, WA. Hear how he and his wife started Triple Wren Farms with no farming experience, and grew it into a diverse, thriving operation.

Transcript

Dillon Honcoop:
They saved your life.

Steve Pabody:
I think so. I think several times, probably.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
The good news is, those nurses, I told them, I said, “You guys saved my life and I can’t really return the favor, but you get free blueberries for life.”

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
A very scary freak incident almost killed Steve Pabody. He’s our guest this week. He and his wife founded and own Triple Wren Farms in Ferndale, Washington, producing various veggies and some fruit and blueberries and a lot of flowers, dahlias and other flowers. That’s kind of their claim to fame. He came from no farming background and worked his way into being one of the biggest flower producers in the area. He has an incredible story to tell, including that scary episode where he almost lost his life but bounced back, and it’s changed his perspective. So join me in this conversation with Steve Pabody at Triple Wren Farms. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my journeys around Washington State to get to know the real people behind our food.

Steve Pabody:
A friend of mine, his wife’s always posting, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Steve Pabody:
So he posted one, a picture on Instagram. She’s a flower farmer as well. He’s looking down. He goes, “This is what my opinion is of all my wife’s photos. Oh, my poor flowers.” I said, “Yeah, that’s spot on, man. Spot on.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey, but if it works, if it sells the flowers, right?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. 27,000 Instagram followers, it’s got to be working.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you guys do that?

Steve Pabody:
We just post pictures of … Well, two things, two things. Number one, we have an amazing flower field and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, as we can see here.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Yes, yes. And of course, my wife’s photography. But then a lot of what she’s done the last couple years is we’ve just kind of shared our heart. So where she may be learning some personal things or we just navigate some sticky situations, she just shares that. I think that really kind of connects with people, so they get excited about that. But without good photography, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s all about the photography, especially on the ‘Gram.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. On Instagram for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, you’re a flower farmer. We’re going to hear all about the farm. But you didn’t start farming, right?

Steve Pabody:
I didn’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you doing professionally before you decided to become a farmer?

Steve Pabody:
I actually went to school for theology.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Yes. And so I worked at some ministries, a Christian camp, and then I was in the pastorate for a little while, and then it was just a brief time where I was between really God’s direction in my life and a friend of mine offered me a chance to babysit their orchard. I told him, I said, “Hey, I don’t know anything about apples. But even worse, I don’t know anything about farming. I don’t know anything about agriculture. I don’t even know anything about business.” So he asked if I would maintain his property and watch over his orchard and run the whole operation. So meanwhile, my wife picked up a book at the library and it says, “How you can be a flower farmer.” She thought, “Oh, that’s awesome.” She showed it to me and I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m going to run this orchard and we’re going to grow vegetables and be market farmers.” And I didn’t sell a lot of vegetables.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where was this?

Steve Pabody:
It was right in Ferndale. Ferndale, Washington, yep. And so while I was busy trying to figure out how to grow apples and how to keep everything alive, she was reading flower farmer books and it just … I don’t know, I think it kind of ignited something in here where she was like, “Hey, yeah. I always thought it would be cool to grow a lot of flowers and now we can do it profitably.” We sold every stem she grew, and what the rabbits didn’t eat of my vegetables, we composted whatever we couldn’t consume ourselves. And so I knew that that was not the future for me, and so we started growing flowers and it just kind of took off from there. Now obviously-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, how did you get this farm?

Steve Pabody:
Well-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s one of the hardest parts, is to get in to get some ground to grow stuff on, right?

Steve Pabody:
It is. It is. And in the beginning, when we were just watching somebody else’s property and doing this as an experiment, we didn’t really think that we would ever own our own place. So we just started looking around, started talking to farmers here in Whatcom County that know about what ground is good and what’s important. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with farmers and they say, “If I could do it all over again, I would make sure I had 100% water rights.” That’s probably the first thing that everyone tells me. Have water rights. And then know what kind of soil you have. Another smart farmer told me, “You should grow whatever your soil is set up to grow already. Don’t try to grow broccoli in Whatcom County. It’s going to be a tough run.” So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey, I hear that it can be done.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, and I know-

Dillon Honcoop:
On the right soil if you can find it.

Steve Pabody:
And there’s some great farmers who do that. But yeah, even in the flower world, there are some flowers that like a thick, heavy soil and there are some flowers that don’t. And so we’re on this beautiful berry soil. It’s got that Lindale loam and that trope loam, and I got a little bit of [inaudible 00:05:37] muck as my property slopes down to the peat bogs over there. But yeah, I don’t do good with flowers that need that thick, heavy, chunky stuff. I do stuff that grow beautiful on this loam. And as you can see, something’s working.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re doing all right. Something is working.

Steve Pabody:
They’re doing just fine, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk about that journey. You get this piece of land at some point and start … What was your philosophy going into this? How much was it just pieced at a time and how much was there an overarching plan of, “This is where we want to get to”?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. The story of how we got it, or … It is an adventure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Either one.

Steve Pabody:
I don’t want to bore you with that, but …

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, either one. No.

Steve Pabody:
Well, I guess-

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re here to hear the details. All the gory details.

Steve Pabody:
Okay. Should I drop names? Do we want that, too?

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey, whatever you feel comfortable with.

Steve Pabody:
I got to be friends with Randy Craft with Barbie’s Berries and very graciously he answered about a billion of my questions like, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this,” or, “What do you think?” Just even irrigation questions and just general knowledge that I should have had that I didn’t that he and just … Again, I could name probably 30, 40 farmers that have just graciously looked at me like I look at my small children and patiently told them what’s going on.

Steve Pabody:
So when I was talking about land, I knew that I probably should just find some farmers who knew the area and knew what might be available in a couple years or what is a good place to look. Randy said, “Hey, you should look at that property that the USDA is up for foreclosure. They’re auctioning it off and they’re looking for a new farmer, a young farmer to come take it up.” And it just worked out. We got in there right when they were closing it and they did a raffle, almost. And so we still had to pay for it, but we had the ability to-

Dillon Honcoop:
It wasn’t like, $2 ticket and who comes away with the property kind of thing? Not that kind of raffle?

Steve Pabody:
Unfortunately. No, no, no, no. I wish it was that kind of raffle. No. But the have a program where some of their funds are allocated toward new farmers, young farmers, beginning farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers, and if you’ve been farming for more than three years but less than 10 years, you qualify as … You just need some help, generally. And so that’s how we got this property. Then when we got here, we were still at the orchard. We were trying to do both, trying to manage the orchard and trying to manage this, trying to get this up and going. It was a foreclosure, so the property owners kind of took away everything that you would think that … They took the pump and they took a lot of stuff. So anyways, it took a lot longer to redo the house than I was anticipating, and then just to get things in place that I didn’t have and didn’t know exactly what I needed. So again, the great community here at Whatcom County selling me what I needed.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what were you doing to be able to pay the bills at that point? How were you making it go?

Steve Pabody:
After we got this property?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Well, we were selling flowers and hoofing it. I mean, in the very, very beginning, how we started getting an income is I did have my housing and a living because I was managing somebody else’s property. I was living at their place, so just had utilities, basic things. And we just grew flowers and sold them to anybody that would buy them, so that meant driving to florists, talking to grocery stores. And eventually, it just happened that we found a couple of buyers at grocery stores that said, “Oh yeah, we’ll buy your product.” We’d take sample buckets and say, “Hey, look, this is what we can do and we can do it for you.” So they were gracious enough to give us a shot, and then we just started tripling and quadrupling what we were growing every year. And now we have a little bit of extra.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you had kind of a philosophy, though, of sustainability in putting this all together, right?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, I think that in the beginning, it’s a very romantic notion to think that you could just jump into the middle of something that we’ve been doing for hundreds of years and make sense of it, number one. But getting back to the land, growing our own food, growing agricultural products that we’re reselling, the idea was, let’s do that in a way that benefits nature and the world around us instead of takes away from it. And I think there’s so many people now that have just been awakened to a lot of the flip side of that, just making a profit at the cost of everything around you. In the community that I’m in, the agricultural community, I don’t know anybody who thinks that way because that’s just like burning the bridge that you’re walking on, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Eventually-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a good analogy.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I mean, maybe burning it behind you as you’re walking, maybe, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
But still, that’s stupid and-

Steve Pabody:
Right, and nobody does that. I mean, farmers understand, “Okay, so I’ve got to manage everything. So that means keeping water on my field but doing it efficiently so I’m not spending all the money in infrastructure, electricity, and just wearing everything out.” So it’s all about balancing everything out. “There’s bugs on my vegetable.” Well, nobody really wants to eat vegetables with bugs. They don’t. So you got to do something to keep them off. You can go out and pinch them all off if you want, but that’s going to limit the amount of vegetables you can grow effectively, right? So all of those things, just really understanding how the plant is growing, what it needs, how can you help it.

Steve Pabody:
So sustainability was a thing that we were striving for in the very beginning because there are some family goals that we have and the idea … When the opportunities started to present themselves … I say opportunities because it’s almost like we’ve course corrected every year. We do one thing, it’s working great, and then the customer decides, “Oh, we don’t need those sunflowers anymore.” Okay, now what am I going to do with 1,000 sunflowers a week for five more weeks? Well, better find somebody else to sell them to. When we started scaling up our dahlia operation, we were wholesaling them to another farmer who was then retailing them. And we said, “Great. What’s the limit?” They said, “Oh, there’s no limit. We’re selling out, so as many tubers as you can give us, we will sell.” And then they decided, “You know what? We’re going a different direction,” after we just bought a bunch of tubers.

Steve Pabody:
But, I mean, we’re indebted to Chris and Erin Benzakein out of Mount Vernon with Floret Flower Farm. We’re indebted to them because Chris said, “Well, why don’t you just retail your tubers?” And I said, “Man, we can’t do that. We’re not you. You’re the picture perfect flower farmer.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody knows Floret now. They’ve become such a thing, right?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Well, I mean, Erin posts a picture and a bazillion people say, “Yay, I want to be just like you and own a flower farm,” and so when they decided to stop selling tubers and start breeding their own, I had a bunch of tubers that I was planning on them selling. So Chris says, “Well, you just sell them.” And I was like, “I can’t do that.” We sold them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Steve Pabody:
And consequently, we’ve had to triple what we’ve had the last couple of years. We keep tripling every year. This year, I’ve got about 28, 29,000 in the ground. Believe it or not, it’s August and I’m still putting tubers in the ground.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. So I don’t think I’ll triple next year. 100,000 dahlias is too much for me. But yeah, it’s safe to say that we’re in the 30,000 dahlia range, and we’re still selling most everything we can produce.

Dillon Honcoop:
And selling them to who? Just online direct to the consumer, or what?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah. Online is the place where we sell our tubers. And then fresh cut flowers, we sell them everybody in the area. Well, anybody who wants them. Currently, we just packed an order up for Charlie’s Produce, and I was amazed to find out where they’re going. I said, “Where are these things going to end up?” I thought probably a chain in Seattle. She goes, “Actually, these are going to Wyoming.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
I said, “What?” She goes, “Yeah, I’m not sure if these dahlias are going to Jackson Hole, but the last order we did with them went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.” I’m like, “That is insane.” So closer to home, we sell Whole Foods. Not all of their stores, just about all their Washington stores are using our dahlias. And then the Metropolitan Market, it’s a chain in Seattle. They get our stuff. A couple other chains that sometimes order and sometimes don’t. We’ll just see how the new normal is. We’ll see if we still sell to those or not, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Nobody knows, really, what’s going to happen next.

Steve Pabody:
No. Yeah. So we’re just trying to stay flexible and get ready to course correct again if we need to. But yeah, that’s where we are now.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s not just dahlias that you grow, though, right?

Steve Pabody:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
You kind of have a whole rotation going.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. We used to grow more variety. But in the beginning, we grew more variety because we would really specifically grow to what our customers would say they need. So when we were selling to small florists, they would really need us to succession plant everything so that they could have sunflowers whenever they needed them, or some of the more ethereal, delicate flowers. So we would grow lots of different kinds of those flowers where one particular flower like a cosmos … I mean, we might grow … In the beginning, now, we might grow five or six different varieties so that we could get the different colors so it would match what they needed. That’s just a lot of variety, a lot of planning. Fortunately, my wife handles all the planning. So that’s what we-

Dillon Honcoop:
Same.

Steve Pabody:
There you go. Very good. So that’s what we did in the beginning, and then we started to find that there was a bit more opportunity for us in the way that our overall goal was to grow more of less varieties. So again in the beginning, 150, 200 different types of stuff. That was insane.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like different types of dahlias, or dahlias and all different kinds of flowers?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Everything. Everything from hellebore starts in the winter to ranunculus, anemone, onto your summer flowers, then your fall flowers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
At the same time, on rented land, we didn’t do a lot of this but we started to establish some perennials, so we put in some roses and some hydrangeas and some stuff that we knew was a longterm crop. But yeah, now that we’re on our own place, we’re still doing that. We’ve got a couple thousand roses and we put in four new colors this year, so put in the coveted Koko Loko and Distant Drums and Honey Dijon and State of Grace. So those are roses that even a designer can’t always go to the wholesaler and get them because they’re just not as bulletproof as some of the South American roses that are available. And so when we find-

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s the stuff that’s in the grocery store, kind of all the time, middle of winter? That stuff’s coming from South America?

Steve Pabody:
Middle of winter, probably, yeah. There’s a lot of great farms down there, and I love the fact that as a … Because part of what we do is also we design for events and weddings. Not this year, but we had 60 two years ago, 44 or 45 weddings last year, and this year everybody canceled except two.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
Now, fortunately, some of those that had canceled have actually … They just needed to do really small backyard ceremonies, so we’ll sell them flowers, but it’s not the whole …

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

Steve Pabody:
… couple thousand dollar flower budget. No, they’re looking for $100 worth of flowers, some, because it’s them and their in-laws.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, but with the roses, the ones that are coming up in the winter, those are … or they’re for sale in the winter … those are very sturdy and they’ve been bred so that they store well and that they ship well and that they last a long time. That’s a little bit different than your grandmother’s roses that you went out there and smelled and just remember her baking cookies and going out and walking through her flower garden, yeah. So those are the kind of roses that we’re growing. I’m thankful for those South American farms that produce flowers when we can’t, but I’m sure willing to put my flowers against them …

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Steve Pabody:
… during season any day of the week.

Dillon Honcoop:
Local.

Steve Pabody:
Local, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where it’s at.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, and it’s just if you’re getting a rose at a grocery store that’s coming from South America, that was picked sometimes a week and a half ago, put in cold storage, kind of like Han Solo from Star Wars, frozen. Not quite, but … And then by the time it gets to the grocery store, a lot of those are going to a distribution center and then it’s taking another day to transit, then it’s coming here. I mean, by the time you get it here, it’s already almost on its last leg.

Dillon Honcoop:
A little different than when people get your flowers. They’re cut the same day.

Steve Pabody:
A lot of times, yep, same day or the day before.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or the day before.

Steve Pabody:
Yep, so we can condition them and get them to you so they’re just in the perfect state.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Now, you guys grow more than just flowers, though, too, right? You’ve got blueberries, other stuff. What else do you have?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. The addictions, they run deep. We did-

Dillon Honcoop:
Addictions. I like that.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Well, just as kind of a side note, I started keeping bees because we needed bees for the orchard, so I just started talking to the beekeeper who brought them in and I thought, “This is amazing. I love this.” And he goes, “Well, you should buy a couple of hives.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So I bought-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re a beekeeper, too.

Steve Pabody:
So I bought three hives and then he’s like, “Well, if they’re healthy and they’re getting lots of nectar, you need to split them and keep them healthy, keep them balanced. You split them.” So I split them, and all of the sudden I had nine hives at the end of the year. Then I had 14 and all the sudden I turned around and I had 37 or 38 hives and I was like, “This is a problem.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Another addiction.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. So it’s the same way with, hey, I love good food and I love to grow things, and so I’ll start planting some garlic and then next thing you know, I’m like, “I got 600 feet of garlic. What am I going to do with 600 feet of garlic?” So yeah, we got a lot of vegetables and what we kind of pivoted this last year is growing vegetables and just edible flowers so that we could use them for our events. However, our events, all of our night retreats have been canceled.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. All these big plans that a lot of people have had related to events this year, 2020.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. However, we’ve been eating really good here at Triple Wren Farms. These gourmet tomatoes and all the specialty sweet corn. [crosstalk 00:20:42]

Dillon Honcoop:
You have a little you-pick thing going on here, too, right?

Steve Pabody:
I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that just for blueberries, or can some of those other veggies go to people that way?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, sometimes we do put other veggies in our farm stand up there. But yeah, when we got the property, it had two and a half acres of blueberries on it, and so I was like-

Dillon Honcoop:
Blueberries take a long time to establish, so hey, they’re already there, a lot of that work’s been done, right?

Steve Pabody:
Right, yeah. So thank you to the person who planted them and maintained them for the last couple of years. But yeah, they’re actually about 30-year-old bushes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh wow.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. So I don’t do hardly anything to them, much to the chagrin of most of the blueberry farmers listening, I would imagine. But yeah, I mow them and try to keep the blackberries out, but I don’t even have a water on them yet. Fortunately, most of them are in really good, thick soil so they can make it through. And this year, we’ve gotten the extra rain. The berries are huge and they’re delicious. So yeah, with minimal effort, we have a phenomenal blueberry for you pick. It’s a great way for people to pick blueberries, spend some time outside of their quarantine area, and then walk through the flower fields. A lot of people love to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many total acres do you have here?

