Derek Friehe | #028 06/22/2020

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is The Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Second generation.

Dillon Honcoop:
Second?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
I don’t know-

Dillon Honcoop:
… real agronomy or farming or something-

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in agriculture?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So what-

Derek Friehe:
… education standpoint, yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you speak German?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… that you’re connected with?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How many kids do you have?

Derek Friehe:
I got four.

Dillon Honcoop:
Four kids.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I have two but-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Probably around 10,000.

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s amazing.

Derek Friehe:
We don’t typically do that.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Right.

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Nice.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean spec fry?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Not your whole life.

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Oh, man.

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
With overhead irrigation.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And a lot of people fed.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
All over the globe, really.

Derek Friehe:
Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Green manure, what does that mean?

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, right, so yeah.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what’s Pythium?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Some soil pest.

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s attacks the seed.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yep. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Always something new.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

Derek Friehe:
Wheat.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you talked about peas and wheat.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When do you plant the asparagus then?

Derek Friehe:
Well, that’s also-

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really? Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, it’s all about-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What does a farm need internet for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
In some ways.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah. Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
But keep an eye on the irrigation.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Derek Friehe:
But, it’s pretty sweet.

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that’s a lifetime.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
You saw that, did you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
The nation, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
You got lucky.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Yeah, sure. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think you could do that?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Derek Friehe:
Oh, good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juan Garcia part 1 | #022 05/11/2020

Stress, struggles and passion for growing food all come with the territory for the people behind Washington's famous red raspberries. Juan Garcia opens up about what it's really like growing the fruit, managing the people and experiencing personal growth on a family farm in America's red raspberry capital.

Transcript

Juan Garcia:
I mean, I love my father to death, but honestly, I spent more time with Lyle alongside of him than I did my own father. My dad was off working. I was working with Lyle. It was every morning, it was every after lunch, it was every evening.

Dillon Honcoop:
So he’s almost kind of also a father figure to you.

Juan Garcia:
He was a father figure.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to The Real Food Real People Podcast. This week we’re going to talk about what really goes into running a big red raspberry farm. A family farm, but not our guest’s farm. He was hired by the family that started the farm and he really lets us kind of inside his head on what drives him and the things that he loves about his work and how he approaches working with people. It’s the first part of two parts of the conversation with Juan Garcia. He’s the farm manager at Rader Farms in Lynden, Washington. And interestingly, this is all about growing red raspberries. That’s the kind of farm that I grew up on too. And in fact, the farm that he manages is basically right next to or at least has fields right by and near the farm that I grew up on, my dad’s farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I’ve kind of known Juan or at least knew who he was for a long time. But I guess that’s what I love though about getting to do this podcast is it gives me an excuse to really get to know people like Juan, even from my own community, and find out there’s so much more to his story than I ever knew. And some of that starts to come out this week. A lot more of that will also come out next week. And I’ll tell you more about that later. Some pretty amazing things that happened during the conversation that we had.

Dillon Honcoop:
But this first part just sets the whole table for what will come in part two explaining what he does, how he does it, how he approaches it and how he came to be not only hired but really taken in as part of this farm family, the Rader family. So enjoy the conversation this week with Juan Garcia, and enjoy the chance to get to see what really goes on in producing those delicious Washington State grown red raspberries that you can get at the store. When you just eat the fruit, you think, wow, this is amazing. But when you hear about all of these people and what they’re doing to produce that and bring that to you, it becomes that much more incredible. So, we’re thankful that you’re here for this week on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Growing up, did you do farming? Is that in your background?

Juan Garcia:
Actually not at all. I was born in South Texas and I grew up in Dallas. Went to high school, all my high school years up in Dallas. And mom and dad, mom worked at a cafeteria at the middle school. And dad worked construction his entire life. So I was exposed a little bit to the construction field but not the farming. It was, when the folks moved up north to do the migrant work, I stayed in Dallas two years, I was probably 17, 17 years old. Said I can do it on my own. So I stayed there two years. And mom and dad and the brothers came and did, they cut asparagus, picked strawberries, harvested hops, which actually the following year I ended up doing. So we did everything from cutting asparagus, hops, hauled potatoes, onions, strawberries. My first year up here and we lived in, it was a trailer park for Green Giant in Pasco, Washington.

Juan Garcia:
And I met my wife there. She was at the door and I was walking by. Anyways, that’s where I ended up meeting her. And ended up following her to Lynden. We were handpicking raspberries in the east side of Lynden and it’s strawberries down in the corner, and walked into the Rader office one morning and asked if there was work because I knew my wife, my girlfriend at the time worked there.

Juan Garcia:
So I met Sue Rader, and anyone that knows Sue knows that she’s always willing to help people out with work opportunity. Was offered a job, I believe it was the same day, told me come back tomorrow. So started working there. It was two seasons for the Raders and was offered full time work the second year.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of work were you doing for them at that time?

Juan Garcia:
Back then, we were unloading harvesters, we had that old red one ton that we still have. And we would have to unload the machines before they crossed the center road, which doesn’t happen anymore. So, were picking raspberries, I got into a little bit of fertilizing with him, he had some babies planted behind the processing plant and got my feet wet in raspberries at that time. We had already had commitments. Before that, we were doing, like I said, we were hauling potatoes, AgriNorthwest, Eastern Washington. We did apples up in the Tonasket area, we picked apples. I stacked fruit in the cold storages by the hour and then making den by piece work on the off time.

Juan Garcia:
The whole migrant moving, I saw what my wife did, she was born in Stockton, her family was really deep into agriculture. I’m talking from a kid all the way up to, I mean, till we got married. And you see the lifestyle of migrant families where you move from town to town, you attend different schools. You make different new friends, I shouldn’t say different because a friend’s a friend, but you make different friends. And there’s no stability. And it’s hard. When I met my wife, when we decided to get married, I told myself, I don’t want, don’t get me wrong, it’s a lifestyle that a lot of people choose to live and I did it. I’ve done the work. It just wasn’t something that I wanted my kids to be going through. The instability.

Dillon Honcoop:
More stability for your kids.

Juan Garcia:
More stability is what I was looking for, or we wanted. So, long story short I guess, I’m kind of going on, but Lyle and Sue opened the doors to my wife and I. We got married the second year we met. Still doing the migrant work, and opportunity came for full time work with the Raders.

Dillon Honcoop:
Lyle and Sue Rader. Rader family now Brad.

Juan Garcia:
Yeah, Brad is the GM. It’s still like working with family. They opened the doors for us. I know for a fact the feeling is mutual between us but I owe a lot to that family, I owe a lot to them. And the opportunity that the Raders provided to me and my family, my two boys. I have two boys, both graduates out of Lynden High School. I’m very proud of those two boys, and my wife who I love to death. She’s what has kept us together. It’s never been easy, like with any relationship, any work in life is not easy, but it’s what you make of it.

Juan Garcia:
So we decided to move up here. And we both said, we’re going to do it on our own. It was not easy. First few years, it was not easy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you mean do it on your own, do what on your own?

Juan Garcia:
We just got married. And for us to be around family was one thing, and that’s great. But in my mindset, I wanted to accomplish those goals that I had. And goals, honestly, if you set a goal, it kind of sets the bar toward how high you want to get. So goals nowadays for me aren’t set. It’s just continuous progress. You got to keep progressing. You can’t stay complacent.

Juan Garcia:
So, the goal was to move up north and to try to see if we could do it on our own without family help assistance, none of that stuff. And we’ve done it. A big part of that is the Rader family, obviously, my wife. But they opened the doors to us and provided a livelihood that a lot of people, more and more people are seeing it now. Agriculture is not, it’s not a hidden world, it’s a part of the big picture. I mean, it’s our food. You see what’s going on nowadays with COVID-19, and what, not necessarily what’s essential, we’re all Americans. Everything we do is essential to what we do to our families, for our work, our friends.

Juan Garcia:
The Rader family, Lyle Rader, I love my dad and mom to death, mom passed away a few years ago, but I still have a dad, and just seeing how they worked. I think a big part of work ethic is instilled from your family, from what you see them do. You carry it on and then you hope that your kids get, it’s just something that you hope carries on. But working with Lyle, I’ve said it before, a mentor, a teacher, a friend. I can’t speak highly enough of what he taught me in raspberries, in farming in general. And in life to be honest with you. He was a big part of that.

Juan Garcia:
To the day, what he taught us, and I say us because it’s not a me thing. There’s so many people, it goes from the top to bottom, and it’s not even top to bottom. This goes from irrigation to plant nutrition to labor to processing. He was a big part of it. And to the day, we still use some of the ways of approaching a problem. Things aren’t the same as when he was around. We fought a lot of rain back in those days. It seems like the weather’s changed a little bit drier. So may debate that the first few days of last year were wet and we struggled with mold. But that’d farming. Farming is, I think that’s why I do it. I shouldn’t say I think, I know that’s why I do it because of challenges. With people. Learning together.

Juan Garcia:
I can honestly say every harvest, we end up learning something that we didn’t know prior to, and you have to keep that mindset to not be complacent in agriculture or in life or in anything to be honest with you. We have a great team. It’s a family, it’s a Rader family.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you manage the farm basically. You’re one of the farm managers or the farm manager, what’s your position?

Juan Garcia:
I’m farm manager. If you look at titles, Brad’s a GM, I’m the farm manager. We still work side by side in making decisions, how we want to do things, logistics. It’s a whole team effort. I can probably spend a couple hours going over the tasks that each individual does on the farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big is the whole crew?

Juan Garcia:
It depends. We got a couple of guys in the shop. There’s seven operators, tractor operators. There’s about four of us that help with anything from harvest irrigation. Do it all. There’s been discussions on what a job is on the farm and it’s never one thing. It’s 10 different things in one day. Even for myself, for Doug, for Riley’s, for Javier’s, for Angel’s. I’m throwing off a few names but there’s so many people that are involved in this. The guys pruning, the guys working the dirt. Applications. It’s a lot of things.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get to this position to be leading that kind of a team? You talked about, you just came in off the street basically asking for work. And then you moved up, you were talking about helping unload trucks during season and whatnot, and you moved up to full time. How did it go from there? I don’t want to put it this way because I know it’s really not how it works in farming but how’d you climb the ladder so to speak?

Juan Garcia:
Honestly, it’s the wanting to learn. It’s the wanting to, not just say, well, I’m just going to drive a tractor and I’m going to look straight ahead. There’s a chisel behind me and I’m just going straight forward. It’s why you drive a tractor and how that tractor works and maintenance and diagnostics. I’m not a mechanic but we have mechanics, and basically seeing why you’re ripping dirt. We went from rototilling to cultivating now to chisel points. To keep some integrity of the dirt it’s just one example of how we moved or progressed.

Juan Garcia:
Like I said before, I give a lot of the knowledge of the raspberry industry, blueberries, rhubarb, for that matter, to Lyle. That’s how much of, I shouldn’t say effect, it’s not the right word I’m looking for, but that’s how much involved we were. I love my father to death, but honestly, I spent more time with Lyle alongside of him than I did my own father. My dad was off working. I was working with Lyle. It was every morning, it was every after lunch, it was every evening.

Dillon Honcoop:
So he’s almost kind of also a father figure.

Juan Garcia:
He was father figure. He was a father figure. He was one of those persons that has a huge impact in your life on why you do what you do. And when you say climb the ladder, I think we all climb the ladder together at the farm there because if we don’t have a good year, none of us have a good year. We’re just working for that year. With labor shortages, with the price of berries. I’m not going to get on that wagon. It’s tough. It’s tough and people ask why do you still do it. And it’s just that. It’s the evolving, the learning, the working with people. I think the biggest thing for me is working with the people to be honest with you. Nutritions in our berry fields, raspberries or blueberries, that’s a huge part of daily activities except for off season. But that makes a big impact on what that plant is going to do this year and the following year and so on and so on.

Juan Garcia:
One decision in a field per se takes years to see, takes years to come to a conclusion. It’s not just like, hey, we’re going to do this today and see the results tomorrow and hope that what you’re doing is the right thing because it’s going to take a few years to backtrack and make that decision right if we made a wrong one. And that’s why, to me, I respect universities, the teaching, all that stuff. I never graduated from college, I never went to college. But I learned everything hands on.

Juan Garcia:
You can almost correlate different crops to what we’re doing now because it’s all life. If you put something in the ground and you expect to see it, and you know there’s something else that has a hand in that life. So you’re putting something in the dirt and you’re wanting to see that grow, whether it’s a berry, a raspberry, a potato or an apple. There’s something else there that helps with that. But there again, we can go on for hours talking about other things. It’s a never ending cycle. It’s never boring, you don’t do the same things every day.

Juan Garcia:
And at the same time, the teachings that Lyle Rader passed on to me. Even with these younger folks that come in, you pass that along because you want that information to not lose, not be lost somewhere down the line because one person worked hard to do it. The next one’s doing the same improvement and so on and so on. It’s valuable. There’s generations of raspberry farmers in this community and we both know them very well that try to improve the last generation, that kind of deal. I know your dad’s been doing the same thing that I have so you can relate to a lot of what I’m talking about, and he’s very passionate man himself.

Juan Garcia:
I hate to compare it to other industries but farming’s a little different. And to be able to put faces on it and not just what, it’s not going to the, I know it’s cliché, people say it’s not just going to the grocery store. It’s not. It’s literally blood, sweat and tears. It’s time, time away from family. I’ve been farming raspberries for 28 years now and I still don’t know what a summer vacation looks like. I’m not complaining because it’s provided for us. But my kids don’t know what a summer vacation looks like. You didn’t know what a summer vacation looked like for a long time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And then when I actually had summer vacations, I just couldn’t relax because I knew everything was going on back home and I kind of wanted to be there, as messed up as that sounds. One time I went to Hawaii in June or something and it felt bizarre to me.

Juan Garcia:
And there is a part of it. I mentioned before, I have two boys and for us, some of the vacations during the summer were trying to get away from the farm before the Fourth of July to go to a state tournament. Literally baseball state tournament. I coached my youngest one for a few years. But that was a little getaway. You knew darn well we were going to start picking somewhere before the fourth. It was always stressful, but the Raders always provided that opportunity. They understood, we all understood that work was our livelihood. But we also understood that our family came first until the date it came first. There were times that maybe we spent more time out, during the summer like I said, but you try to make it up somewhere along the line.

Dillon Honcoop:
Growing up on my dad’s farm, we never even talked about vacation in June, July. You start talking about that maybe the last week of July. You’re on the picker still or hauling trucks and like, man, we’re getting close, we can tell, we’re well past peak. But we didn’t have blueberries.

Juan Garcia:
That carries on.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then you start, oh man, we need to get out of here. Let’s go camping. That sounds so good. It’s like if you’ve been hungry all day and you finally get to, so it was always August, early August. We’d go on vacation. Then you come back and you got to figure out which field you’re taking out and get back to work.

Juan Garcia:
There’s that part of it. I’ve had the family members or friends say, well, you’re done with harvest, it’s time off. Well, no, it’s not. You’re just getting started. You’re just preparing the last day of harvest, excuse me, the last day of harvest is the first day of the next one. Whether it’s ripping out fields and crews of pruning, pulling, tying, arcing, nutrition program, just dirt work in general. I think maybe it’s about December. We’ve done a pretty good job of shutting down a couple of weeks in December. This time of the years even when it’s raining, there’s work out there. There’s preparation.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you guys get your pruning and tying done earlier too than my dad does. So, that’s kind of ongoing throughout the winter for him, but you guys usually get that knocked out by what, November?

Juan Garcia:
Middle of November. Lyle put, that’s the one thing about Mr. Rader. He put a couple of time clocks in the back of my head. Those clocks start working and we started getting close to that deadline, we still … And sometimes you feel like the guys that didn’t tie on winter where we get winter damage or early spring, was it the right thing, and can do it the other way. It’s a constant-

Dillon Honcoop:
I bug my dad about that. The neighbors over there, the Raders, Juan, you got all that winter damage because maybe you didn’t have them all tied up by February when that freak late storm hit.

Juan Garcia:
And then there’s a flip here when it’s not the case. It’s a challenge. It’s a fun challenge. Like I said, it’s just working with people. People that have the same passion as you do. That’s different than just punching in a clock and just getting eight hours in. It’s finishing the task, it’s not finishing, it’s like continuing the next day until you get it done. But that’s a nice thing, but it’s never the same thing, it’s never the same thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have to know how plants work to do what you do. That’s a big part of it, right?

Juan Garcia:
I’d like to think I do a little bit, yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
Growing plants. You got to be passionate about that. You’ve already touched on that, even the big picture, the continual cycle, and nature producing food and how you manage that. How passionate are you about that part of it?

Juan Garcia:
That’s the one thing that just drives you to be more attentive, to see, to learn. And not to be drastic on the changes. We touched a little bit on plant nutrition. There’s certain things that have to be imbalanced for something to be uptaken. You can’t just throw 400 pounds of fertilizer and just throw it out and expect stuff to grow. Stuff gets tied up and it’s knowing what ratios, what balances. There’s so many things.

Dillon Honcoop:
Got to start thinking about chemistry and biology.

Juan Garcia:
You have to. And that’s one of the things even with some of the varieties that were, the Meeker variety, it’s an older variety. It’s a tough crop to grow, as you will know during the rainy season. There’s newer varieties. And basically, the way I look at is with these newer varieties, we as a team have to figure out a way to do what farmers when they were predominantly Meeker variety, how they, I want to say mastered it but it’s not really mastering, it’s learning that variety. And now we’re doing that with different varieties.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can’t take a certain practice for granted because if the genetics are different.

Juan Garcia:
There’s genetics, there’s nutrition, there’s balancing, I mean, pH plays a huge part. So I guess my point being is that it’s not just one specific thing, it’s looking at a broad sheet of call them numbers, year to year, NPK, calcium, boron, sulfur, I mean, just the entire, and following that trend year by year and making adjustments the following year. You want everything to be in balance because otherwise, mother nature, you can’t defeat mother nature. You can help it a little but you cannot defeat it.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re just talking about the compounds. I mean, we’re finding out more and more, you may have all the right compounds, you may put them on at the right time, all these kinds of things, but it’s so much about the, again, the biology, the bacteria, the fungal colonies and all this stuff that’s virtually a mystery really still, even with what they know about soil health. How much are you getting into that these days?

Juan Garcia:
Every year more and more. Every year, you’re looking at things that probably 20 years ago, 15 years ago, we weren’t looking at. Whether it’s a biological or something that can be used as a tool in your toolbox. Not to say that conventional farming is not the right way, there’s ways of doing things, but everything costs money. I’ve said it before, price of berries, it doesn’t go up with minimum wage. It’s finding that balance and finding tools that you can have in the toolbox from what you’ve done last year, two years ago, three years ago to try to, obviously, you want to keep costs down on everything, on growing berries. But you have to find that balance production to inputs.

Juan Garcia:
It’s like I told the guys, the cost per pound starts the last day of harvest. We’re done with harvest but then your cost per pound starts on that last day. So how to mitigate some of the [inaudible 00:26:54] people. It’s like, you guys are out spraying all the time. Well, we’re not. That’s part of my job as a farm manager, to get out there and know when a treatment has to be done. If there’s not an issue, we’re not addressing it. If there’s an issue there, what’s your threshold? When do you start? When do you not do something? So it’s a constant …

Dillon Honcoop:
And there’s pros and cons with treating too.

