John Griggs | #014 03/16/2020

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You grew up around this.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

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

John Griggs:
This is life.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like growing up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Griggs:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
The crews pick into a bucket.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, how many hours a day?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you mean your own cherry?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And it was just one tree?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s crazy.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. Anything.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And what’s the rest?

John Griggs:
Apples and four acres of pears.

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

John Griggs:
Yes.

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

John Griggs:
24.

Dillon Honcoop:
24 years old.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really, wow.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

John Griggs:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big is this town?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because of all the workers.

John Griggs:
Just all the workers coming in.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
They wanted you to leave?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
To Wenatchee?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Ever had a fire affect the orchards?

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

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

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

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

John Griggs:
Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Griggs:
Oh man.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like, by the hour?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you paid even more?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And then the wage that they make.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
But you have to do that-

John Griggs:
You have to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because there’s nobody else?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So you talk about getting bigger. That would be just adding more acres of cherries? Or do you want to branch out into other stuff?

John Griggs:
Probably go more into apples. I feel we’ve got plenty of cherries, got about three million pounds of cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. It’s crazy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of apples do you guys have?

John Griggs:
We got Buckeye Galas, it’s a high-color Gala, Aztec Fujis, high-color, pretty much everything high-color. Honeycrisp.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean, high-color?

John Griggs:
Really red and more… the older varieties were lighter and the new ones are bam-in-your-face red. And Honeycrisp, Royal Red Honeycrisp, the newer version. And SugarBee, SugarBee’s a club variety.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean?

John Griggs:
The warehouse that owns the variety, well, the marketing company owns it, but we have to go through our packing house to get it.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is like a proprietary thing where you get licensed to do it?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah we pay a royalty for the trees. We got about, I think we pick 1,200 bins of those, it’s like a really sweet apple.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve seen them in the store but I can’t honestly say I’ve had one, now that you bring that up.

John Griggs:
They’re very good, they’re super sweet. It’s almost like a candy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome.

John Griggs:
But no, that’s a very good apple. And I guess we got some Ambrosia, too, that are grafted. And Grannies.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re busy in, like, June into July with the cherries.

John Griggs:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then, what, you have a lull in the middle of the summer?

John Griggs:
We have about three weeks and then we start pears. But thankfully, we only have a little bit. But then right after pears is apples, Galas, and it’s go until about a week after my birthday, which is in October. Yeah. Last year we went a little late on the Fujis and Pink Ladies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, I read somewhere that there’s some people who had apples they didn’t even pick this year. Was that because of weather?

John Griggs:
Yeah. We had a freeze come through in the Quincy area and stuff and they literally froze. And I mean, you can’t do anything, they’ll shrivel and it’s just no good. A lot of people for their Fujis did that.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a late variety?

John Griggs:
It’s a later variety, yeah. But help was pretty hard this year, too, so some people were picking with half a crew. On the bigger orchards, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because they couldn’t get enough workers?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And they were paying, like, $35, $40 a bin, and that’s a lot of money.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what this state is famous for.

John Griggs:
It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like to know that you’re raising and providing that food that’s world famous?

John Griggs:
It’s kind of cool. But at the same time, it’s a task. I mean, you got to get in a good market to even hope to make some money. I think we grow the right varieties, and the new varieties which people are seeing in the stores. But it’s definitely different. You can’t have old orchards anymore. You got to have new, high-density, really high-density orchards to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that? Why does the density make a difference?

John Griggs:
More bins per acre, just more volume. People are trying to up the volume. You can’t do like 40 bins an acre anymore, you go to be 80, 100. Some are at 120.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much does a bin weigh?

John Griggs:
About 800 to 1,200 pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot of weight.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Pears are heavier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Per acre.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah, you’re picking a lot of fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s amazing.

John Griggs:
And we don’t have, it’s still picked the same way as it was way back when. There’s no picking machine yet. You still got to have the bodies. And people don’t like picking apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

John Griggs:
It’s heavy, your back is shot.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hard work.

John Griggs:
Hard, hard work. Your fingers hurt and you’re all sweaty.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about different varieties and stuff. There’s been a lot of buzz about Cosmic Crisp.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Anybody doing that around here?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. We didn’t have any acreage to open up for it. But yeah, almost everybody north planted some.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s another one of those like SugarBee where you have to pay a royalty, right?

John Griggs:
I believe so. But I know it’s only us in the state that can grow it, the apple growers. But it’s a great apple, stores really well, it’s crisp. I like it a lot, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s always interesting because you hear the buzz in public. I always wonder, you know, what are the farmers saying behind the scenes on something new like that? Like, “Oh, this is our champagne in the butt,” or something like that.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. It’s a pain to open up the land, get it all ready, buy the supplies and materials, and then plant it.

Dillon Honcoop:
To put a new variety in.

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise, how long does a planting last in apples?

John Griggs:
We’ve got some trees that are 40 years old.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

John Griggs:
Yeah, some Granny trees in our driveway.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they still produce good?

John Griggs:
Yeah. They’re 80 bins an acre right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you say Granny, you mean Granny Smith?

John Griggs:
Granny Smith, yeah. The old… I don’t like those apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
Too tart for you?

John Griggs:
Way too tart.

Dillon Honcoop:
See, that’s what I like about them.

John Griggs:
Oh, really?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

John Griggs:
They make a good pie. But yeah. I like Galas, Goldens, and Fujis are my main ones.

Dillon Honcoop:
What makes a really good apple, or for that matter, a really good cherry? What’s the secret to that? Because I know the fruit that we produce here in Washington, and particularly here in this area, Wenatchee, Orondo, is some of the best anywhere.

John Griggs:
Yeah. You need the weather, good weather. You need a good microclimate. Where we are in this valley, I mean, I think we produce some of the best cherries in the world. I know it’s my family’s orchard, but we’ve been in billboards in China, I mean, I’ve seen people fighting over our fruit over there.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been over there a few times?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Well, at least my dad has. He’s sent me pictures, of course, but no. You got to work hard for it, you can’t miss a task. If you miss one you might be like, “Oh shoot, it’s not this big.” You got to have the right sprays, you got to have the Mylar pulled out to make them red.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now explain, how does that work?

John Griggs:
So the sun reflects off the Mylar underneath the cherries. The tops of the cherries get red, for yellow cherries. Red cherries, they get red no matter what. But you pull out, we have this, it’s like a fabric-y kind of stuff. It’s called Extenday. It’s a white Mylar film, it’s reusable. So you pull it out, the sun reflects off it, you got about seven hours of good sun for it to pretty much, my grandpa says it bakes the fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re basically, it’s reflective, bounces the light back up.

John Griggs:
Bounces off into the bottoms of the fruit to redden the bottoms and sides, and it’s pretty much a mini-sun on the bottom of the trees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like people who use reflectors when they’re out suntanning or whatever, I’ve seen people do that before.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Exactly, exactly like that. Just on a bigger scale.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I guess. It’s got to be quite the job to put all that out.

John Griggs:
Putting it out and picking it up, it’s a pain. You’re hot and it’s just, ugh, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, because you don’t do that when the weather is cool.

John Griggs:
No, no, you’re baking if it’s cool. If it’s hot, you’re like, “What do you want me to do now?” I’ll go pick it up… It gets water on it… Yeah, it’s hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does it take a lot of irrigation for these trees?

John Griggs:
Yeah. On apples, we use overhead cooling, overhead sprinklers to keep them cool. Or else it will… apples will bake on the tree. Cherries-

Dillon Honcoop:
Sunburn, or…?

John Griggs:
They’ll get sunburned. They’ll start to shrivel if it’s hot and then cool. Apples are a lot harder to keep cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they have to be out there for more of the hot summer, too, since they aren’t ripe until-

John Griggs:
Uh-huh, they got to make it through until fall, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t think the cherries could probably make it, could they?

John Griggs:
No. Cherries would-

Dillon Honcoop:
If they were.

John Griggs:
They’d turn into a raisin. Yeah, it takes quite a bit of water. But we got a bunch of wells. Summers are hot, but not enough to make things difficult.

Dillon Honcoop:
So somebody going grocery shopping, what should they be looking for when they’re looking for cherries, for instance?

John Griggs:
Well, check the stems. The stems, if they’re not green, I wouldn’t buy them.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that tell you?

John Griggs:
It’s just, the cherry’s been sitting there for a while and it’s probably really soft.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s an indicator of freshness.

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah. And check and make sure the stem’s like not that big, not tiny, but more long. It’s just how you… I say the quality of the fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

John Griggs:
Yeah. That’s how I was taught to look at fruit. But you got to think of how long it takes. You got to have them packed, you got to… you won’t get to a fruit until it’s probably a week old, but they hold their freshness.

Dillon Honcoop:
Probably also should check and make sure it’s grown in Washington.

John Griggs:
Yes. Check and make sure it’s here, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s competition for you guys? Is there fruit that comes in from other parts of the country or the world [inaudible 00:31:11]?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. California, Turkey. Chile is a big one. Chile, I think they’re either picked or picking soon, their fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, because they’re-

John Griggs:
They’re totally different, it’s their summer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Opposite side of the year. Right.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Europe has quite a bit of cherries, surprisingly. Who else…

Dillon Honcoop:
Those don’t end up over here, though, do they?

John Griggs:
Sometimes you have to buy them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just different timing of seasons?

John Griggs:
It’s different timing, markets change, tariffs change. I mean, things lift and they’re like, “Flood the market, let’s go!” And you’re sitting here, “No!” You got to check with all that kind of stuff. And sometimes you’ll get fruit that’s not even from the United States, but yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
No thanks.

John Griggs:
No thanks.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want fruit from here.

John Griggs:
I want fruit from here and to be my fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, and there’s, it’s just different standards here.

John Griggs:
It is. I think this state grows, by far, the best fruit. Whether it be apples, cherries, peaches, I think we get it done and right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

John Griggs:
The weather. The people growing them, they care. They want their product to be well, and they’ll complain if they don’t get it done right. I mean, I know my family does if the cherry doesn’t… if we’re picking a little green on one day, we’ll say, “Oh, we’re done.” We want them to be good for the consumer. We care about them. That’s what keeps us [in] business.

Dillon Honcoop:
With it being tougher and tougher to find labor and other pressures here, do you think there could be a future where there’s more and more stuff that’s just brought in from other countries?

John Griggs:
There could be, yeah. That’s definitely, I mean, our standards are way different than elsewhere, I can tell you that. I’ve seen some that I’m like, “How is that even possible? I would never do that!”

Dillon Honcoop:
From, like, other countries?

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like what kind of stuff?

John Griggs:
Like I’ve seen, my dad’s sent me pictures of like apples on the ground, like bare ground, dirt, and they’re selling them like that with a tarp over them. I’m like, if we did that we’d get in a lot of trouble.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, no kidding.

John Griggs:
And we got really strict standards here, not just us but everywhere, and you’ll get bit for it if you don’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest pressure for the farm? What’s the hardest thing for, like, thinking about the future, to keep it going?

John Griggs:
I’d say labor, mostly. Yeah. Our guys are getting older. I’d say most of our guys are over 45, 50 years old and they’re going to want to go do stuff. And it’s scary but you got to keep doing it, I guess, one way or another. We’ve thought about bringing platforms in, going more mechanical, but they don’t have a picking machine yet. But they’re trying. We just… Efficiency, I guess. Labor, equipment’s not cheap anymore. But yeah, everything, everything’s gone up tenfold.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do you do, then, to do deal with that? Because you’re saying you’re not getting any more, really, for your product.

John Griggs:
You got to make sure you got the right stuff. Labor, equipment. You got to keep up on equipment more, you’re going to have to put more hours on the already over-houred tractor, you’re going to have to be smart, try to be more efficient. Just think of creative ways to farm now instead of just do the same thing your dad did.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That doesn’t get it done anymore I know, for sure.

John Griggs:
Sadly.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think about the whole organic thing? You guys aren’t doing the organic thing?

John Griggs:
No. Organic, I think it’s getting flooded. The first people that did it, they hit home runs. But we tried to go organic on our pears and we were spraying more then than on our conventional stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, your organic?

John Griggs:
Yeah, you’re spraying more on your organic than your conventional. You don’t have the same potency, everything’s like a virus. For insecticides, they’re pretty much a biological virus for the insect, doesn’t affect anybody else. But yeah, we were spraying two times a week instead of once, or sometimes three. If we were getting a lot of coddling moth, or any insect, really, we had to go back through.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I know previously we had April Clayton from up the road on the podcast here and they were doing organic cherries and had to stop for that reason, because the organic products that they were having to use were killing their cherry trees.

John Griggs:
Yeah, oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve seen that?

John Griggs:
I’ve seen that all the time. Organic cherries are, that’s hard, hard, hard to do. Chemicals are totally different. And even right now, our stuff isn’t like it was.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess people are worried about chemicals being on their fruit.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you tell them?

John Griggs:
I wouldn’t be nervous. I eat fruit right off the tree and I’m fine. But I don’t see it being a big issue, not anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back in the old days.

John Griggs:
Back in the old days, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why do you have to do that, I guess, for somebody who’s curious, why do you have to spray anything? Why do the organic people, why do they even have to spray? What are they trying to deal with?

John Griggs:
Keeping pests down. I mean, ou don’t want to be the guy that has a coddling moth, or a cherry fruit fly, which, if you get cherry fruit fly, you’re done with the warehouse. You got to stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’ll kick you out and they won’t take your fruit.

John Griggs:
They’ll kick you out. They’ll… “No, sorry.” They’ll even, what they have they already packed, they’ll throw away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that probably what leaves little tiny worms in the fruit or something?

John Griggs:
Yeah, it’s a little tiny worm in the cherry.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ugh.

John Griggs:
Yeah. But very few people get that. If they don’t upkeep their orchard, they’re the ones that get it. But you got to spray to keep pests down, you got to spray nutrients on the leaves, you got to get the leaves big. You got to fertilize them, you got to feed the tree. It can’t do it on its own. If it does, it’s going to be a gnarly-looking tree. After a cherry season, the trees, they’ve produced 20, 30 pounds of fruit on their tree, some more. You got to give them some food and put them to bed. Put ’em to sleep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they go, like, dormant then? Or what do they…?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. They’ll go dormant, they’ll lose all their leaves. Buds will start coming in, they’ll be tight, but they’re just getting ready for the spring.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can tell you love it.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? Why do you have so much passion for this?

John Griggs:
It’s freedom. I mean, I get to work with my family, I get to help just give product that I’m passionate for. And it’s all I’ve known. I didn’t see myself sitting in an office all day long. But even here, I can be working from 3:00 to God knows when. One time I sprayed 22 hours straight and then had an hour off to sleep and I had to go drive a tractor in the cherries. Yeah. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I get to see my family. I live on the farm. I’m two minutes away from my grandpa. He’s probably my biggest motivator, biggest to do anything, I’ve lived right next to him for 24 years.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have you learned from him?

John Griggs:
I’ve learned what the varieties are, I’ve learned how he does things, I’ve learned how to tree train. I’ve learned how to plant orchards. I’ve learned what a high density orchard is compared to a medium density, to a low density. I’ve learned how to know when fruit’s ready. Pretty much everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Being raised in this world, what was it like going to college for that program? It sounds like maybe you could have taught the classes yourself.

John Griggs:
Yeah, it was… I learned some stuff. I had to get something to work out here. I don’t even work out here full-time yet.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what else do you do?

John Griggs:
Inside sales for an ag chem company in east Wenatchee.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of farmers have jobs off the farm to keep doing it.

John Griggs:
Yeah. They need to now. You’ll get people working for the DOT in the winter to plow roads. Some of them don’t even… they’re hobby farmers. They’ve got five, 10 acres and they’ll do it, “Well, I got to go prune,” they’ll do it by themselves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you hope to one day be entirely on the farm?

John Griggs:
Oh yeah. I hope soon.

Dillon Honcoop:
What will that take?

John Griggs:
My dad, my family’s young. They had me young, so he’s about 18, 19 years older than me. So I’ve got a… and he doesn’t own the orchard fully yet. So, kind of got to wait for that to happen then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Keeping a farm like this in the family is hard if you’re-

John Griggs:
It’s hard, hard. But we got to make it work. I don’t see myself losing this farm, and I’ll do anything to keep it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve asked other people in your situation if they feel a lot of pressure, but it sounds like, to me, it’s not that you feel pressure other than just your own, like you’re passionate about it and want to keep doing it.

John Griggs:
I’ve got to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not because somebody else is telling you to.

John Griggs:
No. My dad told me, “You go do you,” whether it not even be in the farm. He doesn’t care. As long as I’m making a living and doing good in society, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re like, “No, I want to keep this going.”

John Griggs:
Yeah and same with my sister. I mean she worked in the orchard but she was like, “Ugh, I got to do this.” But she liked it and now she wants to be on the marketing side. And in the orchard, too, but. As long as you’re passionate about it, go for it, they say.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you say to folks in Seattle who are eating [inaudible 00:42:06] fruit from over here, or food from anywhere grown in Washington?

John Griggs:
Know it’s grown with passion. Even if it’s a big two, three thousand-acre farm, I mean, there’s people behind it. You got to know they have families and you’re here providing for them, really, I mean this is their job, their life. They’re just as passionate as I am. Whether they’re in that situation or not, they still do it. Big farms are still owned by families, too. I’m really good friends with big growers and they’re just like us, just two or three times bigger. But they don’t see themselves leaving, they want the small growers still, and everybody helps each other out in the farming. We share people with our neighbors, I mean, I have an uncle that lives right to us that has a 13-acre pear orchard and we come and pick it for him, and he helps us out, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can the consumer trust the fruit that they’re buying that’s grown in Washington?

John Griggs:
Absolutely. Know it’s grown with care.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your biggest fear with all of this?

John Griggs:
Not being able to do it. That’s a big… disappointing, I guess. I mean, that’s tough. Getting told that you’re done, that’s probably the biggest fear.

Dillon Honcoop:
You remember hard years in the past?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have been the roughest times that you can remember?

John Griggs:
I remember my dad saying, he’s like, “We might not be able to fix this tractor.” Back when, early mid-2000s, I mean that was a tough time for orchards. Even people that had the new varieties were still, “Nobody’s buying our fruit. What do we do?” Well, everybody goes through a tough time. Even the big boys go through times. You can tell.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did that mean for your family during that time? What was that like?

John Griggs:
It brought us close. We were really close already, but we were eating dinners together trying to, “Hey, what do we do? What can I do to make things better?” Even when we owned the packing shed, we were still, “What can we do? Do we pack this variety? Do we say no?” I mean, that’s one of the tough things. No grower wants to be told “no.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you just want to keep growing more.

John Griggs:
Yeah they’re like, “We just want to farm.” I mean some people, that’s all they’ve been doing. That’s all my family’s done, but we don’t see it any other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
You hope to have a family and kids one day and have them continue it on into the [future]?

John Griggs:
Yeah, I’d hope so, but I mean I’ll give them option, I mean it’s always here for you. But don’t just abuse it. That’s what I’ve been told.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would abusing it be?

John Griggs:
Oh just kind of, “Oh, I farm but I really don’t work,” “I have got a bunch of free time on my hands and I’m not doing anything.” That’s kind of what I see it as. That’s what my dad’s told me, playing X-Box when I’m 18 years old and, “What are you doing?” “Uh, relaxing.” “Come on, we got to go.” “Oh, no.” Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not typically what the 18-year-old playing X-Box gets told.

John Griggs:
No, they’re like, “Okay, 15 more minutes.” No, it’s, “You’re done right now or else I’ll shut it off.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well thank you for sharing your story, I appreciate it, and thanks for what you do. I can tell you just put everything you have into producing the fruit that you guys do here.