Steve Pabody:
There’s a little over 20.

Dillon Honcoop:
20 acres.

Steve Pabody:
Or in the words of a wise farmer … I said, “I’m looking for about 20 acres.” He goes, “That’s a lot of grass to mow.” Should have listened a little bit more to the wise, sage advice. The more property you get, the more management it’s going to take. So yeah, five acres is looking pretty good right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you wouldn’t be able to produce nearly as much product as you do, right?

Steve Pabody:
Well, that’s true. Yeah, there’s about six acres in the flower production. Then I’ve got the blueberries, and I’ve just tilled up another four acres in the back that I’m just trying to put the fertility back in there. For years, the people who were here before me hayed it, and that, done well, is great for your soil. But if you don’t put any nutrition back in, or if you just cut and don’t ever give back … So yeah, I’m in the process of putting some dairy solids. My generous neighbor, Mr. Ed, has got all the-

Dillon Honcoop:
The manure.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I asked him in the beginning, I said, “Hey, do you mind if I grab some of that press solids?” And he said, “Yeah, I mind if you grab a little. You should take it all.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That sounds like Ed.

Steve Pabody:
He said-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know your neighbor.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I said, “Well, you want me to call and let you guys know that I’m there picking it up? I’ll just drive over and pick it up with my tractor because I’m next door.” And he goes, “Do I want you to call?” “Yeah, so people don’t think I’m stealing.” He goes, “Stealing poop?” He said, “Trust me. Steal all the poop you want.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh man. So you grow food, you grow flowers. Talk about your family. I mean, you guys are kind of doing it all, plus some extra crew that comes in at times for harvesting things, et cetera?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Of course, COVID changed all that. We normally have quite a bigger crew early spring, and then harvesting, there’s … We ship thousands of stems every week, and so we just physically can’t do that with two people. We tried. It’s not possible. So yeah, there’s about a dozen people that are seasonal. A couple of them are closer to full time and this last year, pretty close to year round, but still just a little bit of gap when that COVID hit us. So we had to scale that back, especially with inside, the shipping and the tasks that we had to do that was inside a barn, we couldn’t really socially distance. And so that we just had to do all in house, so it was Team Pabody. But yeah-

Dillon Honcoop:
Work, work, work.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. But during the season, like I said, there’s about … I think we’re at 12, maybe 14 people. And that will drastically be reduced after we get our first frost, because from July til … For us, we get a frost the first week of October, and so from then it’s go time. We’re out in the fields cutting flowers, shipping flowers, and then once we get over that, then the wonderful task of working in the Pacific Northwest, October and November, digging the plants out of the ground, storing them, getting them ready for winter, is a race against that freeze. Frost is one thing. With that freeze comes and if you didn’t get it out of the ground before then, that’s it. Game over.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’ll kill the tuber.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah. Kill the tuber and any of the other plants that you were trying to grab.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, explain that with dahlias, because that’s kind of your main thing. That’s your claim to fame. You saw the flowers and you saw the tubers. Explain how that works. They’re not like a normal flower that you would grow from seed that people are used to. They have a tuber, kind of like a potato, that’s in the ground and then you save it for the next year. Not really like bulbs. Related I guess, sort of, but-

Steve Pabody:
Perhaps distant cousins. So the dahlia is originally a Central American flower. That’s another reason why we love Central American flower farmers, because they gave us the dahlia. So it was imported to Europe as a food crop, and then, right, next-

Dillon Honcoop:
They ate the tubers?

Steve Pabody:
You can eat the tubers. They’re a little fibrous and they don’t taste as good as those Idaho golds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I would imagine.

Steve Pabody:
So quickly, people said, “This is way too much work to get something subpar to a potato, but the flowers are amazing.” So then they started making it to the gardens. I don’t know how long they’ve been really popular. They seem to have recently got a surge, probably in part to Floret, maybe some other big names out there. But when we first started growing them, we were just growing them just for the cuts, and now we grow them for all of the above. We grow them for the cuts, for the tubers, and then we’re doing some breeding, just a little bit.

Steve Pabody:
But yeah, in the spring, around here with this climate, we usually tell people to go for around Mother’s Day, you want to get your tubers in the ground, and then just wait. So it warms up, they start popping out, and they’ll flower all the way until … if they’re cared for. If you keep water on them, keep them fed, and you keep cutting them. Believe it or not, if you stop cutting the dahlias, it doesn’t flower as much because it starts putting seed pods. It signals for the plant that it’s going to reproduce that way. So it’ll reproduce with seeds and it’ll also reproduce with tubers. So while you’re seeing those seed pods up top, it’s producing tubers down below. And what comes out of the seed is not going to be the same flower that formed that seed pod. There’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s a cross, right?

Steve Pabody:
Well, yes. And, I don’t know, just the way the dahlia’s made, a seed doesn’t come true. Sometimes it’ll be very close. It’ll have the same color, maybe even the same form factor, but it’s never the same flower. The tubers, however, are exactly the same. So we bring those up, like I said, in October. Dig them up and store them and then divide them and sell some of them and plant some of them and do it all again. Rinse, sleep, repeat. I can’t ever remember how that thing goes, but yeah, we do a lot of that around here.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s you and your wife and then you have two kids?

Steve Pabody:
Two kids, yes. Fortunately, my son is getting old enough now that I can put him on the mower and say, “All right, go put in your couple hours of mowing.” And he has joined the harvest crew for some of that. It’s just such a mad rush, because there’s that window where you can harvest the flowers and have a pristine product that once it gets to be about 10:00 in the morning, that window is done.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. We’ve tried starting really early, but with our crew, we generally don’t start before 6:00. So 6:00 to 10:00 is when we’re all hands on deck.

Dillon Honcoop:
Go, go, go, go.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah. And of course, Sarah and I sometimes will be out here as soon as we can start to see, and then take a little break for the heat of the day and just do other stuff, or we weed. That never seems to stop around here. Mow, tie up flowers and get our stuff straightened up, and then in the cool of the evening, a lot of times we’re coming back out to harvest more flowers. So yeah, that’s why we have so many hands on deck, and so my son’s gotten incorporated into that. My daughter cuts flowers, but generally not that we’re going to resell. She loves to design and she’s got four or five arrangements in her bedroom right now, so it’s great.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, isn’t she part of the name of the farm, too?

Steve Pabody:
She is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did Triple Wren come from? Or how did-

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, so, you got to be in the circle of trust to know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, well.

Steve Pabody:
In the very beginning when we realized, “Hey, this farming, it really is hard work. We got to have a plan. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to go all in.” And so we decided, well, what motivation do we need to get out of bed at 5:00 in the morning? Okay, well, we can build something for our kids. Maybe they don’t want to go into agriculture. I’m not sure. But we want to at least give them the opportunity. So our stewardship of the land, our stewardship of our opportunity, all that went into why we initially started doing this, and we thought, “What’s a cool name?” Well, my son is Steven George Pabody, III, so there’s the triple. And my daughter’s name is Chloe Wren, so there’s the Wren. Triple Wren Farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
Got it.

Steve Pabody:
So with any luck-

Dillon Honcoop:
It was named after your children.

Steve Pabody:
It is, yeah. Like I said …

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s cool.

Steve Pabody:
… something’s got to get you out of bed in the morning and keep you going until midnight at night sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I would say, from what I’ve seen of what you guys do, part of your success has to do with how you’ve branded yourself, too. People recognize who you are. You stand for something. Well, talk about that. How did that come about? I mean, you explained how the name came about. How did you do the branding? How big of a role has that played in how you have put this together?

Steve Pabody:
Well, I think that with the popularity of social media, people are looking for stuff out there that they connect with. Everybody loves flowers. So at the very beginning, we just started really picking up on the need to have good photography of the flowers we grow. I’m always reminded of this, especially here in Whatcom County. There’s some incredible farmers here. There’s some incredible growers of flowers, and I’m surprised nearly every year, I learn of another incredible farmer or incredible grower, but nobody knows about them. The people that know about them have met them or know somebody who knows them, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s why I’m doing this podcast, because I want to go and get to know these people and allow a lot of other people to join in and also get to know them and know their heart for what they’re doing.

Steve Pabody:
That’s a very lofty goal. That’s great. So yeah, we realized very quickly that we needed to present ourselves on social media. And even though most farmers don’t want to take the time to put content up, whether that’s just pictures and a funny picture about what the cow is doing that day, like Erica. She’s doing a great job with this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Erica DeWaard, yeah. Farmer Girl.

Steve Pabody:
Oh, she’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Episode three of the podcast.

Steve Pabody:
Oh, is she?

Dillon Honcoop:
My third interview …

Steve Pabody:
I-

Dillon Honcoop:
… on Real Food Real People. You can go back in the archives and look at it.

Steve Pabody:
I don’t know if I heard that one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or listen to it, I guess.

Steve Pabody:
I’ve heard most of yours, but I might have missed that one. So sorry, Erica. I’ll go immediately today and listen to your episode. SO yeah, I mean, just that connection. It really is just giving people a window into what you’re doing. We try not to put pictures of us digging the dahlias in October when everybody’s fingers are numb and it’s nasty outside and you’re just having to find joy from inside to keep-

Dillon Honcoop:
But isn’t that reality?

Steve Pabody:
That is, and we do post those occasionally. But mostly what we post is, “Hey, do this kind of hard labor and look what it’s going to do.” And the flowers and the beautiful side of it, and trying not to gloss over the negatives. Because it doesn’t matter what you do in life. There’s parts of that that you’re not going to like. If I was an accountant, it would be most of that job. But there’s some incredible things about an accountant’s job. I love accountants. So this is the highlight of what we do, is you see the finished product or you get to taste the produce or the blueberries, or you get to have that perfect, warty, twisted pumpkin on your front porch that I grew.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s right, you grow the pumpkins, too, yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, we got a pumpkin patch in the fall. But yeah, if you have the opportunity to come to a farm, you get that window. But then you kind of say, “Hey, remember when we went to Triple Wren Farm and ran to that dahlia festival that they have? I would like to grow some of those here.” And get on our Instagram or go to our webpage and you can see what flowers are available. It’s just off to the races from there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. Give us the shameless plug. What’s the web address?

Steve Pabody:
Triplewrenfarms.com.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s easy to remember.

Steve Pabody:
Easy peasy.

Dillon Honcoop:
And-

Steve Pabody:
Farms is plural. That’s the only thing that confuses some people.

Dillon Honcoop:
And @triplewrenfarms, I think, too, is the social media handle.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know, the auto fill thing will come up.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah, perfect. The Facebook, the Instagram. I’m not really posting on Twitter anymore, but all those other platforms we’re trying to get away from and just focus on a couple of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you said earlier to me when we were setting up here, you have a background in IT as well?

Steve Pabody:
Shh, don’t tell anybody that. They’ll call me for their computer problems.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they’ll call you for their flowers.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I was in IT for a little while and was basically on upgrading systems, so the hardware side of things. Back before the operating systems were so intuitive and you actually had to tell them where to go to access the hardware pieces or to the system boards or to the memory, back when you had to get down and dirty with that stuff. Now you just go buy it from the store, plug it in, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And it works.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. The wizards that come now are …

Dillon Honcoop:

[inaudible 00:34:28]

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I saw you messing around trying to get everything to sync up. So yeah, I have a little background in that, but don’t really delve into that too much these days.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like dealing with stress on the farm? Because you come from a different background, not from farming, so you’ve experienced stress in different realms, doing IT and doing stuff like dealing with camps and being like a minister, and now farming. They all have their own kinds of stress. How do you compare all those, and what have you learned through that journey how to deal with that?

Steve Pabody:
I’m not quite sure how to answer that. The stresses are different, right? And sometimes it may be a guilty pleasure of mine to just get out in the fields and just weed dahlias or get on the tractor and just mow.

Dillon Honcoop:
Let the stress go, yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Right. When you’re dealing with people, you just have to be a lot more observant because everybody’s problems aren’t the same. Everybody’s recollection of the truth isn’t the same, and so everything’s so different, especially in our climate today. Just so many things to think about and consider, and just to be gracious with. I think that maybe part of the blessing of having those different stress levels is I realize a crop failure is not that big a deal. I mean, it certainly could alter my future. It will alter my future, let me just clarify that. And it may inform what we do next year, but spring is coming. There’s a new season on the horizon. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve dealt with more stressful things than that in the past, gives you a different perspective.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. People dealing with interpersonal problems or with pressures that are life altering, stakes are so much higher when you’re dealing with that. As opposed to this, we’re going to get another shot next year to do it all again. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Whether that’s a good or bad thing, it’s going to happen, yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Pros and cons, you put in 10 acres of raspberries and lose those raspberries, it takes you a while to recover. Or some of our longer term crops. If we mess up with those, the stakes are higher. But at the end of the day, we can recover from those. And so with all of the pressures that’s going on and with all of the uncertainty in our society right now, in the world, those are much more monumentous as opposed to, “Where am I going to sell my flowers?” I’m concerned that I can sell all my flowers. And not to backtrack, but all of our planning this last January was for events, overnight retreats. We got these cute little … I say cute like I know what cute means. But according to my wife, it’s this cute little setup. I just look at it as a lot of extra extremity, lights and twinkle lights and lanterns.

Dillon Honcoop:
We won’t tell her that you think that.

Steve Pabody:
Hopefully she won’t listen to this. That’s the key. No, but she spent a lot of time and a lot of effort making them just feel nice and romantic and homey, and you get into these little tents, so that’s what you can do for overnight. And then in conjunction with that, having some different focuses in our workshops or we do farmer training. We had a dahlia camp set up for this year, trying to still pull that off in a different kind of way. And all of that kind of has changed. So those kind of stresses and those kind of pressures are related to what’s going on right now, but yeah, they’re manageable. They’re manageable. Because at the end of the day, you got to get out here, you got to keep your plants alive, manage everything, and then you just look at the flowers, listen to the rooster crow in the background, go out and feed the hogs, feed the animals, everything’s good again.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you made the decision to go into this farming thing, did you go full time with it right away? Or were you still part time, that was a side hustle, and then it-

Steve Pabody:
Yes. For me, it was unusual because somebody asked me to manage their property. So they did that. Again, that covered the land. I didn’t have to make a land payment. I didn’t have to worry about rent because I was living in their house. But I was also working off farm, like I think most farmers actually do. So working off farm, and then the flowers kind of, like I said, started as just an idea my wife had about what to do or just an experiment she was doing that was successful. So then what happened is we kept growing and I would work on it before work and after work. It just got so big so fast that I stopped my off-farm employment and then just jumped in both feet, full steam ahead.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that scary?

Steve Pabody:
It probably should have been. Again, not paying attention to the sage advice that I was being given. “Don’t quit your day job.” But we just were running into so many opportunities so quickly that it wasn’t that scary because I was … I came to the point to where we had more opportunity than we had product, and so what we needed was to grow more flowers. So once we started doing that, then the income came in, at least for a little while.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had a moment where you’re like, “Why did I do this?” Where you’re not sure if you’re going to make it? I know farmers kind of ride that rollercoaster where things are great and then they go through the valleys where things are like, “I’m not sure if this is going to work.”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, I think most small farmers anyways probably are there every year and they go, “Okay, so we-“

Dillon Honcoop:
Big farmers, believe it or not, too.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Yeah, probably now, especially. I know some dairy guys that are just like, “We gave away more milk in the scariest times than …” Years to recover that. Yeah, so sometimes it’s good to be a small farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Double-edged sword.

Steve Pabody:
Because 2,400 head of milking cows don’t stop producing milk and don’t stop eating.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you can’t wait and have them produce milk when it’s worth more.

Steve Pabody:
Right, yeah. “We’ll wait until everything gets back to normal and then we’ll start milking again.” Yeah, no, just unfortunately that’s not reality.

Dillon Honcoop:
So with COVID, it sounds like you guys are managing, even though it’s probably hurt the bottom line pretty badly.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Again, I think the thing about farming is not only is there the science of growing and just everything that has to do with that, but there’s also a farmer has to, at some degree, be a entrepreneur or a businessman. I think the key to entrepreneurship is flexibility. Seeing an opportunity, seeing a hole in the market, and filling it. “Nobody grows good sweet corn. Okay, I’m going to grow sweet corn. We don’t have a good beef producer.” And I know we have great producers here in Washington-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re just saying hypothetical.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, hypothetically. Nobody’s growing ostrich in Whatcom County, so that’s a great thing for somebody to be in if there’s a market for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, true.

Steve Pabody:
Not really sure that that would be my first choice, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
I thought there was somebody who did that or does that, a [crosstalk 00:41:46]

Steve Pabody:
I probably offended somebody. They’re like, “What? I got all these ostrich.” So if you grow ostrich, let me know. I’ll get some ostrich from you. Yeah, so the aspect of having to shift and to pivot I think is kind of in the whole … That’s what you sign up for. Sometimes [crosstalk 00:42:04]

Dillon Honcoop:
Helps with an annual crop, too. It’s easier than a perennial crop, like you were talking about.

Steve Pabody:
It is. Yeah. And fortunately, we have plenty of annuals, but we have some perennials that kind of … It helps, too, with that. So you get a infestation of something and it knocks out one crop and, “Okay, well, we do still have blueberries. We do still have roses and hydrangeas and all the other stuff.”

