Juan Garcia part 2 | #023 05/18/2020

In what may be our most emotional episode yet, raspberry farm manager Juan Garcia opens up about his battle with alcoholism and dealing with a deep personal loss, all while growing some of the world's best red raspberries.

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
The people who grow our food have incredible stories to share. I mean, that’s the whole point of this podcast, right? But sometimes those stories aren’t even really directly about the food, but the things that go on, the human interactions that take place, the community that’s built and the relationships. Growing food, farming is a human process. It’s a family process. And it just struck me so much this week listening to this week’s conversation again, I got choked up I’m not going to lie, just listening back to it. We talk again with Juan Garcia. This is the second half of the conversation that I had with him.
If you didn’t catch it last week, that’s okay, you can still get a lot out of this week. But if you do want the full background of how he got to the point where we’re going to start here, last week has all the setup for that explaining the farm that he works for, the kind of stuff that he does. Here’s a guy who came from almost nothing, basically came in off the street to get a job at Rader Farms and now manages the entire farming operation there. And what that’s meant to him personally is crazy. And some of the struggles that he’s gone through battling with alcoholism and grappling with the death of his mentor and father figure, the owner and founder of the farm, Lyle Rader.
As you can expect here with these kinds of topics, it gets pretty emotional. So buckle up. This is the most emotional episode we’ve done yet here on the Real Food Real People Podcast. By the way, I’m Dillon Honcoop. Super glad that you decided to jump on board here, would really appreciate a follow on social media, on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter and subscribe too to make sure you don’t miss any future episode of the podcast. We’re on all the main podcast platforms out there. So whatever you like the best, or you could just go to realfoodrealpeople.org. But without any further intro, let’s get back into it.
Again, this is part two with Juan Garcia of Rader Farms. And I don’t know, you may need a box of Kleenex for this episode. I am serious about that. I’ve never gotten this emotional in an interview before, and there’re some things in here that I’ve never shared publicly before. So I hope you enjoy this conversation.
When was it that you realized you loved doing this whole farming thing? Or what was it, I guess maybe that caused you to be like, hey, this is really my thing.

Juan Garcia:
If I can go back and think, it was probably the first planting. When we actually started, we took on new property. This was, man, I can’t even put a year on it, probably about the third or fourth year. It was a new acquisition and just the intensity and the work of working the dirt and back down. I mean, now we got these GreenStar units on tractors and that thing goes down and a lot of the younger kids are probably going to be in a lot of trouble. Take plowing for example, you plowed long hours, you lose that straight away, you lose your straight point and it’ll take you about six hours to make up the difference.
You know what I’m talking about.

Dillon Honcoop:
I am.

Juan Garcia:
He’s laughing. But honestly, I think it was back the first year, it was a new field acquisition and it was just getting the infrastructure. It wasn’t like this field is already here, we’re going to add to it. It’s a brand new piece of dirt. And it’s what you made out of it from the irrigation to the infrastructure, all the infrastructure, the post, the trellis, the plants, the irrigation, and just seeing those plants start popping out and then wondering why that one’s not doing as good as this one. And then realizing that that row was not done by that same person. So there’s a difference in depth of the planting. That makes a huge difference.
So then you start figuring out, that first year we danced like, okay, next year, I got to make sure that everyone’s planning the exact same depth, which is nice about mechanization now, because that marker wheel, and it’s all going the same depth, but when a person’s doing it, there’s not that consistency. So I would say that that’s about the turning point where I said, “You know what? I can get pretty good at this, or I can enjoy this.” And one thing about farming is just stability. And we talked about it before is where I started from, where I came from, and the stability of having that job. And it’s, I mean, I’ve said it before and people say it all the time. If you love something, it’s not work.
A lot of people don’t get the fact that it’s true, going to work is not something you wake up like, “Oh my God, I’ve got to go planting.” It’s not the case. It really isn’t. And I can honestly say that a big part of the team that we have there on the farm feels the same way. It’s not a hindrance. It’s not clocking in and now, it’s, you enjoy it and you look forward to it because what you do today may not have an effect until next year or two years. So it’s, yeah, that would be it.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did it take to work so closely with Lyle? You talk about that and he almost became like a father figure, I guess that’d be another, when did you realize that he was kind of this mentor for you? Because Lyle knew so much and had decades of experience and he would communicate with you and he was a teacher, but he also had really high expectations. Because I knew him personally, not nearly as well as you did, but I know he was not a guy that was about messing around and just chewing the fat.

Juan Garcia:
Yeah, no, that’s true. But a lot of people didn’t see the other side of spending the time with him. So yeah, the one thing about even to the day, and we talk about numbers is running lean. I mean, people… I’m approached by employees say, “Hey, we’ve got this problem. Can we throw two or three people at it?” Well, that’s not how you solve something. It’s not fixing the problem by throwing more people or money at it. How can we improve on it? And Lyle was, he was one of those that would explain to you how to do the job and then turn and look at you and ask you twice, “Do you know what I mean?” I mean, he’s looking at you real close. “Do you know what I mean?”
And always, it was always, there’s no dumb questions. And through all the question asking, you start realizing and learning on why he accomplished. I mean, being vertically integrated from the point we got into the big Costco years ago. And that’s why earlier I touched on the point that it’s that thought process of how we approach these things by not throwing something at it, but by sitting there, say, take example of the planter. We’re planting early a lot of years ago, we’re planting raspberries. And I bet you that we adjusted one of those shanks about five and a half hours. One shank, there’s two row planter. We worked on one of them five and a half hours-

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Juan Garcia:
… and look at one row and then come back and then keep adjusting middle of the row. But you spend time with someone like that and it’s when that person passes that everything makes sense. And I’m not saying it’s unfortunate that that happened when he passed, but it was… A lot of us take a lot of things for granted. We take life for granted. We take time with our family for granted. We take so many things for granted. When he passed away, it was one of those things like, all right, obviously with Brad Rader being alongside with us, but we both learned under the same person. That’s when it really felt like, oh boy, now what are we going to do?
But then there was the majority of the times where you just ask yourself, what would he do? Would he sit on that tractor five hours taking that nut on and off? Five and a half hours adjusting it?

Dillon Honcoop:
Getting it right.

Juan Garcia:
So that approach goes a long way.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like when Lyle passed?

Juan Garcia:
I remember what we were doing. We were planting berries the first, we were going up the first six rows. One of the guys went out to the field and told me, and Javier and I were working together. And it’s one of those things where you, no, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
Couldn’t believe it would be true.

Juan Garcia:
No, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
This was totally unexpected, right?

Juan Garcia:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just like out of the blue.

Juan Garcia:
Yeah. There’s a big picture, we touched upon it before we turned the mics on. There’s a bigger picture that I think age makes you a little bit wise. You start seeing things differently. I mean, I got two boys and I hope that I set an example that they’ll follow. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy, but you carry on that. And that’s why I say [inaudible 00:11:33], people can’t see me right now, but I’m smiling because I know that what he taught us, it’s there. I mean, it lives on. It lives on. It doesn’t end. And then when we pass, you hope that the person that was working alongside you can remember some of the things that he taught me, that I taught them and they’ll teach the next guy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that was in the middle of planting when he passed away.

