Kristyn Mensonides | #042 09/28/2020

She could have gone into a career in marketing, but instead Kristyn Mensonides chose to return to her family's dairy farm. In this week's episode, Kristyn gives us a look inside life as a herd manager working with her family and a team of workers to produce milk for a farmer-owned cooperative.

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Viridianna Barajas | #040 09/14/2020

Despite the nature of her job as an administrator, Viridianna Barajas feels very connected to the food produced at the dairy where she's office manager and HR director. She opens up about her family's heritage of growing and making food.

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Rosella Mosby | #037 08/24/2020

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

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Grocery store-

Dillon Honcoop:
If I live in Seattle-

Rosella Mosby:
… restaurants.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Good idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Do it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
I hope so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Or California.

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Totally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you join the picture?

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love that.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Little did you know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The communicator.

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
But just generally.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, they have to get new?

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Which we have no control of.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that true? Really?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s scary.

Rosella Mosby:
… that’s a problem.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s scary.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Are those adults or are those kids?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

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

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

Rosella Mosby:
No, I’m saying-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Packaged stuff.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, totally.

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

Rosella Mosby:
About $75,000 and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Any of your kids interested in…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen | #034 08/03/2020

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Creatures of routine.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh, really?

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do they get to eat?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise they’re just chilling out.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The misters are going.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Three times a day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And so that’s it.

Case VanderMeulen:
And that’s it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dairy farming in a nutshell.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that right?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So heifer calves being a female-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
The bulls being the boys.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So they’re beef.

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
About 85 altogether, full time employees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how many cows do you have?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Technology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in the Netherlands.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Is he still doing it?

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It must’ve been-

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
… very hard.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you have kids or?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, he does?

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Time will tell. Time will tell.

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve been there.

Case VanderMeulen:
But-

Dillon Honcoop:
On the son’s side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And catch it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Schultz part 2 | #027 06/15/2020

When you have wine from Washington, know that there's a lot of science and a lot of work that goes into it. Viticulturist Andrew Schultz explains in detail the secrets to growing great wine grapes, and how he's always challenging the status quo.

Transcript

Andrew Schultz:
There’s no such thing as retirement. I washed that off a long time ago. I’m just going to get up and I’m going to try and do the thing that I enjoy most every day. This seems to be something that really challenges me, so I’ve stuck to it.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
What gets you up in the morning? I know for me, one of the things is my continuing mission here with the podcast to meet farmers, talk with farmers all over the state, and share their personal stories of how they got to do what they do, all the humanity that they put into the food that we then eat. For Andrew Schultz, our guest again this week, what gets him up every morning is the challenge of growing amazing wine grapes, and in often cases, growing them in a way that maybe no one has ever tried before. He’s always pushing the envelope, doing something different. He gets pretty technical in this part two this week.
Honestly, I’m not sure if he may have shared some trade secrets in the conversation really in how he does what he does, but he’s really open on what he does. He’s not trying to hide anything at all. So, he shares a lot about the technical aspect of growing wine grapes, but don’t be intimidated by all the technical details. Maybe people more familiar with some of that stuff will really get into that, but just listen to all the… I mean if you hear anything from all this technical stuff, how he handles irrigation and managing the crop and the soil and all of that, if you take anything from that, it’s just understanding the challenge that someone growing food is up against, even a non-staple like wine, how much goes in to that between the science and the art and people and everything.
Really, really eye-opening to me as a farm kid to hear all the particulars. So, I really enjoyed this conversation myself. I hope that you do too from whatever background you’re coming from, just to appreciate what goes into growing the incredible wine grapes produced here in Washington.
Of course, as Andrew said, I think last week and says again this week too, so much of what you taste in that wine that you buy in the store is a result of how the grapes were grown, the soil that they were in, the weather. So, many things are determined by a grower like Andrew and his team at Brothers In Farms. They’re out in Benton City, by the way. If you didn’t catch last week, that’s part one. You may want to do that for some background, even though I’m sure you can appreciate some of the things he ends up talking about here in part two.
My name is Dillon Honcoop, I should mention that, host here of Real Food Real People Podcast. I grew up on a raspberry farm here in Western Washington. Like I said earlier, I’m just going on a personal mission to go all over Washington state and share the real stories of the real farmers who are producing our food. I really do hope you do, and I think you will enjoy this conversation this week.
What’s your future? What’s your vision for Brothers In Farms and what you guys are doing with custom viticulture? That has to be closely tied then with the future of these wine markets and this region and all of this stuff comes together, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. What I forgot to mention, which I was going to mention earlier, is even in this marketplace, for example, work with one property. They sell their grapes for about twice what anybody else sells them for. Even in this “tight or bulked out marketplace,” those grapes are sold out. So, what I see on the higher end growing side of the people that are more discerning is yeah, absolutely they want to value and there’s ways that they can get there. They have a product line to build, but for some of these real particular things, they’re still being particular on where they buy them from and who’s growing them and what the values are behind growing those.
So, they are still purchasing up, so they’re buying that farmer’s consistency to be able to produce this thing for their customers every year. The price, it obviously matters at some level, but it doesn’t matter as much. So, that’s the same for [inaudible 00:04:52]. This is kind of our niche. We’re willing to do things that other companies aren’t, or maybe they’re so big that they aren’t, or they can’t. So, it’s like the battleship maneuvering in a bathtub type theory. So, where we can turn a corner fast and they may not be able to turn a corner fast or maybe they’re not willing to take a certain type of a measurement to be able to manage a field, that’s how we’re hammering down into our niche, is being willing to do the things or listen to the customer.
I mean, the whole reason I started this business was because a company came in and they bought out a family vineyard. They were like 75 years old, they were ready to sell. So, they sold, they got their uptick on their property. I think they bought it at $250 or $2,500 an acre or something. They sold it for… Would have been 200 or 300 X that value in the end. The person that’s going to buy that to a company. But that company, when they came in, they wanted a farm in certain way. The people that existed in Washington that were farming those properties, they said, “We aren’t willing to do those things.”
Anywhere somebody says, “We aren’t willing to do it,” is an opportunity for somebody to start a business and go do something, and that’s essentially all we did. We said, “Hey, what do you want done? We’ll listen to you. We can build a company to service your needs.” So that’s essentially what we’re looking for, is people like that.
We’ve been successful at finding those people. So, as the future grows, there’s going to be more people asking more discerning questions. We want to put ourselves in the position to be able to answer those questions for those companies or those individuals that need those questions answered.

Dillon Honcoop:
You guys are kind of new kids on the block to this world. Even though the Washington wine world is younger than California and other places, there’s still some people who’ve been around here for a while. What’s the reaction been to you guys coming in, doing things different?