Steve Pabody:
But in answer to your question, I think just really trying to filter everything that we know is happening and realizing where the potential is. And then it’s kind of shifting. I got a good friend down in Seattle and his whole business, his whole … And I don’t know how many people he’s got working for him, but he’s a wedding … What does he call himself? He does everything. He’ll do the catering, he’ll do the planning, he’ll do the flowers, he’ll set up the whole venue.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, he’s a little bit amazing, I think. But when this whole thing happened, of course all of his events just said, “Nope, we’re not going to do them.” And so he’s just doing something different until he can do weddings again, because that’s what he really loves to do. He loves to choose the linens and everything, make it just perfect for you. And so in the meantime, he did a pop-up shop. He was doing little arrangements with some accents for your home décor, and I thought, “Man, there’s nothing that guy can’t do.” But he shifted because he obviously wants to take care of his employees and feed his family, and he put too much time and effort into his business to just watch it fly away, so he did something different and it’s working. And he’ll probably … well, not probably. I know he’s anxious to get back into the wedding game.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. As, I would guess, your wife probably is, too.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Yes. There’s a little bit of sadness that so many of our weddings canceled and more of them postponed. But again, it just gives us the opportunity to just do something different in the meantime. Pretty convinced that they’re not going to go away. People are still going to get married and they’re still going to want to have a nice spread with flowers. And so I know that’ll come back eventually. It may be different and we’ll pivot in accordance and meet what people need when it starts to run again.

Dillon Honcoop:
Pivot.

Steve Pabody:
Pivot.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the word of the day.

Steve Pabody:
There you go. I love that word. Probably use it too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the scariest moment in this whole journey?

Steve Pabody:
Well, you might be referring to my health episode.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, or anything else that … But I know that you almost died at one point.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. According to my nurse, I died several times. He just kept bringing me back.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Well, yeah. I was-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
I didn’t realize this until high school, but I was born with a heart defect and I didn’t discover it until I wanted to go out for football and they said, “You have to have a physical.” And so I did and the doctor said, “Oh, you got a heart murmur,” and I said, “What does that mean?” He goes, “Don’t worry about it. It’s stunted your growth and caused severe mental retardation, but other than that, you’re good.”

Dillon Honcoop:
He actually said that to you?

Steve Pabody:
He did. He was a football doctor, man. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
But he was just trying to rattle your cage?

Steve Pabody:
Football doctors are not known for their bedside manners. As a matter of fact, completely opposite, right? He was a great football doctor.

Dillon Honcoop:
You got to know your audience when you say something like that. I know there are some kids who would be totally crushed.

Steve Pabody:
NBA.

Dillon Honcoop:
But apparently you were okay with it. You got that he was joking.

Steve Pabody:
I understood that, yes. Not the smartest guy in the room, but eventually things trickle down and I do perceive the intended jests. So yeah, I didn’t really worry about it. Then I got to college. After a couple of years, they looked at me again and they said, “This has gotten a lot worse. You should consider having surgery.” And I said, “Okay.” And they said, “Actually, you’re going to have to have surgery eventually because this is not going to resolve itself,” just in the short amount of time that they had done some tests when I was in high school to when I was a junior in college. And so the ironic thing is I left college and I went to a youth camp where I was doing manual labor, and my health increased. I was working hard every day and [crosstalk 00:46:17]

Dillon Honcoop:
So you had been getting checked because your health wasn’t doing well? You were what, fatigued or something?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, there was a flu that went on at the college that I went to and a third of the college got sick with this flu, so I was in the … they had their little on-campus hospital. And they said, “Hey, we hear something weird going on with your heart.” I’m like, “Oh yeah.” I said very arrogantly, “Wow, you’re a pretty good doctor because not everybody catches that heart murmur.” And she says, “Well, my specialty is cardiovascular health, so yeah, I’m going to catch any flutter that you have.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
So when she looked at my echocardiogram, the test that they had done, she said, “I want you to have another one because this sounds significant.” And then thankfully, she said, “No, this is a big deal for you.” So again, we took it really serious and I limited all my physical activity and my health actually started to decline. They gave me a key to the elevator in the student building so I could ride the elevator to the third floor instead of walk up the steps. And I was in the dormitories on the third floor as well, and they moved me to the first floor so I didn’t have to use the steps. And all of that stuff affected me negatively when I stopped doing it. So after college, I went to a youth camp. I maybe a bit naively just through caution to the wind and said, “I’m going to jump here because this is awesome fun.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you start using your body and you get that energy back.

Steve Pabody:
I did. I did, and I started getting healthy again.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re probably thinking, “I’m fine.”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, that’s right. “I’m going to walk it off,” right? Isn’t that what all guys say? “Just let me walk it off.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that’s true.

Steve Pabody:
So that worked for … Well, it’s been a couple years since I’ve been in college, I’ll be honest with you. But now in my 40s and farming, things are going well for a while-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you still hadn’t done anything with it.

Steve Pabody:
No. And I am originally from the East Coast, so I was under a cardiologist’s care there and when I moved out here, I conveniently didn’t find one out here for a couple of years.

Dillon Honcoop:
I see what’s going on.

Steve Pabody:
Much to my wife’s chagrin. Finally, sense prevailed and she convinced me to go to a local cardiologist and they said, “Okay, well, you’re doing manual labor and you look good, so I think we just look at it.” And I said, “Well, you think I can get away from surgery?” My cardiologist is Dr. Tom Oliver and he said, “Oh, no, no, no. You’re going to go under the knife for sure. But you’re the best judge of when we need to do that.” And so just yearly checkups. And then 2017 came around. We got this farm that we’re on in 2016. Didn’t really get settled on it until 2017, but that’s when things really started to kick off and we expanded drastically. But then my health started declining and I didn’t understand, hey, it’s getting harder and harder to do what was already kind of difficult.

Steve Pabody:
Then in 2018, it really started to plummet, and so then we had a surgery scheduled. I went in, went through surgery fine and was actually walking right after surgery, and the doctor told me … My surgeon said, “You’re going to be out of here in a couple of days. This is amazing.” He says, “You’re walking, this is a good sign. Most people, it takes them a good half a week to a week to get out of the hospital after open heart, but yeah, you can maybe … Let’s see if you can do it in three days, four days.” And I’m like, “All right, you’re on.” Then my heart rebelled.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is while you’re still at the hospital?

Steve Pabody:
Yes, fortunately. Fortunately, yeah. I had another day, then I just real lethargic and thinking, “What’s going on?” My heart was beating real fast and then it would slow down and it was having trouble regulating. The surgery was pretty extensive. They replaced my entire aortic root and a couple of valves. While they were in there, they did a couple of other things that are helpful they wouldn’t normally do unless they already have you opened up. But they’re like, “Hey, while you’re open, let’s go ahead and put a clamp here and let’s put a safeguard here.” And so, great. I can’t say enough good things about my cardiologists over at North Cascade Cardiology with PeaceHealth.

Steve Pabody:
But when things started to come to a head, the heart would beat about three times what it was supposed to and then it would drop down. It was dropping down into the 30s and the 20s beats per minute, so if you know anything about your heartbeat, that’s not good. Even for super athletes, 30 beats per minute is too slow. So then it just gave out. Fortunately, my nurse … shout out to Aaron. Thank you very much, Aaron. He kind of foresaw that things were going south fast and so he got me all hooked up to this special machine that-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your heart stopped then while he was hooking you up, or what?

Steve Pabody:
No, he was quicker than that. He-

Dillon Honcoop:
He knew that something was going to happen and that he needed to hook you up.

Steve Pabody:
He said, “I think you don’t need this, but just so that the doctor knows that I’m thinking forward, I’m going to put these things on you.” So he put those pads on me, strapped them on, got me all-

Dillon Honcoop:
He’s probably saying that, but inside he’s like, “This is not looking good with this guy.”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. He’s probably saying, “I’m about to lose this guy.” So we’re still joking around, having a good time, and I was on, obviously, a lot of …

Dillon Honcoop:
Painkillers.

Steve Pabody:
… opiates, so I was having a good time no matter what. But then, yeah, then it just started dropping, dropping, dropping, and then we got down to 20 beats a minute and he said, “If it goes below this, I’m giving him the needle,” the epinephrine, I think.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
It’s amazing how much of the stuff that you remember when you’re right in the middle of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Steve Pabody:
Or don’t remember, or refresh. But yeah, he had to give me that shot a couple of times and it didn’t work and then the heart just stopped. So they brought me back and then they put me on that external pacemaker and it kept shocking me when my heart would stop beating, and so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your heart stopped beating more than once.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Well, your heart beats how many times a minute, hopefully in the 60s and 70s.

Dillon Honcoop:

[crosstalk 00:52:16]

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And so when it beats slower than that, it’s a problem. But then when it stops beating, it’s a serious problem. So yeah, he put me on that very nice machine that causes a little bit of pain, but the reward is worth it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So basically it’s hooked up to you but it’s like giving you the paddles that you hear about in the ambulance kind of thing.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, just not with a full charge, right, because my heart just needed a little bit of encouragement after they got me going again. Then they immediately took me to surgery and put a pacemaker in to keep that thing going.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many times did your heart stop?

Steve Pabody:
I don’t know. I know every time it got below a certain amount, that machine took over and gave me a charge, so then it would beat again faster. So I think that’s the main thing, is that thing kept my heart up to where I was getting enough oxygen, so more mental retardation wasn’t kicking in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy. See, that’s like knocking on death’s door, if your heart is continually stopping. What did they find out? How did they fix it?

Steve Pabody:
In the words of my cardiologist, “Sometimes your heart just throws a hissy fit after we go in and touch it.” So, I mean, the medicine … A number of the doctors told me this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
They said, “We call it practicing medicine for a reason.”

Dillon Honcoop:
No way.

Steve Pabody:
As much as they know, there’s always a loop, there’s always something unexpected. So everything looked like it was going smooth. I thought I was recovering smooth. A small part of me said no. So yeah, I’m thankful for the care I got at the hospital and the extra mile that the nursing staff and the doctors gave me, and here we are, ready to do it again.

Dillon Honcoop:
They saved your life.

Steve Pabody:
I think so. I think several times, probably.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
The good news is, those nurses, I told them, I said, “You guys saved my life and I can’t really return the favor, but you get free blueberries for life. Free flowers for life.” So it’s been a pretty joyful reunion to have some of my nurses come back out here and a couple of my doctors visit me during season and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Amazing.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I’m able to send them home with honey from my hives, gourds, zucchinis, produce, flowers, blueberries. “Take it. Take it all.” Eggs.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s amazing.

Steve Pabody:
Life is sweet, especially when you almost didn’t have it. So it makes you thankful and it makes the stresses and the plates that you have to juggle almost manageable.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s quite the story. How does that change what your future’s going to look like, what you end up doing next year, 10 years down the road, whatever your plan is with this farm?

Steve Pabody:
Well, the goal is to continue to grow it to where it’s sustainable. Not only the fertility in the soil so that it can sustain more growth and different crops, but on the business side that it’s paying for itself and it gets to a … Our plans are to grow it to where we can have more than one full-time person, or with Sarah and I, more than just a couple of us full time so that we have opportunity to do other stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like take a week off and go on vacation?

Steve Pabody:
Hey, let’s not get crazy here. We do this because we love it. We don’t want to go away from it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Every farmer I talk to on this podcast, “What’s a vacation? What are you talking about?”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, from midnight to 4:00 in the morning, that’s my vacation every day. I take one every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh man.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, and we’re trying real hard to pour ourselves into our kids, and when you are pulling long hours, sometimes that kind of gets out of balance. So having the ability to take a day and do something fun with your kids, or my son is into archery, so I’ve told him for a couple of weeks now, “Hey, let’s build a target, a better stand for you.” So yeah, I’ve got the wood but I haven’t assembled it yet. So getting to a stage to where we’re focusing on what’s really important for our future, for our kids’ future. At the same time, continuing to enjoy the benefit of capitalism. We can build a business that provides for our livelihood and others, and really does something impactful on our community. There’s nowhere else in Whatcom County that you can come and see 30,000 flowering plants that I … Well, excuse me. Let me take that back, because I guess everybody that has vegetables here, they’re always flowering, right? Just maybe not quite as beautiful as the flowers that I have.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing your story and having me out here to the farm. I mean, this is amazing out here. And what you guys are doing is really, really cool. But the story is the best part, that journey that you guys have been on to get where you are. Really, really cool stuff.

Steve Pabody:
Well, thanks. I appreciate you having me on and it’s always good to talk with you.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It was pretty cool to record that episode surrounded by flowers in the middle of the field. We’re going to work on getting the full video of it up on YouTube. Sure would appreciate if you would subscribe to our YouTube channel as well. Thank you again for being here on the Real Food Real People Podcast and supporting us by sharing our content far and wide to help grow the circle of those of us who are getting to know the real people behind our food. Find us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and of course check out 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. 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.

Case VanderMeulen | #034 08/03/2020

He grew up in Europe on a small family dairy, but he now runs a large dairy in Eastern Washington. Meet Case VanderMeulen, and hear his story of growth as he demystifies how large dairy farms really work.

Transcript

Case VanderMeulen:
I grew up in Holland. My family had a dairy farm, but my older brother, he took over the family farm and there was no room for two incomes after the quota system came in in Europe. So I had to go do something different.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are big dairy farms bad? It’s been a controversial issue for some people, and so I wanted to talk with someone who runs a big dairy farm. He’s also someone who has run a small dairy farm and not just in the United States. Case VanderMeulen, his dairy is Coulee Flats Dairy in Mesa, Washington and he grew up in the Netherlands. This week, he shares his story with us of growing up in Europe on a small family dairy, coming to the U.S. then and starting his own small dairy. And then growing it over the years to a large dairy.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ll find out exactly how he runs his operation. He gets into a lot of the specific details of how he manages the cows and his employees that keep this whole thing working. Fascinating conversation, lot of cool stuff. Thank you for joining us this week. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast documenting my continuing journeys around Washington state to get to know the real people producing food here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why are you so passionate about producing food for people and producing milk and dairy products?

Case VanderMeulen:
Because that’s what I grew up in. I grew up in Holland. My family had a dairy farm, but my older brother, oldest, he took over the family farm and there was no room for two incomes after the quota system came in in Europe. So I had to go do something different. I went on a couple of exchange programs, once to Canada and once to Washington on the West side. Then after a couple of years, later after I come back, I decided I’m going to move to the U.S. permanently because that’s always interested me.

Case VanderMeulen:
So I went and worked in California for a couple of two-and-a-half years, and then started a little dairy farm in Grandview, Washington. It’s a dedication, I guess, it’s just I love it. And once I got going, it’s like, why not? Just keep going and… Because I love it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you love about it? What’s it like being a dairy farmer? And what are the things that you really love?

Case VanderMeulen:
The growing part and building a system that works really well for treating cows well and treating employees well. So all the pieces fall in place. It never goes by itself, but it’s just like you’re building something, and it turns out nice, and you’re proud. So then you go onto the next thing because it feels good. Second, we have a really… We produce a really good wholesome food from products that the cows can eat and digest, but we humans won’t be able to digest.

Case VanderMeulen:
So cows is definitely what they call upcycling. That really feels good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about how your dairy works. In a way it has to be a system because there’s a lot of people involved, animals, fields, all this stuff has to work together to have milk come out of here at the end of the day. How does it work?

Case VanderMeulen:
It works, start off most important one, take care of the cows. There’s the old saying, “If you take care of the cows, they’ll take care of you.” Because those ladies are like athletes. They produce a lot of milk, and we got to keep them comfortable. When you keep him comfortable, then they will flourish just like humans or all other living beings. Keep them comfortable-

Dillon Honcoop:
How can you tell if a cow is comfortable?

Case VanderMeulen:
When you see her laying out there, chewing her cud or just grunting. That is just a sign that a cow is really comfortable. A cow should be doing one of three things; eat, lay down chew her cud, or be in milked in a parlor delivering her payload, so to speak, if you want to call it that way. So it all revolves around the cows. Cows are creatures of habit, so they like to have everything the same every day, a little bit like humans and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Creatures of routine.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep, routine. Routine day in, day out, try to make it the same every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
My grandpa was a dairy farmer. Actually, both of my grandpas were dairy farmers.

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
My dad’s dad, he always said his cows were so stuck on routine that they didn’t even like it if he wore a different hat when he milked them.

Case VanderMeulen:
I never wear a hat, so my girls are a little bit short on that, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, and he was very big on certain music too because-

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh, really?

Dillon Honcoop:
… he liked to listen to classic country-

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
… especially Hank Williams while he milked. And he claimed that that’s what they liked the best.

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s an interaction as far as the systems or whatever you want to call it. And dairy is the interaction between people and cows and everything around it. And obviously it takes a lot of equipment to get a lot of cows fed. And of course, the equipment needs to be in good shape, so a lot of maintenance and repairs. Then obviously, those cows eat a lot of feed, so we need to make sure we have lots of feed on hand and all the ingredients, and the place to make sure that we can make the rations for the cows the same every day.

Case VanderMeulen:
Again, creature of habit, she likes it that her food is the same every day. There’s like 10 to 15 different ingredients that we feed to the cows in the rations and we like to keep them proportioned the same every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kinds of things are you feeding them?

Case VanderMeulen:
First the foragers. Those are the building blocks, so to speak, because a rumen needs forage. Meaning a forage is a plant-based with fiber. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
And the rumen being the cow’s stomach, that’s what they need for their-

Case VanderMeulen:
To keep the rumen healthy because the rumen actually feeds the cow. Need the forages, corn silage, alfalfa hay, alfalfa silage, triticale silage. Then the grains. Like I said earlier, there’s a lot of feed that we’re feeding to the cows, those are byproducts of other feeds, so to speak like soybean meal. That is what’s left over after they get the oil out of the soybeans. Canola meal, same thing, after they get the oil out of the canola for the canola meal that we cook with.

