Blake Carson | #038 08/31/2020

Although he's just out of college, Blake Carson has been growing food for years alongside his grandpa. Now as he helps other farmers, Blake sees a future with more food grown locally in spite of the challenges.

Transcript

Blake Carson:
I like to see things grow, I like to make food. I swear my whole life revolves around food prep and all that stuff.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
My guest on the podcast this week gives me hope for the future, I guess, of growing food, particularly in Western Washington. You’ll see that he has a passion for helping people grow food. He’s an agronomist right out of college. Blake Carson is his name. He works for Skagit Farmers Supply and he’s worked alongside his grandpa for years helping to grow food. So he has that background, that history, he has the experience to know the big challenges, but he also has the vision for the future where he wants to see food grown here that we don’t necessarily grow here anymore, but he knows that we can because he knows that history from working with his grandpa.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fascinating conversation and really inspiring when you hear that … And Blake is a really soft spoken guy, but he’s super transparent. You can tell this is all very important to him and that he’s thinking about how to make our food system here in our region better. Again, his name is Blake Carson. We had a great chat right in his grandpa’s machine shed. And I know I, for one, really enjoy this conversation this week. My name is Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my journeys all over Washington state to get to know the real people behind our food.

Dillon Honcoop:
So when was it that you got into farming because your folks aren’t in farming, right?

Blake Carson:
No, my parents aren’t. So my grandpa, he of course has farmed for quite a while and I started raking hay when I was nine years old. So, little nine year old me was out there jumping the clutch and wearing a cowboy hat raking hay. And yeah, I’d pretty much started right about then.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of farm did your grandpa have at that time?

Blake Carson:
He had just got out of the peas they’d left in Whatcom County and I think … Yeah, so he was doing about a couple 100 acres of hay where he’s selling it to horse people, feeding it to his replacement heifers, and he also did quite a bit of field corn. So that’s where I dipped my feet into doing a little bit of field work with four wheel drive tractors and whatnot.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What had he farmed over the years though? You said he had done peas in the past, what else had he done back in the day?

Blake Carson:
So years ago, he and his brother they dairied together and they also did peas, sweetcorn, dabble a little bit with some green beans. Then they had their separation and he continued to just do the whole field corn route with other dairies after they quit dairing and just making it work with what he had.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re nine years old, starting to work on the farm. Do you live in town at that time or what?

Blake Carson:
I lived right down the road from my grandparents farm, so yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. Well, that made it easy then to be right there?

Blake Carson:
Yep, yep. He’d always come pick me up in his old beer farm truck and I was always excited. I mean, most kids at nine years old, they are pretty excited to go out to the lake or whatever, but I was always itching to get back onto the tractor.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you caught the farming bug early on-

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… from your grandpa?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome. So where did you go from there? Because you, I’m assuming, kept helping on the farm right through high school and decided, “I want to be in farming.”

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So I played sports in high school. Towards the end of high school, I started working for a local seed potato farm. I did that springs and summers, falls, I did football. But from there, I decided to go to school at Washington State University. I was going to go be a Coug, go Cougs, and I was going to go do construction management. I saw there was a lot of opportunity for higher wages and a lot of job placement, but after a semester there, I decided just it wasn’t really my thing and I wanted to go back to agriculture. So went and pursued a degree in Agricultural Technology and Production Management, AgTM.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s a program like that teach you? What were you doing in classes with that stuff?

Blake Carson:
It’s basically a wide variety of … you have like science classes, your soil science, your biology or chemistry, and then you have a lot of business classes. I did a business minor as well, but there was a lot of Ag business, stats, economics, and then there was just a bunch of irrigation and hydraulics, electrics, all that stuff. So it was a pretty well rounded education I’d say.

Dillon Honcoop:
So everything on how to farm-

Blake Carson:
Yeah, pretty much.

Dillon Honcoop:
… from whatever perspective? So what was your plan at that point? What did you want to do with that degree when you were still in school?

Blake Carson:
I had no idea. I just wanted to … I don’t know. I thought about, oh, going to work for Simplot or McGregor or something like that through the basin, but I just ended up coming back here to work for Skagit Farmers Supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, talk about your job now. You’re an agronomist?

Blake Carson:
Yes, I am.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what does that mean?

Blake Carson:
So I pretty much am responsible for all of the inputs in a handful of accounts that I have either opened or received. And I just check on their fields and make sure that there’s no disease or pass or anything bothering the yield on the crop, and I just make educated opinions on what kind of fertilizer inputs and chemical inputs that we’re going to use on this particular crop.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of crops are you keeping an eye on right now with the different farmers that you’re working with?

Blake Carson:
So I deal with a lot of potatoes, I deal with field corn, I deal with some seed crops, hay or grass, of course, and then a little bit of pickling cucumbers and green beans, and I guess I’m dabbling into berries right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like raspberries, blueberries?

Blake Carson:
Yes, raspberries and blueberries.

Dillon Honcoop:
And Whatcom and Skagit County is your area?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, Whatcom, Skagit, and I have a couple of accounts in the Snohomish.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, pretty wide area.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I’m all over the place.

Dillon Honcoop:
Driving all over, keeping track of all these farms.

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
Seed crops, what kinds of seed crops?

Blake Carson:
Spinach seed and Swiss chard seed. It’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, those are probably in Skagit, right?

Blake Carson:
Actually the farmer that I deal with, he’s in Arlington.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, down South there.

Blake Carson:
Yep. It’s very unique actually seeing the … It’s very high risk, but it can be very rewarding for a lot of these guys.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s it like helping to grow this food that people are going to eat? What does that mean to you?

Blake Carson:
Well, being on this side, the Ag consulting side of farming, it’s a whole lot different because you’re working with somebody else’s livelihood and you got to take that into consideration with every decision you make every day. And which brings on a different level of stress because you can get unloaded on for making a mistake and it could be an honest mistake, but you try to minimize those mistakes and try to make a great crop and that everybody will enjoy.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of farmers … Everybody knows the farming population is aging, here you’re a young guy. When did you graduate college, by the way?

Blake Carson:
This last December, so 2019.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so you’re just fresh out of college?

Blake Carson:
I’m fresh.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had to deal with people being like, “Oh, you’re a young buck, what do you know?”

Blake Carson:
Absolutely, there are a lot of people that don’t take me very seriously which, I mean, it’s to be expected. But then, for me, I’ve been able to keep a level head and just navigate through those situations and people notice it. So, I just try to be the best field man, the best all round person that I can be because I don’t want people to hate me or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, is that like that on the job too? I would imagine brand new as an agronomist on this team, I know that team has some people who’ve been doing it for an awful long time and you probably have to feel like you prove yourself there too, right?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I definitely have to prove myself a lot. There’s a few guys, they don’t take me very seriously or, “Oh, he’s the new guy.” Like “Oh, I’m trying my best, man.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. I don’t know, but what makes more of a difference, your fresh college education or their years of experience? That may lead to different conclusions, right?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it definitely could. I mean, I’m not sure. I mean, I’m sure they probably think that, “Oh, you went to college, you don’t know anything,” which, I mean, I have learned quite a bit in the past, what is it? Eight months since December, but I’m not sure how to answer that one.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was your first season like? As an agronomist, things are busy in the late spring time when lots of stuff is being planted, then it gets less busy later on, right?

Blake Carson:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that first rush like keeping on top of everything? And I know it can just be, go, go, go.

Blake Carson:
Well, first off, I actually interned for Skagit last summer, so I had a little taste of what it’s like to be in a field man’s position. I rode with a couple of field men and figured out like, “Okay, this is stressful.” But my first spring, this last spring, it started off in late March because we had a really nice couple of weeks there in late March. So I got a little taste of it. It was nice because we were able to get some of the operations done before it all has to happen at the same time. So it was nice to divvy it out a little bit.

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Blake Carson:
But I mean, there’s a lot of times where I’d be flying down the freeway and “Oh shoot,” I have to pull over and finding an exit and sit there and dilly dally with somebody order or whatever. It’s nice though, my pickup has Bluetooth, so I could just sit there and just take phone calls and … But yeah, it was very hectic.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re on the phone a lot and then having to pull over and probably get on your phone and deal with emails and orders and websites and all that stuff too?

Blake Carson:
Oh yeah, it’s a whole different world. I didn’t realize that there was so much email and the email really, really takes a toll, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think anybody work in a job dealing with lots of email or what it is about it.

Blake Carson:
Oh yeah. Well, it’s funny. It would be a lot easier to have like a group text message if you need to communicate, but for some reason they have to make a group email. I don’t know why, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Get on those strings, new emails keep popping up, “Yeah, is this something I need to look at or not?”

Blake Carson:
Yeah. You can just call me or text me and it’ll be more effective.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. So you got through the first season, what are you going to do different next season? What lessons did you learn?