John Griggs:
Yeah, thank you.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Talking with John and hearing that conversation again, now, just makes me want to get back into farming in some ways so much. And I don’t know if it affects other people that way. I think it’s because of my upbringing and growing up on a fruit farm. So much of that stuff just makes sense to me. But in some ways it’s part of me that’s sort of dormant, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is kind of documenting my journeys around Washington State to get to know the real people behind our food. I loved talking with John. We’ve got a lot of really cool conversations coming up. And we really would appreciate a follow on Instagram, on Facebook, if that’s what you like to do, or on Twitter, whatever your preference is, or all of the above.

Dillon Honcoop:
Also, if you could subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify or whatever platform you prefer, that would really help us, too. And share these episodes, we’re trying to bring more people into the conversation and get the word out that farmers here in Washington are real people, too, and I think it’s important that we get to know them and understand the realities that they face, because we want to keep farming and farmers and farm land here in our state. And making sure that farmers have a face is, I think, important.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, this is the Real Food, Real People podcast. Subscribe, follow us on social media, and if you want to reach out directly to me, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address.

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

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

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you deal with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
Yeah. No.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you have said?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, that is a big dream.

Alex Durney:
That is a big dream.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What do they need to hear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t see them out.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
On what?

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
Oh, the elevator talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jiwan Brar & Paul Sangha | #007 01/27/2020

Their families came from India and made a life for themselves growing raspberries and blueberries here in Washington. Cousins Jiwan Brar and Paul Sangha talk with Dillon about the struggles, the triumphs, and the importance of family, community and heritage.

Transcript

Paul Sangha:
The reason why I say it was tough was because there were people that did understand that I looked different and it was a bit difficult because people had their opinions and they like to voice those opinions.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real People, podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Their families came from India to the US just a few decades ago and they’ve made a life for themselves farming raspberries and blueberries here in the Pacific Northwest. This week on the podcast, I talk with Jiwan Brar and Paul Sangha, both young berry farmers who grew up in my neighborhood doing the same farming that my family was doing, but with an entirely different cultural backstory, well, at least in some ways. As you’ll hear in our conversation, although our heritage is from opposite sides of the globe, our immigrant families, mine from the Netherlands theirs from India, share so many things in common.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop. Thanks for joining me on this continuing journey to hear the real personal stories of farmers in Washington state that we call the Real Food, Real People podcast. Again, with Jiwan Brar and Paul Sangha today. When did you first think of yourself as a farmer? Have you always thought of yourself as that? Because you grew up like me with your dad farming.

Paul Sangha:
Right. Yeah, almost just down the road from you.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Paul Sangha:
No, I’ve always considered myself a farmer. Definitely. [inaudible 00:01:39] politically right but I was a farmer at like five-year-old for sure. Just because I was on, you name the tractor, you name the piece of equipment. I was on it of course, just having fun at that time, but still working. So no, I’ve been a farmer my entire life, I’ve been involved in agriculture my entire life and I think it had a big part in just kind of continuing on through grade school and everything and going into everything, just simply watching my dad and how big of a part it was for him. It summed up being the foundation of our entire family and for me after dad kind of later in went into retirement. We do other things outside of farming now, but that’s one thing we’ve never let go because it’s just such a big part of the pillar that we stand on and will help provide everything we do. I’ve been a farmer definitely entire life.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you Jiwan? When did you start like thinking of yourself as that? Because you’ve kind of always been into it too, right?

Jiwan Brar:
Same thing basically my entire life. I grew up on a farm day one, just anything I could do help out, hang out. I just wanted to be out there with my dad and that was the biggest thing where I just had that connection with him and… since day one. And then now I really got into it after high school. I got more and more involved into it and up till now I consider myself more of a farmer now than I was back then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now you’re going to school, right? To continue in agriculture to do even more stuff, right?

Jiwan Brar:
Yes, that’s right. So I’m going to school to get a degree and my goal is to become an agronomist, a crop advisor, that would be my goal.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you Paul? I mean, we’re I think same class, like 2001 that you graduated high school?

Paul Sangha:
2002, so yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh two. So you’re younger than me?

Paul Sangha:
Yep, right after you.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did you do after high school?

Paul Sangha:
Well, right after high school, I continued education but I fell just headfirst right into our family business. At that point dad had started the first… Well sorry not the first but the first Indian American, I guess East Indian processing plant of raspberries and that quickly just enveloped me and my older sister really led us into kind of understanding what the business behind agriculture is and we got a good understanding of that. We were at that point, sitting on about dad was farming or we as a family were farming close to 250 acres at that time too and so it was a big undertaking. And I remember dad kind of told us, “All hands on deck right now because we all need to be involved in this.” And we definitely were and so I just say I went headfirst into that and just never looked back.

Paul Sangha:
And it developed into just something bigger and bigger that kept growing. I would remember even when I was 12, but definitely after high school and going to school and everything, I remember sitting in conference rooms with big buyers of big products. I remember sitting one time with the guys that do catalog and you know the companies that do that and…

Dillon Honcoop:
Like Breakfast Cereal.

Paul Sangha:
Breakfast Cereal guys and Kroger and these guys and now you think of them and you think, “Oh, it’s probably just a easy way to meet.” But then you’re driving hours and hours and sitting in a pickup truck and going to meet with them and it was a definite learning experience.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it take to grow amazing blueberries since you guys are really… I guess you’ve instilled us some raspberries so we could talk about raspberries too but what makes for incredible blueberries?

Paul Sangha:
Want me to take this one or do you want to take it?

Jiwan Brar:
I think it has to do with our area where we live. Our environment takes our farmers, including myself and Whatcom County farmers, everyone’s committed, they’re passionate and I feel like that drive gives us a better product overall.

Paul Sangha:
I completely agree. My main focus to answer that question would just be the passion part. It takes passion. If there’s something about taking a baby plant of anything and planting it in the ground and raising that thing like a baby of your own and having it produced and getting excited about what it’s producing and the quality that’s coming out. If you don’t have that passion from within, then you won’t get the quality and it goes to show about this area. The quality that comes out of here is because of the passion that people have. And again, I get to visit a lot of different growers in a lot of different products, they’re all passionate about what they have. They’ll walk up and down their fields and everything and they know every inch of their ground and what is going on with their ground and they’re taking care of their product.

Paul Sangha:
Jiwan has got a lot of wisdom. I actually call Jiwan myself when I’ve got questions on any sort of programs that we need to be applying. But if he didn’t have the passion, he wouldn’t really be able to tell me. And a lot of people can just give their local agronomists a call and know what to do and put on and you show up once a week or once a month to do that but the guys that are there every day, which is what I see around here, that’s what gets us a quality that we have

Dillon Honcoop:
Jiwan, how did you learn all that stuff? Like, because you’re still in school to be an agronomist but you’re already doing a lot of this really.

Jiwan Brar:
That passion he’s talking about, right? Like that’s been there since day one. Just going to the farm with my dad picking up on things he’s doing, picking up on things that we talked to our agronomist about and just being in it. Driving through a farm in a nice pickup truck with the windows down just doing a lap around the farm, it’s not farming. The best thing for a farm as a farmer’s footsteps, right? Until you get out there and you walk the farm and you experience that, that’s the best and that’s where that comes from, right? That’s what makes our berries so good, you know? And for me, I’m a college student but just because I spend eight hours a day at college, it doesn’t mean I… I come home, I have to go walk around the farm. I can’t just come home and start studying.

Dillon Honcoop:
That reminds me even back to high school and how summertime you guys all had the same experience that I did too growing up in this community and with the family farms, you all grew up on family berry farms like I did. Summertime is like, that’s not a time to slow down or go on vacation.

Jiwan Brar:
No, that’s just…

Dillon Honcoop:
Who goes on vacation and especially in July, if you’re in raspberries a little bit later and blueberries,

Paul Sangha:
Oh boy. I don’t eve know, 35 years old. I’ve never had a summer. In those terms, I’ve never really had a summer but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jiwan Brar:
It was so weird like I feel like elementary, I’m like middle school it was kind of confusing for me I was like, I’d hear all my classmates who’d come and be like, “Oh, I just got back from Hawaii or I just got back from like Alaska fishing.” Or something like that and I’m like, “You do that in summer? You guys don’t pick berries?” Oh my gosh.

Paul Sangha:
Every single day during the season, we’re like 16 plus hours and it doesn’t just end when you start picking and turn the picker off or the harvester turns off, you just don’t go home. I mean there’s a lot that goes into the process of waking up the next morning and having everything ready and it’s 5:00 AM and then you’re… you know, midnight for us, especially for anything we do at the plant now and anyone else, I know that a lot of people around here they’re around their plants, they live there. When you’re sleeping on the couch there sometimes and during lot of those nights but I guess it’s part of what it is. It’s part of the industry and that’s where again, I say the word passion, not passionate about it? It’s hard to do it.

Jiwan Brar:
It’s hard to like picture a billionaire farmer, you know what I mean? Like some magazine because it’s just like everybody is… You’re doing it because you’re passionate and that’s the biggest driving factor.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever stop and think, “This is crazy. I wish I could go to Hawaii in the summer time. I need to do something different.”

Paul Sangha:
I think every other day. Well, yeah you definitely think that. You think, “Oh man.” And I think that comes with any job. My sisters have moved on and my older sister lives in Seattle and she’s been in between LA and Seattle and she works the eight to fives and does really well for herself but she has the same thoughts. She grew up on a farm and she has that background, so she has that work ethic where she sticks to it and we talk kind of like what you’re mentioning now and we think like, “Man, do you think it’d be different if dad had just done like an eight to five and then we’d just gone to school and done our eight to fives and everything?”

Paul Sangha:
And it was, yeah, but then I don’t think we would have been happy at all. I’m talking to my wife now too, and my wife, her background isn’t anything in farming so she kind of had to learn on the fly when we got married and she definitely understands too that the happiness and joy that it brings to do this, of course you get to go to Hawaii. During the winter time, you can go, I guess we have to find selective areas that are warm in the winter because that’s when we seem to have time but…

Jiwan Brar:
Yeah, exactly.

Paul Sangha:
The happiness you find while you’re out there is like being in Hawaii all in itself, you know, when you’re out there. Not every day is all Hawaii sometimes it’s a little stressful too but you have your good times too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk to you guys, what’s the relation? You are cousins?

Jiwan Brar:
We’re cousins yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about the family background because I’m thinking about this, you say a lot of this has to do with how you were raised and your dad and growing up around him, same with you Jiwan.

Jiwan Brar:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And not just your dad, but your uncles and the larger family. Same with my background with my Dutch heritage people coming here, you folks also coming from India, that goes back generations of farming too, right? Farming, even back in the home country same with my Dutch family.

Jiwan Brar:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You wonder how much that is just in the blood.

Paul Sangha:
Oh yeah, definitely. We’re both sons of immigrants, immigrant parents. When dad first came here, dad started a small little 10 acre raspberry farm and soon after when… Jiwan is my mom’s brother’s son, that’s how we’re related.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Paul Sangha:
And soon after when my uncle, Jiwan’s dad came here it was kind of a partnership without ever being an actual partnership because what you do is you work with family and you help family and that’s priority. So culturally, background in India, your proof and how you prove yourself there too is your land, how you work Atlanta and how you provide for your family. You’re an honest day’s work, that’s the way to sum it up. So that definitely traveled here with them and they knew what they wanted to do. They knew what they were good at, they knew that they could farm, they knew they could learn and that’s definitely what dad and our entire larger scale family did.

Paul Sangha:
Luckily there were no I guess iPhones or iPads and things back then and they didn’t have time to let themselves get distracted with anything so they definitely did put their head down and just kept working and grew and grew from there. But their family has been a big part. We’re still to this point, Jiwan has 500 acres at this point and it’s almost like a partnership without ever being on paper. But for us the family isn’t just directly us, the family is everybody. And that includes even far away, aunts and uncles. When they’re here, they are helping out or we’re traveling other places to help them and make sure they succeed. Again and that comes back from this area and where we grew up. There’s a mentality out here, just like you’re mentioning a completely different background back in the day generations ago but still we have that help each other mentality.

Jiwan Brar:
Help each other mentality where real farmers, real family, right? Real family farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
What made your families decide to come here of all places that they could have gone? And why into fruit farming raspberry and now blueberry farming too? I mean, what was the background in India? If there’s farming background in your family, what kinds of things were they farming there?

Paul Sangha:
There they were farming, rice, wheat, corn.

Jiwan Brar:
Potato.

Paul Sangha:
A lot of potato but in India the scale isn’t as big. There is more of five, 10 acre farmers and that’s big. Everything was done by hand. You think wheat, corn, potatoes, you think, “Oh, there’s 1000 acre farms out there.” But in India you got five, 10 acre guys, you have the 20 acre guys and then 30 acre guys. There’s not very many big farms out there but with the equipment there is out there, 30 acre farm out there is pretty big.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You know a lot of stuff to do by hand probably.

Paul Sangha:
Yeah. And I think when dad came here, just before he came was the first time they bought a tractor only in here for 35 plus years and he had just bought a tractor before he was leaving then and I think it was like in the entire village or villages where they live there and they have everything that was like the second tractor anyone had ever even bought there. But when you talk about hand labor for everything that was intensely hand labor and they were doing the whole, you know they had on the Hala, no…

Jiwan Brar:
Chisel plows.

Paul Sangha:
Chisel plows, yeah. The chisel claws were actually on any of the bulls or anything that they had and that’s how they were plowing, like a horse or bulls usually back then or I don’t know if on a bull on bull, but…

Jiwan Brar:
Like an ox, right?

Paul Sangha:
Ox, yeah.

Jiwan Brar:
Like an ox. It’s like my grandpa, his dad passed when he was eight. My grandpa was born in 1925 and he’s been farming since basically eight years old and plowing when he was… In his teenage years he was telling me he’s like, he used to plow with a single bottom plow. Plowing an acre with a single bottom plow adds up to eight acres and having to walk eight acres up and down that’s a lot of ground.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of steps.

Jiwan Brar:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You racked up a lot of stuff on his Fitbit I’m sure. If only those people had…

Paul Sangha:
To get it linked to his iPhone and everything so you could see it instantly right away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Imagine with those past generations, and I think about back in my family too, and some of the things that they did just to be able to succeed or they worked? If that was tracked with a Fitbit, how bad it would put us to shame.

Paul Sangha:
Oh, jeez, no kidding. I don’t think we’d be doing anything better compared to that.

Jiwan Brar:
I don’t think I’d walk half that in a day.

Paul Sangha:
The reason why for dad… Dad’s older brother was here in the US and why come to America? I mean, because it might sound cliché okay but it’s the truth too, this is the greatest country in the world and we’ve been able to live it in as business, agriculture, any type of aspect as immigrants and we’ve seen that that’s true. And that’s what dad guys saw too. They saw an opportunity they came and worked hard and took advantage of that opportunity and they were lucky to be able to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was there some kind of connection though in this region that brought them here specifically? I mean, because you really could choose a lot of places to go to.

Paul Sangha:
True. My dad’s older brother lived here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Paul Sangha:
He was here originally. So dad’s older brother moved to the US he went to school here. Schooling and then after school he stayed here and moved up to Canada, lived there, came back and started farming then on this side of the border. And I think again, that was probably just because the cost difference between Canada and then it was still pretty revelent then too. So he started farming on this side and so he started having his family come and that’s when dad decided to come too and they worked together for a little bit and then dad bought his own 10 acre when he started, at least his own 10 acres.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about your family background and your cultural background, how much does that play into your farming now?

Paul Sangha:
Quite a bit.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, you’ve mentioned a lot about the family stuff and I think that’s a big part of it, right?

Paul Sangha:
It is, yeah. Family’s definitely a huge part of it. Culturally that’s just what’s… You mind your business, you do what’s right and you work hard. You think about community, you have a sense of community, which kind of relates to the sense of family and you make sure that not only you are moving up but the people around you are moving up as well and as a society you’re able to work together. Those kinds of teachings have kind of just always come down generationally and dad definitely passed those on to us. And it’s been a big part of what I’ve been able to grow up in Whatcom County here in Lynden and going through the school system in Lynden I saw it from everybody too.

Paul Sangha:
I was, I think one of three Indian kids that grew up here and so majority of my friends weren’t Indian but still I got to have that same mentality from anyone. A lot of dairy farmers, a lot of berry farmers and even guys that weren’t, were wanting to come over to our dairy farms and berry farms to hang out for the weekends. They didn’t want it to sit at home inside the city.

Jiwan Brar:
Friday night.

Paul Sangha:
On a Friday night you wanted to come over to our place.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s almost like that farming connection is stronger than…

Paul Sangha:
Oh, very much.

Dillon Honcoop:
The heritage and culture and race and all of that stuff that is supposed to divide people and it’s like, no, it’s the farming that’s bringing us together.

Paul Sangha:
That’s definitely the glue.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh yeah.

Paul Sangha:
You know, we come from so many different backgrounds, but what’s the one thing that we have in common? We love the dirt we work on and that brings us all together.

Dillon Honcoop:
Before Jiwan, you and I had talked a little bit about what was that like growing up, but I probably even more for Paul you said there were only three Indian kids in school with you at that time?

Paul Sangha:
Three or four yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that community had grown so much by the time you were in school.

Jiwan Brar:
Yeah. I mean, there is a lot more. I mean there’s maybe 15, 20, but that’s also like from ninth grade to 12th grade, right. From freshman to senior year, but that’s like maybe 30 kids, I want to say. But the community has definitely been growing. The Punjabi community Whatcom County it’s definitely been growing especially in Lynden, it’s growing and Bellingham. But before like when he went to school… only having… very few…

Paul Sangha:
Very few kids.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like?

Paul Sangha:
It was challenging at times. I had definitely had great times, I had great friends, still good friends and so I had a lot of support. I never really had to go through too much of a time where I had to really noticeably know that I looked different. But the reason why I say it was tough was because there were people that did understand that I looked different and it was a bit difficult because people had their opinions. I’ll just leave it at that. People had their opinions and they like to voice those opinions. It was hard to get through those but again I definitely say 99.9% of the community when I was going to school here in my high school days, 99.9% of the community was more understanding. So they were always willing to stand up and understand and glue we talked about just now the farming glue is what helped me with that.

Paul Sangha:
People knew that we’re not any different, we’re here putting her head down, doing the same work and more so than me. I know I had to see dad kind of go through those things and so I kind of was ready for it and I knew a little bit of what would come but I always kind of thought, “Hey, dad looked a lot different than everybody and if dad could do it then I’ve got nothing to whine about and I need to be able to get through it.” So it had its challenges but this place, this whole town and city of Lynden is Whatcom County itself has come a long ways from that time. I don’t see anything like that anymore. I don’t hear about anything or see anything like that anymore here.

Dillon Honcoop:
The reason I ask about school too is because that’s when sometimes some of that stuff can be the worst. These kids are brutal and when they don’t have filters, they just say terrible things sometimes.

Paul Sangha:
It helps when you throw a couple of river parties yourself and then everybody fits in. [crosstalk]

Jiwan Brar:
Down at the River Bar. [crosstalk] that glue gets even, you know, stronger.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you Jiwan?

Jiwan Brar:
Honestly I can relate to everything he said but it was a Greek community we live in. But yeah, that glue and just bonding with everyone on those Friday nights, those Saturday nights after a football game that’s when the real bonding happened. And that just brought everyone closer and I got friends from high school, I still talk to now and yeah, I love it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big of a role does faith play in what you guys do and how you approach farming and stuff like that? I know you guys have both been active in temple and whatnot.