Andrew Schultz:
I mean, to be honest, I don’t pay attention to a lot of stuff, whether it’s pundits on the sideline or whatever it is. We just try to keep our head down and do the right thing every day. I mean, you hear things and probably some of the comments, not that they were direct comments towards me or whatever. I’ve had conversations with guys that have been growing in the state for a long time. One of the comments I had was, “We don’t even really know what to do with this data, necessarily when people take these things and so, what are we going to do with it? It’s a waste of time.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you’re collecting all of these. You’ve got spreadsheets upon spreadsheets of info that you’ve gathered, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah. Essentially, my point was let’s say that none of it’s worth anything, right? We can’t do anything with it. Let’s just say for a second, which we think we can, but let’s say we can’t. If we have those points in the future, we’re going to be able to go back and learn something from what we’ve done in the past, because we’ve taken the data points. I guess to go back, part of our program or why we do what we do or how we got to how we do what we do is I have developed an irrigation model essentially over the last 10 years. The company that came in that we started our business under mainly, that company, that guy had been working on same issues for about 35 years. Him and I saw eye to eye on one of the major factors.
When you look at a great plant in the world and this is the way I looked in, it took me a couple of years to answer this question. What’s the most important factor when you start looking at chaos theory, which is what farming is like. What’s the most important factor? What’s the thing that I can change at the fulcrum to change the whole picture at the end of it? So, I started dialing down. I said, “Okay, what are the three main things in a grapes’ life? It’s sunlight, it’s nitrogen, and it’s water. Sunlight comes in two forms, that which we can’t control, how much heat or how much sun hits the property in an individual a year or timing wise.
And then there’s the amount of sunlight that’s inside the canopy. In Washington state, what I look at is control or any time in a system is what I look is how much control you have is you look at the extremes. So, we don’t irrigate it at all. The plant die, or it’s significantly reduced in size, and the canopy’s 5, 10 inches tall. On the other side of it, we irrigate it all we want and the thing’s 60, 80 inches long. It’s blocked out all the sunlight and the grapes are never going to ripen. The answer’s somewhere in between. So, we can manage that and that’s managed largely with water. And then you go to nitrogen, nitrogen stops in the soil with the absence of water.
So, anything subservient to something else is not as important as the master, which means that water is the number one key. So, then the question becomes how can we manage water and what do we do with water? So, then we get into vine spacing mainly in row, not necessarily from one row to the next, but in row. And then timing and what the soil actually does. What I found on the soil, at least in my opinion, is it’s less about this real sexy version that they give you in the media about all this minerality comes through and all these other things.
Really what has the biggest effect is the physical properties of that soil. How fast does the water go in? How fast doe the water come out? Is the soil compact enough or have enough clay or silt to actually limit the row growth? What happens when you have gravel in it? That structure’s changed. I mean, those are the things that make the biggest impact. So, we kind of hammered down on that. When we started working with the company from California, they came in. They gave us some data sheets on some other things to measure to understand.
So, we started doing that. I built a program for them, which they hadn’t done, or we hadn’t done for measuring the breathing of the plant. That was important, but the models that existed out there in the world before us were all models that were created from these areas that have 40 inches of rain a year. Their model basically said that in the beginning of the year, you start out with all this water in the soil and there may be some more that comes. At some point, you cannot irrigate it enough that you reach some stress threshold that’s key. And then you go back to irrigation, and that’s what quality is. Yet, in Washington, like we could reach that point by the time the grapes go into bloom. So, now what do you do, right? So, we took some-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s stress point of lack of water.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which does what to the plant? You want that to do what?

Andrew Schultz:
Just like a human. You know what I mean? Or any other biological processes, you take something, and you put it underneath stress. And then what happens? In the plant’s version, skins thicken. They create more color to withstand more sunlight, which these are all polyphenolics and things like that. That build up in the plant and that berry size is smaller, because basically the plant just wants to reproduce. So, you’re using it against its rules. Once you reach certain biological points, the plant can’t walk back through that in an individual season. So, once that plant tip shuts down on those shoots, you can’t get them to start again.
Once it’s completely shut down and they’ll shoot, side shoots if you go back to full irrigation at the wrong time or something like that, but the tip won’t regrow. So, we’re kind of using the plant against itself and there’s ways that we’ve measured. So, we had to go back, and we had to take these parameter readings. We had to move them down. We would say, “Okay, well we have this different system. What’s the most efficient way to use that system? And then are the stress levels that they said, are they real? Are the numbers the same?” So, we started looking at research correlation and all that stuff to what that is. To go back to your point on what happens is, it’s like a human and this is the way we look at irrigation. It’s really frequency and timing when you think about it.
So, if you decide to go to the gym like once every two weeks and workout super freaking hard, right? After about six weeks or a year or something like that, you probably won’t have created much of a biological reaction with yourself, at least not as much as if you decided to go to the gym and workout moderately five days a week. You’re going to see a lot more, especially after about 21 days. Plant’s the same way.
So that’s what we do, is we’ve kind of figured out a really nice stress threshold. We hold that plant there for about 21 days, and then we’re able to start building the water back up in the soil. Once that plant walks through that door, it can’t walk back through. We go back to full irrigation. Many times, this puts us in a really good spot in Washington state where we’ve built back the water up in the soil at least on that top 12 inches to where as soon as the heat comes, the plants can withstand it. They don’t have any issues with sour, shrivel, or overstress or something like that when the stress hits the plant.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yup. Is anybody else doing this this way?

Andrew Schultz:
Not in particular. We chose that particular measurement. There’s other ones that are on the cusp, some of these micro-tensiometers and things like that, that can be measured on a 15-minute basis that are the future. That technology is not quite there. We’re also looking at stuff to be able integrate these into a basically like A&M, like these neural networks that can self-learn for a specific location and stuff like that. Because if we can do that, we’re completely automated. But we chose these measurements specifically, because they see past certain things.
A lot of guys will read the measurement of how much water is in the soil, but that doesn’t mean anything. If you have flocks run the soil, which is a real issue in Washington, say starting last year, but the reality is it was here before that. Those attack the roots, and of course that keeps the plant from uptaking enough water.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that bacteria?