Blake Carson:
I think that I probably need to be a little more organized. I have a lot of learning left to do and there’s a lot of economic principles that you don’t just pick up. You have to have a season or two or three or however many it takes to figure out, this is how this crop reacts to this herbicide or however you got to do it. But I think I have a lot of reading to do this winter. I plan on taking my CCA exam, I think, this February so I can become a certified crop advisor. Just everything that you can do in the off season to be better for the following season.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there’s a lot of science to it?

Blake Carson:
Oh, there certainly is, I mean, just understanding. I listened to Ag PhD a lot on the Apple Podcasts or whatever, and I learned a lot of principles that I just jot down as I’m driving around doing not a whole lot or whenever I’m not on the phone.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said sometimes you just have to deal with people giving you a rationale, “You know what?” Because they didn’t like maybe what you did or said. You had any real bad experiences with that so far?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I’ve had a couple of people give me a couple of nice words and you just got to take the BS, I guess. That’s part of the job. They don’t put that in the job description, but you know it’s there.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the reason is for that? It’s just because this farming stuff is so high stress?

Blake Carson:
I mean, there’s so much going on at once and there’s money involved, and money just gets people pretty upset. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Worried about losing money?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And say an operator makes a mistake, well, you got to take the blame. You’re not going to throw your operator under the bus and-

Dillon Honcoop:
So the people that work for your company who are actually out driving the tractor applying or planting or whatever?

Blake Carson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s those people you mean by operator may make a mistake?

Blake Carson:
Yeah. So I’m not saying they have, but like if they do make a mistake that you got to take the fall for it as a field man because that’s not fair to your guy that blah, blah, “Oh, my guy did this.” It’s my problem. I got to deal with it, I got to talk to management to figure out, “Okay, how do we resolve this problem with this grower so he isn’t mad at us?”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I’ve been that operator back in the day when I was planting corn for a similar operation to what you work for. Yeah, I was the operator and I made a few mistakes.

Blake Carson:
It happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the poor agronomist who was in your shoes had to probably go to the farmer and say, “Look, we didn’t quite get this right, maybe he missed a little spot or didn’t put enough fertilizer with.” And that’s stressful because then you feel like, “Ah, here, I’m just …” At that time I was a young guy in college, “I affected this guy’s crop now.” And usually there was a way to fix the problem some way, but it makes you nervous and that does really crank up the stress. I remember some pretty stressful days in the cab of the tractor. I don’t know if you’ve experienced that in the cab of your pickup where some days you’re just, “Ugh,” just feel like you’re in a vice.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, you’re ready to be home.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you get to be out in fields and growing food all the time too. That has to feel pretty awesome.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it’s a privilege to be able to see all these different cropping systems. I mean working with seed potatoes, you only see one or two cropping systems and that’s the way it is. And you learn a lot. I learned a lot on the seed potato farm and a lot of basic principles about mechanics and all sorts of stuff like that. But being able to see how every different farmer works their ground and how they apply their insecticide and everything about their program, it’s interesting to see how they’re successful or where they could change.

Blake Carson:
And that also gives me opportunity to have an opinion on, “Hey, you might want to look into this,” or you don’t want to say like, “Hey, this is what you need to be doing,” because no farmer wants to hear that. But I’m sure we’re here to make recommendations, that’s what we do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, “Have you considered this option?”

Blake Carson:
Yes, exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you worked for a seed potato farmer back, what? In high school and college?

Blake Carson:
Yes, I did. I worked for a seed potato farmer for four or five springs and summers in high school and college, which helped me get through college doing those 100 hour weeks.

Dillon Honcoop:
100 hours?

Blake Carson:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. What kind of stuff are you doing for 100 hours in one week?

Blake Carson:
Oh, I’d be doing a lot of field work or planting potatoes or getting irrigation equipment ready. I mean the biggest push for me was always the planting season, but I mean, after that 60 hours a week doing irrigation, 70 hours a week doing irrigation, pulling hose, all sorts of stuff like that, repairs. I mean, that’s always going to happen on a farm, repairs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Constant.

Blake Carson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Always something breaking.

Blake Carson:
And the hose reel would always eat itself or something like that. Ugh, I don’t miss that too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that seed potato farm that you worked for just recently went out of business.

Blake Carson:
Yes, they did.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’d be sad to see.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it was pretty terrible. I mean, I’m pretty close with them and it’s a shame. I feel terrible.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean with longtime family businesses like that going out, farms calling it quits, not just in seed potatoes, but in other areas? What does that make you think? Here you’re a young guy coming to this farming community, what does that make you think about the future? Are you worried about it?

Blake Carson:
I’m a little bit worried about the population increasing in Western Washington and the cost of land in Western Washington, it’s hard for … If you’re a family business or a family farm and you go out, there’s no getting back into it, really. I mean unless you have a large amount of capital to be able to get back into it these 20, $30,000 an acre pieces of ground, you’re not just going to be able to pull out your pocket. And for the crops that we have here in Whatcom County, I mean, besides corn, it’s going to take a lot of inputs as far as per acre cost.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), very expensive too. A lot you need to invest before you start harvesting a crop and trying to make some of that investment back.

Blake Carson:
Exactly, you can’t just go out and throw some potatoes in the ground, then, “Hey, look, I got some seed potatoes.” You got to have the storage, you got to have the equipment, you got to have buyers, you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
As a ballpark, what would you say? What does it cost? What kind of investment does an acre of seed potatoes have into it before they actually realize anything back from it?

Blake Carson:
I don’t know, probably five, $10,000 an acre. I mean, it’s tough out there. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is back to what you were saying about people being stressed and when money is on the line, that’s it too, because they’ve invested a lot already. And then if at some point in that chain before those potatoes are harvested and sold and that money is back in their pocket to pay off some of those investments in debts, if you mess up something in that chain, it’s like, “Whoa.”

Blake Carson:
You’re right.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s intense.

Blake Carson:
And you could just mess up at the end. You get a disease and you put your potatoes in storage, and there goes your storage. I mean, it’s never ending for them until it’s on the truck and gone.

Dillon Honcoop:
You want to do your own farming in the future?

Blake Carson:
I’d like. I mean, it’s tough to see where I’m going to be, but I mean, it’s all I know as it would be nice to be able to at least farm on the side just to have my foot into it and just have fun with it, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Even though all you’re describing doesn’t sound fun at all, it’s sounds stressful.

Blake Carson:
No, no. That sounds very stressful, huh?

Dillon Honcoop:
But apparently there is some fun to it as well.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I think probably part of the pride of calling yourself a farmer and feed people, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What would you like to grow?

Blake Carson:
I don’t know, I’d like to grow some annual crop. I think that’s what we need here in Whatcom County is an annual crop that doesn’t take as much of it as an investment and sell as a locally produced food because it seems like that’s the way that … with the coronavirus, at least, everybody is looking for a local crop, locally produced food that they can get to. So finding some co-op that could store or process these kinds of locally grown foods would be ideal.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were saying like grow a crop that isn’t necessarily grown here in Whatcom County now?

Blake Carson:
Right, or it might be grown to an acre or whatever. I’m sure there’s probably crops that an organic guy or hobby farmer might have in their backyard that would be worth looking into for a few other people to grow.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying maybe the big guys could learn something from the little guys?

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Do you think farmers feel that or I know there can be some skepticism both ways between really, really small hobby farms and big farms and those in between?

Blake Carson:
I definitely see a big gap between the bigger farms and the smaller farms. And the bigger farms, they got everything going for them and I don’t blame them for wanting to think that way, but being small on a smaller side of the scale, you are always looking for something different, I imagine.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), easier to pivot and do something different when you’re small?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve always said both sides could learn a lot from each other if they didn’t feel so competitive. And for what reason? Because they aren’t actually competing usually in the same market at all.

Blake Carson:
It’s not apples to apples at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
No. But like you were saying, the big guys could learn a lot from these little guys who are able to try different stuff and figure it out. Little guys could learn from the big guys too, about some of the ways and the efficiencies that they’ve found.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, and marketing [crosstalk 00:23:36]-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the big guys have to be so efficient to do what they do.

Blake Carson:
They got to have good accountants.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, to keep on top of everything.

Blake Carson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you could grow a crop, produce local food, maybe something that isn’t already grown here. I don’t know, what would that be like?

Blake Carson:
I don’t know, I always heard about how fun the peas were when the peas were around and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Growing peas, yeah.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it would be cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
My dad used to grow peas when I was 10.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, my grandpa grew peas as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I guess what I was thinking when you were saying, “Well, grow something that isn’t growing here now,” why now? Why isn’t that stuff grown here?