Paul Sangha:
For myself, a big role because our faith is based around a sense of community and that plays a big role in the farming community as well so it’s easy to relate the two. Faith teaches us that you’re no more or no less than anybody else everybody’s equal. And look to help others as much as you’re helping yourself. So when you take those principles and you apply them to something like farming and we grow food, we grow stuff that people eat and it’s needed for life. Technology can keep getting as crazy as it is at the end of the day, you still have to eat something and of course we have our staples and we have commodities and different things but I like to think that people still want to eat their blueberries and raspberries and strawberries and marian cramp blackberries, everything.

Paul Sangha:
So that helps you really wrap your head around why you’re doing what you’re doing, when you… My own kids, they love to eat any fruit that’s out there and they’ll love to eat fruit. And I see a lot of tours, like one thing and I’m thankful to be a part of something like this, but all Whatcom Family Farmers, Save Family Farming, a set up tours for kids. These kids go out and they get to see firsthand what… And I’m not talking about the kids I get to live on farms, I’m saying kids that come out of the cities that never would have even understood what a harvester is or they say, “We hear John Deere and we think green. We think green and we see that little deer symbol.” They hear John Deere and they think of somebody, they’re trying to picture someone.

Jiwan Brar:
Like cows lay eggs or something like that.

Paul Sangha:
And so it’s amazing and that brings me back to how our faith definitely puts into that because it’s a faith in people working together and it’s a big part of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I think there’s a certain, I mean, whether it’s your faith background or mine, there’s a certain teaching within both of those traditions about valuing the earth and where we come from and what we eat and respecting and stewarding that, I guess.

Paul Sangha:
Huge, yeah.

Jiwan Brar:
That’s huge. Being a farmer, being passionate about what we do, the stewardship of the land is huge because that’s where we raise our crops. So if you don’t take care of that ground, we’re not going to have a good crop. So being sustainable and taking care of the ground is going to let us continue to do what we do.

Paul Sangha:
God gave us a beautiful earth and then he gave us the ability to cultivate ourselves on it. And so I’m trying to kind of draw a correlation about what you’re just saying, it’s our responsibility on how we treat it and what we do. I do hear a lot about it and I see a lot about how sometimes farmers are being blamed for a lot of different things that maybe are hurting the earth and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I mean it simply is, I mean, we eat the same product that we grow raw even at some point. I don’t tend to think that farm farmers are that dumb. It’s just simply put is what we do between our irrigations and our programs that we have in fields, no matter what part of the ag industry you’re in, if you don’t treat the land good, the land won’t treat you good.

Paul Sangha:
I mean, that’s our bread and butter. So if you’re not treating it well and it’s not treating you well, then you’re not going to survive. So we haven’t really, no other choice just to put it in basic terms, we have no choice but to keep things at a high quality. It gets a bit irritating sometimes to try to explain that to everybody and say, “Guys, we just don’t even have a different choice. We have to treat it right. We’re not doing anything to harm stuff here.” And I think people kind of get carried away with what they assume without really knowing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I feel that for sure from a lot of conversations I’ve had with people who it’s like some of the things that you’re accusing me or the people I know of, I don’t think any of us have ever even thought of doing that’s awful.

Paul Sangha:
Of course.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talking about the growing community of Punjabi folk here and the temple. I was at Vaisakhi celebration recently and that was so cool to see just how huge that community is. And I’m thinking about like back to that question of why here? Because I think about my community, this community is now known that we have this huge Dutch population. Yeah, there’s people from all different backgrounds, but a ton of Dutch people here and a ton of Indian people here.

Dillon Honcoop:
For the Dutch community, I think a lot of those people ended up here because the climate was so similar to back home and in Holland but that’s not true for your community and yet it continues to grow so much here. What is the reason for your community to grow so much here? Because I think it’s so cool and it’s fascinating to see why some white people and large groups of people together choose a place to kind of gather around.

Paul Sangha:
I feel that It’s like you’re saying the Dutch community is very big here and the Indian community is very big? When Indian people first got here I feel like there’s a lot of Indian people on the other side of the line in Canada. And for some family they want to be closer to their family. So a lot of people from California, Seattle further down South or even that are coming here from India want to move here because a lot of their family is in Canada. Yeah, they don’t live in Canada but they live in Lynden, which is only five minutes away from Canada. So I feel like that’s one reason why there’s a lot of Indian folk here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I just think about Like my ancestors being Dutch, okay, they’re used to this kind of weather but folks coming from India I could see would come here and say, “This weather sucks. It rains all the time.”

Paul Sangha:
And they do when they first get here. Oh my gosh. What is this?

Dillon Honcoop:
Why would you want to live here?

Paul Sangha:
This is the Pacific Northwest in itself and especially this corner up here is kind of one of the last areas where you really get just a breath of fresh air. For all of us that live here, kind of probably to understand what I’m saying when I say that is the greenery, the soils here, water here the quality of life here. Those things those are the draws to this area and it shows just from even Seattle people moving from Seattle up north to here, of what they’re looking for. So you can definitely look at a place like India and place like Punjab in India where it’s heavily populated and ground is scarce and water is hard to find and here you can come here and you can do the same type of work and put the same value into the work and get good results in a better community altogether.

Paul Sangha:
So I think all those combinations really come together and make people think, “Hey, how is that any help?” Say I’m this close to Canada and I’m a few hours outside of a big city if I need to go to Seattle for any reason or an airport if I need to fly out anywhere so it’s just a great place. You’ve got coast and you’ve got mountainous areas so you get the best of everything over here.

Dillon Honcoop:
And more and more people keep finding out about that and it kind of makes you want to say, “No, it’s actually terrible here don’t move here”

Paul Sangha:
“You know the Ring of Fire? We kind of sit right in it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s volcano’s, earthquakes, yeah. [crosstalk] it rains all the time don’t move here.

Paul Sangha:
It is growing.

Jiwan Brar:
It’s really growing.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the future is for farming and like for you guys? Especially blueberries and some raspberries and stuff, small fruits and more and more people are getting into this whole foodie thing and they want to know where their food comes from and they’re trying different stuff. Is it all about food and how much do you think about that and people’s eating habits and what people are into as far as food when you think about the future of what you’re producing?

Paul Sangha:
I kind of feel like it’s almost going to be back to the future type of thing. Early on it was kind of a lot of small farms with not fruit stands or that were take food to the market and it was a real organic feel to somebody being able to come buy fruit that they know that, hey, you just pick this as this fresh coming off your field. I see a lot of that kind of coming back. Not necessarily the exact same way, a lot more advanced and modernized type of that but I see a lot of farmers starting to probably get into seeing their product travel down the food chain line further more than just, “Hey, I harvested my fruit and here you go, and I’m just going to sit back and wait for my payment to come in the mail.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the way it was in the old days too, right?

Paul Sangha:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like your family got into processing about the same time as mine did. To at least have a hand in that next step rather than just picking the berries, taking them to the dock at the cannery and they take it from there.

Paul Sangha:
Yeah. I don’t know what grading. I don’t even understand that and now people are getting more and more knowledge about what this is so I see if you look at that and then you look at again to bring up Seattle, the closest city. Anyone living in Seattle has grown up there and doesn’t understand the farming, but they know that, “Hey, eating fruits is good for me. Fruits and vegetables and eating food like that is going to be better for me in the long run.” They all make the trip down or up to see where is this coming from? And we’ve been watching so many years such a big growth in something like that and people want to know, even if you go to Costco where was this from? I want to know what the history of this pack of fruit is and I only think that’s going to grow more and more and people want more and more knowledge about where their fruit’s coming from, where their food’s coming from.

Paul Sangha:
And so for farmers here, the growth of it, I think farming is going to become bigger and bigger here for family farms. I think commercially people that are in vast large commercial business farming, you know, where a big corporation shows up and they own 1000 acres. They’ll always do well in business. But locally here, the family farms that have been sustaining for so long and continue to keep doing well because they’re going to be able to control that new generation of what they want.

Jiwan Brar:
Yeah. And kind of like that foodie thing you’re talking about. If you’re like consumers, they want that connection, right?

Paul Sangha:
Connection that’s it.

Jiwan Brar:
And to sustain that connection. That’s how it is going to go. Because they’ll want to come down and be like, “Hey, where is this coming from? Who is the farmer that grew this?” They want that connection or that package you’re saying that they’re going to buy a fruit. They want to see where is it from? Who’s the grower? How can I connect to this package of fruit? They know what’s good for them but they want to have that connection.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about that favoring more focus back on the smaller family farm kind of idea yet we hear a lot about the pressures of the economics of that and how you need a certain size just to be able to survive in this day and age. How’s that going to balance out?

Paul Sangha:
Yeah. So I will stick to everything I just said right there. Everybody wants to know where their food’s coming from as long as they can afford to even eat it and that directly falls on our industry, fruit industry. Fruit is something that everybody wants to eat and as not necessarily has to eat. What we know we always want is our potatoes and the things that we know are going to be staples. Actually Blueberries just turned staples and so affordability, the economics of it as a huge, huge thing. It’s getting really tight for a lot of family farmers not only is pricing structure and everything in the industry changing in itself and that’s because the demands are changing by the general public consumer, but even regulations. Regulations now are pushing us far into places where if you own 50 acres, you’re really only farming 35 of them at this point.

Paul Sangha:
You know the way you need to be and because say we’ve got a creek on one side and there’s more people watching us watch that creek than they are doing anything else. Our property again we happen to have a section where the government’s got some tower that they’re using there and the local government so there has to be a radius around that to allow access and everything and so those don’t even fall into regulations yet. Then it’s our food safety or labor laws, everything that’s just coming down on the small farmer and soon enough a 50 acre guy is now back in the day he used to be the five, 10 acre guy, that’s where we’re headed, we’re the small farm. Today we own 50 acres, we farm only 50 acres and we are the small farm out here.

Paul Sangha:
You guys went from 250 to 50 Gs and yeah, it feels like we went from 250 to maybe 15 and if we weren’t doing anything else with it, I mean it wouldn’t be much but there’s big changes coming up front and economically if the prices don’t go up unfortunately we have to rely on politics for a big part of that but if it doesn’t change, that’s going to lose a lot of family farms out here, if that landscape doesn’t change.

Dillon Honcoop:
You touched on labor, that’s a big one especially in the world of fruit. How has that been for you guys? Are you able to get enough labor? I’ve heard from a lot of farmers who can’t get enough people to come do… I mean, we were joking about harvest season and being high school kids. Well, not very many high school kids do that anymore. Who’s going to come and help us bring these crops in is a big question. Has that been an issue for you guys?

Jiwan Brar:
For us, we haven’t had an issue with labor, we have such a big family.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that helps.

Jiwan Brar:
That helps a lot but I definitely see that becoming an issue as we continue to grow and get bigger. I mean our families aren’t getting bigger, but the demand for labor is also going to get more and more and I feel that other farms in our community are going to have to maybe outsource labor from maybe other countries and that’s going to help with the labor demand that we’re going to have here in the next maybe 10, 15 years. You’re saying, like in order to sustain it, you’ve got to keep getting bigger and bigger. And when you get bigger and bigger, you’re going to need more and more labor and there’s just not enough labor here.

Paul Sangha:
Labor is huge. I think labor is a forefront of what the main issues are that people are having to deal with. Again going back to our place of 50 acres, so affordability you really have to watch what you’re doing and how much you’re paying. The minimum wage just went to 13 now here.

Jiwan Brar:
13.50.

Paul Sangha:
13.50 here and so if you’re paying 13.50 and you’re usually having to pay more because you’re really trying to entice somebody to come and it’s hard to get somebody to work that many hours. So now we’re something we didn’t even use to do in the past. I didn’t know what was even existed in farming is like a double shift or night shift and day shift and those didn’t exist back in the day you did the day and you did the night shift. So when all those expenses are then leading you into, okay, well let’s think to the future and let’s think mechanical harvesting. Let’s get more robots involved and that’s what’s going to make it cheaper and that’s true, in the long run it is.

Paul Sangha:
But what does that cost? How much of what you’re doing did that give up? So you start kind of looking down the ladder economically and where this leads you to 50 acres have to be 100 now to be able to push those costs down and deflate those costs even more and not everybody is being able to sustain that. On the other end, you’re having to afford to do all these things that on the other end we’re still getting this year we might barely even get on product 50 cents and you’re thinking back to you, well it used to be 50 cents before two and I know now pennies carry or less value than they did then. So each penny matters a lot more now than it did then too not that it didn’t then but it’s just a lot harder now. So not enough people are happy to eat blueberries at higher expense or raspberries or anything, but they’re definitely…

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they cost a lot more now in the store than they did back then.

Paul Sangha:
They do but I don’t think the translation definitely comes down to the farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
We still see some of those field price numbers that are the same numbers as when you and I were a kid.

Paul Sangha:
That’s right, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
When we were both in high school.

Paul Sangha:
Almost less I think. Almost less even in some places farmers they always write it off to, hey it always rides that wave. You’ve got the good five and the bad five years and the good two years in the bad five years but I don’t know, I think it’s kind of… If you watch the graph, that line doesn’t really ever peak up to where it used to anymore. Labor, if you draw it all back and you really think hard about it and you’ve kind of traveled down that tunnel, you relate it all back to well what’s it costing? And it just costs so much more now and we need the labor force here. A lot more labor force here to help sustain what we’re doing.

Jiwan Brar:
That too and it’s not like any college kid or high school kid wants to be out on a farm digging in dirt, weeding, walking rows, pruning.

Dillon Honcoop:
Putting up wires.

Jiwan Brar:
Putting up wires.

Dillon Honcoop:
I always hated that.

Jiwan Brar:
Or if it’s hot out it’s too hot or if it’s cold out I feel like people want to be more inside working in kind of in a room and where it’s warm. Outside it’s mother nature, right? There is nowhere I get to turn the heat up or I get to turn the AC on, right? And there’s a tree at lunchtime that you want to sit under.

Paul Sangha:
Just the shade. The shade is what you go hunt.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, that’s very true.

Paul Sangha:
But again there’s if anybody that’s considering, I would say anyone that’s considering getting into farming what they should do first is go and work and really understand putting the wires up like you mentioned or any of the things. I’ve been on a harvester for 12 hours go experience that. And if you feel like there is going to be this refreshing feeling you get from doing that, and that’s what’s going to make you decide whether this is what you want to do or not. Every time I do it, there’s something refreshing about it. And now I get to watch it, I’ve got two daughters and I get to watch it on in them.

Paul Sangha:
They’re having fun like I used to. You can’t really see them up on the harvester of course but when they are up there, they’re loving life you know? And those are the things that I’m fearful that won’t stick around very long but I really hope they do. I’m happy that organizations like Save Family Farming, Whatcom Family Farmers are doing everything they can to make sure those stay. Those are big time, they mean a lot more.

Jiwan Brar:
They’re my nieces, right? So when I see them out in the farm it reminds me, I was like, “Oh, that was me. Right?” It’s like one day I’m going to have kids, and they’re going to be up on a harvest or like that too where you kind of look into the future a little bit and then you also think like, “Okay, wait a minute. Berry prices are coming down, right. Well what’s going to happen? Is farming going to be around or is it not?” You know what I mean? Like you start thinking and you never know what the future holds so you just take it 100% of time and see what happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you guys so much for opening up and just talking about life and farming and all this stuff that you guys put into it. I think it’s really cool to hear the real stories.

Paul Sangha:
Definitely. And thank you for having us and letting us kind of at least share our experiences a little bit.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It was so much fun for me to get to know Jiwan and Paul a bit better since we’ve seen each other across the fence and passing on the road so many times, but hadn’t actually had the chance to sit down and really connect on a deeper personal level and that’s what we want to keep doing here on the Real Food, Real People podcast relink all of us around this region with the people behind our food. Thank you so much for coming along for the ride, for subscribing to the podcast on Google podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Apple podcast, or wherever your favorite outlet is for visiting our website at Real Food, Real People.org and for following us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. It may not seem like a big thing, but it helps us a lot to continue the mission of Real Food, Real People when you connect with us in those ways. We’ll see you again here next week as our journey continues.

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@safefamilyfarming.org.

Felipe Garcia | #004 01/06/2020

Growing up in Mexico, Felipe Garcia never expected he would one day be the human resources manager for a dairy farm in Washington state. He shares his personal journey to find his passion, as well as what he thinks is sometimes misunderstood about the people who produce food here.

Transcript

Felipe Garcia:
If you don’t know the subject, it’s easy for you to point a finger or to just judge something when you’ve never done it, or you don’t even have the background, what’s going on, how did this product get to my table?

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the podcast, I’m Dillon Honcoop. And as I continue my journeys around Washington state, to hear from the real people behind the food that we eat and produce here in Washington state. One of the things that’s interesting to me is their take on issues that can be controversial, and in this case immigration and the treatment of workers came up in a conversation I had as I made my way to Pasco and 5D Farms. I talked with Felipe Garcia, he’s their HR manager at 5D Farms, it’s a dairy farm, again, near Pasco.

And what Felipe shared was fascinating, telling his story of coming from Mexico to the United States, and what it means to him to work on a dairy farm and produce food for people here in Washington State. So join me as we continue on Real Food Real People, hearing from the real people behind the food that we produce and eat here in Washington state. Talking with Felipe Garcia at 5D Farms near Pasco.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want to talk about the things that you do on the dairy now, but first I want to go back a little bit more.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said you were in inventory, or what was your job before they offered you the job here, when you just came up to [crosstalk 00:01:51]?

Felipe Garcia:
So my job, I used to work in front of a desk and a computer, catching errors on a company inventory, catching the red numbers, and we call it the blue numbers too. The blue numbers is when somebody made a mistake and instead of one, they put 100. So I was just doing that, a daily basis, eight hours a day, five days a week.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of industry was that with?

Felipe Garcia:
It was a candle factory.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. Fragrance candles.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
Arizona.

Dillon Honcoop:
Let’s go back even a little further than that. You said you were born in Mexico.

Felipe Garcia:
I was born in Mexico.

Dillon Honcoop:
What brought your family to Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
Well, my dad, all his life was back and forth, but it was to a point that we were growing up, me and my two sisters, where my mom, she didn’t want to be that far apart, so that’s when they decide, “You know what? Come on over, try it. See if you guys like it. You can stay, if not you guys can go back.” So that was back in 2001 and we’ve been here since then.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you went to high school… So how old were you when you came?

Felipe Garcia:
I was 16.

Dillon Honcoop:
16.

Felipe Garcia:
16 years old.

Dillon Honcoop:
So then you finish high school…

Felipe Garcia:
I finish high school.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
Arizona.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Felipe Garcia:
And then I went to a community college, Gilbert Arizona, and I’m supposed to be a teacher.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, so that’s what you were going into education…

Felipe Garcia:
I was going… Yeah, because I didn’t know what I want. I knew I was going to be something related to people, customer service. So teaching was my first option. Now that I’m working in human resources, now it clicks, it’s related.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
It’s hand by hand, so that’s what I went to school for.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did your dad do? And your family, you had status already to come into the US?

Felipe Garcia:
At that time, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Felipe Garcia:
And you can obviously work through the time [crosstalk 00:03:40].

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. And I know my wife is from Canada, and the immigration process is so confusing.

Felipe Garcia:
It takes a long time. But yeah, it’s not easy, because it’s… One thing people confuse, it’s not just go knock on a door, “Hey, I want to come in. I need papers to work this out.” There’s no option.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
There’s only a very limited ways to do it. That’s why a lot of people has to do it the other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly. And [crosstalk 00:04:10]-

Felipe Garcia:
It just misinformation, and that’s a whole new story.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
But it’s misinformation. There’s only a few different ways that you can become legal, but like I said, they’re limited.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what line of work was your dad in?

Felipe Garcia:
So my dad, he was working at that time, it was a lumber place, they build the frames for the houses before they send them in, that’s what he was working at that time. But he’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
In Arizona?