Andrew Schultz:
It’s a root louse basically. So, it’s a fly that lives on the… They pupate and all that, live on those roots. We haven’t found the flying version yet. They’re still moving in Washington state vineyards, nonetheless. It’s wiped out the California industry, I think once or twice, and then it’s wiped out France twice in two different times anyway. We’re largely owned rooted here, so we don’t have any rootstocks or anything, which is a real benefit to Washington to a certain extent, but really less is known about that.
There’s nematodes that mute the tips of all the small roots that are out there, and then that affects the water uptake of the plant. They mute the tips and they leased the roots. So, that basically stresses them out and you don’t get as big a root network. So, it doesn’t have the ability to pull out as much water over time. Especially when only start forming groundless, nematodes come up a population. So, there’s issues like that.
There’s cold damage issues and everything. If you read what’s in the soil, it doesn’t necessarily mean what the plant’s actually seeing. So, that’s why we measure the breathing of the plant, because that tells us exactly what that plant is seeing. This is independent of once you started getting into the rootstock conversation, these rootstocks that are going to be going in it and real heavy numbers in Washington state. Each one of those rootstocks deals with water differently. So, that’s going to affect the root mass below and how that plant’s breathing on the top of it. So, those are the things, so that’s why we want to measure what that plant’s actually seeing, and then we backed that up.
The best way to look at it is none of these things… I think some of the colleagues out there, at least the people I’ve talked to, have pointed to some of the measurements that we take and they’re like, “Oh that’s not a cornerstone. That’s not the magic pill.” In reality, none of this stuff is a magic pill and it’s not why we’re doing it. The reality is, is how you figure out where you’re at in black spaces. You take as many data points as possible, and then you can try to triangulate your most probable location and make a decision from there. That’s essentially what we’re doing. We have about four or five measurements that we take during the year to understand what the long-term health of the plant is to keep it doing the same thing that we want it to do.
There’s some indications there with our protocol that we put in place. So, we’ve had to compensate for our compensation. Anyways, so it’s really fun to be able to do it and it’s challenging to see. What’s really cool is when you’re able to come back and reproduce these every year and on different varieties and on different properties, and we’ve done it on about nine different soil types. We played in the rocks last year, which is a really high-end wine region, a common, interesting wine region of Washington. We played in that last year. I found out that soil is actually just as if not more predictable than some of the other soils in Washington. Predominantly everybody thinks that it’s a super wet soil.
To be honest, we did a really good job about getting the water out of there last year and faster than we did on the Ellensburg silt loam, which is their stuff that they consider as really high end down there. Warden’s nice. Some of these different soil types have these different periods of time where things pop up and some of these nematodes too even by variety. Typically speaking, there are some really over-vigorous Merlot blocks out there, and there’s some really under-vigorous Merlot blocks.
What we’ve found on some of these under-vigorous Merlot blocks is the nematodes for whatever reason tend to like them versus other varieties over time. How that ends up coming to fruition is some time in the back end or middle of May, when you wouldn’t even think about doing an irrigation, because you think that there’s water in the soil, those plants pop hot for having a lot of stress. Then you go back in and you do one really small four-hour irrigation, plant goes back to normal and you get everything you want. It’s really cool to see in action.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy. Still this stuff about water is boggling my mind, because everything else seems to be focused on making sure you have enough water and always bringing in enough. Your management isn’t just that. In fact, quite often, it’s about making sure you don’t have too much, which is not what I’m used to at all, but it makes sense when you explain the science of what’s actually going on in the plant there.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. In our case, based on numbers I’ve seen or whatever, we’re probably 20 to 25%. In a lot of cases, less water than say a standard farmer that’s trying to grow decent grapes. So, some guys will say 12 to 15 inches a year or something like that. I mean, I’ve grown some crops on as little as 8 or 9 inches in a year and had excellent results with those grapes too.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s an environmental impact even there possibly as well.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, but you know what? I mean, absolutely it’s got an environmental, but from an economic impact standpoint too, it’s fantastic. If we can avoid creating problems that we don’t have to go in there and find solutions for with either chemicals or extra inputs, we’re absolutely going to do that. I mean, every time, hands down. One of the things I like to point to is a property that I ran for about five years. I was tracking all the different forms of labor on that property. Actually, all the properties that we’re running for that guy, but I would break them down at the end of every year. Because otherwise, when you look at labor, it’s just this like big $600,000 pile of money.
But when you start breaking it down to whether it was done with hand work or tractor work or what type of hand work or this part of the season or the other part of the season, we start breaking down those numbers and you look at them over a five-year period. We went in and this is when I was developing that protocol. What we ended up doing in that business was we actually dropped $50,000 of labor off of a 100-acre property.
What’s important about that is that’s $50,000 that we saved, but when I look at labor and this comes from an employee standpoint, you don’t necessarily want to reduce your labor because people’s lives and families and all that stuff are affected. So, what we did in that particular case was we still had some acres to develop. So, we took that same crew and they would have been working on one property to do these certain things. We built another 35 acres over a two-year period on this other property that allowed us to put the time into building this other or extra or additional revenue stream for the business. And then once that came to fruition, we were farming 175 acres of grapes with the exact same number of people. We were farming 110 or 115 to begin with.
This is one of the things I like looking at is how many men per acre does it take the farm it? The year I left, we were farming 1 man for every 15 acres, and 1 to 10 is considered pretty, pretty efficient in hand done farming. So, this is the kind of power that we have with water or some of our inputs. I think it’s an important thing in life in general, like whether it’s farming or anything else. When you look at it and you say, “Okay, Hey everybody’s ready for the new magic bullet or the thing out there that’s going to get us to whatever level or something,” the reality is, is what we should be doing is saying “What can I do better with what I have right now? How can I make me more efficient or a better person or whatever it is?”, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
That applies to so many things.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you tell the consumer out there that’s kind of skeptical? What’s really going on our farms here in the state?

Andrew Schultz:
In general, in Washington state because of our dry conditions where the majority of the stuff has grown at least on this side. I don’t know much about the farming on the West side, so I’d leave that to you. But on this side, I mean, man, because of the lack of water and the no rain and stuff like that and having good growing soils, I mean by and large, we are really efficient. We’re way more sustainable than a lot of growing regions. I think that’s a huge benefit to Washington across the board.
I mean, as a case in point, some of these other regions, they’re spraying 8 to 12 times in a season. The average farmer over here, even for the production stuff, is at 6. We’ve been getting away for the last five years. I’ve sprayed 3 times per season and 2 of those aren’t even chemicals. They were like sulfur in the beginning of the year and then some oil in the mid part. And then at one point, chemical that attacks only mildew. And then after that, we don’t do anything.

Dillon Honcoop:
You do any organic?

Andrew Schultz:
I don’t do organic. Although I had a client that talked to me within the last two months. They’re really interested in trying to produce about 100-acre organic grape vineyard. I look at as like, it’s a challenge for me. But I think with good irrigation practices and pruning practices and stuff like that, I think we could get some organic grapes, and really not have to spray them at all or very, very little if we even did. Because I think that that could happen here in Washington and there’s definitely some guys that have been doing it in the state.
I’d like to do it on a high end level and see what happens with that, because I think it’d be a really fun project to see how efficient we can get and how much we can actually reduce as far as inputs are concerned. So, yeah. So, maybe here in the future, we’ll be working with somebody on that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can the food consumer trust the food that they’re getting from this state?

Andrew Schultz:
Can they trust the food they get from the state? I mean, I think so. I don’t know what’s done in other places. Because I dealt with tree fruit and stuff like that too, when I was farming in the Yakima area. The US in general, we’re being held to these Global GAP standards and they are a pain in the rear end to deal with. You know what I mean? I got audited every year I mean, there’s some stuff that’s even on a ridiculous level. You know what I mean? For example, we had to test all the water sources as far as irrigation water, even for E. coli bacteria and stuff.
For the lay consumer that may not be privy to the research behind that is they looked at… I mean, we’re talking astronomical levels of E. coli in water, like somewhere around 1,200 colony forming units and stuff like that. They were putting it straight on and seeing if it actually went into the apple. What they found is even at these astronomical rates that don’t even exist in an open ditch in the state, they would literally have to put it on like that day. It was more coming in through water, actually sitting on the apple than it was inside of the fruit.
As a case in point, Washington state farmers or farmers in general, at least to my knowledge, we don’t irrigate at least a couple of days before we go pick, because you don’t want the ground to be soft when you’re in there trying to carry around, bends and stuff like that. So, there’s no water even going on these things. In many cases, it’s during the fall where you’ve cut back the irrigation and maybe like once a week anyway. But I mean, we were being held to these standards.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you think there’s all the concern about that?

Andrew Schultz:
The biggest part of the concern is these other countries that are producing fruit and produce in the world. Apples aren’t one of them, but there’s definitely some vegetables out there that are really prone to have issues like E. coli. One of those is lettuce. Of course, it’s low growing and then there’s ton of irrigation. There’s water that’s held in between those leaves and stuff like that. I don’t know whether it actually goes inside the lettuce, because I’m not in that industry necessarily.
The standards that these other countries are held to isn’t as strict as what the US is, but you know what I mean. We’re required to have bathrooms for so many people and cleaned on a regular basis and stuff like that. I mean, that stuff that is standard and has been before a Global GAP even existed. So, largely our produce is done right at least from that standpoint or from a health standpoint. It’s when some of those logistics are dropped or whatever that you largely start having issues. By and large, I mean, there’s large farmers in Washington, but nowhere near what there is in other places.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are workers being taken care of well? I know that’s a concern as well. Are people being compensated fairly and treated humanely as they’re doing hard work in the field?