Juan Garcia:
There is. There is. And that’s why I say, you have to continuously better yourself. So whether it’s reading a book. There’s an old book that I got on my desk that I pulled out this last winter. Pete Crandall is one of Lyle’s, have you heard Pete Crandall?

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (negative).

Juan Garcia:
I know your dad has. Ask him about Pete Crandall. A lot of his studies from few years back, they hold true more than people think even with these new varieties. I can go on and on but then we won’t have time to talk about other things. So there’s that part of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can tell you love the plant stuff. Another big part of your job though is the people. You are a manager. You got this whole crew, this whole system that involves a lot of people doing a lot of different things.

Juan Garcia:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you approach that?

Juan Garcia:
People talk about accountability. Accountability this and accountability that. I look at accountability differently. I can’t hold you accountable to get up and show up to work. It’s not my job to hold you accountable. It’s being surrounded by people with the same mindset. Javier, Javier’s been with the farm over 30 years. There’s no one more passionate on the farm than that guy that. That long of a year, and Doug. Doug’s been with us over 13 years. There’s a passion in the irrigation, in the setup, in knowing what the irrigation is doing, when it’s being done. Are we over watering? Can we cut back here? What’s that soil texture like? Can you back off a little bit there, can you do more there?

Juan Garcia:
Riley, Angel. I’ve gone through some of the names here. Valentin, there’s so many people that have the same passion. I’m not exaggerating when I say that. They’re the same person, meaning they love what they do. So when you have people, let’s just say that core of people that I just put out there, when you have just those specific guys, it helps. It makes my job easier, makes their jobs actually more enjoyable because they know what they got to do. We run over scenarios, logistics, days, timing. But they have the same passion. So when you have people, when you’re surrounded by those kinds of people, it makes my job easier as a farm manager.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you keep people together and on target with that? What do you do to inspire your crew?

Juan Garcia:
Try to set the example. Setting the example is, it’s what they see and how you do things, whether it’s problem solving, is how you approach a problem. And don’t get me wrong, through the years, you learn more and more. Talking to people. It’s like you and I. I want to talk to one of our employees the same way I’m talking to you. I don’t want to get too high or too low and just be a little bit direct in what you want done and teaching them how to do things. There’s not a job on this specific farm that I haven’t done. From digging a trench to get water out to operating equipment. Speaking of operating equipment, that’s my little vacation, I just got done prepping 20 acres over on the east side of town. It’s like a little mini vacation, getting up on the big tractors and doing what you want to be doing. You can’t really hear your phone at those times so you don’t really have to answer it kind of deal.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love that too. [inaudible 00:31:22] turn the music up, chilling out for a little bit.

Juan Garcia:
But to answer your question, it’s just that. It’s being surrounded by people because I can’t do it all myself. Job guys can’t do it all themselves. Job guys, we try to help where we can. If it’s something out in the field, we’ll diagnose it. If it’s something Javier, one of us can fix on the field, we leave the mechanics alone. We’re there, we can do it. Time’s a big thing. Being efficient, being efficient with the time is one of the biggest things that I try to talk to the guys about. It’s having a plan. If you’re questioning what you should do, let’s talk about it the previous day so when the next morning approaches, you have a plan of attack, what you want to do, what time it should be done by and so on. It’s being surrounded with good people.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about during season, when things are real busy, and the crew’s big, because it’s not just your core crew, your full time folks. It’s the seasonal workers who are there in the plant and in the field. You got high school kids, college kids, migrant workers from all over. How do you manage that? Even of the cultural differences that can play into how that, and at the same time, you’re going full-bore, everybody’s working as fast as they can.

Juan Garcia:
You’re full-bore, but like I said, the people, I just gave you an example of some of the guys that are full time employees. So, there’s got to be something in it for them. When I say that, you have to own what you do. Just because you’re doing this the rest of the year, when it’s harvest time, it’s what everything, the culmination of everything we’ve done for those six weeks, seven weeks. It’s all chips in. So, we’ll split up fields been under the supervision of some of these full time guys. And then those guys step up, and when I say have ownership in it, it’s exactly what I mean. We’ve worked hard for this, this is your part, this is how we’re going to pick, this is rotation, we’ll talk daily. What the intervals are going to be, logistics, moving of equipment.

Juan Garcia:
Then it’s my job to put on 300 miles a day, going from southeast part of the county to the west part of the county. But it’s not just one person once again. I still try to stay on top of pest management, nutrition management, as you’re checking on harvesters seeing what’s going on in the field. But once again, it’s the entire team. All in, this is my part of the pie, making sure the harvest is at that interval.

Juan Garcia:
So there’s one, two, three, four, five, there’s six guys that take ownership of all of the raspberry acreage. Then blueberries come around and some people think of it as a vacation because it’s not every, the rotations is not as intense.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s not high pressure, yeah.

Juan Garcia:
It’s still high pressure but it’s just a little bit different atmosphere. But no, there’s ownership there by the team.

Dillon Honcoop:
Farm workers, the people actually doing the harvest and whatnot, you’re managing there managers, their supervisors. What are you teaching them about the right way to be working with folks? For instance, a migrant worker is going to have a different perspective on a lot of this stuff. But you come from that background, you understand-

Juan Garcia:
That is my background exactly. There’s a huge diversity of people. Language can be a barrier. So obviously there, you want to make sure that communication is key, and I speak English and Spanish. Obviously, your supervisor’s there. You try to instill to those supervisors looking over the people to talk, to respect each other, first of all. Respect each other, talk to each other the way you want to be spoken to. But also importantly, not just get up on the harvester, check the fruit and so on and so on. But a lot of it has to do with what’s your harvester speed? What’s your head spacing? Are those straps too tight? Are you damaging laterals? Are you picking too many greens?

Juan Garcia:
I’m doing that as I’m on the harvesters, but that’s part of their duties as well. We have kids from Western, we have high school kids from all over the county that come to work on the farm too. We have teams that work in those areas with those students to make sure that we’re obviously sticking by the rules on time that they can work and whatnot. And then splitting the shifts accordingly. And then migrant families come in, most of these fine, migrant camp families that come in are sticking around to prune, pull, tie and arc the raspberries when the harvest is done. When you go to talk about different cultures, they’re all learning farming. Get college kids that never been on a farm. You get high school students that never been on a farm. There’s a lot of family farms in the county, but there’s a lot of them that have never been exposed to farming.

Juan Garcia:
And for us as farmers, it’s our responsibility to make sure that people know and to teach these students, to teach these college students, to teach the migrant families what farming is. It’s not just showing up and driving a machine. And a lot of them, it’s a pleasure to see people. When you get up on a machine, you get to know them a little bit. And then they started asking questions that may seem simple to someone that’s done it a lot of years. It’s valuable in that you’re answering those little questions that they’re asking and opening up their eyes to agriculture. And it’s not just raspberries. It’s corn, it’s wheat, it’s potatoes. It’s agriculture.

Dillon Honcoop:
What you’re saying may sound obvious to a lot of people too, but there can be a perspective of dealing with that of don’t worry about it, just do what I told you to do and be done. And that doesn’t instill a passion.

Juan Garcia:
It doesn’t instill a passion, and the other thing is, productivity doesn’t, I mean, we’ve been around people long enough. You talk to someone a certain way, you’re not going to get as much out of them as a quick little history story. Hey, this field this, that area of that field that. Why we drive one mile an hour. Like man, why can’t we go five mile an hour? Well, we just went over some of the reasons. But just explaining to them and having that positive teaching mentality, that attitude, goes a long way. Especially with the youth, having the patience to teach. I say youth, it’s not just the high schoolers, it’s the younger employees that are on our farm that are full time. Taking the time to answer questions.

Juan Garcia:
A lot of the times, you’re busy, you’re busy throughout the day. And you may answer a question, like a couple of guys, I call it grunt text, where I’ll just send a text and it’s just two words and basically … But you try to take the time, maybe not that day, maybe not two days from now, but always backtrack and explain to that person why the answer was no, not just it’s no. No, we’re not doing it that way. But why. So when that person’s left by themselves because you can’t be with everyone, when that person is left by themselves, it’s a different attitude. It’s like with myself, when I am taught something or you’re taught something, it’s a different way of thinking because if someone actually took the time to explain to you, you’re not just sitting there filling your thumbs like well, what do I do now, you start thinking a little bit more. Communication’s huge. Relationships with people, communication, that’s a big part of farming.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Like I said earlier, that part of the conversation, this whole first half really sets the table for what’s coming next week. And really where the conversation went after this was not what I expected. We covered some really heavy stuff, but with a really positive message from one, to again, totally had no idea this was all in his backstory and didn’t expect to be so inspired by the things that he had to say, talking about some huge loss that he experienced in his life and on the farm. And him talking about that brought back some memories for me that I haven’t really talked about publicly before, that we got into.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then Juan also opened up about some personal demons that he fought after that loss. In fact, I have here just a little bit of that conversation to look ahead to next week.

Juan Garcia:
When Mr. Rader passed away, the weight of the world was on my shoulder, and there was a way that I had to cope with it even more. It wasn’t the right way. I talked to people about it. I’m not embarrassed of it because a lot of us, there’s a lot of people that face that demon, because that’s what it is, it’s a demon.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, totally unexpected, but the conversation got really intense and fascinating. And again, inspiring really, even in spite of all the heavy stuff that we ended up talking about. So you aren’t going to want to miss next week part two with Juan Garcia, farm manager at Rader Farms here in my hometown, Lynden Washington, and a farm right close to the farm that I grew up on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, this is the Real Food Real People Podcast My name is Dillon Honcoop. If you’re here joining and listening in for the first time, super glad that you’re here and really would appreciate it if you subscribed. Make sure to subscribe to make sure you don’t miss next week’s episode and the second half of this conversation with Juan. Also, would really appreciate a share on social media, even just to follow us on social media, we’re on Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram as well. Real Food Real People Podcast, just search that and it’ll take you to us.

Dillon Honcoop:
And if you feel like it, shoot me an email, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is the email address. Dillon is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N, very simple. Just had a listener last week, say, hey, I love what you’re doing here. I’d like to support it with a donation. Out of the blue. I haven’t even been asking for that. So thank you so much to all, and you don’t have to give a donation to support, even just subscribing and following us on social media, sharing our stuff is a great way to support what we’re trying to do here to connect people with not just the food that’s grown locally, but the people who bring them that food, who grow that food, the humanity that goes into it, and trying to recapture the humanity in our food system. Thank you so much for being with us for this journey.

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

Ashley Rodriguez | #021 05/04/2020

Ashley Rodriguez isn't a farmer, but she has a passion for food all the way from the field to the plate. The Seattle-based chef, food blogger and show host shares her food journey, finding inspiration in her family's farming roots.

Transcript

Ashley Rodriguez:
That’s definitely part of what I do is wanting to honor the ingredients and the work that the farmers do, the work that the earth does to get these beautiful, beautiful ingredients.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m not sure if I’ve ever met someone more passionate about food and the art of food and where it comes from. Our guests this week on Real Food Real People podcast is not a farmer. She is a chef as well as a blogger. Now she’s on a show as well as has her own podcast. She’s got lots of stuff going on and she’s all about food and the ingredients. Even back to the farmer. Ashley Rodriguez is her name.

Dillon Honcoop:
And man, she has a cool story. Again, she’s not a farmer, but she does have farming in her family background. And so, it’s really interesting to hear. She feels it’s in her DNA. Some of this stuff. Great conversation. We talk a lot about what’s happening right now with COVID and the changes that’s doing. Not just to our food system more on a technical sense, but in a human sense and the way we’re thinking about food changing because of this Coronavirus pandemic, as well as just her background and how the show Kitchen Unnecessary came to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
How her blog, Not Without Salt got started. There’s a lot to the story and it goes way back to even while we talked about photography. It goes back to the pre digital camera days, when she started taking pictures of food, there wasn’t Instagram, and in fact there wasn’t. Well there were, but she wasn’t using a digital camera. They were using film. So she’s been doing this for a long time and it’s really important to her and she’s got a lot of cool stuff to share. I’m Dillion Honcoop, and this is the Real Food Real People podcast. Again, our guest this week is Ashley Rodriguez, a Seattle area chef and food blogger as well as now a show host and a podcaster as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Looking back, when was it that you became a foodie would you say? Because you are like the embodiment of a foodie, right?

Ashley Rodriguez:
I have a foodie. What does that even mean? When I started enjoying food, is that?

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, yeah, I suppose there’s two times. When you realized you were foodie, but then maybe when you actually were a foodie before you recognize that you probably fell under that moniker?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, I’ve never called myself that so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, so maybe I shouldn’t be saying that you’re a foodie?

Ashley Rodriguez:
I don’t honestly really, what is the exact definition? I don’t know. I am someone who really enjoys food. And that began at an early, early age. I remember asking for a pasta maker when I was probably about 10, and really I wanted that one that was the Ron Popeil. Like I’d seen the infomercials, right? I want it that one that you just like press it and forget it. But my grandmother got me the Italian style, like clamp it to your counter top hand crank. And I was kind of disappointed, and then I was not because I just had so much fun with it. But I remember attempting to make my parents a really fancy meal. I made them like go out and sit in the garden and I had a menu and I’m going to make all of this.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I made homemade pasta like at 10 years old, all by myself. It was disgusting. It was like lobby. So gross and my parents just like ate it out of the goodness of their hearts. They were so kind. But now, I just remember it being super slimy and gross. But, I just was always so fascinated with the kitchen and what you could create. My grandmother, my mom’s mother was an incredible Baker and my mom had a confidence in the kitchen. That’s, I recognize now is quite uncommon. And so, she wouldn’t cook with recipes very often.

Ashley Rodriguez:
She baked a lot. So, I just remember watching that. And I think my biggest takeaway from all of that was to not have any fear in the kitchen. And so, I took that with me into just continuing to follow my curiosity and, “Oh, can I make homemade chocolates? How does chocolate get made?” And I even like played around with making chocolate at home, by ordering the cocoa beans. It’s always my curiosity that has sort of led me down all these paths. And then while in college I was studying Art. I want it to be a high school art teacher, and part of that education brought me to Italy and that’s really, really where I fell in love with food and fell in love with food as sort of the medium that brings people together and around the table.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And that’s where I also kind of made this connection coming home, realizing, “Oh, some people make a career out of like cooking and playing with food all day. That’s amazing.” So things sort of shifted for me then.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s still under the art umbrella, culinary art.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Totally. And I think I didn’t want to waste all the money that me and my parents had been spending on my liberal arts, art degree. And so, I sort of used that as an excuse to pursue pastry art. Because I felt like that was a really nice way of combining like the artistry and my love of food, plus, I mean, who doesn’t love sweets? So, I didn’t go to culinary school because I didn’t have the money after I just finished up my liberal arts degree, but I wanted to jump into this. So, I just jumped in full force.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And for my graduation present, my parents got me this like encyclopedia set of French pastry, like the classic how to make everything basically. And then I started working in bakeries, and my husband and I, we moved to LA, got a job at a restaurant there and just start working my way and learning that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where did you go to college?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Seattle Pacific.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. So you were in Seattle then, but moved down to LA with the purpose of pursuing this whole food pastry thing?

Ashley Rodriguez:
My husband and I, we got married young and we wanted to go off and sort of have our own adventure. And so, it was kind of like where do we want to live? And I wanted to live in a place that I could work in a great restaurant and get that sort of education. So we were looking at New York or LA, but New York was far too expensive. So, we settled on LA, but I ended up getting a job before we moved down. And it was like I put together this ridiculous resume because I had no experience whatsoever.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So, it was like a book that I made with images that I had taken them for, that my husband had taken. Like all these homemade chocolates and stuff. And I just attempted to woo the pastry chef who, she was walking pups, pastry chef at the time. So, Sherry Yard. So, I got a job at Spago in Beverly Hills. So we moved to LA for that job basically.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. So, that was like your first real gig doing that?

Ashley Rodriguez:
That was my first real restaurant job. I had worked in a bakery for about six months. Kind of worked my way up and got bored real quickly with that. And then yes, Spago was my first restaurant job, which was such a trip.

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as working your way up. That’s starting on a pretty high run.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Like just being thrown into-

Dillon Honcoop:
Off the ladder.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I liked the photos though, because, correct me if I’m wrong, amongst various things, your hubby is a photographer, right? So, he probably took some pretty incredible photos of what you’re doing too.

Ashley Rodriguez:
He did. He did take some really good photos. Yeah. Yeah. He’s a wedding photographer, photographer of all sorts. So yeah, he did lots of weddings down there. And then he also worked for, he managed this high end boutique cause he was also kind of toying around with the idea of getting into fashion. So, we lived a very, very crazy life down there. It was fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then you came back North.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or I guess you had a few other positions down there before you came North?

Ashley Rodriguez:
No, actually, I see it at Spago and it took a long time for, sorry to hear the dogs wrestling?

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re getting tired of the quarantine life too?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. Very. No, they love having us on all the time. They’re like, “This is great. This is the ideal life.” Yeah, so it took a while to get acclimated to living in LA and sort of get accustomed to restaurant life. But once we did, I was kind of moving up quickly or in that realm. And I actually told my husband, I was like, “Hey, Gabe, once I become pastry sous chef, like we’re buying a convertible. We just got to do this.”

Ashley Rodriguez:
Like fully, fully digging into, we have no money, no money whatsoever. So, conversations were happening. Wolfgang was planning to open up another restaurant and I was on my way moving up to the pastry sous chef position. So, we started looking for a convertible. We found this great deal. This woman was selling her son’s car, so we bought this beautiful black Saab convertible. And then two weeks after we bought it, we found out we were pregnant. So, things definitely shifted for us at that point. Then we didn’t have any family down there.

Ashley Rodriguez:
I was working, long, long hours. And then once you kind of become sous chef or chef, then you’re given longer hours. So, not necessarily something I wanted to do as a young mother. So, then we decided to move back home.

Dillon Honcoop:
And Seattle is home?

Ashley Rodriguez:
We actually moved back to Bellingham. So, Bellingham is where I grew up.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. And then we lived in Bellingham for several years, and then we ended up back in Seattle where we are now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, motherhood kind of jumped on the screen, took over for a bit, but you still had that love of the whole food thing. When did that start coming back? Because I know the whole motherhood gig is all consuming.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, it never went away. It was always there in some aspect. So, when I moved back to Bellingham, I partnered up with a local catering company called Ciao Thyme and they so graciously took me under their wing, and I started a business under their business doing wedding cakes and dessert catering. And then eventually I became their pastry chef. And so, I was pursuing those avenues while we had our first child, and then that’s when I started kind of dipping my toes into the world of blogging as well. Excuse me.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So I started a blog after our first son was born and that was sort of a way of like a free website, free marketing for my wedding cake business. Then by the time our second son came around, the story that I wanted to tell was shifting. It was getting back to that feeling that I had while living in Italy of, food is amazing and I’m so passionate about it. But what I really want to write about and pursue, and to tell the story about it is my heart behind all of it, which is to connect to people and to feed people.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I had some incredibly intense, deep spiritual moments at the table. And I think I’m always trying to pursue those moments and to use food as a way of sort of helping other people tap into those experiences as well. Because I just think that food is such an incredible gift. So, that changed the story for me, and that’s when the blog, Not Without Salt was born. I started really developing my own skills as a photographer, as a writer, as a recipe developer. And I use that platform to experiment and to practice those skills.

