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.

Camas Uebelacker part 2 | #017 04/06/2020

Growing food takes an emotional toll on farmers, and Eastern Washington cattle feeder Camas Uebelacker has experienced highs and lows as a first-generation farmer. In the second half of our conversation, Camas opens up about the struggles he's faced.

Transcript

Camas Uebelacker:
All those dreams and thoughts that you had are gone and it’s not that somebody stole them from you. You know? It wasn’t like my house got broken into, and I got robbed. It’s nothing like that. It’s just literally gone, and there’s nobody to blame. There’s no fingers to point other than mother nature. She can be fickle.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be stressful, though.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a complete pain in the ass, man.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the Real Food Real People podcast. Farming is tough and, of course, there are a lot of the reasons that we often think about, out in the elements, dealing with weather, hard, backbreaking work, but sometimes it’s the emotional toll and the stress, the uncertainty, the impact on families. We get into that more this week as we talk with Camas Uebelacker.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the second half of our conversation. Last week was the first where we talked more about the nuts and bolts of his operation, what his views on the environmental impacts of feedlots is, and how much he cares about doing the right thing with his operation producing beef for, as he mentioned last week, 65,000 people.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, he opens up a bit more about the personal stuff. It gets a little bit more into what this means for his family and his future, what he’s going to tell his kids about getting into farming someday when they get to that age, and he also lets us in a little bit on his own kind of internal struggles with doing this sometimes. So, stick around for this half of the conversation.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you want to know more about how Camas’ operation works, listen to last week’s episode. You certainly don’t have to listen to that one first to have this one make sense for the most part. I think there are a couple of things maybe that we referenced in the second half that go back to the first, but for the most part, you can listen to this first if you want to, but if you want to know more about Camas and what he does, the kind of operation he has and how he runs it, you’ve got to listen to last week’s part one episode with him.

Dillon Honcoop:
He’s a cattle feeder, a feedlot owner in Othello, Washington. Great guy that somebody connected me with and I said, “He’s got to be on the podcast,” and I was so happy that we were able to make this conversation happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
My name is Dillon Honcoop, and this podcast is documenting my journey to places all over Washington State to talk with the real people behind our food. A lot of those are farmers, understandably, like Camas, but other people as well, like Niels Brisbane in the world of the culinary arts, and trying to connect farms with eaters, and like Sandi Bammer in Wenatchee selling food from her small local grocery store.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for me on this journey, and I’m sure that you will enjoy this part of my conversation with Camas Uebelacker. Fascinating stuff. Some of the things he says really give a good idea of the mindset of farmers and the things that they face and the reasons why they do some of the things they do. So, buckle up for another great part of the conversation.

Dillon Honcoop:
What has been the hardest thing through all this? What was the hardest time?

Camas Uebelacker:
The hardest time? I would say anytime we’ve decided to make any growth decision, and I don’t want to scare anybody young off that is deciding or thinking about going into ag, but it is probably the toughest nut you’ll ever crack to get your … Everybody says, “Oh, I want to help you. I want to help you,” but when the rubber hits the road, you have to have enough acres, you have to have enough equipment, you have to have enough of that stuff, and you can rent ground, you can rent tractors, and you can rent all those things, but the cost is just, it’s mind blowing.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, some crops you’ll have $1,250 an acre. If you’ve got a couple of hundred acres of it, there’s a lot of coin wrapped up. The other hard part is you get that wrapped up in it and you get paid once a year. So, you got to make it last and you got to have a budget. I mean, you really got to nail it down.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s one of those things that when weather screws you up, and I’ve had it happen. We had an our entire corn crop blow down flat one year when we had a lot of wind come through. It took two years to dig out of that hole. As you know, it was one of the better crops I’ve grown, and then you wake up in the morning and it’s flat. You’re like, “Man! Now, what do I do?” Well, we harvested as best we could. We lost a lot of corn. We lost a lot of money that year.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are you telling yourself in a situation like that?

Camas Uebelacker:
No joke, I mean, some days I was like, “Man, it’d be so much easier to work for somebody else. If I could just get a paycheck right now, that’d be cool.” Typically, I mean, when that had happened, we had some history farm and we had some history with our bank. They understood and you just work through it, but at the time, there’s a lot of head scratching, and then the other hard part is … So, you lost your crop, right? Now, well, it wasn’t lost. It just became extremely difficult to harvest.

Camas Uebelacker:
Well, then you just get your teeth kicked in from getting it all blown down and then you’re going to get a bill because it’s going to cost more to harvest it because it’s laying down flat. So, it’s like the beatings just never stop coming, right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Until it’s done and then you wipe that slate clean, but the beauty of farming is there’s always next year, right? “Well, we’re going to change this. What did I do wrong? Was my fertility wrong? Did I need more phosphate or potash in the soil to help for stock strength?” You start second guessing what it is that you’ve done in the past that worked great, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe it was just the freak storm.

Camas Uebelacker:
It was, and that’s what it boiled down to because I took tissue samples and we took them in and had them checked, and I was like, “Man, well, it wasn’t something I … Maybe I didn’t screw that up,” but there is a lot of those lessons learned that when you get … That particular year, that was it. That was a tough one. We also had hay cut at that time, and that circle typically on that cutting should have done two and a half ton to the acre dry hay, and I think I got like 29 bales off of it and the rest of it I had a pitch fork out of my neighbor’s front yard. So, it-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the rest of it just blew away?

Camas Uebelacker:
As gone. Literally, I couldn’t find it. It was gone, loaded all the way. So, I mean, literally, you’re making decisions off of that crop while you’re cutting it, looking at it like, “Man, this is nice. Hey, this is going to go up really good. The weather looks great. I’m going to sell this and we’re going to get some money. Maybe I should buy a new pickup. Maybe I should take my wife out to dinner.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are all the things that are going through my head, and then you go out there to bale it, and you’re like, “Where in the hell did it go?” All those dreams and thoughts that you had are gone, and it’s not that somebody stole them from you or it wasn’t like my house got broken into and I got robbed. It’s nothing like that. It’s just literally gone, and there’s nobody to blame, there’s no fingers to point other than much mother nature. She can be fickle.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be stressful, though.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a complete pain in the ass, man. I mean, it is. We’ve had blizzards in the feedlot, where cattle walked over fences and walked away, but I tell this to my kids that I’m super proud to be part of an industry that when the weather gets as bad as it gets, we go outside, we don’t go home.

Camas Uebelacker:
You might be going out and checking to make sure your circles are pointed in a direction where the wind won’t blow them over, but you’re out there in it, right? It’s funny because it’ll be evening here and we’ll get a storm or something like that, and then all of a sudden, you start seeing headlights driving around on the county roads and things because all the guys are out checking stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I’m proud to be part of an industry that when the weather hits and it’s crappy and it’s blowing sideways and it’s snow, we’re out there. It’s cool. I try to tell that to them because it’s not the norm. Most of the time, they’ll close work or, “Hey, school’s closed today. You got a snow day.” Well, guess what, guys? Get your gloves. We’re going.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s extra work today in the snow.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah, and I’m proud of that. I mean, I’ve got no problem doing that. I’m happy to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
When it does get stressful, whether it’s a storm or a crop loss or anything like that, what do you do to deal with the stress?

Camas Uebelacker:
I go fishing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where?

Camas Uebelacker:
On the Columbia, that’s no joke. I got a boat and I go fishing. That’s my golf. I mean, I can sit in that boat and think about things and you can scream and yell cuss words as loud as you want and nobody’s going to hear it, and I come, and I’m happy, but you don’t really get, I wouldn’t say there’s no escape, right? I mean, it hangs over. It’s in the decision. The hard thing that I had to learn was that it’s whatever you do today basically is going to affect you a year out.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, if we have that crop loss, and you’re supposed to be paid for it at a certain time, I mean, it basically takes a year to dig out of it or offset it somehow. Diversity is huge. That’s why I like to farm and I like to have cattle because we’ve got our hands in a little bit of everything. We grow some seed crops. We do some other things. Diversity is a good thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever expect to be, I mean you, you said from a young age you were interested in cattle and stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would your young self say about where you’re at now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, man. I think he’d say he’s proud of me. I think. I don’t know. Either that or … You got a 50/50 chance.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, did you ever expect to be doing what you’re doing now?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. So, you’ll get a kick out of this. So, like I said, my father-in-law helped me buy our original home place. That was a gentlemen’s agreement hee and I had. My wife wasn’t even really privy to that when we did it, but he kept asking me like, “Where’s your business plan? How are you going to model this? How are you going to make this work?” I had never really ever gave him one.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think now when he comes and visits, to be honest with you, I think he went into it thinking, “All right. I’ll help this kid out. He can work a job in town and do it part time and this and that,” but we’ve turned it into something that it’s a full-time job not only for me, but we have three full-time employees also. I think it probably blows his mind more than it does mine. So, I mean, I didn’t-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you had more faith in yourself.

Camas Uebelacker:
I did. I knew that if we got a shot, I could take care of cattle. That’s what we’re good at, and that’s, like I said, that’s because we care for them so well that’s why we exist. I mean, we have an extremely low death loss, a really good conversion, a high average daily gain. We have everything that a customer wants, and we have the great facility to do it. It’s clean, it’s tidy. When they drive in, we have an open door policy. There’s no secrets. If they got a question, come find me and we’ll answer it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I have that with my bank, too. They’re welcome anytime. I think that’s the other beauty of our industry is there’s, literally, I mean, there’s no hiding anything. I mean, it’s all out in the open, right? I mean, I can’t tell them like, “Man, look how good my corn crop is.” How are you going to hide 200 acres of corn, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they can drive by and be like, “Man, I can see you can grow corn,” or “That looks like crap.”

Dillon Honcoop:
“What did he do?”

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. So, it’s an open door policy, right? “Come on, drive by, take a look. We’ll tell you what happened or we’ll go take a look at it,” but especially on the feedlot side of it, when they drive through, I’m never nervous. We’ve got nothing to hide. I encourage them to come. They come once a week and it’s a cool deal. We drive through, we eat lunch and go on about our day.

Camas Uebelacker:
The younger me, I don’t know. Maybe the younger me should have said, “You should’ve started this younger.” I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud of what I do every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you would’ve never gotten that break with the wheat?

Camas Uebelacker:
With the wheat or even the opportunity to buy the place? I couldn’t tell you. At hindsight, I have no idea what I’d be doing. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10 years. I don’t know what it’ll grow into.

Camas Uebelacker:
The other thing that I think a lot of younger guys need to remember or need to get the mentality because all my neighbors, they’re all really good farmers. They’ve got modern equipment. Everyone’s … In this day and age, if you’re still farming, you’re a good farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have to be to survive.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. I think of the guys that were struggling and for whatever reason, crop loss knocked them out or age or any of those things., I mean, if they’re still going in this day and age, they’re doing a damn fine job, and that’s the bottom line because we have all the regulation in the world on us. Everybody we’re trying to feed thinks we’re trying to kill them, and it’s some of the most suppressed prices we’ve ever had with the highest costs on everything else we’ve ever had.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, somebody’s doing something right, right? I think the younger me knowing what I know now would have said buy more land 10 years ago if it was at all possible, but it wasn’t. So, I think that’s what I would have said.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think of the impossible burger beyond meat?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I could get on my soapbox on this, and this could go a couple of different ways, but the beauty of America is you get a choice, right? So, if you want to eat that, eat it, but don’t knock me for not eating it, and I’m not going to knock you for eating it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I I think that that is good marketing. I think if the person that wants to eat that should really look at what’s actually in it. I don’t think it’s as great as for the environment as what is in beef or how beef is raised. I’m not going to throw stats out there and stuff, but the the US cow herd and the US cattle feeding industry feeds more people today with less cattle because we’re so efficient at it and good at it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I don’t see how making something out of 900 or I don’t even know. I’m not going to say numbers, but I don’t know how many products are in an impossible burger, but it’s a lot. Beef is beef. So, you want to eat it, eat it. I won’t. No way.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you say to folks say across the cascades in Seattle who are a little skeptical about where their beef comes from or where their food in general comes from? What’s your message to those people?

Camas Uebelacker:
I think if I had something to tell them, I would say that be proud of where you live in Washington. The packing houses that we do have here are the highest quality grade and some of the highest yielding plants in the United States. So, your Washington farmers and cattle feeders are on the nationwide level are higher than most. So, if they’re my neighbors across the hill, you should be proud, proud to live here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can they trust you to provide them safe food?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, yeah, all day long, all day long. There’s a lot of checks in place that, I mean, it’s mind-boggling when you tour a processing facility where they harvest cattle, the lengths that they go to to make sure that that product is safe for somebody to eat, the recall state, the stuff that they have. If there isn’t a need for a recall, the things that are in place for that, it’s amazing. I mean, it’s a very safe, very clean, very well-managed, very well-handled industry.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’ve got a guy that we actually feed cattle for always says this. He says, “Everybody wants their food produced like it was by their grandpa.” The truth of the matter is you don’t want your food produced like it is today. You want it going to be produced like it’s going to be tomorrow.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, this stuff that we do now is so cutting edge in comparison to even when I first started and the evolution of even processing facilities, the feeding industry, I mean, it’s amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re saying you don’t want the stuff the way that your grandpa produced it?

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why not? What’s wrong with that?

Camas Uebelacker:
Well, I mean, for one, we’ve got refrigeration. We can freeze stuff. We can do all. I mean, we’ve got all this modern technology at our fingertips that we can trace stuff, we can track stuff, we can test things. We have all of these insurances in place to make sure that when I sell my animal to a consumer or through the packing process and it ends up on a consumer’s plate, I would be happy if they had to look at my face on the package when they opened it. I’d be proud to put my name on it. I mean, I believe in it that well. It’s a safe quality, well-produced, well-managed product.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t the idea, though, that, “Oh, back in grandpa’s day or even dad, previous generation, a generation ago, the operations were smaller and it was maybe more hands on with the farmer. It was maybe more environmentally friendly because of that.” You’re saying that’s not true?

Camas Uebelacker:
I would say that the way we monitor and how we utilize the things that we have at our fingertips today are better. Like I said, my small facility feed 65,000 people. My grandpa sure as hell didn’t do that and he had the same amount of land. So, with what we produce in a narrow window of time, I mean, the US farmers, US ranchers, US cattle feeders, we produce a surplus.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, we rely on an export market. We’re good at making food, really good at it to the point that we can feed everybody here and still have them complain about it, but we can still sell it over overseas and we can feed other countries. It’s phenomenal. So, no.

Camas Uebelacker:
If we go back to that, I would rather those people that are saying that they should have to pick out who starves to death, not me. I don’t want to. I’m going to keep making it, but that’s not the road that you can go down to feed the masses of people that we have. You can’t. That’s not the answer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family. You talked about your wife and she’s very supportive of what you do. You have kids, too, now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep. My wife’s awesome. She works in town full-time at an agriculture bank. She’s been there ever since we started this. So, she’s been there about 12 years. Got three kids. My daughter, she’ll be nine in November. My son just turned six, and I got another daughter that just turned two here in July. So, yeah. I got three of them running around.

Dillon Honcoop:
I bet that can be a zoo.

Camas Uebelacker:
It is. It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know it is around my house, anyway. I’ve got little munchkins, too.

Camas Uebelacker:
They’re all into different stuff. My daughter likes soccer and she’s about a year and a half away from being a black belt karate. My son just wants to play basketball and ride four wheelers. My youngest, she just likes to color. So, I mean, just color and pet the dogs. That’s it. So, they’re all very unique. It’s pretty cool. I mean, we’ve got a little orchard here back at the house, and they’ve got chickens and rabbits and goats and horses and cats, and we’ve got a little greenhouse.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they got chores every morning that they got to do before they go to school. They got them every night when they come home. Something as simple as feeding three cats can take an hour because you get sidetracked by … I mean, the cool part, I love where I’m raising him. We can throw them outside and there’s nothing that’s going to hurt, I mean, they’re safe, and they can go be kids.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you see any of them becoming farmers or ranchers following in your footsteps?

Camas Uebelacker:
My daughter shows some interest in the health side of animals. She’s not a big fan when we ship them, but she likes the health side of it. So, I don’t know if she’d ever become a veterinarian or not, but I think if she was going to lean towards something in agriculture, it would be more on the animal health side of things.

Camas Uebelacker:
My son, it’s equipment. He likes tractors, he likes loaders, he likes bulldozers and he likes the circle irrigation. He’s wired to know why that stuff works, but he tells me all the time he wants to be a farmer. My youngest daughter, I think, she’s only two. So, she’s still learning how to talk.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. See where she goes when she gets into, really, with all of them. When it comes time, and let’s say your son keeps doing this farmer thing, wants to keep doing this farmer thing, what are you going to tell him?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, it’s funny you say that. I’ve sat down with my wife before and we’ve had that conversation like you were saying in those low times. I think to myself, “There’s no way in hell I would wish this upon my kids.” It’s so much easier to go get a job, work for somebody else, find a different trade, but then there’s the great days where you get all your jobs done and it’s noon and, you got all this land to enjoy. So, it wouldn’t be a decision to make lightly that come home and farm because you’re going to make all this money and life’s going to be great. That isn’t the case, but you’ll make a living and it’s an interesting part of the US economy where less than 2% of us in ag feed 98% of the US or the world. I mean, it’s pretty cool.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, when we get together like our cattle feeders association, the joke is we can fit everybody in the super cab pickup because there were many of us, right? It’s a small industry in the Northwest but it’s very significant. I mean, we feed it. There’s a lot of cattle on feed in Washington, but I would have no shame and encouraging my son or my daughter, I mean, any of them, any kid to get involved in ag. I think there’s a great future in it. I think people are going to keep having babies and there’s going to be more of this that we have to feed.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I think I would encourage him. I do think that in the future, smaller acreage farms are going to be more viable. I think it will be easier, I shouldn’t say easier, but I think it’ll be more financially stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you say that? A lot of people are saying the opposite of that, that things are just going to keep getting bigger.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I disagree, and the reason I do is because there’s just going to be more people and if you can produce a certain amount of food off of one or two acres and make a little bit of live and doing it, I mean, by all means, go do it, right? So, I mean you’ve got other states that are in droughts that are huge producers of vegetable crops that people eat. The beauty of Eastern Washington is we’ve got water and there is a great future in this area for my kids to come back and do, and I think that the opportunity to be there on a smaller scale also.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think big farms are going to be big. That’s just how it is, but behind all of those big farms, I mean, all the farms that are around me are big farms, and I know those people that own those and run those, they’re my neighbors, right? It’s still a family farm, but they might farm 6,000 acres or 11,000 acres or 20,000 acres, but it’s still a husband and a wife and kids that are keeping that ball rolling.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s cool because we’ve been here long enough now that I’m seeing some of those kids are coming back and they’re good kids and they’re working hard and the employees enjoy them. They have a little maybe a different outlook than their dad did, “Dad, you can’t work them on Sundays like this. Let’s give them a half day or get them on a schedule.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Ag has evolved a lot in that manner as well. They’re not bad jobs. They’re great jobs. They pay really well. Matter of fact, when the minimum wage increases in our state have happened, it didn’t affect anybody out here because nobody makes minimum wage. If you are a skilled worker that has a talent or even a drive, no one’s going to start at minimum wage. It just doesn’t exist.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I would encourage this younger generation coming up. I mean, buckle up, it’s going to be a ride, but I think there’s definitely a future in it, for sure. People got to eat.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s hard to have more leverage than that issue.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right? Yeah. I mean, it’s tough. Like I said, it’s hard to hear people complain with a full belly. It’s hard to even fathom that, that they can sit there after they ate lunch and say that we’re bad for the environment and all of these. It’s frustrating. This is the easiest way to say that.