Case VanderMeulen:
And cotton seed, that’s after to take the cotton off the little seed, and the seed is really, really potent because it’s got a lot of fat in it, and it’s high in protein. And it’s got fiber in it because of some of the lint still on the seed.

Dillon Honcoop:
So the cows like that, those different ingredients?

Case VanderMeulen:
We mix them all together, so it like… We have like big, giant blenders where everything goes in and it comes out mixed. So every bite is the same for every cow every day. The goal.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do they get to eat?

Case VanderMeulen:
These cows, they eat over 100 pounds of feed per day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that like something they choose how much they eat or?

Case VanderMeulen:
They can eat as much as they want. We just make sure that it’s there when they come and eat and they can come and go as they please.

Dillon Honcoop:
Then they probably drink a lot of water.

Case VanderMeulen:
And they drink a lot of water, probably about 30 to 50 gallons per cow, per day, somewhere within-

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
… that range. And that’s actually the most important ingredient. Without it, nothing would happen of course.

Dillon Honcoop:
All this stuff that you feed them, where does that come from? The forages, the grains. I guess you talked about some of these byproducts that would probably what? Otherwise be waste?

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
But the forage is, do you guys grow that?

Case VanderMeulen:
We grow some of those ourselves, and then also a bunch of my neighboring row crop farmers, I’ll buy feed from them or we’ll grow it ourselves. Then harvest it and store it, and then feed it the rest of the year. That takes a lot of acres to feed all these cows. Then the grains, the byproducts I was talking about, the dry ones like soybean meals come in more from the Midwest, canola meal is coming from Canada, cotton seeds coming from the South or the Southwest, and they all arrive by train.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then from there, they’re going to be hauled on trucks going to the different dairy producers and dairy farms. Then some of the other byproducts I didn’t talk about like potato waste, that goes from the local potato plants after they make French fries. So everything is being utilized and being fed to these cows. So they have the same feed every day, so they can do their thing, so to speak. Meaning produce lots of milk and be comfortable.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically the cows hang out, eat, and drink and get milked.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise they’re just chilling out.

Case VanderMeulen:
They’re chilling out. We milk them three times a day, and then like now, it’s really hot out. We have shade buildings where they can get in the shade, they can get cooled with sprinklers, where they eat. When they come into the parlor, they get sprinkled, so they get nice and wet. It’s just exactly like when you come out of the pool and-

Dillon Honcoop:
The misters are going.

Case VanderMeulen:
And the misters are going, or just out of the pool and you’re wet, then it’s called the evaporative cooling. It’s great.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the milking process? How does that work?

Case VanderMeulen:
All the cows are in groups, and then we bring a whole group into the parlor. Then they get milked, then they get into the parlor, into the milking stalls where they get milked. Then we disinfect the teats, get them prepared, attached to the machine. Then after she’s done milking, the machine will come off automatically. Then we apply more disinfectant on the teats, and then the cows go out, and then go back and eat. Three times a day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Three times a day.

Case VanderMeulen:
And we’re milking 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how long does that process take for the cow? How long are they in there being milked?

Case VanderMeulen:
About 10 minutes per side, so to speak. We have the milking parlors, the one of them is like 50 stalls on each side. So then if it’s 10 minutes, if we do six turns, so to speak, then we milk about 100 cows an hour.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they only have to hang out there for 10, 15, 20 minutes?

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah. Of course, they’re big groups, so it takes about 30, 40 minutes per group to be… Yeah, about 40 minutes from the time they go into the parlor until that whole pen is done and they all go back to the corral where they can hang out and eat.

Dillon Honcoop:
So at most, the actual milking time for a cow in a given day is 30, 45 minute when you add up the three milkings?

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
That they’re actually having [crosstalk 00:14:00]-

Case VanderMeulen:
That they’re actually being milked. That’s correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Now, the cows in the group that go to the parlor first obviously spend the least amount of time in the parlor or in the building, so to speak. But then the ones last the longest, of course, so altogether three times 40 minutes is two hours basically for the cows who are milked last out of the group.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so that’s it.

Case VanderMeulen:
And that’s it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dairy farming in a nutshell.

Case VanderMeulen:
And it goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
The cows can’t really take a day off per se, other than when they’re getting ready to have a calf.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that right?

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s correct. The gestation period for a cow is nine months, pretty much the same as humans, which is interesting. People don’t think about this very much, but a milk cow is pregnant most of her life because it takes nine months. Then if we’d like to have a calf every year, so that means in a year, there’s only three months out of the year that she’s not pregnant. So the cycle is so that calf gets born, it takes about two years to get her full grown.

Case VanderMeulen:
So at about 13 to 14 months of age, we breed them for the first time. And nine months later, they’re going to have their first baby, and that’s when her milking career starts. Then within about two months after she had a calf, she will be bred again and hopefully get pregnant. So then she can have another calf, 12 months later after she had the first one. Then about 45 days before she’s going to have a calf, we actually, what we call, we dry her off. So that means we quit milking her, and that’s her vacation time for a little while.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then she can regenerate, and recoup, and start for the next cycle. That’s just how it goes and every day or so we’ll have 30 to 40 calves a day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happens to all those calves? What do you do with them?

Case VanderMeulen:
We raise the heifer calves to be the replacements for the cows that leave the facility, because at some point in time, they are getting older, and then they have to have a change of career, so to speak. Then the bull calves, they-

Dillon Honcoop:
So heifer calves being a female-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
The bulls being the boys.

Case VanderMeulen:
That is correct. That is correct. The bulls, they get picked up… Yeah, always get picked up daily. Then they go to a calf ranch and they’re being raised, and then they’re going to go eventually to a feedlot.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they’re beef.

Case VanderMeulen:
For beef. There’s two products that we produce, is basically milk and beef. Then the heifer calves, the female calves that stay here, we’ll raise them in… They’ll raise them and we’ll have them on milk for two months. Then those calves after two months will then, what we call, they get weaned, meaning we don’t feed them milk anymore.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then they go in different groups. Then as they get older, they’ll get different kinds of feeds to optimize their growth for healthy strong bodies and digestive system so they can be good, healthy mamas for the next generation, so to speak.

Dillon Honcoop:
How different is this whole process than when you grew up in Europe?

Case VanderMeulen:
The basics are the same, but it’s just the scale is so significantly different. At my family farm, they were milking about 100 cows, and those cows would go in the pasture in the summertime. In the winter time, they would be in the barn, so to speak, and we did all the work ourselves. Here with milking several thousand cows, we have to have a lot of employees help us, otherwise we couldn’t get it done.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many employees do you have to make it work?

Case VanderMeulen:
About 85 altogether, full time employees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how many cows do you have?

Case VanderMeulen:
We’re milking about 7,000 cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Those are the milk cows. Then we have another 800 to 1,000, what we call it the dry cows, the cows that are on vacation, so to speak. Then all the replacement heifers, which is a good all about 12,000 or so.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’ve lived the small dairy life, and now the large dairy life.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why so big? Some people say, “Oh, it’s better if a farm is small.” What are the differences in having experienced both?

Case VanderMeulen:
Actually, there’s nothing wrong with big dairy farms. Yeah, it maybe seems not attractive for some people, I guess. But actually when you are bigger, you can specialize more the jobs. We have guys that just… They do nothing but milk for eight hours a day. Then we have guys that only feed calves. Then we also have guys that only feed the cows, so it’s very specialized jobs. Therefore you can really train them, train the guys well and they can do a really, really good job.

Case VanderMeulen:
Instead of if you had to have, let’s say you milk 200 cows and you have to have two or three employees. Those three employees needed to do everything and you need to train them on everything. So that makes it a lot more difficult. That doesn’t only count for the employees, but that counts for all systems, so you can really fine tune things much better, and therefore be very, very efficient from a resource perspective.

Case VanderMeulen:
Because we use a lot of resources, water, feed, land of course to grow crops, fertilizer… No, not actually fertilizer, but the manure we use as fertilizer because we utilize everything. We don’t waste nothing.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you were growing up in Europe, what was that like? It’s totally a different culture, right?

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s a very different culture, yes. In Holland, there’s thousands and thousands of smaller dairy farms and yeah, it’s… I’m not quite for sure how to explain it, but it’s just a different way of life. However, that is changing rapidly also. The farms in Holland, in Europe are getting much bigger also. For whatever reason, our expenses keep going up, and up, and up just like everybody experiences around the world. Food gets…

Case VanderMeulen:
But the price that we get for the milk and the beef doesn’t seem to change all that much, not even close to comparative from 15, 20 years ago. So we just need to be more efficient in order to stay relevant.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the reasons that farms are getting bigger? Is that the same in Europe as here?

Case VanderMeulen:
Absolutely. I don’t know really what the reason is, but in order to increase efficiency. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what our lives as humans today are about. We need to do more things in less time, and technology helps a lot with that. Talking about technology, we use quite a bit technology on dairy farms today in order to do a better, more precise job. Like what use for the last couple two-and-a-half years now, we actually use… All the cows wear basically a Fitbit around their neck.

Case VanderMeulen:
And every cow is being monitored on how active she is every day, it’s counts steps. Somehow it doesn’t really count steps, but it counts activity. If a cow becomes the less active, the system will alert us and try and tell us, “Hey, there may be something wrong with this cow.” Or if she becomes really active, that usually means she’s in heat, she’s ready to be bred. Then the system will alert us also and tell us, “Hey, this cow is possibly in heat, you better go check her.” And if she is, then we can [inaudible 00:24:32].

Dillon Honcoop:
Technology.

Case VanderMeulen:
Technology. And the beauty of technology is it works 24 hours a day to where if you have people watching cows, they don’t have to work for 24 hours a day. And it’s just becoming harder and harder to get good dedicated people, so it’s a challenge sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the key to leading the team like you do here on the farm, having that many employees and making sure that people are on the same page, and happy with where they’re at? You talked about that being one of the values of the system that you’re building is to be good for the employees.

Case VanderMeulen:
Absolutely. It’s the same for all of us, if we don’t like our job, we don’t like the culture or whatever, it’s not fun coming to work, and when it’s not fun coming to work, you’re not going to do your best. It’s as simple as that. So we have all different teams, so to speak. We have a milking team, we have a calf team. We have a herds people team.

Case VanderMeulen:
The herds people are the guys who take care of the cows as far as when the cows need to be moved from one pen to the other, they need to be bred. They need to be taken care of, just basically general animal husbandry. Then we have a feeding team. We have a team in the mechanic shop that maintains and repairs all the equipment.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then we have equipment team that maintains the pens, helps with harvest, all the different things. And each team has a leader obviously. Then we have office team. Then we have also basically a general manager who… Ricardo, he’s the operation manager and he tries to keep the teams coherent and working together. It’s a challenge, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
When you have that many people, it’s always going to be.

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s right. There’s a lot of training involved, meetings and all this stuff. Then before February, once a month, we’d have a caterer come in and provide lunch for the whole team, and just get together and hang out for an hour. Just trying to keep everybody together on the same team.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said you started the first dairy that was yours was in Grandview.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like? And how did that grow and how did you end up here in Mesa?

Case VanderMeulen:
I started in Grandview, 150 cows, doing all the work myself. Those were long days, long, hard days. Did that for about a year, year-and-a-half. Then I grew a little bit and I got one employee to help me milk the cows. Then a couple of years later, a couple of years after that and we moved to a little bit bigger facilities, so we went to about 400 cows. Then a few years later, we bought another facility. Then in 2007, we started building this facility and start milking cows in 2008.

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s been quite a journey. It’s fun. Lots of challenges, but those are there to be overcome.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the hardest challenge to overcome to get to where you are now?

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s just like everybody else probably, but the hardest challenge is when the economy has a downturn and expenses are greater than income. That’s always a challenge, right? So then you got to get creative and try to cut costs and try to do the best he can. Yeah, you get through it. Things are, sometimes they’re really good and sometimes they’re not so good, but that just happens and you just got to keep going.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is the way it was growing up too?

Case VanderMeulen:
I believe so. Yeah. Yeah. I know by my parents and my brother, they had some hard times financially, but giving up is just not part of the game, right? You got to keep going.

Dillon Honcoop:
What keeps you going through those hard times? I know people point to different things, it just gives them hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah. That’s a hard question to answer, but I guess the fear of failure is probably one of the biggest ones. Yeah, that’s about the best I can… the way I can explain it, I think.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said that you were interested in continuing farming, but you couldn’t continue with the family farm-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in the Netherlands.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? How did that work out? What was the issue there?

Case VanderMeulen:
Because it takes at that time 75 cows or so, 75 to 100 cows per family, or takes about that amount of cows to maintain income for one family. And they were milking, I don’t know, 120, 130 cows. Then they got a quota system and everybody had to reduce 20 some percent. Then that basically was only room for one. Since my brother was in a partnership with my dad and the idea was that I was supposed to take over my dad’s half, but then when the quota system came in, then that…

Case VanderMeulen:
My dad actually stepped out of the business at that point in time and my brother took it over and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is he still doing it?

Case VanderMeulen:
My brother does. Yes. Yep, yep. Yeah. He’s milking still about 100 cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you guys swap stories back and forth?

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you compare the different [crosstalk 00:31:25]-

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah, absolutely. He’s been here a few times and yeah, he likes it. He’s got his son involved now and he’s hopefully going to take over his business or his dairy and then we’ll see where it goes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your dad think of all of it?

Case VanderMeulen:
My dad thought it was… Obviously, he was pretty sad that there wasn’t a room for both of us on the farm so we could work together. But yeah, yeah, I guess I had never… I never really asked him if… [inaudible 00:32:12] this is what I did and they supported me 100%.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like coming to America when you first decided you’re moving there?

Case VanderMeulen:
Exciting. I was in my early 20s, so you have nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, it’s easy or somewhat easy. Now, once you start building some stuff up and you have something to lose then things change a little bit. I’ve missed home, but I always kept myself plenty busy, so I didn’t have too much time to think about or be home sick.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you been back to the Netherlands much?

Case VanderMeulen:
A few times, yeah. I don’t go that often, but yeah, probably about 10 times or so. 10 to 15 times.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family now. What family do you have and are they involved in the farm at all?

Case VanderMeulen:
Like I said, my oldest brother, he took over the family farm and then I got one other brother and two sisters. But none of them are in farming because there was only room for one on the farm. One of them is in the… Her and her husband are in the restaurant, then my other older sister, she’s retired now, but she did a lot of secretarial work. Then my other brother, he actually had a little accident and he’s somewhat handicapped.

Case VanderMeulen:
That was kind of a bad deal. Not kind of, really bad deal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It must’ve been-

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
… very hard.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you have kids or?

Case VanderMeulen:
I have one son. He’s just turned 16 last week, so yeah, what a riot that is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does he work on the farm at all?

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah, ever since the school got closed off, he’s been busy here at the dairy. Try to keep him busy and try to keep him out of trouble.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does he like it? I know I had to work on the farm growing up on a farm, so there were some times I liked it and other times I was like, “No, no, no, I don’t want to do this farming thing.”

Case VanderMeulen:
Obviously there’s lots of jobs he doesn’t like, but I think he says he really wants to become a dairy farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, he does?

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah. So hopefully, but not going to force him of course. It’s all if he wants to or not. But it’s very, very satisfying to see him here helping me on the farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think? Could he do it? Could he take it over?

Case VanderMeulen:
Time will tell. Time will tell.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, it’s interesting to me talking with you, a first generation to America, Dutch person.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
My family is I think, four or more generations removed, but there’s all these stereotypes with the Dutch and the Dutch farmers. You would have a better perspective on that than me. How much of that is an American stereotype versus reality? I’m thinking about you and your son and like I’m used to the Dutch dads being pretty hard on their sons and pushing them, “You got to work hard, and do a good job, and no slacking off.”

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s probably our biggest challenge. Some days he doesn’t like me very much.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve been there.

Case VanderMeulen:
But-

Dillon Honcoop:
On the son’s side.

Case VanderMeulen:
As far as stereotypes, I don’t know. On the Western United States, there’s a lot of dairy farmers that are from Dutch heritage, right? So I don’t know really what that means, but apparently the Dutch are pretty good at the dairy business, I think. There’s still a lot of dairies in Holland, so-

Dillon Honcoop:
The history dairy farming in the Netherlands goes back hundreds and-

Case VanderMeulen:
Hundreds of years, yes. Correct. [crosstalk 00:36:42]-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where it comes from, right? Then it just stays with a culture.

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s right. The little bit of an interesting tidbit is that Holland is a pretty small country. The State of Washington is five times as big as little Holland, as the Netherlands. So it’s interesting that there’s a lot of Dutch all over the world.

Dillon Honcoop:
With Dutch dairy farmers coming out to the West, I’ve always heard, “Well, the Dutch came to the U.S. and then they found the West coast of Washington, and Oregon, and found that climate was similar to back home.” That was certainly the story for my family way back and over time as they ended up there. But you’re here in Eastern Washington, it’s hot and it’s dry, very different climate than back home in the Netherlands for you. Right?

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that make it more challenging and new, this whole thing?