Blake Carson:
Oh, I think everything has to do with marketing. Well, when Twin City Foods left all the … Or I guess there was probably several processors, but I mean the recent one that I knew about was Twin City Foods, and where do you sell your peas? I mean, you could sell sweet corn on the side of the road. That’s going to get you so far, but finding a place to be able to sell your local foods if there was some storage that you’re able to get ahold of or processor or whatever, I think that’s the biggest barrier for a lot of these people wanting to put something in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there’s just not the processing facilities infrastructure here?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, that’s nothing like the Columbia Basin or Skagit Valley where you just go to Othello or wherever and there’s processor here, processor there, here’s your contract and put it in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there’s no other reason we couldn’t grow that stuff here?

Blake Carson:
I mean, as far as I know, say, for example, the Skagit Valley, the quality of the green beans, green beans have such higher quality than the ones in the Basin because the cooler nights, they don’t get wind burnt here or down in Skagit Valley. I imagine the sand probably has a lot to do with getting wind burnt. So I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of crops that you could grow here that would probably have a lot higher quality as long as it’s not something like onions that’s going to take probably a lot longer growing days. But yeah, I think that there’s a lot of opportunity for a lot of those crops to come back. I mean, I heard they used to grow up carrots here, they used to grow all sorts of things here in Whatcom County.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, back when they were processing facilities to actually package that stuff up and get it to the consumer. That seems to be the gap, and you’re not the only person that I’m hearing that from.

Blake Carson:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Blake Carson:
That’s a big gap. But I mean, I think that the way that the coronavirus and I mean just as we’ve gone on in the last few years that there’s probably going to be a shift where people do want local food and there’s a great opportunity for Whatcom and Skagit to supply local food to Bellingham, to BC, to Seattle, because there’s a lot of acres around here and a lot of dairies going out.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You work with any dairy farmers right now? I know that community is under a lot of pressure.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I work with a handful and it’s a very unique … I still don’t understand the whole base thing. I mean, I get it when people want to get out and get a lot of money and wish they wouldn’t have two years ago, but I mean, I think it’s a very complex topic that … I mean, it’s been happening for quite a while here, I mean, how many dairies used to be here 30 years ago? 600 or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, something like that.

Blake Carson:
Yeah. I mean now there’s probably what? 100, 50, 75 maybe?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think somewhere more under 100 now. Yeah.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, yeah. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of consolidation that’s happened, but now it’s not so much consolidation, it’s get out.

Dillon Honcoop:
Get out and the cows go away, they go somewhere else.

Blake Carson:
Yes, no more cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
From all the farmers, dairy farmers, crop farmers that you work with, what’s the biggest pressure that you’re hearing they feel they’re under? What are some of the things that they’re worrying about in the big picture?

Blake Carson:
I hear a lot about water. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the concern with water? What are they worried about?

Blake Carson:
Tribes shutting them off. Hearing about, I mean, the cost of land is increasing, there’s farmland being lost to housing developments. I think that’s all I can really think of right now, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, and you know because you work directly with these people weighs pretty heavily on their mind?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And markets too. I mean, I have a guy that has … he does wheat and straw and I mean, you’re not ever going to make money on wheat here. And I mean, that’s just one of those rotations, but it’s really hard to make money on wheat in Western Washington. We don’t have 4,000 acres with a very low land costs where it makes sense to grow wheat. I mean this 20, $30,000 an acre here and you’re not covering that cost with wheat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally. You mentioned water too. If people lost access to water, what would that mean for farms around here?

Blake Carson:
Like potatoes, I mean, you definitely need water. I mean, there’s some pieces of ground you can get away without watering but you’re not going to get nearly the yield that you want without water. So a lot of guys get shut off, there goes yield potential.

Dillon Honcoop:
Would they be able to just deal with that or pivot and do something else? Or what would happen to those farms?

Blake Carson:
I mean, that’s probably going to impact their yield quite a bit. I mean, we work with a grower here in Whatcom, he uses drip tape and it’s a very efficient use of water. I mean, it costs a lot of money to run that stuff, but who knows? I mean, it might be the way to go for a lot of people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, thankfully we get quite a bit of moisture here.

Blake Carson:
We do. We’re not the Basin for that.

Dillon Honcoop:
And our aquifer is usually only 10 to 20 feet down, so that helps keep the soil at least have a little bit more moisture in it for more of the year.

Blake Carson:
Right. I hear about some of these depths in some of these wells in Eastern Washington and it’s just mind boggling.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I visited with Case VanderMeulen while back there in Mesa and I think one of his wells is at 1,800 feet down.

Blake Carson:
That’s quite the bill.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy to think about.

Blake Carson:
And how do you pump that far?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, it takes a lot more juice. There’s a lot more investment in the electricity to be able to irrigate than for us who, here in Western Washington, have to pump the water up 20 feet max usually, makes a big difference.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I know. Yeah, you don’t see much more than 20 feet here as far as irrigation wells.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, and we’re blessed with that reservoir. In other areas, they use reservoirs above ground, but here our reservoir is the groundwater.

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that has also helped a lot of people take their irrigation off of streams and use this groundwater instead when they’re able to protect stream flows, which is a good thing.

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
How has coronavirus affected your day to day?

Blake Carson:
I’m pretty mobile and I work remotely from my work truck, so I don’t see too many people, I don’t sit in an office with too many people. I actually had the coronavirus back in June.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Blake Carson:
Yeah. So I have no idea where I got it, but yeah, it didn’t affect me too bad.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, well, explain how it went, tell the story.

Blake Carson:
Oh, well I was spraying a grass field of mine in one of my hay fields and a little open station, 2440 John Deere and parked along, and the next day I-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that this tractor right here?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, that one. Yeah, I didn’t know it was right.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love that, I love that.

Blake Carson:
Yeah. And so next day I had this little tickle in the back of my throat. And so I got towards the end of the week, it was like a Tuesday that I noticed that and it was like Thursday and started to get worse and I figured, “Well, I’ll just go to Skagit Valley College, they have a drive through swab deal or so I’ll just go there to rule the coronavirus out.”

Blake Carson:
And I guess, that Saturday they said, “Oh yeah, you have coronavirus.” “Oh shoot.” Yeah, my girlfriend and I had a quarantine for … Oh, she had to quarantine way longer than I did because it was like, for me, is 10 days after the first symptoms and I just felt under the weather for about a week and I can’t taste or smell anything for two weeks. But other than that, it wasn’t terrible.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why did she have to quarantine longer?

Blake Carson:
Because she could have been exposed to my symptoms because they went on for 10 days [crosstalk 00:33:22]-

Dillon Honcoop:
So did she ever get it?

Blake Carson:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
She didn’t get it?

Blake Carson:
No, and we live together.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hmm, crazy.

Blake Carson:
Maybe she gave it to me, I don’t know. But-

Dillon Honcoop:
But she didn’t show any symptoms, but she had to quarantine longer because in case she did, then it would be that much more delayed?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, so she had a quarantine two weeks past my 10 days. So she was at home for quite a while. She actually started working from home, which worked out, less driving and-

Dillon Honcoop:
What does she do?

Blake Carson:
She actually works at Skagit Farmers Supply too in the credit department.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, yeah. We met at WSU.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice. So you work at the same operation as your girlfriend?

Blake Carson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you don’t actually work together on a daily basis?

Blake Carson:
No, not at all. No, not at all. I asked my boss, “Wouldn’t be weird if she applied?” Because it was actually really hard for her to find a job. Well, she got a degree as Ag economics from WSU and she had a terrible time finding a job. And, was it May? Oh, no, April, because she got let out early because of the coronavirus, and so I asked my boss, “Oh, is it weird if Emily applies?” And he goes, “Oh no, not at all. Okay, whatever.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Perfect, yeah.

Blake Carson:
Yeah?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, he’s got to think, “Oh, is there some conflict or something?”

Blake Carson:
Right, yeah. It wasn’t too bad.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what does she want to do? She want to be a farmer too?

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I think-

Dillon Honcoop:
She just wants to be an Ag economist.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, she-

Dillon Honcoop:
Did she like the actual get in the dirt stuff too?

Blake Carson:
She likes the numbers, but she really likes the baldy calves. She just loves the baldy calves for whatever reason.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? What’s different about them?

Blake Carson:
I don’t know, I guess they’re cute little buggers.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you guys raise some calves or she does or-

Blake Carson:
Yeah, so my grandpa’s got a whole, I don’t know, 20 head of Angus and yeah, they just calved like a month and a half ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain what’s a baldy calf?

Blake Carson:
Oh, it’s a black Angus with a white face, beyond me, why they get that, I’d forget. But yeah, they just have a white face calling them up like a bald eagle and it’s a bald calf, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. Is that because they’re crossed with something else or are they still-

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I think so. It has something to do with … I don’t know, to be honest with-

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t either because I’m not a big animal person as much but I know I’ve been told before.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I would like to-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s why I was hoping you would know.