Juan Garcia:
We were on the first eight rows of that spring when he passed and it was a new variety of berries. So we were used to dealing with makers all the time. Now we got a new variety and the one guy who taught you the one variety is not there to help you with the second one. So it’s your job to figure it out.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what was it like on the farm in those… I guess I haven’t talked about this on the podcast before, but my dad actually got into raspberries because of his younger brother, my uncle, Rick. I don’t know if you knew my uncle, Rick.

Juan Garcia:
Yep. I did not know him, but I know of him.

Dillon Honcoop:
He was a wild man but he passed away from cancer. He died right in the middle of raspberry harvest. And I remember it was tough. And I remember seeing my dad cry, standing on a raspberry picker, which was bizarre. Never thought I’d see that.

Juan Garcia:
You think you-

Dillon Honcoop:
But that got him through it too because we had to keep on picking berries. There was no stopping, sorry, if I’m getting emotional here.

Juan Garcia:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s taking me back because that was formative for me as a kid, like what’s going to happen here? How’s my dad, my dad is up there weeping on a machine. And I know this small farm relies on him keeping this going. How are we going to do this?

Juan Garcia:
Now what?

Dillon Honcoop:
How are we going to do this?

Juan Garcia:
Now what? It’s the same. I mean, I can honestly say it’s the same because that person’s not there to help you anymore and it’s upon us just to carry on what their teachings are. And like I said, Brad Lyle, and Sue, that family, I owe a lot to. And I said it before, and I know and they’ve told me the same as, the feeling is mutual. He’s like, “Why is it… you’re part of us.” And when someone tells you that, you tell that person that you owe them a lot for the opportunity and they look you back and they tell you, “You helped us.”
But we keep going. I mean, it’s one of those things where you do it more and you try to do it better. I guess it’s, that man’s shoes, no one’s going to fill them. I can honestly tell you that right now, no one going to fill those shoes, no one’s going to pretend to. We can do things. I mean, we’ve done a lot of great things over the years. A lot of things that he did, why he did them, you tweak those a little bit here. You do this and you try that and you start seeing stuff pay dividends. And it’s not because of what you do, it’s what started back then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Juan, and what you say about Lyle living on through that farm even years after his passing, I mean, anybody can feel that within an organization, but in the case of Rader Farms, I can say that from looking from the outside, having lived basically next door to you guys my whole life, that that farm still has the marks of Lyle Rader all over it.

Juan Garcia:
It means a lot to hear you say that. It means a lot because it took all of us to continue that. You don’t worry about what people think or what’s being said. You don’t worry about those things. You just worry about what you can do. I mean, we provide a living for a lot of people. I mean, we provide good, honest, hard working jobs for a lot of people. A lot of people feel the same way. A lot of people appreciate that, but it’s, it’s just one of those. I mean, it’s a story that says, we can go on here couple hours just going on about just different days, different things that happened different… I’m running kids off the fields. There’s a guy who put the little quad through the field.
And I remember when I first saw him after a few years, I look at him and he says, “You remember me?” I said, “No, I don’t,” guy’s about six foot four now. I’m looking up at him. He said, “You used to run me out of your fields.” I said, “No, that was Lyle telling me to do it.” But even though the guy told me-

Dillon Honcoop:
You must have never caught me-

Juan Garcia:
[crosstalk 00:16:42]-

Dillon Honcoop:
You never ran me out of the field. But-

Juan Garcia:
It was hard catching you because I had to ride a bike all the way to pick up my Kim truck all the way up on the Haver Stick Farm. But no, we’ve been neighbors for a lot of years. We’ve had those 50 acres right behind you guys’ place for a lot of years. So you start seeing what Randy’s doing and now Randy’s seeing what we’re doing and he too, there’s another guy right there that’s very passionate about what they do. I mean, there’re so many people in this county in agriculture that are the same way and it’s pretty cool to see that because most people think like, well, you guys are top secret. And I say, “No, we’re all in this together.”
We all fight the same issues. We all fight the same battles so we communicate. A lot of the farmers in the raspberry industry, we talk, try to figure out ways to, whether it’s personnel or pest issues that we faced in the past few years, trying to get the timing right. That kind of deal. So we communicate, we talk a lot. There’s a lot of good people in this community

Dillon Honcoop:
Before we started recording here, you had mentioned to me at something that I didn’t know, that you’ve been sober for seven years.

Juan Garcia:
November six, seven years.

Dillon Honcoop:
I didn’t know that that had been a thing for you.

Juan Garcia:
A lot of people didn’t know. There’s a way of trying to mask pressure. There’s a way that people like myself thought, how I had to cope with things. And through the grace of God, with his help and my family’s support, it’s been nothing but a blessing to let that anchor go, to get that off of your shoulders and to see things clearly. That was one of the things when Mr. Rader passed away, that the weight of the world was on my shoulder. And there was a way that I had to cope with it even more. It wasn’t the right way. And I talk to people about it and I’m not embarrassed of it because a lot of us, there’s a lot of people that face that demon because that’s, I mean, that’s what it is. It’s a demon.
I was told back when I stopped that I was going to help a couple of people accomplish the same goal. And it’s come to fruition on a couple of close friends that I have. But definitely it was one of the biggest obstacles in my life. I mean, I look at obstacles nowadays, I mean, aside from what we’re going through in this great country of ours with… but there’s a lot of obstacles that you look at that I’m not afraid to take on, I’m not afraid to take on certain challenges where maybe a few years ago I was a little bit more timid because I had that on looking over my shoulder, not anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
But what was it like when you were drinking?

Juan Garcia:
It was not fun. It was not fun. It’s like when you just don’t like who you are and you got to make a difference. You got to make a change.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did it start? I mean, because a lot of people just have a few drinks, but when did it become a problem?

Juan Garcia:
Way before I stopped. Way before I stopped.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess there’s the issue when it actually became a problem and when you realized it was a problem.

Juan Garcia:
I think the more I look at it, it was a problem a long time. It wasn’t a certain date that it was a problem. It’s one of those things where you look now and like I said, a lot of the decision making that I make on the farm, I’m more concise, more clear and more, what’s the word I’m looking for? More confident in knowing that what we’re about to do is the right decision. I always tell the guys the same thing. It’s like, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do. And if something goes wrong, I’m jumping on that sword myself because this is my decision.” But it’s easier to make decisions and-

Dillon Honcoop:
You just said about confidence though. I think that’s interesting because that’s the opposite of what the stereotype is, is well, if you’re scared of something, you aren’t feeling confident, take a shot of liquid courage. Right?

Juan Garcia:
Yeah. I think that was the case back then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, you’re saying now that you’re on the other side of that, it was actually making you less confident.

Juan Garcia:
I think so. Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s interesting.

Juan Garcia:
I think so, because you don’t have that clarity, your mind is not in the right state of mind. Whereas now, or the last seven years, the biggest thing for me is not the work. The biggest, and I can’t put enough emphasis on it, is my family, is the relationship that I have with my family. And it’s going to take years to recuperate a lot of that time… Actually let me take that back. You’re not going to recuperate and you’re not going to be forgiven on one day, but every day that I wake up, every day that I wake up, I work on getting to the point where I can say my relationship with my boys and my wife is where it should be.
It may take the rest of my life and I may never accomplish man, but I can tell you one thing, every day I’m going to try. And it goes back to your work, why you enjoy it, why I enjoy what I do. And honestly, it’s my family. I love my two boys to death and I love my wife more than anything that words can explain. A wife looks at her husband and asks, “Why do you love me?” And I say, it doesn’t end. It doesn’t end. When I was working those hours, it was her taking me the lunches to my job, to the field. Her buying shoes so that my shoes weren’t worn out and I was comfortable doing the work that I did.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you meet her?