Camas Uebelacker:
I read this stuff on Facebook and it just drives me nuts. I mean, maybe I need to try harder on that social media deal, but I just wish they’d call me and be like, “Hey, man. Is this true?”

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m like, “No. Hell no. That’s not true. Where do you hear that or where did you read that or who even is dumb enough to write that?” I encourage everybody. Ask a farmer, ask a cattle feeder, ask a rancher, but just ask them. We do this every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if somebody does ask you and you tell them, and tell them the facts as you know them and that still doesn’t change their mind? What do you say to them then?

Camas Uebelacker:
I did my part. I tried. Beyond that, there’s really nothing more that you can do. I’m not going to get on a soapbox because I produce beef and tell everybody that’s a vegan. That’s a terrible idea. I’m not that guy. That’s your choice, man, but don’t beat me over my choice. I’m not going to beat you over yours. Just don’t do it to me. I think that there’s a certain, a very small percentage of organizations make the loudest noise, right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are the ones that there’s no way in the world that I as a cattle feeder in my remote area where we’re at will ever change their mind. If I even did engage with them, all it did would probably just stoke the fire. I’m not that guy. I mean, we’re just going to do what we do, but if somebody is on the fence and has some questions like that, I would encourage him to look up some of these associations.

Camas Uebelacker:
Washington Cattle Feeders Associations got a website. Washington Beef Commissions got a website. I mean, all these. The information is out there. Just look in the right place, please. That’s what I would encourage.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for opening up, talking about your family and your history and your farm and everything. It’s really been a great conversation and really interesting. I appreciate it.

Camas Uebelacker:
No problem, man. Happy to do it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, does a conversation like that make you want to get into farming? I know. If you’re like me at all, it leaves you conflicted because part of it sounds so incredible to be growing food that people eat. I don’t know. Maybe is that just because I grew up on a farm? It’s in my blood. I know that for sure, but then part of a conversation like I had with Camas makes it sound pretty scary and like, “Why would I ever want to sign up for that? That’s something that would take over my life and could potentially lead to really hard times and a huge amount of hours and a lot of physical pain and the threat of bankruptcy.” Why?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like he said, at some points he just feels like, “I should just work a regular job, clock in, clock out, and this whole farming thing is not worth it,” but then he has his good days where he’s like, “Wow. I wouldn’t want my life to be any different.”

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d love to hear your reaction to a conversation like this or any of the conversations that we have. Share your comments on our social media posts with this or other episodes or shoot me an email. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email. My first name Dillon is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N, not the Bob Dylan way, the Matt Dillon way, if that makes sense. Not that I necessarily identify with either of those people, but people always ask. So, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. We’ve got some really cool conversations coming up in soon weeks here, too, and more and more about how COVID-19 is impacting the farming world and the people in the farming world, both on a personal level and then on a business level and even beyond business like on a bigger economy level.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s going to happen here is pretty unclear at this point and there are a lot of people who are worried. In some ways, just to give an advanced heads up of some of the things I’m hearing from the people who we’re hopefully going to be having on the podcast here in coming weeks, there may be some really cool opportunities right now for local food and farmers because of what’s happening with this virus, and the way it’s changing markets, and the way it’s causing people to think differently about their food and where they live and if they’re secure, but especially with what’s happening to the bigger national and global markets.

Dillon Honcoop:
There are some very scary times ahead for farming as well. I’m also very worried about a lot of local farmers. So, it’s a mixed bag. We’re going to be hearing more about it certainly every week as we go because it’s on everybody’s mind right now. So, expect that in the next few weeks coming up as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for joining me on this journey of mine to really get to know these farmers of all different stripes, as well as other people in the food chain, the food system, whatever you want to call it, other people behind our food here in Washington state. That’s what the Real Food Real People Podcast here is all about.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop. It’s a privilege to have you join me for these conversations. Listen in, download, subscribe on whatever you’re subscribed on if you haven’t already. I sure would appreciate it. I sure would appreciate a share on social media, too. If anything that we talk about on the podcast, one of our guests says, whatever, if it strikes a chord with you, I’d really love it if you shared it on your social media platform. It just helps us grow this conversation to more and more people. That’s part of our mission is to get more and more people reconnected to their food and where and who it comes from.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the more people that we can get plugged in on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, the better job we can do to change the landscape of at least people’s awareness about food and farming here in Washington State. So, I’d really appreciate that and don’t miss next week as we continue here on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

Camas Uebelacker part 1 | #016 03/30/2020

He didn't grow up on a farm, but he started a feedlot in Eastern Washington. Camas Uebelacker has a passion for his job and doing the right thing, and he answers some hard questions about how feedlots really work. In the process he breaks some negative stereotypes about how beef is produced here in Washington.

Transcript

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s nothing more noble than feeding somebody. If I met some guy on the side of the road, he’s hungry or whatever, and I brought him home and fed him, I did him a bigger solid than giving him five bucks. That’s going to last a little longer than five. For me to be able to say that I feed 65,000 people… and it’s something that it’s so important to us that every employee that we have knows it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Feedlots, it’s a dirty word right now, at least in some people’s minds as far as the way to produce beef, but what is the truth on feedlots? Are they bad for animals? Are they bad for the environment? I wanted to talk with someone who actually ran a feedlot here in Washington to find out what they’re all about, and what they do, and to ask some hard questions.

Dillon Honcoop:
I connected with Camas Uebelacker with C&G Cattle Company over in Othello, and we had an incredible conversation. His answers to some of my hard questions were not at all what I expected and we ended up talking about climate change, and the environment, and taking care of animals, and all of these things that you would not expect with the stereotype that feedlots have.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I encourage you to listen to this conversation with an open mind. I know he changed my perspective on quite a few things. Again, his name is Camas Uebelacker. He’s our guest this week and next. I had to split this in two parts. We had such a good conversation, it just kept going and there was a lot to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
So this is the first part of our conversation about how beef is produced here in Washington and in a lot of parts of the United States. But as you’ll hear him say, he thinks we have something special with how we do it here in Washington, and you’ll find out that he cares deeply about these issues that people are worried about with feedlots.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for joining us this week. Please subscribe on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and all those other players. Don’t forget to follow us on social media. I’m Dillon Honcoop, again your host here on Real Food, Real People. Grew up on a farm in Western Washington and now I’m journeying all over the State to places like Camas’ operation to get to know what really drives the people who are producing our food here in Washington and how they’re really taking care of the things that we hold so dear; the environment, how they’re taking care of people, how they’re taking care of animals.

Dillon Honcoop:
So sit back, enjoy this first part of our conversation. Really cool stuff here from Camas.

Dillon Honcoop:
You come from a family of farmers or what’s your-

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… background in this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I don’t. I’m first generation so I started our operation. My wife and I bought it in 2007 and my father-in-law helped us buy it and that’s how we got the ball rolling on what it is we’re doing now.

Dillon Honcoop:
How old were you when you started this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I was 27.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is a 27 year old guy who hasn’t been in farming do to so start?

Camas Uebelacker:
I had an interest in it and I went to college and had an Ag background in it. Then when I got out of school, I worked for a ranch for a while, always mainly in livestock. And then did that, worked for a feedlot, went back to college, got a better degree, worked for a bigger feedlot, and then this place came up for sale and I went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you go to college? Same place both times?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I went to Walla Walla Community College and Montana State is where I graduated from.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you went to college the first time, what was your plan?

Camas Uebelacker:
To be completely honest, I really didn’t have one. I knew I wanted to get a degree. I come from the age of kids where they just pound that everyone has to go into college.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Same here.

Camas Uebelacker:
Trades are super important, even more so now than they were when I went to school, but that was the time, that’s what you did when you got out of high school, so I did it. I had a great job in high school. I was working as a diesel mechanic and had all the options to just continue to work and go to school for that, but I didn’t want to lay on my back on a concrete floor until I was 60.

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus, I think they all told us at that time, “Well, if you really going to get a good job then you got to go to college.”

Camas Uebelacker:
I would never discourage anybody from going, but that is not necessarily the case these days. The trades are super important and pay in a lot of circumstances better than any education that you would get.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know about your experience, but I know I have plenty of high school class mates of mine that didn’t go to college and got into the trades and right away they were making more money than me and they’re still making more-

Camas Uebelacker:
And they don’t have student loans and everything [crosstalk 00:05:11] else. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they had the comfort in some ways of knowing what they were doing right away rather than, “I’m not sure what I’m going to read.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Or you got to go find a job and work my way up and you can pretty well start and within a few years be going.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you grow up?

Camas Uebelacker:
Outside of Yakima, Wiley City.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. But not a farm family. What’d your dad do?

Camas Uebelacker:
My dad was a college professor at Central and my mom, she was mainly in the education field.

Dillon Honcoop:
So both sort of teachers.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And did they want you to become a teacher too?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. It wasn’t anything like that. My folks were divorced and I had a stepdad that was real into cattle and that’s how I got the interest and I just liked it. It was like every day it felt like a Saturday. And it still does, so I just.

Dillon Honcoop:
At what age were you starting to think about even just like being on a ranch? When did you first get the chance to go out and do that?

Camas Uebelacker:
In all reality, I was probably 15, 16, somewhere right in there and just really into it. I like cattle and I like the work and it was interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you lived in town but got to go out to a farm?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. We always lived out. It wasn’t like I was just straight out of town, but no, we had some acreage and we always had horses and cattle and things like that growing up, but never on a scale of what we do now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there you were, young kid, which… I grew up on a berry farm and both my parents had grown up on dairy farms, so I’ve been around animals a bit too, but I always thought the ranch and cattle thing was cool.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you’re young, it sounds cool. Right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was it what you thought it was when you were a kid? What did you find out from there until-

Camas Uebelacker:
I’ve pretty well done every gamut where you’d take three horses and ride out, and camp for a week, and check cattle. That’s really cool for the first week and then it’s, “Man, it’d be nice to be home and get a shower.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Like a real cowboy deal. You’ve done that.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. And it was fun and it was definitely one of those things when you’re 20, if you’re into it, I would encourage anybody, just go for it, man. But the reality is those jobs are there, they’re still there. The West is still alive and doing cool stuff like that, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you did that here in Washington?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, that was in the Dakotas.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the Dakotas.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. Went back there for a couple of years and that was before all the oil field stuff, when minimum wage was still 475 and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah, it was pretty fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that where you were doing the cowboy thing?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I think it was probably less than that because I was on salary, but you can’t win them all. But no, it was cool. It was a great experience. That stuff’s neat and it evolved. Matter of fact, when I got done with that job, I moved home and I was going to take a couple of weeks off, and I have an uncle that has a feedlot out here and he asked if I could come help for high moisture corn harvest, supposed to last two weeks and I ended up working for him for two years.

Camas Uebelacker:
That’s how I really got the interest in the feedlot. I was just blown away by what you can do with an animal in a fairly short period of time. But the day I started working there, that’s the best I was ever going to be, so that’s why I went back to school to think if maybe I could get a job at a bigger yard, managing it or something like that, and I did that.

Camas Uebelacker:
I ended up working for a bigger feedlot for a couple of years. I really enjoyed it, but then when the opportunity came up for me to do my own, I jumped. I went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that scary?

Camas Uebelacker:
Super, man. I’ve never signed on a line and had my name look so shaky. That’s a lot of money and as young, no one really gave me, I guess credibility. I had a good name in the industry and that’s part of the reason that we’re where we’re at now is because somebody gave me a shot. And we’ve had that same customer almost since day one. As they’ve grown, we’ve grown with them to what it is now.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you thinking at that time? You decided like, I’m going to do this.

Camas Uebelacker:
The crazy thing is, if you got enough guts, anybody could… You could build a feedlot and put a sign up front says, “I’m a feedlot.” Doesn’t mean anybody’s going to send any cattle. And we’re accustomed feedlot so we don’t necessarily own the cattle. We might own a percentage or something like that, but to be in the custom business, it’s a pretty big leap of faith.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’d be one thing if I owned all my own cows and I put them into my own feedlot and had all that going, but I don’t have that, so we’re strictly custom. So your name means a lot, it’s still like that. Everything that we did was, like I said, in 2007 and it was done on a handshake.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that? To buy the land? To buy the machinery?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, that was to start taking in custom cattle for the customer that we had. Like I said, you can have a feedlot, but it doesn’t mean anybody’s going to send you anything. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So did you have the land then or?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. I had bought it and I wasn’t really sure how this was all going to work out. I still had a great relationship with the feedlot that I was working for and thinking, well, maybe I’ll knock on that door. But the place that I bought was so dilapidated and run down that there wasn’t a panel that would hold an animal, so I had a bunch of work to do.

Camas Uebelacker:
So I worked full time at the feedlot I was working at and then in the afternoons I’d get off work and I’d come work on mine. And I did that for about a year and it just got to be too much. We harvested our first wheat crop that year and that was… I think I sold soft white wheat for like almost 10 bucks a bushel.

Camas Uebelacker:
That was in 2008, I believe and that gave us a boost to be able to go buy some more boards and posts and fix some more stuff. And then we fired it up and it’s been running ever since.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know prices for wheat. Is that a good price?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah it’s crazy. Yeah. I think that was the highest, I think it’s ever been since I’ve farmed.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it at now, and you know?

Camas Uebelacker:
I think it’s just right at five bucks or under 5 bucks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Half of what your-

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. In all honesty, farming cattle, I wouldn’t say that it takes a lot of luck, but a guy needs a good break every once in a while for it to keep running. And that particular year was our first year and we got that boost. I’m not going to say it set the stage for the entire process, but it was damn sure a good boost that a guy needed.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want to talk more eventually about your family and stuff? Did you have family at that time or was it just you starting this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I was in engaged.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were engaged.

Camas Uebelacker:
My wife and I weren’t even married yet and we were crazy enough to buy it together, and I don’t… Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was she saying at that time? Was she sure she’s [crosstalk 00:11:43]-

Camas Uebelacker:
She’s awesome. I married absolute big, it’s not even funny. But no, she was very encouraging. She knew I could do the work, she knew that it was a good opportunity. The cool part about it is she’s in the banking industry and I won’t say names, but I can’t bank where she works because it’s a conflict of interest.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
But I was really good at the work and she was really good at helping me make the right business decisions.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
I really wish I wouldn’t have got an animal science degree, I wish I would’ve got a banking or economics or some sort of business degree as opposed… Because the stuff that we do everyday out in the feedlot is stuff that you will learn on the job, or a veterinarian, or a nutritionist, or somebody can help you with, but running your own business, you really need to be intimate with it and know that if I buy this piece of equipment, it’s going to put me back a year, or two, or five, or how am I going to pay for this?

Dillon Honcoop:
And is that worth it?

Camas Uebelacker:
Is it the right decision to make-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Camas Uebelacker:
… because potentially you might be the best cattle feeder on the earth, but if you don’t make the right business decisions you know it’s going to sink you.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you made the right decision with that soft white wheat?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. That went really well. That was a good move. And I contracted at all at the peak of the market and sold it and it was awesome. I was like, “Man, I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do this. This is easy.” I did start at the right time. Ag was going to be good and it has been good after that point for another six years or so, and then it peaked out and has been on a a steady decline.

Camas Uebelacker:
But it gets you for those first like six, seven years where you’re paying off a lot of equipment, a lot of land debt, a lot of just debt period, and I feel pretty fortunate that we started when we did because to do it on a day like today where the markets are down and it’s a lot tougher.

Camas Uebelacker:
Land’s worth more now, rents are higher. It’d be pretty tough.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re saying it’s still pretty darn scary to jump in both feet?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh yeah. Looking back at it now, I can’t believe I did it. And I don’t know how I made it work, but we did.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like your first year was a lot of hours for sure.

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh man. [crosstalk 00:13:59] It was crazy. And like I said, I got a good wife. She was cool with it and-

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a day were you putting in when you were working basically another full job?

Camas Uebelacker:
I used to have to co-feed at that other feedlot and so I would be there… We had to be there at 4:30, and then I’d get off about 3:30 or 4:00, and then I’d come to my yard and work on it until probably 8:00 at night and go home.

Dillon Honcoop:
I do the math on that. That’s a couple of hours right there.

Camas Uebelacker:
It was tough, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that was every day?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. At that yard we worked a six and two schedule, so six days on, two days off. And then obviously if it’s just me, there’s no days off here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
I did that for about a year and a half. Matter of fact, I think it was three years before I ever even hired an employee to help me. I needed a break. It was pretty tough, but like I said, my wife was on board and we went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain what it is you actually do. You’ve been talking, you have C&G Cattle Company-

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… you run a feedlot to a lot of people. That’s a dirty word-

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… but what does it really mean?

Camas Uebelacker:
My operation is what in the industry, what we call it, backgrounding yard or… Basically what we do is we bring in light cattle that would have just been weaned off a cow, and we bring them in at 550, 600 pounds, and then we’ll take those to 900 pounds. And then after that, those will go to a finish feedlot where they put a finish on the animal.

Camas Uebelacker:
And then those cattle are typically harvested at this time, 1,450 pounds. So they’ll take them for quite a while longer after I have them. But what we do is we get the health straight on them and we have a really good solid vaccine program that we use on them, a good feed program. And we basically get them healthy, get them eating, getting them straightened out.

Camas Uebelacker:
And then when the finish feedlot takes them, it’s pretty push button for them. It’s really easy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you mean straightened out? What does that involve?

Camas Uebelacker:
My specialty and I guess why I exist in the world is we’re pretty good at high risk cattle, meaning that those that are cattle that came from a ranch, that they take them to a sale yard. Our buyers put them together into usually truck load sizes and we buy from Canada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California and they’ll be brought in into my place.

Camas Uebelacker:
And so from there, we don’t really necessarily know any vaccine history on them. We don’t know if they’ve ever even had a vaccine. We know where they came from because most of them are branded, but beyond that, we know very little.

Dillon Honcoop:
High risk, what’s the risk? The risk is to you?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, the risk is to a customer. We try to mitigate that risk as much as we can with the protocols and programs that we’ve put in place over the years. It’s crazy how much it changes. I wouldn’t say so much year to year, but from when I first started doing this to now, we’ve fed enough cattle that we have a pretty solid program put together.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s it’s definitely, I would say less… I shouldn’t say less on the technical side, but it’s it’s a little bit more… It’s a slower process. We’d go real easy with them, a lot of high roughage diets. We’re not trying to push them, we’re not shooting for a really high average daily gain.

Camas Uebelacker:
Basically we want to get them eating, make sure they’re healthy, lots of access to fresh water. We have a really intense and very technical mineral package that we put together because a lot of cattle that come from different areas of Washington, or Oregon, or Idaho, certain areas of those States the grass is deficient in minerals and it can affect their immune system.

Camas Uebelacker:
So over the years, that’s one thing that we’ve really developed. It’s all key laded vitamins and minerals. It’s readily available. It’s in every load of feed that we produce and we’ll get those cattle caught back up on nutrition-wise what they need and then they stay healthy and put on pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, these are cattle that have been out on the range somewhere?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yup. Yeah. These would be calves that would come off of a cow that were grazing. It could be in the high desert of Oregon, it could be in the Plains of BC, or it could have been… We don’t get a lot of coast cattle, but if we buy out of central Oregon, sometimes we’ll get coast cattle off of like Coos Bay, those areas.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so when you talk about high risk and risk to the customer, the customer would be whatever operation is going to buy them to finish them and harvest them?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. The risk would be basically the day they buy them from the sale yard. So they’re going to own them all the way through. You’re going to feed them and take care of them for them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Camas Uebelacker:
And under that feeding care is our program that we basically get them straightened out, and healthy, and looking like good cattle.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to what I said, some people feel like feedlot’s dirty word. What’s your response to that?