Dillon Honcoop:
Being a blogger, being in the world of food, a foodie, if you’re comfortable with that term?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yes, you can say it.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re okay with that?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. It often comes back, like you said to photography, you’ve mentioned this multiple times, and being able to show that food because presentation, what the food looks like on the plate is a big part of the art. Right? But that didn’t really spread until this phenomenon of taking pictures and you know, we millennials have made fun of for taking pictures of our meals for a long time, but it’s really become a thing. Right? Well when you, when you started in this and you talk about your husband taking photos of your early creations as part of kind of your resume to get that job down in LA, that was kind of even before this whole trend, right?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, for sure. Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like when would that have been? What year?

Ashley Rodriguez:
That was 2004.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that was like what the birth of Facebook year, if I want to say. Or three or four or something. It didn’t even exist before then. Well, MySpace, I mean people were doing this whole thing then.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
Instagram was years away.

Ashley Rodriguez:
It was.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how big of a role does that play? What it looks like in beautiful photography. And how much has that been a thing that has kind of made your blog as well?

Ashley Rodriguez:
That’s an interesting question, and I don’t often think of it in that way because for me it’s always food first. But I am such a visual person, and of course I have a huge collection of cookbooks, and I love flipping through the pages and admiring the pictures.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So, fairly early on in my blogging career, I started taking over the photography side of things because with a background in art and I had taken some photography classes, I could get by, and I knew what I wanted. I knew what I wanted the end result to look like, and sometimes it was easier for me to just grab the camera from my husband’s hands rather than try to like communicate with words what I wanted him to try and get. So, I started just playing around more. And as digital photography became bigger, it was a lot easier because then I could like take a picture, look at the back of the screen and say, “Oops, nope, that’s not quite right.” And then that’s really how I learned, because when we were just doing, film photography can get really expensive to make all those mistakes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the Gen Z’ers listening right now, or like there’s a kind of photography where you can’t see the picture right away. What’s this?

Ashley Rodriguez:
I know, it doesn’t make any sense. It sounds old, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
It changes everything though.

Ashley Rodriguez:
It’s romantic.

Dillon Honcoop:
How you shoot stuff.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that was becoming my question. Those first photos that you sent off to get that first gig, where those on film or digital?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh they were film.

Dillon Honcoop:
I figured there’s a good chance that was film back then.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Sure. Yeah, we got them printed. I mean, who does that with photos anymore? Yeah. And blogging is really changing, people are on Instagram these days. And so, I haven’t been, I haven’t blogged anything on Not Without Salt this year, which is really crazy for me to admit because it’s been, gosh, I’ve had that blog for, I always make the connection between how old my middle son is. He’s almost turning 12, so I’ve had that blog for 12 years, and it has been a journal for me. But my passion is shifting and the medium of Instagram is such that I can connect with a community there, and share recipes and inspiration and the same way. I miss longer form writing, but I’m doing that in other ways as well. So, I’m not saying the blog is dead, but definitely isn’t what it used to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talked about your grandma and how she was kind of a food inspiration for you. Tell me a little bit about her. What was her thing? What was her life? What brought her to that place where you said she was like, really excellent Baker and cook?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Both of my grandmothers, I have such wonderful food memories of each of them, and their recipe collections sit right next to me in my kitchen. And every time I pass by those old boxes of handwritten recipes, it’s such a gift that I cherish. Because the other day I was sitting in my house, and for some reason there was this strong, like meaty smell and immediately came hit me like walking into my my dad’s, mom’s house, on Sundays when we’d come over for dinner, like roast beef, just like slowly cooking, in the slow cooker. And it’s like, “Oh my gosh.” It was just such a strong, intense smell memory. And when we’d come over for dinner, she would love to ask like, what we wanted to have for dinner.

Ashley Rodriguez:
She loved making us happy through, through food. And then my maternal grandmother, she was the Baker and I remember, but she was such a humble cook and Baker. She never thought, I mean she always apologized for whatever it was that she made. And you know it was the most incredible, I mean, her pies were unbelievable. And I remember, I was in my 20s I’m sure. And I was like, “Grandma, can you please teach me your pie graphs?” And she just never thought that she was like, her knowledge was worthy of sharing or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Did she have a recipe or it was just off the top of her head?

Ashley Rodriguez:
It was completely by feel, and it defied all my baking science. Because I’m like, your crust is so flaky, how’s it so flaky? And I would say, I knew that cold butter handled with care and all the cold ingredients and you bake it well, blah, blah, blah, blah. All this knowledge that I had garnered from working in bakeries and restaurants and reading tons and tons of baking science. It got thrown out the window when she just dumped like a half a day cup of oil and milk into the dough and then just mixed it by hand.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And then, I was like, “Wait, no, what’s happening here?” And I was trying to get the measurements and she’s like, “Well, you just do it till it feels right.” And yeah, I have her pie dough recipe is in my second cookbook juxtaposed right next to my pie recipe. And actually, I wrote that cookbook while she was still alive. And she passed away shortly before. I guess it was shortly after it had been published. But I read that section from my cookbook as her eulogy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Hard. And it still is hard, but I connect with her every time I’m in the kitchen. I feel her. And you know, that’s the power of food, right? Is that it’s such a necessity, right? We need to eat to live, but it can transcend so much if you allow it. And I think that’s what my time and working in restaurants, it was about consistency and getting the food out in a very timely manner and writing about food and taking pictures of food, taught me how to be mindful and present in the kitchen. And that’s such a powerful experience.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I think about the food memories that were created from the lives of these two incredible women in my life. And I hope that my children and hopefully someday I’ll get the pleasure of having grandchildren, that I can sort of help to shape their lives through these memories. And you know, that’s the gift that I get to have with my own children and I do not take it for granted that I get the joy and the honor of having a platform and to be able to inspire and get people excited about being in the kitchen. Especially now, goodness, people are cooking and baking like crazy these days. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right? This quarantine life has changed so much and a lot of awful things have come out of it, but definitely some good things too.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So many beautiful things.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t there something that just feels really retro about it? Like the togetherness, and the home cooking, and just a quieter, slower way of life?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. I’ve not thought of it in the retro sense because it’s something that I’ve always pursued in the nowtro. It’s something that I think, again, going back to those times in Italy saying like, “Oh, this is really what’s important.” They stop their lives. The things that we say, “No, it’s too important. We need to be open, keep our businesses open during all waking hours.” And it’s like, “Nope, we’re going to stop and spend three hours in the middle of our workday, to sit around the table to acknowledge one another’s humanity, to cherish the gifts from the earth, and just have a moment to enjoy this day because every day is worthy of savoring.”

Ashley Rodriguez:
And it’s like, man, it’s something that I want to pursue, and I think in these times of quarantine, it just allows for more of that. And when so much of our regularly scheduled programming has been taken away, then it allows for us to really quiet out a lot of the external noise, so that we can see things for what they really are.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like I said, it felt very retro to me. It reminds me more of my life when I was a kid. And I actually want to connect that back to, because I know that your grant both sets of your grandparents are like mine. They’re both Linden area dairy farmers. Right? This was the scene that you grew up with, your grandparents being in the dairy farming community?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). More so my mom’s dad for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much did that influence the whole perspective on food, where it comes from, and that farming way of life to where you work hard and you get up early, but there’s also coffee time, and there’s people who swing on the yard, and you chat for half an hour, that work hard but still a slower way of life kind of thing.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Right. I think, it wasn’t out of the norm for me. I loved going down and visiting grandpa’s cows, and saying hello to them. And I think it’s in my DNA more than it’s in my, more than I even recognize that I know where food comes from. I’m not invisible to the hard work that it takes to grow and produce these food items. And I think that’s definitely part of what I do, is wanting to honor the ingredients and the work that the farmers do, the work that the earth does to get these beautiful, beautiful ingredients.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I kind of see myself as sort of a last piece of that cycle of and/or the artist who gets to paint with the most luxurious, silky paints of the highest quality that then, it just makes the final product that much more beautiful. And I think if you are passionate about food, you have a deep and utter respect for every aspect of that ingredient.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the food world. How much is that recognized? I mean you recognize that because of your family background. What about others? And what about the things that we have here in Washington State where there are so many incredible things that are produced here?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, again I think if you have a passion for food, you take that back to its literal roots and you you want to honor that ingredient every step of the way. I think it’s hard for people who don’t have the luxury of, I mean, this is my career, this is my job, right? I get to have the pleasure of talking with food producers of being really, really connected to my food. I think not everyone has that the mental capacity, the interest or the time to really be able to sit and think about where everything comes from-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you just got to pick up something at the store and get home and make it.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Right. But I hope in a kind and loving way, part of the work that I do is to help people sort of acknowledge and appreciate the ingredients all the more. And I think that’s why I continually also, I want to be creating unique and creative food, but I also want to keep it really, really simple and for it to taste good, you got to use the best quality ingredients. And so, I want to continue to highlight the story of the ingredients throughout the entire process and not just, I don’t want it just to be an ends to the meat or means to the end. Sorry.

Dillon Honcoop:
How different is that here in the Pacific Northwest than when you were down in LA?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, man. It’s hard. I never was so wrapped up into the LA community that I feel like I got a good pulse on it because I was living and breathing the restaurant. But I was really fortunate enough to develop a really great relationship with my pastry chef, with my boss at the time, Sherry. And she was working on her second cookbook at the time. And so, I got to spend some time working on that with her. And she took me all around to the farmer’s markets, and we even went out to this farm in San Diego to meet the farmer who grows these strawberries that, honestly, I think she’s one of the first people that taught me how to truly honor and care for the ingredient.

Ashley Rodriguez:
We would get these strawberries into the restaurant and they were like treated like newborn babies. The moment they came in, we would take them out of their carton, and prepare a nice bed for them on a sheet pan. And so, that they all couldn’t be touching one another. They all needed their own space, and they were treated like royalty. And with one taste, you understood why?

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, you have to be like that with strawberries too because they’re so soft. Especially if they’re grown all the way ripe on the vine and they’re one of these really sweet varieties that’s designed to be picked ripe. A lot of the stuff that we get in the store from who knows where, some of the times is picked not quite right.

Ashley Rodriguez:
They’re red on the outside, and white on the inside.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, yeah. These were like a mirror to bra for us to block like these tiny little, they were like strawberry candy. That’s what it tasted. Well, it tasted like what strawberry candy tries to be. It was so good. I grow some in my garden just so, I mean and it’s like never enough to do anything with. It’s just to be wandering around your yard and putting it in your mouth and then you just have this like quintessential taste of like, “This is what a strawberries taste tastes like.” And luckily for us living in Washington, we get to have those moments, those like two weeks at the end of June where it’s like strawberry season is here. But I love that, my kids when they were really little, they see strawberries in the store and it’d be December and they’d be like, “Can we get strawberries?” I’m like, “No, it’s not time.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you. Thank you.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Right? Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nothing against those folks, and fine if you really got to have the strawberries, but the real strawberries are in June.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Remember it’s so worth it to like wait until you have that, and then it’s like we’re standing in the sun and it’s like, “No children, no, no. This is why I’ve said no to you for the last 12 months. This is the reason.” And then of course you can freeze them, and join them or make jam or and yes, I can buy strawberries out a season too. But nothing compares to that like first taste of a strawberry where it’s just like that Ruby red intensity all the way through. Oh my gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m really into this because strawberries are my favorite. I grew up on it. My dad’s a red raspberry grower, and believe it or not, I’m not in love with rasp. I don’t hate them. It’s just really not my thing. But strawberries-

Ashley Rodriguez:
See, Rapsberries are my favorites.

Dillon Honcoop:
See, that’s what everybody says.

Ashley Rodriguez:
But I mean strawberries are so good.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s probably because I grew up picking them and just the smell to a lot of people is like, “Oh wow, that smells so good.” And to me it smells like work and long hot.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Smells like hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you talk about these strawberries, and you talk about the seasonality of when produce, whether it’s fruits or veggies or whatever, are actually ripe here locally, that’s something that’s being talked about lately with this whole COVID situation, and the disruption in our food system. People are saying, “We’re so used to being able to have any fruit and any vegetable available, 24/7, 365. And this time, and the disruption of that system is showing us that maybe that’s not what our future should look like. And maybe we need to start recognizing that, “Hey, we have strawberry stuff in June, but no, we don’t have it in October. And that’s okay.”

Ashley Rodriguez:
Absolutely. For me, it’s worth the wait. It’s worth, and every season. Listen, I recognize we live in one of the most bountiful and beautiful parts of the world, and so, that there are places that are definitely food deserts where things are just hard to come by anytime. But every season there’s something to look forward to. And I love living off of like, “Okay, this is spring. We’re in the heart of rhubarb season, and young greens and there’s always something to be enjoying and looking forward to.”

Dillon Honcoop:
And we should be doing that here in the Pacific Northwest. Because, like you say, there are other parts of the country and world where they don’t have that luxury at all. And we tend to take it for granted, and then we don’t really take advantage and we go to the store and get strawberries and rhubarb that’s grown in South America. And it’s like, “Why, when we can do it here?”

Ashley Rodriguez:
I think it’s cyclical, going back to thinking about my grandparents, I don’t fully know how hard life was for them. I mean I saw and I know things were challenging and especially as farmers, and with large families and all of that. But, I recognize that, when the food conveniences first started coming, it was a lifesaver. I mean it was like it saves so much time and energy, but I think we’re also now coming to see the ramifications of some of those conveniences. And maybe it’s not worth it. And maybe, we can sort of readjust our lifestyle a little bit, to sort of reconnect to that seasonality-

Dillon Honcoop:
Pendulum. All the other way a little Bit.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And hopefully people can find some joy and satisfaction in being in the kitchen and not see it as the chore that so many of can see it. And listen, I love cooking, but it can still feel like a chore, feeding my family day in and day out. But that’s why I do also try.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wants to keep It real.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. I try and make it accessible and hopefully people feel that.

Dillon Honcoop:
When is it now, you’re in Seattle, you’re in the food world, foodie, blogger, et cetera. When do you actually connect with farmers now in your life? Do you ever, I mean, farmer’s market, anything beyond that? How do those worlds collide in our current culture?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Well, in the times of quarantine, not very often. Although, yes, I love going to the farmer’s market. I love going to the farms in the summer to pick the berries. And every year we do the that big farm festival that happens up and welcome in Skagit County. So I love reminding my children and connecting the dots then that this is where, this is where the food comes from. I just started working with my friend Devin, who just started a company called Small Food Drop where he’s connecting farmers directly to the consumer.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So I can get farm fresh eggs, meat, flour directly from the farmers, from the producers right to my door, which is so incredible, especially during these times where we’re just trying to stay home and even limit our exposure going to the grocery store. So, if I can get eggs or the yolks just are like the sunset, it’s so gorgeous. And this flower from up in Skagit from Cairnsprings that it’s like I’d have to drive, miles and miles in order to go get this. Or anyways, there are ways and that is really, really exciting to me.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re talking about Devin Day, by the way who is episode 10 on the Real Food Real People Podcast here we talked to them.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, that’s awesome.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So we’ve had his Valley Farmstead Rabbits and the Neil’s Big Leaf maple syrup that they do.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, my gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
We talked all about that, but it’s been, since we had that episode that he’s developed a Small Food Drop thing. So, I’ve been talking to him a lot about it, and that’s a good mention for people who are interested to check that out. I know it’s small now, but he’s wanting to grow and grow that.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, he’s just, he’s a go getter, that one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, it’s really, really exciting. I mean, the fact that I can get that syrup, I have a couple of bottles sitting on my counter right now and it’s like, “Ah, why do I need to leave the house?” I’ve got… it’s really, really, really exciting, what he’s doing.

Dillon Honcoop:
He texted me right after he launched the Small Food Drop thing because we were talking about this kind of stuff, like after our podcast episode, we just kind of kept talking for like two hours after that episode.

Ashley Rodriguez:
That’s awesome.

Dillon Honcoop:
And about all these things, and a few weeks later really it wasn’t that much longer. We were in all of a sudden COVID world and he’s like, “Hey, check this out.” And so yeah, I ordered some Cairnspring Mills flour, and then he texted me a little bit later and said, “Hey, it’s on your front doorstep.” I’m like, “You delivered it yourself?” He’s like, “Yeah, we had to go over there and check. We were up in your area, have to check out some chickens that were going to raise. So I dropped it off.” So, it’s really cool and it’s kind of bringing the local personality back to food there and I hope he has a lot of success with that. What about Kitchen Unnecessary? Talk about how that came to be in this whole cooking outside thing. I’m a huge fan of that but not nearly as gourmet as you are. But I do love cooking over an open fire.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, I’m happy to talk about Kitchen Unnecessary. This is a project that my brother and I started about three years ago, and it started around the campfire. We go camping every year. I have two brothers and we all have three kids. So, between all of them and my mom and dad, there’s 17 of us that just go out into the woods and start up a fire. The moment we get there and just keep it going the whole time. And I’m cooking breakfast pretty much breakfast and dinner over the fire, and it started because with my love of food, I want to eat good food no matter where I am.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And of course, I love those classic campfire dishes as well. But I wanted to see what I could do within the limitation of only having a cast iron pan and a fire to cook with. And I think one of the first years I did like a braised chicken thigh over the fire and we had some fondue or just threw some cherry tomatoes with some shallots into the pan, let him blister and then melted Fontina cheese, and we just all sat around the campfire dubbing Costco pretzel buns into that big pot of cheese. And It’s like, Oh my gosh!

Dillon Honcoop:
Now you’re really killing me. You were getting me with the strawberries earlier, but this has really put me over the edge. Like can we take a time out so I can go get some munchies right now? Because you’re making me hungry.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. Exactly. So Chris and I, my brother were just sitting around the fire and he’s an incredible filmmaker. Like, “What can we do with this?” And so, Kitchen Unnecessarily was born, and we both have a love of the outdoors. I have a continual growing with wild foods and they had like played around with mushroom foraging was some people that I’ve met down here in the Seattle food community and just love this idea that food surrounds us. And so, we connect with these local or just guides these experts and we go out and we find a wild food ingredients and learn with them and then go start a fire and cook a feast in the middle of the woods, or by a river or wherever the case may be. We’ve fly fished in Montana, fished forged, hunted in Alaska, and of course living in the Pacific Northwest, we have such a bounty.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So we’ve done, gathered gooey ducks and clams and oysters on the beach and then within a few feet just lit up a fire and smoked some clams and boiled some pasta for a smokey clam Carbonara. And I mean, it’s really, really fun. And it’s a project that I’m so excited about, and we’re working right now, we can’t go out and do the episodes in the same way that we’ve been able to, now that we’re kind of in quarantine. But again, we can all get out in our backyards and have these cool, unique experiences. So, Chris and I are working on developing a series to really teach you how to cook over your fire pit or even over your grill and to kind of take it beyond what you thought it was capable of in the comfort and safety of your own backyard.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So be looking for that. And we just launched a podcast as well, which has been super, super fun to continue the conversation with some of our guides and to connect with people in the outdoor and food space to talk about the joys of being outside and the bounty that really surrounds us. It’s really, really incredible. Chris and I-

Dillon Honcoop:
Now it’s called Kitchen Unnecessary as well. Right? It’s like Kitchen Unnecessary, the TV show essentially-

Ashley Rodriguez:
The podcast. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And Kitchen Unnecessarily the podcast.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Exactly. Yeah. So, it’s been really, really fun. I’ve been now in the food space for about 15 years, and it’s really incredible when you can kinda do a little deep dive into it, into a whole new Avenue of it. So, it’s keeping me excited about all things, food.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s next? What else do you have up your sleeve?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Well, right now, it’s hard to see much beyond the day in front of you, but I’m fishing next week since fishing is opening up.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, nice.