Andrew Schultz:
I was just back in Iowa at a meeting not too long ago. This is a land expo meeting. So, they had a lot of bigwigs there and people that farm thousands of acres over there for soybeans and corn and all that stuff. I happened to stop by a bar when I got there that night. I just wanted a pint after flying over there, so I sat down at this Irish pub. I was having a pint and I chatted with a bartender for a minute. I said, “Hey, man, what’s the minimum wage over here?” They were like, “It was $7.25,” which is a federal rate. I was like, “Are you crapping me?” He said, “No.” I said, “You got to be joking me. Our minimum wage here this year is $13.50.” That’s one of the highest in the States.
Arguably, you’d say cost of living is probably a little bit increased too, but yeah, by and large Washington’s doing a really good job of keeping pace and making sure that people will be in compensated correctly or at least as correctly as possible. You see that in the guys here in Washington. I feel like a lot of the farmers are being treated fairly.
As we transitioned into more mechanical stuff and what that does is that deletes jobs, but those guys don’t go away. They still have a lot of experience. They learn how to work on those pieces of equipment. They learn how to operate them. They’re out there just doing more acres but getting paid a little bit better and doing a little bit of work that’s probably less hard than from the standpoint of that stuff.
Like when I was a kid and not that I spent a lot of time in, but my dad, he’s telling me stories about how they used to pick watermelons. You go out there and you stand in a line. One guy toss 20-pound watermelon to the next guy. The next guy toss to him and next guy to him, and it went all the way into the back of a truck. Some guy would be catching up there and stacking them. So, the backbreaking work isn’t backbreaking anymore, at least in large part so.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about environmental sustainability? Are we doing what we can here in Washington?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. As far as I’m concerned, yeah, absolutely. Actually, the chemicals and things that are out there are really good. We’ve seen a lot of stuff that we’ve done, even though we’ve reduced normal pesticides or chemicals or something like that just by our irrigation practices. Yeah. So, the one thing that we see for what we do is we’ve reduced that, but these chemicals are more pointed. When they go out there, they’re just out there attacking the mildew. They’re not attacking the bees and stuff like that, which is fantastic. This is what I would do if I played this game with organic grapes, is I’d looking at some other options out there other than sulfur, because sulfur even though it’s allowed for organic, a new chem nowadays would just go after the mildew in one way or another, one of its modes of action.
Sulfur goes out there and it’s broad spectrum. It wipes out anything or can affect the fecundity of these other bugs. You might end up with another issue in the vineyard, plus they only last seven days. So, the diesel footprint, because a lot of the tractors run on diesel. The diesel footprint is like three times higher. So, it’s a real question. If I was playing the organic game with organic viticulture, that’s the kind of stuff that I would try to do, is reduce the economical of the diesel footprint and actually try to get the plant to do everything we want it to do, essentially with this low input as possible.
So, typically in these vineyards, we’ve seen really excellent… As a case in point, in last several years, a lot of guys will have to spray for… Which any time, you spray pesticide, they’re bad, because it kills bugs in general, even if you have them that are fairly pointed. Mites is a big issue for dust and stuff like that especially out here in the desert, the dry side of things. But what we’ve seen is by staying as low input as possible, doing a lot of this farming up front in a year, what you end up getting is this really nice abundance of other bugs in the vineyard. So, we’ve seen in many cases, the vineyards I’ve run for last 10 years that those populations will come up in the fall.
I have a fantastic guy that does all my chemical recommendations and everything. He comes out and he’s looking at the beneficial populations. He’s looking at the populations of the bugs that we don’t want, right? As he sees those come up, he’s like, “Hey, don’t do anything right now. Let’s wait another week. I’m going to watch the populations, the beneficials.” In many cases, those beneficials come in as soon as the bad ones come up. They’re eating and taking care of the other guys, and then guess what? Nature balances itself, and it works out in the end.
So, that’s the kind of stuff that we’re trying to wait for to use, to see if it happens naturally. Because if we went in there one time and we sprayed those, now we’ve just upset what population of the beneficials they were before they ramped up to take care of the bad guys and we just wiped out everything that we want. And then we would have to do remedial action and the year after, and the year after, and the year after. And then you ended up in this downhill spiral that you don’t want to be in.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the one thing that person who isn’t on farms at all, doesn’t know anything about farming, but buys and eats food, what should they know about well, I guess with you guys in particular? The wine that they’re drinking from Washington state and any food and farming, what should they know?

Andrew Schultz:
Probably one of the biggest things from a standpoint of why or how we farm is there’s nobody out there. You know what I mean? I can’t speak for the big companies that sell everything to the people, but the individual farmers that are out there, like we’re trying to make a living and we’re trying to do the right thing. We’re not going to do something that is going to screw up our one plot of land that we have, because that’s what we live on. That’s our livelihoods. So, we’re going to try and make the best decisions we can every day. There’s no reason for us to go out there and do more than we have to or not pay attention enough. So, that’s probably the biggest thing. We’re real people out here and we’re trying to make the best decisions possible.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for opening up and just sharing so much about what you do. It’s so obvious that you have a ton of passion for this. Are you going to keep doing this forever?

Andrew Schultz:
I don’t know, man. Yeah, I think so. You know what I mean? Life changes and life does stuff. I try to stay open minded with that, but yeah, absolutely. As far as am I going to stop doing anything? No, I’ll always be doing something until the day I die. There’s no such thing as retirement. I washed that off a long time ago. I’m just going to get up and I’m going to try and do the thing that I enjoy most every day. This seems to be something that really challenges me, so I’ve stuck to it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thanks for sharing some of that with us.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, there’s a good chance that if you have some Washington wine, especially some of the really fancy stuff, you may have had wine from grapes grown by Andrew Schultz and his team at Brothers In Farms. I should have mentioned earlier, I recorded this conversation with Andrew before COVID stuff got crazy. So, I bet some of those answers would be a little bit different as far as just the things that they’re dealing with right now to keep workers and people safe. So, it’s not like they’re ignoring that. I just wanted to mention so that some of that stuff makes sense. Maybe we should even follow up with Andrew. I’d be curious to hear how things are going, because it certainly has presented additional challenges.
Also, I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, but if you do want to catch it, we earlier talked with one of Andrew’s team Javier Valencia. Should look up, see what my Googling skills are to quickly check what episode number that was. I should have checked. Oh, episode 11. Episode 11 was Javier. So, if you want to hear more about Brothers In Farms and from another team member there, check that one out. That’s at realfoodrealpeople.org, of course. What a cool guy. I don’t know if I said it on the podcast yet, but I said it on social media. Previously that after I got done talking with Andrew, I felt like can I get a job here? I’d like to work for you. You just seem like a really smart guy, really organized, and really cutting edge and just willing to try new stuff, not just doing it the same old way.
That gets me pumped up about doing something, whatever it is. I don’t have any particular passion for growing wine grapes. I grew up on a red raspberry farm, so I guess it’s not that much different. I think the whole red raspberry thing is pretty cool. So, yeah, I don’t know.
I’d be interested to hear what your reaction is and certainly feel free to anytime send me a message, a direct message or post something in the comments on any of our social media posts on Instagram. It’s @rfrp_podcast, RFRP, Real Food Real People, @rfrp_podcast on Twitter as well. And then Real Food Real People Podcast on Facebook, or I think technically it’s RFRP.podcast if you want to use the specific handle. Also, you can email me, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Yeah, I think it would be really cool to hear what you think. Maybe if you’ve got questions for people too.
I’d really like to start doing that, start making this more of an interactive process, maybe questions or kinds of farmers or specific farmers you think I should go interview and talk to, or just categorically, like what kind of farmer. I’d love to take your suggestions. Also, if you have any questions for our farmer out there and even farmers that we’ve talked with before, I guess it’s not just farmers on those podcasts either, but people we’ve talked with before. If you have questions for them, we can certainly follow up either with a podcast episode or like a short little Q&A or something on social media. So, let me know.
I want to involve you in this process as well. That’s what it’s all about other than this podcast is documenting my journey, is sharing these people’s stories. I want it to be involving you in the story and in the conversation and in our food system here in Washington and the Pacific Northwest as well. So, thank you again for checking in, being with us this week. We will catch you next week back here on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

Transcript

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

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

Juan Garcia:
He was a father figure.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
More stability for your kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How big is the whole crew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juan Garcia:
That carries on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Mm-hmm (negative).

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

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

Juan Garcia:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you approach that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

April Clayton | #002 12/23/2019

Although she has her PhD in chemistry, April Clayton is an apple and cherry farmer in Washington. But it was only after finding her voice as an advocate that she felt comfortable calling herself a farmer.

Transcript

April Clayton: I kind of resisted getting into farming at first because I didn’t want to be known as Mike’s wife. I just finished my PhD, I didn’t want to be, “Oh, the farmer… Oh, you know, his wife.” I wanted to start my own kind of career path in this area.

