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.

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.