Felipe Garcia:
… Arizona.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what about in Mexico?

Felipe Garcia:
Back in Mexico, well, we have farms and a small ranch, so we would usually work for ourselves, like farming and cows and stuff like that. But even back in Mexico I never done anything related to farming, because I was always focused on school, which was convenient for me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But same thing, in farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you didn’t want to do the farming when you were a kid?

Felipe Garcia:
No. That was hard work, because even like… that I did it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
When kids were on vacation, I was working the ranch. I wasn’t very happy about that, but I learnt to make some money, since I’m a kid, so I like that. I like to be independent, so I start working on my own since very young age.

Dillon Honcoop:
So in some ways you don’t have farming in your professional background-

Felipe Garcia:
No, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
… but in your family background you do.

Felipe Garcia:
My family, yes. All of them. Well, my dad, when he came here he was doing farm work, he worked in dairys too. Actually to this day, my dad is 67 years old, he doesn’t need to work, but he still works in the fields.

Dillon Honcoop:
[crosstalk 00:05:41]

Felipe Garcia:
He’s not a 15 year old boy, but he still works in the fields. And I keep telling him, “You got to stop at some point, that’s hard work.” And he doesn’t want to, and he’s just still there.

Dillon Honcoop:
He just loves it?

Felipe Garcia:
He just likes it. He doesn’t like to sit at home, he wants to do something. But what’s funny, is that he’s working just like everybody else. Actually they like him because he never misses work, he always show up early and leave late.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
So he’s consistent. He’s not the fastest, but he’s consistent. So that’s one good thing I learn from him, “Never say no until you try something.” So that’s why I didn’t quite when I start working in the farm. I used to complain for eight hours a day in a office, and here it was 15-16 hours, because harvest, it’s a small, short window.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Felipe Garcia:
You can’t play with it, when it’s a good weather, it’s a good weather. You got to take it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly.

Felipe Garcia:
So again, that’s why I learn the meaning of work. But again, for some reason I like it. You see the progress on a day. When you’re in the office, you send something and you got to wait for a response, it takes a couple days. And the farming industry, when you do something you can see it, you plant something you can see in a couple of days, you can see something growing, so that’s… I don’t know, I can’t explain that. It just a feeling that I never thought that I was going to have again. I’m from a city, from office, work here in a dairy farming industry.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know exactly what you mean, because I miss that in my… I have a lot of things that I like about what I do, but I miss being able to have that tangible, “I can see what I accomplish today.”

Felipe Garcia:
Well, if tomorrow I go work somewhere else in a office, I don’t think I will be able to. The reason I do it here is because I work in my office, get my work done, and the rest of the day I’m outside with the guys. I’m working myself. I’m driving a truck, I’m doing something. I just don’t get bored. It’s just something different. If I got stuck in a office for the whole day, I can deal with it for a couple days, because we have to some times.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
But I don’t think I will keep up with it, so…

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like it’s in your blood a little bit.

Felipe Garcia:
Well, like I said, I’m a workaholic. I like office work, but only so much.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I know it’s in my blood too. My family is the same way. What did your dad say when he found out you were going to go work for a farm?

Felipe Garcia:
It was a surprise for him. He helped me, but he didn’t know how far I was going to get. He know I will try the best, and he was going to be okay if I say, “You know what? I don’t like that job anymore,” because he know how hard it is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Felipe Garcia:
But little by little he’s been seeing the success, and better a little bit a time. And now he’s happy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did he laugh saying, “You didn’t want to do the farming when you were a kid, and now you’re farming.”

Felipe Garcia:
No, because he saw the experience firsthand. I see him every day. And he just didn’t know, he was surprised how much work I can get done in a day, again, because I used to complain for just a couple hours of work. And now he sees me come home late at night, leave early in the morning, and he was just surprised. And he was happy because he knows the feeling. He was pretty happy. I guess as a father, you want to see your kids grow and do better-

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
… but I think working in the industry that he loves, it’s even better.

Dillon Honcoop:
So did the rest of your family then move here, your parents?

Felipe Garcia:
I move them up here.

Dillon Honcoop:
You did?

Felipe Garcia:
Yes. About almost six years ago. They put out for a long time, they didn’t want to. They were so used to Arizona, but I keep pushing, “You guys got to move up here.” And finally they’re like, “Okay, let’s try it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They can handle the cold?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s cold here, compared to Arizona especially.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. Well, right now what I do, I just send them back to Arizona with my sister in the winter.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Felipe Garcia:
They come back when it’s a little bit better.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk about your family. Are you married, have kids?

Felipe Garcia:
I’m married. I have two daughters. I just got a newborn two months ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Congratulations.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, it’s a journey.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how old is the oldest?

Felipe Garcia:
She’s six years old. They’re fun, they’re girls. It’s just girls in the house, just me as a man. That’s important.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s like my house too. I have two girls.

Felipe Garcia:
But it’s good, and they support me, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy isn’t it, having kids? It just changes so much.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes. And my wife, I give her credit because again, our industry’s demanding on time, and I work six days a week, sometimes seven days a week, and she’s okay with it. We’ll learn to work each other, and that’s probably the best thing, because when you’re getting short time at home, they need time, and they start complaining. But the freedom about my position is that if I need a day off I can just take it and then go take care of my family. But we’ve been like this since ever, so it’s not new to them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But my wife is very supportive.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, farming can be hard on family life, right?

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
For the reasons that you’re saying.

Felipe Garcia:
Well, here’s the difference between just farming and dairy farmers, the farming stoop at some point, and the maintenance is not as much as the rest of the year, but dairy doesn’t stop. It’s still the same no matter what day it is. So it’s not like I stop November and then I take time off, it doesn’t work that way. But I still take vacation with them, we go out on the weekends, we do stuff. We make it work. But again, this is what I like, this is what I do, that’s how they met me, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So you say you’re working six, seven days a week, is that year round then?

Felipe Garcia:
No. Like I said, I’m a workaholic. I work Monday through Saturday. Saturday is most likely just couple hours, just to make sure everything’s okay, and then I go back home. Only on the harvest time, it’s when I’m here a little more often.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
Again, I don’t have to, because we have guys that take care of everything, but once in a while you need the extra hand, and I just jump in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So your main job is HR?

Felipe Garcia:
My main job is human resources, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
For people who aren’t familiar with HR, what kind of stuff do you do? And I guess, HR on a farm, what does that look like?

Felipe Garcia:
Well, that’s no different than any company or corporation. The HR, we get all the fun. We hire, unfortunately we have to fire too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
All the documents, all the legal stuff, a little bit of accounting, payroll, all the personal problems with employees and employers too, because we are right in the middle line. We’ve got to look for the good on the company, but also in the employees. So we’re the one in between. And we’re the ones that enforce the rules in the company, so that’s why we get all the fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the hardest thing about doing HR?

Felipe Garcia:
Letting people go, that’s probably the hardest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
Because we all come here to work, we all need the income, we all need to support the families, but that’s probably the most difficult thing, for any reason. Some people, they’re not as good as the other employees at showing up or just missing to work, and you have to let them go. But you know that person has a family, that needs to take care of, and that’s probably the hardest part. But you got to think different, sometimes you didn’t cause that, they did it theirselves, but that’s probably the hardest thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it take to be really good at human resources?

Felipe Garcia:
You got to be very partial on the decisions, so no different than a judge. You got to look at what’s the rule, but how much can you play with it, or how much… That’s the thing, that one you take a decision for a person, it has to be the same for everyone, so that’s the hardest thing there. You have to be really good at judging that stuff. You can’t have friends in this type of work. If a friend ask you for a favor, well, it doesn’t work that way, because you got another 50, 60 people right next to you that they may want a favor too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
And if you already did it to one, you have to do everyone. So you have to be good at looking at the situation, and you go to be good at solving problems, because sometimes you get those problems, right away you got to get a solution in that instant, that’s not something you can wait sometimes. And you have to be a good people person, good communication. You have to be good at communicating. There is one thing as explaining something, but if the person doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand it, you’re not really good at it.

Felipe Garcia:
So culture wise, here has a lot to do with culture. By my fortune I got both of them, I got American culture and I got Hispanic culture.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the trick to balancing that? I would imagine part of it is just being able to understand people, what they’re really thinking, what they’re… mean when they say certain things, what they’re really trying to accomplish. I know that could be misunderstood, when people are communicating across cultures.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, that’s the thing. Something I notice on HR is, I do a lot of interpreting, translation, not just because you speak the language, you can be an interpreter, and I seen that, because I have people that have interpreter right in front of them, they explain them, they still don’t understand.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
So I have to come out with different words or different ways to explain so he can understand the same thing. So it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Words aren’t always the same as ideas.

Felipe Garcia:
… No. And culture wise too, understanding our believing, or the way of thinking. Again, I can’t explain it because I was raised with both of them, so I can understand both of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is important to understand then, for someone like myself coming from American culture, communicating with someone from Hispanic culture? What’s an important thing for them, for me, to even recognize is a difference in culture to be able to communicate clearly?

Felipe Garcia:
There is one thing that we’ve been trying here at the farm, is Hispanic people, they’re not used to see like a person that speaks a different language, the same, maybe because they feel inferior. Or most of the time… For example here, employees are not used to seeing their boss close enough, or even talk to it. I heard that a lot from the employees. Back in their country they just see the boss driving a very nice pickup far away, and that’s all they get. Here they have that person right in front of them, they shake their hand. They’re not used to that.

Felipe Garcia:
And culture wise, that never happens.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
They’re never allowed to see or talk to the owner. Here you can approach to anyone, you can shake their hand.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of misunderstandings does that difference lead to? I would imagine it might be surprising then for some people coming from that culture to say, “Hey, what’s the owner doing here? Is there a problem?”

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, most likely. They think there is something wrong, especially with the new guys that come in, they don’t know. But the guys that have been working here for a couple years, they know how close this person is. They’re always driving by, checking, talking to them, their office is always open to anyone to come in and talk to them. But again, our culture, it’s a little bit different on the Hispanic side, but they’re still afraid. They’re still afraid to come and talk to one of them, or ask something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
They feel comfortable with someone that speak the same language, that’s something I noticed too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many people are you working with as far as HR? How big is the team here that you oversee?

Felipe Garcia:
About 150 people.

Dillon Honcoop:

  1. And what kind of jobs are those people doing?

Felipe Garcia:
All kinds of work on the farming industry. There’s truck driving, tractors, we got guys walking pens looking for cows, we got milkers, we got shop mechanics, we got supervisors, we got management, we got parch runners, all kinds of stuff here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. What’s the key to managing farm workers, because whether it’s American culture or Hispanic culture, farm workers are kind of a different breed in some ways, right?

Felipe Garcia:
Well, I will say just respect, respect the people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
Respect their culture, respect their thinking. We have a way to work and it’s the same for everyone. So we got to respect their thinking too. And I will say most likely it’s respect, not because they look different, they speak a different language, or they think different, you treat them different, so that’s probably the key. And treat them good. I’m an employee as well, the way I want to be treated, that’s the way I’m going to treat them too. And knowing their work, what they do, it makes it easier for us to take the decisions. We don’t take decisions based on, “Oh, let’s see if it works.” We know how hard it is at work, so we try to make things better for them.

Felipe Garcia:
So there is not a exact key, but our success is that we treat people right, the best we can, because that’s their way they want us to treat us. It’s an exchange. If we treat them bad, they’re going to treat us bad too.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like your boss wants to be closely connected with the workers, and is involved and will actually be hands on.

Felipe Garcia:
He is, but he only can be involved to a certain point. Again, if he has a person that is in charge of human resources or managing the people, he has to respect their decisions too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
So he’s been really good at that too. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
So he has to respect your decisions?

Felipe Garcia:
… Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
So that’s why nobody can just come into him and say, “Hey, I want to do this.” And then he want to delegate something, knowing we have rules, that’s not going to happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
So he has to say, “Hey, Felipe, what’s going on with this issue?”

Felipe Garcia:
Pretty much, that’s what he does, said, “Hey, there’s a concern here. Can you check into this?” At the end, we’re working on it. And it’s been very few times, but it’s good to keep him involved, because he’s the owner, he owns this place, and we run his place, but we got to respect him too, can’t push him out of the game. His decisions matter because he’s the one that leads everything, but he understands there’s rules, and he has to follow rules too, that’s what he created. For example, just to having an HR department on the dairy farming industry, well, that’s a bit step.

Felipe Garcia:
And that’s one of the good things, that they don’t hesitate when it comes to safety, because we’d know, we work with livestock and it’s hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
We understand that we got to keep the guys safe and send them home safe as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do the people like working here? You talked about these workers that you oversee, and you work with their concerns, you do their payroll, all of these different things. Do they like the… It’s hard work, as you say, you’re out on the farm too.

Felipe Garcia:
That’s something I never understood, the past, until I start working here, because there are long hours. What we’ve been doing is, we change the way it work, we try to minimize those hours, so they’re not too tired, but there is something that they like. For you to be working here is because you like it. We understand some people, they need some money-

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
… and they try, and a couple months later, they’re gone. Well, these guys, they’ve been here for years. The turnover has been less every year, and that’s because they like what they do, they enjoy this. That’s just like… I don’t know, you liking some dessert, well, you eat it because you like it. You can’t be here just because you have to. But we’re been creating ways to make this easier for the employees, better equipment, better process, because we understand that the better for the employees, the better work they’re going to do, the better we can present the owner.

Felipe Garcia:
And then we can keep this place up, because our families need this place, they eat from here. We all like our food and our milk especially.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And what’s it like to know that what you’re doing ultimately is providing food for people?

Felipe Garcia:
It’s a big responsibility, but there is a satisfaction to it. Every year on Christmas, we make a Christmas party for the employees and their family, and we gather probably a little bit over 300 people every year. And to see all the people, that they all depend on this place, it’s a big satisfaction, but at the same time it’s a big responsibility, because we got to make sure we provide them tomorrow and the day after and every single day. So it’s a big satisfaction.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about knowing that this farm is producing food for people in Seattle, for people all over? That I think changes things too. Yeah, you’re in human resources, but it’s for feeding the world, for producing food.

Felipe Garcia:
Again, it’s the knowing that you’re doing something good, you’re producing something good. It’s not just for you and your family, it’s for everybody else. So the best we do it here, the best quality gets out there too. And again, a lot of people like their milk, so it has to be good milk. But there is a lot of work behind it, but it’s a good satisfaction, knowing, “Hey, this product’s going everywhere.” We use it ourselves, and if you don’t consume what you produce, well, there’s something wrong there. But no, it’s good knowing that it spreads out.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your favorite dairy product?

Felipe Garcia:
I love quesadillas, I love that cheese. Yeah, and obviously chocolate milk. I like the sweetness.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who can’t say no to chocolate milk?

Felipe Garcia:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you said when you were growing up in Mexico, there were cows. Was there any dairy stuff around the family farms that you-

Felipe Garcia:
No, not that I know. Everything was obviously raw milk.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
And Mexico, they use a lot. To go in the mornings and milk your cow, and drink straight out of the cow. Just grab your cup, fill it up and good to go. But nothing at this level, not like dairy farms. It was everything just local.

Dillon Honcoop:
So farming was so much different?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah. Here I got the opportunity to plant corn, and I can get 200 acres in a day. Back in Mexico I was able to plant corn, and it was just with tools and a sack on the side for the corn seeds. And that’s how we plant corn. And it was hard, so that’s a big difference. It was harder back then.

Dillon Honcoop:
What you’re talking about, hard work, is reminding me. A question I was going to ask you a couple of minutes ago, when we were talking about hard work, it seems like… And I don’t know if you notice this, there’s something going on with American culture in the view of people working hard.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you actually, you grew up around farming. That wasn’t your plan career path, but now here you are in the farming world, and you are just, like we talked about earlier, it’s just in your blood, you like to work hard.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
And me too, that’s what I grew up around, that’s what I appreciate. And some days I miss it, as strange as that might seem to someone, because a lot of people say, “Oh, I’m so glad I don’t have to do physical labor.” There’s something that just feels good to get out and do some physical labor sometimes.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
What is it about American culture that is starting to say, “That’s somehow demeaning or bad.” It seems weird to me.

Felipe Garcia:
I think we judge too much, and we judge too easy. Our workforce is changing. Back in the day we had kids from high school wanting to work in a farm, because they can make some money and buy stuff. You don’t see that anymore. Now the workforce, from average was 25, 30 years old. It’s moving up, now it’s 45, 50. You don’t see young kids anymore, maybe because of that. They’re just judging it too much or just too hard. I think we’re trying to make everything so easy that you don’t want to struggle anymore, and the way you see it, that’s the way you treat it.

Felipe Garcia:
So I think that’s the problem, we judge too quick and too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
And people just don’t seem to want to work hard anymore.

Felipe Garcia:
No, not anymore. And then, again, it’s misinformation. And also because people don’t want to learn. You like to judge of a commercial, or something you saw really quick, or they told you in a way that you like it, and that’s how you judge, without knowing what is behind it. In the farming industry, that is the same thing, “You work too many hours. Oh, you’re working too much.” And then you judge based on that. Or you work too much because that’s your window, but that doesn’t mean it’s all year long, or it’s… I don’t know, that’s my feeling, that’s my understanding of how we judge things.

Dillon Honcoop:
I wonder if some people make that judgment because they have the luxury of being able to do that, and maybe they have their job in an office somewhere, and they make enough money, and they haven’t been in that position that some of us have been in, where it’s like, “No, I just need to make as much money as I can to support my family.”

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, pretty much. And again, if you don’t know the subject, it’s easy for you to point a finger or to just judge something when you never done it, or you don’t even have the background. What’s going on? How did this product gets to my table? Talking about farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
A lot of people like their salads. Do you know what work behind, it’s implicated in this?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
It’s a lot of work, it’s really, really hard work, but somebody has to do it. With technology, we’ve been getting better, but doesn’t do everything, doesn’t do it all. You still need that labor, you still need that person down there. And if we don’t want to do it here, well, they got to come from somewhere else.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you deal with that in HR? Because people have these jobs, this is a farm where you’re working, and you’re doing HR, so they have to do hard jobs, does that become an issue? If people say, “I don’t want to work that hard.” And well, it’s like, “Well, this is a farm. This is what we do here.”

Felipe Garcia:
No, because again, key is information. Since day one, this is what we do, this is what we require, do you think you’re capable of? Do you want to try it? If it doesn’t work out for you or for us, it’s fine, but it’s already ahead. He knows what he’s going through, it’s not going to be like, “Oh, just come in and we’ll try it, we’ll find out how it goes.” No, we do the training, we explain what’s going on, how many hours you’re going to work, this is what may happen. So you know on front while you’re getting into it.

Felipe Garcia:
So people that starts working here, they’re already expecting either long hours, which we try not to, because milkers, they’re only working eight hours a day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
It’s not like we’re working 12 hours a day or 15 hours a day. If you’re in harvest, you’re going to have your schedule of normal hours, but on the harvest time it may go up a little bit. But even like that we try not to push it more than 12 hours a day. Again, a person that gets tired, you can lead to an accident or mistakes, so we just prevent that. But you know that ahead, people doesn’t come in blind and just start working. And again, we have an HR department.

Dillon Honcoop:
You know the HR manager here.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. I… Familiar with him.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that make it hard to find people? Do people say, “Oh…”

Felipe Garcia:
There is-

Dillon Honcoop:
“Maybe I don’t want to do all that work.”

Felipe Garcia:
… Yes and no. Again, we can judge by the cover. I had young kids who never done this type of work before, and even like that, we give them the opportunity and they turned out to like it, they turned out to work here for a couple years, and they’re still here. There is some people who has experienced some farming and they just last week. Maybe because the rules. Again, we have rules, you got to follow them. And it’s the same thing for everybody else. Some people that like to follow rules, some people, they just like to work more in a different way.