Camas Uebelacker:
I love what I do. We don’t have the prettiest aspect of the livestock world. A ranch has green grass, rolling hills, pine trees and everything else. We’ve gotten metal corrals and concrete feed bunks. So it’s not the prettiest thing, but the thing that blows my mind every year is at the end of the year when I get done and I sit down and I look at how many cattle we put through there, the pounds of beef that we put on animals and all of that, it’s typically if you use the average of what a consumer eats every year, my facility feeds about 65,000 people a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
65,000 people worth of beef.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep. That’s my response. I don’t really know how else to say that. In my opinion, there’s no nothing more noble than feeding somebody. If I met some guy on the side of the road, he’s hungry or whatever and I brought him home and fed him, I did him a bigger sell than giving him five bucks. That’s going to last a little longer than five.

Camas Uebelacker:
For me to be able to say that I feed 65,000 people and it’s something that it’s so important to us that every employee that we have knows it because… And the cool part about a feedlot is we literally use the most modern technology that anybody has in the Ag industry. But we also still use the old school stuff where somebody sat on a horse. And there’s very few industries that you can say that.

Camas Uebelacker:
Row crop farming, it’s you’re climbing a tractor and you’ve got the most modern tillage equipment and all that, and I farm and we have that. But when it gets down to the feedlot, it’s a different mentality. It is long hours, it’s dirty, dusty, stinky work, but food is a dirty, dusty, stinky job and I’m happy to be part of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you do think about it in terms of the food that you produce for people? Your team with the things that you’re doing on a day to day basis, that’s in the back of your mind?

Camas Uebelacker:
Absolutely. And it’s also one of those industries when people say, “Every job here’s important.” And I agree with that in most industries, but I would say at my feedlot, that rings more true than anywhere because we wash the water tanks regularly and that’s typically when you hire a guy, that’s where he starts.

Camas Uebelacker:
If he wants to move up through the chain of command and eventually be a pen rider, or a feed truck driver, or some of those jobs, or a processor or any of those, that’s where you start, but that job is very important. If you don’t watch the tanks, there’s a potential that you could have sick cattle or something like that. So it is pretty cool that it is a neat industry, a neat trade that literally every job there that gets done every day on a daily basis is important and you feed people.

Camas Uebelacker:
Whether or not they want to eat it or not, but that’s the beauty of America. They can choose to buy beef or they can choose to buy other protein products, but the people that choose to buy it, I’m feeding them and I’m cool with that, and I’ll keep doing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think more and more people, as much controversy as there is about as far as some people go with different takes on beef, I think there is also an awareness that people are coming around to that it’s an important protein source.

Camas Uebelacker:
It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
And not all protein is created equal.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, no, it’s not. Whether or not you choose to buy it, that’s the beauty of where we live. There’s more options out there than you can ever imagine. What I was telling you earlier in the beef sector, there’s conventional, there’s organic, there’s grass-fed, there’s natural, there’s all these different segments.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I don’t really care what you eat as long as you’re eating beef. I’m team beef. You never take your wife out to a chicken dinner.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ll remember that.

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s a reason they make a steak night, not a chicken.

Dillon Honcoop:
Chicken night.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m just joking. But to go back to where your initial question, they’re not beautiful, but they’re designed to be extremely efficient. They’re designed to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Feedlot.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. Not waste. I can tell you exactly how much my corn silage pit is going to shrink in the next 12 months. We’re down to the pounds, and extremely efficient. We’re in a business of the margin is literally penny sometimes, so if I make a decision to change a feed additive that would maybe help in the immune system, typically the salesman is going to tell me, “It’s in sense per head per day.”

Camas Uebelacker:
And that might not sound like a lot. Right? On one head you’re like, “ell, it’s going to cost me two cents more per head per day.” But when you spread that over 4,000 head and you’re going to do it over the next 90 days, well that’s a chunk of change.

Dillon Honcoop:
You say feed additive, I’m sure some people might say, “Oh, what kind of chemicals are you given these animals?”

Camas Uebelacker:
No, no, it’s nothing like that and any feed additive that we do feed would have a zero day withdrawal because it’s in the feed. Antibiotics, if we do [doctrine animal 00:23:48], it has a withdrawal. Those are set by the FDA. We have to follow. No animals with any residue are ever shipped, can’t do it. It’s illegal.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying any beef can’t have antibiotics in it?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. And I’ll even help out the other industries, any meat product that you would see in a supermarket cannot have any antibiotic residue in it. It is illegal and it won’t have it in it. That’s why we have the safety checks. That’s why America’s awesome. Other countries, I don’t believe they have… I shouldn’t speak to those countries, but I know for a fact I’ve toured the processing plants, I’ve seen the steps and measures that they go do it and I am 100% proud to say I’m part of that industry.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why is it that some things you see in the grocery store might say antibiotic free and others don’t then?

Camas Uebelacker:
Because it all has to be antibiotic free and it’s a marketing, I shouldn’t say scheme or something like that, but it’s purely marketing. And I would encourage, if someone does have a question, I wouldn’t jump on Google, and I wouldn’t jump on Facebook, and I wouldn’t jump on Instagram, and all those other deals where everyone gets their news now, but I would call a farmer. We’re in the phone book.

Dillon Honcoop:
So this whole like this meat is antibiotic free, it’s a farce because it’s all supposed to be, otherwise it’s illegal?

Camas Uebelacker:
Illegal. It’s all antibiotic free and it’s a marketing ploy. But it’s tugging at the heartstrings of consumers and I don’t think that’s fair. You’re not going to get that from a guy like me, you’re going to get that from the bigger companies that are trying to sell that product.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the feedlot issue, I think one of the things that people worry about or fear and the image that they have in their mind is that animals are not being treated well in a feedlot. You’re talking about getting animals healthy in your feedlot. Where’s the breakdown there? Why is it that people think feedlots are bad for animals?

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying, you’re actually getting them healthy in your feedlot.

Camas Uebelacker:
I guess I can break a day down for you real quick just to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Sure.

Camas Uebelacker:
… make it crystal clear for everybody. We check their feed every morning. My guy that does it starts at 5:30. He drives through, checks every feed bunk, every pen gets checked. At the time when he’s typically doing that, he’ll check the water tanks to make sure they’re full, or not overflowing, or there’s some issue there.

Camas Uebelacker:
Then once the feeding and water and everything’s checked, every pen is checked, so every animal gets looked at. We have developed facilities and updated everything to the point that there isn’t even a hot-shot on my farm. We don’t own one. We don’t need one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hot-shot, what’s that?

Camas Uebelacker:
All the electric prods-

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Camas Uebelacker:
… that everybody thinks that-

Dillon Honcoop:
To get an animal moving?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. We don’t use them, we don’t have them. There’s no need. We’ve updated, we’ve designed, we’ve become… Every guy I have is Beef Quality Assurance certified and part of that training program is moving cattle, loading cattle, unloading cattle, processing cattle. We’re big on it. The cool part is it’s so relaxing when we are doing those things and moving cattle. It isn’t even hard.

Camas Uebelacker:
This isn’t whipping and spurs, scream and yell. This isn’t working cows with your grandpa. We do this every day, we’re good at it, we care about them and literally, I make my living from taking care of them. That’s the whole reason I have a job.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why would you be hurting them, I guess is the question.

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s no damn reason in the world to ever treating an animal ill. We have a saying and it hangs above my shop door that says, “Treat them like they’re yours.” Because we truly are in a custom business where there aren’t our animals, but we do… And the guys that work for me, most of them have been with me a long time and we hold ourselves to a very high standard.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I think we have to, and I think that’s also part of the reason that we’ve grown how we have and we’ve been able to maintain an existing customer for as long as we have. And also grow to be basically the largest grow yard in the Northwest. I’m proud to say that. But we treat every one of them as if we own them.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I’m not going to try to scare people off and throw dollars and cents and “Oh, I have this huge investment in them.” But to boil it down for you, when my feedlot’s full, it’s $4 million in cattle inventory, just cattle. That’s not feed, that’s not anything else. And I’m a 4,000 feedlot. These big guys, the bigger feedlots have even more. So to say that I would ever treat one of them poorly, or deny them water, or fresh feed, or any of that thing is just, it’s asinine.

Camas Uebelacker:
You’re not gonna do it, you can’t. And like I said, the reason we’ve been able to excel and expand and become who we are is because we care for them so well.

Dillon Honcoop:
What you’re saying resonates with what I hear from a lot of farmers and what I know practically to be true, which is, if you want to do well, if you want an animal to produce well, why would you want to abuse them or hurt them? Doesn’t make any sense. But yet there still is this perception that the way that farms are now is just an industrial farming or a factory farm and they’re just pushing animals through, and they’re abusing them.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just going off of what I’m assuming the mindset is here, that they’re abusing them to save money and get more out of them somehow, which-

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re saying that’s backwards?

Camas Uebelacker:
It is. Very much so, and it’s to the point where we also have saying that it’s “Quality feed, quality animal.” I grow the majority of the feed for my feedlot on my own farm ground. I’ve got a neighbor that grows a lot for me, but the other beauty of feedlots is we take products that aren’t typically… They would typically in another industry be waste.

Camas Uebelacker:
One ingredient that I don’t personally feed, but a lot of them would do in the area that we’re at is a French Fries, and they’re called French Fries because it has a black spot on it and McDonald’s won’t sell it. And if you did get it in your French Fries, you might take it back and say, “Hey, this one’s burnt.” But it’s perfectly good cattle feed.

Camas Uebelacker:
So for us to be able to use the byproducts that come from other industries, like we feed a lot of bluegrass straw. Bluegrass straw comes from the grass seed industry that planted your front lawn, or a golf course, or lawns around hotels and all these places that have green grass. It comes from somewhere and we feed a byproduct out of it.

Camas Uebelacker:
Same thing every time you fill up your car with gasoline E85, the other 15% is ethanol and we feed a lot of ethanol by-product. It’s called wet distillers grains. After they extract the part that they’re going to put in gasoline, we feed what’s left over and it’s awesome feed.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would happen to it otherwise?

Camas Uebelacker:
I couldn’t even tell you. With the intent when our government decided that they needed to up the ethanol in it and production went up and people… You can buy it dried, you can buy it in a pellet, you can buy it wet, you can buy it different ways, but it’s all going to end up in animal feed.

Dillon Honcoop:
But other than animal feed, it’s pretty much wouldn’t be good for anything?

Camas Uebelacker:
You’d dump it. But it’s good animal. It’s great animal feed. It’s not just good, it’s great. The potato industry is huge in our area, so there’s a lot of feedlots that feed the potato byproducts. There’s stuff what they call hopper waste, there’s slurry, there’s various parts of the process that prepare that potato for human food. It ends up in a byproduct that feedlots utilize.

Camas Uebelacker:
That’s another cool part of the industry is that, I think they call them upcyclers. I guess if you know it. I always say it’s trash to cash, so we buy those products, we store them here on site and then we feed it.

Dillon Honcoop:
These animals are basically taking, like you talk about this distiller’s waste and they’re turning that, which would otherwise be unusable.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And certainly is not edible.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re turning that into high quality protein for humans-

Camas Uebelacker:
For humans.

Dillon Honcoop:
… to consume.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yup. Yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do you think then about all this, we gotta get rid of beef because it’s using up land, and water, and all these things and causing climate change?

Camas Uebelacker:
I read through those, but the cool part about my feedlot, and I’m going to speak about mine, we reuse everything. So the manure that comes out of my pens goes back on my farm ground. And it’s not raw manure, we typically age it, compost it, and screen it, and then it goes back on as… I remember my grandma always used to buy [Begs Deer Manure 00:32:44]. Well, I make it by the truckload.

Camas Uebelacker:
And we spread that back on our farms at agronomic rates, and the cool part is, is when I started doing that, my fertilizer bill went down close to $30,000 a circle and that comes out of my yard, my feedlot. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s heading towards organic right there.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m pretty much the greenest hippie you’ve ever met. When people say things like that, it really bugs me because we work so hard at making sure that we don’t waste anything. My guys get tired of me telling them, “Hey, quit spill and feed. Make sure he shoveled at. Clean that up. Scrape that into a pile.” The part-

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe that’s just because you’re cheap though.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, it’s efficient. I’m efficient.

Dillon Honcoop:
I just had to give you a hard time.

Camas Uebelacker:
And there’s all this other stuff, when people say that, I look at them and I want to ask them, “Well, what is it that you do to change it? You drove here, you use plastic, you’ve got garbage in your garbage can. What are you doing?” By the way, I farm a couple hundred acres that sequesters carbon.

Camas Uebelacker:
Sometimes when I read that, I just want to say, “You know what? You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help you out.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re not concerned about cows causing climate change-

Camas Uebelacker:
Not at all? Nope. I’m more worried about all the people that drive that probably should just walk. I think that the noise about those things that are coming to people like me that are trying to feed people, I think that maybe those masses should do a little something to change. I think that they do, but I don’t think they do it on the scale that I do. I have a hard time buying it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously, we’re talking about the environment here. What else do you do for the environment? You talked about manure, people have environmental concerns about manure and how it’s handled. You mentioned you put it on your fields, you mentioned agronomic rate. What does that mean?

Camas Uebelacker:
We put on and typically we will fall apply or spring apply manure. And in the area that we’re in, it’s extremely dry. Our average rain fall’s six inches a year, so we don’t typically worry about the leeching into groundwater or anything like that. We’re also 600 feet to ground water, so it’s a ways down there. But the agronomic rate, so if we… We pull soil samples every spring, every fall so we know where we’re at with what the crop would use and what it’s going to need, and we don’t over apply.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you don’t apply beyond what the crop is going to use?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. It’s really cool. Like I said, it’s a cool industry. We’ve got the most modern… The tractors that pull the wagon got GPS, the wagons have scales. I know how many pounds are going on every acre. And the part of the reason is, you want to talk about trash to cash, this has become a valuable product because it’s not just the nitrogen, the N, P and K that’s in it, it’s also all the micronutrients.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a living product that when you apply it to soil, plants, it’s readily available. There is no process that has to go through. So it’s good for ground and it’s to the point now that it’s a saleable product. So when people think that we’re out here just over applying it, there’s really no monetary reason to do that because if you can utilize what it is that you need… Like my farm, I utilize what I need on mine and then if I have leftover I’ll sell it. But if I don’t, I’ll use it.

Camas Uebelacker:
So there is no reason for me to just throw money out the back of my manure spreader just because I have to get rid of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s not a waste?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. Nope. It’s a waste product in the feedlot, but once it hits farm ground, it’s as good as gold.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re big into soil health stuff then?

Camas Uebelacker:
Absolutely, have to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the key to good soil health?

Camas Uebelacker:
A good crop rotation. In our area, our soils are mostly, what they call arid soils it’s a highly… We’re in an arid area, so our soils inherently, they’re low in organic matter, so anytime that we can put that back in, it helps with the water-holding, water penetration, just overall soil health.

Camas Uebelacker:
If we decide to do high moisture corn for harvest, all those corn stocks will go back into the soil. If we choose to do silage, we’ll take the silage off, but we’re going to put compost back on. Over the years that I’ve owned this farm, every year it continues to yield higher, and that’s the goal.

Camas Uebelacker:
There is no reason to just farm it, to farm it, it’s a longterm project and it’s a longterm investment. It’s not cheap to spread manure, it’s not cheap to just apply it. You’re talking, there’s a guy on a tractor, a guy on a loader, you’re talking burning diesel. There’s all those things, but when it’s all said and done, when you talk about the greenhouse gas and all that other stuff, those crops that we’re growing are going to sequester carbon.

Camas Uebelacker:
So I think that my footprint is probably smaller than most people’s. I truly believe that.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Next week in the second half of our conversation with Camas Uebelacker, we find out more about his family and what he sees as the future of farming and the issues around producing food here in Washington State. He has more answers coming up next week that you probably wouldn’t expect to hear from a guy who’s running a feedlot.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s really cool and encouraging to hear people across the board breaking stereotypes of the things that they care about, the things that are important to them and what really drives their operations. So a big thank you again to Camas for opening up with us and sharing some of this. And I’m really excited to next week share the second half of our conversation again with Camas Uebelacker of C&G Cattle Company in Othello, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
As I’m always reminding you, make sure to follow us on social media, Real Food, Real People Podcast on Facebook, on Instagram as well. I think the handle is… What is it? @rfrp_podcast. That’s the handle on Instagram as well as on Twitter, so we’d love it and we’d really appreciate it if you followed us there, shared our content.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re just trying to get these stories to more people in Washington so they can start to hear from the real farmers that are producing our food here. Rather than having to hear from anyone else, why not straight from the horse’s mouth, as the saying goes. We really appreciate you supporting the podcast in that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
And of course, always welcome feedback on any of those social media platforms as well as dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. That’s my email address. Feel free to shoot me an email anytime you want. If you’ve got a thought on the show, maybe you didn’t like something that someone said or you have a different perspective, maybe you know somebody with a different perspective on an issue that I should have on the program.

Dillon Honcoop:
We want to hear from all perspectives here on Real Food, Real People, and we really appreciate you following us and listening along. We’ll catch you next week for the second half with Camas Uebelacker.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, and I should also think 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.

Alex Durney part 2 | #013 03/09/2020

She never expected to be involved in farming and ranching, but now that she is, she says it's changed her life. In the second half of our conversation with Colvin Ranch manager Alex Durney, she opens up about her dreams for the future of her ranching career.

Transcript

Dillon Honcoop:
Five years ago, what would you have said if you heard yourself just say what you said now?

Alex Durney:
I would have said that you’re absolutely crazy. Absolutely crazy.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Last week on the podcast, we got to know Alex Durney a bit, and she is a rancher now managing Colvin Ranch in Tenino, Washington, but that wasn’t her background. She didn’t grow up around farming or ranching, and just a couple of years ago she was a vegetarian. She was a student at Evergreen State College. Just hearing about that change and what it’s meant for her life has been so incredible and inspiring.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, we get to hear more about what this means for her future. She shares some really neat insights about the promise and the opportunity that this has given her, joining the agricultural community, and the new dreams that she has. It’s pretty inspiring, and it’s such a great story to share with you of the real people like Alex behind the food that we eat, here in the Pacific Northwest.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast, and it’s all about my journey around Washington State to share with you these stories of the real people behind our food. Thank you for being with us, and enjoy the second half of the conversation with Alex Durney.

Dillon Honcoop:
You touched on this earlier, saying that you don’t really fit the mold for what someone expects for a rancher. What’s it like to be a woman in the farming world?

Alex Durney:
It’s really hard. You’re not taken seriously at all. By very few people are you taken seriously, I feel like. That’s the biggest thing for me, especially since I’m so young. It’s like, “What do you know,” kind of thing, and that is really hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that a young-versus-old, or a male-versus-female thing? Or is it a background [crosstalk 00:02:25]

Alex Durney:
That’s a young-versus-old and male-versus-female.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Are you part of the family? That could be another element to that.