Blake Carson:
Right. No, no, no. [crosstalk 00:36:03]-

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re like me. You sound like you’re more of a crop guy like me.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, I’m more of a crop guy, but I want to dabble into the cattle a little bit more. I mean, I always help separate the … He used to have like 200 head of replacement heifers here for quite a while, so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Your grandpa?

Blake Carson:
Yeah. So, I’d always help separate and I didn’t necessarily hate the animals, but I just love the tractors.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. Me too. Totally get that. And I helped my grandparents on their dairy farms, but I wasn’t a cow guy. I was a tractor in field and crop guy.

Blake Carson:
It seems like on most dairy animal type farms, they’re either one or the other from what I’ve noticed.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And you see a lot of families split up duties that way too where one brother does the field side and the other brother does the cow side or something like that.

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. That works out, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. So you think you might end up doing some farming yourself?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re working with other farmers?

Blake Carson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy life.

Blake Carson:
It is, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Driving all over the place. Why do you love it so much? What keeps you going through those stressful days?

Blake Carson:
Now, I don’t know. I like to see things grow, I like to make food, I think. Between hunting and fishing and growing food, having a garden, I mean, I think I swear my whole life revolves around food prep than all that stuff, but I don’t know, I just like to. It’s beautiful seeing corn grow, it’s beautiful seeing potatoes grow, beautiful seeing them getting harvested, and I guess just the process of the hard work, I think. I attribute 99% of my work ethic to the agriculture lifestyle, so I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story and opening up about what you do and why you do it.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, thank you.

Dillon Honcoop:
It takes so many people and it’s cool to see someone like you even just straight out of college being willing to make that jump into it. Because a lot of people right now are saying, “Why would you get into farming? Farming is going downhill.” I hope it isn’t because I think we need to still be growing the food that we eat here.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, people got to eat, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And we need people like you getting in to farming to keep it going for the next generation and beyond.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, it’s tough. I mean, I guess a lot of guys I went to school with in Pullman, there’s a lot of young people, there’s quite a few young farm kids, but as far as Western Washington, it’s hard to find very many young college aged folks that are going to be into farming, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Why do you think that is? Why do people your age coming out of college not want to get into farming?

Blake Carson:
Probably a generational thing. I mean, I think kids not working over the summer and I think you hear about the older generation, they all milk cows in high school and middle school or whatever, and a lot of the kids that I went to high school with or a lot of kids that you see now, they play video games and go swimming, which I get you got to do that here and there, but I feel like getting that early work in and being able to be a part of something like that, I think, keeps that farming around.

Dillon Honcoop:
You learn to value that at a young age, the hard work and then the payoff for putting in that work to see the crop grow even as a young kid to work and discover, hey, you have a few bucks, “I can go buy my own bike,” or-

Blake Carson:
Exactly, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… that kind of a thing.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, throwing some heavy ryegrass bales into the hay mount when you’re 10 or 12, that teaches you a few things too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. And plus it makes you stronger.

Blake Carson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much, I really appreciate it.

Blake Carson:
Yeah, thanks, Dillon.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
With somebody that young, it’s going to be really fun to watch what he accomplishes. And he’s just getting his feet wet right now and learning from a ton of people with a lot of experience. But like he was saying, he wants to do this himself, more than just helping people as an agronomist, advising them on their crops, he wants to grow food himself and he has a vision for the way that it could be different than it is now. So again, I’m really thankful that that Blake was so transparent and open with me about what he’s thinking along those lines.

Dillon Honcoop:
Love these kinds of conversations, this is what I’m all about, that’s what this podcast is all about, is getting to know these real people because there are so many of them in our food system. And elevating their voices, getting to know them helps us get closer to change. Realfoodrealpeople.org is our website where you can get all of the episodes that we’ve done to date. And we’ve got a lot more planned, let me tell you.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop, I grew up on a local red raspberry farm in Whatcom County, so the same place that Blake grew up. And so that’s where we shared some common background. I’m on a journey all over Washington State though, to get to know the Blake Carson’s and so many others out there growing our food. I would really appreciate your support. To be able to keep doing this, we need to expand our reach and bring more people into the conversation. Please share these stories and information about the podcast on your social media if you can, on Facebook or on Instagram or on Twitter, Real Food Real People, or I guess @rfrp_podcast is the handle on our social media channels.

Dillon Honcoop:
Check us out on YouTube as well, we’ll have the full interview that you just heard available to watch so you can see the machine shed, you can see the tractors, you can get a look at some of the great expressions on Blake’s face. Thank you for your support. Thanks for being here again this week on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families, find them online 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.

Rosella Mosby | #037 08/24/2020

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Grocery store-

Dillon Honcoop:
If I live in Seattle-

Rosella Mosby:
… restaurants.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Good idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
I hope so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Or California.

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Totally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you join the picture?

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love that.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Little did you know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The communicator.

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
But just generally.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, they have to get new?

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Which we have no control of.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that true? Really?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s scary.

Rosella Mosby:
… that’s a problem.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s scary.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Are those adults or are those kids?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
No, I’m saying-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Packaged stuff.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, totally.

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

Rosella Mosby:
About $75,000 and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Any of your kids interested in…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield | #036 08/17/2020

An unexpected path led Kady Porterfield from her family's California ranch here to Washington state. She has a passion for helping the people behind our food, and shares her dream for her future.

Transcript

Kady Porterfield:
It was a heart sinker, yeah. When the last few mandates came out for Washington state, it was just like, okay. But you feel so helpless, too, because there is really nothing you can do.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people talk about how farmers are getting older and older, and people are aging out of growing food. It’s true, but at the same time, I’ve been really encouraged as I’ve continued on these journeys all over the state with this podcast to get to know young people, young men and women, who are super passionate about growing food, and advocating for other people growing food. That’s the story this week, of our guest Kady Porterfield, who’s actually originally from California.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ll hear about her story, how she ended up in Washington, how passionate she is. She’s a pro. She’s super professional, involved in a lot of stuff, very smart and successful person, and she has a dream for what she wants. She’s not actually growing food right now herself, but she has a dream, and a vision, and a plan to eventually be there. At the same time, we talk about some of the stuff that’s going on with COVID right now, too, and what that’s meant for fairs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Country fairs are totally about food, and no I’m not talking about the corn dogs, and the snow cones, and the cotton candy. I’m talking about the people who raise food, and animals, and crops, and that’s the foundation of it all, so we talk about that, too, because she’s very plugged in with that world professionally. Kady Porterfield is our guest this week. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is the Real Food Real People podcast, again, documenting my journeys to get to know the real people behind our food and our food system all over Washington state.

Dillon Honcoop:
Of all the things that you could do with your background, and your education, you’re still plugged into farming. Why is that? What draws you to farming, and ranching, and this world?

Kady Porterfield:
It’s my roots, and it’s my passion. It’s going to be my forever. I can’t imagine any other life that’s not focused on agriculture and how it’s moving forward into the future, and what it does for the world, and how it impacts the people who benefit from it, but also the people who are in it every day. It’s my way of life. I’m really proud of it. It’s ingrained into me, it’s in my blood.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what it does for the world, what do you mean by that?

Kady Porterfield:
Feeding the people, and we still have a lot of work to do. With an ever growing population, it’s just going to keep going and going. People are working so hard to find ways that we can make food better and more efficient to get more food out there for the world.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of stuff? What are you seeing in the farming community?

Kady Porterfield:
Well, from what I see, there’s loss of smaller farms, which is sad, but there’s also a need always to be growing, and moving forward and having to keep up with the times, and the whole business climate really plays into farming and ranching, and that needs to be a huge focus that some people don’t see. Sometimes, it’s just looked at farming and ranching, and not looked like as a business. So there’s ups and downs, but my belief is there’s a place for everything in the world because they support all different avenues of consumers.

Kady Porterfield:
There’s a place for big, place for small, place for conventional, place for organic, and so on. I think everyone just works well together, and all of them are solutions, and it’s great that some people can have choices, and it’s great that we can do it in other ways that are cheaper for those who might not have any choices.

Dillon Honcoop:
So from what I understand about what you do right now, you’re like an advocate in a lot of different senses, right? Talk about, you have multiple roles around the farming community.

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah, so when I got out of college, I knew before I go back to the family ranch someday, I really just wanted to focus on advocacy, and I found the fair industry was a great way to do that because you’re not only educating the next young agriculturalists of tomorrow, but you’re getting to connect with consumers that come to your fair that are of an urban, or suburban population, or just maybe not on a farm or ranch, and so their only interaction they get with agriculture or livestock is at a fair.