Juan Garcia:
It was in asparagus and I followed her here to Rader Farms. She worked on the berry pickers on little towns that Lyle had back in the day and I followed her up here.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were a couple already when you followed her or you were kind of like still chasing her a little bit?

Juan Garcia:
I was still chasing her a little bit. I was still chasing her, but she was working on the pickers and that’s the one thing I joke with Sue about it because I ended up being trucker in that same field that she was at. And by golly, that harvester was always unloaded on time, always on [crosstalk 00:24:05].

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m sure you looked good doing it.

Juan Garcia:
But no, we’ve been blessed.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re just another berry picker romance. [crosstalk 00:24:16]-

Juan Garcia:
There’s a lot of them I guess, no, but there’s no looking back. There’s no looking back. I mean, you can regret a lot of things, that’s not going to get you anywhere. It’s what I did this morning when I woke up, I told her I love her. She went to work for a little bit and she calls me on her way back, say, “What do you want to grab for lunch?” I’m like, “Well, I got a podcast I got to go to.” But no, she’s awesome. She’s been a great person. Great mother.

Dillon Honcoop:
The stuff you talk about with sobriety and struggling with alcohol. I mean, there’s a lot of people across a lot of different parts of our country, our culture that deal with this, but it’s not talked about very much in farming and it is a thing in farming.

Juan Garcia:
By the way, I didn’t know you were going to ask this and like I told you before, it’s not something that I’m embarrassed about. It’s not something that I’m ashamed of. It’s more of an accomplishment because it’s something that I was able to beat. And I still, you can say you fight it every day, but there’s that, there’re so many people that it affects. And it’s not just the alcoholic, it’s the children. It’s the wife. It’s the brother. I mean, it’s a tough thing to get over. And sometimes you wish that that person that’s fighting it can just maybe spend one day, not even a day, eight hours in my mind seeing what I see, seeing how I see things and how appreciative you are.
I mean, we were blessed to buy her first home last year, my wife and I, and our views are the same view you guys have at your place. It’s the Sumas Mountain, those little snow caps over there. And you wake up looking at that every morning and I don’t take it for granted. I don’t. And yeah, I’m at a loss for words right now. I hadn’t put much thought process into answering this question, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think it’s such a thing in farming? Because you know as well as I, there’s quite a few people who struggle with it, but nobody really talks about it.

Juan Garcia:
I think part of it has to do with because you have so many people dependent on you. I don’t sign the checks, I work for a farm. I don’t sign the checks, but it’s your decision making that a lot of people depend on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Pressure.

Juan Garcia:
Pressure, yeah, pressure. And it’s easy to cave into that drink to take some of that pressure off. But then again, the pressure is still there. The pressure’s still there. And I talk to a lot of people in the same industry and I’ve shared the story with a lot of people. It’s one of those things that you know is hidden, you know a lot of people face it. I mean, I have family members that still deal with it, but if you can reach out and just talk to someone and just have that person just look at life for a little bit through your eyes. And if you can just break that cycle for just a little bit of time and see that you can do without, it’s how you look at life I think it’s what it is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think nobody in farming wants to talk about it? Is it like a macho thing?

Juan Garcia:
I don’t know if it’s a macho thing. I don’t know. Dillon, I really don’t have the answer. I can answer any other question you throw at me, but I don’t have the answer to that one. I don’t know the answer to that one. I do hope that us discussing it and seeing some people would want to listen to this and go, “God dang, I didn’t know that.” A lot of people didn’t know that that I work with. I was functioning, I’d show up to work, but I hope that a lot of people listening, I hope it’s more than just the agriculture that listens to your podcast because I hope you do reach out to more people than just the farming community. And I know you do, man, I hope it reaches someone.
I mean, if you’re out there, I mean, I wish you nothing but the best. I can say all you need is just a little stint clarity to break away from that cycle and just to get the understanding that you can do without. And to the day, I mean, I’m around people that have drinks a lot, maybe I shouldn’t be because it’s something that you will always be. But again, it goes back to that confidence. I mean, my wife’s told me, she says, “You too damn stubborn to fail.” She’s damn right. So yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold, this whole farming thing? I know there’s lots of cool stuff happening, but at the same time, there’re big concerns especially with, and we were talking raspberries, that’s the world I grew up in. So I follow it close. I know there are people around here worried, like, I don’t know if we can keep doing this forever with prices the way they’ve been.

Juan Garcia:
There’s a lot of people that can’t continue with this. And that’s why I talk about being surrounded by good people, finding approaches to problems that don’t necessarily involve a lot of money. I mean, there’s things you can do to… I mean, you can’t control mother nature. You can’t control the climate. That’s for sure. But I think that’s one of those things where I look at it, not in an isolated way, but you just have to find ways to improve, meaning yield wise. I mean, plants are genetically set up to do only certain… There’s ways we were talking about, plant nutrition is a big one. That’s a big one in accomplishing way of yields.
I don’t know. I mean, you look at raspberry farming the next few years, the pincher you talked to, it doesn’t look good, but it doesn’t take away the inspiration to try to do good. I mean, the market’s one thing, I don’t have a lot of control over that stuff. I look at it, I wasn’t saying isolated, I’ll grow the berries the best we can, the cheapest we can, and get the highest yields which is kind of an oxymoron, both two of those things in the same sentence, but that’s not, it’s not easy. I mean, I don’t have the answer to answer your question. I don’t have any answer to where this is heading or I’m not going to put out doom and gloom stories, there’s already enough stuff for that out there.
I hope some of these subjects we touched on are positive subjects and a lot of people are indoors right now. I hope we made somebody’s day or make somebody think, I don’t have the answer to that one too.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about, you’re growing food that people all over the world eat, a lot of people in cities, a lot of people not connected with how you’re growing it. What do you think they need to know about what goes into it? I mean, because there’s a lot of voices out there and people saying, “You can’t trust the food that you eat.”