Alex Durney:
I am not part of the family either. I am the one coming into a family ranch and taking over. I mean, had their daughters taken over, they only had daughters, so they would have had a female rancher right there.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you deal with that?

Alex Durney:
I just brush it off. Females are growing in the farming and ranching industry. It’s happening. Classes that I’ve taken, the female population within those classes is rising each year. More and more women are becoming interested in this. I think it’s because we’re finally realizing that we don’t have to stay within this stereotype that I want to say America and a lot of other countries have given us. We can do all of these things. We are not these little fragile beings. We can make it happen.

Alex Durney:
I don’t want to mean this in a bad way, but I mean, sometimes we work a little bit smarter and not harder. Even we just went through a workshop today where he said, “You can hire a cowboy or you can hire a cowgirl. You’re probably going to make a better profit off of hiring yourself a cowgirl, because they’re not going to drive things as fast or break things as quickly. They’re going to work with their brain, not with their muscles.”

Alex Durney:
Just a funny aspect of it, but I mean, things are changing. More and more women are becoming interested in this. Because of how things have been changing in society, we finally have the opportunity to embrace it, and it’s great.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said earlier something to the effect of you don’t want to see it go away, meaning the kind of ranching that you’re doing.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. I don’t want to see these small-scale ranches go away, the ones that are just going down like flies.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the pressures that are causing that to happen?

Alex Durney:
Larger operations, and also customer influence. If more and more customers supported the local smaller operations, there would be a demand for it. Cattlemen and women would not have to sell off their animals for super cheap. They would be able to direct market them to the public right next to them that’s in their vicinity. It’s kind of the best part. More people need to buy local, support that.

Alex Durney:
It’s mostly customers and where they’re putting their dollar, whether you’re putting your dollar into buying from Tyson at the grocery store, or you’re going to your local farmers market or co-op and buying directly from a ranch or a farm that, if you very well wanted to, you could drive by or possibly visit.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does this all mean for your personal life?

Alex Durney:
For my personal life? I feel like my personal life has been turned upside down the last few years. We all have this dream of getting out of college and getting your dream job. This was not my dream job, but it’s turning into it. What this means for me is I have this whole new opportunity that I’m possibly being given, and I mean, this is a ranch that their children don’t want to run it. They need to find someone to run it.

Alex Durney:
The fact that I have the opportunity to learn how to run it from the family who has been doing it since the 1850s is truly a gift, and to possibly be able to own it one day would be great, and be able to run my cattle in the same way that I do now under their name and for their business. The opportunity has given me a lot personally.

Dillon Honcoop:
Five years ago, what would you have said if you heard yourself just say what you said now?

Alex Durney:
Two years ago. Not even two years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
“I dream of running my cattle one day on this.”

Alex Durney:
Yeah. No.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you have said?

Alex Durney:
I would have said that you’re absolutely crazy. Absolutely crazy. I never would have thought that. If you would’ve asked me five months ago when they asked me if I wanted to buy in, I initially said no because it scared the crap out of me. The unknown is scary, but there’s just such a big opportunity sitting there with the way that things have been changing within the agricultural industry, and also the political platform that this ranch in particular has.

Alex Durney:
I went into freshwater ecology to make a change, and had I continued that career path, in order to obtain that and possibly make a change, I probably would have been in my 50s or 60s before I ever really got a chance to make a change. Sitting here now, I could possibly make a change before I’m 30, and that’s fascinating to me, and make a change with an industry that’s so many people are hating on right now and want to see die.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that part of the list of threats?

Alex Durney:
Kind of. It’s like I want to prove them wrong.

Dillon Honcoop:
How are you going to do that? How are you going to prove them wrong?

Alex Durney:
Run cattle, and how they were meant to be run, and just do it in the best way that maintains the land, keeps that land how it’s been for almost over, now, 170 years. That land is immaculate, in my terms. To someone else’s, they’d be like, “This land is horrible.”

Dillon Honcoop:
You say it’s your dream to not see this go away. It’s potentially your dream to one day call this ranch your own.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who knows what may or may not happen, right, but you’re saying it’s becoming maybe your dream job kind of thing. You’re still not sure.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. I mean, it’s a purpose. Everyone’s got to have a purpose.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re also talking about people who want to see that whole thing go away. What would your message to them be? If you could just talk to them about it directly, what would you say?

Alex Durney:
Just having an open mind, broadening what they see as the beef industry and what we do. It’s not all the same. You can’t put us all underneath the same umbrella. There are a lot of different umbrellas, and identifying the best ones and hopefully moving towards more of that, and being open to that idea and working with them. I want to be able to work with them.

Alex Durney:
Having all beef, this carnivore idea or this full-on herbivore idea, we need to find a middle that works for everyone. I believe that I’m on the side of the beef, that could actually maintain and move forward and be able to create a cohesive environment for these two ideologies to exist. That’s what I want to work towards. That’s my goal. I want both of those things to exist in a place.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, that is a big dream.

Alex Durney:
That is a big dream.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because so many people think it’s not even possible right now. There’s just too much polarization, that people are in their own camps on what they think about this stuff. You’re talking about blowing that up.

Alex Durney:
I mean, a divided country we live in right now, divided in so many different ways, and at the end of the day, we all know that we need to just talk. We need to come together and we need to speak, and we need to not only speak, but we need to listen. We’re not going to make a change unless we do those two things.

Dillon Honcoop:
How can you do that from a ranch in Western Washington?

Alex Durney:
Perfect. I’m located only about 15 minutes from the state capital. It doesn’t take me very long to go annoy some legislators about some policy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do they need to hear?

Alex Durney:
I guess that’s kind of hard, because we have the polarized communities working against each other. They’re listening to both sides. How can they really do it? What do they need to hear? I guess it’s not even really what they need to hear. We need to come together as a community first, because they’re not going to be able to decide on either side while we’re still so divided.

Alex Durney:
Because in their terms, no matter what they decide, someone is going to be angry. Whereas if we at least try to come together as a community, and even if you hate one side of it, you don’t have to support it, but you can work to try and make things better on that side, or at least come together to agree on something that maybe … you know, you’ve got to give a little to get a little. For us to come together and actually be able to go to our legislation about what we want to do would be the most ideal thing, but how we come together is difficult.

Alex Durney:
There are multiple organizations specifically within the meat industry that I know of, trying to get more people in the meat industry, beef, poultry, these other sides of it, to come together to create, again, more of a platform to be able to really show people what the small portion, the small family farms, what they’re all about, so that there is more of that voice so that people can see that, so that hopefully we can sooner or later get to that point where we can come together as a community and not really come to a decision but get more in that gray area, as we were talking about earlier, to come to a decision to bring to our legislation and possibly actually make a change within this country. In order for us to be more comfortable, we have to make ourselves uncomfortable.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s uncomfortable going to look like?

Alex Durney:
I mean, vegans being okay that there might be some beef out there, but also the beef industry being completely fine with really drastically overhauling things and giving a little bit towards a more environmentally-friendly way of doing things, and protecting the land. Because if we don’t do that, why are people who are so against the beef industry ever going to want to come over onto our side? You don’t have to love it. You just have to be okay with it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it helping us move in that direction when people are ranting about no one should be eating beef ever under any circumstance, and if you do, you’re a terrible person?

Alex Durney:
Yeah, no. I believe that that is making the divide so much deeper, personally. Whenever people are aggressive … I guess that’s probably the best term to use, aggressive … on their technique of conveying their ideology, I don’t want to be part of a group that’s aggressive or accusatory or any of those things. That’s not a space or people that I even really want to surround myself with.

Alex Durney:
To me, just looking at that for face value, it really turns me off. Also, you could turn the exact same thing towards beef, and I understand where those vegans are coming from. That’s how I’ve been saying, of we really just have to come together. We can’t polarize each other in that way. We’re not going to make a change by excluding others. We need to include others.

Dillon Honcoop:
In that equation, let’s put the militant vegans on one end of the spectrum. What’s the other end?

Alex Durney:
Those would be the meat-and-potato guys. “That’s all you need. What is this kale sitting on my plate for?”

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t see them out.

Alex Durney:
They’re not, because they know that they have a place. People eat beef and people love it. It’s a lot harder to tell people not to eat beef. Maybe that’s why vegans have to be so aggressive about it. Do I think that’s the best way of going about their message? No. A lot of the time, the polar vegans are just really driving people away from that doorstep by being too aggressive.

Alex Durney:
I mean, would they be still super mad if they came onto a ranch similar to ours where they’re able to just see animals grazing about? I mean, we’ve had Evergreen students come out that are no longer vegan or vegetarian, because they for the first time saw that there are other options. They simply didn’t know.

Alex Durney:
For different people, I mean, vegans have their different reasons why they’re vegan. There’s the environmental and then there’s the emotional. I totally get the emotional. I’m not going to try and change the way that you think about beef. If that is how you feel, great. Do not change that.

Alex Durney:
With the environmental aspect, there are things in this world that have far worse environmental impacts than a small family ranch. Your car driving back to work is probably a larger environmental impact just for you on a daily basis than it probably is for half of our ranch. There’s bigger issues.

Alex Durney:
I think that there’s also a lot of data that is messed up. Not messed up, but there’s a lot of private-party data being collected.

Dillon Honcoop:
On what?

Alex Durney:
Just CO2 emissions, greenhouse gases, all these different things. There’s a lot of these private-party surveys going on and data coming out, and which ones are really true is the hard part. I think we’re struggling with that, not just with what we’re talking about, but with so many other things right now. Finding the facts and weeding through everything to find out what is truly a fact is becoming more and more difficult, and it’s requiring more and more time by the consumer in order to figure that out.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest thing, coming into the farming, ranching world from your background, which really isn’t that at all?

Alex Durney:
Pretty much nonexistent. The largest challenge, learning everything. Learning. This industry is so complex, and there is just so much to it on a daily basis. I love my job because I go to work and it’s different every single day, but it is also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve had to learn more than I think four years of college ever taught me in a matter of a couple of months, in order to make sure that I could actually be productive for them as a business or from a business standpoint.

Alex Durney:
That’s probably the hardest thing, was the amount of information that I had to just jam into my brain, which then made it so obvious how much information the public does not know, and I think that’s kind of a special part. I went from being this person of just general public, taking sides, being a vegetarian, and coming into this and just basically completely turning my world upside down in a sense, and just opening my mind to what this industry really is. It’s a lot more than people see.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you only had 30 seconds to convince somebody of that, what would you tell them?

Alex Durney:
Oh, the elevator talk.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that the world that you’re in is different than people think.

Alex Durney:
Oh, gosh. How would you ever explain that to someone in 30 seconds? You can’t explain that to someone in 30 seconds. That took me months. I’m still learning. I mean, I feel like people should just know that what you see, I mean, everyone has a different view of everything. Your view of the world is completely different from my view of the world. Just being open to listening to those different sides, and taking in all the information that you possibly can to make yourself a more educated consumer.

Alex Durney:
That’s the thing. I’m not going to try and change their mind. I just want them to be more educated. I want them to step more out of their comfort zone and look at what’s really going on. Go to these ranches. If you really want to be against it, really look into it. Don’t just hate it.

Alex Durney:
It’s like when your mom always told you “Don’t hate it until you try it” when it’s a food item. Just because sushi has raw fish in it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be disgusting. You can’t hate it until you try it.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you do try it and you don’t like it, that’s fine.

Alex Durney:
Great for you. I’m not going to try and change your mind. I don’t really think that there is a cattle person who would try and change your mind. If you don’t like it, it’s not for you, great, but don’t hate it until you try it, or at least don’t hate it until you investigate it a little bit more and truly understand it as a consumer.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about yourself, though? You say you’ve learned so much in the last two years. You’ve described it as it’s turned your life upside down. What about the next two years or the next ten years or more? What are you going to say in five or ten years about the positions that you have right now? Could your mind change on other things?

Alex Durney:
Yeah. I mean, I’ll always be open to new things. The world’s going to be changing a lot too. As most people know, we are now calling this a climate crisis. That’s going to have a lot to do with what happens in the next five, ten, twenty years. For me, I just want to be able to hopefully grow with that and continue to adapt to it, to make sure that people still can have sustainably-raised meat.

Alex Durney:
Whether that is still going to be beef, I don’t know, but there are other animals that do have lower impact on the land, if that’s the way that I have to move in order to continue growing as a business and also to just adapt to the environmental changes. I mean, every year is the newest worst drought year, and it could be very possible that at some point in time you can’t raise cattle on that land. Just adapting and changing with that.

Alex Durney:
For me, it’s going to be changing with the land and what the land gives me the capability of. I don’t think that my idea on animal products is going to change entirely back to my point of vegetarianism, and I guess that’s my point with if I can’t run cattle, I’ll try and run something else, until they can’t be run anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for opening up and sharing your personal story … your journey, really is what it is … to get to this point, and I’m really excited to watch and see what happens too, because it sounds like you want to do cool things with this ranch that you’re managing and there’s this future of maybe it’s your ranch someday, but you want to do stuff beyond that.

Alex Durney:
I do. I do. We will definitely see what happens. Thank you so much for having me.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I just loved it when she said really this has given her a new dream. You know, so many young people grow up and especially go to college and have dreams about changing the world, but what does that actually look like and how are they going to do it? Her explanation, of how joining the farming community actually bumps that up for her and makes that a much more real possibility and makes it happen sooner, she’s really pumped for what she’s doing, and it’s so cool to see.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks again for being with us here on the Real Food, Real People podcast. We’ve got more great conversations coming up. I’ve been talking with a lot of cool people, and excited to bring them on the program here with you. You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, on Google podcasts, on Spotify and a lot of other services, so make sure to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Please also follow us on social media. That would be awesome as well, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well. You can find us on those channels pretty easily. Anytime if you feel like it, you can certainly reach out by email, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for being here, and we will be with you again next week with another incredible story of the real people behind your food, here on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

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.

Alex Durney part 1 | #012 03/02/2020

She's a former vegetarian Evergreen State College ecology student who now manages a beef ranch. Hear Alex Durney's unexpected journey to embracing farming and finding a whole new dream for her future.

Transcript

Alex Durney:
Like I’m pretty positive my grandfather is disappointed in me, because I went to college to get a college education so that I didn’t have to just be some rancher or farmer and here I am doing that. But with that comes a platform in a change that we’re able to make within this country and I want to be able to help with that. I want to be part of that change.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Farmers come from so many different backgrounds, but our profile this week may be one of the most unexpected. I talked with Alex Durney. She grew up in suburbia. She went to Evergreen State College and studied freshwater ecology, very passionate about environmental issues. She was vegetarian, but now she manages a ranch raising cattle for beef. Not what you would expect at all. She has a pretty incredible story of how she got to where she is and all the things that she’s learned and still her passion for the environment as well as for farming and ranching. This will be the first of two parts of my conversation with her. We just had so much to cover and she brings such a cool perspective with her education and background. So please join me in hearing from Alex Durney. She’s the manager for Colvin Ranch in Tenino Washington. Great conversation. My name is Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my personal journey to get to know the real farmers and the real people behind our food here in Washington state.

Alex Durney:
I actually ended up starting to go to Idaho State University in my home state and I started out as a biology major. I really wanted to be an ultrasound technician and then I realized I didn’t really want to work with people very much, or at least I didn’t want to work with people with health concerns, I guess. I didn’t want to tell people that there was something wrong with them. I wouldn’t be happy in my job and that was the biggest thing. I wanted to find happiness in my job. So that’s where that journey began.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were like, “No healthcare, can’t do it.”

Alex Durney:
No healthcare. And so then I was scrambling to figure out what I could do. At one point I was actually debating becoming a veterinarian, I mean that links us to what I’m doing a little bit right now. But then I ended up becoming a cosmetologist so I did hair, skin and nails for a little bit and that’s great. I’m glad that I have it because if something fails I always have that. But the first week that I was sitting in my cosmetology class, that was a two and a half year program, I realized that I wanted to be an ecology major.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that just come to you at that point?

Alex Durney:
I have no idea. I was just sitting there and I was like, crap, that’s what I really want to do. But I did not want to be the beauty school dropout. So I refused and I stuck out the two and a half years and I graduated and now I have that certificate. But I’m glad that I had that two and a half years because it gave me the time to decide on a school. And I ended up going to Evergreen State College in Olympia, which-

Dillon Honcoop:
So this was after the cosmetology degree?

Alex Durney:
This is after the cosmetology. So I graduated from the cosmetology in December of 2015 and then in September of ’16 I started at Evergreen and started in as a freshwater ecology major. Took a bunch of different classes, actually programs, if anyone knows anything about Evergreen, which I mean it has been in the national news for not super great things. The programs there though are amazing because they allow you just to dive super deep into these theories and have a teacher that you can sit there and discuss with them as if they’re not your professor, as if they’re-

Dillon Honcoop:
And for people who don’t know, Evergreen is built on a totally different philosophy of you do education, right?

Alex Durney:
Oh yeah. You don’t take classes. You’re not taking a chemistry 101 or English. You’re taking a program that’s 16 credits that requires all of your time and that’s all you take is that one program each quarter. But that’s what allows you to dive so deep into those subjects is you’re spending hours and hours talking about these subjects. And you’re not just doing projects to get you to a test goal, you’re doing projects that are actual things that you’ll do in day to day life. So my very last course at Evergreen, I ended up doing that with a large animal veterinarian. So we had two professors at the time, so there was about 50 students in this class.

Dillon Honcoop:
So hold on, you’re doing freshwater ecology, but you were taking a program with a vet?

Alex Durney:
You can do whatever you want at Evergreen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Alex Durney:
It was ecology based. That was the main credential for me was all of my classes needed to be ecology based. I was also at the time doing undergraduate research with actual stream ecology. So that’s why I can label my degree as a freshwater ecology degree, because I have outstandingly more credits of freshwater ecology than any other ecology credits.

Alex Durney:
But the very last class that stuck with me the most obviously was this perennial agricultural class that I took with Mike Perros and Steve Sharelle and that class taught so much. And the biggest thing that I was drawn to was the animal health aspect of it. Of course, I really loved how the grass grew, all these other perennial agricultures, but learning about the animals and how they functioned was just fascinating to me. Within these programs, you have this opportunity to go to all of these different places, field trips. I hadn’t taken a field trip since second grade, but I took a field trip every single Thursday in that class. But I learned so much because we were going and visiting these model ranches and model farms in Washington and Oregon and getting to see how people do this in the best way possible.

Dillon Honcoop:
Real world stuff.

Alex Durney:
Real world scenarios here. And one of those ranches that we visited just so happened to be Colvin Ranch. It was one of the very first places that we visited. And standing on that ranch that day, I definitely wouldn’t have expected that I would have been living on that ranch. But things changed and I continued through this class, learned a lot more, absolutely fell in love with it. And by the very end, my professor was just like, “Hey, you did an amazing job. I know that there’s someone who needs some help because their manager is leaving. Do you want me to get you in contact with them?” And that’s when I got in contact with Fred and yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
The rest is history.

Alex Durney:
The rest is really history. Now I’ve been their ranch manager for almost two years. And in their terms, I’ve changed their life I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Alex Durney:
They never had a ranch manager before that would get other things done. It was like they would leave and the bare minimum would get done, the feeding, whatever, but there was never anyone who was like, “I’m going to overhaul your marketing. We’re going to completely redo everything and make all of this better.” They never had that before so for them, this is amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So Colvin Ranch.

Alex Durney:
Colvin Ranch.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tell us about it. What is that actually like?