Kady Porterfield:
That could be the only place all year round that they get that, and so I’ve, my six years in this profession, just created an even bigger passion for just looking at those two avenues of education and working towards that. But in a broader each, I help out and still have hands on stuff for other peoples’ operations right now, and just as a hobby for me, but obviously I’m not at my family’s ranch, and so that fills my time.

Kady Porterfield:
So in the meantime, I’m working in industry associations so that I can help protect that way of life so that when I’m ready to take that over, or the next generation ready to pass that down to, I want it to still be there. So I’ve involved myself in different Ag associations across the state, and still back home in the state of California as well. I try to keep tied in there too.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a really forward view. You’re thinking about longterm [crosstalk 00:05:54].

Kady Porterfield:
Right, exactly. It is. And that’s how a lot of actually farmers and ranchers think, I feel. To them, they’re so proud, and have so much attachment to their operation, because it’s not only their lifestyle, but they do want to leave behind a legacy, and they do want the next generation, they want to see it continue. And that’s a big thing, and sometimes that also this industry is failing at is doing proper planning to make sure that those steps can take place, but they still care about it, and yeah.

Kady Porterfield:
That’s no different for me, and so my involvement in industry associations to be a voice and work alongside people that want to protect this way of life, and how we operate so that we can feed the growing population, and continue to do so in the best way possible. That means a lot right now during my time not in production agriculture.

Dillon Honcoop:
So your main job is working with the fair. What’s your job title, it’s the Kittitas Valley, what, Fair and Events Center, what? What’s the…

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah, so the grounds is now called the Kittitas Valley Events Center. Went through a rebrand a few years ago because we host events all year round, Ag-based and not, and just community-based. So this fairgrounds is widely used, and so it keeps us very busy. But our main love and biggest event of the year, of course, is the Kittitas County Fair and Ellensburg Rodeo. So I have a really fun time working with both the fair board and the rodeo board to put on those events, because the rodeo, just like the fair, is also an agricultural education type based event in my mind, and so it’s not just entertainment.

Kady Porterfield:
People learn about livestock, going and watching the rodeo, and they get that interaction, and understand that lifestyle. So it’s fun to be working with those events simultaneously as they’re going on every labor day weekend. But yeah, I keep busy. My tile is the event center director, but yes, that falls under facility management, and the event side of things, the interim, and fair manager.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does it feel like farming sometimes, or does it just feel like office job sometimes? I guess probably both, right?

Kady Porterfield:
Probably both. A lot more office than I’d like, sometimes. In previous jobs before I got this position a year and a half ago, I was the agricultural department manager for the Central Washington State Fair, and even though I was still doing a lot of office work, I was just submerged in the Ag sector only, which was a ton of fun, and for my first career job, that was right where I wanted to be, right in my passion.

Kady Porterfield:
Of course now being at a little higher level of position, I have to encompass everything of the day to day business, but I think it could be transferred over to farming and ranching, still, because a lot of farmers and ranchers, they love working in the business, and doing the farm and ranch work. But sometimes, the paperwork isn’t as much desired, but it’s still very necessary to be able to be successful, and so it’s probably prepping me to make sure that I can keep office work going, and not slack off on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what does it take to make the Kittitas Valley, and I’m making sure I’m getting this name right, Kittitas Valley Fair-

Kady Porterfield:
Event center.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, but the actual big event, labor day, and which is like the biggest annual event in this whole area, right?

Kady Porterfield:
Yes, Kittitas County Fair.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fair and rodeo, what all goes into that? I mean you’re working on that all year to make that happen on labor day?

Kady Porterfield:
All year round. Both boards meet, and I meet with both of them, and the planning, the capital, what projects we’re going to do to better the fairgrounds in preparation, what changes we want to see. Winter and spring is getting all of the papers renewed for the next year, and all of the new information and planning goes into place.

Kady Porterfield:
Then late spring summer, we’re working on getting those things ready around all of the events that we’re trying to host and manage at the same time, but it does. You just got to pace yourself throughout the year, and make the juggle to make this place profitable, and keep it rolling, make it valuable year round.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the event like when it actually happens?

Kady Porterfield:
Awesome.

Dillon Honcoop:
What all, there’s rodeo stuff happening, there’s animal exhibits. I would imagine there’s the classic carnival stuff going on.

Kady Porterfield:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Describe what [crosstalk 00:10:31] looks like.

Kady Porterfield:
Vendor row, yeah. It’s just, this fairgrounds, for one, is beautiful, and we’re in a great spot in Ellensburg, and so how the layout is just really fits, and when you’re walking through the fair side, you can just hear everything going on in the big rodeo arena, and you’re almost just itching to get in there, and get a ticket to go watch because it’s such a good production that the Ellensburg Rodeo puts on.

Kady Porterfield:
And then on the fair side, you just feel so comfortable, because there’s so much community, and between walking from vendor row, and through the carnival, and then down to the fair food, the booths are just lined up, easy access, and the animal barns, they’re historic, so if they have a good feel of going around them, but then getting to go into the big pavilion and see all the kids show every year, and we have several show rings gong at once all around, and so you can feel the competition going. It’s all in their face, and you walk in you’re like whoa, okay. You can feel it in the air.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome.

Kady Porterfield:
It’s pretty awesome, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thinking this bizarre year of COVID, that’s one of those things I’m going to miss the most. I’m such a junky for fair food. Now that you mentioned that, I’m thinking about it. Just thinking about deep fried anything, and how wonderful it is. But fair food, and how fairs are connected to the production of food, two totally different things, and I think people don’t think about that part of it, about how producing food, farming, stewarding the land, how that’s all connected to fairs that happen every year. Again, people think of yeah, deep fried stuff, and rodeos, and carnivals, but I think a lot of people forget the roots of the whole fair scene.

Kady Porterfield:
Exactly. And I think this year with COVID has made people realize what the roots of all fairs are, truly, and that’s the agricultural exhibits, and the livestock. This is definitely been a year, while it’s very challenging for our youth, and 4-H, and FFA, and other livestock exhibitors, it’s also a huge learning year because it’s so practical to the daily that other farmers and ranchers and production agriculture have to go through. Market ups and downs, and not being able to sell an animal, maybe.

Kady Porterfield:
Luckily, a lot of people are working on the virtual actions so that the kids can still sell their animals as a product, and the communities are being super supportive all across the nation which is amazing to see, especially because so many of those are small businesses that have also been so hurt from COVID. People are just amazing. But this is definitely a learning opportunity for those young kids, and that’s what the experience is all about. It’s learning how to be in production agriculture, and that’s what you have to take sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And being proud of what you do, too. Not just farming because, well, it makes you money, or even just because it produces food one way or the other. But trying to do a great job of it, right?

Kady Porterfield:
Right, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I see when I-

Kady Porterfield:
Putting a good quality product out there on the market. I mean, that’s what I’ve always preached, is that kids need to realize that, and it needs to be ingrained in their programs that you’re not trying to show an animal with the longest hair. You’re trying to show something that somebody can eat and enjoy, and it needs to have all the qualities all around. It’s really important.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s so much history to that, too. It’s such a brutal year this year, because, again, most of us are going to think about all the entertainment opportunities that are missed, and I love the entertainment value of a fair, but what you’re talking about here is the educational value. It has been such a tough year for education, with schools, and how to keep kids occupied and plugged into stuff, and this is another one of those things that has gone away this year. What are you hearing from some of those kids, those families? The farm families that normally show, that kind of stuff. Are they pretty heartbroken?

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah. It’s something that the whole community looks forward to every year. The fair, in any community is when that whole community gets to come together and celebrate. Not just agriculture, but being a community, and showcasing even through local entertainment and stuff, what the kids are doing in school. Special dance groups, all those things. Everyone gets to showcase their stuff at the annual fair, and so people are losing all over, in different ways, and I think people are just sad that we can’t come together and be together during that time.

Kady Porterfield:
It’s such a tradition, and it used to always be that it was the fun thing to get off the farm and ranch and do, and that was what traditionally it was all about too, and so it’s definitely been safe for everyone, and our hearts are right there with them.

Dillon Honcoop:
How hard was it to make that call? Because I know when a lot of these things were canceled, and it’s been some time ago now, a lot of stuff was even more up in the air than it is now.

Kady Porterfield:
Right, and I know-

Dillon Honcoop:
There was politics involved, and all kinds of crazy stuff.

Kady Porterfield:
From all of the people I’ve talked to on all the events and fairs and rodeos across the country, they have exhausted all options, and tried almost everything they can to try to figure out how to put it on, and it just comes down to there’s no safe way to do it, or the authority isn’t there, and [inaudible 00:16:16] one of the hardest decisions to make. I’m glad to see a few fairs have been lucky to have been able to put on an event and everything they had to go through in their region to be able to put a safe event on, that’s great that they got to do that, but I know in some areas it’s just not possible.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like when the announcement was made? What did that feel like to, this is your year, yeah, you do events year-round, but this is the big showcase, to have that canceled.