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

Dillon Honcoop: Finding your place on the farm, it’s something that those of us who’ve been part of a family farm at one time or another have all struggled with, I think, but nobody really likes to talk about it. My name is Dillon Honcoop. I grew up on a family farm and after over a decade in media, I’m coming back to the farming community and I want to share their stories. This week on the Real Food, Real People podcast, I talk with a highly educated scientist and former college professor who now farms organic apples and cherries in central Washington. I wanted to know how she made the journey from the academic world into farming and she opens up as well about the real struggles and triumphs on the farm. So join me now as we get real with April Clayton of Red Apple Orchards in Orondo, Washington, with her farming story, and what the real challenges are right now on farms growing what is the state’s most famous food.

Dillon Honcoop: Let’s start at UC Davis.

April Clayton: Okay, so-

Dillon Honcoop: So you’re a chemist?

April Clayton: Yes, I’m a classically trained chemist. I actually have my undergraduate degree is from Florida State University in biochemistry, and then I spent a year working at Hanford, that was my first job out of college. And I did trace organic detection, and so actually there I got a lot of work and practice on gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, which is the tools that are used to test for residue on fruit and produce. So even though that’s not what I was doing, I was familiar with the concepts of how it had to be tested. And then from there I went on to university of California Davis and I got my degree in analytical chemistry.

Dillon Honcoop: What’s been the biggest challenge?

April Clayton: Finding my place on the farm, becoming the advocate. You want to get out here, you want to help, but how do you do it? How do you branch out to better inform people? It was finding the path to get started, that was difficult. I kind of resisted getting into farming at first because I didn’t want to be known as Mike’s wife. I kind of wanted my own identity away from my husband. I just finished my PhD, I didn’t want to be, “Oh, the farmer… Oh, you know, his wife.” I wanted to start my own kind of career path in this area.

Dillon Honcoop: So it was, this is interesting, it was the advocacy that brought you to the point you could fully embrace the fact that you are a farmer.

April Clayton: Oh, yeah. It wasn’t until I was in the Farm Bureau that I finally started calling myself a farmer.

Dillon Honcoop: What about the old culture of men, and farming, and sometimes Farm Bureau can be a lot of men who’ve been part of that for… How does that go?

April Clayton: The old boys club? That’s just changing more and more, especially today because farming, it’s so important for farmers to be advocates and you can see everywhere, I think it’s the women who are dominating the agricultural advocacy field right now. There are some great guys out there, but as I look around I’m seeing a lot more female agricultural advocates. So we’re really… I think women are doing great, and there are some pockets where it is still the old boys club, but here the Chelan/Douglas County Farm Bureau, I’m the president, the vice president is Vicki Malloy, our secretary treasurer is Suzanne Van Well, I mean it is… we’re female run. Yes, we have men on the board, but all the officers are female. So, yes, I understand the old boys club is still there, but just right here in my neck of the woods that’s just not the case.

Dillon Honcoop: I think that’s happening in a lot of places, too, and it’s-

April Clayton: Yeah, and like I said-

Dillon Honcoop: … a lot of people haven’t noticed that yet, but I think there’s been a big change that people haven’t noticed and it’s just starting to show that women are becoming the face of farming as much of or more than men.

April Clayton: Yes. Yes, I agree with you 100%. Yes, with females becoming the advocates.

Dillon Honcoop: When did you start trying to find that place?

April Clayton: You know, as more legislation came down, as it became harder to farm, as I could see it becoming harder to farm, it was obvious that my attention was needed here. I was having fun what I was doing, but this farm, if I want my kids to have it, I have to go out and be active in securing its future for my children’s future, so that’s why advocacy all of a sudden became so important because it’s not just my livelihood, it could possibly be my children’s livelihood. And when you start to think about it, when you start hearing more and more about different agricultural practices around the world and it made me want to get more involved to spread the message about how good we’re doing it here.

Dillon Honcoop: Much more than “Yeah, that’s what my husband does, and that’s his thing, and I have my thing.”

April Clayton: Yes. Right. Exactly. We’re a team.

Dillon Honcoop: How did you meet your husband?

April Clayton: So actually we are set up on a blind date because we’re both very tall, so…

Dillon Honcoop: Really?

April Clayton: Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: Hey, they’re tall, [crosstalk 00:05:32] it must be a good match.

April Clayton: Exactly. So yeah, that’s what we kind of like to joke about. So yeah, and it just kind of took off from there.

Dillon Honcoop: So you meet Mike, you get married-

April Clayton: Correct.

Dillon Honcoop: … and then what did you marry into? What’s his background? What’s he doing?

April Clayton: So Mike is a second generation apple and cherry farmer. His father was retired from the air force, he was actually a Thunderbird. So he flew all over the world and when he retired, the military was offering all this wheat land to grow tree fruit on. So this, Brays Landing, used to originally be called Military Hill because it was all military personnel. And so my father in law used to help run orchards for his friends in the area and then slowly bought some, sold some, and we’re actually the last remaining military people on the hill now.

Dillon Honcoop: So how long have you guys been married?

April Clayton: 14 years.

Dillon Honcoop: And for a long time you didn’t want to really embrace the-

April Clayton: The agriculture side.

Dillon Honcoop: … the farmer title for yourself.

April Clayton: Well, I had spent 10 years in school gaining a degree in chemistry, I didn’t want to turn around and you know, okay, do what my husband’s doing. I kind of wanted to branch out on my own. And so, but I did come back to it and I’m glad I did. I mean, I love farming. It’s awesome. The farm community here is amazing too. And my advocacy has gotten me so far too that some people in some circles people are like, “Oh, you’re April’s husband.” So it’s kind of nice.

Dillon Honcoop: Turns the table on your husband, what does he say in that case?

April Clayton: Oh, he loves it. He thinks it’s great. So actually, yeah, it’s kind of funny because my son had to fill out a report, first day back at school, “What do your parents do?” “My dad farms, my mom’s the president of farming.” Like, “You go son.”

Dillon Honcoop: President of farming, Dr. April Clayton.

April Clayton: Yeah, I know I never really liked being called doctor, even when I taught, I made my students call me professor instead of doctor just because, well, that whole I’m a PhD, I’m not an MD, so there’s a difference.

Dillon Honcoop: Talking about your family too, you got kids.

April Clayton: Yes, we have two kids. John, my firstborn is nine and my daughter Johannah AKA Jojo, she is seven going on 13 as she likes to tell everybody, my son definitely, he wants to be a farmer. I don’t know if it’s because he really wants to be a farmer or he likes the idea of riding motorcycles up and down the orchard scouting. He really enjoys that. Johannah she, one day she wants to be a vet, the next day she’s going to be a singer, so she’s at that happy age right now.

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah.

April Clayton: So it’s definitely fun. They definitely enjoy the orchard and I think it’s a great lifestyle. I love the fact that what I do, at the end of the day I say, “Here, I grew this.” I mean that’s really a great accomplishment. I like that and I want to have it for my kids, something tangible that you can touch.

Dillon Honcoop: That’s interesting, your son says he wants to become a farmer and I know from experience having been that kid myself, we’ll see what happens.

April Clayton: Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: Who knows what he decides is his calling or what he wants to do is. Your daughter, not necessarily so much.

April Clayton: Well, I think it’s because the son’s more into the big equipment, the bulldozers and things like that. And she rides, she loves her motorcycle, don’t get me wrong, but she’s not going to go crawl around the loader like he is.

Dillon Honcoop: But is there, I wonder is there kind of a gender thing going because it’s, for whatever reason, we just don’t have it as much ingrained in our head that women are, or could be, or are going to be farmers when they grow up. That’s what you are, when you grew up.

April Clayton: Right.