Alex Durney:
So Colvin ranch was homesteaded in the 1850s by Ignatius Colvin, which is just a sweet name if you ask me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ignatius.

Alex Durney:
Ignatius Colvin.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s legit.

Alex Durney:
So he came and at one point in time, the ranch equaled over 3,000 acres. But over the course of time with family and people dying and inheriting and marriages and all these different things, the land slowly just got parceled out smaller and smaller and smaller, until we have what we have left, which is just over 500 acres.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is it at?

Alex Durney:
It is in Tenino, Washington, so not Eastern. We got a little bit of Western influence here.

Dillon Honcoop:
People think ranches, they think Eastern Washington, right?

Alex Durney:
Yeah, they do, the Highland Desert and everything. But there’s a lot of rain in Western Washington, so a great place to grow cattle. Most people think of it as actually the dairy portion for Oregon and Washington. But we run a full cattle operation there. The operation has changed multiple times over the years. It’s gone from cow-calf operations to stocker operations. And what we are in now is kind of what I like to refer to is an intergenerational ranch.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain what those different terms mean, like cow-calf operation. People say that in the ranching world all the time. What does that mean?

Alex Durney:
So cow-calf operation is where basically your main thing that you own is cows and you’ll bring in either a bull or you’ll do artificial insemination on all of those cows each year, in determination of when you want them to calf. And all of that really matters with when you want them to calf, to when you want to wean those calves off of their moms and when you want to sell them to get the top market dollar. And that’s the thing that scares me. With those you’re subject to the market, which is kind of scary.

Alex Durney:
So that’s a unique thing about ours is we also have the stocker operation built into it, which is the opposite side. The stocker is the one who purchases the calves from the cow-calf operation and raises them up until they’re able to go to harvest. And so we do all of that in one. So we have our cow-calf and we have our stalker that goes to harvest and we also do the direct marketing for that as well. So not only do we raise all of our animals, but we sell all of them directly to the public.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was going to ask you, like, you do some of that? But you’re saying no, all of-

Alex Durney:
We do all of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the beef is-

Alex Durney:
All of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sold directly.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. Another unique thing about our ranches that we are all grass fed and grass finished. So we never feed corn or soy or any supplemental thing. We’re raising cattle how they should be raised. It’s natural. They want to eat grass, it’s what their bodies are made to digest and we just want to make sure that they’re able to live the best lives that they can.

Dillon Honcoop:
So here you’ve come in some ways full circle from almost from where you started, because it was about health stuff and then you went cosmetology and then it was still like biology, freshwater ecology, but then you’re back to animal health and you’re still dealing with-

Alex Durney:
Still dealing with people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Living bodies and health and yeah.

Alex Durney:
Living bodies and health, it’s a lot easier to tell a cow that she has a foot problem then to tell a human that they have a blocked artery. So that’s kind of why I chose that. I mean I still, with the direct marketing to the public, we still have to deal with people, but you’re not giving them bad news. You’re helping them with a service that right now is hard to come by. So the grass fed and finished holds heavy weight for a lot of people, especially within the state of Washington, fairly liberal community for the most part. And they’re all wanting to get away from that. They care about the environment, they want to see a change. I mean a lot of them don’t agree with the cattle industry in the first place, but we’re doing our best and doing it in the most natural way that we find possible in order to help those people.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was curious to ask you about though, because the assumption, the stereotype, you’re coming from Evergreen, you’re coming from an environmental program at Evergreen, the assumption is that you’re going to be anti beef altogether, anti-meat. You’re going to probably going to be a vegan or something.

Alex Durney:
Oh, definitely. I mean I was vegetarian for three years.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were a vegetarian?

Alex Durney:
I was a vegetarian.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who’s now managing a beef ranch.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What changed?

Alex Durney:
So I started out with the vegetarian thing being on the environmental side. I ended up finishing out my vegetarianism because I was anemic and we found out that the only way that my body can really absorb iron well, because we increased other like iron high vegetables and other things like that, it just wasn’t working. And then what they found once I started eating meat again was my iron levels went right back up to where they should’ve been. And so what we realized is that my body cannot absorb iron from other sources. I have to have a meat protein in order to absorb iron.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that pretty common for people?

Alex Durney:
It can be, yeah. It’s more common than you think it is. Also, I mean the veganism thing is fantastic and I celebrate the people that are able to do it, but a lot of people aren’t able to do it. I’m one of those people. Also, it’s not really what we would call this word at Evergreen is the S word, but sustainable. Veganism isn’t sustainable either. We can’t produce enough vegetables within this country to feed everyone, but it’s not sustainable for the aspect of meat is needed for people that maybe can’t afford higher quality vegetables. It’s also needed for ritual things for religions and other aspects of life, meat is sometimes really important to their culture and their identity, so we can’t take that away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now that you’re in the farming world, you probably hear a lot of the other side of it, the angst and the frustration with vegans.

Alex Durney:
Oh yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you respond to that then?

Alex Durney:
Everyone has a right to their own opinion. I honestly, I just try and remain humble with those people. If they’re so set in their ways, there’s nothing I’m going to be able to say to change their mind. Them being more exposed to the actual farming industry and maybe going and visiting, there are a lot of ranches, I know we allow open visits to our ranch. Anyone can contact us and have a full hands-on personal tour that’s two hours long on our ranch if they would like to, so that they can truly understand what we do. And so I guess just educating those people, but there’s no forcing someone to change their views. They have to want to change their views.

Alex Durney:
So to me until those people are ready to want to sit down and talk about it and be open minded about it, just like they want me to be open minded about their veganism or vegetarianism or whatever, it goes both ways. You can’t shut out the other side just because you’ve discovered and you think that it’s so wrong, it doesn’t mean that it is it. Yes, aspects of it sure are. There are definitely things within the beef industry that I do not agree with, but I do agree with how I’m raising my animals. And our customers believe in that and that’s why they come to us.

Dillon Honcoop:
I just see people getting lumped together so often where it’s like, “Well, you’re beef, you must be bad.” And it’s like, “No, it’s not all the same.”

Alex Durney:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That part is really frustrating to me. As far as the vegan issue goes, me coming from the background of farming, having grown up in that community, you know where my bias is going to come from, but ultimately I agree. Hey, if somebody wants to be vegan, by all means, I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when people are hating on other people. Same thing for the farming community. I don’t think it’s appropriate if people are just hating on vegans for no reason when they don’t really understand. You know what I’m saying?

Alex Durney:
I do. And I think that’s because I’m able to see both sides coming from this Evergreen background, this sustainable, environmental, you have to be vegan. No. You don’t have to. But I see it from both sides and I see why both sides are angry, but there is a middle ground. There is a spot where we can all sit down and talk. We just have to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t it because people want simple answers?

Alex Durney:
They do.

Dillon Honcoop:
And good guys and bad guys when it’s not that simple?

Alex Durney:
It makes it so much easier to make things white and black, but it’s never white and black. It’s always gray and we all know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why are you so passionate about this? About farming and ranching and cattle? Beef?

Alex Durney:
I guess the bigger thing is it’s not even, I’m more passionate. I don’t want it to end and I don’t want the good side of it to end I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
You don’t want what to end?

Alex Durney:
I mean the average age of a farmer in our country right now is what? 63 years old. And it’s what we would call an OWG, an old white guy. And being a 24 year old female going into the ranching industry, I am the exact opposite of what someone thinks of as a rancher, but we need more people like me because if the average age of a farmer is 63 years old, what do people think is going to happen?

Alex Durney:
Those people are going to die. Their kids don’t want to take it over. What’s going to happen to the beef industry? There’s a lot of people out there that want beef. No one’s producing anymore. That’s not great, but there is this opportunity where this younger generation is growing up. We realize what has been done wrong in the past and we’re trying to do right and we just need to be given the opportunity to make it right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that take? What does that look like making it right?

Alex Durney:
For I guess a lot of ranches, it’s letting go of the old way of doing things. It’s expanding your mind. All of us need to expand our minds, but expanding your mind and looking outside of how you’ve done things for years, accepting the ideas of your children that are coming in straight out of school that have… I mean the agricultural cultural sciences part of universities is dying, it’s becoming more soil sciences and there’s a reason for that.

Alex Durney:
People don’t want to go into the agricultural aspect of it because those people are so stuck in their ways and that’s not the way to be. You have to be able to flex with how things are changing. So much is changing in this world. Things are not the same as they were when the 63 year old ranchers were in their 20s taking over their family ranch or whenever they took it over. Things are not the same and things aren’t going to continue the same. We need to be able to change with that. And the newer generation, the people who are willing to just be like, “You know, I’m going to have this ranch job. I’m going to try and make it better.” Even to my own family, I’m pretty positive my grandfather is disappointed in me, because I went to college to get a college education so that I didn’t have to just be some rancher or farmer and here I am doing that, but with that comes a platform and a change that we’re able to make within this country and I want to be able to help with that. I want to be part of that change, so that’s why I’m passionate about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that starting to happen? What’s your take on the new generation, people my age or your age even who are in the farming world?

Alex Durney:
They’re pushing back towards the local. I feel like that’s the overall message is pushing back towards local. At one point that’s how you got all of your groceries. You went to your butcher, you went to the bakery, you didn’t go to the grocery store and the grocery store just made things so convenient in our lives and yes, it is fantastic. I will go to the grocery store as long as there are grocery stores, but stepping out and going to your local farmer’s market and stuff, that’s what this new generation is pushing for. And also pushing to get the local products in the grocery store. If people want that convenience, let’s make it happen for them. And so, I mean that’s why we have our beef in our local co-ops and stuff. So it does give people that convenience factor, but they do have to go shop at the local co-op.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about farmers your age? Are they doing a good job? Are there cool things out there happening?

Alex Durney:
I mean, I don’t know if they’re all doing a good job. I mean, we’re all going to fail. We’re all going to succeed all in different times. We’re still playing the exact same game. We’re just trying to play it in a slightly different way. We’re looking deeper and by looking deeper, I mean we have a lot more knowledge now. We have the soil lab analysis and soil survey, all these different things that we’re able to gather data from. There’s so much more data and using that makes us more powerful. We’re not just going off of, oh well this worked last year or the year before, these are how these aspects work. Yes, that plays a very important role, but there is the important role of also just the raw scientific data from across the world of how to do things in possibly a better way. And I think that’s going to be the aspect that shakes up what we’re used to in the agricultural fields, whether that’s farming or ranching.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you are the ranch manager at Colvin Ranch.

Alex Durney:
I am.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Tenino, Washington.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many head of cattle do you guys have there?

Alex Durney:
Anywhere around 250.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wouldn’t some people say that’s a huge herd neck and people shouldn’t be farming that many animals?

Alex Durney:
No. That’s small. That’s really small. I mean there are herds out there that are 16,000. I mean that’s not unheard of. Even here in Eastern Washington, it’s thousands of head. We just have 250, but for us that’s what our land is able to maintain. And I guess that’s a very important aspect. Our land is able to maintain 250 head and that’s all we care about. Yes, would we love to have 400 head? That would be fantastic, but it’s not possible on our land. We’ve played with it with stocking rates and utilization and so many other aspects they’ve played with and what they come down to is about 250 is what our land can handle with keeping it the way that it is. But we also have quite a few protections on our land as well. 90% of our land is in a permanent conservation easement with the state of Washington, so there are certain sections of our land that are also deferred at certain parts of the year.

Alex Durney:
We’re not even allowed to graze them because we need to make sure that the Camus and Balsamroot and all of these other native plants are able to go to seed set and actually continue to reproduce and make a healthy landscape and prairie for us. And then we go through and with the state of Washington, we actually use our grazing to help those plants. So with hitting invasives at very specific times in order to make sure that the Camus and Balsmroot can succeed and not get shadowed out by a taller grass or other aspects very similar to that. So we work very hard to maintain our land, not just the amount and our profit at the end of the day. Because you’re not going to have a profit if you don’t have good land to grow cattle off of it all. It all starts at the soil.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, and that’s what I was just going to say, you keep touching on soil health issues. That sounds like that’s a big part of what you do and your passion.

Alex Durney:
Oh yes. Down to exactly how we graze, when we’re applying fertilizer, all sorts of things. It’s all timed down to specific moments so that we can make sure that we’re optimizing the prairie itself because our biggest thing is that we are managing for feeding a cattle’s gut. We’re not feeding the cow. We’re feeding the bacteria within their gut. If we don’t have good grass, we’re not feeding the gut very well, we’re not feeding that bacteria, so we need to ensure that our soil health is the best it can possibly be to optimize that production right there.

Dillon Honcoop:
that also does other things though too, right with soil health?

Alex Durney:
So many other things. I mean with soil health then we have a super healthy pocket gopher population on our property. We have checkered spot butterflies, we have all sorts of animals. We have a healthy ecosystem.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about back to the vegan issue, because one of the biggest points that’s made has to do with the ecological impact and then the environmental climate change, carbon footprint impact of beef, right? Soil health is a part of this equation, isn’t it?

Alex Durney:
Very much a part of the equation and the equation has nothing to do with cattle. It has everything to do with management and the management that people deploy on their property. You can have great management and have fantastic soils and fantastic grasses and be able to actually have a higher herd population because of it. Or you can have bad management and you could have very few animals and you could just have devastated land and be causing so many environmental issues. It’s all dependent on what that person is doing on the ranch, it has nothing to do with cattle. I mean specifically at our ranch, if you drive along our highway, you’ll see our ranch and then right next to it you’ll see what used to be part of the ranch 20 years ago. That is completely covered in Scotch broom. And people all the time ask, “How do you keep the scotch broom off of your property?” Simple, we put cattle on that property. We just graze cattle once or twice a year in that pasture and Scotch broom never grows. It’s a great management technique if it’s used properly. So I mean, we’re moving towards something better.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was curious when I was asking earlier if you’re seeing signs of change.

Alex Durney:
Yeah, that would be part of it. I mean every operation is trying to look better and be better.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It really is incredible to see somebody like Alex who came from a background that didn’t have anything to do with farming and in fact was some ways kind of opposed to what farming does to embracing it and understanding the potential there. At the same time, looking at the bigger picture, and again this was just the first half of our conversation. Next week we hear the second half where we get into more of what Alex sees for the big picture, what she believes the future is and how she views joining this ranch, Colvin Ranch in Tenino as a life changing opportunity. Here’s a little snippet of what’s ahead next week.

Alex Durney:
I could possibly make a change before I’m 30 and that’s fascinating to me and make a change with an industry that’s so many people are hating on right now and want to see die.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there you have it. Again, Alex Durney, she is the ranch manager at Colvin Ranch at Tenino, Washington. Totally leave your stereotypes at the door–I mean that’s with everybody on this podcast, and particularly with Alex. So pumped to be able to share my experiences getting to know Alex and other people like her here on the Real Food Real People Podcast. That’s what it’s all about, documenting my personal journey to get to know the real people behind our food like Alex. Sure would appreciate it if you would subscribe and you could do that on Spotify, you could do that on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and a whole bunch of other outlets out there as well, whatever your favorite spot is to get podcasts. Also, please follow us on social media. We’ve got more content there as well, so find us on Facebook as well as Twitter and Instagram, Real Food Real People, you can find us there pretty easily. Just give us a follow. We sure would appreciate it. Again, next week is part two of our conversation with Alex Durney. I’m so looking forward to sharing that with you. Until then, thank you for following and subscribing and supporting Real Food Real People.

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.

Devin Day | #010 02/17/2020

A tech guru becomes a farmer, producing some of the most unique food products in Washington. Meet Devin Day of Valley Farmstead Rabbits and Neil's Big Leaf Maple Syrup, and hear him share how he's found his niche.

Transcript

Devin Day:
I actually gave a baby rabbit, just born, mouth-to-mouth. I just, little, little puff puff, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Devin Day:
Little chest compressions, and it took this huge gasp of air. And within like two minutes was just as healthy as the other ones. Blew my mind.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
This week on the podcast, we spoke with a guy who’s rethinking a lot of stuff about farming and where we get food from, and doing some unique stuff. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. Thanks for being here and joining us. On my continuing journey to get to know the real farmers in Washington State, and share their stories with you here. Devin Day of Valley Farmstead Rabbits and Neil’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup, both in Acme, Washington, has an incredible story to share of growing up in town and only becoming a farmer later in life. So, join us as we get to know Devin Day and the fascinating stuff he’s doing out in Acme.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, when did you actually become a farmer? What’s your story to the farming world?

Devin Day:
Well, I’m actually fairly new to farming. Most of my background is in technology, computers, software. That sort of thing. My stepdad, who’s Neil, was working out here in Acme and I was working, again, still in tech stuff. He just called and said, “Hey, you want to come work out on the farm?” And I said, “Not really.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the farm at that time? What was he doing? Beef?

Devin Day:
There was a lot of beef there. We have a couple bison herds and growing a lot of grass to feed different animals. It was kind of a program that was building as it went, so to speak. We did that for a couple years and this whole time, he was still playing with the maple trees and cooking out in the woods and doing that sort of thing-

Dillon Honcoop:
Cooking out in the woods. That just sounds like it’s going to be sketchy. Like, what kind of cooking out in the woods do they do in Acme?

Devin Day:
Yeah, maybe I should clarify that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Exactly, yeah, let’s clarify that.

Devin Day:
Well, he was collecting sap from maple trees and he had this big stainless steel tub that he made. He built a big fire pit and he would, down by his shop, and he would cook the maple sap down to the point where it was maple syrup. Then that kind of became the very first, I mean, there’s a few hobbyists out there. There’s some eclectic forums you can find other people that are tapping some of their trees in their backyard. He was doing that, so he would give away sap, or not sap but maple syrup for gifts and it just got more and more popular. That’s where it all started. Just a guy out in the woods cooking.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, he had asked you to come work on the farm or see if you were interested, and you weren’t?

Devin Day:
At first, no. But the more I talked to my wife and we’d … I grew up in the city, then moved out to the county during my high school years and I liked-

Dillon Honcoop:
City being Bellingham?

Devin Day:
City being Bellingham, yeah, not like the-

Dillon Honcoop:
Big city-

Devin Day:
No. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m from Whatcom County, too, so I mean the big city is Bellingham to me.

Devin Day:
Yep. So, just the more we talked about it, it sounded cool. We really wanted to raise our kids out in the county, being able to run around with their shoes off and doing that sort of thing. We already homeschooled our kids and so, it made a lot of sense. We didn’t have a lot tying us down so we just went for it. That was about six years ago, and yeah, now-

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like taking that step? That’s a scary step to make-

Devin Day:
Yeah, it is-

Dillon Honcoop:
To do that.

Devin Day:
I did college. I did, I went on a baseball scholarship and then I hurt my knee and got bitter and left and that whole bit. So, I definitely love doing the tech side of things. It wasn’t necessarily a scary step, it’s just I didn’t know how much I was going to like being on a farm. I wasn’t a farm kid. Didn’t grow up as a farm kid. I think that was my biggest hesitation. But, talked about it and one of the things, too, is I did get to … This whole farm is owned by a larger group, even though we’re doing kind of our own things on the farm, I do work for a larger group and I work for my stepdad. He’s the manager of a lot of different farms out here in Acme.

Devin Day:
So, I did get to do a lot of IT and stuff still for the group itself. So, I still got to have my hands in there. So, it wasn’t … I got to go into town, into the offices and fix everybody’s computers and-

Dillon Honcoop:
What? Farming involves IT now?