Ashley Rodriguez:
No, I think that, that is what’s right in front of me. I mean I’m going to continue to be inspired by food and hopefully, share the things that are getting me excited, and I hope that looks like more cookbooks, more adventures with Kitchen Unnecessary, just more of the same. I am having so much fun in this space and I just want to see it continue. As long as people are there, then I will… Even if people aren’t there. But it really helps us out financially when people are there, and excited about what I’m doing and buying the books and cooking the recipes and eager to watch the episodes and all of that. So, it’s a gift to be able to do this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you so much for opening up. What a cool story and I think this is the first podcast episode here for Real Food Real People where I’ve gotten hungry like four different times. Enjoying the conversation.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Good. That’s part of my job.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re succeeding On that front.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. I wish we could be together and I could actually feed you rather than just tease you. But.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, someday I’ll hold you to that. But in the meantime, I guess we are talking over digital connections here is going to have to do. But thank you so much for sharing-

Ashley Rodriguez:
My pleasure, thanks for the opportunity.

Dillon Honcoop:
… the personal side of the story. Yeah.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Seriously. I wasn’t making it up. I got hungry multiple times throughout that conversation and I think shortly after we did that chat, I had to quickly get out and get some lunch or something. I don’t remember what I ate, but I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as gourmet as anything that Ashley makes. What a cool person though. Right? And a cool perspective on food, that it’s not just a chore. It’s not just something that we do automatically, that there’s art there, and there’s humanity there. She brings so much to that and even caused me to think about things differently than I have in the past.

Dillon Honcoop:
We need people like that in our food system, if we want to call it that. After a conversation like this, makes it kind of sound impersonal. But we need people like that to remind us of those things and to remind us of the importance of growing the food and working the soil of picking the food or whatever harvesting, however that’s done, processing it into stuff that’s edible and able to be bought at the store, and the people who are actually buying it and selling it and cooking it. This whole thing all the way to those of us. Well, all of us who eat it at the end of the whole process.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for being here on the Real Food Real People podcast. There are a lot of ugly, terrible things happening with this global pandemic right now. But I guess we’re just trying to maintain some positivity here and look toward those silver linings. And I think one of those is a change in the way that we’re thinking about food. And we want to be part of that change. We want to help give, it’s so interesting that we just launched this podcast at the beginning of the year. Or actually just before the beginning of the year, just before Christmas.

Dillon Honcoop:
And here we are now. Totally, we had no idea this was coming, but here we are in a time when people are rethinking where their food comes from, and we want to help be a way for people to get reconnected to their food. As people, including myself, I mean, as much as I grew up around farming and I host this podcast and all this. I had had plenty of reminders recently too, just how near and dear our food and where it comes from and whether it’s safe and produced with high quality and protections. I’ve been reminded of that as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what we want to do with this podcast, and that’s why we would really appreciate your support. Not only to subscribe and we certainly appreciate that on whatever podcasts platform is your preferred way to get it in. A lot of people, I’m just looking at the stats. A lot of people are subscribing like on Apple podcasts, but people are listening on Spotify. iHeartRadio or podcasts or whatever they call it, Google podcasts as well as looking pretty popular, but there’s a lot of other ones too. So whatever your favorite is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Anyway, it helps for you to subscribe. But even more as we try to get more people reconnected to where their food comes from in this time of pandemic and uncertainty about the future, share it on social media if you could. Maybe send it out to your followers in a post or in a message or whatever works and tell them something about what kind of spoke to you in our conversations here, and let me know too. You can find us on social media, Real Food, Real People podcast. Of course, it’s probably just the easiest way to search it. RFRP_podcast on Instagram. Same handle on Twitter. And then what is it? RFRP.Podcast on Facebook. Basically the same thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So find us there. Shoot us a message there. Share our stuff and let’s continue to grow this circle of people who appreciate the people who are growing our food and making our food for us here in Washington State.

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

Chad Kruger | #020 04/27/2020

He's now a key leader in the same university research system that his farmer grandpa would look to for guidance on his strawberry farm decades ago. Chad Kruger shares how WSU scientists and farmers are working together to grow food better.

Transcript

Chad Kruger:
Before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing. He always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he was such an inspirational person.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re to get kind of sciency. We’re going to get into some science stuff this episode on the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m host, Dillon Honcoop. Glad you’re here. We’re talking with a guy who’s basically a farming scientist, for lack of a better term. His team is made up of the key people who are studying scientific issues in farming and growing food here in Washington State. These are scientists who are trying to help farmers make better food and make their food better, if that makes sense. Improve the quality of what we’re able to produce, as well as improving the process of growing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this is so much about the technology now that’s involved in farming and knowing every little thing about the plants and the soil and the food and what makes it good and what makes it not good and what the impacts are. It’s really extensive, and it’s pretty amazing. Chad Kruger is our guest this week, and he actually grew up in a farming family in Eastern Washington. It was kind of cool, during the conversation we realized we had this family roundabout connection that we would have never otherwise recognized other than this talk, about how what his grandpa was doing was actually connected to my family as well as my wife’s family.

Dillon Honcoop:
My wife didn’t even grow up in Washington State, but she’s connected to this story, so you’ll hear that part, and I thought that was super cool to find out. Chad has a really great perspective on what’s happening with technology and science and farming and the production of food and why it’s uniquely challenging here in Washington, but also why we have such incredible opportunities. We talk about climate change as well, that could actually end up being an opportunity for farming in Washington State in the future.

Dillon Honcoop:
But he also has some warnings with how we’re handling that and if we’re taking action soon enough on issues. So we get into all of it this week, again with Chad Kruger. He’s with the Washington State University Center For Sustaining Agriculture And Natural Resources. He’s based in Mount Vernon, Washington, here in Western Washington, North of Seattle, and he’s got so much cool stuff to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
First, talk about what you do now and how you are connected to the food system in maybe a way that people don’t recognize. What is it that you have been doing for the past, what has it been, 10, 15 years out here?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. Maybe starting right now and working backwards a little bit, I’m currently the director of Washington State University’s research and extension centers in Mount Vernon and in Puyallup, which are both in Western Washington. Puyallup is the original off-campus agricultural experiment station and Mount Vernon is the newest of the off-campus agricultural experiment stations, and we call them both research and extension centers now, but essentially they’re labs and research farms. And so my role as director of those is kind of an unusual thing in terms of a university system, in that it’s really focused on oversight to facilities and operations management for these entities where a whole bunch of faculty research programs and extension programs operate out off of.

Chad Kruger:
So it’s not quite the same as you might expect with an academic program at a university, these are really research-based programs and my role is really responsibility for the overall campus operations and big picture investments.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sounds pretty complicated and technical.

Chad Kruger:
Yes and no. Bottom line is, it’s still just a leadership opportunity trying to work within the university system and with our partners and the agricultural community and the broader community to make sure that the partnership between the land-grant university and the community is mutually beneficial and that we’re doing things that matter in the real world and that the real world is bringing things that they need help on to the university.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the real world ultimately is producing food, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, exactly. The vast majority of what we do in our college, it’s College Of Agricultural, Human And Natural Resource Sciences, but we really are the land-grant college of agriculture that many people would have historically understood in including both the academic, the research, and the extension dimensions of that. But we’re also in the process of evolving into a future that’s not alike every other part of the food world, things are not the same as they used to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
So basically, it’s where science and farming come together, right? These are farming scientists in a way at the university level, is that fair to sum that up? Like you’re managing basically a group of farming scientists?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I might say that we’re getting more and more to the end where it’s the scientist’s side of that equation relative to the farming science dual factor, whereas 20, 30 years ago, I think you might’ve said that the science farmer was as much science as farmer. I think based on just the evolution of research needs and capabilities, we tend to focus more on getting the scientists that can help the farmer at this point in time, but you still have to have a pretty good understanding of, how do you actually grow a crop? And you need to understand your crop in the way that a farmer has to understand the crop in order to actually be able to do research on that crop that’s relevant to the farming world.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess how scientific is farming right now then?

Chad Kruger:
It’s becoming more and more science-based, more and more data-driven. And I think what we’re seeing in the ag and food world right now is, all of the technology that’s in the broader world around us is looking for its opportunity within the ag and food production and ag and food system at a level that even five years ago it wasn’t quite looking at it as intensely. And I think it’s going to continue to be that way where technology and data and understanding becomes more and more important to success in farming be able to grow a crop or produce a product that goes off into the marketplace, whether that market is local, regional or global.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are some of the biggest things that you and your team that you work with have found or discovered or tested? What kind of stuff are we talking about when we’re talking about data and science of farming and growing plants in particular? I think a lot of this is plant stuff, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. WSU historically has been very well known on the plant science side, not that we don’t have strength in animal sciences too, but historically, WSU’s expertise and reputation really has been on the plant sciences side. And that crosses everything from the grains to the specialty crops, fruits and vegetables, with a lot of background and focus on that. And so the facilities that I’ve been in charge of and a lot of the work that I’ve been involved with really is plant science focused, quite a bit of animal systems as well. People work on everything from breeding and genetics to crop protection; diseases, insects and pests and weeds, to soils and environmental issues, economics, the whole nine yards.

Chad Kruger:
We touch a little bit in a lot of places. We tend to be most focused on the actual crop production systems as opposed to, at least in the entities that I’m responsible for, as opposed to up the value chain if you will, of the food system, though there has been some work on food processing, value added, and that kind of thing. But the majority of our investment really has been growing a plant and keeping a plant growing successfully, ensuring that that’s done in an environmentally appropriate way and that we’re minimizing impacts on the larger environment.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. When you talked about the processing stuff and whatnot, I do think of stuff that you guys have done even there in Skagit where you are like the Bread Lab, that we talked about here on the podcast with Nels Brisbane several episodes ago, but really cool stuff there. But that tends to not be the main thing, the main thing is more on growing the plants and the farming side of it, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think that’s a little bit of legacy in terms of where the long-standing partnership between, at least WSU and the ag community has been, is really the help is always been needed on the production system side. I think we are thinking more and more about the bigger picture and where other dimensions of our work need to be. We did have a faculty member in food science who had joined us for a short period of time at one of the research centers recently. So it’s something that’s on our mind and we do have a food science department, food engineering, and then of course entities like the Bread Lab that really are trying to wrap their mind around this bigger picture of agriculture isn’t just about the production system but it’s about the whole system as it comes together and then the need for the market to facilitate success on farm and becoming more intentional about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the coolest thing that you feel like in your time there you have been a part of or worked on as a team?

Chad Kruger:
For me, particularly at the Mount Vernon center, I think one of the coolest things that I’ve been able to work on is helping to bring the first soils’ faculty to the center there. The Mount Vernon center has a long history in working in Northwest Washington on a number of the cropping systems that are important here, and it always seemed to me to be a bit of an oversight not to have a soils’ person in the mix. Well, there’s always been a soils’ person in the mix at the Puyallup center and in many of the other areas where I’ve worked over the years, it just felt like a key missing ingredient, if you will, of a viable cropping systems team.

Chad Kruger:
And so bringing soil’s faculty to the table in Mount Vernon that can work with the faculty that are more focused on the plant or the organism that affect a plant above the soil or in some cases below the soil, I think that was a really important thing to do. Part of that is, there’s a lot of questions that are emerging about crop performance that can’t be answered with a simple approach of diagnose and add a chemical and solve the problem. They really are systemic problems that we have to think about from a systems’ perspective. And bringing a soil scientist into the mix enables our team to have all the pieces that they need to go about asking bigger picture tougher questions that 30 years ago maybe you didn’t need to figure all that out, but we really do need to do that going forward.

Chad Kruger:
And then I think the other piece of this is as these Northwest Washington farming communities continue to move forward, the pressure around environmental issues is going to just keep increasing, and it’s already very, very tight in terms of what a farmer can and can’t do and the impacts that farming has on the environment. And one of the best tools from a research perspective that we can bring to the table is soils research because so much of what happens in terms of impacts on the environment happen through the soil as a lens or a gateway into water quality, other issues like that. And so having soil’s members as part of the team better enables us to serve an ongoing partnership between the agricultural community, the farmers, as well as the larger community that’s living around agriculture in the region.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about how important soils are as affecting so many things. And you talk about water quality. Then there’s the huge issue that everybody’s talking about, which is climate change, that’s another big soil-focused issue, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. There’s certainly an interaction between soils and vegetation and climate, or the global carbon system. I think a lot of people don’t understand that the relative amount of the global carbon budget that’s fixed in the soils versus the atmosphere, it’s much greater in soil. Soils are a much bigger reservoir of carbon than the atmosphere. And while we talk a lot fossil fuels in the context of the global carbon cycle, soils and vegetation are pretty big part of it. And while soils aren’t going to solve the whole problem, they are part of a solution. And the beautiful thing is, the kinds of things that we want to do from a farm-level perspective to improve soil management, help crops perform better, potentially help on the financial side for the farmer, those kinds of things tend to be good for the global carbon system as well.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s one of these very seemingly rare things where being focused on healthy soils is a win, win, win kind of scenario, and that is why-

Dillon Honcoop:
Rather than some trade off where it’s like, “Oh, well, you have to do the right thing, it’s going to cost you, but it’s the right thing to do.” Well, here it may benefit on both ends, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, definitely. And yet we still don’t know very much, and I think that’s the other big picture issue is, if we’re going to make progress that’s beneficial to farmers or the environment in soils, we need to know a whole lot more than we currently know. And that’s both a general issue everywhere and a specific issue in this region where we haven’t actively had soil science just working in these cropping systems, is really to understand what do we not know how to do and how do we increase that knowledge and give producers more tools that they can to improve their soil management?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like you said, there’s a lot that we don’t know, but how much is farming going to change with all of this focus on soil and learning about soil and all the science that you guys and so many other universities and agencies are doing? Is it going to change the face of farming in the near future?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer to that question. My suspicion is there will be changes, but they may not be readily observable in the sense of looking at one field compared to another field and saying, “Oh wow, that’s a big difference.” The soils don’t tend to reflect changes quickly, and so it takes a lot more time to understand how a management intervention or a management change affects the soil positively and negatively and whether or not you’ve achieved something that you’re trying to achieve. And that’s one of the great challenges that we talk about in the context of agricultural research, is soils and cropping systems types of research questions don’t tend to be easily solved with a quick experiment, and you really have to keep after them for awhile.

Chad Kruger:
And I don’t think it’s just the soil questions at this point in time anymore, I think some of the disease questions and even some of the weed management questions that historically may have presented fairly simple solutions… We’ve answered a lot of the simple questions, and we’ve done that. And the questions or the challenges that we’re dealing with today don’t have simple answers and often the answer is in the interplay between the plant and the soil or the other organisms that interact between the plant and the soil. And that’s much more complicated and not quite as easy to find solutions to. I have high hopes, but I’m not quite so convinced that there’s going to be overwhelming discoveries that really quickly help us figure out how to change things.

Chad Kruger:
And perhaps a way to think about this is thinking about it in terms of human health, it used to be you got sick, you went to the doctor and there was a new medication that the doctor could give you and all of a sudden you were better. And in agriculture and food, we were in that place for quite a while where the technology coming out of the science world was able to come up with some fairly quick fixes, but we’ve used up a lot of that. And now we’re at the point where if you talk about human health, a lot of it is about diet, exercise and other things that you can do that are focused on making a whole person healthier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holistic health.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, holistic. And that’s also, I think where we’re at in terms of farming and food production and food systems, is we’ve got to start thinking a lot more about the big picture and the interactions between the different pieces of that big picture.

Dillon Honcoop:
And talk about the soil stuff and the holistic way of thinking. I’ve gotten passionate about that over the years because of my dad. And I’ve talked at a time or two on this program about… probably more than a time or two, about how I grew up on a red raspberry farm here in Northwest Washington where you are a scientist, and I grew up on a red raspberry farm where my dad was very passionate about these issues and plugged in with what you guys are doing there at Washington State University. So I’ve been exposed to some of this stuff and been thinking about it for a long time. What’s it like working with farmers like that and seeing some of these things happen on the ground in the real world, like for instance on my dad’s farm?

Chad Kruger:
I personally think that’s one of the most exciting about this whole wonderful opportunity I’ve been dropped into the middle of, is people like your dad who just have an incredibly curious and inquisitive mind and yet are doing their best with the state of knowledge right now to produce a crop that goes into an existing system but is never quite satisfied with the feeling that we know everything we need to know, and he’s always asking new questions, he’s always observing something in the field and then saying, “Hey, I just saw this. What do you think that is?” And most of the time, we can’t answer that question when he asks it. And I think it’s really valuable for our side of the partnership to have people like him who are out there trying things who are…

Chad Kruger:
And I’m trying to think of a way to explain this, but they say farming is a pretty unusual thing and that you basically have 40 chances in your life to figure it out, and each of those 40 chances ends up looking very, very different. And the 40 chances of course are that the number of seasons that you have to grow a crop. And to be successful, you really have to be observant and thoughtful and you have to record your data, if you will, and understand how what you’ve observed in the past might be similar to or different from what you’re observing in the future, and know when you need to ask the right question or what specific observation that you’re seeing in the field you need to pursue that one.

Chad Kruger:
And having producers like him that work in partnership with us where you can have these conversations and dig deep into what we do know to figure out where are the important, critical emerging questions that we need to start doing research on in order to help solve a problem before it’s another crisis or to be able to capitalize on something that someone’s observing that they say, “Hey, I’ve been doing this and it seems to be helping. Can you tell me why?” And I think one thing that’s evolved within the ag research world, and as I point back to one of the things I said earlier about the science farmer thing where I think we’re getting more and more on the science end of that partnership, is the questions that are being asked now take a lot more knowledge and a lot more technology in order to answer them.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s becoming more and more specialized on the science end of the equation in order to run an experiment that gets an answer that a producer needs. And so whereas 30, 40, 50 years ago, there was this sense that the land-grant university was going to do research and come up with new practices and technologies that would then get extended out to the farm and the farmers would pick them up and use them. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I think what we’re seeing now is the producers that are observing things and asking those questions are bringing those things to the scientists now.

Chad Kruger:
And what our job is becoming more and more about is helping the producer understand the phenomenon that they’re observing and helping them figure out what management strategies could be employed to minimize the negative things that we see and maximize the positive things that we see. And I think going forward, producers are going to have to be more and more knowledgeable in order to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
They basically have to be scientists themselves, it sounds like.