Dillon Honcoop: Did you see yourself being a farmer? What do you think about women in farming in particular?

April Clayton: I have to say it growing… I grew up in the city, I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida, so it’s quite urban. And so yeah, farming was actually the last thing on my mind that I even thought about. Both my parents were army brats, so coming from a military, I kind of thought that if I didn’t make it in the chemistry world that I’d probably end up in the military world somewhere because that was kind of our family, what they did. So yeah, so when I moved out here it was really different and it was definitely a culture change for sure. I enjoyed it. I went from living behind a grocery store to now being 45 minutes from the nearest grocery store, so-

Dillon Honcoop: But being the person that supplies the grocery store.

April Clayton: Yes, and being a person who supplies it. So I appreciate so much more the produce section than I ever did before. And it’s also different, how I buy food is different now. Now that I know so much about the industry, before I used to just go for whatever was pretty and cheap. Now I actually make sure that, “Hey, this was grown in the United States.” Just because I, like I said before, I deal with the regulations, the codes, and the standards, I know exactly what’s going into produce grown in the United States and that is what I want to focus on. Especially being an organic grower, people always come up and ask me, “What do you buy for your kids?” And they’re kind of shocked when I say, “Produce from the United States. I don’t care if it’s organic or not.” Conventional is just as good as long as it’s grown here.

Dillon Honcoop: Talk about organic. You guys are not entirely organic, some of your stuff is, some isn’t.

April Clayton: This is first year we’re not a hundred percent organic. Our cherries used to be organic, but this is the first year that we pulled them from organic. We were having mildew issues and the organic inputs that you use to control mildew weren’t working and we are actually damaging our tree because of the amount of sprays we are putting on to try to control the mildew.

Dillon Honcoop: Hold on, you’re saying you were spraying with organic products and that was causing harm to the trees?

April Clayton: Yes, and because of the amount that we were spraying. People don’t realize organic orchards, organic farming is just a different way of farming. It’s not actually this great all healthy star that everyone thinks of. If you look at the original, the origin of it, it started in Europe, it actually started as a way to reuse and recycle. If it was found in nature, you can use it in your orchard. No big deal. Well, when the organic movement came here to United States, it got changed into messaging, healthy, different. But that’s actually not true. Organic farming, you have to use actually a much less concentration, so you’re actually in the orchard three times more with the sprayer spraying, and just that constant being in the orchard spraying just damaged our trees, so now we’re going back to conventional so we can spray less, get the trees healthy again and we’ll go from there. If we keep production up, prices stay good, we’ll stay with it.

Dillon Honcoop: So was there a point in time where you guys decided to go organic from conventional and switch over? Has it been an organic operation from the very beginning?

April Clayton: We went all organic about 10, 20 years ago. And so he, my father-in-law, kind of dabbled in it, but nothing really. It was actually my husband who really kind of took off with it.

Dillon Honcoop: Why did he choose to do that? That’s a lot of work. Isn’t it?

April Clayton: It is. It is. It’s a lot harder to farm organic than it is conventional, just because of all the different inputs. I mean, you can’t use a herbicide, so you have to either burn weeds, or hand hoe weeds, or till weed, so it’s a lot more intense. So yeah, it is a lot more involved. But the premiums were there. Well, the premium market really isn’t there anymore for cherries, so it just didn’t make sense for us to not make as much money. If we get the trees healthy again, get production up, we’ll have more cherries, we’ll make more money.

Dillon Honcoop: So people won’t pay more for organic cherries anymore?

April Clayton: They will, but the market is so flooded with it that buyers of grocery stores aren’t willing to pay more for it. And that’s where I get my money from.

Dillon Honcoop: So what the consumer pays at the store isn’t what you get?

April Clayton: Oh no, farmers… okay, so for an organic apple, I get about between five and 10 cents. I need 9 cents to clear to be even-

Dillon Honcoop: To break even on it?

April Clayton: … to break even. 10 cents would be a little bit of a profit, that would be nice.

Dillon Honcoop: And that same Apple, what could I buy it for in the store?

April Clayton: You’re probably buying $1.99 for in the store.

Dillon Honcoop: $1.99 for the same apple that you give five to 10 cents for.

April Clayton: Correct. And this is a common of all of agriculture, farmers are typically the ones who get what’s left over, and as the cost of doing business increases, gas, transportation, employees wages going up, storage, basically we pay all along the way as it goes. We’re the last ones in the line, after the truckers get paid, after the bills are paid at the storage shed, after the bills are paid at the grocery store, then we actually get an income.

Dillon Honcoop: Why? Why don’t you say, “Sorry we’re charging more for these apples.”?

April Clayton: It’s just the way of the way the industry. It’s the way the industry works, unfortunately. The apples go the shed, they box them and make them look pretty, then they’ve got a sales desk that goes and calls and says, “Hey, how much apples would you like? We’ll send you 10,000 pounds.” And that’ll go to a distribution where it’ll get… Safeway will take it and distribute it to all their stores. We’re pretty lucky in the fact that we’ve been organic, that most of our stuff has stayed on the West Coast, but actually it’s kind of funny, this year our cherries went to Japan for the first time in a long time. So yeah, it’s kind of interesting too, because I heard that even though tariffs have affected China and stuff like that, what they buy is the premiums, the best of the best, they’re-

Dillon Honcoop: Japan?

April Clayton: Yeah, and China, all of Asia. They don’t buy the small, ugly fruit, they get the biggest, the prettiest. And our cherries actually got sold individually. But we still haven’t gotten our paycheck for the cherries yet, so we don’t even know. So hopefully around October we’ll get all of our cherry money and then hopefully in March we’ll have all of our apple money.

Dillon Honcoop: What month did you pick them?

April Clayton: July, all of July.

Dillon Honcoop: And you still don’t know, and won’t know for some time yet, how much you’re even going to get paid for them?

April Clayton: Yeah, that’s my farmers don’t gamble. We do it every day on our farm.

Dillon Honcoop: That’s crazy.

April Clayton: Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: That’s crazy. What does that feel like? I mean, to me that says stress.

April Clayton: It’s tough. It is. For us, the stress is once we get in the shed, we get in the shed. We’re kind of, can’t really do anything about at that point, so now we just got to sit back and let it ride. So yeah, it’s tough.

Dillon Honcoop: What’s harvest like?

April Clayton: Cherry harvest is crazy because we start when the sun is up, so we’ll start as early as 4:30 in the morning. Cherries do not like do be picked after 80 degrees, after it gets 80 degrees the cherry doesn’t like to do anything, so we’ll stop harvest around noon pretty much. But it’s every day during the month of July because we are fast and furious trying to get the fruit off. We try to give our crew… the crews have the afternoons off, all the afternoons off and we try to give them one day off every two weeks, but during the month of July it just gets, we’re so backed up, we’re so short on labor that it ends up being, unfortunately, every day. But the pickers are happy because they’re making money the whole time, so they do appreciate that. And then apple harvest is much… it’s a little bit slower. It’s not such a fast pace. We have different apple varieties that are spaced out a little bit better.

Dillon Honcoop: So is there one thing or are there a few things that could knock your farm out of business, or is this more a story of which straw is going to break the camel’s back?

April Clayton: Yeah, it’s kind of… yeah, definitely losing a certification, that would hurt. If we were to ever lose our Global G.A.P certification, that would definitely be a nail in the coffin. I think it’s the small things that’s going to destroy farming. I don’t think it’s any one thing, the lack of labor is definitely an issue, the ever increasing costs just to do business. I mean, the H2A program is… I can’t even use the H2A program because it’s too expensive for me.

Dillon Honcoop: Well, let’s talk about labor a little bit because H2A, that’s a labor issue.

April Clayton: Guest worker.

Dillon Honcoop: The federal guest worker program. So what is the scoop on labor? You guys just can’t find enough people to work?