Devin Day:
Yeah. But I got a lot of free rein and I got to come up with a lot of ideas for putting efficiency sensors on this, and temperature sensors on that. You get to come up with a lot of different ideas, so it was fun. And then, I got introduced, I’m kind of veering here so if you want to-

Dillon Honcoop:
No, go for it.

Devin Day:
I got introduced because it was all food-oriented. So, the group itself owns some restaurants and things like that, so I was exposed to a lot of chefs and things like that early on. With my marketing and IT and technology background, I’d been exposed working in that agency side of things, so I wasn’t afraid to go and introduce myself to other chefs and things like that. So, it kind of snowballed. You had asked me earlier, “How did you get going with this?” And it really just ended up with being exposed to a lot of those people, hearing that feedback of what they were interested in. I had already been working with some chefs on some rabbits and that’s, we do a lot of rabbit protein to chefs down in Seattle and it’s expanded from there. I brought them one of the little bottles of syrup that my stepdad was cooking out in the woods, and they just freaked out. They were like, and this was a very high-end restaurant that was buying rabbits for all the fancy customers, et cetera. Once they found out, “Wait a minute …” They already used maple syrup, that was the interesting side. When they heard that this was made in Washington with maple trees up here, and that’s never been done, and the flavor profiles are very, very unique. Great for cooking applications and, like I said, they just, they had to have it.

Devin Day:
It slowly snowballed into, “You guys got to set this up so you can start selling this to us.” And that’s what we did.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, back up a little bit. You came out to work on the farm. They were doing beef and bison and other stuff, and you mention this rabbit stuff. How did that get started? I want to hear the rabbit story.

Devin Day:
Yeah, who, rabbit, right? Well, and that’s always the funny thing. It’s like, “So, you’re a rabbit farmer.” “Yeah, I raise rabbits.” So, it’s one of those things. I started to study rabbits and I started to understand how efficient rabbits were. Their manure is higher in nutrients than beef, pork, chicken. You can put it cold on, too. So, we started raising a few for ourselves just for the homesteading side of it and having some really high quality protein. Then because we were exposed to so many different restaurants and chefs already with all the other aspects of the business, it was like, “Oh, you guys have rabbits?” And it was like, “Yeah, I could expand a little bit, grow some for you.” Started with one restaurant and then another restaurant, and then now we do about 20,000 pounds of rabbit annually with probably 50,000 plus pounds of demand that we can’t currently supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. I go to the store. I don’t see rabbit.

Devin Day:
You don’t find it in the store. It’s funny. I talk to a lot of older people and they would say, “Oh, it used to always be in the grocery store.” I don’t know exactly why it disappeared. I would imagine because of the success of the marketing poultry. Maybe, maybe the whole kind of pet side of things. I don’t know. But, it is a very high quality meat. So, to give you a perspective of usage of land inputs, that sort of thing, we did probably 50 plus head of cattle. We have 200 acres to deal with those cattle. Fences, staff, labor, all over the place. And we are in one-third of an acre. I have this little field that used to be for beef and I put up my hoop houses. In probably about a third an acre, I’m putting out the same amount of protein grown per year as the 50 head of cattle. That, to me, just blows my mind. My inputs are smaller, my outputs are the same, if not more, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, are rabbits just more efficient eaters or something then? What’s the key to that? How’s that even possible?

Devin Day:
Yeah, so I think one of the key things is I have a market ready, what they call a fryer, just like a chicken, a market ready fryer in eight weeks, 60 days. No hormones, no antibiotics. It used to, when I first got started, it took me 12 weeks to get to there, to get to market ready. Once I started to research and really understand diet, animal health, when I first started, I just bought commercial rabbit feed, not knowing that there’s better food out there for animals. So, there was that. There was just overall health of the animals. There was animals per unit that you’re raising them in. All of these factors played in a big role. There’s also nutrition. So, this might sound nerdy but I learned huge, huge, huge benefits of vitamin C and huge benefits of a product called yucca, which has a very high steroidal saponin content in it. It is absolutely destroys pathogens. It destroys any sort of coccidiosis and things that you just deal with on a farm.

Devin Day:
There’s a chicken slaughter plant on here, on the property, and chickens from all sorts of farmers come in. See coccidiosis all the time and we don’t deal with that because of steroidal saponins in this yucca product, which is all natural-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s part of the feed?

Devin Day:
We put it into the feed. We get a spray dried version you can put in the water if you want to. It’s a 100% natural product that’s in all kinds of other animal feeds out there. It’s nothing that’s totally new. It’s just something that we’re … It’s very high in vitamin C, fiber, you name it. And they just, once I figured out the right recipe, so to speak, they just, their growth rates, and their genetics, I spent a lot of time finding the right genetics for the herd. It wasn’t me just jumping on Craigslist and finding a few rabbits and growing to a few thousand rabbits, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How many rabbits do you have right now?

Devin Day:
It’ll vary depending on time of year and our slaughter rate at the time, but probably anywhere from 1500 to 3000.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Devin Day:
And we’re expanding. The demand is high. We get a lot of people who have really bad autoimmune problems, and they’re a naturopath and the people that their doctors, they’re not supposed to eat meats. Rabbit’s the only one that they’re supposed to be eating according to their doctor. I get those calls all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that? Why is it different?

Devin Day:
I don’t know. For some reason, it’s just a very clean protein. Either that, or maybe their body hasn’t adjusted to that protein itself, so they’re not showing any autoimmune issue. I don’t quite know exactly but I serve probably 15 or more people that have reached out. The funny thing is is they reach out because they know the way that we raise, our lack of antibiotics, our lack of any sort of inputs to manipulate disease or growth. It’s all natural. And they do really well on it. Do really well on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Devin Day:
Have one lady that drives out from Blaine weekly and buys like five rabbit and off she goes. So, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you talk about, you have a third of an acre and you can raise this much protein. Part of that is because of the amount of protein per pound of meat is a lot higher than beef, right?

Devin Day:
Well, when I say protein, I mean like poundage of meat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Devin Day:
Yep, yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because even per pound, there’s more protein in rabbit mean, right?

Devin Day:
So, I can take … Yes. I can take three does, three female rabbits and one buck, which is the male sire, and I can grow up to 600 pounds annually with those three. So, the amount of … So, they’ll do roughly about nine litters a year and the average cycle of litters annually will give you about 600 pounds of meat. So if you’re, and that’s the thing too, let’s say if you’re, you don’t have a lot of property but you want to be able to raise your own meat as well but you don’t have … you don’t have the property for a cow or you don’t have the energy or time for a cow, you can have three does, which is, you can, the housing you have to have for them is very minimal, and one buck and raise 600 pounds of meat per year for yourself. They’re very easy to home slaughter and they’re extremely healthy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the amount of space, if you’re talking about a couple hundred acres of beef, of ground to have 50 head of beef on, they’re eating all that grass and stuff though. These rabbits, they aren’t just fed by the grass that grows on the third of an acre, are they? Because you’re bringing in feed as well.

Devin Day:
Yeah. So, we have a garage that we converted into a fodder house, fodder beans, sprouted barley, so we do a lot of natural inputs into those. So, we do bring in a commercial feed that’s a custom blend from a local mill. We do have a mill on site that is almost ready, so by spring we should be 100% all inputs from the farm so fresh sprouted barley, which is very high protein and they just love that-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re growing the barley or you bring it in?

Devin Day:
So, we can do 1000 pounds a day in the facility that we converted. So, we do that. We also do a lot of … we have about a third of an acre of comfrey that we do, which is high protein. And we also grow all our own hay as well, so we have a lot of inputs to be … and there’s also, there’s a local, the place where we get our barley, they do malted barley. So they have a process where they actually sprout their barley and then they dry it all in the same machine, and then those sprouted that they dry, the grass that comes off and gets dried out, is an extremely high protein. We can actually take what is a waste product for them-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it Skagit Malting?

Devin Day:
It is, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
On there, they’re like the biggest and one of the only in the region.

Devin Day:
It’s a local … Yeah, so that’s been a really cool opportunity as well. So, just every single input is something. That input is a waste product for them, but an extremely … if we had to go buy that as an input and it’s a waste product for them, if we had to buy that as an input, it’d be a very expensive product. So, we’ve been very lucky to have just these really natural … And that’s the thing, too, is we give tours all the time. Chefs will come and they’re just like, “Wow.” It’s so vertically integrated that it’s all just single source, it’s raised here. It’s bred here, it’s processed here. It’s packed here, it’s delivered. We do all the deliveries ourselves down through Seattle region and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And again, it’s mostly chefs and restaurants that are driving this demand right now?

Devin Day:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because rabbit, like we were talking about earlier, it’s not something you find in the grocery store. It’s really not a common meat anymore. As you were mentioning, it used to be a lot more common. So it’s just kind of coming back.

Devin Day:
And that’s the thing. Like I came from, like I said, a tech marketing internet marketing background, you’re always looking for a niche, right? I don’t want to do something that everybody else is doing. So if you can find enough people for that niche, there you go. And it was funny, I said, “Hey …” I told my wife, I said, “Let’s try selling it online.” Because another benefit with rabbits is it’s not licensed by the USDA. It’s FDA regulated. So, I don’t have the same interstate regulations, so I can, and it’s not like poultry, I can, with my WSDA license, I can ship all over the place-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Devin Day:
Anywhere in the nation, which is great. So the demand, I optimized my site because I had an SEO background. My rankings on Google skyrocketed organically because I knew what I was doing. I said, “Okay babe, let’s flip the switch.” I flipped the switch, and literally I woke up the next morning with a few orders and I’m like, “Oh boy.” So, we started shipping and again, we shipped to individuals and I take it down to my local little small town post office, and off it goes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do people get weird about eating rabbit?

Devin Day:
Not if they’re buying it.

Dillon Honcoop:
But the perception, especially until they’ve tried it is, “Oh, that’s weird.” Or maybe-

Devin Day:
There are a few out there. I’ve had those conversations. But usually when I explain the benefit versus their understanding of it, they tend to be like, “Oh wow, that’s really interesting. That makes a lot of sense. Wow, okay.” And then when I tell them we used to do beef and we needed 200 acres and now we don’t do that and now I grow it in a third of an acre, they’re like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” So, I don’t usually get the, “Oh, you’re an evil rabbit raiser.” I know that there’s those folks out there that are kind of sensitive to that. But the good, I mean, they’re almost the ideal meat in a way. They’re such a clean animal. So, that’s … So, they slaughter in a very clean fashion, where you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
What about the cute factor, though? People think rabbits are cute, so it may be harder for them to-

Devin Day:
Yeah. Well, if you come over and get bit by a few rabbits, they’re not going to be as cute to you as they are.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with cows being kicked, pushed, they’re smelly. I don’t have any problem eating cows, but some people do.

Devin Day:
Yeah, no they are, and that’s the thing is that the kind of compartmentalization. We adore and go far and beyond, even for a rabbit that’s hurt or … we have this attachment to them, but at the same time, we understand and have what they’re for. They’re for the food system. We also have a bunch of pets, too, rabbits. All my kids have their own pet rabbits. They’re different breeds but these are bred as a commercial meat rabbit. That’s the breeders and the breed and the strain that I bought them for and from and they are quite a different animal than your standard pet. So, but it’s kind of having a respect for them at the same time. We … I’ll tell you a really … My wife still teases me about this sometimes, in a fun way. So, I had a mom that had a litter and it really, and it’s not because of the revenue factor, but I hate when rabbits, when they’re born and they don’t make it. It bothers me. We’ve had a very high success rate from where we started to now of our birthrates staying very high. But it still bugs me. I try to get to 100% because I just, I don’t like losing rabbits and it’s not because I’m thinking, “Oh, that guy doesn’t get to go to slaughter in eight weeks.” It’s because it’s a life at that point.

Devin Day:
So, I thought, “I wonder …” You ever seen that scene in 101 Dalmatians where he’s rubbing the dog and it comes back to life, the little puppies when they’re born? Well, I actually gave a baby rabbit just born that was stillborn mouth-to-mouth because I just … Just little, little, puff, puff, little chest compressions. It was a total blob in my hand. It wasn’t firm, like normal little … And it took this huge, and it was just out of curiosity, took this huge gasp of air. And within like two minutes was firm, hard and just as healthy as the other ones. Blew my mind. And I’ve done that many times now because some reason they come out not breathing, if you get a little bit of air in their lungs and they’re so tiny, you don’t even have to really do much. You just get a little air moving through their nostrils and air vent and they, a lot of times, just pop right back up. Take a big gasp and there they are.

Devin Day:
It’s weird. You learn a lot of these little things that you’d never think of, and I think of all the little babies that I could have saved if I’d known that. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. It reminds me of Erica Deward that we had on the podcast a while back. She raises dairy cows and a lot of people get grossed out, but she tells the story all the time, she does CPR, mouth-to-mouth quite a bit on dairy calves. It works. It’s a real thing.

Devin Day:
No, it’s still to this day … the other thing that works really well is, and again, we don’t use any pharmaceuticals, so there’s never withdrawal period, even with the breeders themselves. We use high dose vitamin C. I have had little kits, they’re called, but little baby rabbits just born, and various issues or whatever. If there’s ever an issue that goes beyond something that isn’t like it came out not breathing or something like that, I’ll give it a little shot of high dose vitamin C. So, for us, the equivalent of kilograms of my body weight, if I were to take what I gave the rabbit, it would probably be 30-40,000 milligrams of vitamin C, and they come right back.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Devin Day:
Especially if it’s anything viral or bacterial. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they’re animals. They have their things.

Devin Day:
I just don’t want to piss off the pharmaceutical companies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Devin Day:
But yeah, it’s an amazing thing. It works time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time ad nauseum again. It is, when traditional hasn’t worked, works almost every time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family. You’ve talked about your wife and making decision to go from town to farm and do that whole switch, and kids too. You were mentioning they’ve got some pets and stuff. How big is your family? How many kids do you have? How old are they?

Devin Day:
I have four kids. So, one is right in that decision making of looking for his first place, so he’s 20. The other one is, jeez, my wife is going to smack me. No, 14. No, just turned 15. 15, 13, and just turned 11 recently. Two boys, two girls-

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that … you were talking about, that was a part of the draw to go to the farming world. What has that meant for your kids and your family?

Devin Day:
Oh, they’ve loved it. We have … We’re on the Nooksack River so we have, they get to go down there all the time if they want. They have 200 acres to roam around on, which is cool. All the time we have two UTV vehicles and my youngest, who just turned 11, I’ll be working somewhere and I’ll see her way across the field just, “Do-do-do-do.” Flying down in one of the vehicles, doing one of her own projects. I’m just like, I love it. I love it.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was me growing up.

Devin Day:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
I had my motorcycle and I was out doing this, that and the other thing.

Devin Day:
So, that’s been good. They … It’s everything we do here, it’s family-run. The maple, the rabbits, my wife, she does all the breeding. She’s kind of the project manager of the up close and personal with all the rabbits. She breeds them. She clips all their nails. She brushes them. So, every time they get bred, it’s kind of spa day for the does, and she takes care of all that. She keeps all the records, breeding records, all that kind of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your kids going to get into farming at all? Have they worked-

Devin Day:
They’re all helping right now, yeah. We just added a bunch … we added 600 egg chickens, which was probably not a good … that, I probably should have waited a little while on.

Dillon Honcoop:
We were just talking about chickens being smelly.

Devin Day:
Yeah, I know. So, yeah, go big or go home, right? So, all the kids help. They feed, they water, they help clean. They do everything with us. So it’s a side-by … what’s cool though, is the amount of entrepreneurial side of things that they’ve learned is great. They’ve seen mom and dad start from scratch multiple businesses, and they’re both doing really well now. So, they get to see that, they get to participate in that. They get to ask questions. They get to understand all of the factors that go into it because mom does bookkeeping, dad does deliveries. Dad does slaughter, dad builds out and designs WSDA facilities. Dad, you know so you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
Does SEO. Don’t forget about the website stuff.

Devin Day:
Yeah, he does all of the web stuff. So they get to see every aspect of it and they’ve learned a ton. And all the time, they’re coming up with their own ideas and participating and solving problems. It’s been good. It’s been real good.

Dillon Honcoop:
The way you describe that is farming is so much more than the old guy in overalls turning dirt. The tech part of it. The construction part of it. The family part of it. Working with the animals. There’s just so multifaceted.

Devin Day:
Yeah. Farming is, in a lot of ways, to me, and the way I’ve approached it is very different than … I think it was Joe Salatan, I’ve watched a lot of his content over the years, and he’s always talking about the age of farmers. The average farmer is 60 plus years old. So, the way I’ve approached it, there is a lot of aspects to it and I’m actually, because of today’s market access, that’s one of the biggest things I’ve heard other farmers talk about, and I think I was very lucky to have worked in that sales, marketing, that whole role because I wasn’t afraid to go out there and get my hands dirty to talking to people. I’ll walk right into a restaurant I don’t even know the chef. I’ll introduce myself. I’ll take him a product. I do have the benefit of a pretty unique story. Maple syrup made in Washington. There’s nothing like that in the United States. We’re the first. And then, a rabbit with probably the highest meat to beat bone ratio they’ve ever seen.

Devin Day:
So, the conversation goes well quickly. I’m not bringing in a very common product. So, that’s been a good selling point. But I had to think that through beforehand. I could have done potatoes or chickens or broccoli or something. But I wanted to do something a little different. And we kind of stumbled into the maple but the rabbits were a little bit of a process of understanding a niche because it’s not common.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ve kind of touched on the maple stuff but we haven’t really gotten into that. So, your stepdad was kind of playing with this, like you described, cooking out in the woods. No, not meth. He was cooking maple syrup in the woods, proving essentially that you can do maple syrup out here because-

Devin Day:
We were told for, told and told and told that it’s not possible to do, even by most of the experts in air quotes. And we’re doing it. Not in large quantities yet. We do about 200 gallons annually right now, which is, for the ratio you need on the West Coast versus the East Coast of sap to a finished product, we’re at times almost double. So you’ve got to collect a lot of sap. I kind of, just for ease of math consider it 100 to one. On the East Coast, it’s like 40 to one. Oftentimes, it’s even more than double. I just used that … and it’s often, right in that 75. I would say that after all the years of doing it, the average sap to finished maple syrup ratio is probably 75 to one on the West Coast, so you need a lot. We probably collect about 25-30000 gallons of sap a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
To get the 200-

Devin Day:
To get the 200-

Dillon Honcoop:
Gallons of finished product?

Devin Day:
Yeah. But we also get 10 times the price for it as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Break down in a nutshell, what is that process of collecting sap? I think the old school understanding and people who’ve seen the pictures from back East, where it’s a huge thing, somebody tapping a tree and I think old school way was I think hanging a bucket on a tree and that was it-

Devin Day:
Hanging a bucket, yeah. When we started … When we first started, it was all gravity, meaning, and by gravity I mean you’d drill a little hole, you put your tap in. You have a little tube that goes into a bucket sitting on the ground with a little hole in it so you’re not getting much rainwater in it. That was, that’s how we started. We would go out and we would have all these little buckets everywhere, and it was a very tedious process. You had to lug these five gallon jugs, one in each hand, and that’s five times eight, that’s 40 pounds in each hand. And you’re walking and tripping. It was a lot of work. So, we started that way and he would take it up in his truck and go to his little handmade boiler and cook out in the woods. The woods being next to his shop by his house.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Devin Day:
It mainly started as Christmas gifts and it just, the word got out. I took some samples to chefs. But it was that process that encouraged him to take it to the next step. Understand what they do on the East Coast, get a little more technical. Put a little technology into it. So, he hooked up a trailer, got in his truck, grabbed his wife and headed off to Wisconsin to buy one of those big stainless steel evaporators that cooks sap. Brought it back with some other equipment-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you pull the sap from the trees essentially, and that goes into this-

Devin Day:
Evaporator-

Dillon Honcoop:
Evaporator, which is basically cooking it down.