Felipe Garcia:
So that’s a different thing. But it’s not hard, it takes a little bit of time, but again, once we hire someone, there is not end period of time, you’re here as long as you want, as long as we keep our rules the same. We’ve been getting people with more seniority the last couple of years. The turnover has been less and less, and it’s because the way we treat the people. We treat them good, they treat us good back.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about harvest, and that’s the extra busy season.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of things go on? I guess for people who aren’t familiar, that’s harvesting corn, grass, other things.

Felipe Garcia:
We harvest corn, hay. Well, the only difference is you work a little bit longer. Again, we have equipment that it makes everything easier, but we still need the drivers, we need somebody to operate the equipment. And when you cut hay, you only have so much time to pick it up, otherwise it goes bad. If it goes bad, it’s not good for your cows. So that’s why you got to time ahead how much you’re going to do. So planning has a lot to do, but it’s just driving a truck, but you have to do that all day back and forth, and it takes you 10, 12 hours a day. So that’s the harvest season.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just go, go, go, go.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. Keep on doing the same thing all day long back and forth.

Dillon Honcoop:
The rest of the time… You’ve talked about you have your office work, your HR work, and then what do you do once you… You say you can often get that wrapped up in the morning and maybe have the afternoon to work outside. What kind of jobs do you pick up?

Felipe Garcia:
So I like to help the guys around. Sometimes we got to either drive a semi, or sometimes we got to haul cows back and forth. I’ll jump in the truck and I’ll drive them up and down. Also we need parts for this place to keep running, because like every other place, sometimes equipment fails, or pipes break, or we need stuff. So that’s where I can help, I can go get stuff for them. And I’m mechanic inclined, that I can take some decisions like that. So we’re just back and forth bringing up stuff, picking up parts. I do help a lot of our employees, just with simple stuff as translating a letter, reading a letter for them.

Felipe Garcia:
So this is where I like my employers. They’re okay with employees coming in, in work hours, and have a question, a personal question. So I do donate a little bit of my time when I can to them for personal issues, so that’s where also a chunk of my time goes into. Sometimes it’s just doctors appointments, that they don’t even know how to schedule one. I’ll just grab the phone and schedule it for them. So that gets me busy sometimes. I never say no, because if I can do it during the day, I can do it after work.

Felipe Garcia:
But that’s pretty much what gets my day around. And that’s funny, because time flies. I come in at six, seven in the morning, and when I realize it’s already five o’ clock, and by the time I get home it’s almost six, but flies when you’re having fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of background do a lot of these workers come from?

Felipe Garcia:
It varies.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were saying in some cases like you were just mentioning, they might need help even scheduling an appointment.

Felipe Garcia:
Most of them is agriculture, construction. I seen a lot of people that work in restaurants. Warehouse people. But mainly, farming and construction. Those most of the background.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they are people who are used to hard work.

Felipe Garcia:
Pretty much, yeah. And this is something they like, because here in this country, you can do whatever you want. You can go learn how to work in construction, you can learn to work in a warehouse, but they just choose to work in a farm, which is good. The thing is stability. The income, it gets to your hand every two weeks, it’s secure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
I think that’s one of the main reasons too. This place, no matter what, you get paid the same day, and that’s some income you can count with. Again, hours. You get your hours no matter what. That’s another reason. People that work construction, restaurants, they only get so much work, and if it’s slow, there’s no more work. Here, no matter what day it is, what season, you still work the same, you still get paid the same. And the more you learn, the better you do and the better wages you get.

Dillon Honcoop:
And when you have to make a rent check every month.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, pretty much.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know how that goes.

Felipe Garcia:
That one doesn’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said, “In this country people can do whatever they want,” how is that different than where these workers are coming from? You’re saying that they may come from a different background on that.

Felipe Garcia:
It’s different. Rules are different, how they respect the rules is different too. Knowing my country, it’s the same way, you work hard, but you don’t make as much. They’re probably stuck on something, they don’t want to learn, they don’t want to grow up. Here for some reason they realize, “Oh, I can do better. And everything’s possible, you can even make your own company if you want.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So in Mexico there’s not the freedom to do that?

Felipe Garcia:
Yes, but it’s harder. It’s harder to get a loan, it’s harder to get people invest on you, and it’s just different. If you don’t have somebody to help you, it’s hard. Here, as long as you work hard and you get a good record, good credit score, you can do whatever you want, you can buy whatever you want, you can work wherever you want, so…

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I think a lot of people just think about wages.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
“Wow, you make more here or there,” but there’s so much more than just wages-

Felipe Garcia:
Oh absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for a person.

Felipe Garcia:
Yes, and it’s hard to understand sometimes. But sometimes it’s not. If you’re making more, is it stable? Is it all year long? Or it’s more for a season or a period of time, but then there’s nothing. So that’s the other side of the coin.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what you said about getting loans, too.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
I think we take that for granted-

Felipe Garcia:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… here in America.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah. It’s not how much do you have, it’s what does it show? What’s your credit score? “It’s high? Oh yeah, whatever you want. It’s low? Oh, it doesn’t matter how much money you got in your pocket.” It’s just the way it works.

Dillon Honcoop:
That can also be deadly too.

Felipe Garcia:
Ah, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
As many of us have found out, especially in the…

Felipe Garcia:
On the highway, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the crash of 2008 and nine, when a lot of us had a wake up call of, “Oh yeah, we can get a lot of money, but…”

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), you got to pay it back. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I guess that can cut both ways. You talk about all the different jobs you do and how many different things you get to do, and you like the variety, what’s your favorite job on the farm?

Felipe Garcia:
Driving or operating heavy equipment, that’s the best. And that goes from a semi to a loader to an excavator or a dump truck, I guess… I don’t know, I like the… I wouldn’t do that for a living, but I like it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about tractors, do you like to do field work?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah. Yeah, I do. Again, tractors, planting stuff, it’s exciting. Just the knowing that you can operate such a big piece of equipment, and how much you can do with them, that’s probably the good feeling.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s my favorite growing up. Anytime I got to drive the tractor, I was happy.

Felipe Garcia:
Yeah, no. And I guess, not to prove points, but sometimes when new guys come in, and they see me driving a big semi or something, because they see me in the office all the time, and they think that’s all I do, and just drive the pickup back and forth. But once they see me driving a piece of a equipment or working with them, it earns a little bit of respect with them. Not what I’m looking for, but it’s good for them to know and say, “Hey, I know what you’re doing, because I can do it as well. I understand the things you’re going through.” So that makes a big difference, and I like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think that shows a lot for, like you said, respect.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
And then to show that it’s, “I don’t think I’m better than you because I work in an office job.”

Felipe Garcia:
I like to be an example for them, because I keep telling them, “Hey, when I start working here, I was picking up garbage,” because that’s the only thing I had to do at that time. It was cold, not much to do, and there was a lot of cleaning. And now I’m in HR, the HR office, so there is no limit here. If you want it, it’s there. It’s how much you want to do. All the management in this company, they start from the bottom. We all start doing something here, we didn’t just come into that position.

Felipe Garcia:
So that proves that there’s always improvement, there’s always opportunities. We’re always looking for leaders, supervisors, it just not everybody’s up to that responsibility. But hey, opportunities are there, we’re proof of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think people in Seattle or in the big city anywhere need to know or should know about where their food comes from? Places like this, is where their dairy product… where their milk and cheese comes from.

Felipe Garcia:
They just need to know the truth, the good and the bad. A place like this is long hours and that’s just the way it is. Well again, define long hours.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
I used to think nine hours a day was long. Long hours means that you work eight, nine hours a day, but it’s hard work. That is what we mean with long hours, not that somebody is working here 19 hours a day, that doesn’t happen. I mean it’s physically… it is possible-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Felipe Garcia:
… but it’s not good, because we do things ourselves so we understand. They just need to know what’s a good thing and a bad thing. Obviously a place like this doesn’t smell as pretty as other places, so that’s the thing. Some people are tolerant to that, some people don’t. Like I said, my first job was at [Can 00:40:10] the company, it was a fragrance place. Same thing, smells good, but it was too strong. So they just need to know the real workers, what the real work is, not just commercials for 30 seconds and they think they know everything. We’ve just got to share a little more information, we’ve just got to share how we treat our animals, how we treat the people, how we treat everything, so they can learn a little more.

Felipe Garcia:
But it’s more like people wanting to learn. Some people, they just don’t want to. Some people, they just like to have their glass of milk in front of them and that’s it. Some people, they really care where that come from-

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
… how much work is it. Maybe they think it’s too expensive. Well, if you see what’s behind it, eh, or maybe they think it’s too cheap. Every person has a different perception or mentality, but I think that information is key, showing them the good and the bad. What’s the good, the good product that we produce. What’s the bad? Well, it’s hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
Since you’re in human resources, what do you think people outside of the farming world should know about labor issues, when they hear about farming labor issues in the news or things going on with farm workers? What would you say about how that’s being talked about?

Felipe Garcia:
I think it’s just third parties trying to create misinformation for a personal gain, that’s the way I see it. And that’s what I’ve noticed too, because again, I’m human resources, so I work very close with that, and I’ve been seeing the real truth about that. The employees are the ones not getting all the benefit, which… it’s wrong. It would do something, is for the benefit of the employees, no over third person to get money in their pockets. That’s the way I see it, that’s the way I’m seeing it. That’s why when we do something here in our company, it’s to the best of the employees, because it goes straight to the employees, not to someone else.

Felipe Garcia:
So it’s all about money and political…

Dillon Honcoop:
So you think people who are saying, “Farm workers are mistreated,” are saying that because they can profit from it?

Felipe Garcia:
Some of them. And also, there was an issue years ago, and I think at this point with every rule and regulation that comes, we are no different than any other company, we got to follow rules. And we got to get better for ourselves and our employees. So I can talk for my company, I can put my hands on fire for my company, I can’t really talk for everybody else.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But as far as I know, is that if we have a regulation or a rule, we got to follow it. So I don’t know, I think some people try to work the system too, and I see it on a first hand. But the labor issues is just miscommunication between the employers and the employees. They’re not as lucky as we are having an HR involved. One of the things that I think is, it’s when employers work directly with employees, that means communication, it’s a big issue. Like I told you early, making sure they understand the rules, make sure they understand their rights, that’s a big thing too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
I have people come here from [LL9 00:43:15], talk to them, “Hey, this is LL9, this is what it is, this is what it works for. “They need to know, they need to be free to talk to the owners or the supervisors or their managers, because I think it’s very important. Information is key.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talked about misinformation and you talked about third parties getting involved, and it’s political. What kind of misinformation do you see or hear out there from these people?

Felipe Garcia:
They see just a handful of people saying, “I got mistreated.” But that people don’t talk for the rest of them. You cannot judge one thing for four, five people when you have thousands… and employees. They can go and ask them, you can go talk to him. You can go see what’s a real deal. That’s the problem now, how you spread your information. You can take a picture and put a description to it, and that’s what you’re going to think. You could put the same picture, now put something wrong, something bad, that’s the way you’re going to see it.

Felipe Garcia:
So that’s the way I think they’ve been treating this labor issue.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s a really strong farm worker community here, especially in eastern Washington, right?

Felipe Garcia:
It is. It is pretty strong. Everybody knows everybody, that’s why we are so comfortable here, because we just do the best and it spreads out. And because of that we have a lot of people wanting to work here, because they know it’s a good place to work. It’s a small town so everybody talks to everybody.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would happen to that community if these dairys or other farms went away?

Felipe Garcia:
I don’t know. I can’t even imagine, because I do this for a living. I’ll be thinking of doing something different and I don’t think I can. I don’t think I want to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Do people worry about that? Is there a fear of what happens in the future if they’re pushed away from here?

Felipe Garcia:
We do the best we can here, because I want to keep feeding my family. I want to make sure that my employees are able to feed their families, so we just try to get everything as best as we can. And the best for them is knowing that they have work tomorrow.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know this is a family that runs this farm.

Felipe Garcia:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that extend to the workforce? Does that extend to you? Do you feel a part of that-

Felipe Garcia:
Oh absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… community?

Felipe Garcia:
Oh yeah. And again, culture wise, they try to separate theirselves to work.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Felipe Garcia:
But me, actually I live for a while in this farm, like actually live here. And when the owners tell you, “You’re part of the family,” you’re part of the family. You are in their family events, you are. Again, you kind of… Because you got to get used to it, you got to get to know the people, and you know it’s real, it’s not just saying that because they want to look good. You become part of the family. And they see their workers the same way, but obviously they’re not going to see it, like that cultural wise, like I say, they see the boss pretty far away, but living on it first hand, they treat you good. They treat you like family.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s something I think that’s special about farming too, that…

Felipe Garcia:
Absolutely. That’s one of the main things. If a farmer can help you, he will help you, he won’t say no. And he’s not looking for anything in exchange. And that’s one of the reasons I like this place. They can help you, they will help you.

Dillon Honcoop:
Felipe, thank you so much for-

Felipe Garcia:
Oh, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
… sharing your story and all the stuff about how this works and what you do. It’s pretty incredible how this all works together. And I think it works a lot better than maybe some people have been led to believe.

Felipe Garcia:
Oh absolutely. I’m happy to be here to share a little bit of my experience, and hopefully it’s good to someone.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What an amazing story of cultural diversity, and working his way up from just a general laborer to the HR manager of the entire company. Felipe Garcia was so awesome to talk with. And we just appreciate you joining us for these conversations on Real Food Real People. We’d love for you to visit realfoodrealpeople.org for more episodes, more info from behind the scenes and to subscribe to our blog. Again, realfoodrealpeople.org. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is documenting my journey to get to know and hear the real stories of the people behind the food that we produce and eat here in Washington state.

Dillon Honcoop:
So please check out our website. Also, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. D-I-L-L-O-N is how I spell my name, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Shoot me an email with any feedback that you have on the show, things that you’d like to hear talked about, people with incredible stories. I’d love to have nominations for guests on the program, I’d love to hear from you as we continue 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

Erica DeWaard | #003 12/30/2019

Despite her quiet personality, dairy farmer Erica DeWaard is known around the world for her touching and informative social media posts about her work feeding dairy calves. She opens up about her passion for farming and why she continues to speak out in the face of negative pushback.

Transcript

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people threaten to kill me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Death threats?

Erica DeWaard:
Death threats. They don’t want me on there. I figure that they’re scared of the fact that I’m telling the truth and I’m threatening their agenda.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the Real Food Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this week I talk with probably one of the quietest, most reserved people I’ve ever met but with an incredible story to share and such a huge voice via advocacy on social media.

Dillon Honcoop:
She opens up to me about why she does that, about her passion for her job, helping produce food by raising calves. She loves dairy calves. That’s what she does professionally, and it’s her life passion to care for those animals as well as speak out about it. And yes, she does talk about death threats that she’s received via her advocacy.

Dillon Honcoop:
She’s known as Farmer Girl on Facebook and Instagram, her real name Erica DeWaard, and she shares all of this plus a lot more about the background and what it really takes to raise calves on a dairy farm in this conversation. So join me as I continue this journey to hear from real farmers about what turns their crank, why they do what they do, and why they’re so passionate. We produce amazing food in this state, and Erica has such an incredible perspective to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you decide to start speaking out about farming?

Erica DeWaard:
I [inaudible 00:01:52] there was one guy, Andrew Campbell, who started this #farm365 try show people about farming, and I was watching it and he was just getting attacked, so I decided to join him. He needed help. A lot of farmers came and helped him.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re saying-

Erica DeWaard:
[crosstalk 00:02:09]

Dillon Honcoop:
… here’s somebody getting attacked and you-

Erica DeWaard:
And I went in there and fought.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s funny. I didn’t expect that to be the starting point.

Erica DeWaard:
Oh, it was. I couldn’t stand seeing one guy get attacked, so people had to help.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how did you start? What were you doing at that time? You were feeding calves?

Erica DeWaard:
Yep. I’ve raised calves since I was 11, so I’ve been doing that for 16 years.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how old were you or how long ago was it that you started, you decided I’m going to start speaking out on farming stuff?

Erica DeWaard:
About four years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
Four years ago. So you decided to start speaking out. Where do you start with something like that?

Erica DeWaard:
I made my own Instagram account and just started using his hashtag and it grew like crazy. People like to know the truth from a farmer, which I hadn’t really thought people would even care.

Dillon Honcoop:
How’d you come up with the name?

Erica DeWaard:
Well-

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that, like, from the beginning?

Erica DeWaard:
Farmer Girl, because I’m a girl and a farmer. A little bit obvious.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, dumb question on my part.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah. And my Instagram name is @ericad429, so that’s my first name and then my last initial, and 429 was one of my favorite cows at our farm, so I used her ID number as my name.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why was she your favorite cow? Tell me about-

Erica DeWaard:
She was-

Dillon Honcoop:
… 429.

Erica DeWaard:
… born on my birthday and I watched her be born, so she kind of became mine.

Dillon Honcoop:
So she was your cow.

Erica DeWaard:
She was my cow.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, describe her. For a non-farming person, what are they supposed to be visualizing here when they think about your cow, number 429?

Erica DeWaard:
She was very, very friendly and she trusted me. I could take her on walks without a halter and she’d just follow me like a little dog. So we’d walk down to the pond all the time and behind our farm and she was just my pet.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so that became part of the name, 429, and then homage to that cow.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is she still around?

Erica DeWaard:
When our dairy sold, she ended up in Eastern Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Erica DeWaard:
So I have no idea.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you start to speak out. What was it like at first? Again, where do you start? What’s the first thing you posted? Do you recall first kinds of things that you were talking about?

Erica DeWaard:
Well I really like the medicine side of things, so I was posting a lot about how to raise a calf and keep them healthy. Mostly it was helping other farmers do a better job at what they do, but then other people, they look at what I post and they realize how much there is involved in farming. Calf raising, people think it’s simple. There’s so much science in it, there’s so much math and people just have no idea how much knowledge it takes to actually raise a calf.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess what’s interesting to me, thinking about you speaking out, is because that doesn’t necessarily come to you naturally because you’re a quiet person.

Erica DeWaard:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or shy, or whatever. I don’t know what term you would prefer to use for that. Some people, they say shy is offensive, or something.

Erica DeWaard:
Well I’m definitely shy, so I’ll just go with that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s kind of outside your comfort zone.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but the same time I’m kind of hitting behind this media screen, just people don’t actually have to see me. I can think about what I’m going to say. And I also love the photography part of Instagram. You have to post a picture with what you post, so I love actually trying to get those pictures and trying to tell a story just with those.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’ve been doing photography for a long time.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why do you love photography?

Erica DeWaard:
I like capturing the story in the picture. It’s not just pointing my phone at a calf and trying to get a picture of it. You have to know how to take it. A lot of the times a lot of my pictures, I’m sitting on the ground, or laying on the ground looking like an idiot trying to get the perfect picture. So much of it is the angle of the picture that you’re taking. If I took it from higher up, you’d see the top of its head. If I take it from its level, it looks so much better.

Dillon Honcoop:
So let’s go back. You grew up on a farm.

Erica DeWaard:
I-

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about that.

Erica DeWaard:
… grew up about a mile from our family farm, so it was my grandparents’. They actually lived on the farm. My aunts and uncles, they lived… All of us were within about a mile of our farm. It was my grandpa’s rule that we had to be able to walk there in a snowstorm. So that’s why all of us just live in the exact same little area.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of farm? Talk about what the whole scene was like when you were a kid.