Juan Garcia:
I think what a lot of people need to look at it is that we’re all humans here. I mean, farming is not a thing. Farming is people. I think if I could make one point to that mindset is that farming is people. It really is people. And we touch more people than the people on the farm. I mean, this community, your huddle parts, your hardware store, your deli sandwiches that we grab sandwiches. I mean, there’re so many things that play a part in farming. It’s not just the farm itself. It’s a community. It’s the people. I mean, I’m not going to put my number out there, but it’d be more than happy to talk to people and put a little face to what people don’t see, because in a nutshell, that’s what we are.
We’re human beings, we’re people, we’re making a living or struggling to make living. But the inspiration is there. I mean, our work ethic is there. That is a pretty big challenge to get people to understand that it’s not just at the grocery stores. I mean, we touched on it earlier. The last day of harvest is what begins the next harvest. That’s true. I mean, the work doesn’t end. I’d be more than happy to talk a person with that mindset. I mean, there’re so many things that you can talk about. It doesn’t just show up at the grocery store. I’d be more than happy to talk to people.
I mean, if there’s any questions or even future on your podcast or you got a Facebook bait, I’ll join it and answer questions. It’s educating the people that don’t know, that have never been exposed to it. And that’s why we touched upon it earlier is that we opened a lot of… I mean, I’ve come across people down South in Bellingham and some of them you don’t recognize and “Mr. Garcia.” “Do I know you?” He’s like, “Yeah, I worked in your farm 12 years ago.” I’m like, “Oh man,” we had 300 people on the farm that year, but faces, you resume. But it’s always pretty satisfying when you come across that person that you met when they were in high school, worked on the pickers and then drove pickers, and then now they’re doing, maybe it’s not farming. Maybe it’s any other job that they’re at.
But just to know that you touched those persons in a certain way, that they remember what agriculture was like and have a greater appreciation for what you do. So if you could just touch one or two person, I mean, it’s going to take a long time, longer than I’ll be around, but we’ll make a difference. We’ll make a difference.

Dillon Honcoop:
Juan, thanks for agreeing to do this and open up. I know I’ve asked you a lot of personal stuff, but your story is pretty powerful.

Juan Garcia:
No, I appreciate you having me, Dillon. And like I say, thanks for everything, for the time. And we’ll keep farming.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Every time I listen back to that conversation, it gets to me in a little different way. And there are different points that cause me to, woo, get a little bit teary eyed. And maybe it’s just because of my own story, but it’s also, I don’t know, when you’re talking with like Juan who from a distance, you would assume that he’s a big guy, tough guy, farmer. It’s just, I don’t know. It gets me when somebody like that really opens up and you find the broken yet inspiring and optimistic stuff inside them. What an incredible conversation. And if you like conversations like this, I urge you to go back. If you haven’t heard them all before, go back to our first episode, catch up or pick some of our previous episodes.
We have a bit of a collection going now. I think this is number 23 and certainly subscribe then to catch future episodes. Because this is what we do. We share real human stories here as it relates to the people who produce your food. Where our food comes from is so important and a lot of that has to do with something I think is even more important, who our food comes from. And I am on a journey… By the way, I’m Dillon Honcoop. Again, this podcast is documenting my journeys all over Washington State to hear these real personal stories of the people growing our food. I want to reconnect with the people behind the food that we eat. I mean, food is personal and how can it really be what it’s meant to be unless we know those people who are growing it and bringing it to us?
So thank you for your support. Thank you for subscribing to the podcast, following us on social media, and visiting our website, realfoodrealpeople.org. And of course, thank you to our sponsors as well. We wouldn’t be able to do this without them. We’ll see where this goes with the world of COVID. It’s been more of a challenge being able to get around and interview people in the far reaches of this state like I was doing earlier on, but I want to get back to that. So hopefully that happens soon. In the meantime, please stay safe, stay healthy, and be careful out there. And we will be back with another episode 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, find them online at safefamilyfarming.org, and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Jessica Newhouse | #008 02/03/2020

Despite facing major health problems, Jessica Newhouse remains passionate about continuing her family's century-old dairy farm in Eastern Washington. She opens up about her journey from growing up in what she calls the "concrete suburbs" of Portland to becoming a family farmer near Yakima.

Transcript

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And they basically open and remove part of the bony projections on your individual vertebrae to make room for these titanium rods that stretch from, like I said, the base of my neck to about my waist.

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

Dillon Honcoop (host):
She’s faced major health problems and still battles chronic pain, but continues to keep supporting her family’s century-old dairy farm. This week I talk with eastern Washington dairy farmer Jessica Newhouse about her journey from her childhood in what she calls the concrete suburbs of Portland, Oregon to farming with her husband and has family near Yakima. Her passion for what she does, and her determination to overcome huge obstacles is so inspiring, and I’m sure that you’ll enjoy our conversation as we continue to get to know the real people behind our food. I’m Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a family farm in northwest Washington and I’m on a mission to discover and share the real life stories of our region’s farming community here on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I started 2019 pregnant, and all the sudden in February, I started getting nerve pain in my legs and pretty soon it got to the point where I wasn’t able to pick up my toes on my right foot. It started progressing and I started getting more weakness in my right leg, and then it started going to my left leg, and my surgeon … Everybody just has a surgeon that they talk to, right? I have a outstanding issue of scoliosis, and so when I was pregnant, he was saying, “Well, it could be nerve entrapment from your bones just carrying the weight of your pregnancy.” He’s like, “So we might need to do this surgery that we’ve been contemplating while you’re pregnant.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yikes. Scary.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I was like, “Okay, that’s not just me. That’s my unborn child going through surgery.” Then things started progressing really fast, and so they … I don’t know how much detail you want to go into, but-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Whatever’s good for you.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, and so he wanted me to come in for an emergency MRI, so I had a two-and-a-half-hour MRI, which that zaps so much energy out of you, just trying to lay still. And so at that time, with things the way they were progressing, they thought it was Guillain-Barré, which is an autoimmune disorder. So they moved away from my spine and started suspecting Guillain-Barré, which apparently affects pregnant women a lot. And so that’s an autoimmune condition where your nerve cells biochemically have a similar signature to the common cold, and then it starts attacking your nerve cells so you progressively start losing nerve function in your body. We were literally in the ER in Pasco and they said to us, they said, “Well, don’t go anywhere. We’re going to see where we can transfer you,” and I was like, “I’m going home. I came here for an MRI,” and I’m pregnant and I’m freaking out.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
No kidding.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Meanwhile my husband’s eating Panda Express just like, “We’re going to take it as it comes.” I was like, “Okay.” But anyway, they thought it was Guillain-Barré, and so they discharged us from Pasco and said, “Here’s your transfer paperwork.” They hadn’t told us Guillain-Barré yet, but they said, “You need to drive up to Spokane right now, to Sacred Heart. If you start feeling like you can’t breathe, pull over and call 9-1-1.” And-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You’re kidding me. And you’re like, “Why aren’t you hauling me in an ambulance?”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Well, they wanted to fly me to Seattle, but insurance didn’t want to cover it and we didn’t have flight insurance. That would be $40,000.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Oh man.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So we were like, “Screw it, we’ll drive.” And meanwhile, I’m sitting there going, “This is an episode of Dr. House, the show from …” And I was like, “I can’t feel my legs.” That’s such a common thing on that show and I’m like, “What is happening to me?”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So we get to Spokane and I was in a room, seeing a physician. I couldn’t move anything lower than my hips, so they’re like, “We need to get you to ICU and start this treatment.” Meanwhile, I’m 16 weeks pregnant and they’re saying, “If you start feeling it in your thumbs and then in your fingers, the next thing to go is going to be your ability to breathe so then we would need to intubate you.” So I’m trying to process all of this information in less than 24 hours.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So then we go down to ICU and they’re prepping the treatments and everything. Treatment only takes a week, maybe two, but because it progresses so fast and they don’t know to what extent it will progress to, they were like, “You could be in the hospital nine months, just relearning how to walk and how to do basic things.” So I’m trying to process all this. We’re in ICU about to do the treatment, and there’s, like, seven doctors standing around me going, “Hmm, huh, hmm.” And one of them says, “Let’s do a nerve conduction study in her legs just to make sure before we start this.” And I remember looking at them going, “Yeah, I vote for that option.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So they do a nerve study and they find that my nerves are able to receive the appropriate signal, and from the MRI, they’re seeing that my brain is able to send the appropriate signal, but for some reason, it’s like the signal was being transmitted and the receivers were going, “Where’s the signal?” but they were just on different planes. So I spent a week in Spokane at Sacred Heart, and then I spent a week in Spokane at St. Luke’s doing physical therapy right alongside people that had just had a stroke or an embolism of some kind, basically doing the same thing that they were doing, which is just relearning how to walk and retraining those nerves to fire again