Devin Day:
There is one other step prior to that which is, so you have all the taps running. It’s like a big vein system, and all these connect back to a big mainline that runs through the woods.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tubes everywhere.

Devin Day:
Yep, tubes everywhere. So it looks like a big artery system running through the woods. And then it comes back to a vacuum system in a little pump house.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what does this syrup taste like? What have people been saying about it?

Devin Day:
Well, it’s a little thicker than your traditional East Coast. There’s more minerals. There’s, because of that concentrated level that you have to, you know, the gallons that you need, you get a bit more caramel type flavors that come out. You get hints of vanilla. You even, if you have good taste buds and you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, you can pull out little hints of coffee, all kinds of stuff. Because of the rarity factor and just because of the kind of different flavor profiles, it’s been far more used as like cooking and pastries and recipes and sauces. One of the restaurants that we work with down in Seattle, they replaced all their refined sugar with it because it’s not … I mean, you tasted it, right? It’s very sweet, but it’s not overly sweet, right? It’s got a lot of depth to it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Devin Day:
So, it’s been very popular from a cooking standpoint and a recipe standpoint. Just to give you kind of an understand of quantities that are made, there’s about 12 million gallons of East Coast syrup made annually in the US. There’s 200 gallons, 200 gallons of Big Leaf Maple. So, these are different species of maple over here. So, it’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus the sugar maple?

Devin Day:
Versus the sugar maple from the East Coast. And so, it’s … And because of our forestry practices here, you find these little pockets of Big Leaf maple groves, and when you do, it’s kind of like a … for us, it’s like a little mini gold rush. You’re out hunting and you find these groves of maple or you talk to somebody that works on state land or something. They’ve given us access to go up and look and hunt and find and test and see how the trees run up there. It’s gotten a lot of attention from that perspective because it was a weed. They poisoned the maple so they’ll quit growing but often they just continued to grow because they’re like a weed. They just won’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, I know you see a certain huge sustainability opportunity with this maple syrup thing, especially out here on the West Coast.

Devin Day:
Yeah. If you look at all the ways to deal with our changing climates and things like that, there’s one of the top ways, if you go and study it, is planting trees. There’s a lot of really good articles and there’s a lot of news coming out now, and planting trees is up there. So, what we see is because the tree itself living provides the revenue source, it continues … it’s like it’s own economic engine. The more you plant, the more you can continue this economic energy. But the trees themselves, they’re a huge shading factor for streams. They rebuild soils every year with the leaves that fall. They … just the trees themselves, they pull carbon out. There’s so many factors that go into them, you don’t have to cut them down. That’s the great part.

Devin Day:
They provide habitat for animals, bugs, just diversity. And the cooler thing is they need zero irrigation. They need zero fertilizing. They don’t need any inputs. You plant them and they grow like a weed.

Dillon Honcoop:
They can grow on poor ground too, right?

Devin Day:
They can grow on pretty poor ground. They can grow on very wet ground too, so it’s kind of like when you have [inaudible 00:38:51] areas and wetland areas and they’re planting that to remain that way. A maple’s a really good tree that can thrive in those kind of areas. So, you can have these non-prime so to speak agriculture areas where you could plant these along creeks and streams and this and they’ll continue to provide a high quality sap that is extremely … the demand is so high right now. We’re backed up years in … we just can’t produce enough and-

Dillon Honcoop:
But there’s only 200 gallons. How far can that demand go? How much of a market do you think is there? Is there any way to even tell?

Devin Day:
Well, they produce 12 million gallons on the East Coast and it hasn’t slowed down. So, I can only imagine how much we could produce here as … and because of the flavor profile, it’s not a replacement. It’s not a … but it’s something that can become another food product out there that can continue to provide reforestation. So, you look at all the hills around here and they’re either clear cut. You have a lot of fir trees with laminated root rot or beetle disease. So, there is a lot of revenue potential as a crop that you don’t have to destroy when the crop is done. There’s no tilling. There’s no … For me, it checks all the boxes. It’s been a pretty amazing … All of those factors combined is why it’s getting a ton of attention. Most of these, a lot of the schools are funded with the state lands and the forestry and things like that, and this is definitely another avenue of funding that can go into the forestry program.

Devin Day:
Just as an aside to that, you talk about where could this go? What’s it doing? We’ve proven that commercially, it’s desired. That it’s doable, and that it can be done on the West Coast. All it needs is some scaling. But like University of Washington, we’ve been working with them. They actually got a pretty large grant that is for a maple program and research for maple syrup, it’s from USDA. And normally East Coast, it would be funding on the East Coast with one of the schools over there, Cornell or some of the schools that have maple programs. But they got the grant because of the article we had in Seattle Magazine showing that the commercial aspect of maple syrup on the West can be done.

Devin Day:
So, now they’re diving into the research. Washington State University has been calling and discussing the whole viability of this on this side. And there’s so much untapped trees out there that it’s a very viable, potential program without doing a lot of damage. Once you put up the infrastructure, it can be there for 10 plus years before you need to replace lines. So, every year, that same revenue stream is there without having to remove the tree to get that profit. That just … that’s mind blowing to me. And then you can, we’re working on ways to row crop it, like raspberries, and the revenue per acre, it’s huge. Huge with the Big Leaf Maples.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future? Not just this but farming and farming here in Washington State?

Devin Day:
I talk to foodies all the time. Like the new generation of foodies, the new generation of chefs, the new generation of farmers. And, a lot of it just comes to overall practice. There’s a lot of stigma right now … you hear the whole thing of, “Oh, we got to get rid of meat and everyone’s got to start having a plant-based diet.” I don’t know. I think a lot of it is just … Thinking about it, I have a kind of a concept that I looked at called small food, and it kind of evolved as I was doing the rabbits from the transition of the cows. It’s not necessarily that we need to stop eating meat or that we’re all going to start eating bugs like you read in some of the articles. I’m not going to start eating bugs for my protein source. But I think we have to be thinking and conscious about how we’re doing things. If you think about it, today, I think that farming is going to move … You can hear next door. We’re next door to … they’re cooking syrup next door and you can hear the filter pump kick on, and it’s bub-bub-bub-bub-bub. It’s awesome.

Devin Day:
It’s not just about having a unique food. It’s about how to scale it and get … it’s very hard right now with the mechanisms in place to get to that marketplace, and naturally-

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus the cost of getting there-

Devin Day:
Plus the cost of getting there, absolutely-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that cost makes it difficult for instance to feed the masses.

Devin Day:
And that’s the thing is I’ve been lucky because I know how to develop business models. I know how to think through niches, so I’m in a unique position. I am excited to see these things evolve in a way where those marketplaces get opened up to small farmers. Right now, it’s all CSAs and farmer’s markets. Those aren’t really large growth factors for opening up big market channels for these farmers to scale.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fascinating. Thank you for sharing your story and journey to this point. It’s going to be fun to watch some of the stuff that you … I mean, you’ve already come up with so much here already and you strike me as the kind of person who’s going to keep coming up with more and more stuff.

Devin Day:
Yeah, it’s growing rapidly. It’s a lot of fun. And yeah, we’ll … The biggest thing that I like doing is sharing the information. I don’t … to me, this isn’t about profit. It’s about making change, and I’m not talking about just the sappy side of let’s change. I mean truly getting people involved in something that benefits them, benefits the market, benefits the animals, benefits the planet. It’s got to be that whole picture and I love sharing that information because it’s not just about making profit.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people are ready for that. They’re done with the slogans-

Devin Day:
Yeah, they are-

Dillon Honcoop:
And they want real-

Devin Day:
Absolutely. I totally agree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Devin Day:
Yeah, appreciate it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Seriously, that maple syrup was incredible. You really should try it if you can manage to get your hands on it. As he was explaining, they make so little of it and the demand is just growing like crazy. Thanks again for joining us for the podcast today with Devin Day. As you can tell, he’s a super outside the box thinker, does really unique stuff and has such a cool story to share as well about his family and his background and what he sees for the future, too. I think we’ll be talking with him again on the podcast. I know he has so many ideas about what farming could look like.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, this is the Real Food, Real People podcast documenting my journey to hear farmer’s real stories and share them with you here on the podcast as well as at realfoodrealpeople.org. Please subscribe if you can on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Google Podcasts and the list goes on and on and on from there. Pretty much any podcast platform, you can find us. Also feel free to drop me an email any time you have an idea for the show, some feedback, maybe something you liked or didn’t like or whatever. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Again, thanks for being here and we will catch you next week on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

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 on savefamilyfarming.org.

Sandi Bammer | #009 02/10/2020

In the face of big challenges, Sandi Bammer opened her own local food store in downtown Wenatchee, Wash. She shares how hard it can be to bring locally-grown food to her community, what she's learned from the farmers she's worked with over the years, and why she's no longer a vegan.

Transcript

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Seeing what they’re doing and watching them post pictures of their land five years ago versus their land now and reading about the carbon sequestering abilities of grassland, and regenerative farming, all of this stuff I think that that has really changed my perception of the meat/dairy/egg industry.

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

(music)

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So I’m in Wenatchee for a meeting a couple of weeks ago just walking down the street. I’d never been in downtown Wenatchee, you go to check it out and I stumbled on this little grocery store right in the heart of downtown and I had to walk in. So I checked it out and up on the board was, “Know Your Farmers,” and all this stuff about buying local food, and the woman behind the counter ended up being the owner of this little shop, so I invited her to join us for a conversation here on the podcast.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I went back to my car, got my gear, and we just set up right there in the middle of the store with the coolers running in the background and it just happened. The name of the store was Rhubarb Market and Sandi Bammer is the owner. We had a great conversation about so many things. I got to know her as we recorded the podcast. It was a really, really cool experience and totally an unexpected stop on my journey across Washington State to get to know people behind our food. I’m Dillon Honcoop, this is the Real Food, Real People Podcast. And thank you for joining us this week.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
(music)

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So I met you earlier today and you have this incredible store in Downtown Wenatchee, which is where we are right now.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, in the store.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
In the middle of the store.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Downtown.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So, tell me about the store. How did this get started? What is the store? What’s it all about?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
okay, so it started… I’ve had the store for almost six years, I’ve just moved downtown. I moved it last summer, so I moved in in June and I just opened the doors to the public in November because it took a long time to get things ready. The way it came about, I worked for a nonprofit, as I was telling you earlier, and I worked for them only for a year, but I’d been involved with them for probably five years prior as a volunteer. And I was part of a group called [Eat 00:02:44] which was education and agriculture together and we did a bunch of educational, I don’t know, programs and we did like farmer, restaurant meetups and tried to just… The local food scene in Wenatchee, I guess, I was part of that and after the nonprofit closed down, I didn’t want to see the store go away and I also couldn’t find a job in Wenatchee, so I decided that I either had to move or I would start my own business. So I opened Rhubarb and it’s been six years of, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So wha-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
A little bit of struggle, local food and have… So the store itself, I guess my mission is to buy and connect the community with local food as much as possible. Now, the store I worked for for the nonprofit, we only sold things that were grown in North central Washington. So we were pretty limited and I was the store manager, I ran the CSA and I noticed that customers would come in and they’d say, “Oh, if we could get coffee here that would be great.” They’d come pick up their CSA. And so there were all these things that I thought, “If I had a store, I would do this.” And so it’s been great because I definitely… Not everything is local I try to get as much local as I can, but we have a good variety. I call myself Wenatchee’s greengrocer, our focus is vegetables.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
We buy direct from small family farms most of the time, in the winter I do use a distributor a little bit to supplement so I have more than carrots and [crosstalk 00:04:17].

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, people still need a reason to come in.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, for sure. So yeah, and I don’t know, we’re just like a fun little grocery in downtown Wenatchee, which I think it’s going to be a fun spot for us because there’s a lot going on downtown now. There’s people living here, there’s a lot of people working downtown and I think we add a fun, I don’t know, to the mix. We’re good, we’ll mix in well.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Being here I realized, I don’t think I’ve ever actually spent time in downtown Wenatchee until today when I was strolling along and happened upon your market, what people do you serve? Who comes in, who is really interested in what you’re all about like your loyal customer base?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So I think they’re definitely motivated by buying local. There’s… I have a core group of people that have followed Kim who was the originator of farmhouse table and then me and they like the idea, they love coming in and seeing the list of the farms that we buy from. They know that I know all the farmers, they like that I can tell them stories about where their food has been coming from, they know that they can ask me how to make something or what do they use rutabagas for. It’s just, I think they come in because it’s more personable than going to the grocery store in many ways, they know where their food is coming from, they can talk to somebody about their food, they’re people who really like to eat, they’re people who are excited about organic and sustainable and…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Is all of your stuff organic?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Not everything. My first… I want to buy local first, not everybody gets certified organic. Most of them grow organically, but some of the smaller folks don’t get certified. I think there’s a lot of people now and maybe will disagree with me, but there’s some people now who don’t think organic, getting the certification is necessarily worth it. They either sell direct, they have relationships with people so they’ll say we’re better than organic. And so…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What do you think about that issue, what’s your personal take on that? People get so passionate about that sometimes.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I work with-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
One way or the other.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I work with a lot of growers who do both and talking to them they’re like, “We wish people knew that we don’t just go out and dump a bunch of cancer causing chemicals on your food, it’s our orchard too, it’s our land.” They try to be very deliberate about… And that organic, it’s not necessarily better. There’s some nasty things that go into organic pesticides as well and you still have to control for that stuff.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You have to be careful regardless.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, so I mean-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Maybe that’s why these people are saying they’re better than organic because people want to know them and that they trust them specifically.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, I think that there’s definitely something about that. Knowing who is growing your food, they’ll tell you, “This is what we’re doing, this is why we’re doing it.” Like, “Yes we use this, but we use it because at this targeted time because this one bug will destroy our crop.” And I don’t know, it’s…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, a while back on the podcast, just actually up the road from here in Orondo I was talking with April Clayton with Red Apple Orchards and they do mostly organic, but as she talked about here on the podcast, they actually quit doing organic with their cherry trees because the organic stuff that they had to use to control a couple of things was killing the trees. So they found it was actually better to go the other way, but all their apples are still organic. It’s-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I think when most people think of organic they just want to know if there’s nasty stuff on their food and the organic label includes a lot more than just that, and conventional doesn’t always mean that there’s nasty stuff on your food. I’m not a farmer though, so I can’t speak really intelligently to that.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
That’s what I’m interested, how did you get involved in the world of food if you aren’t, and did you grow up on a farm or what drew you to this?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
No I did not grow up on a farm, but my family always had big gardens, we grew a lot of our own food.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Where did you grow up?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I grew up in Spokane. My grandparents were wheat farmers in Montana, but that was not my experience they didn’t live on the farm. Visited but never lived there, but we had big gardens, my grandma canned, that kind of thing. And then when I moved, I moved to Bellingham to go to college, I was a vegetarian, I was concerned about the environment, and I just started getting involved in local food, sustainability, environmentalism. There’s a lot of things that happened, I traveled, then I saw like, “Oh, I…” For me, I was a vegetarian for a long time. When I started getting involved in local food and I could see where my food was coming from, I started eating meat again because it made me feel better to know that animals were being cared for, the land is being cared for, that kind of thing. I just I worked at Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham for many years and-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Love those guys.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I think sustainable connections was just getting started and, so Boundary jumped on that and we were sourcing a lot of local food and I just started getting into that. I like to eat, I like good food so… And then when I moved here, that was the way that I thought I could hook up with people of similar interests. So I sought out a local food movement and that’s how I got involved with [Eat 00:09:50] and community farm connections, and just went from there.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But that wasn’t what brought you here to-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
To Wenatchee?