Kady Porterfield:
It was a heart sinker. Yeah, it was just like… You just kind of, and I guess our decision here was postponed long enough where we thought we would still have a chance, and so our hopes were up for a long time, and so it made us sink back even a little bit further when it finally came to the point when the last few mandates came out for Washington state, it was just like… Okay.

Kady Porterfield:
But you feel so helpless, too, because there is really nothing you can do. It’s just all right, now we got to change our mindset. What’s the best thing we can do to move forward, and how do we get these kids to still be able to seel their animal, and showcase what they’ve been raising all year long? So even though we took a minute to be sad, but then mind shift focus, and we’re focused on planing this virtual fair that we’re hosting here in a few weeks. So it just has to be quick. Got to be ready for change and make it happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, it seems like everything else in life is happening on Zoom now, so I guess you have to figure out how to do a fair on Zoom, right?

Kady Porterfield:
Something like that, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Zoom fair, obviously it’s going to be more than that, I know, but crazy.

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah, yeah. We’ll see how it all turns out.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about the other organizations that you’re involved with? I know you’re involved with the Washington CattleWomen, right?

Kady Porterfield:
Correct. I am currently the president. I’ve been president since 2017, and I’m in my second term now that’ll end in 2021. I joined the CattleWomen in 2015 up here for Washington. I’ve had an absolute blast. The ladies up here that are members are fantastic, and we have so much fun going around doing beef promotion events, and working with our state beef commission, and the Washington Cattlemen’s. There’s so many great things we get to do, and always looking for new ways we can connect with consumers, and meet them, and show them our face, and say, “Hey, yeah we’re raising the beef you want to put on your plate, or maybe you don’t want to put it on your plate, but we’ll let you know this is who we are anyway.”

Kady Porterfield:
There’s a lot of that. We try to immerse ourselves in all kinds of communities and do different things just to get the word out there abut beef, and that women are highly involved, just as much as the men.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think that’s a stereotype that a lot of people… It’s interesting, people might criticize that but if they do, it’s probably coming from a place of not being aware of it. Most beef operations are family operations.

Kady Porterfield:
That’s right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is there any, I’m trying to think, any in the state that’s not a family operation, one way or the other? And it’s man, woman, and child, everybody in the family who’s available, and you know…

Kady Porterfield:
It’s everybody, and yeah. The women aren’t just cooking the food for the brandings anymore. I mean, they are in it, or running the show now. So there’s a good mix, and yeah, the stereotypes are being broken, but it’s all about all of everyone working together. So that’s been fun, and then I’ve also been a part of the Washington Young Farmers and Ranchers Committee through the State Farm Bureau. I’ve been county representatives for quite a few years, first in Yakima, now for Kittitas, and I’ve been the vice chair of the Young Farmers and Ranchers State Committee for two year snow.

Kady Porterfield:
So that’s been a really fun group. I get to work with and dabble in all kinds of industries working, and with people my age. And it’s just so great to connect, and talk about issues that yeah, us as young people want to work on to make sure our future operations are going to be there for us. So that’s where Farm Bureau plays a really important role, I feel like, and I see a lot of value there.

Kady Porterfield:
But just being involved overall in Farm Bureau, I’ve been learning a lot, and there’s so much more to learn ,as far as the policy side, and different things like that. For Kittitas county I just recently was appointed to their county Farm Bureau board, and they graciously made me policy chair, so now I’m really starting, I’m going to get to learn because I’m going to be the one representing us in our county for that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain, policy. What kind of policies, what are talking about?

Kady Porterfield:
So the Farm Bureau, as a state every year, we come together and review. We have a policy book, and that’s where we stand on all agricultural polices, that when we go to Olympia, or are asking legislators for things, or trying to persuade them on bills that are coming up, that’s our policy book we follow, that that’s where we stand and that guides the State Farm Bureau staff, and all of the counties on we’re doing that.

Kady Porterfield:
But every year, we get the chance to amend, and revise, and add. So it’s a huge process, but it keeps the communication going, and helps us adapt as things change, and how we see the industry moving. So I’ve only been involved in it recently but so far, it’s a fun process, and I’m learning a lot from it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to stereotypes, just thinking about this. Again, the stereotype is the farmer, or the rancher is usually an older man. You’re a younger woman. What’s that like being in that world? Do you come up against that sometimes?

Kady Porterfield:
Sometimes, yeah. Even in this industry, I think that there’s a little bit on both sides that I can see that I’m kind of involved in. But overall, I also see a lot of support, at least. Most of the older generation are starting to understand, and most of them actually get it. There’s only a few that maybe aren’t quite with the times, or don’t see all of the positives that can come out of the newer generations, maybe. But it’s actually really encouraging to see. I mean, for an example, just working with not necessarily older men, but some older women, cattle women, the groups, tend to be mostly older women because a lot of the younger women are too busy, and raising families, and they’re not really immersing themselves in volunteer activities.

Kady Porterfield:
But these women in the CattleWomen are just outstanding, and right away they accepted me. There was no stereotypes about age, or anything, I mean, it was just awesome. And then they put me as their president after only being there two years, and I’m like, “Are you sure?” But they’re so sweet, and so I know that that stereotype overall, and getting to work with the Cattlemen’s Association, people realize the stereotype isn’t valid anymore, I guess. So it’s good to see.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where do you come from? You mentioned back home, and California. What was that? You grew up in the farming, ranching world?

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah. So I grew up on a beef cattle and hay ranch right along the California Oregon border on the Klamath Basin, just on the California side of the border. Little town called Dorris, California is where I went to high school. My family’s been ranching in that valley since my grandfather was 17, but there was six generations of my family have been cattle ranching. I’m the sixth, actually. So I am very proud of that, and I do want to see a seventh come, and some day I think that’s really awesome.

Kady Porterfield:
But yeah, little tiny town. I graduated with a class of 29, and so I come from a really small background but there’s tons of farming, and ranching back home, so that’s where my heart lies for sure, is cattle ranching, and that way of life. I call mom and dad almost every day and ask them what’s happening on the ranch, and try to keep tabs on them. I just don’t want to get too disconnected while I’m working on some other career goals, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s ranching life like then? What did you grow up doing every day on and around the ranch and farm?

Kady Porterfield:
Oh, man. So many things. Other than caring for the animals, but we learned how to run hay equipment too, and all of that. But my favorite stuff was getting to go to brandings, and to go to grandpa’s brandings, and all those kinds of things. Cattle drives, they’re still a thing, and those were some of my favorite days, and just gong and riding the range ground. We leased a lot of range ground for our cattle. Being in a high desert climate, you need a lot of acres to cover.

Kady Porterfield:
So a lot of riding, and I still have horses, and riding is still heavily involved in my life today, also. But feeding, I have pictures of me on a feed truck when I was like three years old with my dad, feeding cows, and some of those are my favorite childhood pictures. But there’s a whole side of it that I’m now trying to learn, that maybe I didn’t take advantage of more when I was younger, and that was the paperwork side of it, and my mom’s always done such a good job, and she just puts nose to the grindstones, and that’s…

Kady Porterfield:
It’s always going out and doing the work when you’re younger. But some of my teenage years, I probably wish I could have learned a little bit more from her on that side at the time, but you keep busy, that’s for sure. And then when you start getting involved in 4-H all spring and summer you’re raising your own livestock on top of it, and all of that, and when you got bummer calves that don’t… We lose the moms, or what not, and so me and my sister were always in charge of raising the bottle babies, and feeding them every day. All the critters, it was fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Some people, there’s controversy, of course, as I’m sure you’re well aware around beef, and raising animals. Any sort of animal agriculture for some people, but you talk about things like cattle drives, and branding and stuff, some people who aren’t familiar with how it works say, “Well, that’s cruel.” Or, “Why do you have to do that?” What’s your response to that kind of stuff, because I know a lot of people are really curious. Is that kind of stuff necessary? Is it bad? Is it good? And they’re not sure what to feel about it.

Kady Porterfield:
And it’s understandable, because when you don’t have that background and you see that, I can understand where the concerns will lie. But if it’s done right and properly, then it’s definitely the best for the animal in the long run. It’s just like anything, giving vaccinations or anything like that. Most people, we vaccinate ourselves, we vaccinate our kids. We do things for the health of them in the long run, and what we really try to do is make the stressful time as a short a period as possible, and as easy on them without causing any pain, or anything like that.