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So what was it? It wasn’t this Guillain-Barré thing?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No. They say that it was a … How did they put it? They said it was a conversion disorder. So that for some reason, there was some stress or trigger that triggered my brain with the excess stress that my brain couldn’t handle. My brain, instead of just saying, “Hey, I’m really stressed, I’m really anxious,” it says, “No, we’re just going to quit doing this function.” Apparently it can happen with walking. If people get super stressed, they can go blind with conversion disorder.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s just this unexplained chemical but physical miscommunication.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Is it super rare?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I don’t know if it’s super rare. I mean, I guess it’s not rare because at St. Luke’s where I was at, they have a whole unit for conversion disorder.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s not like they see one every day, but …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So had you been under a huge amount of stress? Or was it something to do with pregnancy, or …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think the only huge stress at that point was contemplating, “Okay, I might have to have major spinal surgery when I’m pregnant.” I think that was a huge part of it. I don’t want to cast blame or anything, but I think a lot of it was work, too. You’re trying to … with a … Gosh, what was he? One and a half at that point? A one-and-a-half year old an then trying to raise him and balance family and work. Then you’ve got your own structural anomalies that you’re trying to handle, and yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So yeah, what was going on … I mean, you say work. That means the farm.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right, the farm.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What was going on at the farm at that time?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, what isn’t going on? Well, it was right after the blizzard, so that was all right around the beginning of February, so it was right after that big blizzard, freak snowstorm that we had, so we were handling that. A lot of it was a lot … Our dairy farm is … How do I correctly phrase this? We are the longest continually family-run dairy in the Yakima Valley. 101 years now, maybe it’s 102. So I think my husband and I feel this huge pressure to do what we love but also maintain this farm that has lasted for so long. We really like to call it a legacy farm, not that we like to tout ourselves, but …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So yeah, the farm itself, I think, is in a little bit of a transition with the owners currently reaching an age where they’re … I don’t think talking about age or potential retirement is comfortable for anybody.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, for sure.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So I think it’s this situation where we’re needing to navigate that, and what happens to the farm because of that. Meanwhile, we keep going and we keep doing what we need to do.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Does that freak you out?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It does. It does. Sometimes it feels like this David and Goliath kind of situation. You feel like you’re kind of sitting here going, “Okay, I really like cows. I really like to milk cows. I really like being a dairy farmer.” And then you look at this oncoming wave of, okay, there’s societal pressures, there’s economic pressures. Does what I see for the farm jive with what the current owners see for the farm, and how do we navigate this and find a balance with those and then see at our current size, will we be able to survive with everything getting more expensive? It’s a whole host of things.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So how does the arrangement work with the owners, and how did you guys … You and your husband, you’re both involved with the farm, right?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yes. Yeah. He’s more of the handyman. He’s not purely a handyman, but he … If anything breaks, that’s usually … If one of our employees come to me and says, “Hey, this is broken,” if it’s not a simple plug and go, I call him and he goes and fixes it. He’s really technically savvy. I am human resources and then cow records. So basically, anything clerical for the farm with the exception of payroll and taxes, that’s me. I like to get out with the cows more, as much as I can, but all the-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
If you do, what do you do with the cows?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We move cows. I basically help train our employees how to understand how a cow sees her world and be able to effectively communicate with them.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You can talk to cows?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Well, not talking. But, I mean, you can. I mean, I call them … So whenever I move cows, like if I’m helping some guys milk in the barn, I usually call them sis or mama. Because being a mom, I understand. But yeah, no, a lot of it is understanding how she sees … so how she literally sees and how she hears her world and paying attention to those physical cues for her. Because you can move … And it’s all about asking a cow how to move. You’re not telling, you’re not demanding. You are asking her, and just by standing there with your hands in your pockets and if you’re just paying attention to how she’s using her senses to view her world, you can ask her to do things and she’ll do what you would like her to do.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Like move.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, like move forward or move backwards. It’s all about applying … just your presence next to her, if positioned correctly, invokes pressure on her “bubble.” Every cow as this comfort bubble, and if you move-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Every human does, too.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. Some are larger than others.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Some are a little too small, the close talkers.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right. I know a couple of those.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Are there cows that are like close talkers?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. Some cows are like, “Hey, I’m going to share my opinion with you,” and others are like, “Nah, you stay over there. We’re good.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So how did you get to be in this position on this farm? It’s not your farm. You don’t own it.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, no, no.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So how did both you and your husband end up there?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Well, my husband’s been … if he were here, he would probably correct me … but I think since he was 10 he was working on the farm. I don’t know when he started getting paid, but I know that he started working on the farm …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I know how that goes.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. So he’s been working on the farm since he was a kid and we actually met up at WSU in Pullman. I grew up in Portland. I like to call it the concrete suburbs, where your neighbor was literally close talking right next to you, you lived that close with each other.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you didn’t grow up on a farm.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Absolutely not. No. And I never thought I would end up here, but I love it. I absolutely love it.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you meet at WSU.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You meet this farmer guy who’s now your husband, and how does it go from there?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh gosh. We knew each other in our Animal Science 101 class. We were at the sheep lab and there’s this pen with this one ram, which is a male sheep, for lack of a better term. And so they asked for two volunteers and he hops in … and I feel so bad saying this, but he hops in and I’m like, “Man, this guy needs help.” So I just hop in there with him. You have to understand, I had sat in the front of the class for all the lectures. He was in the back making wisecracks, just kind of paying attention, and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go in and help this guy.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So we get in the pen … and I don’t know whether you want the PG version or whether you want the little more scientific analytical version of this. Anyway. So the lab director says, “Do you know what you’re doing today?” And my husband says, “No, you haven’t told us yet.” And that’s when I knew. I was like, “This guy’s quick. He puts things together really fast in his head.” And he said, “Well here, take this tape measure.” So he gives my husband the tape measure. Meanwhile, this ram is still standing here. And I can see the writing on the wall, what we’re doing, and my husband takes the tape measure, he’s like, “So what are we going to do?” And the lab leader says, “You’re going to measure the reproductive efficiency of this ram by measuring his testicular circumference.” I’m like, “Okay, we’re doing this.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And so my husband … my non-boyfriend at the time … looked at the tape measure and looked at me and then just without a word hands me the tape measure.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you didn’t even really know each other at all?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, we didn’t know each other at all. We knew of each other, but we didn’t know each other.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And here you are about to measure a sheep’s … together.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, private parts. And he looks at the tape measure, looks at me, and without a word just hands it to me. And I’m like, “All righty. I guess we’re doing this.” So he basically then volunteered to just hold the ram, make sure he wasn’t going anywhere, and I got on my hands and knees and did the dirty work. Then I think it was either that day or the next day that he knew some people that lived on my floor in the dorm and he brought over a Costco lasagna and I kind of crashed their party, and then we just started hanging out from then on. Then, gosh, over time it evolved into … He started working at the Dairy Center at WSU and then I quickly followed suit and started working there. Then he started living there in the apartment above the parlor, so when I would finish with calf chores and it was so cold in the winter, I knew I had a place. I was like, “Okay, I can go upstairs and I can cuddle and get warm before my first class.” So there were perks to that.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
This is before or after you were official?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We were dating at the time.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Oh, okay.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We were officially dating. It was Facebook official. But no, so … gosh. So then we worked there together and then we got engaged a year before we graduated. At that time, we both … I think it was kind of unspoken at first that we were going to come back to the dairy. He kind of told me after we started dating, like, “Hey, my family has a dairy farm.” And by that time, I knew that I wanted to be in dairy. I didn’t go to WSU thinking that I was going to be in dairy. When I was growing up, I always felt more connected with animals than I did with people. Not that I’m not a people person, I love people, but I just felt like I had a stronger comfort level with animals.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So I knew from early on that I wanted to go to vet school, and my dad and my uncle and my grandpa all went to Oregon State, and my personality is, “Oh, well if you guys are all going to do that, I’m going to do the exact opposite. I just need out. I need to go somewhere else.” And so on an offhand comment, somebody had said, “Oh, WSU up in Pullman has a great vet school.” I’m like, “Sold, sign me up. Go.” And it was the drive up there when I was going to move up to the dorms that I realized, “Oh, there’s nothing out here.” I’m like, “What did I do?”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
But I moved in and I was so naïve in a way. We started classes and I was like, “I’m going to work on cats and dogs.” If, by all means, that’s what you want to do and that’s what you want to go to vet school for, awesome, super. WSU’s a great place for it. But then the … I guess I should have gone the biology route maybe if I-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Because you started getting into the science.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, because we went into animal science and I think one of the first labs that we did was at the dairy farm there in Pullman and I don’t know, I just got hooked.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So when you say, “the dairy farm,” that’s WSU’s?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
WSU has a dairy farm, not Dairy Center. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And so that’s where students run the whole thing, basically told.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Basically, yeah. It’s-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Learn the trade and try different stuff and …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, yeah. It’s a Dairy Center that WSU has had for … oh gosh, I don’t know how long. Decades. And then the milk from all of the cows at WSU goes to the creamery there on campus, so they make …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So that-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
… Cougar Gold cheese and the Ferdinand’s ice cream and all that good stuff.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Somebody hasn’t had Cougar Gold before.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Who? You?