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
No.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Did you come here from Bellingham or what was the journey?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I did, I moved here from Bellingham. I fell in love and he lived here and I lived there, and one of us had to move. So I came here, which is great I love Wenatchee. It’s funny because there is a lot of opportunity in Wenatchee. I think this store probably wouldn’t have happened in Bellingham because there’s a ton of stuff already going on like that in Bellingham, it would’ve been a hard market to break into where here nobody was… Community Farm Connection was its own thing nobody else is doing that, and then I think what I’m doing is my own thing. Nobody else here is doing anything really like this. So, I don’t know. Pybus is doing some stuff similar, but…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So, talk about your time though with this nonprofit. You were working with farmers then to start making some connections between-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So we try-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Growers and…?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, they did a lot of different things. There’s kind of an umbrella organization that had these separate programs underneath. So we did a CSA, we did the farm store, we did a farm to chef program, we did a farm to school program trying to get local food into the schools and a lot of just educational… We would, I don’t know, they would go to the schools and educate like, “What’s this month’s vegetable?” I wasn’t involved with those. I worked with mostly the… I worked with the CSA and the farm store I didn’t do a lot of the other stuff, and it ended up being that there were other groups that were picking up some of that work.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Like I said I think, we had a really hard time with farm to chef, farm to school was easier. The school district was pretty, especially at that time. There were some great people who are really into getting local food into the schools and so that made it easier. The hardest was working the restaurants, I think here in Wenatchee it just wasn’t quite the time, there wasn’t quite the demand for local food in the restaurants from the customers and then that makes it hard for the owners to see a real value in going through the extra effort to get local food. A lot of people use the term local food, but not everybody wants to follow through or they’ll do one thing local on the menu and say, “We serve local food here.” It can be difficult with them.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And the nonprofit dissolved for many different reasons that nonprofits dissolve and, like I said, I didn’t want to see the storefront go away because I saw that as the most useful community building connection with consumer and being able to get that out. And I didn’t want to see the CSA go away because at the time there weren’t a lot of farm CSAs in this area. I think there were maybe two in Leavenworth, there weren’t any in Wenatchee, and over the past five years that I’ve been open there’s been more that started in both Leavenworth and Wenatchee, but I still think that I have a, or I serve a purpose in the… I can buy from farms that are maybe too small to have their own CSA, but they can still sell a fairly large quantity of stuff through my CSA.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Explain a CSA for people who maybe aren’t familiar with how that works.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So traditionally it’s… So CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and it started as a way for a farm to get some seed money literally early on in January and February. So people will buy a share on your farm you-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It’s subscription basically.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah. So you pay upfront, the farmer gets money, they buy the seed supplies that they need, and then you get a share. So all summer they’re supplying you with whatever’s coming fresh off of the farm. And so we sort of… That’s what we do, we buy from 15 to 20 different farms. So we call it [inaudible 00:14:02] a cooperative CSA, some of the farms we work with have their own CSA, some are just wholesale farms, some do market and sell to us. So we buy from a variety of people, but it serves the same purpose for us. I have people who are signing up right now, which is great because January is my slowest time of the year so it helps me get through until spring, and then we can provide them great food all summer.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You mentioned that some farms that [inaudible 00:14:31] the CSA doesn’t quite work out. I haven’t really thought about this before, but really you have to grow a certain breadth of different things.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, you have to grow a lot of stuff if you want to have a CSA off of your own farm, which for some people is…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So if you just want to be like, “Hey, I love growing broccoli, I’m really good at broccoli, my ground is perfect for that, that’s what I do.” You can’t do a CSA?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Right, you can’t do a CSA off your farm, no. Yeah, and there’s a lot of places that do that or they maybe just grow five different things because they sell a lot wholesale or they sell certain things to restaurants and those are the things that they specialize in, but they wouldn’t be able to do a CSA. So, I think it’s that we provide something for those guys because we can buy stuff from them for our CSA.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Absolutely.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, it’s just a… Like I said, and some of the farms we work with do have their own CSA, which is great because they grow a huge variety of things and we get some really fun stuff from them, but I don’t really see it as a competition. I just think the more people that are able to do that it just brings it to more people. There’s a lot of people in the Valley here who are potential CSA customers, so there’s no… I would love to see more farms do it. More farms do those kinds of things, but the fact that we have such a variety of different farms doing different things is great for us because we benefit from what everyone is doing for sure.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It sounds more and more, as I think about this issue with bringing local food to people who eat everybody in our communities is not the growing of the food, it’s the process of getting it to them from that farmer to the eater. And like you’re talking about getting food in restaurants or CSAs, there’s always these complicating factors like sourcing is challenging. Like a restaurant, they don’t want to have to deal with it. We heard that on this podcast a while back from Nails Brisbane working at Canlis and Seattle and they’re trying to do all this local food, but it took a huge amount of his time just to manage all of that.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, for me doing the CSA I can call 10 to 15 farmers in a week to try to see what they have, what’s fresh, what’s coming up, what do you think is going to be available, and not all chefs or restaurants have the time to do that. So it makes it a lot easier when they can just… They get an order form from Charlie’s Produce or FSA and they can just tick off what they want and it comes all in one delivery. So it’s definitely, I think, sourcing and using local food, it’s not… Like you said, it’s not always about the growing it’s how you get it to market, even farmer’s markets are great and they’re great community. A great way to connect with the community, but even that is for a farmer sometimes sitting in the hot sun for eight hours, you have to get there really early, you stay all day, you don’t always make a lot of money.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
It’s a great way to connect with the community, it’s maybe not always the best way to get all of your food out. So, we have a lot of farmers that just don’t do farmer’s market they don’t like it. We have some farmers that love doing the farmer’s market, but it’s just interesting how the different ways to try to get food out to the community… Again, I think we provide a store front we’re like a farmer’s market all week long, you can come in and get the stuff that you could get down there as well. It’s not always convenient for everyone to go down to the market, I’m not knocking farmer’s markets at all I love them, but it’s not always the best way to get the maximum amount of your food out to the community if you’re a farmer, I think.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And what you’re saying speaks to the individuality of farmers too and their operations, what they know how to do, what they’re comfortable with. What’s it like working with farmers? Because a lot of people want to know what’s up with farmers, what farmers are like but don’t know them, you know a lot of them.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I can’t speak, there’s definitely not a type. There’s all types of people who farm, which is awesome, for me it’s great. I know a lot of really cool people that are doing really cool things, but I would say that there probably is an individualism streak in all of them because they are doing what they’re doing, but there’s no one type of person. I have farmers, I work with people who’ve been doing it for 30 plus years, I work with people who just started two years ago, people who worked on someone else’s farm and they wanted to start their own, people who’ve never farmed at all and they’re like, “I’m going to be a farmer.” It’s cool, they all have a desire to do something meaningful and they’re their own boss and all of those things, but I don’t know.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I work with a lot of really cool people, but it is definitely like a person that… There’s all kinds of personalities, they’re all very passionate about what they do for sure. It’s really cool on my end to work with those people and you see the effort and the work that it takes and the love hate relationship you have with it. I don’t know, it’s… I wish more people could see that from where their… I think you would appreciate your food more if more people knew their farmers or where their food was coming from.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
No, that’s why we’re-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
It’s really hard work, I’m very thankful for the people that grow the food because I don’t think I could do it, I don’t think I could be a farmer for sure.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And that’s why we’re doing this podcast. We have a lot of farmers on and other people behind the food like you because you aren’t a farmer, but like we were just talking about sometimes the hard part’s growing the food and everybody knows the hard work outside in the dirt with the animals, whatever it might be. Then also all this complicated stuff of what you’re doing here, a store and all the infrastructure that goes with it and the sourcing and the relationships and business and all that stuff. It’s a lot, you obviously have a huge amount of passion for it to do this just like a farmer has to have passion to be out in the hot sun working for hours on end.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, I think so. I like to think so, I do have a lot of passion for this. I don’t want to equate what I do as being as hard as what they do, but it’s…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Having grown up… I’ll just say this, having grown up and who’ve been around a lot of farmers my whole life, there were some who would much rather do this or do what they’re doing then do this is what I’m trying to say.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, everyone has their role to play I guess is-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Exactly.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And I’m happy to have this part of it for sure, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What about big farms versus small farms?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I think probably the biggest farm I work with would be like Nash’s Organic and [Squim 00:21:32], they’re a really big farm. They have a lot of land, but I still feel like what… I don’t feel like they’re too big, my felling is that they’re not. I don’t know how their farmers feel about that, I work-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So what would feel too big to you and what would be your concern with a big farm? Or a too big farm I should say.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So, I guess losing the relationship. So I think I said earlier in the winter, I do use a distributor, I use organically grown company, they’re out of Oregon, they’re like a farmer owned cooperative distributor. I like them because they do work with smaller farms, they’re super transparent about where their food is coming from, I can ask questions and they have the answers, but I still try when I order from them, I try to get it from the Northwest. I ask them to make sure if it’s available, I want it from a small family farm like P- and I don’t even really know what… In my head I think that that is, a lot of the farmers that I work with here it’s two people maybe, a husband a wife, maybe one of them works outside the home as well as farming because you can’t always make a living farming.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So those are the people that I’m mostly buying from and I would stay away from the places where it’s sort of, I don’t know… And I don’t know why, mostly I think because I’m trying to support those people… I want to support those people who are trying to make a living at something that they love doing even though people who are working on large farms, they’re also trying to make a living. So I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But this is the thing a lot of people struggle with too because the ideal in a lot of people’s minds, or at least it’s trendy or whatever right now is that small family, the smaller the better, but where is that line and what’s good and what’s bad, and does it really have to do with the size or does it have to do with the mentality?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, I think, I don’t know. Maybe the mentality… I think there’s a place for both I don’t think it has to be one or the other, but it’s something that I honestly haven’t thought a ton about because I’m always just busy doing other things. I do think about it, so the first three years that I was open I didn’t use a distributor. So in the winter time I would only… I was really adamant about, “I’m only buy farm direct. I’m not going to use a distributor I’m only going to get Washington grown produce that I buy direct from the farmer.” And that was great in theory, but then there was one, and it went okay the first two years. Thankfully at that time Nash’s was growing a lot of wholesale crops and they had a fairly good variety of things that I could buy. My local farmers didn’t really have anything in the wintertime, they didn’t have a lot of storage capacity because they’re smaller farms so they wanted to be finished by the time farmer’s markets were over.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So after October it would be really hard to get food, so I was going to the West side, I relied on Nash’s fairly heavily. Nash has, they’ve started decreasing the amount of wholesale food that they’re making available so I’ve had to increase my net that I’ve cast for winter produce, and in my CSA I still put only food that’s Washington grown that I buy direct from the farmer, but for the store. So there was a really bad winter and there was… I almost went under because I think I maybe had potatoes and onions and some cabbage, that’s all I had to sell for a whole winter and then it got to be really bleak and nobody wanted to come in because that’s… I still had my really… Thank goodness for these people that would, they would come buy their potatoes and onions from me first. And I had a few other grocery things that they would get too, but before they would go to Safeway, but there wasn’t a lot of reason for people to come in.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And at that point I was like, “Okay, what service am I doing if I go under?” So that’s when I made the decision to work with a distributor, at least in the winter time so that my store had a little more to offer than potatoes and cabbage. I got really creative with cabbage we ate a cabbage that winter, but… And it’s been great because I’ve also… There’s been farmers, they’ll come and they’ll say, “Where are your gaps? What do you need? If I were to start doing something, what would you need me to grow?” So I’m always like shoulder seasons, winter we work with a great guy that does hydroponic lettuce and he’s been a lifesaver the last two years, we get this beautiful lettuce and arugula that he’s growing just right up the road, which is awesome.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So, it’s also in some ways it’s like helped expand, it gives people an idea. Some of the local farmers, they grow a little bit more now so there’s a little more that I can buy from them through the winter because they can rely on me to buy it. So they don’t need to get it all sold by the end of farmer’s market season so…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
That’s the vicious or virtuous cycle it can go either direction, right?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
As you can provide more they can grow more, and that can continue to grow.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, but back to the big farm, small farm, I don’t know… I’m thankful for some of those big farms in the winter that are able to provide stuff that my small farmers can’t, for whatever reason. They don’t have the infrastructure or they’re working to make money so that they can farm during the summer. So, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So why do you have so much passion for it?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What drive that?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I really, I don’t know… I love being, I enjoy this work because I love being my own boss, I love having a store, I love being a… I wouldn’t say I’m a hub for the community, but I feel like this definitely is a place where there’s certain people that… I love it when people run into each other and they know each other from something else and I like having that working at Boundary, honestly. We were going to open a brewery here in Wenatchee that was my dream, was to come to Wenatchee and I was going to open a brewery.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
There wasn’t any here and part of the reason I wanted to open a brewery is because I loved the community feel that boundary Bay had, they were super involved in the community, people met there, it was just a fun place to be and I wanted to have a place that was like a community meeting place that did good in the community. So the brewery didn’t work out, but this is and it’s sort of… I think maybe that’s why I have a lot of passion for it, it’s just fun being in that. I like having people come to my store and seeing people and making those connections, I love to make the connections between people, between farmers, between the community members. So, I guess that’s why.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And when-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And it’s fun to be my own boss I like that too, so…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
When you had to make that step to continue it on your own and make it your own business, what did that feel like?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I had worked service jobs, I’m super over-educated and I went to grad school and… But I always, I’d never had a professional career, I’d always been a waitress or I did a few other things, but I’d never… So it was really scary, I did not know what I was doing. I worked one year in a real job when I worked for Community Farm Connect and I felt like I worked, I had an office job. Basically I ran the store, I was in charge of the store, I was in charge of the CSA, it worked for one year and then I was like, “I’ll just start my own store.” It was ridiculously crazy, but it’s worked out. It’s been, I don’t know. I’ve made it work out.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I’ve been pretty determined that I don’t want to see this go away so I’ve worked hard to make sure that it doesn’t, but it was really scary. It’s still scary, I had to move recently so I lost my lease in March in a spot that I had been in for five years and I was pretty comfortable there. It wasn’t the best spot for some reasons, but it was a good spot for others and I was just starting to feel like I was maybe going to start making a profit, I’d been not a profitable but profitable business. I’ve been a break even business for five years, which I knew going into that one, it’s a food business really small margins too. It takes at least five years to get your feet under you, but just as I was feeling like I was going to get my feet under me, I lost my lease and I had to move.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So that was also a big scary step because it was like, “Okay, do I just call it quits now and just walk away? You tried it, you did it, it was great. Or do you make this leap, spend all this money to…” But I did, I didn’t want to see it go away and I ended up with a really great spot and I honestly think now that I’m downtown, that this could be a really good turning point for what I’m doing.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So maybe a blessing in disguise?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So much so, yeah for sure. It was so sad when I had to move, when they told me they weren’t renewing my lease I was so, so upset and there were even a few places that I thought I had that I lost. I just fell into the place that I have right now and it ended up being the perfect spot. So I’m not usually one of those people that’s like, “Oh, everything works out for a reason.” But it really did so I’m super happy to be downtown, there’s a lot going on down here now and there’s a lot of, like I said, people working and living down here, which even in the last five years that’s changed a lot. So it’s a good, we’re going to have a juice bar, we’re going to have like grab and go food and I think that it’s going to go over really well here, which just means that I can buy more local food. We can have it in the juice bar, we can have it in the deli, how many places can we…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So many of the things that you’re talking about, about the business and the passion that you put into it is so much like a farmer.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
A farmer.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And dealing with years of breaking even or even losing money for that hope, that dream.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I know, that someday.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So really you’re fighting a similar battle and it probably feels like an uphill battle a lot of the time and, like you said, it’s scary too. That’s another thing I think people don’t think about is the emotional side of being in this work.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes although again I think, “Man, I’m glad that I…” I work with 20 plus different farms so if somebody is having a bad year, there’s usually somebody else that’s not. So thinking about being a farmer or an orchardist, and it’s just so boom or bust. If you have a bad year it’s just a bad year, you don’t have anything to… So, I don’t know. I think it would be so stressful to be a farmer, so much more stressful than what I’m doing.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What does this mean, though, for your personal life? Because you have to… How many hours do you put in to running this?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
A lot, the one thing it’s… I just did an interview for The Business Journal and they were like, “What’s the one thing that you didn’t know starting your own business?” And I was like, “The fact that I think about it 24/7. I don’t ever not think about this place, whether it’s what am I going to order? what do I need? What do I need to do for next week? Do I need to drive over the pass? Who do I need to order from or are the bills paid? Did I remember to pay the phone bill or is my internet going to get shut off?” There’s this, I’m always thinking about this, which is great. I feel fortunate that I’m… I try to tell myself that I’m in a very privileged position to be able to own a business, not everybody gets to do that. So when I feel really stressed about it that’s what I tell myself, that I’m fee- “You’re privileged to feel this stress.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
In all of this, what’s been the hardest thing?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Money, just… Financially just always, which again I just… I feel like it’s a really common thing, you just feel like you’re getting ahead and then the cooler breaks down and you have to fix it, and so any money you had set aside for whatever is gone and just always thinking about, financially like, “Okay, can I do this? Can I afford this? Can I order this? Can I fix this?” I think that’s just the hard, the stress that always worrying about financially are we going to make it? Is the hardest thing. If that wasn’t a factor it would be the best job in the world. It’s already a really good job, but that’s just always worrying about the financials. Like I said, now that I’m downtown the foot traffic is crazy, it’s so much better than my old location. So I have really high hopes that that might not be as big of an issue as it has been for the past five years.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Earlier you talked about your motivation to get into this and your passion for this going back to college and thinking about the environment and all of that, how does that play into that now? How has that perspective of yours evolved over time?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I definitely think it’s changed in some ways like what being a good steward of the land is when I see what people are doing. Again, it’s something that I feel a little bad saying, that I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the last five years. Not as much as I did before because I haven’t had the time. That sounds really terrible, but I definitely think that probably the biggest place my thinking has changed, I was a vegetarian for 15 years, I was a vegan for half that time. I think just my perspective there has changed so I work with a lot of… I’ve worked with people who do meat they call themselves grass farmers, but they do grass fed beef and lamb and they have chickens and seeing what they’re doing and watching them post pictures of their land five years ago versus their land now, and reading about the carbon sequestering abilities of grassland regenerative farming.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
All of this stuff I think that that has really changed, shifted my perception of the meat, dairy, egg industry, which I used to have a really… And I think there’s still a lot of people that, again like I said it’s probably a hot button issue, but I don’t always think necessarily that of… There’s a lot of issues with being a vegan and vegetarian too that come up with food, like where’s your food coming from? What’s the impact in other countries and cultures of you wanting to have avocados and coconuts and almond milk? I just think that my view has widened, I’m a little more open to the impact that all of our choices make in food and the environment and, I don’t know, I’m trying to take in a bigger picture than what I used to.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But you were passionate about this stuff all along?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, like I said, I love to eat, I love food. I have, I wouldn’t say, I dunno, a foodie background, and just I feel like it’s such a way for… Everybody eats, it’s just a really good way to connect with people all across the board, I feel like my store has a real cross section of… So Wenatchee is a pretty conservative or has traditionally been a pretty conservative community, I came from a pretty liberal community from Bellingham, I had liberal views, I moved here, there were a lot of people that didn’t think what… And still don’t, I’ve had people come in and I’m pretty, I wear my political leanings on my sleeve pretty much here, but I have a lot… There’s just a huge cross section of people, I know there’s a lot of people that come here and we don’t connect on a political level or a social level.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
We have very different beliefs maybe in religion or, but you can connect in food and the importance that we all place on knowing where our food comes from and getting good food and feeding our families. And I think that that’s cool because I’ve connected with people that I probably wouldn’t connect with in other areas of my life, because we don’t run in the same political or religious or social circles, but we connect here over what do you do with your cabbage? What do you make with rutabagas in the winter? So I think that that’s pretty cool too.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s your vision with all of this not just this store, but with this idea of local food? What needs to happen?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Oh gosh I don’t know, I really don’t. I don’t-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I’ve heard some people say, “No, that’s the future people are… That’s the direction they’re going.”

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Like local food only or…?

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Ish.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, and-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And I think that even that’s what’s you’re describing, is you can’t be a purist you have to make some compromises sometimes and when you can’t get the right thing… But still try your best.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and I don’t know, I think that that’s… I think maybe that’s the future, is trying to diversify a little, having a variety, having people who are producing food locally and… People still, I still want avocados, I like getting oranges. So we’re not… I can’t say that everyone should only eat what they can get within 50 miles of where they live, but maybe having a little more diversity in our food options would be a good thing? I don’t know, I just would love to see more people growing food and experiencing that because I think that’s pretty cool, but there’s challenges, there’s…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You ever thought about doing it?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
No. No, that’s not true I have. I would love… I’ve definitely had the dream of like, “Oh, if only I had a few acres and some goats and chickens and…” But then I reel myself back in very quickly and think, “I don’t think that would…” I’m very appreciative of the people that do that, I don’t think that I could do it. I don’t even have a garden anymore, I don’t need one I get a lot of really great food here, but I just don’t have the time to do that, but I do miss it. I miss gardening and having my hands in the dirt and that thing, but I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Maybe someday you’ll get-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Maybe someday, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Sucked into this terrible world of farming.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Into the- of farming. Yeah, I don’t know, maybe. I feel like I’m getting too old to be a farmer.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Never too old to farm.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, thank you so much for opening up and sharing your personal story, which is so much tied to what’s going on with us in this community here and far beyond.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Well, thank you for stopping into my store today and asking me to do this.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
(music)

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

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It’s amazing what you’ll find just walking down a street and keeping your eyes open and walking in somewhere and asking a few questions, and that’s how I got to meet Sandi Bammer there at Rhubarb Market. Such a cool experience, not what I expected at all in downtown Wenatchee and her story is awesome. What a cool perspective she brings to the world of connecting us with where our food comes from, who our food comes from. That’s what we’re all about here on the podcast. Thanks for joining us again this week and please subscribe, we’d really appreciate the support in that way. You can subscribe on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and a bunch of other outlets, pretty much anything you can think of out there it’s available so search us up. Also realfoodrealpeople.org is our website and my email address is dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org so you can reach me there anytime, and we will talk with you next week as we continue this journey to connect with the people behind our food here in Washington state.

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

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

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
It was the starting point, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of body manipulation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Your starting point was science more though.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, absolutely.

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

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Right. Yeah, they did.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s an artistic expression.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s a message.

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
I did, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
At UC Davis.

Niels Brisbane:
At UC Davis, yup.

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

Niels Brisbane:
No.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You can grow just about anything here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Seattle here?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
They champion that, eating local.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, they have.

Dillon Honcoop:
In fine dining in particular.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of stuff?

Niels Brisbane:
Oh man.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The scientist.

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, yeah, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Niels Brisbane:
All of that development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Not something that everyone gets to do.

Niels Brisbane:
No, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s very cool.

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

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

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

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

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