Erica DeWaard:
Most of my time on the farm was actually just riding in the silo truck with my dad, but then driving through our farm, I always stare out the window watching these calves be born, and when I was 11 I asked my dad if I could actually start helping at the farm raising those calves, because I fell in love with them just by seeing them while you’re driving past them all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
So a dairy farm, how big? What was kind of the…? You said it was your grandpa’s farm.

Erica DeWaard:
It was my grandpa’s farm as well as my dad and three brothers that actually owned it at the end, so actually none of my cousins were really involved. My sisters never got involved, but I was actually liked doing it. And part of that was because I was not forced to actually help at the farm. It was my choice.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so there you were from a very young age doing anything you could on the farm, anything they’d let you? What kind of stuff were you doing, other than writing in the silo truck once you could start to help?

Erica DeWaard:
Feeding the calves bottles. Well, I was 11, so those calves were ginormous. They could easily knock me over. I was actually kind of terrified for awhile trying to figure out how to not have these calves beat me up. They weighed 100 pounds, I weighed 80.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you were a kid on the farm, did you ever expect that that farm wouldn’t be there?

Erica DeWaard:
Not really. They actually didn’t tell me our farm was quitting until about a month before, so I didn’t even have a clue.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because I noticed you mentioned that “until the end”, or you talked about “at the end” it was your dad and his brothers. So what happened? What was that like, the end?

Erica DeWaard:
The end. Actually, I think they ran it for 10, 15, 20 years before it quit. But two of the brothers wanted to retire. The bank wouldn’t let my dad and another brother take it over. We didn’t have the money.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. And so how does that go down? How do you bring something like that to a close?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s hard. Actually, one of the guys that helped us was the nutritionist for our dairy, so he helped mediate this whole issue between four brothers, some of them wanting to quit, some of them not. He just sat in the middle and tried to keep war from breaking out between them and he found the farm that wanted to buy our cows. He was there when the trailers picked up our cows, so he actually helped us a lot just dealing with losing our farm.

Dillon Honcoop:
I bet the emotions had to have been huge that day in particular.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, it was. I actually saw the cattle trailers on my way to school and I lost it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did the rest of your family handle that?

Erica DeWaard:
Oh, turns out we never really got out of farming, so the three brothers that wanted out, or two of them wanted out, they ended up started working for another dairy. The one that wanted to stay, he found another dairy to work for, so we never really managed to quit. We thought we could. We couldn’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t that the way, though, for people who have been in farming?

Erica DeWaard:
Like you can’t get out of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s in your blood.

Erica DeWaard:
Actually, when our farm quit, the next day I was already working for another dairy. I just couldn’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what were you doing there? Feeding calves right away?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about that. How does that job work? If somebody wants to get a job feeding calves, what’s involved?

Erica DeWaard:
Biggest thing is that you really have to actually care. You can’t train a person to care about the calves. You have to really actually just be that kind of person that you can care about one calf out of 200. It’s still an individual, you still have to worry about it. I go home at night, I worry about the calves all the time. They’re just my babies. So they become more like your kids. They’re like your pets.

Dillon Honcoop:
Since you know so much about them, what kinds of things are you worrying about for them? Like health stuff, like medical kind of things for them?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s mostly if I have a sick calf, I go home thinking about her. I pray for them. They’re my life.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many calves are you responsible for right now?

Erica DeWaard:
About 200, so under the ages are six months. I worked for one farm for awhile that I was in charge of everything under a month old, and that was 350 calves. So I’ve had quite a different variety of jobs, but it’s all been just raising calves.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is the line when a calf stops being a calf? Like, how old do they have to be?

Erica DeWaard:
It depends who you ask. I’d say probably about six months old and then they are called a heifer instead.

Dillon Honcoop:
Until they…

Erica DeWaard:
Until they have their first calf and then they’re called a cow.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot of calves to keep track of. Does that take a lot of record keeping? Is a lot of that in your head then?

Erica DeWaard:
Most of it’s in my head. A lot of my favorite calves over the years, I can still tell you exactly which stall she lived in. I could tell you who her mom was. It’s just all this stuff that for some reason is still stuck in my head. I can’t get it out.

Dillon Honcoop:
So when a calf is born, what do you do? Are you involved with it right from when she’s born?

Erica DeWaard:
I am in charge of also watching the maternity pen, which is where they’re going to have their calves, so I’m involved for probably couple hours before they’re even born, just making sure the cow is okay and checking to make sure the calf is coming in the right position, deciding if we need to call a vet. So I’m there when the calf is born and make sure it’s going to be okay.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the first things that you do?

Erica DeWaard:
Make sure it’s breathing. I’ve given a calf CPR. Not very fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. Like, mouth-to-mouth?

Erica DeWaard:
Mouth-to-nose, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, wow.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s putting it on the line right there.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
See, I don’t know [crosstalk 00:11:42]

Erica DeWaard:
… you [crosstalk 00:11:42] do it to save their life.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Is that gross though?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you care that much that you do that.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, a lot of the times the calves that come out not breathing, they were stressed before they are born, so the calves that are stressed before they’re born, they poop inside the cow and they come out literally covered in poop. So you’re giving mouth-to-mouth to this thing that looks absolutely disgusting.

Dillon Honcoop:
Whoa, that’s brutal. I’ve been around for quite a few calves being born, but I haven’t had to do any of that.

Erica DeWaard:
Well you’re lucky.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, thank goodness.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s not fun. You need to do it, but it’s not… I’d much rather not have to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ll pass on that. I’ll leave it to the experts like yourself. So you make sure they’re breathing, and then what else do you have to do?

Erica DeWaard:
One of the first things is you have to disinfect their umbilical cord so they don’t get an infection, and typically the cow keeps the calf with her for an hour or so, if she actually wants anything to do with it. I’ve had a lot of them, the cow has tried to actually kill their calves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

Erica DeWaard:
They don’t have the maternal instinct that beef cows do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Erica DeWaard:
They’re not bred for it. We want to breed them for better [inaudible 00:12:49] or to produce more milk, where beef cows, the farmers want to make sure they’re actually [inaudible 00:12:55] take care of their own calves, so they breed for the motherly instinct, which dairy cows don’t need, so we don’t breed for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, with certain activist groups, shall we say, this can be a controversial point, right?

Erica DeWaard:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a common refrain: Well why do you take the calves away from their mothers so quickly? It’s inhumane. It’s cruel. But you’re saying quite the opposite. You’re trying to protect the calf by doing that?

Erica DeWaard:
You’re trying to protect the calf. You got an 80 pound calf, 1500 pound cow. She can easily hurt the calf without even meaning to. I’ve had calves that their legs were broken because the cow stepped on them. I’ve taken dead calves out of the pen because the mom accidentally laid on top of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be hard.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s hard. That’s actually how my dad taught me that we need to do this, as he made me take one of the dead dead calves out of the pan that the cow had killed. Because I didn’t really get it until I was the one that had to deal with the consequence.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that really drove the point home that this is a big deal to-

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
… protect the calf.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a huge deal.

Dillon Honcoop:
So not just a talking point to refute the activists, this is the real thing.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah. I mean, yes we take the calves away from the cows, but you also have to realize dogs and cats, we take away their puppies and kittens. No one says a thing about that. I mean, they’re a little bit older, so actually the dogs are attached to the puppies, but people don’t say anything about that because that’s considered normal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think it is? Because you, in your involvement on social media and being so outspoken about particularly dairy cows and calves that you care for, why do you think it is that that is such a thing for people that some people get so upset about that issue about the calf being separated from the cow?

Erica DeWaard:
People like to put their human emotions on to animals, and cows aren’t people. They just aren’t. They don’t have the emotional capacity we do. They really live in the here and now. They don’t worry about tomorrow. Cows, when we take away the calf, you go check on her, five minutes later she’s eating, she’s chewing her cud. She doesn’t care. The calf has gone. She doesn’t even notice.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that hard, maybe, to see? Because in some ways you know these animals so well, and like I think we all experience with pets and stuff, there is a certain emotional attachment, but then to realize, objectively, that’s not necessarily shared or returned from the animal because they just aren’t built that way.

Erica DeWaard:
No they’re not. Just like you can leave your dog in your house for hours on end, and does it care? No, it’s just excited because you got home, because that’s what it’s living for. Just living in the moment.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So after that, the calf is on its own. What do you have to do?

Erica DeWaard:
I have to make sure it gets enough colostrum, which is the first milk that a cow produces, so if we let the calf nurse from the cow, you have no idea if the colostrum was good enough, if it got enough, and the colostrum is the calf’s entire immune system for six weeks. It comes from that colostrum. So if they don’t get it, they can easily die because they don’t have the immune system to fight off any diseases.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know from having children in the last, well, not me personally, my wife having children going through that process, the same thing with humans. That’s why some of these things are so important for survival and health and all that kind of stuff. And you did say, you just mentioned that the calf does get to nurse off of the cow immediately after-

Erica DeWaard:
If they-

Dillon Honcoop:
… being born?

Erica DeWaard:
… would choose to. But a lot of the cows, they don’t even let the calf nurse. They’ll ignore it or they’ll kind of kick it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Swat them away?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s painful. The calves are born with teeth, so imagine that, that your baby’s trying to nurse and you’re sore and all these hormones are going crazy and then the calf pretty much bites you, so it’s not really that fun for the cow.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where do you get the colostrum from, then, that they need so badly?

Erica DeWaard:
Well the cows go through the milking parlor about anywhere from a couple of hours to 12 hours after they have the calf and then we save all of that colostrum. So typically if there’s a new calf being born, we’ll actually go heat something up that we had saved in the fridge, so it’s coming from a different cow than the calf’s mom. But colostrum’s colostrum.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I think humans have figured that out too. People sell and trade breast milk, and I know that grosses some people out, but it’s the real thing. It doesn’t necessarily matter who it’s from. It’s the health.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, then people take cow colostrum as a supplement all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. A lot of the colostrum that we have extra is sold and it’s actually processed for human medicine.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really! I did not know that.

Erica DeWaard:
They ship it out to Saskatchewan and people pay a lot of money to actually take that as a supplement.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do they take it?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a powder.

Dillon Honcoop:
As a powder?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really. Do they mix it into things like a protein powder?

Erica DeWaard:
I have no idea. I only learned about that like a month ago. I assumed our colostrum that was getting sold was going into powdered colostrum for calves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s actually not. Most of it’s used for people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you know what the health benefits are that they’re-

Erica DeWaard:
It’s supposed to-

Dillon Honcoop:
… apparently getting from it?

Erica DeWaard:
… help your immune system.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which makes sense-

Erica DeWaard:
It does.

Dillon Honcoop:
… based on what you’re saying.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s the antibodies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, so after the colostrum phase, then what do you do with the calves? Are they in their own pens?

Erica DeWaard:
They’re in their own pens, so about six months out of the year when it’s cold enough, one of the first things I do is put a blanket on the calf to help keep them warm.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then they just kind of hang out for a few months, and you keep them well fed and they can grow?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, they live in a individual dome for the first six weeks and then we have a barn that they move into that has stalls that are meant for two calves to live together, so they can kind of bond with another calf, figure out this whole what we are thing, how to act around each other, and then they’ll move into a bigger group. But typically I’ve found that those calves that were buddies just in a stall together, they hang out together for years.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there is like a bond experience.

Erica DeWaard:
There’s a bond, this weird bond between them. They’ll actually typically [inaudible 00:18:48] around the same time as each other. They’re just so in sync with each other.

Dillon Honcoop:
Interesting, because you’ve just got done talking about how cows don’t have the same emotional capacity that we do, yet they do still have some [crosstalk 00:19:02].

Erica DeWaard:
They still have buddies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Erica DeWaard:
Well they have a hierarchy in the herd, so you’re going to have the dominant one, you’re going to have the one that’s picked on, but for some reason a lot of times the calf will bond with just one specific other calf. I’ll find them always sleeping next to each other, with each other. They feel comfortable just around that one. So they hang out together because they know it’s safe.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about a hierarchy in the whole herd of cows. Can you tell who’s going to be who when they’re calves? Like are they already showing if a calf is going to be more dominant calf or something like that, or does that develop later?

Erica DeWaard:
You see some in how they act around people, so some of them they’re so sweet and they love me and others could care less that I exist, but it’s more later when they end up in a group that they have to figure out who they’re supposed to be within that group.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think is the most unexpected thing, maybe for people who aren’t familiar with it, about raising calves?

Erica DeWaard:
A lot of people don’t even realize that we actually feed these calves milk. They think we take all the milk from the cows and use it for humans. So the farm I work for, we actually feed a formula which is made out of all milk. Some farms feed milk straight from the cows. The calves need milk. They need to have milk in order to grow. We don’t just take all of it away.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are some of the things that have gotten the biggest response as far as details about your job when you’ve shared it in public, on social media? Have you been surprised by things that you’ve shared that you maybe took for granted?

Erica DeWaard:
There’s a lot of stuff that, well, I grew up farming, so I thought everyone knew this kind of thing. Find out people don’t know, and a lot of that is they don’t have someone to ask. So it was just simple things.

Erica DeWaard:
Like this morning I posted about how calves are born with this soft cover over their hooves so they don’t hurt the cow when they’re born. That’s something that I’ve known forever, but people are finding even just that so interesting that calves are created that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how do you decide what to post on social media?

Erica DeWaard:
Whatever I’m dealing with at the time and stuff that I think people are going to find interesting. Sometimes I think, “Oh, people are going to love this,” and no one even cares. Other times it’s like, “Well this is incredibly boring. I don’t know even why I’m saying this,” and people love it. So you have no idea how people are going to respond.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can you recall what’s been your biggest post ever? What was it? What was the one thing that people were just crazy about?

Erica DeWaard:
Feeding calves Go-GURT. I took a video of this calf eating Go-GURT straight out of the tube and it went viral.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have showcased on your social media quite a few human things that you feed to… like the Go-GURT.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Recently I saw something. You were giving a calf a beer.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Things that people wouldn’t expect, and even within the farming community not everybody knows about. Where do you come up with these things?

Erica DeWaard:
Well the beer was, I had this calf that she was not doing good. I had done everything I could possibly do to save her, but she was losing weight and we were ready to actually put her down. But then I started messaging all these vets on Instagram, bugging them, asking, so what can I do when everyone’s telling me, “Well you need to put her down because she’s suffering,” except for this one vet in Ireland who told me that this sounds crazy, but you need to go to the gas station. You need go buy that calf a beer. You give it to her. I thought, “Well, she’s going to die anyway, so why not try it?” Next day this calf, she actually wants to drink her milk. She’s eating grain.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what was it about the beer? Why did that work?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s all the fermenting yeast inside the beer, so their rumen is basically, it has all these bugs, the good bacteria and stuff in it. The beer replaces all of that and makes their whole gut work again.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, you say the rumen, and cows have…

Erica DeWaard:
Four compartments in their stomach.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s the last one? Which one is that? I forget.

Erica DeWaard:
That’s the one they’re supposed to digest all the grain and hay and forage.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically all the stuff that we can’t digest. A lot of animals, even horses, right, can’t digest the same things that a cow can.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, and then the rumen in a mature cow, it’s about the size of a 55 gallon drum. It’s huge.

Dillon Honcoop:
That is huge.

Erica DeWaard:
So all this stuff, it ferments in their rumen and they digest it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s almost like giving this calf a little starter yeast to get that process going in her stomach.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that changed everything?

Erica DeWaard:
It changed everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they act weird, like they are feeling the effects of the alcohol if you have to do this?

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t [inaudible 00:23:37] it really affects them, but they absolutely love it. They become your best friends. They get alcohol anytime they see you.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did people say on social media to you about that?

Erica DeWaard:
A lot of people were just amazed. They had never thought of that. But basically beer is like rumen fluid. Now it’s going to change your mind when you think of drinking that again.

Dillon Honcoop:
So does that mean that I should drink more beer because it’s good for my stomach?

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t know. You’re not a ruminant.

Dillon Honcoop:
So on social media when you hear from people, what’s your philosophy of how to manage…? And everybody these days has a social media account. Some people think about how they’re managing it and people who do it for their job, like myself, think about it. Obviously, people like you that are trying to do advocacy-

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
… think about it. How do you approach dealing with people, people who are surprised, people who are angry? You know, there’s so many responses. How do you manage-

Erica DeWaard:
I try-

Dillon Honcoop:
… people?

Erica DeWaard:
… judge whether these people actually want to learn or not. So if I get a negative response, I try choose, well, do they just not know, or are they going to be someone that doesn’t even want to learn? I don’t put up with much. I will easily block a person from seeing my account, because I have a lot more to deal with than people calling me names and I just don’t need that kind of negativity in my life when all I’m doing is try to teach people about what I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously I’m not asking you to repeat absolutely inappropriate things, but what have been some of the worst things that people have done? I know Facebook and social media can just showcase the worst of humanity. How does that manifest itself around what you do on social media?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people threaten to kill me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really!

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Death threats?

Erica DeWaard:
Death threats. They don’t want me on there. I figure that they’re scared of the fact that I’m telling the truth and I’m threatening their agenda.

Dillon Honcoop:
So wait a sec. How does that go down? Like you make a post, somebody comments right away with a death threat, or is there some back and forth that leads to that? How would someone get to that point?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve found that if I go on like a vegan group, I’ve actually found my name on there saying that, “Oh, we need to go attack Farmer Girl for awhile,” and they move on to another person, then another person.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is on their behind the scenes message boards?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can find those on Google? Or how did [crosstalk 00:26:02].

Erica DeWaard:
I looked up my name once and I found myself on there. I thought, “Well, this is awkward.” No wonder I was getting attacked like crazy for a couple of days because they actually organized it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s those people who will then go on and send you a death threat? Are they doing that publicly? Is that a private message? What do they say when they do this?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s sometimes public, sometimes a private message.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they will say, “I want you dead.”

Erica DeWaard:
Basically.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s nuts.

Erica DeWaard:
That’s social media.

Dillon Honcoop:
Scary.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you worry for your safety?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s part of why I don’t post my last name that often. I mean, you can easily figure it out if you start reading what I post. It’s not that hidden. But that’s why my name is Erica on there. It’s not my full name. And a lot of these people are actually from… I found out that Australians are very, very grumpy for some reason. They are the group that hates me. So when I found that out, I actually blocked the entire country. I wasn’t dealing with it anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
So nobody from Australia can interact with you on social media.

Erica DeWaard:
Right. And England. They don’t like me either.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would expect that to be in the US, honestly.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, I would too.

Dillon Honcoop:
But who knows what the dynamics are behind that. But I guess one of the reasons why I ask about your safety is do you think they really mean it? I would assume, I would hope that they’re just blowing smoke when they say that, but when someone says that…

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a whole lot easier to say that on a screen than actually say it to someone’s face. I really don’t think they’re going to do anything. Even when I go out in public wearing this shirt that says, “Hello, I’m a dairy farmer,” everyone’s polite. I’ve never had anyone threaten me in public because they don’t dare.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that what it is about social media? Is that why people get so nasty, because they don’t have to see you, you know, say it to your face?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, they don’t have to see me. Which actually is part of what helps on social media is to show pictures of myself, because people don’t realize I’m actually a person. They don’t get that. There’s a person behind that screen name.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you mentioned going out into the community wearing your “Hello, I’m a dairy farmer” shirt. What’s that like? Because that is the different name and that’s face-to-face. That’s the real deal. And you say people tend to be very nice. Those could be some of the same people who are nasty on social media.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, they could be. I have no idea. But they don’t. They see me as a person then, so they don’t dare attack me.

Dillon Honcoop:
I saw you post about your shirt that you wear and your note about that you do that deliberately. Talk about that, why you go into Bellingham.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Local urban community for our small area here. Why do you do that?