April Clayton: We can’t. And right now we’re short crew and if they don’t like the job that they’re having to do that day, or they don’t like the pay, they know they can go to the next farm over who is an H2A employee and they’ll get $15.03 an hour, so we’re having to compete with that. But I do want H2A to be here and stay here because my neighbor who uses H2A, that’s awesome, he’s bringing in guest workers. So I have a chance to actually pick up the local migrant help that wants to come and work the harvest and things like that. So you know, if H2A were to go away, we’d all be fighting for the same people and that there just isn’t enough, there is a shortage. Every year we have a labor shortage. The last time we had a full crew to pick everything we needed was eight years ago, eight or nine years ago. We were much bigger than we kind of divided off since then.

Dillon Honcoop: So you’re saying even though you aren’t in the H2A program, it helps you to have it in the local-

April Clayton: Yes.

Dillon Honcoop: … being used by local neighboring farms?

April Clayton: Right. Because there is a small pool of laborers here in Washington State. And we actually are very lucky because we have several people from Northern California that actually come to our farm every year, and we are so thankful that we have them. But if H2A were to go away, those guys, thankfully they know our farm, they’re coming back to us, but their friends may not come to us. They may jump ship and go to the shed that can offer those higher prices. Like the people who are using H2A right now, not only is it the $15 plus hourly wage, it’s also transportation to and from country of origin, living. We provide housing for our employees, but we don’t provide transportation to and from country of origin.

April Clayton: So that’s extra money that someone who uses H2A can use to bump up their cost even more, because it’s not uncommon to get into bidding wars with your neighbor to keep people. We’ve seen it locally, we’ve heard about it. Everybody on the hill pretty much pays the same price, but if someone’s down on labor and he can afford it, he’ll pay an extra 50 cents and you’ll see a couple of people jump ship and go there, and it hurts, it’s hard. But I can’t blame them, they’re going to go for that more money. And I can’t blame the other farmer for raising their wages because they need help too. It’s just, it’s a vicious cycle.

Dillon Honcoop: Some people say though, that there isn’t actually a labor shortage. If you would just pay workers more then it wouldn’t be a problem. What’s your response to that?

April Clayton: That’s just not true. As an organic grower, 75% of our cost is labor, everything from medical, to housing, to payroll, all of that included, it’s about 75% of our costs. I can’t go much higher. I can’t spend that much more. I wish I could, but I just don’t have the money in my bank. And when I hear people say, “Oh, you just want cheap later.” That just bugs me more than anything. I mean, last year just to get people to show up to pick Honeycrips, we gave people $25 if they brought someone with them, it didn’t matter if they-

Dillon Honcoop: Just as a bonus.

April Clayton: … just as a bonus. “Okay, you brought somebody with you, here, $25. Great, thanks. Here’s a bucket, go pick.” And not only was it $25, we were also paying upwards of I think 35 bucks a bin. So they were averaging closer to, the really fast guys can do a bin an hour, it’s typical a bin every two hours though is more like it.

Dillon Honcoop: So anywhere from $17, $18 bucks an hour to some people making $35 an hour?

April Clayton: And $25 just to show up that day at work-

Dillon Honcoop: Plus a bonus.

April Clayton: … first thing, yeah. I mean, no one’s coming. That’s the thing. I mean, we’re throwing all the money out there, but people just aren’t showing up. We just literally did not have people willing to come out and do the work.

Dillon Honcoop: Now about the controversial H2A federal guest worker program, you say that you like it even though you don’t use it.

April Clayton: I like that it’s there, I don’t like the policy of it. Four years ago no, five years ago now, we actually have housing on our farm that’s H2A specific because we were going to use the H2A program because we saw the shortage of labor, built it, finally got in, and it was actually right around the Hirst thing, so water was a big issue for us as well. So finally got everything done, ready to go, H2A comes back and tells us, “Yeah, that’s not going to work. We know you built it for 16 people, but that’s only going to hold 12 people.” I mean, that’s a huge hit. I mean, we built it to code and then for them to turn around-

Dillon Honcoop: And then they changed the code.

April Clayton: … change the code, it’s kind of like we would’ve had to add on another bathroom and another building. I mean, seeing as how we bought, just finished building that five years ago that has newer and better appliances and structure than my own house and I’m being told it doesn’t work. I mean, it’s very frustrating. It’s hard to deal with. True, these are bunk situations, but they’re only here for a month, they’re not staying for the whole year. Our crew that stays the whole year, they have houses that they live in on the farm, which is different from the cabins.

Dillon Honcoop: What about how the program actually works for the people that are using it? You have an interesting vantage point because you’ve almost kind of been in the program, but you aren’t now, you have people nearby who are so you can see what they do.

April Clayton: Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: There’ve been a lot of accusations about how horrible this program is. Where does that come from and how does that fit with reality? Have you seen problems?

April Clayton: No, that just doesn’t fit with reality. I mean, we all have, like I said, we’re all regulated like you would not believe down to the bone as far as what housing looks like. If my housing was kicked out because it couldn’t, it was too small, it needed to be bigger for 16 people. I mean, when you keep changing the field gold, it makes it harder, you know? And these can… Yes, it’s hard work. We know that, we know that it’s hard work, and we try to pay them as best as we can for what we’re actually getting from the fruit. But farmers are not intentionally being mean or hurting their employees, if we do not have them, we don’t get the fruit in the shed. If we don’t get the fruit in the shed, we don’t get money.

April Clayton: We appreciate and love the help that we get. We know we can’t do it without them, so it really bothers me when I hear people saying that, oh, we’re just out there abusing them. We’re not. They’re the ones who make this farm run. We’re the ones taking the risk, they’re the ones who make it run. That’s the beauty of how it works. So I really get bugged and I don’t know where it’s coming from because it’s just not true. There are bad lawyers, there may be bad farmers, but if you’re a bad farmer, you’re not going to stay in the game very long because you’re not going to get anybody to come work for you. And the H2A program, they’ll kick you out if they think that you are being bad to employees, disrespecting them, and not giving them great living conditions, then you’ll get kicked out. It’s not like you can just go and say, “Hey, I want it.” Someone’s going to come on your farm and make sure and look to see if your housing, is it acceptable, or is it not acceptable?

Dillon Honcoop: What’s the thing on the farm that that will keep you up at night?

April Clayton: Market return prices.

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah.

April Clayton: You have no control over that, and you just have to sit there and wait because we’re currently… we currently have an operating loan, every paycheck that we sign we’re borrowing money from the bank to do that and hopefully when I get paid my cherry money in October, I’ll be able to pay off that loan and keep going again. And hopefully there’ll be enough money that I won’t have to get another loan, but unfortunately I see that’s what keeps me up at night because if I can’t pay down that first loan I’m carrying a loan and getting another one to try and start over again, I mean, that’s going to bankrupt me faster than-

Dillon Honcoop: That was like a one year loan kind of thing?

April Clayton: And operation loan is about a one year loan, basically yeah.

Dillon Honcoop: So is that pretty normal for farming?

April Clayton: It’s pretty standard for the industry to have an operation loan because I’ll all of a sudden go up to 40 employees at, $14, $15 an hour, plus payroll tax. I don’t have that money sitting in the bank. Farmers are land rich, we’re not cash rich. We don’t have that cash flow that everyone thinks we have. And one of my pet peeves is people are like, “Oh, that fifth generation farmer, he’s just sitting there on a cash pile of gold.” Well, that fifth generation farmer has probably also paid for the farm two and a half times already because of the death tax each time a generation dies.

April Clayton: In farming we’re so resilient, we don’t think we’re going to die, so we don’t need to plan. And then all of a sudden the generation goes and the next generation is hit with the death tax, which is 51%, so the kids are going to have to sell off part of the farm to help pay for that tax. And so when you think about a fifth generation farmer, that’s two and a half times they’ve already had to pay for the farm. So I don’t think people understand that, yeah, we may have inherited this, but we have paid a lot to get it.