Chad Kruger:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re farmers, does a farmer make a good scientist? What you’re describing here is a switch from a top down approach, which it sounds like you were saying the old school approach is more top down, now this is more like bottom up, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, and I think that’s the way it should be. We’re long since passed the point where the university system knows more about these crops than the farmers do. I think we’re at the point where the farmers know a whole lot more than we do, but we have what I’d call cool tools to be able to answer very specific questions that the producers are not going to be able to answer themselves. And so I think as we go forward, we’re going to see more and more of that character to the partnership between the science community and farming community.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about scientists? Do scientists make good farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I know a lot of scientists who could do a pretty good job farming, but I think for the most part, most of them will tell you that they’re really glad they’re scientists and not the farmers themselves because farming is a much more complex and challenging thing than I think most people give it credit.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the misunderstanding is there from those of us who just go to the grocery store and buy food about the science that goes into it? What you’re describing is pretty extensive as far as the amount of research and data that’s going up.

Chad Kruger:
Yup. Part of it I think is very few people ever grow a plant to me more or care for an animal at any level. And so a lot of the historic, what’s often called indigenous knowledge doesn’t exist within the greater population anymore. And so I think there’s just a lack of full appreciation for how complicated it is to produce food and to do it at the scale and with the proficiency and quality that we do. And so I think anybody can read a book or watch a video and come to a conclusion and think they know something, but 40 years of experience, 40 chances is a wealth of knowledge that I think is just often underappreciated and undervalued.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been your favorite time working with farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I think one of the things I have always appreciated the most, and this comes in all the different roles that I’ve had, is the chance to sit down with farmers and talk about the future, talk about where their concerns are about continued viability, where their concerns are about sustainability issues, whether those are profitability environmental issues, big picture, global markets and other things like that. The opportunity to sit down with a group of farmers, especially a group of farmers that come from different perspectives and can sit down and have a good conversation around what is the future looking like and how do we ensure that we have a successful future and that we’re able to continue to improve what we’re doing and continue to put a good product out for consumers and do a good job with stewardship.

Chad Kruger:
I think overall, that’s why I get up in the morning and that’s why I do what I do, is the opportunity to work with forward-looking farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that future look like? I guess, there’s challenges and maybe this is a weird way of asking it, but I almost want to say like pre-COVID, what were the dark clouds in the future that we need to deal with as far as producing food here in Washington State?

Chad Kruger:
Everything. And I say that facetiously, but in reality it’s true, it’s economic profitability. At the bottom line, if a farm can’t make money, it’s going to go out of business. And I think one thing that a lot of people don’t understand is the more and more farms that can’t make money can go out of business, the more it takes with them. So there is this strange thing about competition amongst farms, even within an area, but also that there’s a critical mass where a certain amount of cooperation of the farms in an area is important to everyone’s success and health. And the pressure around cost of production, the pressure around the value of the product is never going to let up.

Chad Kruger:
I just don’t see that ever letting up, even as we’ve gone through this recent little bit upset where people are thinking about things like, “I can’t go to a restaurant,” or “I need to get a particular type of food.” Or, “I can’t get something that I want.” While we’re thinking about this now about maybe the least cost product isn’t necessarily the best choice all the time, a year or two years down the road, I wonder how that’s going to come back to us. Are we still going to be thinking about the fact that there may be reasons that we need to not just take the least cost producer of food in order to ensure that we’ve got some resilience and robustness in our food system.

Chad Kruger:
So that’s a big one, that’s bigger than any of us, and how to address that is monumental. It’s a wicked problem. The environmental side and obviously, I’ve worked on the side, the pressure is going to continue to amount for many people in the broader public to the point where the idea that farms have any impact on the environment that’s negative is a problem. That’s a challenge, it’s an almost an insurmountable challenge because the very act of producing food has an impact. The very act of eating food has an impact. And so how do we continue to work with that challenge and continue to improve and do better, which drives up the cost of production?

Chad Kruger:
And so I think that’s a big one. And a lot of that tends to come out in terms of practical, real world impact on farms. There’s regulation, and so every time we interviewed or surveyed farmers about big issues, it doesn’t matter if they’re a wheat farmer or a tree fruit producer, a dairy farmer, a potato grower, a berry producer, it doesn’t matter if they’re big or small, conventional or organic, anywhere in between, regulation tends to come up as one of the biggest challenges to sustainability in farming. And it is what it is. We’re in a world where regulation is becoming ever increasingly the mechanism by which we do everything. And so how do we help our producers navigate that world of regulation.

Chad Kruger:
Competition. We’ve really seen this in some of our key Northwest Washington industries, that competition isn’t just local, it’s global. And there are a lot of other places in the world that can produce the same things we produce and do it cheaper. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing it better, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re protecting the environment in the same way, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re producing a product that’s as high of quality as we are, but in a marketplace that’s looking for the least cost producer, that’s a real challenge to address for Washington farms.

Chad Kruger:
And I’ve got a number of colleagues who’ve talked about the fact that Washington State will probably never be the least cost producer on a lot of the things that we produce. And that just is what it is, and it’s because we have pretty high level environmental regulations. Our labor costs are much higher than much of the rest of the world, they’re much higher than much of the rest of the country. And environmental issues, regulations, all of these things make it so that we’re never going to be competing on the same playing field as a lot of other locations around the world. And in many cases, around the country. And so we’re just going to have to do better and we’re going to have to have a better product than everybody else is producing in order to be competitive.

Chad Kruger:
I could keep going down the list, energy issues, they tend to rear their heads up and down. Right now, energy is not a problem, but that’s not going to be a long-term trend. It’s going to come back, climate is going to be an issue. Relatively speaking, we seem to be insulated from some of the more dire predictions on the climate side, but sooner or later there’s going to be direct effects, there’s going to be indirect effects, water supply. The fact that we look relatively good compared to a lot of other regions means that a lot of food production in a lot of other regions is going to start looking at the Northwest and saying, “Hey, we need to move there.” So what are the dynamics that that’s going to create?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Why other than, and I’ve heard that elsewhere too, that Washington really hasn’t been as effected by climate change as other parts of the world to date. So far it seems to be a slower thing here than maybe elsewhere, but beyond that issue, what are the advantages for growing food here in Washington? And you’re talking about the challenges, I guess maybe some of those challenges are also insight into some of the benefits too, but ultimately, yeah, what’s so great about growing food here in Washington?

Chad Kruger:
On the climate side, that is one of the things is, if you think about our geographic location in the globe, we’re pretty far north. There aren’t a whole lot of regions further north than us that are big fruit and vegetable production regions. There’s some grain producing regions that are further North than us, but generally speaking, the fruit and vegetable production regions are South of us. And so if you think about climate in terms of getting warmer… Another way to think about it is moving south. So if you think 10, 15 degrees of warming, you are in the Central Valley of California, that looks pretty good for us.

Chad Kruger:
So I think that’s something that may not be on a lot of people’s radar or screens yet, but as we move forward, there are going to be opportunities in our region, in part, because we’ve got a lot of good viable farming land and we’ve got a lot of resiliency and the resources that are necessary to produce fruits and vegetables like water supply. So I think we do have some opportunities in front of us, but we need to be thinking about them and planning for them. And one of the things that concern me a little bit about the COVID-19 situation hitting was, all of a sudden, everybody’s focused on an immediate crisis, which is a big thing, very serious, but if we don’t quickly address this crisis and get our eyes back on the big prize of the long run, we’re going to miss key investments that we need to be making relative to our future success.

Chad Kruger:
And that’s something that’s always difficult to do in the crisis as you get so caught up in the day to day that it’s easy to forget about thinking one, two 10, 15, 30, 50, 100 years ahead, which in order to continue being successful, you’ve got be looking ahead all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can see that in a couple of decades down the road, we could be saying, “Well, why didn’t we get that going back then?” “Well, because remember we were in the middle of that whole virus thing.” “Oh yeah.” That would be a sad and really at that time looking into the future, a really frustrating thing to look back on and say, “Yeah, we were worried about that and it was a bad thing, but now we’re suffering here in the future from things that maybe we didn’t have our eye on the ball enough with at that time.”

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think this virus thing is one of those, we should have seen this comment. In fact, some people did see this coming, and we should have been ready for it and this is not going to be the last time it happened. But we have this thing that we do that we tend to focus on, recent experience as the guide to the future and we tend to forget things that were really important until they hit us again. And we’ve got to get better about learning from our experiences and being ready and prepared for the next time. A good example of that was drought in the region. 2005 was a pretty rough drought and then we were in pretty good shape in the region for about 10 years.

Chad Kruger:
And then we had a big drought again in 2015, and it was surprising how much had been forgotten. Between 2005 and 2015, response options and strategies and infrastructure and institutional knowledge that should have been there, ready to respond wasn’t there. And coming out of the 2015 drought, there was a lot of learning that happened that should make the next time we deal with drought because it’s coming again, should make it easier to deal with in the future. And yet I’m not so sure that we’ve got that one figured out yet either.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into this world of food and farming and obviously, you’re so passionate about it. Did you grow up around farming?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I have the immense blessing to come from a family that has generational farms in Washington State in both my mother and father’s side. So my mom’s dad was a very grower from Lynden, Arneson Farms. He was a really innovative guy, he came out after World War II and started a diversified farming operation and ultimately got into strawberries. And so growing up, I got to spend quite a bit of time with him and learn from him. And in fact, he used to tell me stories of working with the WSU scientists at the Puyallup and Mount Vernon experiment stations where I’m currently the director.

Chad Kruger:
So I knew about those stations and I knew about Ag science before I ever knew what the land grant was. And so that was a pretty important thing. And then on my dad’s side, we were an Eastern Washington wheat and cattle ranching family, the family came out at the end of the civil war. So I think I’m sixth generation relative to the ones who came out, first settled in the state,

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to your mom’s side, the Arneson, I remember them. I remember that farm, my uncle worked for the Arneson. In fact, my wife who is from BC and I met her in college, she remembers coming down from BC to the Arneson Farm to pick strawberries. That was her memory of Lynden, before I knew her. It breaks my heart now to see that original Arneson homeplace covered in homes, but I understand that’s the way of the world these days, but every time I drive by it’s like, “Yeah, that used to be a strawberry field right there. What do you think… So that was your grandpa on your mom’s side?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think he would say about you seeing you’ve being the director of these things that he was interacting with as a professional, as a farmer back then?

Chad Kruger:
Well, he knew that he was a big part of my curiosity and push towards this direction and before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing, he always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he such an inspirational person, he always had a new thing he was going to try, a new approach. He loved the farming, but he loved the people too. He talked a lot about all of those customers that came down, particularly customers from Canada who crossed the border every year for decades to come and pick strawberries.

Chad Kruger:
And the relationships he developed over the years. And for me, that was a big thing because while I was interested in the farming and the science, he taught me that the relationships were probably as/or more important than all of it. And it’s a juxtaposition from my other grandfather who were out in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Washington, there was a saying that anytime he was more than seven miles from the homeplace, he was stressed. And I feel a little of that too, so it’s this interesting juxtaposition of two foreign families, two grandfathers that had a lot of influence on me and where I’m at.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do you think about that day-to-day? Does that cross your mind sometimes when you’re doing stuff?

Chad Kruger:
Every day, every day. I think about it every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you want your legacy to be?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and it’s one that as I get older I’m more and more thinking about. And part of this is watching my dad who’ll recently retire and he’s thinking a lot more about his legacy. And so I’m starting to think about, “Maybe that’s something I should be thinking about too.” It’s doesn’t come naturally to me, I tend to do the thing that’s right in front of me, to do that needs to be done at that time. And if that means sticking a shovel in a pile of manure, half the time, that’s what it is. But I think more and more and the leadership opportunities that I’ve been blessed to have is I’m more effective when I’m helping someone else figure out how to solve the problem that they have in front of them.

Chad Kruger:
And so more and more as I grow older and have more opportunity, I’m seeing that what I feel success in is when other people are able to succeed in part because they figure out how to work together, whether that’s the farmer-university partnership, that kind of thing, or to other people however they come together, helping people figure out how they get over these hurdles that we tend to throw up in our human organization and make sure that we can succeed going forward.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you actually grow up? Where was home for you as a kid?

Chad Kruger:
I grew up in Eastern Washington, I grew up in a little town called Othello. We’re about 90 minutes from our Eastern Washington ranch, but Othello is the place you stop to get gas between Ellensburg and Pullman. And so I grew up there and actually my first official experiences in Ag research were for WSU as a high schooler working at the Othello experiment station, doing some field work in potatoes. And so I worked on an experiment that was looking at irrigation rates and fertility rates and potatoes and another experiment looking at some of the early root imaging for potato work. So trying to understand what’s going on underneath the surface of the soil as potatoes grow.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy. We just recently had on the podcast, Camas Uebelacker from Othello. He’s a feedlot owner and operator out there, so hey, you’re from that same town, that same neck of the woods that maybe a lot of us haven’t necessarily spent a whole lot of time in, but man, a lot of the food that we eat here and all over the place comes from that part of the state, between the potatoes, the beef and everything else, and the fruit and everything.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. If you really think about it, the central part of Washington where it’s irrigated, a lot of that was broken out within the lifetimes of many people who are still farming. And it’s become one of the most productive areas of the world in terms of a lot of vegetable and fruit production systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for you?

Chad Kruger:
Well, I’m not totally sure yet, as I said earlier, I tend to do the thing that’s in front of me, very soon I might find out. I did announce last fall that I was going to step down from the Mount Vernon and Puyallup Research Centers. It had been five years at Mount Vernon and three years at Puyallup, which I was doing from a distance and the call to go back to Eastern Washington and be a little closer to that family ranch was getting more and more powerful. So we’ll see where I end up, but fairly soon, I think we’ll know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You want to be back to that family road. Are you going to farm yourself? What do you think?

Chad Kruger:
Probably not going to farm myself, I don’t think my wife would take the finances of it. It’s a little joke, but someday, I’ll go ride fences and be a cowboy again.

Dillon Honcoop:
There you go. That’s awesome. Well, thank you for sharing and opening up. We just really touched the surface of a lot of really big things that I know that you’ve spent years working on. So I appreciate you being willing to take that summary look at it because maybe some of the stuff doesn’t do it justice, but I think it’s so important and something that maybe a lot of people aren’t aware of is part of really the food system here is the university involvement and the science. And I don’t know, some people even get scared with how it’s so scientific and technical. I really view it as a good thing, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I don’t see how going forward it’s avoidable, and whether it’s the university or private sector or someone else, the pressure on the agricultural and food systems to be able to answer questions with data and to be able to manage with data are just going to increase. And so I think the long term partnership between the land-grant university and the farmers gives a bit of a leg up in that, but it’s something that we’ve got to double down and invest in to ensure that we’re going to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for sharing your story and talking with us and also with this whole COVID thing going on, stay safe and healthy out there.

Chad Kruger:
All right, thanks, Dylan.

Speaker 4:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I still think that’s so cool that his grandpa was all about and would talk about people like my wife and her family, who had come down and pick berries, and here, years later, me and Chad ended up connecting over that. What a cool guy though, and somebody who is really accomplished as a scientist but also a manager. And to do that, you have to be about all the data and all the technical stuff, but you also have to understand the people and the big picture, where this is all going and why even are we applying science to food? Well, it has to do with our future as a community, as a state, as human beings, and doing the right thing and producing food the right way, but also efficiently and competitively.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s just so cool to hear his focus on all of that, and we need to keep track of what he does next if he’s headed back to Eastern Washington. I have a hunch he’s going to find himself farming in one shape or form one day, but we’ll see. It’s just one of those things that’s in your blood. Thanks for joining us this week on the Real Food Real People Podcast. Please stay safe out there, stay healthy, follow the guidelines, and we’ll get through this thing together. Oh, and I should also thank our sponsors, Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. You can find them online at savefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Larry Stap part 2 | #019 04/20/2020

He's faced some monumental challenges, including losing his son to cancer. In this second half of our conversation with Twin Brook Creamery co-owner Larry Stap, he opens up about some of the personal side of family farming.

Transcript

Larry Stap:
… the cancer just destroyed his body, just destroyed it, invaded every aspect of it. There’s nothing that I wish on any parent ever, is to lose a child.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, it’s a really emotional conversation this week on the podcast. Last week was the first part of the chat with Larry Stap of Twin Brook Creamery, small dairy farm and glass mild bottling operation in Lyndon, Washington. And he told us all about how Twin Brook came to be, and the risks they took, and all the work they put in, and the uncertainty for a while where it looked like where it looked like they might not make it. This week, things get a bit personal, including Larry opening up about the passing of his son, who passed away only a year after graduating from high school from Cancer. Larry also talks about what’s happening right now with COVID-19, and how that’s affected their business, including one unexpected change that became a lot more complicated than you might think.

Dillon Honcoop:
So he gets into that later, as well as talking about other challenges his farm has faced over the years. And, will he ever retire? We get to it all this week, as we continue part two of our conversation again with Twin Brook Creamery co-owner Larry Stap, longtime, fourth generation, family dairy farmer in Lyndon, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest time on the farm?

Larry Stap:
The hardest time on the farm probably is your responsibility to take care of things, and you have to sacrifice sometimes pleasures. I can remember when we started way back in the ’70s, ’80s, you’re doing everything starting out yourself. You’re milking the cows, your feeding them, you’re doing this, you’re doing that. I mean, it’s just push. And then, one time, I can remember to this day, my wife said to me, “Don’t figure on doing anything for a couple of certain days,” and she secretly had booked a motel and we went away for three days. Lined up the milker and all that stuff, and that was the most pleasurable thing. I can remember that to this day. I mean, that is huge in my mind. I wouldn’t say there’s any specific low moment, but it’s just, you look back on it, and I would say, I probably overworked myself sometimes to the detriment of playing with my children.

Larry Stap:
But a lot of that comes as grandparents, you realize how precious your kids were, and even how more precious your grandchildren are. And you look back at it, and I said, “Boy, I love to spoil my grandchildren, I should’ve spoiled my kids a lot more too.” That’s probably one of my regrets a little bit, but I think most parents have that in some ways, [inaudible 00:03:31] farm too. So yeah. I mean, I know my parents, if I want to lay a guilt trip on them, all I have to do is remind them how much had to work on the farm. And I do that in fun, because they’re going through probably the same thing I did, is how we worked our kids way too hard.

Larry Stap:
I never, ever looked at it that way when I was a kid, I just enjoyed it. I mean, on a tractor and driving, and making hay bales, and killing field mice with your bayonet, and building forts up in the hay mound during the winter, going up in a silo and pitching the sides down. I thought that was a great lot of fun, in actuality, it was a lot of work that I did for my dad. I mean, it’s all right.

Larry Stap:
So no huge regrets in a lot of ways, it’s just that you sacrifice some family time that you probably shouldn’t have, but yet on the other hand I don’t hear my kids complaining too much either.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well you talk about your daughter and her husband being involved in the farm, but they’re not the only family of yours that’s involved in this operation, right?

Larry Stap:
No, they’re the only one financially involved. They’re full partners with us. Our oldest son also works full-time here on the farm with us. He’s got a degree in accounting, so he’s slowly taking over a lot of the bookkeeping, and a lot of the administrative work, and all of the government regulatory world that we live in, in terms of reporting and farms, and on, and on that, that goes. That’s huge, and so he’s doing more and more of that kind of stuff. And then we have another daughter that she randomly comes and helps us out here, does some things on the farm for us. So we have lots of family involved.