Dillon Honcoop (host):
No, I’m saying if someone has.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, if someone hasn’t.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
They need to go out and find themselves … I think you can order it online or something.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
You can order it online.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You got to try that.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I want to-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Stuff is incredible.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I want to say we actually … In the dorms, you have this dining hall account, and if you have any surplus at the end of the year, it goes poof, it disappears, or you can use it up. All the sudden, my boyfriend at the time, my now husband, comes in and he’s like, “I bought 16 cans of Cougar Gold.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Wow.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And we still have them in our fridge six, seven years later, so they age really nice.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, what’s it like-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So if you want a can before you leave, you can.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s it like after it’s aged that long? Does it get sharper and sharper?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think so. I think a little bit. I think it depends on what variety you’re putting in there that’s in the can. I don’t know if Crimson Fire, which is a more spicy version of one of the cheeses that they make … I don’t think it gets spicier. I think it just gets more sharp, but it’s really good. It’s really good.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So going way back to the health stuff, you had this nerve thing going on. They figure out it’s this … Now, what was it called again?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
They figure out that it’s not Guillain-Barré.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Right it was a-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And that it was the conversion disorder.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Conversion disorder.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Was there any risk to your still-in-the-womb baby at that point?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No. No, that was purely just me.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So what were they saying about the pregnancy at that point? Everything was good?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, she was doing fine. And so after spending two weeks up in Spokane, came home and they said, “Oh, well this should never happen again,” and I’m like, “Excellent, great. Cross that off the bucket list.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yuck.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And so we come home and just get back to work and doing everything, and she was due in July, I think. Then I went in … Fast forward months and months and months and our daughter ends up showing up six weeks ahead of schedule. Our big thing at that point was that her lungs were well enough developed that she could breathe on her own. And Lord almighty, did she come out screaming. So that’s when I knew. I’m like, “Okay, lungs are good. I don’t know what else is wrong, but lungs are fine.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So yeah, she was on room air. She didn’t need supplemental oxygen at all. Her main hurdle in getting released from the NICU was just learning how to eat. She was in a huge rush to get here, and then we spent 44 days up in the NICU. Month and a half.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
44 days in the hospital.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Or jail, depending on how you want to look at it. That is one of the … yeah, one of the hardest things.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What was that like? That has to be brutal.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Brutal, brutal. It was hard for me and it was hard for my husband, too, because she just wasn’t real. She’s real to the point where you’ve had your baby, they let me hold her for a couple minutes before they had to take her to the NICU, and then I could hold her afterwards, but she just didn’t feel real. I mean, you prep your home and you think, “Oh, the crib’s ready, the sheets are on it, everything’s ready to go,” and you have your baby and then you come home and your baby’s not here. And you’re just sitting here going, “Wait, where’s my baby?” And it was hard-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So she was in the NICU …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Correct