Erica DeWaard:
Make people put a face to who a farmer is. I actually have a lot of people that come up to me and say, “Well, you’re a girl. You can’t be a farmer.”

Dillon Honcoop:
In the city they say that?

Erica DeWaard:
In the city. I really don’t know how to respond to that. It’s like you can’t be a farmer because you’re a girl. I’m like, “Girls can be anything they want to be. Kind of been that way for a long time now, but you’re saying that girls can’t grow up to be farmers.”

Dillon Honcoop:
The stereotype, it would be that out in the country, out on the farm, that’s where the discrimination would be happening, thinking that women cannot be farmers. But you’re saying it’s the opposite. It’s when you go into the city that people will have… That’s crazy [crosstalk 00:29:11].

Erica DeWaard:
Well people have this picture in their head of this 60-year-old guy that’s a farmer. That’s what farmers are supposed to look like. They’re not supposed to be some tall blonde girl. I don’t get what their image is in their head.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much does that drive what you do on social media, part of you being kind of outside what people would expect?

Erica DeWaard:
I think a lot of people actually like to see what I post because they don’t… Or they find my page, see that, “Oh, she’s a farmer,” and they realize that I can be a farmer. They actually see me as being knowledgeable despite the fact that I’m a girl. I’m not supposed to be doing this. It’s part of why they find it interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
Also notice you mentioned that you like to hike and you like to hike with your dad and do photography. I think we touched on that before. Talk about other stuff that you do like that.

Erica DeWaard:
I go hiking about once a week. I’ve actually competed in this race called the Kill Bill Challenge, which is 25 kilometers, 3,500 feet of elevation gain. You see how fast you can do it. And I think stuff like that is fun, and it also really helps me mentally because I get away from everything for awhile.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said before we started here, you said you’re an introvert.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain that. What does being an introvert mean to you?

Erica DeWaard:
If I’m in a group of people, everyone’s talking, I’m going to be the one taking it all in. I don’t like to voice my opinion until I really know what I’m going to say. I like to think about things a lot first. For that matter, I don’t even really like to be in a group of people. I’d rather be all by myself. Like I go to Thanksgiving dinner and I’m just relieved when I walk out the door. It’s quiet.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how do you make that work being an introvert? Yet in some ways you have become a public figure with your social media advocacy.

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but it’s on my phone. Like I’ll go hiking and I don’t have cell reception, so I get to go be myself for a while because I can’t go check my social media and make sure people aren’t wanting to kill me. Just makes me forget about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And normally people would think you were kidding by saying people want to kill me, but since we just talked about that-

Erica DeWaard:
It’s true.

Dillon Honcoop:
… you have proven that is a real thing. How often are you getting messages to your page, comments on your page? How much could you be checking that if you were doing that all the time?

Erica DeWaard:
If I have a post that goes viral, I’d be checking it probably every 15 minutes. Even sometimes waking up in the middle of the night making sure I don’t do that, I go block a whole bunch of people, because once one person starts, it just gets out of control.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how much of your time does that take then? That’s got to be a lot of work.

Erica DeWaard:
Probably 20 or 30 hours every week. Takes a lot of time writing what I post because I like all the little details that I post, all the little details, but then I also want to research it to make sure I’m right. I don’t want to be posting something that’s false because my page is about the truth in dairy farming, so I want to make sure I’m really posting the truth.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the biggest things that people misunderstand or don’t know the truth about dairy farming in particular that you see out there?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people that they thought we milked the cows 24/7, that these cows were always hooked up getting milked. So when I posted that in reality these cows are milked for five minutes, twice a day, that’s like it’d be like over a year, 40 to 50 hours the entire year getting milked, which farmers work way more than that. So we do everything for the cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
You spend almost that time just on your social media in one week.

Erica DeWaard:
In one week. But the cows do work you for the entire year.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are you accusing cows of being lazy?

Erica DeWaard:
They’re spoiled.

Dillon Honcoop:
Spoiled. So people misunderstand how much time cows are actually being milked. What else is it that people misunderstand about dairy farming or animal agriculture? I’m sure you’ve seen it all.

Erica DeWaard:
One thing that tends to surprise people is how much technology is actually involved. They think we’re out there milking the cows by hand, all 700 of them, which in reality that’s impossible. We can’t do that and still be able to produce enough milk to meet the demand.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your response, then, when people see all that technology and see how many cows there are and the size of the operation and then say, “Well that’s a factory farm,” or, “That’s industrial agriculture.” Just to throw a few buzzwords at you. What’s your response to those?

Erica DeWaard:
I did a post once explaining exactly how we take care of all the cows and how much we care for them and that everything we do is to make sure the cow does good. And then after that I posted that, “Oh, by the way, so this dairy farm’s a CAFO, and that-

Dillon Honcoop:
CAFO being a… What is that? Confined Animal Feeding Operation?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. And that kind of blew people’s minds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that’s like a bad word.

Erica DeWaard:
It’s a bad word. You’re not supposed to use that word, but it made people think about it that, “Oh, wait. So we trust her and she’s saying that CAFOs are okay,” and it kind of changed their minds because they had no idea that CAFOs are, you know, they’re normal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is it, do you think, that people think CAFOs are so bad?

Erica DeWaard:
They seem to think that we mistreat the cows. The cows are apparently supposed to be kept in some really dark, gloomy barn all the time, which-

Dillon Honcoop:
Where are they getting that information from, though?

Erica DeWaard:
The activists. People like to believe lies. Activists know how to play on that. They know how to take this one horrible picture, making it look like we’re mistreating these cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
Shouldn’t people know better, though, or have other sources of info?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, but the average person’s three generations removed from a dairy or any sort of farming, so how would they even know?

Dillon Honcoop:
So I guess that’s why farmers need to say something?

Erica DeWaard:
And I saw something recently that for a long time people didn’t want to hear about farming, so farmers didn’t say anything, but now people are taking the farmers’ silence as meaning we’re hiding something. So it just kind of went the wrong way and now we need to be out there actually saying something again to the people that actually are open to learning about what we do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because of the advocacy work that you do and more and more people in the farming community are doing to speak out and just share real stories of here’s what it’s like on the farm, and here’s what we actually care about, you think that’s starting to change?

Erica DeWaard:
I’ve had a lot of people message me that they actually went from being a vegan, which is someone who won’t touch meat or dairy, and they actually started accepting animal agriculture as being good because of what I was posting, because they hadn’t ever seen the perspective that, well, I’m a farmer telling about farming. They’d never gotten the chance to even talk to a farmer, so they just believed what they were told. But then they realized that maybe, hey, the farmer might actually know what they’re doing better than Google does. Maybe they should actually be asking the farmer instead of Google.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what is it that you say that helps them change their mind? Because I think a lot of people feel like they try to say that, but maybe then it turns into an argument and the person may not believe them anyway. What’s the secret to you changing minds and saying, “Hey, what I’m doing is real, and I actually care about it, and we’re doing this responsibly and we care about these animals and being good farmers.”

Erica DeWaard:
Well, part of it is I love to write, so I know how to word everything in a way that people are actually going to want to read it. And another part is the pictures I share. I put a lot of time into getting those pictures to try, so if someone only looks at the picture, it kind of shares the story that I’m trying to tell and-

Dillon Honcoop:
A picture is worth a thousand words.

Erica DeWaard:
Yep. People are willing to look at that picture and sometimes after that they start reading what I actually said.

Dillon Honcoop:
When do they actually get to the point where they tell you that they’ve changed some viewpoint that they had based on what you said? It usually takes a lot to get a person to that point.

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t know how long it takes for them to really realize. I don’t pay much attention to when one person started following me versus when I hear from them. There’s 19,000 people that follow me on Instagram, about 10,000 on Facebook. I don’t know them. It’s just these random messages, “Oh, hey, you taught me so much about farming. I had no clue, and I support you in what you’re doing and I actually went and bought a gallon of milk for the first time in 20 years.” So it’s kind of incredible that I can actually make a difference.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it feel like to have that many people following you?

Erica DeWaard:
It’s terrifying.

Dillon Honcoop:
Terrifying like in the introvert sense [crosstalk 00:37:25]?

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. A little scary. Sometimes I go out to the Safeway and then if someone comes up to me and says, “Hey, Farmer Girl,” I’m like, “Do I know you?” A lot of times they won’t introduce themselves, they just start talking to me like, well they know me, so you’re talking to me like a friend, but I’m like, “I have no clue who you are.” I can’t tell you that because it’s awkward.

Dillon Honcoop:
You don’t want to be rude.

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t want to be rude and say, “Oh, so who in the world are you anyway?”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re becoming famous.

Erica DeWaard:
Yes. Well, [inaudible 00:37:54] for people. I go out somewhere and people recognize me. It’s not something I really ever expected.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I was going to say, when you started this advocacy thing, you wanted to speak out, you wanted people to hear, but did you ever have any idea that it would get to this point?

Erica DeWaard:
I had no clue it would be like this, that people would actually want to hear my story.

Dillon Honcoop:
I follow people who have done similar things to what you’re doing and at some point some of them expressed a lot of burnout. What’s your take on that? Have you felt some of that? Have there been times when you’ve been like, “Maybe I’m done doing this.”

Erica DeWaard:
I felt like that, but then you get that one message that people… It changes my mind when they respond in a positive way, and part of it is the reason I go hiking is it does help me mentally and emotionally besides, obviously, physically. It’s just this good way to help myself get away from everything for awhile. Being out there in the woods, it kind of puts everything in perspective that, you know what? Yes, I’m on social media. I’m getting attacked all the time, but does that really matter in the grand scheme of things? It doesn’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a week are you feeding calves and whatnot? I’m assuming that’s at least a full-time job.

Erica DeWaard:
That’s 40 or 50 hours every week.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so you do get some time to yourself, then, to do things like hiking and whatnot.

Erica DeWaard:
They actually give you one day off a week, which is not normal for dairy farming. It’s really a nice bonus. So then I also, since I’m feeding calves, they need fed twice a day, so I’m feed them at 6:00 AM, I’m done typically by 9:00 in the morning, then I go back and I feed them at 3:30 until I’m done at night, which can be 7:00, but I have this weird time in the middle of the day that I don’t have to do anything. Sometimes I just go take a nap. Other times I’ll go hiking and obviously I have to spend a lot of that time writing what I’m going to post on social media.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you think you’ll always feed calves?

Erica DeWaard:
Probably. I just love it too much to ever quit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, isn’t that what everybody says they’re trying to find is that job that they just love so much?

Erica DeWaard:
Yeah, and I found my dream job when I was 11. Who can really say that?

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get so lucky to find your dream job that early?

Erica DeWaard:
I don’t know. It was just farming’s in my blood. I have this old picture of my great uncle feeding calves, and I guess the whole calf feeding thing is just genetic. For some reason I got the bug, I had to do this. My aunt actually feeds calves too. One of my uncles does. My dad used to. For some reason something my family loves.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I’m catching you in the middle of the day today. You even have to go back-

Erica DeWaard:
I have to go back to work. I got up at 5:00 this morning, [inaudible 00:40:23] oh, every day, all week, and I’m not really a morning person. There’s a lot of caffeine involved.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re a dairy farmer, but you’re not a morning-

Erica DeWaard:
I’m not a morning person.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. Truth be told, how many dairy farmers are actually like that? Because that’s the assumption that a dairy farmer must be a morning person [crosstalk 00:40:40].

Erica DeWaard:
There’s a lot of us that hate morning. It’s actually pretty normal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for coming in and opening up about yourself. I really appreciate you being willing to, even though it made you nervous, being willing to come in and share your story with us here.

Erica DeWaard:
You’re welcome. Hard for me to talk, but I know I need to.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks again for joining me on this journey with the Real Food Real People podcast. It still boggles my mind to think about someone as nice and as passionate and as caring as Erica getting death threats for simply just showing what she does on a day-to-day basis.

Dillon Honcoop:
We so appreciate your support of the Real Food Real People podcast. We know that there are so many people in and around the farming community and the food community in this state in Washington that have incredible stories to share. If you know somebody with a story that would be great to share here on the podcast, please let me know. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. My name is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Just shoot me an email. Let me know a little bit about them. I would love to hear from you on that or any other feedback you have on the show. Again, Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Thanks for being here and we’ll talk with you again next week.

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

Chris Doelman | #001 12/16/2019

He led a tech company with operations around the globe, but when faced with losing everything, Chris Doelman chose to return to the family dairy farm in Washington.

Transcript

Chris Doelman:
My exact thought was, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t have a home to go back to. If I have a chance at trying to save the marriage, it’s bringing it back to something that’s more of like a farm, a family-friendly thing.” And so that’s what I did. I’m like, okay, I just went for it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Hello, I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is the Real Food, Real People podcast, episode number one. Where do you start with something like this? I’m setting out to have genuine conversations to try to create a connection. To make the people who grow food here in the Pacific Northwest real to everybody who eats their delicious products every day but doesn’t get the chance to know what really goes on with growing them, what the farmers are really like and how amazing this community that I got to grow up in really is. Again, my name is Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a Washington farm and after over a decade in media, I’ve come back to my local farming community and I want to share its stories with you.

Dillon Honcoop:
I personally know so many great people with incredible stories, but I wanted to start with someone that I don’t really know, with a fascinating story that I barely knew anything about. So you and I can set off on this journey of connecting with real Washington farming together. So please join me in getting real with Chris Doelman, a young dairy farmer from the Olympia, Washington area with an incredible story of how he came back to his roots… I want to start, I think, in Vietnam.

Chris Doelman:
There’s no better place to start than in Vietnam.

Dillon Honcoop:
You are in Vietnam.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What the heck are you doing in Vietnam? Because you’re a dairy farm kid, right?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I grew up on a dairy farm. When I graduated high school, I went to college and I said, “There’s no way I’m going to be working on a dairy farm.” Can you cuss in here? I mean not that I would cuss, but is this…

Dillon Honcoop:
Nobody’s going to fine you or anything.

Chris Doelman:
I mean, you set the precedence early. Anyway, no. So I just got all of the poor jobs when I was younger. The jobs that were less desirable.

Dillon Honcoop:
As in you didn’t make… Oh, less… not that you didn’t make as much money. Did you make any money growing up?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I mean, my dad paid me.

Dillon Honcoop:
It wasn’t that child slave labor that I had to do from time also.

Chris Doelman:
No, I mean, I’m sure I got paid less than he would pay someone else, but also, I learned more too. I got more out of it than everyone else, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re in Vietnam, you’re working a tech job?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, so I was a partner in a software company, we came to a point where-

Dillon Honcoop:
So Software, what kind of… any kind of software?

Chris Doelman:
Business software, our biggest product was a learning management system that we deployed for Flextronics, which was a huge assembler. Let’s see here, you guys know Foxconn is a pretty popular one, at one point, Flextronics was significantly bigger than Foxconn.

Dillon Honcoop:
So Foxconn’s like the iPhone, amongst other things.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, so Flextronics assemble all kinds of stuff and I don’t know how much I’m even allowed to say what they assemble but.

Dillon Honcoop:
Were are you actually living in Vietnam then?

Chris Doelman:
So I would live in… I lived in Orange County and then I would travel to Vietnam once a year to work with the team. As owners, you want to show your face, you want to work with the team, you need to help strategize. But at this point we were trying to deploy a mergers and acquisition strategy in Vietnam to where we were going to consolidate the development teams over there. So we were going to go and buy and merge with other big groups of developers so that we can be instead of 200 plus developers, we want it to be over 2000, so that we could land significantly larger contracts and do a pivot on our business. In order to execute that plan, we needed to move to Vietnam because we were going to start consolidating a bunch of these software groups and that… So I had moved over there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re thinking, maybe this isn’t for me all of a sudden. I mean, you’re a legit tech sector, jet-setter flying back and forth from Southern California.

Chris Doelman:
I wouldn’t call it a jet-setter. It wasn’t as extravagant as a… it’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I think anybody who’s done the jet-set lifestyle knows that it’s not as extravagant as they say in the movies.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I mean, we’re still bootstrapping everything too, it’s not that we’re rolling the Silicon Valley money, we’re not doing that. But it was a plan that we thought was a good plan until we actually went through our first merger with another group in Vietnam. So I was in Vietnam and things just got terrible. There’s some personal stuff and I was at a point where I was going to lose my company because we just went through this huge merger and I was going to lose my family and I was in a foreign country that… And my home basically, and I had already kind of moved out of my home and so I had no home and my family or my wife at the time was in the process of leaving me as well. And I just-

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean you’re talking about everything that’s happening externally, what’s going on inside you then?

Chris Doelman:
Well, honestly I thought, “Well, what am I going to do next?” I just keep plugging away and then I got-

Dillon Honcoop:
You weren’t scared or feeling kind of like what, what am I doing?

Chris Doelman:
I definitely had a feeling of what am I doing here? What is all this struggle for? Is this really what God called me to do? Are these his plans are these mine that I’m just trying to will my way through? And within a couple of days of that contemplation, I got a, I believe it was either an email or… I don’t even know the exact mechanics of it, but basically through my mom, my dad asked me if I wanted to come back to the family farm and just to see what it was like to learn the family business. And I hadn’t shared any of this with my mom and dad.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they didn’t know what was going on with you personally?

Chris Doelman:
They knew I was in Vietnam, yeah, but they didn’t know anything with was going on personally.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you have a close relationship with them? I mean-

Chris Doelman:
Oh, yeah, again, they lived in Washington State and I was in Southern California. You see your parents maybe twice, three times a year maximum and I’m not on the phone with them every day of the week, so. I didn’t really… they just kind of out of the blue, kind of brought this up and I thought, well… my exact thought was, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t have a home to go back to. If I have a chance at trying to save the marriage, it’s bring it back to something that’s more of like a farm, a family friendly thing.” And so that’s what I did, I’m like, “Okay,” I just went for it. Okay, go for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about extremes though. I mean, tech sector, other side of the globe, back home. And you said, “All right, forget it. I’m going back to my roots.”

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I’m going back to the farm and I moved from Orange County or Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City and moved back to good old Tenino, Washington. So Tenino is very rural America for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
As you’re making those flights and those drives and everything in that process, in those days, what’s going through your mind? I mean, you have to be thinking, “What’s going on?”

Chris Doelman:
What is going on? Yeah, you know what, honestly, I thought, “Okay, God is in control, he’s in control. I’m going to just do it and I will adapt.” And sure enough, I got on the farm, I started learning some of the… I started on the heifer farm, so raising the replacement animals and my dad was great about it and he said, “There’s no commitment, just come here, you can live here, live on the heifer farm work on it. You don’t have to commit to running the dairy farm, just take a break.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But that’s what he ultimately wanted. I mean, that was kind of his game plan.

Chris Doelman:
I think he wanted to see if that’s something I wanted to do. So his game plan wasn’t to actually have me do it, to run the dairy farm, but was to see if that’s something I wanted to do, which is great, he did some great dadding right there.

Dillon Honcoop:
He knows how to do the dad thing, obviously.

Chris Doelman:
And so I did that for several years, so 2010, I met my wife New Year’s Day, or actually New Year’s Eve, and then got married at the end of 2010 and then had some of our own kids. So now, I went from, at one point I was thinking, “Okay, I’m in Tenino, I’m never going to meet anybody. Why was I single in Tenino?

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re how old at this point?

Chris Doelman:
I think I was 34-35.

Dillon Honcoop:
35 years old in Tenino, Washington.

Chris Doelman:
And single I’m like, “Well, I’m going to be single my whole life.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But it didn’t turn out that way?

Chris Doelman:
It didn’t turn out that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
And there’s such a cool part of this story of maybe a glimpse now in hindsight, why this all happened.