Larry Stap:
It’s kind of nice, our one daughter right now, she was working in a restaurant, and of course with this whole COVID pandemic, she’s off work right now, so I’m able to give her some odd jobs to do around here and help out, you see. So I feel privileged to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know, and this may be tough to talk about so I’m not sure if you want to talk about it, but what about your son that passed away?

Larry Stap:
That was a tough… That was probably one of the… It was the lowest point I’ve ever had in my life, okay? I mean, it was not easy, but two things, number one was, it really made me appreciate the community that we live in. You cannot believe the support and the things that were done for us. To this day, it just boggles my mind. I mean, they always talk about small community, everybody knows what everybody else is doing, and this and that, and the gossip and stuff like that, but if you can look beyond that, yes, everybody else knows what everybody else is doing, but it’s generally speaking because they care, not because they’re nosy. And that was a huge eye-opener for us.

Larry Stap:
So having said that, he passed away in 2003, and there is no doubt that he would be the one sitting behind the mic right now and not me, because he had a passion for farming. But that also opened the door for my daughter and son-in-law to step in, which I’m sure was a reflection of his passing. And it’s been so much fun, because I can see so much of my son-in-law and the way my son acted too. I can see a lot of that kind of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
I remember Mark, your son, he was a grade behind me in school.

Larry Stap:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, we weren’t big friends or anything, but we were acquainted, we knew each other, so I remember him, and I remember him in shop classes, and FFA-

Larry Stap:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and stuff like that. How did that happen, what was it that took his life?

Larry Stap:
When he was in Grade School, he had a massive tumor growing inside of his head, massive, but it was not cancerous, but it was so large that they could not surgically eradiate it… surgically remove it so they had to eradiate it, okay? They shrunk it down, and it went away but they kept monitoring it. And then a few years later it started growing again, but since they were monitoring it, they were able to surgically remove it. And then when he was a senior in high school, just after graduation… just after he graduated, he graduated in 2002, it started growing a third time and this time it was cancerous. And so they went in and did surgery, and it was an incredibly invasive surgery.

Larry Stap:
I mean, you can’t begin to describe the removal of an eye, and on and on, and stuff like that. And then when he got through that surgery, then they started chemo and radiation together to aggressively attack it. But it was such an aggressive cancer, that it just grew right in the face of all that stuff they were throwing at him. And then in June of 2003 he passed away just because the cancer just destroyed his body, just destroyed it, invaded every aspect of it. There’s nothing that I wish on any parent every, is to lose a childe. That is the most heart wrenching hard thing. And you can’t believe how many people in the community have laid a child in a grave, it’s pretty astounding.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like on the farm at that time?

Larry Stap:
On the farm that time-

Dillon Honcoop:
I actually can imagine.

Larry Stap:
This is where community came in, and one day it was so overwhelming and it was in the Spring, [inaudible 00:09:48] just started, and I couldn’t focus on what I had to do, just couldn’t. So I called up one of my neighboring farmers, a gentleman by the name of Steve Ewen, and I said, “Steve, I need help,” and he came over and he said, “Go in the house, we’ll take care of it all.” So crops got planted, crops got harvested, and the fellow farmers around the community, dairy and non-dairy, they all lined up to get out there to do something, and some of them had to wait till second and third cutting just to get their donated time and equipment in. It was just absolutely the most amazing thing I could… That’s where the community just stepped up. I mean, just one small part that they did for me.

Larry Stap:
I mean, it is beyond belief what they did, but my mind was just so overwhelmed I literally could not function.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think Mark would think of all the stuff that you’re doing now?

Larry Stap:
I don’t know, I don’t know. I think he’d be right in the middle of it. He would just be loving it. That kid, he was something. But you can’t dwell on what-if’s because they aren’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know you’ve mentioned a few times struggles dealing with regulation, what does that mean? What kind of stuff have you actually had to deal with?

Larry Stap:
Well, a lot of the regulatory world responds to hype, I guess for lack of a better word. A story gets out there about farms [inaudible 00:11:34], so then the legislature thinks they’ve got to step up and pass laws to protect the environment, and so much of it can be done in air. They do not realize the consequences oft times of a lot of the things that are passed upon us. Just to kind of give you an example, I always say, every law passed, or every action taken, whatever, has consequences, but they also have unintended consequences.

Larry Stap:
All right, here’s a really simple example, people think we need big buffers for application of our manure, or our nutrients on the field away from waterways and stuff like that. We call them big dumb buffers, because there’s no science behind it basically. So you take a field, and let’s just say you take a 20 acre field surrounded by drainage ditches, which I have a lot of because I farm a lot of pecan, and you put 100 foot buffers in there all the way around that field, you’ve basically taken away half or maybe even more, of my land application base for my nutrients. So what do I have to do, I have to go find more land further away, probably cause more environmental damage by trucking it up and down the road with trucks, or tractors, or whatever, or over-apply, and that’s no good either because then you can have more service runoff and stuff.

Larry Stap:
When in actuality, just by applying a buffer that is, let’s just say, big at the appropriate times of the year, small at the appropriate times of the year, make them flexible, make them driven by common sense, I call it for lack of a better word. But there again, some of that stuff can be just passed through ignorance, not really thinking about the unintended consequences. And so a lot of times you have to try to educate your politicians, your elected officials. And to be honest with you, sometimes right in the offices that are in charge of enforcing the regulations, a lot of times those people can have their own agendas too, and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good. But I always find that 99% of it, is communication. Talk with them, figure it out. I’m not afraid to bring people onto my farm that are especially in the regulatory and political world, to explain to them, show them what’s going on. And it makes all the difference in the world when they can actually see what’s going on, and they understand it.

Larry Stap:
And then the other thing that you can do, is build a relationship so that if you have concerns, they know who you are and we can talk, or they can call us and stuff like that. And that’s really been good over the years. I used to have more of a confrontational attitude when I was younger, but I’ve kind of matured and said there’s better ways.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, don’t you want to protect the environment?

Larry Stap:
Absolutely. I mean, one of the things I’ve learned is, we farm close to a creek called Fish Trap Creek, and it flows into the Nooksack River, which flows into the bay out there by our lovely Indian Reservation friends, and they have oyster beds and shell fish beds out there that they harvest. Well, if we contaminate the waterways here, it gets dumped on top of their shell fish beds. That’s just another form of agriculture, why would I want to destroy one form of agriculture at the experience of another? That doesn’t make any sense to me. So there’s just an example of why to keep it good.

Larry Stap:
The other thing too is, I have a couple of streams that borderlines on my property, they’re fantastic salmon spawning streams, and there’s nothing more fun than in Fall especially to see all them salmon spawning stuff here. Why would I want to destroy that habitat? I mean, it gives me great joy just to watch them period, and then in the Spring to see all the little fingerlings running around that ditch and stuff like that. It’s all part of our mission statement, be stewards, maybe not just to the land that we purposely farm, or the cows that we purposely take care of, but it’s all around us, it’s all part of our mandate.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about lawsuits, I know that’s become a big thing in the farming world. It’s not talked about much, but I know farms, I hear it time and again, are concerned about litigation.

Larry Stap:
Yeah, litigation is brought on by poor laws. And when I say poor laws, the laws themself are not bad, but the law also allows for what they call third-party lawsuits. And a third-party file a lawsuit against a farmer because they think that they’re not following the law of some sort of pollution, or whatever, okay? And the challenge of it is this, that oft times, even if you’re innocent, which most farmers are, it will cost you more to go all the way through the legal system than it will to settle out of court. The settling out of court is cheaper, but it accomplishes generally nothing, except lining a lawyers pockets, because they’ll get fully compensated for their legal costs typically.

Larry Stap:
One of the things that a lot of people don’t understand, is on a federal third-party lawsuit, let’s just say a group decides to sue a farmer because they’ve caused damage to a harmed party, and let’s just assume that the third-party wins and the farmer loses, the third-party can receive no financial compensation out of that lawsuit, but the lawyers typically don’t tell them that. Okay? But the lawyers get fully compensated for all their work, and then there’s all these other little programs that get part of the settlement and stuff like that. So that’s why if you want to improve the environment, if you want to do it, you sit down and you talk about it and you work out before lawsuits ever happen. That’s the way things get done. When lawsuits happen, people just back their backs up against the wall, and it becomes a legal fight. And really, nothing oft times would get accomplished in terms of benefiting the environment. It’s a sad way to go.

Larry Stap:
I mean, there is sometimes a legal need for that, and I’m not disputing that, there are places for that, but oft times it’s used as a legalized form of extortion, not so much as a productive lawsuit to accomplish an environmental upgrade.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the future of our food system is?

Larry Stap:
Well you know, I do not like this COVID-19 pandemic that we’re in, but all of a sudden people are waking up to, “Wow, we better keep our food supply local,” because all of a sudden all the pharmaceutical stuff, and the medications and all this stuff that we’re dependent on in foreign countries, we’re kind of at somebody’s mercy all of a sudden. I mean, it happened a number of years ago with the oil embargo in the Middle-East. And so I think it’s probably been a little bit of an eye-opener, in terms of a lot of people recognizing the fact that we need to keep our food supply on our home soil.

Larry Stap:
I’ve talked with a lot of people over the course of this time, and one of the things I’ve said is, sure when I grew up as a kid, the only time we got strawberries, was in strawberry season. The only time we got green beans, was when green beans were in season. The only time we got corn on the cob, was when corn was in season. Now you can go to the grocery store and buy it year round just about anytime. Where does it come from? It doesn’t come from your backyard anymore, it’s probably imported. And is that the way we want to go? Is that really necessary? I mean, we are incredibly spoiled as consumers, and what we can get in a grocery store. And maybe we don’t need all that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sadly, I heard recently with what’s happening with COVID, a CSA in our region, a Community Supported Agriculture farm that does CSA boxes, their orders went way up, but right away also these new subscribers, they got calls apparently within the first week of people saying, “Well, I want strawberries.” “It’s not strawberry season.” “Well, what the heck, why can’t I have strawberries?” To me, I don’t want to believe that people are that far disconnected.

Larry Stap:
They are, and it’s… Well, it’s good and it’s bad. I mean, it’s an incredible success story to the grocery stores, and the whole support network behind moving food around this country and around the world. I mean, now we can just do it incredibly well with refrigeration, and freezing, and all that kind of stuff, and we got spoiled as consumers, there’s no doubt about it. But maybe it’s time to step back and say, “You know what, maybe it’s not so important I have strawberries year round, or whatever.” Milk’s year round, we can get that anytime, that goes around 24/7.

Dillon Honcoop:
At the same time, you guys have dealt with… you’ve proven that it’s possible, but you’ve dealt with the challenges of going local, of bringing that local product to market, to those more mainstream stores that people are used to shopping at.

Larry Stap:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would guess when you’ve learned how that works behind the scenes, maybe you realize it’s not as easy as some people might think. I know the grocery stores get demonized quite a bit, and it’s not always their fault that the system works the way that it does.

Larry Stap:
No, it doesn’t, but on the other hand, we talk about smaller and fewer, and bigger farms, it’s the same thing that’s going on in the grocery world. So the bigger you get, the less flexibility you have and stuff like that, but you are able to offer some other services that other stores might not be able to do. I got a lot of sympathy for the grocery community. One of the things that they struggle with is the same thing we talked about earlier, lawsuits. Consumers are looking to pretend they slipped on a banana peel, or they got sick eating this berry, or this cereal or whatever.

Larry Stap:
So liability is a huge thing for the grocery stores, it’s huge. And then as part of that liability too is, it’s kind of a reflection of our society, but if you’re big and corporate, you owe me so I have the ability to go in and steal, and it doesn’t bother my conscience, because you’re so big and so wealthy, that you have to share some of that wealth with me. And I’ve talked to so many grocery store managers and stuff like that, and what it costs them in terms of legal, and documentation and stuff the way the laws are set up, to stop a shoplifter, that sometimes it’s cheaper for them to let that shoplifter to walk out the door than it is to prosecute. And that’s a sad side of our society, very sad, not only because that person thinks that, that’s okay that they do that, but our society, or our legal world, or whatever, has become so rigid, and so structured that we actually allow that to happen because of costs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus the principle.

Larry Stap:
Versus the principle, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
With COVID happening, this pandemic, what’s that changed for your farm and your operation?

Larry Stap:
At first we thought, “This will be just fine because we process our own milk and we sell it to the stores.” And in actuality, the first week after, I don’t know if it was a stay home or whatever, when all the businesses and restaurants and stuff that had to close, our milk sales made a significant jump. And then the second week into it, we got a call from a major grocery store chain, that said that they do not want to take our empty glass returns into their store, because they’re concerned of what that empty glass bottle could possibly bring in, in terms of contamination such as the COVID virus.

Larry Stap:
I thought it might have been a little bit of an overreach, I thought there was ways that we could manage around it, but it was made at levels way higher that I care to know about in the corporate world, and they said, “Not only do we not want to take glass at this time, but then we would not like to even sell your glass off the shelf.” Well this store chain that told us that, was probably one of our largest single group of stores that constitutes a pretty significant portion of our business. So we got that call at 10:30 on a Monday morning, that our milk sales were done in that store, so I immediately got on the phone, and this was the beauty of building relationships over the years with those people, they said if we could find an alternative package that they would carry our milk, because they absolutely loved our farm and what’s it done for their stores, and the local and the profitability.

Larry Stap:
So by Tuesday afternoon at two o’clock, we were bottling milk in plastic bottles. And I tell you what, it was chaos, it was crazy, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
You can’t use the same equipment to do that.

Larry Stap:
You can’t use the same equipment, you have to hand apply labels, you’ve got to find plastic jugs, you’ve got to… We had to design a label, get it printed, and then find people to start putting them all on our jugs and stuff like that. So even to this day now, we’re doing about half maybe in plastic to satisfy those stores during the crisis time, and half is still in our glass. But it’s a significant cost hit to us, because of all these additional costs that we have to incur just to bottle our milk again. But you know what, we’re bottling milk, it’s being sold, and it’s maybe not being sold at quite the previous volume it was. We have a very, very loyal, and now happy even bunch of employees, because we’re able to fully keep them employed at this rate, and doing this kind of stuff.

Larry Stap:
So it was a stressful couple of weeks around here, there’s no doubt about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
How are you protecting your employees with the threat of the virus? A lot of people are staying home, but you guys are an essential business, so they’re still coming for-

Larry Stap:
There’s not… I mean yeah, there are things you can do, but we have safety meetings, we talk about reinforcing how many times you wash your hands every day. We completely during the end of the day, we’re just sanitizing everything. We’ve got a foaming machine, and we’re just spraying it all over with sanitizer. And then we have safety meetings, and I really stress to our employees to think about what you’re doing when you’re not working here, be aware of it.

Larry Stap:
And what I try to impress upon them, and I’ve learned this from myself is, if get the virus I may survive, because if you’re young enough and healthy enough typically it will feel like a flu from what I understand. I think there’s so much misinformation out there. But if I were to get it let’s just say, and I continually see my parents who live right next door to me, they’re 87 and 89, and if I were to expose them to it, I would feel pretty bad. So you have to think beyond yourself with this COVID-19 thing. And I’ve got a great bunch of employees, and they’re doing a great job for me, and I think they’re very, very mindful about it all, very much so.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, a lot of people would never have thought of the glass bottle thing, back to that hiccup.

Larry Stap:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain how that works too. I mean, we talked about the benefit of glass bottles earlier, and then that was your kind of niche, but how does that… You guys market this stuff in a glass bottle, and then it’s available in the store, and you get basically a refund price when you bring that glass back?

Larry Stap:
Yeah. When a consumer buys our milk, you might say they’re actually buying two things, they’re buying milk that’s in the jar for a set price that the store determines, and they pay a deposit on that glass jar. Now, the consumer can do one of two things, they can decide to keep that glass jar if they want, or they can return it back to the store and get their deposit refund, and then we refund the stores and bring them back here to our little bottling plant, and wash and sanitize and refill them again. That’s part of our sustainability. That’s how the whole system works, but then the fear of what the bottles would be bringing into the stores, is what stopped it for a pretty significant number of stores, I will say that. So many stores.

Dillon Honcoop:
And it wasn’t on the front end, because they’re sanitized and clean when they come, it’s about people bringing them back from their homes.

Larry Stap:
Bringing the empties back from their homes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh yes.

Larry Stap:
That was their fear. I can’t argue with the stores, but I do know that there are a lot of suggested ways that they could mitigate by doing things a little bit different, but that’s their choice.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I don’t know what kind of a bin they have to put them in, but can you put it out front or something so they don’t have to come in the store? I think about all these things.

Larry Stap:
There’s a lot of ways, and we’ve sent out suggestions to the stores how to accommodate it and still be safe, but some of them are doing it, some of them aren’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do people like the glass bottle?

Larry Stap:
Well, part of it is the sustainability, they can return it, it’s not filling a landfill, okay? It’s not a plastic jug, it’s not a carton. I always say, a glass bottle is one step above recycling, it’s reusable. And that’s huge, and that’s an ever growing concern in our nation and our world, at least nowadays. You hear about the plastic blobs out on the ocean, and you hear about… see trains and trucks running up and down the road full of garbage, bringing it to landfills. We live in a terrible throw away society, and if one little part that we can do is this, we’re thankful for that. And so that’s why we went to the glass.

Larry Stap:
It also gave us a marketing opportunity that we would not have had otherwise, so it opened a door for us to a lot of stores, for which we give much thanks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, things have really changed. You were talking about recycling, things have really changes recently with plastic too in recent years, where that market just isn’t there anymore, and it’s not necessarily going to China where it was being recycled or who knows what was happening with it there. So that’s been a bit of a wake-up call for-

Larry Stap:
Yeah, you know.

Dillon Honcoop:
[crosstalk 00:33:49] assuming that you keep putting stuff in a disposable jug, I think more and more people are going to be interested in that part of what you guys do.

Larry Stap:
And a lot of it is driven by economics, good, bad or otherwise, but when it costs more to recycle and remake something than what the original is, unless you are driven to pay more for that reused or recycled product, it ain’t going to happen. So that’s why I think you see a lot of… like you say, the plastic has gone downhill, because to recycle the plastic and remanufacture an item is very costly. And when then take, for example, a plastic milk jug is probably… I’ve never looked into it, because I don’t know if they even make such a thing, but probably it would be half price for a new one versus a recycled one. I mean, that has been melted down, and reformed, and all that stuff, so it’s driven by economics.

Larry Stap:
One of the things that kind of always bothers me just a little bit too is, so often it seems like the more stable and necessary an item is in a consumer’s life, the cheaper it has to be. And example is food, people don’t want to pay much for food, but their travel trailers, and their vacations and all that stuff, usually is not too much of a price issue, but well, we can’t pay much for food. And that’s why sometimes I think we need to refocus or priorities-

Dillon Honcoop:
It is the stuff that keeps us alive.

Larry Stap:
That’s right, yeah. That’s right. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever think about retiring?