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… in Tri-Cities 45 minutes away, and you were having to come home.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I would go every day. I’d try to be there for .. I would take our son to daycare, and that’s where he normally went so that I could go to work. I would take him to daycare, drive 45 minutes to go see her, be there for two or three feedings, and then be back in time to pick him up and then come home, and then do it all over again 44 days in a row.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Who was covering all your stuff on the farm?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
My husband. It got him out of harvest equipment. He got to be the office lady for a little bit. He liked it. But-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And who took care of the harvest equipment, then?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Our dairy’s a unique situation where we dairy, but we also do custom harvesting. So for our own cows, we harvest 1000 acres randomly dispersed throughout the area, and it grows corn, we grow alfalfa, we grow triticale. I don’t think we grow any other form of grass. And so we do that. In spring and in fall, we have to harvest our own feed for our own cows, milk cows day in and day out. There’s no seasonality in that. And then we do custom harvesting for other farms, too.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So your daughter was born super early, but that wasn’t it for 2019 and its health issues for you, right?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No, no. So-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
The punches kept coming.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, yeah. It was crazy. When she came home, I did a few weeks with … I think I was home with our son for two, maybe three months. He was actually coming to the dairy with me and I would actually clear off a bunch of records off my desk and he would sit in his little chair on my desk. And talk about … I have a boss. I mean, my boss is my father-in-law because he’s the owner. But talk about somebody staring at you being like, “Are you going to get your work done today?” A two month old just kind of doing nothing, staring at you. But he ended up going to daycare so I could work full time, and so with our daughter being technically a preemie … a healthy preemie, but a preemie … I stayed home with her for a few weeks, and then I was like, “I need to get back to work. I can’t do this. I love you but I need to get back to the cows.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
So then we went back to work and I started having a lot of pain that I had had after our son was born, a lot of the nerve pain and a lot of pain right in my hip. I was like, “Great, this pain is back.” And going backwards, after my son was born, they found that my lowest lumbar vertebrae is compressing the inner vertebral disc … kind of the spongy cushion that it shares with my sacrum … and so that disc was pushing on my sciatic nerve, causes the sciatica. So I had-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Not a nice thing, if anybody’s experienced that kind of pain.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, no, it’s like fire just running through your legs. So I had an epidural steroid injection for that, which relieved the pain, and then I got pregnant. Then with the limited real estate of the human body, everything kind of went, “Okay, we’re going to stay in this position because we have to carry a baby.” So then when our daughter was born, everything had more room to relax and loosen, so then all that pain started coming back. So I had another X-ray done, thinking that we would have another injection, only to find out that my scoliosis has gotten a lot worse, which opened a whole other host of issues.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Now, scoliosis, that’s something you find out you have when you’re a kid, right? If I remember.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I think it was fifth grade, they were doing scoliosis screening …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, and see, they never-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… and this awkward thing where you had to take your shirt off and they had to look at your back and it’s like, okay.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I think thy gathered everybody up in the gym for that and they’re like, “Hey, everybody …” obviously boys with boys and girls with girls. But I had been complaining of really low back pain. Usually it’s not symptomatic and you start noticing a difference in shoulder height or a difference in where your waist falls compared to your left side versus your right side. And if you bend over, typically you have what they call a rib hump, which is … So scoliosis is really a three-dimensional problem. It’s where the vertebrae that make up your spine curve, and then they also twist and rotate, so it’s a three-dimensional issue. The rib hump comes from the third dimension, which is the twisting of your vertebrae. So as your vertebrae twist off center, they rotate and twist your ribcage off center, which makes it look like a hump on your one side.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
We found out when I was in sixth grade, and at that time the curves were not bad enough that they wanted to do surgery right away, so I wore this rigid torso brace for all summer. Still insisted on doing horse camp, so I was riding horses while wearing this rigid torso plastic brace. But despite all that, my curves kept getting worse, so that’s when they said, “You’re going to need surgery.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What was that like at 12 years old, to have that?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I was actually, coincidentally, having this discussion with my mom last night as I’m prepping for this next surgery. I don’t know how much you can really tell a 12 year old at that point. You don’t want to keep them completely blind from the situation because it’s their body and they have a right to know, but I remember thinking, “I’m getting filtered answers to my questions because they don’t want to scare me.” And I’m like, “Well darn it.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Were you scared? Was there any sort of fear with that?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think there was. I think it was the unknown. In a way, being naïve and not knowing what it was going to be like on the other side was kind of a blessing, too.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Totally.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think at first … I remember being in the car with my mom when they diagnosed me and we were headed home, because I hadn’t been to my pediatrician for years because I was so healthy. And that’s, I think, my parents’ one big regret is they were like, “We should have been taking you in even though you weren’t sick. We should have been taking you in for yearly checks.” It just wasn’t something they thought of. But I remember being in the car when I was first diagnosed and saying to my mom, “All the kids are going to make fun of me.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
That was the second thing I was thinking about, was first being scared about it and secondly, I remember being so painfully insecure at that time in my life.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, going into middle school.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It’s just brutal.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Leaving sixth grade … I mean, this was at a time where I was leaving elementary school and going into middle school and I was like, “Yeah.” Then all of a sudden this happens and I’m like, “Oh, wait.” When you see these subtle differences that scoliosis gives … unless it’s really severe and really progressive, really fast … it’s hard to notice. Unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s hard to notice. So it was one of those situations where I’m sure looking back on it, once I knew that I had it and I stared at myself in the mirror, I’m like, “Oh, this is so obvious. Everybody’s going to see it.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Right, because you’re keyed in on it.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right, exactly. But yeah, I was talking with my mom last night and gearing up for this next surgery. I was thinking, “Do you remember me being scared at all that morning going into it?” She’s like, “No, you were really quiet. You were just kind of like, ‘Okay, if we got to do this.'” I mean, there was an option not to do it, but for my long-term health, there was no option. And in surgery, they are … I don’t know if this is a correct term, but filet would be a good term. I mean, my scar runs from … depending on where your curve is, it runs from the base of my neck to about to where my waist is, and they basically open and remove part of the bony projections on your individual vertebrae to make room for these rods, these titanium rods that stretch from, like I said, the base of my neck to about my waist.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And they put screws in your vertebrae with hooks and then … It’s so medieval describing this, but have these rods attach to these hooks to force your spine to straighten. Then they took part of my iliac crest … which is the top portion of your hip … made this kind of paste or jelly, and then basically stuffed it in between all those vertebrae.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
To encourage those bones to fuse together into one long column of bone, essentially. So by the end of that, I think that surgery was 10, 11 hours long and I was two inches taller getting wheeled out as opposed to going in.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Wow.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
And then between 2003 and 2019, my lumbar … so the curve unfused beneath my current hardware … has gone from 20 to 40. So we’re a little back to where we started, maybe a little worse.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And that’s what’s been causing you so much pain?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s the pain like?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh gosh. It depends. I mean, the sciatica is constant. With more aggravated kind of activities … so bucking hay and moving cows and milking cows … I know that I’m going to hurt later.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Are your legs feeling like they’re on fire right now sitting here talking?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh yeah. Yep.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. And it’s a different kind of pain sitting versus standing or standing versus walking. Essentially, the only pain-free avenue that I have is laying down watching Netflix. So …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, at least there’s that.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, there’s that.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But seriously, you’re a pretty happy person most of the time when I’ve seen you. If I was in pain all the time, you wouldn’t want to talk to me because I would be so just grumpy and angry all the time.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, my wick is short. And that was kind of one of our reasons for doing this surgery now. My husband was like, “This is not long term, not sustainable.” The pain already limits me in what I physically can do, and just when you’re in pain, you’re crabby. You’re just not happy. I mean, you’re happy but your tolerance for different things gets shorter and shorter. At this point, it’s a self-preservation technique. We know that unless this new fusion happens, my spine will continue to do wild and wonky things come heck or high water. That’s just the nature of the beast. And so if I know it’s only going to get worse, why not go through three or four months of trial and tribulation to solve the problem once and for all.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, that’s what I was going to ask. How bad is it going to be?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I’m hoping that the pain will be less than the first time. I remember waking up delirious from pain meds the first time, screaming at my parents, “Take them out, take them out, take them out,” because it’s like you’re being stretched. Your body is forced to being stretched. So I’m hoping that it is better this time. I would hope that pain mitigation in hospitals has come a long way in 16, 17 years. But yeah, it’s going to be around three to four months of no bending, lifting, or twisting. So anything as far down standing up or sitting down as far as I can reach versus as far as I … in both directions, that’s what I’m going to be limited to, which means no picking up my baby off the floor, no dishwasher.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Will you be able to hold her at all?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I’ll be able to hold her if somebody gives her to me. I’ll basically sit here and say, “Hey, could you hand me my baby, please?” Which will be hard. But I would rather do this when the kids won’t remember, so that when they get older and they want me to teach them soccer or swimming or anything like that, that I’ll have limitations but I’ll be pain free.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Are there risks going into this surgery?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, for sure. For sure. Unlike my first surgery, this surgery will involve removing the cushion, the gel-like cushiony discs between each vertebrae. And so to do that, they have to go through the front, so anterior through my belly. The risk with that is that your aorta and your vena cava, the two largest veins and arteries in your body, lay right on top of your spine right in that area. So there’s a big risk of you can bleed out and you can die.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Like if they make a wrong move and-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
If somebody had one too many cups of coffee that morning and they get a little jittery and …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You laugh, but that’s scary.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
What can you do, though? What can you do? I’m trying to look at this … I am a firm believer that your attitude going into something like that is a huge determining factor for what your success is afterwards. If I go into this thinking, “My life is over. I’ll never be able to do this and do that,” then I’m going to come out a victim and I choose not be a victim. Will I have limitations? Yeah. Are they insurmountable? Well, I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to paint my toenails for the rest of my life, but I-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Really?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I mean, all of my bending … because I will be extending that metal in my back all the way down to my pelvis, and then six-inch screws in each side of my pelvis to preserve my hips … my bending will be limited to basically a deadlift. I will be deadlifting everything for the rest of my life.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s that going to mean for the farm and what you do on the farm?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I don’t know. I don’t know. I mean, a lot of my job right now is being behind a desk, so I don’t think it’ll change that aspect as much. I think I will have more of a … like we were talking about, bubbles. I think I’ll have a bigger bubble around myself as far as, okay, I need to protect myself in these certain situations, like-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Like if you’re out with the cows?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah, if I’m out with the cows or if I’m in a pen with cows, I probably won’t be letting myself shimmy between a cow and a fence really fast. I need to protect what I’ve worked so hard to have. My husband and I call cows … they’re like giant cats. They’re really, really curious. Cows are so interesting because they’re curious yet they’re timid. I just love cows. I’m such a nerd. I just love cows.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
When did you realize that, that you loved cows …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh man.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… that you were a dairy farmer? Here, a kid who grew up in the suburbs of Portland.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh man. It has to be when we first visited the dairy farm at WSU. My first very vivid dairy memory was we would always go to church on Sunday and then we’d go grocery shopping. It was, like, a block away. So we’d go and get our groceries, and I always knew when we were getting to the dairy aisle, not because I saw the milk case in the dairy section, but above the milk case, there was this mural of these green hills and a red barn and a nice, sunshiny sky, which is awesome, and these cows. Then there were these cow butts above the milk case and the tails would wag. And so my first very vivid dairy memory was, “This is where milk comes from.” Yeah, the cows are right there and it just plops … As a five year old or whatever, you’re like, “This is where milk comes from.”