Case VanderMeulen:
I think you’re spot on that a lot of the Dutch, they liked Western Washington, Western Oregon because of the climate and cows flourished there because not too big of temperature swings. And good feed, and pasture. Now, here in Eastern Washington, we’re here in the Columbia Basin, it does get hot and it does get cold, and we do get snow. But the good thing about it is we only get seven inches of precipitation here.

Case VanderMeulen:
Water is not good for cows, not necessarily the cows themselves don’t like it, but other organisms really like water. Bacteria, and viruses, and all that kind of stuff. They need water. And when it’s dry, you just have a lot less problems. Plus, you don’t have to deal with all the rain water and catch it, and store it. Because we, as dairy farmers or livestock in general, so to speak, we got to contain all our water.

Case VanderMeulen:
Every water that comes in contact with manure, we have to contain, store, and then apply it at agronomical rates to our crops. So we don’t do any groundwater contamination and/or any runoff going into any kind of a drain ditch, or water body, or whatever it is. Very important.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are you do to prevent things like that? How can you make sure that doesn’t happen?

Case VanderMeulen:
I have a facility that is built for it and the water always runs to the lowest spot, right? So we just need to make sure that the lowest spot drains into some kind of a storage structure.

Dillon Honcoop:
And catch it.

Case VanderMeulen:
And catch it. And actually in Eastern Washington here, that’s a good thing because we do need the water for irrigation. So that’s not a bad thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, and the stuff that’s in it that could pollute say a stream, if applied correctly to a field can actually be a good thing, a positive because that’s the fertilizer, it’s the organic matter.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah. Right here on our farm, we hardly buy any commercial fertilizer. We only use the fertilizer from the manure, from the cows. So therefore it’s kind of… Not kind of, it is the perfect cycle because we’re not buying any commercial fertilizer and we’re not over applying any of the nutrients on the ground. Therefore, self-sustaining.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big is sustainability to your operation and your philosophy?

Case VanderMeulen:
Very big. We live here, we work here, we drink the same water. We live in the same environment. If we would pollute, we only pollute our future. So therefore there is no benefit in polluting, so to speak, if you want to call it that way. So we need to make sure that we continue doing the right thing, not only for ourselves, but also for future generations, and all our neighbors, and friends and family. So it’s a must.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it been like during this pandemic to keep the farm going? I know a lot of farms have had challenges how to take care of people, how to, but keep… It wouldn’t be right to just let the cows… You can’t stop milking them. You write to them and it would probably cause your operation to crumble if you did that for too long.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes. That’s the interesting thing about dairy farmer or having livestock. It’s not like a trucking company and said, “There’s no money, I’m just going to park the trucks and send everybody home and we’re done with it.” We can’t just say, “Oh, we’re going to quit milking the cows, we’re going to quit feeding the cows.” That’s inhumane, can’t do it. So rain, shine, good economics, bad economics, we have to keep going.

Case VanderMeulen:
So as far the whole pandemic, we haven’t really had too many hiccups. We’re providing all the safety gear, having do an extra cleaning, and disinfecting, and all that kind of stuff, and trying to do our best on social distancing, but yeah, we haven’t had too many challenges. So quite honestly, for me, my work life, hasn’t changed all that much pre COVID versus now.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about your team? How are the workers feeling about all of it? Are they worried?

Case VanderMeulen:
I don’t know if they’re really worried, but they are aware. They’re very aware and trying to do like I said, we’re a social distancing, and using face masks, and provide them, and temperature checks, and all this stuff. So far we’ve had pretty good luck.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for this operation then? You keep growing, do you keep doing what you’re doing? How long do you see yourself staying in this business?

Case VanderMeulen:
Don’t know for sure. That depends a lot on whether my son wants to go take over the farm or not, we have a few more years yet to do that. I love what I do, so I have no need to quit at this point in time. As far as growing, we’re probably not to grow too much more on this facility because all the systems are maximized. Like I was saying earlier, we’re self sustaining, if we milk a lot more cows, then we would get more nutrients.

Case VanderMeulen:
Then we would have to spread our wings more so to speak from… Put those nutrients on more ground. Yeah, that would be. So at this point in time, we’ll probably just going to stay where we’re at. Plus of course, not of course, but to where we’re in our co-op, Dairygold, we have a base system, a quota system like I was talking about in Europe. So you can’t just start shipping more milk because the co-op can’t really handle much more milk right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So all of your milk goes to that co-operative?

Case VanderMeulen:
That’s correct. I’m a member owner of Dairygold, and yeah, our milk, it’s used for either cheese or butter powder, Sunnyside plant.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like being a part of cooperative? How does that work? Does that work pretty well as compared to maybe a different model or a company buying your milk?

Case VanderMeulen:
I can’t really compare because this is the only thing what I’ve done. But obviously the idea from a co-op is that if you have a private processor, the processor would want to try to buy our milk as cheap as possible because… But it’s been pretty good, so the whole idea about a cooperative is that the “profits” that the private handler would make goes in the pockets of the dairy farmers. So that’s the background of it or the purpose.

Dillon Honcoop:
Earlier, you were saying, it’s hard to find good workers and-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
… those are in short supply. What’s going on there? Why is it hard to find people to join the team? What is the deal with employee? I hear that so much in farming and all different kinds of farming across this state, there’s a workers’ shortage.

Case VanderMeulen:
I think before COVID, I think the biggest reason for that is that the economy was booming, so lots of workers need it. We only have so many, so you can try to pay more to somebody who works somewhere as else and try to recruit them. That operation or whoever where they would have to hire somebody else, so it’s significantly raised our cost of operation when there’s a shortage of people.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know some farm worker unions and stuff say, “Wow, there’s no shortage. There’s plenty of people here. It shouldn’t be a problem.”

Case VanderMeulen:
No, that’s not true. That’s not true. There’s probably maybe plenty of people, but we’ve got to have qualified people. You got to have people that want to do a good job and feel good about their job at the end of the day, and want to be part of the team. Some of those organizations feel that we are not treating our employees well or not paying our employees well. I would beg to differ. There is not one employee here on our facility that makes minimum wage. Everybody makes more than minimum wage.

Case VanderMeulen:
And there is no concern from my perspective that we don’t treat people well because we really try to do our best. It doesn’t mean that it’s always perfect. It doesn’t mean there’s never any controversies or people are always just happy. No, of course not, but we really try hard to get a really good culture on our operation. That’s really what you need.

Dillon Honcoop:
If it’s not true, then why are some groups saying that?

Case VanderMeulen:
It’s all about money. I’m not so sure that labor unions today are really that interested in the wellbeing of the employees, but more about their own organization and having lots of members. It’s questionable in my opinion. Like I said, we don’t mistreat people like some of those organizations are trying to claim. They have a different interest. Not quite sure what, but they have a different interest.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you reach a point where you can’t get enough people to continue on this operation? Do you see that happening? I guess some people could say, “You can have more people. You just need to pay more. Pay $20 an hour, pay $30 an hour. Whatever it takes, then people will come.”

Case VanderMeulen:
That is probably true. That is probably true, but that isn’t then… High wages is not a guaranteed that they’re going to for one, do a good job or number two, be happy and satisfied in their working environment. Wages is only part of an employee’s wellbeing, so to speak. It’s just the same for all of us, we need to feel good about ourselves at the end of the day.

Case VanderMeulen:
I’m for sure not convinced that money or dollars at the end of the day makes us feel good. Money is a need, but it doesn’t give satisfaction at the end of the day if we don’t like what we do, no matter how much you get paid.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about the operation and like the business, at what point does that become unsustainable to pay more? I would imagine labor costs are a pretty significant part of your overall costs. Aren’t they?

Case VanderMeulen:
Absolutely. As far as expense is concerned or costs, feed is our highest cost, in fact, highest which is usually about 50% of our income. Then labor is the next highest one, which is, let me see, probably about 15% plus. And then we have all the other things. So if the cost of the labor increase significantly, then that becomes a real issue. I guess, what it comes down to is we still need to be competitive from an economic perspective with the rest of the country. Because State of Washington has a pretty high minimum wage to begin with.

Case VanderMeulen:
Like I said, it’s not like we’re paying anybody minimum wage, but if minimum wage goes up, everybody else expects also be ready to go up also, right? It’s just not sustainable keep going up, and up, and up for our business because we need to compete. My milk’s not much different than somebody in Idaho, for example, which has a lower wage brackets, so to speak. My milk’s the same as the cows in New York or in Minnesota.

Case VanderMeulen:
So we need to be competitive, otherwise, the dairy industry in Washington over time will be significantly impacted.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest threat then? Is that the biggest worry about keeping dairy farming happening here in Washington State?

Case VanderMeulen:
I think so. Dairy is the second biggest ag sector in the State of Washington, behind apples. Apples and dairy in years past swaps back and forth on who’s the biggest economic ag sector in the State depending on where prices are. We are a significant financial impact for the State all together. Not that financial impact is the most important thing, but we do keep a whole lot of people working and getting good wages.

Case VanderMeulen:
Not only for the employees themselves, but also all the services around the dairy sector, so to speak. Equipment maintenance, parts of banking, financing, feed, the feed that we purchase. That’s a big economic impact.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s going to become more and more important as we go into what sounds like could be a pretty bad time economically here as people are going to be more interested in making sure we keep jobs available for people and people be able to make an income.

Case VanderMeulen:
You would sure think so, but that has not… It doesn’t seem to have an impact just yet. As long as the federal government keeps writing and everybody checks, I guess that’s… But that’s going to have to end at some point in time. Somebody’s got to pay for this. We need to go back to work as a country. My opinion.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story.

Case VanderMeulen:
Thank you [crosstalk 00:55:42]-

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s story that’s taking you halfway around the world.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Starting in the Netherlands and coming here to Washington State. And it’s pretty inspiring what you’ve been able to do starting just by yourself and growing this company. It’s pretty neat to see.

Case VanderMeulen:
Thank you. I’m obviously very proud of it, but at the same time, not the only one who did this, so yeah. If there’s a will, there is a way, and a will and persistency will win eventually. My opinion.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a day do you have invested into doing this? And I would imagine that’s seven days a week.

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh yes. [crosstalk 00:56:30]-

Dillon Honcoop:
Some days, do you get a day off?

Case VanderMeulen:
I’ll get some days off, but 10 to 12 hours a day minimum, sometimes longer. But as to where the… I don’t do the day-to-day everyday work anymore. My job varies a lot. Meaning there’s hardly ever a day the same because we take care of challenges, and planning, and hopefully trying to look a little bit towards the future and see how we can stay relevant in today’s world because that’s what it’s all about. Right? We got to stay relevant.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for taking time out of that busy schedule. And I hope I didn’t make your day that much longer.

Case VanderMeulen:
No, it was great. I don’t mind sharing my story. In fact, I think it’s important that we speak up and talk about the good things that dairy and ag in general has to offer the world. Not only here, but all through the world.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What was fascinating to me about that is what he describes about the actual process that his very large dairy goes through to produce milk, manage the cows, employees, crops. It was very similar and very much in line with what my grandparents did many years ago, running their small family dairies that both of my parents grew up on. So in a lot of ways, this conversation for me demystified the really large dairy and showed me that it’s really what I already understand, just a lot more cows and people involved.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that was reassuring to hear. Thank you for being here on the Real Food Real People Podcast. We really would encourage you to subscribe to make sure you don’t miss an episode every week, and follow us on social media. And if something in this interests you, share it. It really helps us continue to grow this so we can include more and more people in this conversation about our food system and the people behind our food in Washington.

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

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

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

Transcript

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

[Music]

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How tall?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you go cut it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what happens?

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you love it, farming?

Andrew Eddie:
Farming?

Dillon Honcoop:
Making hay?

Andrew Eddie:
I enjoy it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Handling the weather?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, shouldn’t be-

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Sometimes.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
No. I will-

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Really Nice Hay.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
You got it.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you say that.

Andrew Eddie:
You got it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Got it.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It stands for something.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Exactly.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right?

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s worth it.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you guys are-

Andrew Eddie:
In all honesty.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re in circles, so-

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right. Yeah.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s cost money.

Andrew Eddie:
That’s the thing.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, right.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Old thinking, yeah.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Certainly, that’s my gig.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, I know.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Thanks for sharing your story.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I appreciate it.

Andrew Eddie:
Any time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for doing it.

Andrew Eddie:
Of course.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for chatting.

Andrew Eddie:
Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Me either.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys have been battling the weather.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, just wave. Hey.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So what does export quality mean?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So what happens to that hay then?

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Yep.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yay big. Yeah.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. I see.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

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

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
They quick scramble some cargo planes-

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… to interrupt.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Initially?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Over a half ton of hay.

Andrew Eddie:
Yep, yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Just roughly. Roughly.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Andrew Eddie:
I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
… alfalfa and grasses that you grow.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yep, exactly.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yes.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yep.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yep, yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right, right. Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So what does it do to it?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Most nutrition for their animals to eat.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Ah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It can be?

Andrew Eddie:
It can be, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Part of their TMR?

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, they-

Dillon Honcoop:
Their milk retention.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s my experience with it.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
No, no.

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right, right.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
They’ll actually say that?

Andrew Eddie:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
We hope they say it.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, true. True.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, going over those same acres.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So customer work meaning what?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I see.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s true.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you guys get into this?

Andrew Eddie:
Farming as a whole?

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you start farming?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
This was when you were how old?

Andrew Eddie:
I was about 18.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Andrew Eddie:
So it was time.

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really? It was that apparent?

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah. Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did your dad say?

Andrew Eddie:
He didn’t say much.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
I’m loving it right now.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right.

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

Andrew Eddie:
That’s right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And people call you on the phone.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s reality.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah until-

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Such is the way of farming.

Andrew Eddie:
Such is the way of farming.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yep never see each other.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Daddy daycare in a pickup.

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah I mean it happens.

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

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

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right. Right, right.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was my growing up too.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Right.

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

Andrew Eddie:
No, no yeah.

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

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe, sometimes.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, sorry.

Andrew Eddie:
Yeah and then you know-

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah that’s a tough job.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chad Kruger | #020 04/27/2020

He's now a key leader in the same university research system that his farmer grandpa would look to for guidance on his strawberry farm decades ago. Chad Kruger shares how WSU scientists and farmers are working together to grow food better.

Transcript

Chad Kruger:
Before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing. He always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he was such an inspirational person.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re to get kind of sciency. We’re going to get into some science stuff this episode on the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m host, Dillon Honcoop. Glad you’re here. We’re talking with a guy who’s basically a farming scientist, for lack of a better term. His team is made up of the key people who are studying scientific issues in farming and growing food here in Washington State. These are scientists who are trying to help farmers make better food and make their food better, if that makes sense. Improve the quality of what we’re able to produce, as well as improving the process of growing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this is so much about the technology now that’s involved in farming and knowing every little thing about the plants and the soil and the food and what makes it good and what makes it not good and what the impacts are. It’s really extensive, and it’s pretty amazing. Chad Kruger is our guest this week, and he actually grew up in a farming family in Eastern Washington. It was kind of cool, during the conversation we realized we had this family roundabout connection that we would have never otherwise recognized other than this talk, about how what his grandpa was doing was actually connected to my family as well as my wife’s family.

Dillon Honcoop:
My wife didn’t even grow up in Washington State, but she’s connected to this story, so you’ll hear that part, and I thought that was super cool to find out. Chad has a really great perspective on what’s happening with technology and science and farming and the production of food and why it’s uniquely challenging here in Washington, but also why we have such incredible opportunities. We talk about climate change as well, that could actually end up being an opportunity for farming in Washington State in the future.

Dillon Honcoop:
But he also has some warnings with how we’re handling that and if we’re taking action soon enough on issues. So we get into all of it this week, again with Chad Kruger. He’s with the Washington State University Center For Sustaining Agriculture And Natural Resources. He’s based in Mount Vernon, Washington, here in Western Washington, North of Seattle, and he’s got so much cool stuff to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
First, talk about what you do now and how you are connected to the food system in maybe a way that people don’t recognize. What is it that you have been doing for the past, what has it been, 10, 15 years out here?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. Maybe starting right now and working backwards a little bit, I’m currently the director of Washington State University’s research and extension centers in Mount Vernon and in Puyallup, which are both in Western Washington. Puyallup is the original off-campus agricultural experiment station and Mount Vernon is the newest of the off-campus agricultural experiment stations, and we call them both research and extension centers now, but essentially they’re labs and research farms. And so my role as director of those is kind of an unusual thing in terms of a university system, in that it’s really focused on oversight to facilities and operations management for these entities where a whole bunch of faculty research programs and extension programs operate out off of.

Chad Kruger:
So it’s not quite the same as you might expect with an academic program at a university, these are really research-based programs and my role is really responsibility for the overall campus operations and big picture investments.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sounds pretty complicated and technical.

Chad Kruger:
Yes and no. Bottom line is, it’s still just a leadership opportunity trying to work within the university system and with our partners and the agricultural community and the broader community to make sure that the partnership between the land-grant university and the community is mutually beneficial and that we’re doing things that matter in the real world and that the real world is bringing things that they need help on to the university.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the real world ultimately is producing food, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, exactly. The vast majority of what we do in our college, it’s College Of Agricultural, Human And Natural Resource Sciences, but we really are the land-grant college of agriculture that many people would have historically understood in including both the academic, the research, and the extension dimensions of that. But we’re also in the process of evolving into a future that’s not alike every other part of the food world, things are not the same as they used to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
So basically, it’s where science and farming come together, right? These are farming scientists in a way at the university level, is that fair to sum that up? Like you’re managing basically a group of farming scientists?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I might say that we’re getting more and more to the end where it’s the scientist’s side of that equation relative to the farming science dual factor, whereas 20, 30 years ago, I think you might’ve said that the science farmer was as much science as farmer. I think based on just the evolution of research needs and capabilities, we tend to focus more on getting the scientists that can help the farmer at this point in time, but you still have to have a pretty good understanding of, how do you actually grow a crop? And you need to understand your crop in the way that a farmer has to understand the crop in order to actually be able to do research on that crop that’s relevant to the farming world.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess how scientific is farming right now then?