Larry Stap:
As I said earlier, I want to retire. I’m 65, I created this monster, I don’t how to get to away from it yet. But we’re in the process of beginning the stages of planning that out, and how that will all work. So yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you can’t keep up the pace that you’ve done forever.

Larry Stap:
No, and in actuality, I have had the ability to transfer a lot of my responsibilities off already. I mean, I’m not in charge of the processing plant anymore. I go out there and know exactly what’s all going on, but I’m not in charge. Same with my oldest son taking over a lot of the administrative, he’s doing a lot of that. And my son-in-law, he pretty much takes care of the cattle and the land end of it, so I’m starting to shed more, and more of my responsibilities and delegate them out. The hard part is the things that you have built relationships up, and dealt with over all these years, that’s my struggle, is how to transfer that to someone. I mean, my ideal would be to transfer it to a family member, but there’s nobody ready in the wings and waiting to do that, so that’s how we’re… We’re just beginning to have some meetings on how to make that thing work. So yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much for sharing your whole story, and everything that goes into this, it’s fascinating.

Larry Stap:
Thank you, I enjoyed doing it. As I said, we are truly blessed beyond what we deserve.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What an incredible story, right? And people think Twin Brook Creamery is so cool already with their glass bottles, and small farm vibe, and Jersey Cows, and cream-top non-homogenized milk, but when you hear all of that, the human story behind Twin Brook Creamery, it just takes it to the next level of appreciating what goes into that milk that you can buy at the store.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop, and this is the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m really thankful that you’re here, and follow us on social media if you haven’t. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast, so you never miss an episode. We’ve got a lot more ahead, and we’re figuring out ways to get the podcast to keep on going, even in this age of the Coronavirus pandemic. We certainly hope that you are staying safe, and healthy out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Take care everybody, and if you have a little extra time, maybe you’re quarantining, catch up on a few episodes of the podcast as well. This is a great time to do that, and if you do have the time again, make sure to subscribe. Maybe if you have a lot of time, shoot me an email, I’d love to chat. What are your thoughts on local food, and Washington grown food, and farmers, and maybe you have questions that you’d like answered. Maybe I can go dig up a farmer or two who could answer your question, and either get back to you in an email, or talk about it on the podcast. Maybe you’ve got a suggestion of a farm to talk with, or an issue to cover. I would love to hear any of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can email me… Well, you can message me on any of the Real Food Real People social media platforms, right now we’re on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or you can just email me directly, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. That’s my email address, I get it, it’s on my phone. So anytime you send that I will get it pretty much right a way, unless for some reason my daughters are distracting me or something, but I would really love to hear from you. Again, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Dillon is spelled, D-I-L-L-O-N, by the way. And yes, realfoodrealpeople.org is the website, so go check that out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And just mentioning that reminds me, I need to get blogging too and share some of my own story, and some of the things I’ve been ruminating on and learning, and some of the things going on even behind the scenes as we develop and continue to grow this podcast. So thanks for being a part of this, and we will catch you back here next week.

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

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.

Lydia Johnson | #015 03/23/2020

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Right, yep.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is Ethel, Washington?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Or a cowgirl.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Upper hand how?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, that’s amazing.

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

Lydia Johnson:
For sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you think about staying with dairy?

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
The valley, yeah.

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

Lydia Johnson:
Right outside, so.

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

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

Lydia Johnson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you do with that?

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Probably team roping. Probably team roping.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
I intend to. I do.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So other than keeping rodeoing-

Lydia Johnson:
Rodeoing, yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
To keep feral horses from reproducing?

Lydia Johnson:
Reproducing, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not humane.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a mouthful.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You mean Bachelor of Science?

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that do to farming here?

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How did it taste?

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

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, thank you.

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

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

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

Lydia Johnson:
It’s a long one.

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

Lydia Johnson:
Time Out Saloon.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Saloon.

Lydia Johnson:
In Kittitas, Washington, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much.

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely. Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

John Griggs | #014 03/16/2020

He's only 24 years old, but John Griggs is determined to keep his family's 120-year-old cherry and apple farm running. He shares what it's like growing up in a small Eastern Washington town, and why farming is harder than it used to be.

Transcript

John Griggs:
It’s getting hard to do it now. I mean, minimum wage, H-2A. It’s just kind of, we’re still getting the same pricing as we did five years ago when it was $9. It’s hard. But we got to make it work. I don’t see myself losing this farm, and I’ll do anything to keep it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so I’m going to geek out a little bit on this week’s episode. I grew up on a family fruit farm in Washington State and so did our guest today, but on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. And so, so many of his experiences fit with mine, yet the specific details are different, if that makes sense. So forgive me for just wanting to know everything about how his farm works. We’re going to talk with John Griggs. He’s a fifth-generation true fruit farmer. They do cherries and apples and a few pears over in Orondo, just north of Wenatchee.

Dillon Honcoop:
And he reminds me of myself and I guess kind of who I would have been if I would have decided to stay with the farming thing, which I had to think a lot about when I was in high school and deciding what was I going to do after high school. Was I going to stick with the farming thing? Was I going to go to college for farming? Or for something else? I was also passionate about communications. I took the communications route, obviously. But there’s still part of me that wonders, “Should I have done the farming thing?” I still have it in my blood, I still love it so much. And that’s the life he’s living. He’s a true-blue farm kid, so that’s why I’m really pumped to share his story and the stuff that he faces day-to-day.

Dillon Honcoop:
So again, John Griggs, Jr. His dad is John Griggs as well. Join me now in getting to know him and hearing what his life is all about, somebody who’s super passionate about farming and growing apples and cherries and pears. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast documenting my journeys across Washington State to get to know the real people behind the food that we grow and eat here.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grew up around this.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
From being a baby, you were on the farm.

John Griggs:
This is life.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like growing up?

John Griggs:
I learned how to drive a tractor at 10 years old and I was working, swamping during the summer. Right after school it was, “Go work.” But it was really nice. I really enjoyed it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So when is cherry season? When do things really get crazy, like right after you would get done with your school year?

John Griggs:
Yeah, mid-June is right when it starts. But build up to that, still, and getting the dormant sprays on. And then we end usually third week of July, is when our sweethearts come off. No, it was friends came second, obviously, but it was always fun to run around in the orchard and hang out and enjoy the sunshine.

Dillon Honcoop:
As a kid, what did you do like during harvest time? What was your job, like once you maybe were a teen and stuff?

John Griggs:
Yeah. When I first started, I was down with my dad at our loading area and watering down the buckets and getting them ready to put in the reefer. But when I was about 12 I started swamping, which, that was a task.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah so what does that mean? What is swamping?

John Griggs:
Swamping, you’re really just putting buckets in bins and following tractors around, making sure you don’t miss anything.

Dillon Honcoop:
So like full buckets? Like buckets that people have picked into?

John Griggs:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
The crews pick into a bucket.

John Griggs:
Yeah. The crews pick into a, it’s like a 17.5-pound bucket, and put them into the bins, so that’s for yellow cherries. And then, red cherries, we do pick into these 30-pound crates and then dump them in the bins.

Dillon Honcoop:
Probably got to dump pretty careful not to-

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Soft. Soft, soft. It’s a heavy day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, how many hours a day?

John Griggs:
Usually you’re up at 3:00 and go until about 2:30 and then you go talk to dad and see if you have to spray at night.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, now I’ve heard things about sometimes with the heat you have to take time off.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Heat’s a big part of it. You don’t want to pick when it’s above 90 degrees. That’s when you’ll start to get some bruising and it’s just, cherries don’t like heat.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were working like crazy as a kid on the farm. At what point did you decide, “This is what I want to do”?

John Griggs:
I think when I was like five years old. Just seeing my dad and how he worked. And he drove a semi after work to Seattle and to the airport to dump cherries off. And just seeing his drive and providing for us and I really wanted to be like him. Still do.

Dillon Honcoop:
You get to go along on those trips sometimes?

John Griggs:
I did, I did. I slept in the back on the bunk and I’d go over with him, try to go as many times as possible until mom said, “No. You’re staying home for the night.”

Dillon Honcoop:
How many pounds of cherries on a semi?

John Griggs:
Our semi’s rated for 105,000 pounds. So, you got about 110 bins in that semi. We got four reefers that are 53 feet long.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what happens to your cherries? How do they marketed? Is that a fresh product that people are consuming?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, so we do a lot in our export. So Asia, Taiwan, Singapore. We go through a marketing company and they’ll kind of tell us what to pick and we’ll go with it. And this past year, we used to be in the packing business as well, we owned Orondo Fruit Company, and it was for about 40 years, and so we packed cherries and we did it ourselves. But now, things change, and we’re going through them. We do some domestic. We got our own cherry and that goes domestic.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you mean your own cherry?

John Griggs:
We actually have our own patent on a cherry.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

John Griggs:
Yeah. It’s called the Orondo Ruby, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain, what’s special about it?

John Griggs:
It’s kind of an early Rainier. It’s a little bit more tart than a Rainier, but still yellow flesh and really pretty red, like a ruby, I guess. But we found that about 12 years ago, my grandpa.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain. How does that happen, that he found it?

John Griggs:
He was walking through one of our blocks, actually, on our home blocks, and he noticed the cherry was a little earlier, and it was in a Rainier block. My grandpa was like, “Let’s send it off. Let’s take a sample and give it to a nursery and see if they can…” And it was totally different. It’s a hybrid. We don’t know, the alleles are totally different, it’s just kind of one in a million, like…

Dillon Honcoop:
So wait, was it just a happenstance cross between something else that happened to be in your…?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it was dead center in one of our Rainier blocks.

Dillon Honcoop:
And it was just one tree?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), one. We call it the mother tree. Yeah, it’s weird, and he doesn’t know how it happened. And he’s been farming, he’s almost 80, he’s 75, and he’s never seen it happen before.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s crazy.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because I know, like, growing up with the raspberry business on my parents’ farm, it was always, you know, coming up with a new variety, which varieties to cross. And, you know, there were scientists that were working on this to come up with a berry that’s better or more hearty, or, you know, all these desirable qualities, which is why we have a lot of the fruits and veggies that we have.

John Griggs:
It is. And a lot of people don’t know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. Anything.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Almost every apple now, it’s crossed either with a Honeycrisp or an old apple back in Michigan or New York. I mean, it’s weird.

Dillon Honcoop:
But for it to just happen spontaneously, that’s crazy.

John Griggs:
Yeah. And even the nursery was like, “We don’t know.” But we farm that, it’s about the third week of June that gets harvested. Got about 80 acres of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many acres total do you guys have fruit on?

John Griggs:
About 480. Yeah. About 230 of it is cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what’s the rest?

John Griggs:
Apples and four acres of pears.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk a little bit about your family history. You’re fifth-generation on this farm.

John Griggs:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re, what, like 23?

John Griggs:
24.

Dillon Honcoop:
24 years old.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did your family end up here? Where’d they come from?

John Griggs:
I think my great-great-grandma was from Norway and she was a fisher. And then she moved here in like the late 1800s. And she moved, her husband built a house, first stick-built house in Douglas County, and then started farming. We started with peaches. We farmed about 50 acres of peaches, which, that was a tedious task.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What’s the deal with peaches? Being from western Washington, I don’t know about growing these kinds of fruit.

John Griggs:
They’re just hard… if you look at them wrong, they’ll bruise.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really, wow.

John Griggs:
When they’re ripe. And just packing them is tedious. We packed them in a red barn. We packed them until I was 15 in a red barn and then we finally took them out. But the family, we’ve been farming I think since 1900, and started. And we just tore down our last cherry tree from, it was at least 100 years old, and finally stopped giving us fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that was like one of the original trees?

John Griggs:
Yeah, it was about 25 feet tall.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. And it had one limb that had fruit left on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what happens? The cherry trees just get too old and don’t put fruit out anymore?

John Griggs:
Yeah they’ll start to get some rot in them, and it’s just time for them get out. But it was hard, especially on my grandpa. But no, I’ve never moved out of the valley. I mean, I went to college in Wenatchee and went through the tree fruit program, and it’s the only place I really live[d].

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like, you grew up right here in Orondo?

John Griggs:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big is this town?

John Griggs:
It’s got a gas station, a golf course, and one restaurant. And that’s about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess I could Wikipedia this, but what’s the population of Orondo?

John Griggs:
Like 500, probably. And then during harvest about, probably 3,000.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because of all the workers.

John Griggs:
Just all the workers coming in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s it like growing up in a town that small?

John Griggs:
You kind of are free to roam the land, really. Everybody knows each other. You’ll see the old folk at the gas station in the morning, drinking coffee and talking about what their orchard’s doing, really. All my family lives here, really, or Waterville, which is just up the hill from us. I don’t see it any other way. Like going over to Seattle or Spokane, it’s still just wide-eyed, like, “Why is there so much traffic?” But no, I went to school, I guess there’s a little schoolhouse. But I mean I grew up with all my buddies and I’m still friends with them, and they’re still out here, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sometimes when you grow up in a small town there are a lot of kids. I grew up in a small town, not as small as Orondo, but there were a lot of kids who were like, “I want to get out of here,” you know, “I’m just waiting to get done with high school and I’m going to go to college and I’m gone.”

John Griggs:
Yeah. My mom and dad wanted me to but I was like, “I don’t see it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They wanted you to leave?

John Griggs:
Well, they wanted me to get out and experience another town, even if it was like WSU Pullman or wherever. They were like, “I was never given that chance, so do it.” And I was like, “No. I’m going to be stubborn and stay here” and I don’t regret it. I don’t know, I just can’t see myself any other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are there bad things about growing up in this small of a town?

John Griggs:
Yes and no. The drive to town is about 35 minutes, which is fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
To Wenatchee?

John Griggs:
Yeah. During the summer you get a lot of boats on the river, people being dumb, but that’s it, really. I don’t see it. I don’t see very many negatives. Sometimes the fires, we get pretty good fires. But that’s it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ever had a fire affect the orchards?

John Griggs:
No. We’ve had one close but nothing burned, thank goodness.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future look like, do you think? What are your plans? What do you want to see this become?

John Griggs:
I want it to get a little bigger, but it’s getting hard to do it now. I mean minimum wage, H-2A, it’s just kind of… we’re still getting the same pricing as we did five years ago when it was $9. But I see us, we’re in a good spot. We can still grow, and we’re planning on it, just finding the right opportunities and partners and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you talk about the minimum wage. That’s a higher cost for the farm with-

John Griggs:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not like you’re getting more money for your fruit, you’re saying?

John Griggs:
No, no. We’re getting same pricing five, 10 years ago on fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you mentioned H-2A, too. How has that affected this whole situation?

John Griggs:
That’s made the minimum wage go higher than regular minimum wage, and I think it’s like $15, high $15, and we had to bring in 100 guys this year. And we have about 275 people working during cherries and pears and stuff, which is, I mean, we pay by bucket. But if they don’t pick the bucket rate, which, minimum wage, I mean, it’s hard to pick that many buckets in an hour. It’s just made costs go way up. Chemicals keep going up, and land prices are up, and just kind of a tough spot.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you handle working with employees? There’s been a lot of talk about that and are workers being treated fairly.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. The foreman, our foreman, he’s been here for 35 years. I grew up with his kids, I’m friends with them, I hang out with them, I go to the worker dinner, like potlucks and stuff. Every year we do like a soccer game down at the school and we’ve got about 30 guys that I’ve, they’re pretty much grown up, and taught me a bunch, pruning. I’ve worked alongside with them, I’ve been to people’s soccer games, I’ve gone to their kids’ wrestling matches. Our guys, I’m very thankful for them for being here for us and try to treat them good. They all live in our housing and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right now, in any line of work anywhere, people are just looking for good people.

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah. You got to be there for your employees and stand up for them and help them out, I feel like. That’s what my dad’s taught me.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s been a lot of talk, though, about how hard it is to find people who want to work on a farm.

John Griggs:
It is. Especially the swampers, the teens, the high schoolers, they’d much rather not work. They’d rather go up to Chelan and go swimming up at the lake. It’s really hard to find a young kid that wants to work in an orchard, get their hands dirty, be hot all day, and work, get up at 3:00. You can’t find very many. I’ve got cousins that are having to work for us and they like it, but it’s not their favorite.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. If you’re good, how much money can you make during season?

John Griggs:
Oh man.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like, by the hour?

John Griggs:
Well, we do by bucket if you can pick that many. One day we worked until like 5:00 at night picking before a rain storm, and I was driving a tractor, and I came up to one guy and was scanning his card and I was like, “He has a 105 buckets already!” And that’s like $600, $700 and I’m like, “Oh my God!” And I go and tell my mom and she’s like, “I know. I know.” You can make good money. If you work hard for it you’ll make a decent, you’ll probably make $10,000, $15,000 in a month and a half.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. If you’re fast, you’re good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that difficulty of just finding enough people to do the work, though, that’s why you guys had to bring in H-2A?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. Yeah, we used to be able to do just 150 guys but our production’s gone way up. Nobody would even stop by. We used to have people stop by looking for work. Now it’s almost nonexistent. We go to like the WorkSource and put our name out there. I mean we even upped our per-bucket pay, and… nobody. So we were like, “We got to do this or…”

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you paid even more?

John Griggs:
I don’t know. I’d hope people would come. I mean, I’d much rather work outside than in an office. But we’ve tried almost everything, ads in the paper, put them in Orondo stores or Wal Marts. Nobody. Calling my cousin’s friends, “Hey, you want to come work for a couple weeks? You can stay out at our place,” but they’d say no.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about your dream, as you continue on with this family farm, to get bigger. Could the issue of finding workers keep you from being able to do that?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely. You’d almost have to bring a whole, probably a couple of hundred H-2A in. You also need housing for them, which, we had to bus them out from Cashmere. We bought three school buses just to get– we even pay people’s rent for their housing and that didn’t work. But the H-2A, they’re here to work and they’re slow at first, but they catch on pretty good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because they’re people, you know, they haven’t done this particular kind of work before?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Some of them have been up here before, but mostly this isn’t even their profession. I mean they’re contractors or just farmers themselves. But yeah, when they come up here they’re kind of like “ugh,” and of course they’re far away from home.

Dillon Honcoop:
So from what you’re saying that’s pretty expensive to do, though, to bring those people.

John Griggs:
It’s very expensive, yeah. It’s about, I think it’s like $1,500 a person to get them up here.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then the wage that they make.

John Griggs:
And then the wage they make and the housing we have to pay for, which, yeah, it adds up.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you have to do that-

John Griggs:
You have to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because there’s nobody else?

John Griggs:
Yeah. You got to do it. The farther north you go, the harder it gets to find people, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you talk about getting bigger. That would be just adding more acres of cherries? Or do you want to branch out into other stuff?

John Griggs:
Probably go more into apples. I feel we’ve got plenty of cherries, got about three million pounds of cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. It’s crazy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of apples do you guys have?

John Griggs:
We got Buckeye Galas, it’s a high-color Gala, Aztec Fujis, high-color, pretty much everything high-color. Honeycrisp.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean, high-color?

John Griggs:
Really red and more… the older varieties were lighter and the new ones are bam-in-your-face red. And Honeycrisp, Royal Red Honeycrisp, the newer version. And SugarBee, SugarBee’s a club variety.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean?