Dillon Honcoop: I asked what will keep you up at night and you talk about market conditions, do you have any stories of having gone through that where you’re actually up at night and wondering what’s going to happen and if you’re going to make it?

April Clayton: Yeah, last year was definitely that year because we were still farming organic cherries and we had to walk away from about 30 to 40 acres because of the mildew, so this was something that we had spent all this time farming, pushing money into, we only got half the crop of what we wanted and we’re still down production, fighting to get labor. And what labor we did have, we had to pay through the nose for, and so it was kind of like, “Man, please just can we get a little bit of money to help cover that?” Because all this farming, all this paychecks I’ve been doing, those were on loans and I had to watch half my crop go bye, bye, that hurts. It’s hard. So that last year was definitely a hard year, and then in the years past hail, whenever we have hail damage, that’ll keep you up at night because there’s nothing you can do. It’s lost. And, yeah, we have insurance, but insurance never makes you whole. It helps with the damage, but it doesn’t take care of the debt that you’re in.

Dillon Honcoop: Walk away from acres and acres of cherries. What does that look like? What do you do when you walk away? You just leave them to rot?

April Clayton: Unfortunately, yeah. Unfortunately we have to, I mean, because we don’t have the labor to go in there and pick it to begin with because it’s so expensive, we’re already losing that crop. We can’t afford to pay someone to go in there, pick it, and then give it away. We’d love to do that, we’d love to give it to the food banks, and we open, we tell our friends when this happens, “Hey, come out here. Come get as many cherries as you want.” But in all reality, they’re not going to… I mean, we produce half a million pounds of cherries a year, so we’re talking about… so losing a third of our crop, that’s a lot of pounds you’re not going to be able to get rid of. You’re not going to be able to get rid of it at just giving it to your friends and you’re not going to be able to get rid of it trying to pick it going to a farmer’s market.

April Clayton: And it’s really bad for the trees too, because if you have old fruit that’s sitting on there rotting, it stresses the tree out, so it’s not going to be as in good production for next year. And you’ve got this fruit that is now the perfect breeding ground for bad bugs. So it’s a very bad situation to be in, you’re just, you’re in knots because you’re like, “Okay, I lost this year’s crop. How much of next year’s crop did I lose too by not being able to take care of my trees properly by getting the fruit off them?” And I’m leaving this fruit in there that could potentially damage my crop next year by breeding bad bugs, so it’s a vicious cycle.

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah. You said you’re in knots, what does that really… what does it feel like when you’re there?

April Clayton: You’re in bed and you can’t sleep because your mind keeps running over other things. “Well, how am I going to pay for this? Well, what am I going to do for that? Well, how am I going to cover this for tomorrow, and if I can’t pay for this spray…” And that’s the other thing, these chemicals we use are highly concentrated and highly expensive. They’re not cheap. We’re not out there just throwing them around willy nilly because we think it’s great. No, we’ve got this, you know, like my husband always says, “You measure it with a micrometer and you unfortunately have to cut it with an ax.” So we’re doing as many calculations as we can to save money, to not overuse chemicals when you don’t have to, but unfortunately, these things cost money. And if you can’t afford that spray at that time, like calcium is important for apples because we get bitter pits.

April Clayton: Bitter pits are those, they’re little black dots in the center of an Apple. It goes through pretty far. So it’s not really good for processing either, because you can’t just peel it and get rid of it.

Dillon Honcoop: That’s from a lack of calcium?

April Clayton: It’s a lack of calcium in the soil. And sometimes calcium can bind together in the soil, and so you may get this reading of, “Oh yeah, you’ve got calcium.” But it’s just not being… the tree just can’t absorb it. So there’s all these other issues you have to think of and you’re sitting there worrying about that, so not being able to afford something could put you in danger for next year’s crop. So you just sit there and you’re like, “Oh man, what do you do?”

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah, there’s nothing that you can do-

April Clayton: No.

Dillon Honcoop: … except in a lot of cases feel awful. And I know that can put, having lived through these kinds of things in the kind of farming I grew up around, I know it can put so much pressure on everything else, relationships, around the house, other decisions that aren’t necessarily even directly connected.

April Clayton: You know, I have a friend who jokes every July that she becomes a cherry widow because her husband’s gone during the entire cherry harvest, so she’s kind of like a widow at home waiting, hopefully hubby will come because he’s out there working. And so I understand that, and luckily I’m on the farm and can help out and work too. I mean, one year there’s a picture of me pregnant with my son on the backpack behind me and I’m sitting there in the field hosing down bins of cherries, writing tickets for everybody. So thankfully it’s a family business where we can work together, but it is stressful. It can be stressful at times for sure. I mean, like I said before, that’s why farmers don’t gamble, we do it every day.

Dillon Honcoop: You do a lot of social media. What’s that like? Is that a positive experience to be out there in public that way? She’s shaking her head no.

April Clayton: No. Yeah, no. Social media is tough, I got to tell you it because I do kind of take it a little personally when I read people saying, “Oh my gosh, you are so bad. You’re not paying your laborers anything. You’re treating them horribly.” And it’s like, “No, that’s not the case. They’re actually… we’re trying to give them a decent wage.” There’s been, I don’t think people realize, there are times when we don’t take home a pay check to make sure that this is covered, that’s very common for owners and I don’t think people realize that. And plus we don’t have a, like you said, we only get paid once a year. Once harvest is in, is in, and that’s our paycheck. And we don’t always know what it’s going to be, we can’t calculate it out, so it’s definitely a tough field.

April Clayton: And so to have people on social media just sit there and trash you for it, is hard. Yeah. And I mean, sometimes, especially with social media today, because it’s no longer, “Oh well, I don’t think that’s right.” Blah, blah, blah. It’s like, “Oh, you’re a terrible person.” I mean, they can get downright insulting, so it is tough and it hurts because I have some friends that aren’t quite so much friends anymore because they think I’m a slave owner.

Dillon Honcoop: Really?

April Clayton: Well no, they just, they’re like, “Your employees…” They just, they believe what they’ve been told and it’s like, “No, come to my farm, come talk to them.” You know?

Dillon Honcoop: But they’re your friends. They don’t know your character?

April Clayton: I mean, they know my character and they know me, but you know, they’re the activists who have their belief system. It’s hard to change someone’s mind who is ingrained, “That’s the way it is.” But I am lucky because a lot of my friends who do know me, they’re like, “Oh wow, I had no idea. That’s amazing.” So it is fun, and I am thankful for my good friends who… and I actually have a couple friends who have become agricultural advocates, not because they have a farm, but because they find what I do so fascinating. And so that’s always, that’s positive and I appreciate that, but it’s the negative Nancys on social media that just kind of wear you down.

Dillon Honcoop: So you’ve actually lost friends because of the false things, the false accusations, that activists have made about you?

April Clayton: Well, it’s not like all of a sudden they stopped talking to me, but it’s like I can tell you’re not following me on social media anymore. I can tell. And it’s sad because it’s actually a couple of family members and I think also it kind of, in today’s political climate too, it’s easier to go for a dagger than it is for a handshake.

Dillon Honcoop: Well, thank you for opening up and telling your whole story. Fascinating your journey from Tallahassee, Florida to here in Orondo, Washington, and all points in between.

April Clayton: Well, Dillon, thank you for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity you’ve given me here today.

Dillon Honcoop: This was really cool, and thanks for showing me around your farm as well. It’s really cool what you guys are doing here, so-

April Clayton: Thank you. Come back anytime.

Dillon Honcoop: … keep up the good work.

April Clayton: Thanks.

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

Dillon Honcoop: Thanks for listening to the Real Food, Real People podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe and we’ll be back with another episode next week. Also, check out our website, 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.

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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Announcer:
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