Chad Kruger:
It’s becoming more and more science-based, more and more data-driven. And I think what we’re seeing in the ag and food world right now is, all of the technology that’s in the broader world around us is looking for its opportunity within the ag and food production and ag and food system at a level that even five years ago it wasn’t quite looking at it as intensely. And I think it’s going to continue to be that way where technology and data and understanding becomes more and more important to success in farming be able to grow a crop or produce a product that goes off into the marketplace, whether that market is local, regional or global.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are some of the biggest things that you and your team that you work with have found or discovered or tested? What kind of stuff are we talking about when we’re talking about data and science of farming and growing plants in particular? I think a lot of this is plant stuff, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. WSU historically has been very well known on the plant science side, not that we don’t have strength in animal sciences too, but historically, WSU’s expertise and reputation really has been on the plant sciences side. And that crosses everything from the grains to the specialty crops, fruits and vegetables, with a lot of background and focus on that. And so the facilities that I’ve been in charge of and a lot of the work that I’ve been involved with really is plant science focused, quite a bit of animal systems as well. People work on everything from breeding and genetics to crop protection; diseases, insects and pests and weeds, to soils and environmental issues, economics, the whole nine yards.

Chad Kruger:
We touch a little bit in a lot of places. We tend to be most focused on the actual crop production systems as opposed to, at least in the entities that I’m responsible for, as opposed to up the value chain if you will, of the food system, though there has been some work on food processing, value added, and that kind of thing. But the majority of our investment really has been growing a plant and keeping a plant growing successfully, ensuring that that’s done in an environmentally appropriate way and that we’re minimizing impacts on the larger environment.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. When you talked about the processing stuff and whatnot, I do think of stuff that you guys have done even there in Skagit where you are like the Bread Lab, that we talked about here on the podcast with Nels Brisbane several episodes ago, but really cool stuff there. But that tends to not be the main thing, the main thing is more on growing the plants and the farming side of it, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think that’s a little bit of legacy in terms of where the long-standing partnership between, at least WSU and the ag community has been, is really the help is always been needed on the production system side. I think we are thinking more and more about the bigger picture and where other dimensions of our work need to be. We did have a faculty member in food science who had joined us for a short period of time at one of the research centers recently. So it’s something that’s on our mind and we do have a food science department, food engineering, and then of course entities like the Bread Lab that really are trying to wrap their mind around this bigger picture of agriculture isn’t just about the production system but it’s about the whole system as it comes together and then the need for the market to facilitate success on farm and becoming more intentional about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the coolest thing that you feel like in your time there you have been a part of or worked on as a team?

Chad Kruger:
For me, particularly at the Mount Vernon center, I think one of the coolest things that I’ve been able to work on is helping to bring the first soils’ faculty to the center there. The Mount Vernon center has a long history in working in Northwest Washington on a number of the cropping systems that are important here, and it always seemed to me to be a bit of an oversight not to have a soils’ person in the mix. Well, there’s always been a soils’ person in the mix at the Puyallup center and in many of the other areas where I’ve worked over the years, it just felt like a key missing ingredient, if you will, of a viable cropping systems team.

Chad Kruger:
And so bringing soil’s faculty to the table in Mount Vernon that can work with the faculty that are more focused on the plant or the organism that affect a plant above the soil or in some cases below the soil, I think that was a really important thing to do. Part of that is, there’s a lot of questions that are emerging about crop performance that can’t be answered with a simple approach of diagnose and add a chemical and solve the problem. They really are systemic problems that we have to think about from a systems’ perspective. And bringing a soil scientist into the mix enables our team to have all the pieces that they need to go about asking bigger picture tougher questions that 30 years ago maybe you didn’t need to figure all that out, but we really do need to do that going forward.

Chad Kruger:
And then I think the other piece of this is as these Northwest Washington farming communities continue to move forward, the pressure around environmental issues is going to just keep increasing, and it’s already very, very tight in terms of what a farmer can and can’t do and the impacts that farming has on the environment. And one of the best tools from a research perspective that we can bring to the table is soils research because so much of what happens in terms of impacts on the environment happen through the soil as a lens or a gateway into water quality, other issues like that. And so having soil’s members as part of the team better enables us to serve an ongoing partnership between the agricultural community, the farmers, as well as the larger community that’s living around agriculture in the region.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about how important soils are as affecting so many things. And you talk about water quality. Then there’s the huge issue that everybody’s talking about, which is climate change, that’s another big soil-focused issue, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. There’s certainly an interaction between soils and vegetation and climate, or the global carbon system. I think a lot of people don’t understand that the relative amount of the global carbon budget that’s fixed in the soils versus the atmosphere, it’s much greater in soil. Soils are a much bigger reservoir of carbon than the atmosphere. And while we talk a lot fossil fuels in the context of the global carbon cycle, soils and vegetation are pretty big part of it. And while soils aren’t going to solve the whole problem, they are part of a solution. And the beautiful thing is, the kinds of things that we want to do from a farm-level perspective to improve soil management, help crops perform better, potentially help on the financial side for the farmer, those kinds of things tend to be good for the global carbon system as well.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s one of these very seemingly rare things where being focused on healthy soils is a win, win, win kind of scenario, and that is why-

Dillon Honcoop:
Rather than some trade off where it’s like, “Oh, well, you have to do the right thing, it’s going to cost you, but it’s the right thing to do.” Well, here it may benefit on both ends, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, definitely. And yet we still don’t know very much, and I think that’s the other big picture issue is, if we’re going to make progress that’s beneficial to farmers or the environment in soils, we need to know a whole lot more than we currently know. And that’s both a general issue everywhere and a specific issue in this region where we haven’t actively had soil science just working in these cropping systems, is really to understand what do we not know how to do and how do we increase that knowledge and give producers more tools that they can to improve their soil management?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like you said, there’s a lot that we don’t know, but how much is farming going to change with all of this focus on soil and learning about soil and all the science that you guys and so many other universities and agencies are doing? Is it going to change the face of farming in the near future?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer to that question. My suspicion is there will be changes, but they may not be readily observable in the sense of looking at one field compared to another field and saying, “Oh wow, that’s a big difference.” The soils don’t tend to reflect changes quickly, and so it takes a lot more time to understand how a management intervention or a management change affects the soil positively and negatively and whether or not you’ve achieved something that you’re trying to achieve. And that’s one of the great challenges that we talk about in the context of agricultural research, is soils and cropping systems types of research questions don’t tend to be easily solved with a quick experiment, and you really have to keep after them for awhile.

Chad Kruger:
And I don’t think it’s just the soil questions at this point in time anymore, I think some of the disease questions and even some of the weed management questions that historically may have presented fairly simple solutions… We’ve answered a lot of the simple questions, and we’ve done that. And the questions or the challenges that we’re dealing with today don’t have simple answers and often the answer is in the interplay between the plant and the soil or the other organisms that interact between the plant and the soil. And that’s much more complicated and not quite as easy to find solutions to. I have high hopes, but I’m not quite so convinced that there’s going to be overwhelming discoveries that really quickly help us figure out how to change things.

Chad Kruger:
And perhaps a way to think about this is thinking about it in terms of human health, it used to be you got sick, you went to the doctor and there was a new medication that the doctor could give you and all of a sudden you were better. And in agriculture and food, we were in that place for quite a while where the technology coming out of the science world was able to come up with some fairly quick fixes, but we’ve used up a lot of that. And now we’re at the point where if you talk about human health, a lot of it is about diet, exercise and other things that you can do that are focused on making a whole person healthier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holistic health.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, holistic. And that’s also, I think where we’re at in terms of farming and food production and food systems, is we’ve got to start thinking a lot more about the big picture and the interactions between the different pieces of that big picture.

Dillon Honcoop:
And talk about the soil stuff and the holistic way of thinking. I’ve gotten passionate about that over the years because of my dad. And I’ve talked at a time or two on this program about… probably more than a time or two, about how I grew up on a red raspberry farm here in Northwest Washington where you are a scientist, and I grew up on a red raspberry farm where my dad was very passionate about these issues and plugged in with what you guys are doing there at Washington State University. So I’ve been exposed to some of this stuff and been thinking about it for a long time. What’s it like working with farmers like that and seeing some of these things happen on the ground in the real world, like for instance on my dad’s farm?

Chad Kruger:
I personally think that’s one of the most exciting about this whole wonderful opportunity I’ve been dropped into the middle of, is people like your dad who just have an incredibly curious and inquisitive mind and yet are doing their best with the state of knowledge right now to produce a crop that goes into an existing system but is never quite satisfied with the feeling that we know everything we need to know, and he’s always asking new questions, he’s always observing something in the field and then saying, “Hey, I just saw this. What do you think that is?” And most of the time, we can’t answer that question when he asks it. And I think it’s really valuable for our side of the partnership to have people like him who are out there trying things who are…

Chad Kruger:
And I’m trying to think of a way to explain this, but they say farming is a pretty unusual thing and that you basically have 40 chances in your life to figure it out, and each of those 40 chances ends up looking very, very different. And the 40 chances of course are that the number of seasons that you have to grow a crop. And to be successful, you really have to be observant and thoughtful and you have to record your data, if you will, and understand how what you’ve observed in the past might be similar to or different from what you’re observing in the future, and know when you need to ask the right question or what specific observation that you’re seeing in the field you need to pursue that one.

Chad Kruger:
And having producers like him that work in partnership with us where you can have these conversations and dig deep into what we do know to figure out where are the important, critical emerging questions that we need to start doing research on in order to help solve a problem before it’s another crisis or to be able to capitalize on something that someone’s observing that they say, “Hey, I’ve been doing this and it seems to be helping. Can you tell me why?” And I think one thing that’s evolved within the ag research world, and as I point back to one of the things I said earlier about the science farmer thing where I think we’re getting more and more on the science end of that partnership, is the questions that are being asked now take a lot more knowledge and a lot more technology in order to answer them.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s becoming more and more specialized on the science end of the equation in order to run an experiment that gets an answer that a producer needs. And so whereas 30, 40, 50 years ago, there was this sense that the land-grant university was going to do research and come up with new practices and technologies that would then get extended out to the farm and the farmers would pick them up and use them. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I think what we’re seeing now is the producers that are observing things and asking those questions are bringing those things to the scientists now.

Chad Kruger:
And what our job is becoming more and more about is helping the producer understand the phenomenon that they’re observing and helping them figure out what management strategies could be employed to minimize the negative things that we see and maximize the positive things that we see. And I think going forward, producers are going to have to be more and more knowledgeable in order to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
They basically have to be scientists themselves, it sounds like.

Chad Kruger:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re farmers, does a farmer make a good scientist? What you’re describing here is a switch from a top down approach, which it sounds like you were saying the old school approach is more top down, now this is more like bottom up, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, and I think that’s the way it should be. We’re long since passed the point where the university system knows more about these crops than the farmers do. I think we’re at the point where the farmers know a whole lot more than we do, but we have what I’d call cool tools to be able to answer very specific questions that the producers are not going to be able to answer themselves. And so I think as we go forward, we’re going to see more and more of that character to the partnership between the science community and farming community.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about scientists? Do scientists make good farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I know a lot of scientists who could do a pretty good job farming, but I think for the most part, most of them will tell you that they’re really glad they’re scientists and not the farmers themselves because farming is a much more complex and challenging thing than I think most people give it credit.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the misunderstanding is there from those of us who just go to the grocery store and buy food about the science that goes into it? What you’re describing is pretty extensive as far as the amount of research and data that’s going up.

Chad Kruger:
Yup. Part of it I think is very few people ever grow a plant to me more or care for an animal at any level. And so a lot of the historic, what’s often called indigenous knowledge doesn’t exist within the greater population anymore. And so I think there’s just a lack of full appreciation for how complicated it is to produce food and to do it at the scale and with the proficiency and quality that we do. And so I think anybody can read a book or watch a video and come to a conclusion and think they know something, but 40 years of experience, 40 chances is a wealth of knowledge that I think is just often underappreciated and undervalued.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been your favorite time working with farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I think one of the things I have always appreciated the most, and this comes in all the different roles that I’ve had, is the chance to sit down with farmers and talk about the future, talk about where their concerns are about continued viability, where their concerns are about sustainability issues, whether those are profitability environmental issues, big picture, global markets and other things like that. The opportunity to sit down with a group of farmers, especially a group of farmers that come from different perspectives and can sit down and have a good conversation around what is the future looking like and how do we ensure that we have a successful future and that we’re able to continue to improve what we’re doing and continue to put a good product out for consumers and do a good job with stewardship.

Chad Kruger:
I think overall, that’s why I get up in the morning and that’s why I do what I do, is the opportunity to work with forward-looking farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that future look like? I guess, there’s challenges and maybe this is a weird way of asking it, but I almost want to say like pre-COVID, what were the dark clouds in the future that we need to deal with as far as producing food here in Washington State?

Chad Kruger:
Everything. And I say that facetiously, but in reality it’s true, it’s economic profitability. At the bottom line, if a farm can’t make money, it’s going to go out of business. And I think one thing that a lot of people don’t understand is the more and more farms that can’t make money can go out of business, the more it takes with them. So there is this strange thing about competition amongst farms, even within an area, but also that there’s a critical mass where a certain amount of cooperation of the farms in an area is important to everyone’s success and health. And the pressure around cost of production, the pressure around the value of the product is never going to let up.

Chad Kruger:
I just don’t see that ever letting up, even as we’ve gone through this recent little bit upset where people are thinking about things like, “I can’t go to a restaurant,” or “I need to get a particular type of food.” Or, “I can’t get something that I want.” While we’re thinking about this now about maybe the least cost product isn’t necessarily the best choice all the time, a year or two years down the road, I wonder how that’s going to come back to us. Are we still going to be thinking about the fact that there may be reasons that we need to not just take the least cost producer of food in order to ensure that we’ve got some resilience and robustness in our food system.

Chad Kruger:
So that’s a big one, that’s bigger than any of us, and how to address that is monumental. It’s a wicked problem. The environmental side and obviously, I’ve worked on the side, the pressure is going to continue to amount for many people in the broader public to the point where the idea that farms have any impact on the environment that’s negative is a problem. That’s a challenge, it’s an almost an insurmountable challenge because the very act of producing food has an impact. The very act of eating food has an impact. And so how do we continue to work with that challenge and continue to improve and do better, which drives up the cost of production?

Chad Kruger:
And so I think that’s a big one. And a lot of that tends to come out in terms of practical, real world impact on farms. There’s regulation, and so every time we interviewed or surveyed farmers about big issues, it doesn’t matter if they’re a wheat farmer or a tree fruit producer, a dairy farmer, a potato grower, a berry producer, it doesn’t matter if they’re big or small, conventional or organic, anywhere in between, regulation tends to come up as one of the biggest challenges to sustainability in farming. And it is what it is. We’re in a world where regulation is becoming ever increasingly the mechanism by which we do everything. And so how do we help our producers navigate that world of regulation.

Chad Kruger:
Competition. We’ve really seen this in some of our key Northwest Washington industries, that competition isn’t just local, it’s global. And there are a lot of other places in the world that can produce the same things we produce and do it cheaper. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing it better, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re protecting the environment in the same way, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re producing a product that’s as high of quality as we are, but in a marketplace that’s looking for the least cost producer, that’s a real challenge to address for Washington farms.

Chad Kruger:
And I’ve got a number of colleagues who’ve talked about the fact that Washington State will probably never be the least cost producer on a lot of the things that we produce. And that just is what it is, and it’s because we have pretty high level environmental regulations. Our labor costs are much higher than much of the rest of the world, they’re much higher than much of the rest of the country. And environmental issues, regulations, all of these things make it so that we’re never going to be competing on the same playing field as a lot of other locations around the world. And in many cases, around the country. And so we’re just going to have to do better and we’re going to have to have a better product than everybody else is producing in order to be competitive.

Chad Kruger:
I could keep going down the list, energy issues, they tend to rear their heads up and down. Right now, energy is not a problem, but that’s not going to be a long-term trend. It’s going to come back, climate is going to be an issue. Relatively speaking, we seem to be insulated from some of the more dire predictions on the climate side, but sooner or later there’s going to be direct effects, there’s going to be indirect effects, water supply. The fact that we look relatively good compared to a lot of other regions means that a lot of food production in a lot of other regions is going to start looking at the Northwest and saying, “Hey, we need to move there.” So what are the dynamics that that’s going to create?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Why other than, and I’ve heard that elsewhere too, that Washington really hasn’t been as effected by climate change as other parts of the world to date. So far it seems to be a slower thing here than maybe elsewhere, but beyond that issue, what are the advantages for growing food here in Washington? And you’re talking about the challenges, I guess maybe some of those challenges are also insight into some of the benefits too, but ultimately, yeah, what’s so great about growing food here in Washington?