Chris Doelman:
Oh, and it gets even deeper than that too. This is super-personal, so my ex-wife… I always wanted to have kids, we found out later that my ex-wife was never able to have children. We tried and never could, now, she’s still can’t have kids. And she basically released me because she thought I wasn’t happy and she’s like… I was a little angry with her early on, but I kept moving on and was able to find just an amazing woman and have three amazing children of our own.

Chris Doelman:
But the really neat part that I think started to take place in how I felt really, it was God’s hand that moved me there was, not only did I really enjoy the work of being on a farm and being able to work with your hands and your brain, it really kind of scratched all the itches for me. But on top of that, in 2012, I think it was 2012, 2013, my mom got diagnosed with cancer. It’s cancer and okay, and it became it as they looked into it as triple negative cancer, which is really hard to fix, to get rid of. And so my dad had to spend more time with my mom. So we just… that really-

Dillon Honcoop:
Then you had to step it up?

Chris Doelman:
Well, at that point I had already kind of decided that I’m going to start… I really want to do this dairying thing. And so I’d already started taking over the dairy before that even happened. And it felt like it was an opportunity, it basically freed up my dad to take care of my mom. And so yeah, he got to take care of her until actually the Christmas of 2018, my mom passed away because of it. But my dad-

Dillon Honcoop:
So this past-

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, this past Christmas. Yeah, so my mom fought it for six years. So it’s just 2012 I think 2012, 2013, so she fought it for about six years and my dad was able to spend all the time he needed to with her. So I really felt like that was an opportunity to give back to my dad, number one, but also to like, it really felt like God opened that a door for me so that my dad can have that opportunity to spend with my mom.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like then being in this position of still learning and still taking over the farm as you were losing your mom? That has to, all of a sudden, I would think, flip a switch like, “This is way more serious all of a sudden.”

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I felt like it was a really hard time because I still trusted that in the end, God has his plan for me and this is still good, but there is a lot at stake, a lot of responsibilities because now, not only am I… we’re in the process of I’m learning the farm, so I now have… I’m responsible for the farm, my dad’s number two love, and my dad’s number one love, is dying of cancer. So my dad’s losing his wife, and he’s kind of turned over control over to me. So I felt a pretty heavy load of responsibility for all of that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s like, “I can’t screw this up.” And it’s not under the auspices of, “Hey, here’s the farm, don’t screw it up.” It’s under the cloud of my mom is fighting the fight of her life. And I don’t know at what point you guys knew that she wasn’t going to win that fight, that is so heavy just to deal with whatever you’re doing, but you’re… It’s kind of like two huge things happening in your world at the same time.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, and then knowing the state of the dairy industry the last three years, it was very challenging. So you know, my dad was hoping not to lose a farm and a wife. And so we were going through all of that and it was challenging because not every day was rosy. And so when you see problems on the farm and that’s the one thing that you can kind of control, you kind of go after it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did you and your dad talk about during that time?

Chris Doelman:
We would talk farming every day. Usually almost every morning we would sit and kind of go over what’s going on on the farm. And then my dad would then kind of talk about what’s going on at home. And so we just get a chance to make sure the dialogue is open between both of us so there are no surprises, I think that was important.

Dillon Honcoop:
How’s he doing now?

Chris Doelman:
So now with my mom passing away, I think my dad is now at a point where it’s no longer a holding pattern, but it’s a chance to kind of recover and to heal. So I can see it seems as if he’s healing.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the grieving process takes a long, long time. And some people say, well it never is really entirely over.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I don’t know if it will ever be over, but I also know that you can… I could see him put on a little bit more weight again. He didn’t eat very much when he was taking care of my mom, he didn’t sleep very much, and now he has that opportunity to kind of sleep and eat and just not stress near as much as he did before.

Dillon Honcoop:
So is he back on the farm a little bit more?

Chris Doelman:
Honestly, he’s actually not on the farm as much anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, good for him.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, because I think his chance… He would come to the farm because that was his only chance to kind of escape it for just a short period of time. And so now he doesn’t have to escape it and he can just be.

Dillon Honcoop:
He can go to town, hang out buddies, do the coffee shop. I don’t know how what dad’s like if he’s like the dairy farmer-

Chris Doelman:
Honestly, I don’t know what he’s like either, I don’t need to dive into that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you talk about what’s going on with the dairy community right now and the business that is dairy farming. Explain that, what’s going on right now?

Chris Doelman:
Well, we’ve been suffering with low milk prices for about four years now, where at one point we… milk prices were as low as they were over 30 years ago with nothing else being that low, that includes feed prices, costs of living, employees. So we were trying to live on what they paid for milk over 30 years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
When we were just kids.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, right, when we were just kids. Now that’s hard, that’s hard to do as a business. I don’t know how many other industries can operate that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody knows that it’s hard and says that it’s hard, but what do you actually do? How do you make it? Do you eat Top Ramen every night? That’s what I did in college to survive.

Chris Doelman:
That’s what I did in college to thrive, if I was eating Top Ramen, I was thriving. Now, what do you do? Well, I think you look at any inefficiencies in your operations and you try to fix them. You have an opportunity, one, to try to make more milk. But I think that compounds the problem overall. So it’s really trying to maximize the margin that you do have. And at that point you just hold on, you hold on, you borrow if you need to borrow and you look for those moments to pay it back when milk prices go up, try to weather the storm. And we did things, we made some pretty good decisions when we did in 2014 when the money was good, we invested it in the right spots and allowed us to start feeding cheaper and milking cows-

Dillon Honcoop:
In the dairy world, you say invest, what does that mean?

Chris Doelman:
That’s that putting money back into your farm, we built a new commodity shed that allowed us to store a lot more feed. And in the Northwest, our competitive advantage here is that we get access to export grain byproducts. And you get those in railcar loads. So if you don’t have the capacity to store it, you’re going to have a hard time trying to buy it. So we built a lot of capacity so we could buy a lot of byproducts cheap when they were available. And that’s what we did and that’s how we kept going. So we buy a lot of cheap feed and we’re able to make some good decisions. Up until this last year when hay prices went through the roof and then the feed prices or the farming season was pretty dry so it kind of impacted our yield and our grass, that kind of hurt us this year. But we-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re talking about feed prices, I think that’s the thing that a lot of people never calculate into their understanding of how tough it is to keep, in particular, dairy farming working. Because they think, well how much money are you getting for your milk? That’s only half, it’s certainly even less than half of the equation really.

Chris Doelman:
Right, so to us what was important isn’t just the price we get on our milk, but it’s the margin between what our cost is to feed our animals versus what we get out of it as far as the milk is concerned. And so if you can’t control the milk prices, you can’t control the feed prices, but you can control how you feed and what you do to make that margin, improve that margin.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how much different is it, at least this business side of it, than the world that you came from in tech? A lot of different elements but it’s still costs, and prices and market.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah. You’re still dealing with markets and prices, and employees, and running projects and… there’s a lot of similarities.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yet it’s a lot more personal than working in tech?

Chris Doelman:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s your family, your animals, your employees that you’re working, you getting dirty-

Chris Doelman:
But I have the same sense of responsibility I have for my employees in Vietnam and my employees that were in our software company. You get that sense of pride that you’re creating these jobs that are allowing to feed this group of people. And in Vietnam especially because we were a big part, let’s say we were a big part, the software industry was a big part of raising the middle-class in Vietnam. There wasn’t a middle-class, there were the elites and then there were whatever was left. And so the software industry came and started to raise that bottom up to a middle class, to be part of that was really neat. We also have that same feeling here on farm.

Chris Doelman:
Because we’re dealing with a lot of immigrant workers and we’re giving them an opportunity to be able to raise up, raise a family, send their kids to schools and there’s that sense of pride being able to do that for your team, your employees. And those success stories are the things that I really like. That’s where I get my… I get in my happy place when I’m able to be able to provide a job that is going to help raise a family up. I have an employee that, he immigrated over here when he was younger. Now his son is the first in his family to go to college. He owns his own house, it’s just, that story to me, makes me happy, I love those stories. So we want to be able to raise up… we want to be a benefit, a blessing to our employees, to our neighbors, to the world.

Dillon Honcoop:
We haven’t talked about your farm much, Beaver Creek Dairy, give us the stats. How many cows you milk and what kind of, what’s the lowdown?

Chris Doelman:
We’re anywhere from 900-1000 cows milking. We’re in Olympia, Washington, kind of right next to, say right next to, probably within eight miles. Five miles of labor and industries, Department of Ecology, the governor’s mansion. Yeah. I mean, I’ve literally had the Department of Ecology director standing on my manure lagoon when we’re talking CAFO permits. So we’re real close right in the thick of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they don’t have to go far to know who to keep their eyes on.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah. Good old Jay’s eyes start watering when we spread manure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, so it’s you that’s causing the problem.

Chris Doelman:
I’m like, ” Hey guess what? I’m making the economy green buddy.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So 900-1000 cows, a lot of people call that a mega-dairy. What’s your response to that when someone’s like, “That’s a huge, we shouldn’t have that, that’s an industrial blah, blah, blah, whatever.”

Chris Doelman:
Yes, that’s a great question. And this is where I think education is essential, we need to do our… So first of all, 900-1000 cows on the West side of the mountains, it’s a good amount of cows, on the east side, it’s a small dairy farm. Regardless, whether it be small or a good-sized, it is… they’re all family farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean? How do you define a family farm?

Chris Doelman:
Every one of these farms are run by families, their mom or dad started it, or grandparents, their mom and dads are working on it, the kids are working on it. Even though it may seem like 1000 cows is a lot, with automation, we’ve been farming cows for over 10,000 years. We’ve been dairy farming as a people group for I think at least 10,000 years, they talk about how long a cow has been domestic, not domesticated, but used for. Yeah, so I think that as… The problem I see is that each generation, we’re growing further and further away from dairy farms, from farming, from our food source.

Chris Doelman:
So it used to be like, “Well, I grew up on a dairy farm, I know where my milk comes from.” That’s great, you go to store and you buy it. And then it was like, “Oh, my parents grew up on a dairy farm, now it’s my grandparents.” And now we’ve got people that have no clue what a dairy farm is. You tell them that a cow has to have a baby before she gets milk and they’re blown away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they say that terrible. There’s a lot of people who claim that that’s animal abuse, right?

Chris Doelman:
I don’t know how to respond to that though. I mean, how do you respond to someone saying that a cow having a calf is animal abuse? Are they the same people that say that chocolate milk comes from a brown cow? Some of them are and there was a poll that said 20% of people polled, said that chocolate milk came from a brown cow. So I think what needs to happen is there just needs to be massive education on where people’s food comes from and dairy farmers need to start engaging in that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So one of the places that food and milk comes from here is from your family.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, from our family. We make milk, it gets processed by a processor by our co-op Dairy Gold and it goes out to the stores, the milk that you drink, it goes into the ingredients you use to make your cakes, to do your things, it’s in the ice cream, it’s in the butter, it all comes from here.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean you’re just down the road from Olympia, and Tacoma, and Seattle, and Everett, and Bellingham to Portland, and Portland the other way. These people have to have some awareness that milk is coming from cows, don’t they?

Chris Doelman:
They know milk comes from cows, but they don’t know how, it’s that simple. And they think it’s been… large farms have been demonized as corporate dairy farming and I have yet to see a corporate dairy farm. Not anywhere that I’ve been.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, what would that even look like? I’m trying to think of-

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, a bunch of men in suits, I think, just running around-

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you wear a tie while you’re milking at this farm?

Chris Doelman:
No, obviously there are some… I believe size is important, we don’t want to get so large that we lose control over how we handle our people, our environment, our animals. So there is a sense of we need to make sure we are being good stewards of all of those things. So there is a size when maybe that’s too hard to do. I don’t know what that size is though.

Dillon Honcoop:
You mentioned the E word, environment?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s another one of the big criticisms is, “Well, you can’t have that many cows and protect the environment around where your farm is.” What’s your response to that and what do you guys actually do about that? You said earlier, that’s one of kind of, one of your key things is environmental sustainability.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, that’s right. We don’t look at our… So for those who don’t really know about cows, cows poop. That poop goes into a lagoon so you could-

Dillon Honcoop:
I can vouch for this, I’ve seen it.

Chris Doelman:
We use that poop to grow feed for those cows. So if you don’t have crowding and you have enough land base, you can use that manure as an asset to the environment not a liability. So manure makes the grass grow, if you don’t have the nutrients in the soil that comes from the manure, you’re not going to be able to have those green fields everywhere. You’re not going to be able to grow the stuff you need to grow, period.

Dillon Honcoop:
But what do you do to make sure that manure doesn’t end up in the Creek, in the river, in the bay [crosstalk 00:30:38]-

Chris Doelman:
That’s just having good farm practices, you just stay on top of when you spread your manure, how much you spread it on your fields. I think every farmer is given these nutrient management plans and understands when and where you’re supposed to spread your manure. Now there are times and there’ll be a bad actor here and there.

Dillon Honcoop:
So the state actually has a plan for how you-

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, you have to have a nutrient management plan in order to spread your manure. That’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
By state law?

Chris Doelman:
By the state, it’s the… the Department of Agriculture requires it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s not, you don’t just go put this stuff out wherever.

Chris Doelman:
You don’t just Willy nilly put manure wherever you want. I mean the farmers that I know, we all want to keep the environment as sustainable and as good as possible because it’s where we gain our… it’s how we feed our families. So we wouldn’t want to do anything that jeopardizes our environment, our water quality, none of that stuff because we drink the water. Of all the chances of ruining water quality, who is it going to affect? It’s going to affect me because I drink the water. I drink the water out of my irrigation line. I trust in our practices that much that I’ll drink water that comes right out of the well.

Dillon Honcoop:
So managing all of this environmental sustainability, how much of your time does that take up? How much of your brain space does it take to kind of keep your whole farm on track for this?

Chris Doelman:
Well, again, it’s something… it’s every day we’re thinking about what we’re doing with our manure because you need to make decisions daily and know every year is different, the weather causes you to adapt to it, you don’t control the weather. So every day you put some brain time into, “What are we going to do with our manure?” And you game plan it, just so you know, “This is what I’m going to do when I’ve got the crop off the field, and that, this and that.” But yeah, I’d say you invest a little bit of time every day to figure out what you’re doing with your manure at that time.

Dillon Honcoop:
So here you are a guy who had been working in tech in Vietnam and you’re back here in Washington State managing cow poop and milk.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, what am I doing with my poop today? I actually had that same thought while I was working for the tech company though.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can about imagine how that would have gone on.

Chris Doelman:
It wasn’t to the same [inaudible 00:33:24] but unless I ate some bad [inaudible 00:33:28] never mind I shouldn’t [inaudible 00:33:29].

Dillon Honcoop:
We won’t ask about Vietnam. Do you stay in touch with any of those people from kind of your previous life?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, a little bit. I do actually, yeah. I’ve made some good friends when I was in California and-

Dillon Honcoop:
I hope that’s okay for me to call it your previous life, but really that’s kind of what it seems like.

Chris Doelman:
No, I stay in touch, not as often, but as a farmer it’s… you don’t talk to a lot of people.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do they think? What do they say about all of this?

Chris Doelman:
So one of my friends from college actually, when I found out that… when I decided to make the move he goes, “You know what, that seems such a crazy jump for most people but I think that’s something, that seems right up your alley.” Because he ran a software company as well out of college and we had a common thing. And then when I told them I’m moving to the dairy industry, he’s like, “That seems such a far jump for people, but its seems right up your alley.” So he’s like, “I kind of expected that out of you.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So people have been supportive?

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, and most people are blown away that like, “Wait, what you ran a software company?” Or, I don’t dress a lot of dairy farmers, I still kind of carried that through. And so they’re usually more shocked that I am a dairy farmer if I said I worked in the tech sector.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you don’t quite fit the dairy farmers stereotype as far as the style?

Chris Doelman:
There certain things I do as far as how I dress.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the dairy farmers style that you don’t fit?

Chris Doelman:
I’m not going to say. Do you know the irony of it today is I’m wearing plaid, but I don’t have my Romeo’s on or my Wranglers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, you’re saying my Romeos and my Wranglers, do you own Romeos and Wranglers?

Chris Doelman:
No, I don’t actually.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so that’s where you don’t fit the stereotype.

Chris Doelman:
I joke. I joke. No, so one of the neat things that I think when… an interesting thing that I… revelation, was when I went to my first kitchen meeting and that’s a meeting where all the dairy farmers in the local area get to talk to the representative at the Co-op level, so Dairy Gold will hold a kitchen meeting.

Dillon Honcoop:
That sounds so like 1950.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, Oh, we’re meeting in a-

Dillon Honcoop:
Kitchen meeting.

Chris Doelman:
In some restaurant, it’s not an actual kitchen. But there’s country music playing loud, everyone rolls up in their big pickup trucks and you’re there and my first kitchen meeting, I’m coming from Vietnam and Orange County thinking about, there was… maybe I’m a little, I don’t want to say I’m arrogant, but there’s a sense of like, “Well, I don’t know what to expect, but I doubt any one of these guys had run a software company before.” And that sounds super-arrogant and I feel so terrible for having that thought. But there was a little bit of that in my head. I wouldn’t say it consumed me, but there was just that little bit and that got wiped away immediately. The first question asked by this group that you would look… if you would look over them and you weren’t… if you were pretty judgmental, you might think-

Dillon Honcoop:
A bunch of redneck farmers.

Chris Doelman:
That’s exactly right. That’s the first thought you’d think of. There’s a lot of plaid in this room. But the minute I heard their question, I’m like, “Oh, we are dealing with intellects, there are intellects here.” And they’re talking about markets, they’re talking… and these questions where we’re deep questions. They are not what you would as the general population think a farmer would ask.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t that part of the… one of the ingredients that that city person that you’re talking about who doesn’t really know, isn’t connected anymore with where their food comes from, that’s part that they aren’t aware of that these aren’t just people bumbling around like, “Ooh, here’s some milk, I guess I’ll sell it.”

Chris Doelman:
That’s exactly right, if these people were not… The dairy farmers that I’m in the room with right now, if they were not dairy farmers, they’d be CEO, CFOs, they’d be running their own businesses, they’d be doing these things. It’s amazing how… it’s just that they have the passion for farming and so they are dairy farmers. But they could be doing different things but we judge them because it’s different. It’s because we’re so disconnected from rural America.

Dillon Honcoop:
So maybe this is part of your nonjudgmental growth in not making snap judgments about people?

Chris Doelman:
Well, I definitely have learned that, that is definitely true. You feel like you’re kind of on the other side of it. I mean, I don’t want to say by any means that I equate it to what different people groups have had to deal with. This is just, “Yeah, I’m still a white male in a white male in a white male-dominated country.” But there is something about having a little bit of a chip on your shoulder because I am a rural farmer or get perceived as a rural farmer and the negative connotations that come with that. And so that puts a bit of a chip on my shoulder. But then I think, “How am I doing that to other people?” And so it really has caused me to reflect even more. Taking an even closer look on my prejudices, and how ineffective certain stereotypes are and it’s part of my growth.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for chatting with us. I really appreciate you opening up telling this whole story. It’s a good one, by the way.

Chris Doelman:
Yeah, I hope you can piece it together.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean with as many elements as you have going here, at least the start of a good book or movie or something with all these different worlds and coming back and the heartbreak of losing your mom and the kind of finding your place in this world back where you started after having gone kind of… is it a prodigal son story? Well, not quite a prodigal son story but-

Chris Doelman:
No, I didn’t run away and gamble away all my inheritance.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, we’ll still let you-

Chris Doelman:
I’ve got to do that stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, let us know when you’re done with that and we can update the story. Chris Doelman, Beaver Creek Dairy, Washington State family farmer. Thank you so much for chatting with us on the podcast.

Chris Doelman:
Thanks Dillon, I appreciate the time.

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