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s just so funny to think that … Oh man. Do I have to admit how old I am? However many years later that I went from consumer to producer and consumer. So it’s awesome.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You see you doing this for the rest of your life?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. Lord willing. It’s hard. It’s hard right now. There’s a lot of pressures from a lot of different angles that make it hard.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
How many cows do you guys have?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Right now, we milk about 850. We have right around 150 dry cows, so cows that are about two months away from calving. We give them a two-month break from producing milk, just to let them recharge and reboot their batteries and that kind of stuff. Milk 850, 150 are dry. As far as replacements … So our herd of heifers, so any calf that’s an hour old up to a heifer who isn’t producing milk yet that’s just about to have her first baby, we have probably about 1000 head. It’s a year-round, day in, day out, keep on keeping on kind of system, so …

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What about your kids? If things continue to go … I would say well, but I know how the good days and bad days all the time with farming. If things continue to go forward with the farm, are you going to encourage them to do that?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, for sure. For sure. I don’t think that my husband had any outright pressure to come back to the farm. I think both of my in-laws made it very clear to him, “We want you to go to school. We want you to discover what your calling is, and if it happens to be the farm, then great. Come back.” But I think he for himself felt a very strong pull to come back to the farm.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So he’s passionate about it.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh, for sure. Yeah, yeah, for sure.So I think with our kids … We haven’t really talked about that. We’re just trying to survive toddlerhood. It’s-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I hear that. I have-

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
That is a day in, day out, keep on keeping on.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I have toddlers.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. It’s crazy. But no, we would definitely … I think our goal with our kids is to encourage hard work. I feel like going through that is one of the huge differences I see in my husband and I. He grew up working, I did not. I got my first job when I was 15. He had already been working for five years. He was already saving up money for his first car. There’s just regional and for whatever reason differences in how kids are raised. I am so thankful for how I was raised with my parents, but in a way, I wish I could do it all over as an ag kid. There’s just such a hardworking, down to earth work ethic that I admire, and that even though I did not grow up an ag kid, I strive to have that for myself and for my children.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
It’s not like you go to school, you come home, and you work until 11:00 at night and then you go to bed and then you go to school. I think you gain a lot. I think you gain a lot of, “Okay, I am earning my way. It’s not being given to me.” And that’s not to say that non-ag … I’m not trying to say that non-ag kids get things handed to them, but you value things so much differently when you know the work that you put into it. It’s like in going to college, my husband had to pay for 50% of his college tuition, so he was working. For me, my parents had saved some funds ever since I was born and we used those, and then we took out loans, so then I had student loans to pay.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Looking back on it, I wish I would have paid for part of my way through school because I don’t feel like in the mornings when I had a 6:00 class, I was like, “Ugh, I can catch up on it later. No big deal.” Whereas my husband, he’s like, “No, gosh darn it. I’m paying for 50% of my education. I need to go to that class.” So I think there’s a huge value in working for what you have. I wouldn’t underestimate it or undervalue it for anything, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So you don’t long to move back to the city?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
No. And I know that it is for … I mean, a lot of people are drawn to it. It’s interesting to see Portland now. I grew up in Portland. It’s interesting to see Portland now from this perspective. We drive through the Gorge to go visit my parents. They still live in Portland. We drive through the Gorge. We start getting a little white knuckled because we know the traffic’s coming and we’re like, “There’s so many people. There’s so many cars.” I don’t know. I like having my space, my wide open space, and it’s just so … I feel like I can breathe here. Meanwhile, my dad, when I told him when I was back in school … my dad was like, “You’re going to do what?” He’s like, “I raised you in Portland. What happened? Why?” And I’m just like, “I don’t know. I’m just following what I feel is right and this is what I love.” He’s like, “I just don’t get it. I don’t understand. What did I do wrong?” And I’m just sitting here going, “I don’t think you did anything wrong. I think we’re fine.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So were they not supportive when you decided you wanted to …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think they didn’t-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You marry this dairy farm kid and move to the country?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
I think they didn’t understand. I think they’ve always been supportive, but they didn’t understand.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, thank you for opening up and sharing a bit of your story. Good luck to you, too …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Thank you.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… with the whole surgery thing.

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Thanks. Thanks. We’re going to take it as it comes and it can only get better.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And hopefully it goes smoothly …

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
… and the result, you heal up and you have as much movement as possible and you don’t have to worry about these things anymore, right?

Jessica Newhouse (guest):
Yeah. I might have gotten myself out of bucking hay for the rest of my life, but I’ll still be there.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Jessica is just so tough. Seriously, I couldn’t do what she does and I am really inspired by her awesome attitude with everything she’s had to deal with. Thank you for joining us this week, and make sure to subscribe to Real Food, Real People on whatever platform you prefer to get your podcasts. Also, check out realfoodrealpeople.org and feel free to reach me any time by email, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org.

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