Chad Kruger:
On the climate side, that is one of the things is, if you think about our geographic location in the globe, we’re pretty far north. There aren’t a whole lot of regions further north than us that are big fruit and vegetable production regions. There’s some grain producing regions that are further North than us, but generally speaking, the fruit and vegetable production regions are South of us. And so if you think about climate in terms of getting warmer… Another way to think about it is moving south. So if you think 10, 15 degrees of warming, you are in the Central Valley of California, that looks pretty good for us.

Chad Kruger:
So I think that’s something that may not be on a lot of people’s radar or screens yet, but as we move forward, there are going to be opportunities in our region, in part, because we’ve got a lot of good viable farming land and we’ve got a lot of resiliency and the resources that are necessary to produce fruits and vegetables like water supply. So I think we do have some opportunities in front of us, but we need to be thinking about them and planning for them. And one of the things that concern me a little bit about the COVID-19 situation hitting was, all of a sudden, everybody’s focused on an immediate crisis, which is a big thing, very serious, but if we don’t quickly address this crisis and get our eyes back on the big prize of the long run, we’re going to miss key investments that we need to be making relative to our future success.

Chad Kruger:
And that’s something that’s always difficult to do in the crisis as you get so caught up in the day to day that it’s easy to forget about thinking one, two 10, 15, 30, 50, 100 years ahead, which in order to continue being successful, you’ve got be looking ahead all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can see that in a couple of decades down the road, we could be saying, “Well, why didn’t we get that going back then?” “Well, because remember we were in the middle of that whole virus thing.” “Oh yeah.” That would be a sad and really at that time looking into the future, a really frustrating thing to look back on and say, “Yeah, we were worried about that and it was a bad thing, but now we’re suffering here in the future from things that maybe we didn’t have our eye on the ball enough with at that time.”

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think this virus thing is one of those, we should have seen this comment. In fact, some people did see this coming, and we should have been ready for it and this is not going to be the last time it happened. But we have this thing that we do that we tend to focus on, recent experience as the guide to the future and we tend to forget things that were really important until they hit us again. And we’ve got to get better about learning from our experiences and being ready and prepared for the next time. A good example of that was drought in the region. 2005 was a pretty rough drought and then we were in pretty good shape in the region for about 10 years.

Chad Kruger:
And then we had a big drought again in 2015, and it was surprising how much had been forgotten. Between 2005 and 2015, response options and strategies and infrastructure and institutional knowledge that should have been there, ready to respond wasn’t there. And coming out of the 2015 drought, there was a lot of learning that happened that should make the next time we deal with drought because it’s coming again, should make it easier to deal with in the future. And yet I’m not so sure that we’ve got that one figured out yet either.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into this world of food and farming and obviously, you’re so passionate about it. Did you grow up around farming?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I have the immense blessing to come from a family that has generational farms in Washington State in both my mother and father’s side. So my mom’s dad was a very grower from Lynden, Arneson Farms. He was a really innovative guy, he came out after World War II and started a diversified farming operation and ultimately got into strawberries. And so growing up, I got to spend quite a bit of time with him and learn from him. And in fact, he used to tell me stories of working with the WSU scientists at the Puyallup and Mount Vernon experiment stations where I’m currently the director.

Chad Kruger:
So I knew about those stations and I knew about Ag science before I ever knew what the land grant was. And so that was a pretty important thing. And then on my dad’s side, we were an Eastern Washington wheat and cattle ranching family, the family came out at the end of the civil war. So I think I’m sixth generation relative to the ones who came out, first settled in the state,

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to your mom’s side, the Arneson, I remember them. I remember that farm, my uncle worked for the Arneson. In fact, my wife who is from BC and I met her in college, she remembers coming down from BC to the Arneson Farm to pick strawberries. That was her memory of Lynden, before I knew her. It breaks my heart now to see that original Arneson homeplace covered in homes, but I understand that’s the way of the world these days, but every time I drive by it’s like, “Yeah, that used to be a strawberry field right there. What do you think… So that was your grandpa on your mom’s side?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think he would say about you seeing you’ve being the director of these things that he was interacting with as a professional, as a farmer back then?

Chad Kruger:
Well, he knew that he was a big part of my curiosity and push towards this direction and before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing, he always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he such an inspirational person, he always had a new thing he was going to try, a new approach. He loved the farming, but he loved the people too. He talked a lot about all of those customers that came down, particularly customers from Canada who crossed the border every year for decades to come and pick strawberries.

Chad Kruger:
And the relationships he developed over the years. And for me, that was a big thing because while I was interested in the farming and the science, he taught me that the relationships were probably as/or more important than all of it. And it’s a juxtaposition from my other grandfather who were out in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Washington, there was a saying that anytime he was more than seven miles from the homeplace, he was stressed. And I feel a little of that too, so it’s this interesting juxtaposition of two foreign families, two grandfathers that had a lot of influence on me and where I’m at.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do you think about that day-to-day? Does that cross your mind sometimes when you’re doing stuff?

Chad Kruger:
Every day, every day. I think about it every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you want your legacy to be?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and it’s one that as I get older I’m more and more thinking about. And part of this is watching my dad who’ll recently retire and he’s thinking a lot more about his legacy. And so I’m starting to think about, “Maybe that’s something I should be thinking about too.” It’s doesn’t come naturally to me, I tend to do the thing that’s right in front of me, to do that needs to be done at that time. And if that means sticking a shovel in a pile of manure, half the time, that’s what it is. But I think more and more and the leadership opportunities that I’ve been blessed to have is I’m more effective when I’m helping someone else figure out how to solve the problem that they have in front of them.

Chad Kruger:
And so more and more as I grow older and have more opportunity, I’m seeing that what I feel success in is when other people are able to succeed in part because they figure out how to work together, whether that’s the farmer-university partnership, that kind of thing, or to other people however they come together, helping people figure out how they get over these hurdles that we tend to throw up in our human organization and make sure that we can succeed going forward.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you actually grow up? Where was home for you as a kid?

Chad Kruger:
I grew up in Eastern Washington, I grew up in a little town called Othello. We’re about 90 minutes from our Eastern Washington ranch, but Othello is the place you stop to get gas between Ellensburg and Pullman. And so I grew up there and actually my first official experiences in Ag research were for WSU as a high schooler working at the Othello experiment station, doing some field work in potatoes. And so I worked on an experiment that was looking at irrigation rates and fertility rates and potatoes and another experiment looking at some of the early root imaging for potato work. So trying to understand what’s going on underneath the surface of the soil as potatoes grow.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy. We just recently had on the podcast, Camas Uebelacker from Othello. He’s a feedlot owner and operator out there, so hey, you’re from that same town, that same neck of the woods that maybe a lot of us haven’t necessarily spent a whole lot of time in, but man, a lot of the food that we eat here and all over the place comes from that part of the state, between the potatoes, the beef and everything else, and the fruit and everything.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. If you really think about it, the central part of Washington where it’s irrigated, a lot of that was broken out within the lifetimes of many people who are still farming. And it’s become one of the most productive areas of the world in terms of a lot of vegetable and fruit production systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for you?

Chad Kruger:
Well, I’m not totally sure yet, as I said earlier, I tend to do the thing that’s in front of me, very soon I might find out. I did announce last fall that I was going to step down from the Mount Vernon and Puyallup Research Centers. It had been five years at Mount Vernon and three years at Puyallup, which I was doing from a distance and the call to go back to Eastern Washington and be a little closer to that family ranch was getting more and more powerful. So we’ll see where I end up, but fairly soon, I think we’ll know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You want to be back to that family road. Are you going to farm yourself? What do you think?

Chad Kruger:
Probably not going to farm myself, I don’t think my wife would take the finances of it. It’s a little joke, but someday, I’ll go ride fences and be a cowboy again.

Dillon Honcoop:
There you go. That’s awesome. Well, thank you for sharing and opening up. We just really touched the surface of a lot of really big things that I know that you’ve spent years working on. So I appreciate you being willing to take that summary look at it because maybe some of the stuff doesn’t do it justice, but I think it’s so important and something that maybe a lot of people aren’t aware of is part of really the food system here is the university involvement and the science. And I don’t know, some people even get scared with how it’s so scientific and technical. I really view it as a good thing, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I don’t see how going forward it’s avoidable, and whether it’s the university or private sector or someone else, the pressure on the agricultural and food systems to be able to answer questions with data and to be able to manage with data are just going to increase. And so I think the long term partnership between the land-grant university and the farmers gives a bit of a leg up in that, but it’s something that we’ve got to double down and invest in to ensure that we’re going to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for sharing your story and talking with us and also with this whole COVID thing going on, stay safe and healthy out there.

Chad Kruger:
All right, thanks, Dylan.

Speaker 4:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I still think that’s so cool that his grandpa was all about and would talk about people like my wife and her family, who had come down and pick berries, and here, years later, me and Chad ended up connecting over that. What a cool guy though, and somebody who is really accomplished as a scientist but also a manager. And to do that, you have to be about all the data and all the technical stuff, but you also have to understand the people and the big picture, where this is all going and why even are we applying science to food? Well, it has to do with our future as a community, as a state, as human beings, and doing the right thing and producing food the right way, but also efficiently and competitively.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s just so cool to hear his focus on all of that, and we need to keep track of what he does next if he’s headed back to Eastern Washington. I have a hunch he’s going to find himself farming in one shape or form one day, but we’ll see. It’s just one of those things that’s in your blood. Thanks for joining us this week on the Real Food Real People Podcast. Please stay safe out there, stay healthy, follow the guidelines, and we’ll get through this thing together. Oh, and I should also thank our sponsors, Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Larry Stap part 2 | #019 04/20/2020

He's faced some monumental challenges, including losing his son to cancer. In this second half of our conversation with Twin Brook Creamery co-owner Larry Stap, he opens up about some of the personal side of family farming.

Transcript

Larry Stap:
… the cancer just destroyed his body, just destroyed it, invaded every aspect of it. There’s nothing that I wish on any parent ever, is to lose a child.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, it’s a really emotional conversation this week on the podcast. Last week was the first part of the chat with Larry Stap of Twin Brook Creamery, small dairy farm and glass mild bottling operation in Lyndon, Washington. And he told us all about how Twin Brook came to be, and the risks they took, and all the work they put in, and the uncertainty for a while where it looked like where it looked like they might not make it. This week, things get a bit personal, including Larry opening up about the passing of his son, who passed away only a year after graduating from high school from Cancer. Larry also talks about what’s happening right now with COVID-19, and how that’s affected their business, including one unexpected change that became a lot more complicated than you might think.

Dillon Honcoop:
So he gets into that later, as well as talking about other challenges his farm has faced over the years. And, will he ever retire? We get to it all this week, as we continue part two of our conversation again with Twin Brook Creamery co-owner Larry Stap, longtime, fourth generation, family dairy farmer in Lyndon, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest time on the farm?

Larry Stap:
The hardest time on the farm probably is your responsibility to take care of things, and you have to sacrifice sometimes pleasures. I can remember when we started way back in the ’70s, ’80s, you’re doing everything starting out yourself. You’re milking the cows, your feeding them, you’re doing this, you’re doing that. I mean, it’s just push. And then, one time, I can remember to this day, my wife said to me, “Don’t figure on doing anything for a couple of certain days,” and she secretly had booked a motel and we went away for three days. Lined up the milker and all that stuff, and that was the most pleasurable thing. I can remember that to this day. I mean, that is huge in my mind. I wouldn’t say there’s any specific low moment, but it’s just, you look back on it, and I would say, I probably overworked myself sometimes to the detriment of playing with my children.

Larry Stap:
But a lot of that comes as grandparents, you realize how precious your kids were, and even how more precious your grandchildren are. And you look back at it, and I said, “Boy, I love to spoil my grandchildren, I should’ve spoiled my kids a lot more too.” That’s probably one of my regrets a little bit, but I think most parents have that in some ways, [inaudible 00:03:31] farm too. So yeah. I mean, I know my parents, if I want to lay a guilt trip on them, all I have to do is remind them how much had to work on the farm. And I do that in fun, because they’re going through probably the same thing I did, is how we worked our kids way too hard.

Larry Stap:
I never, ever looked at it that way when I was a kid, I just enjoyed it. I mean, on a tractor and driving, and making hay bales, and killing field mice with your bayonet, and building forts up in the hay mound during the winter, going up in a silo and pitching the sides down. I thought that was a great lot of fun, in actuality, it was a lot of work that I did for my dad. I mean, it’s all right.

Larry Stap:
So no huge regrets in a lot of ways, it’s just that you sacrifice some family time that you probably shouldn’t have, but yet on the other hand I don’t hear my kids complaining too much either.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well you talk about your daughter and her husband being involved in the farm, but they’re not the only family of yours that’s involved in this operation, right?

Larry Stap:
No, they’re the only one financially involved. They’re full partners with us. Our oldest son also works full-time here on the farm with us. He’s got a degree in accounting, so he’s slowly taking over a lot of the bookkeeping, and a lot of the administrative work, and all of the government regulatory world that we live in, in terms of reporting and farms, and on, and on that, that goes. That’s huge, and so he’s doing more and more of that kind of stuff. And then we have another daughter that she randomly comes and helps us out here, does some things on the farm for us. So we have lots of family involved.

Larry Stap:
It’s kind of nice, our one daughter right now, she was working in a restaurant, and of course with this whole COVID pandemic, she’s off work right now, so I’m able to give her some odd jobs to do around here and help out, you see. So I feel privileged to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know, and this may be tough to talk about so I’m not sure if you want to talk about it, but what about your son that passed away?

Larry Stap:
That was a tough… That was probably one of the… It was the lowest point I’ve ever had in my life, okay? I mean, it was not easy, but two things, number one was, it really made me appreciate the community that we live in. You cannot believe the support and the things that were done for us. To this day, it just boggles my mind. I mean, they always talk about small community, everybody knows what everybody else is doing, and this and that, and the gossip and stuff like that, but if you can look beyond that, yes, everybody else knows what everybody else is doing, but it’s generally speaking because they care, not because they’re nosy. And that was a huge eye-opener for us.

Larry Stap:
So having said that, he passed away in 2003, and there is no doubt that he would be the one sitting behind the mic right now and not me, because he had a passion for farming. But that also opened the door for my daughter and son-in-law to step in, which I’m sure was a reflection of his passing. And it’s been so much fun, because I can see so much of my son-in-law and the way my son acted too. I can see a lot of that kind of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
I remember Mark, your son, he was a grade behind me in school.

Larry Stap:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, we weren’t big friends or anything, but we were acquainted, we knew each other, so I remember him, and I remember him in shop classes, and FFA-

Larry Stap:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and stuff like that. How did that happen, what was it that took his life?

Larry Stap:
When he was in Grade School, he had a massive tumor growing inside of his head, massive, but it was not cancerous, but it was so large that they could not surgically eradiate it… surgically remove it so they had to eradiate it, okay? They shrunk it down, and it went away but they kept monitoring it. And then a few years later it started growing again, but since they were monitoring it, they were able to surgically remove it. And then when he was a senior in high school, just after graduation… just after he graduated, he graduated in 2002, it started growing a third time and this time it was cancerous. And so they went in and did surgery, and it was an incredibly invasive surgery.

Larry Stap:
I mean, you can’t begin to describe the removal of an eye, and on and on, and stuff like that. And then when he got through that surgery, then they started chemo and radiation together to aggressively attack it. But it was such an aggressive cancer, that it just grew right in the face of all that stuff they were throwing at him. And then in June of 2003 he passed away just because the cancer just destroyed his body, just destroyed it, invaded every aspect of it. There’s nothing that I wish on any parent every, is to lose a childe. That is the most heart wrenching hard thing. And you can’t believe how many people in the community have laid a child in a grave, it’s pretty astounding.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like on the farm at that time?

Larry Stap:
On the farm that time-

Dillon Honcoop:
I actually can imagine.

Larry Stap:
This is where community came in, and one day it was so overwhelming and it was in the Spring, [inaudible 00:09:48] just started, and I couldn’t focus on what I had to do, just couldn’t. So I called up one of my neighboring farmers, a gentleman by the name of Steve Ewen, and I said, “Steve, I need help,” and he came over and he said, “Go in the house, we’ll take care of it all.” So crops got planted, crops got harvested, and the fellow farmers around the community, dairy and non-dairy, they all lined up to get out there to do something, and some of them had to wait till second and third cutting just to get their donated time and equipment in. It was just absolutely the most amazing thing I could… That’s where the community just stepped up. I mean, just one small part that they did for me.

Larry Stap:
I mean, it is beyond belief what they did, but my mind was just so overwhelmed I literally could not function.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think Mark would think of all the stuff that you’re doing now?

Larry Stap:
I don’t know, I don’t know. I think he’d be right in the middle of it. He would just be loving it. That kid, he was something. But you can’t dwell on what-if’s because they aren’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know you’ve mentioned a few times struggles dealing with regulation, what does that mean? What kind of stuff have you actually had to deal with?

Larry Stap:
Well, a lot of the regulatory world responds to hype, I guess for lack of a better word. A story gets out there about farms [inaudible 00:11:34], so then the legislature thinks they’ve got to step up and pass laws to protect the environment, and so much of it can be done in air. They do not realize the consequences oft times of a lot of the things that are passed upon us. Just to kind of give you an example, I always say, every law passed, or every action taken, whatever, has consequences, but they also have unintended consequences.