Kady Porterfield:
During brandings, yeah, there’s some short terms stuff, but it’s very quick, and then they’re off and easting back with their mother immediately. So yeah, it does look bad in some cases, but really it’s done the best way possible in most cases. And there’s a new program called Beef Quality Assurance that’s a national program, and like 80%, I think, of ranchers have gone through that program, or have completed the certification, and that goes through how to properly vaccinate, proper vaccination areas, and anything as far as handling animals, and keeping them as low stress as possible in any situation of moving them, or anything like that.

Kady Porterfield:
Cattle, you just got to, for me, it’s about reading their body, and their language, and every cow is different, and you got to be ready. But also, they’re tough animals. They are built for different climates, and [inaudible 00:28:50] and they can outstand a lot more than what people think, and they’re a lot bigger and stronger than us humans, and so there’s a lot of, cows can be really dangerous. But really, it’s about finding that working relationship, and really working on stockmanship, I think. It’s been a big push, of my parents with us growing up, and I continue to see it growing in the industry today, which is amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you think a lot of the beef that’s produced in this country is produced with those kind of values that you were raised with?

Kady Porterfield:
Yes. Yes. I mean, being involved especially with the CattleWomen and going nationally, and being involved with American National CattleWomen as well, and getting just to see how people are all across the country, and the programs that are happening, and seeing the stats, these cattle are transitioning. They’re just so much better off than they were 30 years ago.

Kady Porterfield:
The advancements the industry has made are just, I’m blown away at how, in a short amount of time, on all levels, we can become better, and that were still working on getting better, and finding new ways. We push ourselves. We don’t need regulation to push us, because the things we do, and keeping the animals low stress, and handling well, and all of that all adds to the productivity and product that we put, and the better product we have, the more profitable. So it’s very advantageous for ranchers to put those types of programs into place, or have those skills. They’ll see it on their bottom line.

Dillon Honcoop:
How can people know if they can trust the beef that they’re buying at the store, or that they’re getting at a restaurant that they’re eating? Is there a way to know? Because people are more and more concerned about, we want to make sure the food that we’re consuming is healthy and is ethical.

Kady Porterfield:
Yes. I know that no product that’s unhealthy, at least, is going to be put on the shelf, ever. Everything you’re going to be able to purchase and buy is going to be completely safe for you to eat, but as far as if-

Dillon Honcoop:
In the meat?

Kady Porterfield:
In the meat case. Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was going to say I saw some stuff at the gas station the other day, in a package. Yeah, I wasn’t so sure it was safe.

Kady Porterfield:
Maybe not gas station [inaudible 00:31:22].

Dillon Honcoop:
Like Kratom pills, or something. I’m like, “That’s legal?” I don’t know.

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah, oh man. But as far if you really want to know where your meat is coming from, I highly suggest finding a local source, whether it be even regional, or anything like that, and finding, there’s so many ranchers and farmers transitioning to being able to sell value added and on a local market, rather than through the large conventional chain through the grocery stores. And so that’s great, because then you get to know the person, or farm, ranch that’s raising your food.

Kady Porterfield:
But overall, from what I’ve seen from the reports that I’ve heard given at some of these conventions, a lot of that conventional stuff that is being raised and put into the grocery stores is becoming better, and better, and better raised. The beef quality assurance program has ways to actually test, and has markers that show how that animal product has been affected, and if it’s really bad, or something is really wrong with it, you will not see it, and it won’t be sold to you if something devastating was to happen to the animal, the carcass.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you see yourself doing in five, 10, 20 years, whatever the timeline is for you? It sounds like you, eventually, see yourself back as a part of the family ranch in California. What do you want that to look like?

Kady Porterfield:
Well, from recent conversations, and transition planning with my family, the ranch transition can happen as early as probably in another decade to 15 years. But I’ve always had the mindset you just kind of got to see where things are when it comes along. It’s great to have plans, but don’t plan on them too hard, because I’m sure someone up above would change that plan. If you were deadest on it, it would get changed for you.

Kady Porterfield:
That’s happened a couple times to me, so. But I see myself definitely in the fair industry, and even when I go back to the family ranch, luckily there’s some amazing fairs back home, too, and in some way, I would find out how to be involved in the fair industry still, because the value is there on so many levels. There’s so many positions you can have, whether you’re fair staff and management, or fair board director, or just a volunteer, superintendent, 4-H leader. There are so many ways you can contribute to the fair industry, and make a huge impact, so that’s always going to be there, I feel. I’m always going to have the two industries immersed. Even if they flip flop which one is the daily priority, they’re both very important to me.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I’m realizing I forgot to ask you earlier, talk about your educational background, too. You talked about going to high school. Class of what? What did you say?

Kady Porterfield:
29.

Dillon Honcoop:
29 classmates.

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah, and six of those were foreign exchange students, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tiny little school. But what’d you do after high school?

Kady Porterfield:
So I actually went to the State University of New York at Cobleskill College of Agriculture and Technology. It’s a little bit of a mouthful, but I went there because I had a passion to also play college sports, and so I was looking at D2 and D3 schools across the country, and there’s some good Ag schools. I went back and visited in New York, and it turned out that there agriculture business program was actually really, really good, and was thought out from Ag kids all over the north east. That’s their big powerhouse Ag school back there.

Kady Porterfield:
Even though it’s a smaller school compared to some of our Ag schools out here in the west, the Ag program is about the same as the Ag programs here in the west. Just a smaller school for the rest of the degrees. So I found that really interesting, and lucky for me, that school wanted me to play two sports for them, instead of just one.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was going to ask, you were talking about D2 and D3 sports, well what sport? What’s your thing?

Kady Porterfield:
So I got to play volleyball and basketball Cobleskill.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your-

Kady Porterfield:
Go tigers!

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice. What’s your number one? If you were just going to do one, what was it going to be?

Kady Porterfield:
That’s what everyone asked me, and I couldn’t decide. I was like I don’t know, I have to wait for the best opportunity. If I choose one, then I’ll end up having to play the other. It was just like, one of those things.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you love them both?

Kady Porterfield:
I love them both. I was so blessed to be able to get to play both, and have an awesome experience in college getting my agricultural business degree, and it was just like the three legs of the stool were there, and that is where I sat and landed. It was such an amazing experience because I was, of course, the only kid from California, almost, in the entire college, and the only kid from California in the Ag program, and so all of my college classes, I got so much engagement because my professors and other students would be asking me my perspective being a California kid. And agriculture being so huge in California and all over the west coast, I got to be a huge part of those conversations, which just enhanced the learning much more. So that was a ton of fun, and I’m glad that I got to experience another side of the country, too, and learn how different agriculture is, because that just helped me have a better understanding overall.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what positions did you play?

Kady Porterfield:
In basketball, I was a center. In volleyball, I was an outside my freshman year, and then a middle for the remaining years, which is always the positions I were in high school as well, so yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you still play much?

Kady Porterfield:
Since I’ve moved to Ellensburg, when I was in Yakima, I used to play volleyball in an adult league all the time, and that was a lot of fun, and I continue to play in Spokane’s Hoopfest, largest three on three in the world, and so that’s a lot of fun. I was really sad it was canceled this year, but I do try to keep playing, and so hopefully I will find some more time to keep going, and hopefully once all this COVID’s over, and sports can start again, I’ll be looking forward to that.

Kady Porterfield:
But I’m also learning new hobbies because I’m learning how to breakaway rope, and so I’m trying a new sport, and so that’s been a lot of fun, too, and something, as I age, I’ll have to learn how to do something different. My body can already feel all those years of hitting the gym floor in basketball, or something like that, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, and I wasn’t a great sports player, but I do think about some of the sports stuff that I dabbled in, in high school. I wasn’t good enough to play after high school, but some of the things I did, realizing how bad it would hurt now, if I did the same things, took those same hits that I took in football, or…

Kady Porterfield:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man. It’s crazy to think. Has it been that many years? Am I really getting that old? I can’t be that old yet.

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah, I just hit that stage where I’m like, “Oh, that long ago?” I just started realizing that like the last year. Yeah, it’s not fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s your next move going to be? You’re here. Do you want to do this for quite a while yet, or you said it could be like a decade or more before you… You want to take over the ranch then, and kind of be head honcho and take it over from your parents. What about siblings? Do you have siblings?

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah, yeah, and actually-

Dillon Honcoop:
That are angling for the job, too?

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah, I just had a conversation with my sister last night on the phone, and we were already talking about stuff, and we’re both looking forward to working together. We will have joint ownership of the family ranch, and I know both of us have the same passion, and even if we spend our entire childhood fighting like no other, we’re in a place now in adulthood where like okay, there’s a lot of pride here, and we both have the same goals. It’ll be a joint effort, but I’m looking forward to it. We’ll see how the timeline works out.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you won’t fight at all?