John Griggs:
The warehouse that owns the variety, well, the marketing company owns it, but we have to go through our packing house to get it.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is like a proprietary thing where you get licensed to do it?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah we pay a royalty for the trees. We got about, I think we pick 1,200 bins of those, it’s like a really sweet apple.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve seen them in the store but I can’t honestly say I’ve had one, now that you bring that up.

John Griggs:
They’re very good, they’re super sweet. It’s almost like a candy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome.

John Griggs:
But no, that’s a very good apple. And I guess we got some Ambrosia, too, that are grafted. And Grannies.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re busy in, like, June into July with the cherries.

John Griggs:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then, what, you have a lull in the middle of the summer?

John Griggs:
We have about three weeks and then we start pears. But thankfully, we only have a little bit. But then right after pears is apples, Galas, and it’s go until about a week after my birthday, which is in October. Yeah. Last year we went a little late on the Fujis and Pink Ladies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, I read somewhere that there’s some people who had apples they didn’t even pick this year. Was that because of weather?

John Griggs:
Yeah. We had a freeze come through in the Quincy area and stuff and they literally froze. And I mean, you can’t do anything, they’ll shrivel and it’s just no good. A lot of people for their Fujis did that.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a late variety?

John Griggs:
It’s a later variety, yeah. But help was pretty hard this year, too, so some people were picking with half a crew. On the bigger orchards, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because they couldn’t get enough workers?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And they were paying, like, $35, $40 a bin, and that’s a lot of money.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what this state is famous for.

John Griggs:
It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like to know that you’re raising and providing that food that’s world famous?

John Griggs:
It’s kind of cool. But at the same time, it’s a task. I mean, you got to get in a good market to even hope to make some money. I think we grow the right varieties, and the new varieties which people are seeing in the stores. But it’s definitely different. You can’t have old orchards anymore. You got to have new, high-density, really high-density orchards to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that? Why does the density make a difference?

John Griggs:
More bins per acre, just more volume. People are trying to up the volume. You can’t do like 40 bins an acre anymore, you go to be 80, 100. Some are at 120.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much does a bin weigh?

John Griggs:
About 800 to 1,200 pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot of weight.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Pears are heavier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Per acre.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah, you’re picking a lot of fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s amazing.

John Griggs:
And we don’t have, it’s still picked the same way as it was way back when. There’s no picking machine yet. You still got to have the bodies. And people don’t like picking apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

John Griggs:
It’s heavy, your back is shot.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hard work.

John Griggs:
Hard, hard work. Your fingers hurt and you’re all sweaty.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about different varieties and stuff. There’s been a lot of buzz about Cosmic Crisp.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Anybody doing that around here?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. We didn’t have any acreage to open up for it. But yeah, almost everybody north planted some.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s another one of those like SugarBee where you have to pay a royalty, right?

John Griggs:
I believe so. But I know it’s only us in the state that can grow it, the apple growers. But it’s a great apple, stores really well, it’s crisp. I like it a lot, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s always interesting because you hear the buzz in public. I always wonder, you know, what are the farmers saying behind the scenes on something new like that? Like, “Oh, this is our champagne in the butt,” or something like that.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. It’s a pain to open up the land, get it all ready, buy the supplies and materials, and then plant it.

Dillon Honcoop:
To put a new variety in.

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise, how long does a planting last in apples?

John Griggs:
We’ve got some trees that are 40 years old.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

John Griggs:
Yeah, some Granny trees in our driveway.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they still produce good?

John Griggs:
Yeah. They’re 80 bins an acre right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you say Granny, you mean Granny Smith?

John Griggs:
Granny Smith, yeah. The old… I don’t like those apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
Too tart for you?

John Griggs:
Way too tart.

Dillon Honcoop:
See, that’s what I like about them.

John Griggs:
Oh, really?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

John Griggs:
They make a good pie. But yeah. I like Galas, Goldens, and Fujis are my main ones.

Dillon Honcoop:
What makes a really good apple, or for that matter, a really good cherry? What’s the secret to that? Because I know the fruit that we produce here in Washington, and particularly here in this area, Wenatchee, Orondo, is some of the best anywhere.

John Griggs:
Yeah. You need the weather, good weather. You need a good microclimate. Where we are in this valley, I mean, I think we produce some of the best cherries in the world. I know it’s my family’s orchard, but we’ve been in billboards in China, I mean, I’ve seen people fighting over our fruit over there.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been over there a few times?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Well, at least my dad has. He’s sent me pictures, of course, but no. You got to work hard for it, you can’t miss a task. If you miss one you might be like, “Oh shoot, it’s not this big.” You got to have the right sprays, you got to have the Mylar pulled out to make them red.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now explain, how does that work?

John Griggs:
So the sun reflects off the Mylar underneath the cherries. The tops of the cherries get red, for yellow cherries. Red cherries, they get red no matter what. But you pull out, we have this, it’s like a fabric-y kind of stuff. It’s called Extenday. It’s a white Mylar film, it’s reusable. So you pull it out, the sun reflects off it, you got about seven hours of good sun for it to pretty much, my grandpa says it bakes the fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re basically, it’s reflective, bounces the light back up.

John Griggs:
Bounces off into the bottoms of the fruit to redden the bottoms and sides, and it’s pretty much a mini-sun on the bottom of the trees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like people who use reflectors when they’re out suntanning or whatever, I’ve seen people do that before.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Exactly, exactly like that. Just on a bigger scale.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I guess. It’s got to be quite the job to put all that out.

John Griggs:
Putting it out and picking it up, it’s a pain. You’re hot and it’s just, ugh, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, because you don’t do that when the weather is cool.

John Griggs:
No, no, you’re baking if it’s cool. If it’s hot, you’re like, “What do you want me to do now?” I’ll go pick it up… It gets water on it… Yeah, it’s hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does it take a lot of irrigation for these trees?

John Griggs:
Yeah. On apples, we use overhead cooling, overhead sprinklers to keep them cool. Or else it will… apples will bake on the tree. Cherries-

Dillon Honcoop:
Sunburn, or…?

John Griggs:
They’ll get sunburned. They’ll start to shrivel if it’s hot and then cool. Apples are a lot harder to keep cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they have to be out there for more of the hot summer, too, since they aren’t ripe until-

John Griggs:
Uh-huh, they got to make it through until fall, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t think the cherries could probably make it, could they?

John Griggs:
No. Cherries would-

Dillon Honcoop:
If they were.

John Griggs:
They’d turn into a raisin. Yeah, it takes quite a bit of water. But we got a bunch of wells. Summers are hot, but not enough to make things difficult.

Dillon Honcoop:
So somebody going grocery shopping, what should they be looking for when they’re looking for cherries, for instance?

John Griggs:
Well, check the stems. The stems, if they’re not green, I wouldn’t buy them.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that tell you?

John Griggs:
It’s just, the cherry’s been sitting there for a while and it’s probably really soft.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s an indicator of freshness.

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah. And check and make sure the stem’s like not that big, not tiny, but more long. It’s just how you… I say the quality of the fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

John Griggs:
Yeah. That’s how I was taught to look at fruit. But you got to think of how long it takes. You got to have them packed, you got to… you won’t get to a fruit until it’s probably a week old, but they hold their freshness.

Dillon Honcoop:
Probably also should check and make sure it’s grown in Washington.

John Griggs:
Yes. Check and make sure it’s here, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s competition for you guys? Is there fruit that comes in from other parts of the country or the world [inaudible 00:31:11]?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. California, Turkey. Chile is a big one. Chile, I think they’re either picked or picking soon, their fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, because they’re-

John Griggs:
They’re totally different, it’s their summer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Opposite side of the year. Right.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Europe has quite a bit of cherries, surprisingly. Who else…

Dillon Honcoop:
Those don’t end up over here, though, do they?

John Griggs:
Sometimes you have to buy them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just different timing of seasons?

John Griggs:
It’s different timing, markets change, tariffs change. I mean, things lift and they’re like, “Flood the market, let’s go!” And you’re sitting here, “No!” You got to check with all that kind of stuff. And sometimes you’ll get fruit that’s not even from the United States, but yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
No thanks.

John Griggs:
No thanks.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want fruit from here.

John Griggs:
I want fruit from here and to be my fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, and there’s, it’s just different standards here.

John Griggs:
It is. I think this state grows, by far, the best fruit. Whether it be apples, cherries, peaches, I think we get it done and right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

John Griggs:
The weather. The people growing them, they care. They want their product to be well, and they’ll complain if they don’t get it done right. I mean, I know my family does if the cherry doesn’t… if we’re picking a little green on one day, we’ll say, “Oh, we’re done.” We want them to be good for the consumer. We care about them. That’s what keeps us [in] business.

Dillon Honcoop:
With it being tougher and tougher to find labor and other pressures here, do you think there could be a future where there’s more and more stuff that’s just brought in from other countries?

John Griggs:
There could be, yeah. That’s definitely, I mean, our standards are way different than elsewhere, I can tell you that. I’ve seen some that I’m like, “How is that even possible? I would never do that!”

Dillon Honcoop:
From, like, other countries?

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like what kind of stuff?

John Griggs:
Like I’ve seen, my dad’s sent me pictures of like apples on the ground, like bare ground, dirt, and they’re selling them like that with a tarp over them. I’m like, if we did that we’d get in a lot of trouble.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, no kidding.

John Griggs:
And we got really strict standards here, not just us but everywhere, and you’ll get bit for it if you don’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest pressure for the farm? What’s the hardest thing for, like, thinking about the future, to keep it going?

John Griggs:
I’d say labor, mostly. Yeah. Our guys are getting older. I’d say most of our guys are over 45, 50 years old and they’re going to want to go do stuff. And it’s scary but you got to keep doing it, I guess, one way or another. We’ve thought about bringing platforms in, going more mechanical, but they don’t have a picking machine yet. But they’re trying. We just… Efficiency, I guess. Labor, equipment’s not cheap anymore. But yeah, everything, everything’s gone up tenfold.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do you do, then, to do deal with that? Because you’re saying you’re not getting any more, really, for your product.

John Griggs:
You got to make sure you got the right stuff. Labor, equipment. You got to keep up on equipment more, you’re going to have to put more hours on the already over-houred tractor, you’re going to have to be smart, try to be more efficient. Just think of creative ways to farm now instead of just do the same thing your dad did.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That doesn’t get it done anymore I know, for sure.

John Griggs:
Sadly.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think about the whole organic thing? You guys aren’t doing the organic thing?

John Griggs:
No. Organic, I think it’s getting flooded. The first people that did it, they hit home runs. But we tried to go organic on our pears and we were spraying more then than on our conventional stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, your organic?

John Griggs:
Yeah, you’re spraying more on your organic than your conventional. You don’t have the same potency, everything’s like a virus. For insecticides, they’re pretty much a biological virus for the insect, doesn’t affect anybody else. But yeah, we were spraying two times a week instead of once, or sometimes three. If we were getting a lot of coddling moth, or any insect, really, we had to go back through.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I know previously we had April Clayton from up the road on the podcast here and they were doing organic cherries and had to stop for that reason, because the organic products that they were having to use were killing their cherry trees.

John Griggs:
Yeah, oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve seen that?

John Griggs:
I’ve seen that all the time. Organic cherries are, that’s hard, hard, hard to do. Chemicals are totally different. And even right now, our stuff isn’t like it was.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess people are worried about chemicals being on their fruit.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you tell them?

John Griggs:
I wouldn’t be nervous. I eat fruit right off the tree and I’m fine. But I don’t see it being a big issue, not anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back in the old days.

John Griggs:
Back in the old days, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why do you have to do that, I guess, for somebody who’s curious, why do you have to spray anything? Why do the organic people, why do they even have to spray? What are they trying to deal with?

John Griggs:
Keeping pests down. I mean, ou don’t want to be the guy that has a coddling moth, or a cherry fruit fly, which, if you get cherry fruit fly, you’re done with the warehouse. You got to stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’ll kick you out and they won’t take your fruit.

John Griggs:
They’ll kick you out. They’ll… “No, sorry.” They’ll even, what they have they already packed, they’ll throw away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that probably what leaves little tiny worms in the fruit or something?

John Griggs:
Yeah, it’s a little tiny worm in the cherry.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ugh.

John Griggs:
Yeah. But very few people get that. If they don’t upkeep their orchard, they’re the ones that get it. But you got to spray to keep pests down, you got to spray nutrients on the leaves, you got to get the leaves big. You got to fertilize them, you got to feed the tree. It can’t do it on its own. If it does, it’s going to be a gnarly-looking tree. After a cherry season, the trees, they’ve produced 20, 30 pounds of fruit on their tree, some more. You got to give them some food and put them to bed. Put ’em to sleep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they go, like, dormant then? Or what do they…?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. They’ll go dormant, they’ll lose all their leaves. Buds will start coming in, they’ll be tight, but they’re just getting ready for the spring.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can tell you love it.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? Why do you have so much passion for this?

John Griggs:
It’s freedom. I mean, I get to work with my family, I get to help just give product that I’m passionate for. And it’s all I’ve known. I didn’t see myself sitting in an office all day long. But even here, I can be working from 3:00 to God knows when. One time I sprayed 22 hours straight and then had an hour off to sleep and I had to go drive a tractor in the cherries. Yeah. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I get to see my family. I live on the farm. I’m two minutes away from my grandpa. He’s probably my biggest motivator, biggest to do anything, I’ve lived right next to him for 24 years.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have you learned from him?

John Griggs:
I’ve learned what the varieties are, I’ve learned how he does things, I’ve learned how to tree train. I’ve learned how to plant orchards. I’ve learned what a high density orchard is compared to a medium density, to a low density. I’ve learned how to know when fruit’s ready. Pretty much everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Being raised in this world, what was it like going to college for that program? It sounds like maybe you could have taught the classes yourself.

John Griggs:
Yeah, it was… I learned some stuff. I had to get something to work out here. I don’t even work out here full-time yet.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what else do you do?

John Griggs:
Inside sales for an ag chem company in east Wenatchee.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of farmers have jobs off the farm to keep doing it.

John Griggs:
Yeah. They need to now. You’ll get people working for the DOT in the winter to plow roads. Some of them don’t even… they’re hobby farmers. They’ve got five, 10 acres and they’ll do it, “Well, I got to go prune,” they’ll do it by themselves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you hope to one day be entirely on the farm?

John Griggs:
Oh yeah. I hope soon.

Dillon Honcoop:
What will that take?

John Griggs:
My dad, my family’s young. They had me young, so he’s about 18, 19 years older than me. So I’ve got a… and he doesn’t own the orchard fully yet. So, kind of got to wait for that to happen then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Keeping a farm like this in the family is hard if you’re-

John Griggs:
It’s hard, hard. But we got to make it work. I don’t see myself losing this farm, and I’ll do anything to keep it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve asked other people in your situation if they feel a lot of pressure, but it sounds like, to me, it’s not that you feel pressure other than just your own, like you’re passionate about it and want to keep doing it.

John Griggs:
I’ve got to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not because somebody else is telling you to.

John Griggs:
No. My dad told me, “You go do you,” whether it not even be in the farm. He doesn’t care. As long as I’m making a living and doing good in society, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re like, “No, I want to keep this going.”

John Griggs:
Yeah and same with my sister. I mean she worked in the orchard but she was like, “Ugh, I got to do this.” But she liked it and now she wants to be on the marketing side. And in the orchard, too, but. As long as you’re passionate about it, go for it, they say.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you say to folks in Seattle who are eating [inaudible 00:42:06] fruit from over here, or food from anywhere grown in Washington?

John Griggs:
Know it’s grown with passion. Even if it’s a big two, three thousand-acre farm, I mean, there’s people behind it. You got to know they have families and you’re here providing for them, really, I mean this is their job, their life. They’re just as passionate as I am. Whether they’re in that situation or not, they still do it. Big farms are still owned by families, too. I’m really good friends with big growers and they’re just like us, just two or three times bigger. But they don’t see themselves leaving, they want the small growers still, and everybody helps each other out in the farming. We share people with our neighbors, I mean, I have an uncle that lives right to us that has a 13-acre pear orchard and we come and pick it for him, and he helps us out, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can the consumer trust the fruit that they’re buying that’s grown in Washington?

John Griggs:
Absolutely. Know it’s grown with care.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your biggest fear with all of this?

John Griggs:
Not being able to do it. That’s a big… disappointing, I guess. I mean, that’s tough. Getting told that you’re done, that’s probably the biggest fear.

Dillon Honcoop:
You remember hard years in the past?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have been the roughest times that you can remember?

John Griggs:
I remember my dad saying, he’s like, “We might not be able to fix this tractor.” Back when, early mid-2000s, I mean that was a tough time for orchards. Even people that had the new varieties were still, “Nobody’s buying our fruit. What do we do?” Well, everybody goes through a tough time. Even the big boys go through times. You can tell.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did that mean for your family during that time? What was that like?

John Griggs:
It brought us close. We were really close already, but we were eating dinners together trying to, “Hey, what do we do? What can I do to make things better?” Even when we owned the packing shed, we were still, “What can we do? Do we pack this variety? Do we say no?” I mean, that’s one of the tough things. No grower wants to be told “no.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you just want to keep growing more.

John Griggs:
Yeah they’re like, “We just want to farm.” I mean some people, that’s all they’ve been doing. That’s all my family’s done, but we don’t see it any other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
You hope to have a family and kids one day and have them continue it on into the [future]?

John Griggs:
Yeah, I’d hope so, but I mean I’ll give them option, I mean it’s always here for you. But don’t just abuse it. That’s what I’ve been told.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would abusing it be?

John Griggs:
Oh just kind of, “Oh, I farm but I really don’t work,” “I have got a bunch of free time on my hands and I’m not doing anything.” That’s kind of what I see it as. That’s what my dad’s told me, playing X-Box when I’m 18 years old and, “What are you doing?” “Uh, relaxing.” “Come on, we got to go.” “Oh, no.” Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not typically what the 18-year-old playing X-Box gets told.

John Griggs:
No, they’re like, “Okay, 15 more minutes.” No, it’s, “You’re done right now or else I’ll shut it off.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well thank you for sharing your story, I appreciate it, and thanks for what you do. I can tell you just put everything you have into producing the fruit that you guys do here.

John Griggs:
Yeah, thank you.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Talking with John and hearing that conversation again, now, just makes me want to get back into farming in some ways so much. And I don’t know if it affects other people that way. I think it’s because of my upbringing and growing up on a fruit farm. So much of that stuff just makes sense to me. But in some ways it’s part of me that’s sort of dormant, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is kind of documenting my journeys around Washington State to get to know the real people behind our food. I loved talking with John. We’ve got a lot of really cool conversations coming up. And we really would appreciate a follow on Instagram, on Facebook, if that’s what you like to do, or on Twitter, whatever your preference is, or all of the above.

Dillon Honcoop:
Also, if you could subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify or whatever platform you prefer, that would really help us, too. And share these episodes, we’re trying to bring more people into the conversation and get the word out that farmers here in Washington are real people, too, and I think it’s important that we get to know them and understand the realities that they face, because we want to keep farming and farmers and farm land here in our state. And making sure that farmers have a face is, I think, important.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, this is the Real Food, Real People podcast. Subscribe, follow us on social media, and if you want to reach out directly to me, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address.

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.