Larry Stap:
All right, here’s a really simple example, people think we need big buffers for application of our manure, or our nutrients on the field away from waterways and stuff like that. We call them big dumb buffers, because there’s no science behind it basically. So you take a field, and let’s just say you take a 20 acre field surrounded by drainage ditches, which I have a lot of because I farm a lot of pecan, and you put 100 foot buffers in there all the way around that field, you’ve basically taken away half or maybe even more, of my land application base for my nutrients. So what do I have to do, I have to go find more land further away, probably cause more environmental damage by trucking it up and down the road with trucks, or tractors, or whatever, or over-apply, and that’s no good either because then you can have more service runoff and stuff.

Larry Stap:
When in actuality, just by applying a buffer that is, let’s just say, big at the appropriate times of the year, small at the appropriate times of the year, make them flexible, make them driven by common sense, I call it for lack of a better word. But there again, some of that stuff can be just passed through ignorance, not really thinking about the unintended consequences. And so a lot of times you have to try to educate your politicians, your elected officials. And to be honest with you, sometimes right in the offices that are in charge of enforcing the regulations, a lot of times those people can have their own agendas too, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good. But I always find that 99% of it, is communication. Talk with them, figure it out. I’m not afraid to bring people onto my farm that are especially in the regulatory and political world, to explain to them, show them what’s going on. And it makes all the difference in the world when they can actually see what’s going on, and they understand it.

Larry Stap:
And then the other thing that you can do, is build a relationship so that if you have concerns, they know who you are and we can talk, or they can call us and stuff like that. And that’s really been good over the years. I used to have more of a confrontational attitude when I was younger, but I’ve kind of matured and said there’s better ways.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, don’t you want to protect the environment?

Larry Stap:
Absolutely. I mean, one of the things I’ve learned is, we farm close to a creek called Fish Trap Creek, and it flows into the Nooksack River, which flows into the bay out there by our lovely Indian Reservation friends, and they have oyster beds and shell fish beds out there that they harvest. Well, if we contaminate the waterways here, it gets dumped on top of their shell fish beds. That’s just another form of agriculture, why would I want to destroy one form of agriculture at the experience of another? That doesn’t make any sense to me. So there’s just an example of why to keep it good.

Larry Stap:
The other thing too is, I have a couple of streams that borderlines on my property, they’re fantastic salmon spawning streams, and there’s nothing more fun than in Fall especially to see all them salmon spawning stuff here. Why would I want to destroy that habitat? I mean, it gives me great joy just to watch them period, and then in the Spring to see all the little fingerlings running around that ditch and stuff like that. It’s all part of our mission statement, be stewards, maybe not just to the land that we purposely farm, or the cows that we purposely take care of, but it’s all around us, it’s all part of our mandate.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about lawsuits, I know that’s become a big thing in the farming world. It’s not talked about much, but I know farms, I hear it time and again, are concerned about litigation.

Larry Stap:
Yeah, litigation is brought on by poor laws. And when I say poor laws, the laws themself are not bad, but the law also allows for what they call third-party lawsuits. And a third-party file a lawsuit against a farmer because they think that they’re not following the law of some sort of pollution, or whatever, okay? And the challenge of it is this, that oft times, even if you’re innocent, which most farmers are, it will cost you more to go all the way through the legal system than it will to settle out of court. The settling out of court is cheaper, but it accomplishes generally nothing, except lining a lawyers pockets, because they’ll get fully compensated for their legal costs typically.

Larry Stap:
One of the things that a lot of people don’t understand, is on a federal third-party lawsuit, let’s just say a group decides to sue a farmer because they’ve caused damage to a harmed party, and let’s just assume that the third-party wins and the farmer loses, the third-party can receive no financial compensation out of that lawsuit, but the lawyers typically don’t tell them that. Okay? But the lawyers get fully compensated for all their work, and then there’s all these other little programs that get part of the settlement and stuff like that. So that’s why if you want to improve the environment, if you want to do it, you sit down and you talk about it and you work out before lawsuits ever happen. That’s the way things get done. When lawsuits happen, people just back their backs up against the wall, and it becomes a legal fight. And really, nothing oft times would get accomplished in terms of benefiting the environment. It’s a sad way to go.

Larry Stap:
I mean, there is sometimes a legal need for that, and I’m not disputing that, there are places for that, but oft times it’s used as a legalized form of extortion, not so much as a productive lawsuit to accomplish an environmental upgrade.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the future of our food system is?

Larry Stap:
Well you know, I do not like this COVID-19 pandemic that we’re in, but all of a sudden people are waking up to, “Wow, we better keep our food supply local,” because all of a sudden all the pharmaceutical stuff, and the medications and all this stuff that we’re dependent on in foreign countries, we’re kind of at somebody’s mercy all of a sudden. I mean, it happened a number of years ago with the oil embargo in the Middle-East. And so I think it’s probably been a little bit of an eye-opener, in terms of a lot of people recognizing the fact that we need to keep our food supply on our home soil.

Larry Stap:
I’ve talked with a lot of people over the course of this time, and one of the things I’ve said is, sure when I grew up as a kid, the only time we got strawberries, was in strawberry season. The only time we got green beans, was when green beans were in season. The only time we got corn on the cob, was when corn was in season. Now you can go to the grocery store and buy it year round just about anytime. Where does it come from? It doesn’t come from your backyard anymore, it’s probably imported. And is that the way we want to go? Is that really necessary? I mean, we are incredibly spoiled as consumers, and what we can get in a grocery store. And maybe we don’t need all that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sadly, I heard recently with what’s happening with COVID, a CSA in our region, a Community Supported Agriculture farm that does CSA boxes, their orders went way up, but right away also these new subscribers, they got calls apparently within the first week of people saying, “Well, I want strawberries.” “It’s not strawberry season.” “Well, what the heck, why can’t I have strawberries?” To me, I don’t want to believe that people are that far disconnected.

Larry Stap:
They are, and it’s… Well, it’s good and it’s bad. I mean, it’s an incredible success story to the grocery stores, and the whole support network behind moving food around this country and around the world. I mean, now we can just do it incredibly well with refrigeration, and freezing, and all that kind of stuff, and we got spoiled as consumers, there’s no doubt about it. But maybe it’s time to step back and say, “You know what, maybe it’s not so important I have strawberries year round, or whatever.” Milk’s year round, we can get that anytime, that goes around 24/7.

Dillon Honcoop:
At the same time, you guys have dealt with… you’ve proven that it’s possible, but you’ve dealt with the challenges of going local, of bringing that local product to market, to those more mainstream stores that people are used to shopping at.

Larry Stap:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would guess when you’ve learned how that works behind the scenes, maybe you realize it’s not as easy as some people might think. I know the grocery stores get demonized quite a bit, and it’s not always their fault that the system works the way that it does.

Larry Stap:
No, it doesn’t, but on the other hand, we talk about smaller and fewer, and bigger farms, it’s the same thing that’s going on in the grocery world. So the bigger you get, the less flexibility you have and stuff like that, but you are able to offer some other services that other stores might not be able to do. I got a lot of sympathy for the grocery community. One of the things that they struggle with is the same thing we talked about earlier, lawsuits. Consumers are looking to pretend they slipped on a banana peel, or they got sick eating this berry, or this cereal or whatever.

Larry Stap:
So liability is a huge thing for the grocery stores, it’s huge. And then as part of that liability too is, it’s kind of a reflection of our society, but if you’re big and corporate, you owe me so I have the ability to go in and steal, and it doesn’t bother my conscience, because you’re so big and so wealthy, that you have to share some of that wealth with me. And I’ve talked to so many grocery store managers and stuff like that, and what it costs them in terms of legal, and documentation and stuff the way the laws are set up, to stop a shoplifter, that sometimes it’s cheaper for them to let that shoplifter to walk out the door than it is to prosecute. And that’s a sad side of our society, very sad, not only because that person thinks that, that’s okay that they do that, but our society, or our legal world, or whatever, has become so rigid, and so structured that we actually allow that to happen because of costs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus the principle.

Larry Stap:
Versus the principle, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
With COVID happening, this pandemic, what’s that changed for your farm and your operation?

Larry Stap:
At first we thought, “This will be just fine because we process our own milk and we sell it to the stores.” And in actuality, the first week after, I don’t know if it was a stay home or whatever, when all the businesses and restaurants and stuff that had to close, our milk sales made a significant jump. And then the second week into it, we got a call from a major grocery store chain, that said that they do not want to take our empty glass returns into their store, because they’re concerned of what that empty glass bottle could possibly bring in, in terms of contamination such as the COVID virus.

Larry Stap:
I thought it might have been a little bit of an overreach, I thought there was ways that we could manage around it, but it was made at levels way higher that I care to know about in the corporate world, and they said, “Not only do we not want to take glass at this time, but then we would not like to even sell your glass off the shelf.” Well this store chain that told us that, was probably one of our largest single group of stores that constitutes a pretty significant portion of our business. So we got that call at 10:30 on a Monday morning, that our milk sales were done in that store, so I immediately got on the phone, and this was the beauty of building relationships over the years with those people, they said if we could find an alternative package that they would carry our milk, because they absolutely loved our farm and what’s it done for their stores, and the local and the profitability.

Larry Stap:
So by Tuesday afternoon at two o’clock, we were bottling milk in plastic bottles. And I tell you what, it was chaos, it was crazy, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
You can’t use the same equipment to do that.

Larry Stap:
You can’t use the same equipment, you have to hand apply labels, you’ve got to find plastic jugs, you’ve got to… We had to design a label, get it printed, and then find people to start putting them all on our jugs and stuff like that. So even to this day now, we’re doing about half maybe in plastic to satisfy those stores during the crisis time, and half is still in our glass. But it’s a significant cost hit to us, because of all these additional costs that we have to incur just to bottle our milk again. But you know what, we’re bottling milk, it’s being sold, and it’s maybe not being sold at quite the previous volume it was. We have a very, very loyal, and now happy even bunch of employees, because we’re able to fully keep them employed at this rate, and doing this kind of stuff.

Larry Stap:
So it was a stressful couple of weeks around here, there’s no doubt about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
How are you protecting your employees with the threat of the virus? A lot of people are staying home, but you guys are an essential business, so they’re still coming for-

Larry Stap:
There’s not… I mean yeah, there are things you can do, but we have safety meetings, we talk about reinforcing how many times you wash your hands every day. We completely during the end of the day, we’re just sanitizing everything. We’ve got a foaming machine, and we’re just spraying it all over with sanitizer. And then we have safety meetings, and I really stress to our employees to think about what you’re doing when you’re not working here, be aware of it.

Larry Stap:
And what I try to impress upon them, and I’ve learned this from myself is, if get the virus I may survive, because if you’re young enough and healthy enough typically it will feel like a flu from what I understand. I think there’s so much misinformation out there. But if I were to get it let’s just say, and I continually see my parents who live right next door to me, they’re 87 and 89, and if I were to expose them to it, I would feel pretty bad. So you have to think beyond yourself with this COVID-19 thing. And I’ve got a great bunch of employees, and they’re doing a great job for me, and I think they’re very, very mindful about it all, very much so.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, a lot of people would never have thought of the glass bottle thing, back to that hiccup.

Larry Stap:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain how that works too. I mean, we talked about the benefit of glass bottles earlier, and then that was your kind of niche, but how does that… You guys market this stuff in a glass bottle, and then it’s available in the store, and you get basically a refund price when you bring that glass back?

Larry Stap:
Yeah. When a consumer buys our milk, you might say they’re actually buying two things, they’re buying milk that’s in the jar for a set price that the store determines, and they pay a deposit on that glass jar. Now, the consumer can do one of two things, they can decide to keep that glass jar if they want, or they can return it back to the store and get their deposit refund, and then we refund the stores and bring them back here to our little bottling plant, and wash and sanitize and refill them again. That’s part of our sustainability. That’s how the whole system works, but then the fear of what the bottles would be bringing into the stores, is what stopped it for a pretty significant number of stores, I will say that. So many stores.

Dillon Honcoop:
And it wasn’t on the front end, because they’re sanitized and clean when they come, it’s about people bringing them back from their homes.

Larry Stap:
Bringing the empties back from their homes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh yes.

Larry Stap:
That was their fear. I can’t argue with the stores, but I do know that there are a lot of suggested ways that they could mitigate by doing things a little bit different, but that’s their choice.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I don’t know what kind of a bin they have to put them in, but can you put it out front or something so they don’t have to come in the store? I think about all these things.

Larry Stap:
There’s a lot of ways, and we’ve sent out suggestions to the stores how to accommodate it and still be safe, but some of them are doing it, some of them aren’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do people like the glass bottle?

Larry Stap:
Well, part of it is the sustainability, they can return it, it’s not filling a landfill, okay? It’s not a plastic jug, it’s not a carton. I always say, a glass bottle is one step above recycling, it’s reusable. And that’s huge, and that’s an ever growing concern in our nation and our world, at least nowadays. You hear about the plastic blobs out on the ocean, and you hear about… see trains and trucks running up and down the road full of garbage, bringing it to landfills. We live in a terrible throw away society, and if one little part that we can do is this, we’re thankful for that. And so that’s why we went to the glass.

Larry Stap:
It also gave us a marketing opportunity that we would not have had otherwise, so it opened a door for us to a lot of stores, for which we give much thanks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, things have really changed. You were talking about recycling, things have really changes recently with plastic too in recent years, where that market just isn’t there anymore, and it’s not necessarily going to China where it was being recycled or who knows what was happening with it there. So that’s been a bit of a wake-up call for-

Larry Stap:
Yeah, you know.

Dillon Honcoop:
[crosstalk 00:33:49] assuming that you keep putting stuff in a disposable jug, I think more and more people are going to be interested in that part of what you guys do.

Larry Stap:
And a lot of it is driven by economics, good, bad or otherwise, but when it costs more to recycle and remake something than what the original is, unless you are driven to pay more for that reused or recycled product, it ain’t going to happen. So that’s why I think you see a lot of… like you say, the plastic has gone downhill, because to recycle the plastic and remanufacture an item is very costly. And when then take, for example, a plastic milk jug is probably… I’ve never looked into it, because I don’t know if they even make such a thing, but probably it would be half price for a new one versus a recycled one. I mean, that has been melted down, and reformed, and all that stuff, so it’s driven by economics.

Larry Stap:
One of the things that kind of always bothers me just a little bit too is, so often it seems like the more stable and necessary an item is in a consumer’s life, the cheaper it has to be. And example is food, people don’t want to pay much for food, but their travel trailers, and their vacations and all that stuff, usually is not too much of a price issue, but well, we can’t pay much for food. And that’s why sometimes I think we need to refocus or priorities-

Dillon Honcoop:
It is the stuff that keeps us alive.

Larry Stap:
That’s right, yeah. That’s right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever think about retiring?

Larry Stap:
As I said earlier, I want to retire. I’m 65, I created this monster, I don’t how to get to away from it yet. But we’re in the process of beginning the stages of planning that out, and how that will all work. So yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you can’t keep up the pace that you’ve done forever.

Larry Stap:
No, and in actuality, I have had the ability to transfer a lot of my responsibilities off already. I mean, I’m not in charge of the processing plant anymore. I go out there and know exactly what’s all going on, but I’m not in charge. Same with my oldest son taking over a lot of the administrative, he’s doing a lot of that. And my son-in-law, he pretty much takes care of the cattle and the land end of it, so I’m starting to shed more, and more of my responsibilities and delegate them out. The hard part is the things that you have built relationships up, and dealt with over all these years, that’s my struggle, is how to transfer that to someone. I mean, my ideal would be to transfer it to a family member, but there’s nobody ready in the wings and waiting to do that, so that’s how we’re… We’re just beginning to have some meetings on how to make that thing work. So yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much for sharing your whole story, and everything that goes into this, it’s fascinating.

Larry Stap:
Thank you, I enjoyed doing it. As I said, we are truly blessed beyond what we deserve.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What an incredible story, right? And people think Twin Brook Creamery is so cool already with their glass bottles, and small farm vibe, and Jersey Cows, and cream-top non-homogenized milk, but when you hear all of that, the human story behind Twin Brook Creamery, it just takes it to the next level of appreciating what goes into that milk that you can buy at the store.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop, and this is the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m really thankful that you’re here, and follow us on social media if you haven’t. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast, so you never miss an episode. We’ve got a lot more ahead, and we’re figuring out ways to get the podcast to keep on going, even in this age of the Coronavirus pandemic. We certainly hope that you are staying safe, and healthy out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Take care everybody, and if you have a little extra time, maybe you’re quarantining, catch up on a few episodes of the podcast as well. This is a great time to do that, and if you do have the time again, make sure to subscribe. Maybe if you have a lot of time, shoot me an email, I’d love to chat. What are your thoughts on local food, and Washington grown food, and farmers, and maybe you have questions that you’d like answered. Maybe I can go dig up a farmer or two who could answer your question, and either get back to you in an email, or talk about it on the podcast. Maybe you’ve got a suggestion of a farm to talk with, or an issue to cover. I would love to hear any of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can email me… Well, you can message me on any of the Real Food Real People social media platforms, right now we’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or you can just email me directly, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. That’s my email address, I get it, it’s on my phone. So anytime you send that I will get it pretty much right a way, unless for some reason my daughters are distracting me or something, but I would really love to hear from you. Again, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Dillon is spelled, D-I-L-L-O-N, by the way. And yes, realfoodrealpeople.org is the website, so go check that out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And just mentioning that reminds me, I need to get blogging too and share some of my own story, and some of the things I’ve been ruminating on and learning, and some of the things going on even behind the scenes as we develop and continue to grow this podcast. So thanks for being a part of this, and we will catch you back here next week.

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

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.