Kady Porterfield:
Oh, we’ll probably fight. There will probably be some business decisions that don’t line up, but that’s typical, and that’s how family operations are, I guess. It’s a whole nother ballgame. It’s a lot different than other businesses, that’s for sure, but.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, how do you separate that? Because you still want to be family, and hopefully friends, but if you’re working together at the same time-

Kady Porterfield:
I don’t think there’s an answer for it, because what have wives and husbands done for all these years? I mean, they still struggle. They haven’t been able to figure it out. A lot of them stay together, so they figure out that much, but it doesn’t stop them for fighting about the farm and ranch stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
That is true.

Kady Porterfield:
It’s just, it’s sometimes you don’t agree. And it is, it’s a challenge to separate your personal and business life when your personal and business life are your life. They’re ingrained together, there’s no separation. But that, again, probably leads back to why farmers and ranchers are so passionate, and love their lifestyle at the same time, because you get to do it with your family, too, and it’s what you love, and you can do it together. In a lot of other businesses, you don’t get the entire family to get to work with you. So it’s unique, it’s a double edged sword.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally true. And that’s been my experience growing up on a family farm as well. There’s amazing things abut it, and then really hard things about the interpersonal stuff. Dealing with conflict, even though if you grow up doing it, you do, I think, unless you really get into some bad habits, you learn how to do that along the way.

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah. My sister and I, we went to different Ag schools, and we have different teachings and all of that, but I think there’s things that I know that could benefit, and there’s things that she knows that could benefit. If we bring those together, I think the strength we have will outweigh a lot of the things that we might have to work through. But that’ll happen at any place of business. It’s just working through those, and handling the conflict resolution correctly. Which, when it’s family, sometimes it’s not that easy, but it’ll be good.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve been there. I know. Does that make you nervous at all? I know when I’ve thought, and I’m not really in a position to do it right now, but thought about taking over, continuing on the family farm, it’s like I’ve seen a lot, or most of it, but it freaks me out to think what if that’s all, all that responsibility is on my shoulders, could I do it?

Kady Porterfield:
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. No, it’s definitely something. If you start thinking about it too much, you do get nervous, and that’s one reason probably why I call my parents every day, and it probably drives them absolutely crazy, but I’m like I don’t want to slip up, and learn a month later you guys are doing something that I had no idea, and how am I going to prepare for that. So it’s been important for me to know the business plans moving forward.

Kady Porterfield:
And they get really busy, and just getting everything done, because it is a busy life. You have a huge to-do list every day, and then you have your this is late to do list. And so trying to pull that information, and stay up to date is difficult, or to try to learn, so my hope is that I will have the opportunity, when we’re ready to place a transition, that there will actually be a time where we can learn, and in person, and really get a handle on things. So we’ll see. We never know what the plan is from the other wonders of the world, but we just got to be prepared, and have the best plan that we can.

Dillon Honcoop:
Over your years of either being on the farm when you were, or still connected to it on the ranch, away from the ranch, what’s been the most challenging part, keeping that whole thing going? I mean, for your parents, for yourself. You talk about it being tough, but what’s it really like when it gets difficult?

Kady Porterfield:
I think for me it’s just understanding all of the processes, as far as what has to be done in the background. Not necessarily, I think, it’s easy to probably pickup working in the ranch, because that’s what I grew up doing. But learning all the stuff that goes, I know how to run a business, but learning all the intricacies that are specific to our ranch, and all of the needs and paperwork because the rules in agriculture are so different than what I’m handling here now. Yeah, there’s basic elements, but just the overload of different things that you have to know, and filling out the right paperwork permits, whatever it is, taxes, all that stuff.

Kady Porterfield:
That’s what I’m probably most nervous about, because I can’t learn that without doing it, and my mom holds all of that information, and so it’s like how do you slow her down to try to ask her, or understand. She’s amazing at record keeping, and book keeping, and that’s the thing. It’s just so detailed, and hopefully, with the records there I can learn quickly, but it’s learning how to do it right and keep it moving without making a mistake.

Kady Porterfield:
I think the toughest thing for me, the scariest thought, is probably making a big mistake that costs the ranch a big dollar hit. Because that does happen in transitions, too. So we’ll just got to hope for the best, and work towards that. But all those stressors are there, I guess. The toughest thing for me right now is when there’s so much going on, and I’m so far away, and I can’t just go and help during the weekend, or something like that.

Kady Porterfield:
There’s a million things going wrong every week, and just how it is. That’s normal. That I’m not there, and not just to help, but just to support my parents emotionally, and just know that they have us there, and that we’re going to be there. And my sister, same thing. She lives south, and so it’s hard for both of us. But we go home, and try to visit when we can, and catch up. But being away from family is really hard for a lot of reasons.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, the whole idea of me having conversations like we’re having here is to kind of reconnect people with the people who are growing the food that we’re all eating and buying in the store. What would you say, what’s your message to people who aren’t really connected with farming? What do they need to know to bring this whole thing back together, bring the different communities back together in sort of a mutual awareness and appreciation in our food system?

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah. I would say don’t be afraid to reach out and learn about people. Farmers and ranchers may be in your area where you could start. The information’s out there, and the industry is not putting out false information. The production side of the industry is really pretty trustworthy, and we want to give you the right information, and show you how we do things, and why we do things.

Kady Porterfield:
We want to make that connection, too, and that we want you to feel comfortable, because we’re eating the same food that we’re raising that we’re trying to serve to you, too. We’re definitely not out there, our goal is not to harm anyone. We want to do what’s best for the people of the world, and care for our animals along the way, and give them the best quality life that they can have until they fulfill their purpose, and that’s what it’s all about.

Dillon Honcoop:
Very cool stuff, and coming from a really cool story. I don’t know, to me, someone saying that means so much more when it’s from someone like you who, you’ve lived it. You’ve seen it, and not only have you been around it, but now you advocate for it as a professional, so that’s pretty powerful for someone like yourself to say.

Kady Porterfield:
And there’s so many avenues now on Facebook. There’s so many amazing advocates out there that I look up to that are sharing stuff all the time all over Facebook, and really, even if you’re not connecting face to ace with people in person, or local people, research and try to find advocates online, because they’re sharing real stories, too, and they’re readily available to talk to you about issues, and they have amazing answers that’ll, hopefully, completely give you a better understanding of what you’re concerned about.

Kady Porterfield:
It’s just amazing what they do, and what they’re able to promote on what they’re doing in their everyday lives. It’s hard to have the time to do all of the farming and ranching, and then get on social media and do all of that too. So our older generations have a terrible time doing it because it’s new, and they’re used to what they’re doing. But the younger generations are stepping up, and they’re really good at it. So don’t be afraid to find them and talk to them, even through Facebook. That’s what they want to do. We want to talk.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think our generation in particular is really bad at lying.

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, we’re open books, I think, in a lot of ways. We’re used to being out there. We have had social media as a part of our lives for quite a while now, and we value authenticity-

Kady Porterfield:
And we want to be understood, and we want to share what we’re doing, because we think it’s really cool, and we want you to think it’s cool too, and know that it’s all for the betterment of everyone.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I think what you’re doing is cool.

Kady Porterfield:
Thanks.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I really appreciate you doing the podcast.

Kady Porterfield:
Yes. Well, thank you for having me. This has been a lot of fun.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so Kady is somebody we need to keep tabs on, right? She’s already done a lot of cool stuff, but she has a vision, and just hearing her passion for what she does and her clarity into the future what she’s going to accomplish really gets me pUmped for our future at a time when we’re told we’re supposed to be depressed about our food system, and things are bad.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not necessarily, and things are getting better, and things can be good. The people, the new generations coming in have such passion and drive to make changes, and go in a positive direction. Really awesome to hear and see. Thank you for joining me here on the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop, grew up on a farm in western Washington, and after years in media, I decided I want to share the stories of the people I grew up around, the communities that I still have some connections with. So I’m traveling all over the state to connect with those people, get to know new people, and share that with you, and allow you to be a part of and more connected with our food system, the real people growing our food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d really appreciate it if you followed us on social media, on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Also, subscribe to the podcast, and check us out on YouTube as well. As always, the website is realfoodrealpeople.org, and you can email me anytime, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org.

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

Case VanderMeulen | #034 08/03/2020

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Creatures of routine.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh, really?

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do they get to eat?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise they’re just chilling out.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The misters are going.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Three times a day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And so that’s it.

Case VanderMeulen:
And that’s it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dairy farming in a nutshell.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that right?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So heifer calves being a female-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
The bulls being the boys.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So they’re beef.

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
About 85 altogether, full time employees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how many cows do you have?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Technology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in the Netherlands.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Is he still doing it?

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It must’ve been-

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
… very hard.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you have kids or?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, he does?

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Time will tell. Time will tell.

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve been there.

Case VanderMeulen:
But-

Dillon Honcoop:
On the son’s side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And catch it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.