Macala Wright | #043 10/05/2020

Even with a successful career in fashion, entertainment and marketing in LA, Macala Wright wasn't happy or healthy. She explains how she reached her breaking point, turning to farming and real food to heal her body and mind, and ultimately bringing her life full circle.

Transcript

Kady Porterfield | #036 08/17/2020

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
Event center.

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

Kady Porterfield:
Yes, Kittitas County Fair.

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

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
Awesome.

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

Kady Porterfield:
Oh, yeah.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome.

Kady Porterfield:
It’s pretty awesome, yeah.

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

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
Right, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
Right, and I know-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
Something like that, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
In the meat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
29.

Dillon Honcoop:
29 classmates.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your-

Kady Porterfield:
Go tigers!

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So you love them both?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So what positions did you play?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you still play much?

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
Oh, yeah.

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah, yeah, and actually-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That is true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Kady Porterfield:
Thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen | #034 08/03/2020

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Creatures of routine.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh, really?

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do they get to eat?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise they’re just chilling out.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The misters are going.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Three times a day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And so that’s it.

Case VanderMeulen:
And that’s it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dairy farming in a nutshell.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that right?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So heifer calves being a female-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
The bulls being the boys.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So they’re beef.

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
About 85 altogether, full time employees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how many cows do you have?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Technology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in the Netherlands.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Is he still doing it?

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It must’ve been-

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
… very hard.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you have kids or?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, he does?

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Time will tell. Time will tell.

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve been there.

Case VanderMeulen:
But-

Dillon Honcoop:
On the son’s side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And catch it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bobby Morrison | #031 07/13/2020

After cooking in restaurants all over the Seattle area, Bobby Morrison followed his passion and became a butcher. He shares his personal journey as well as insights from his unique perspective behind the scenes in our regional food system.

Transcript

Dillon Honcoop:
Depends on what you’re passionate about and what you want your end goal to be with your food and your health because in the end, that’s what it is. Your food is your health.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the podcast. Lately, we’ve talked to a lot of people with meat and beef in particular producing it here in Washington State, raising beef on ranch land, feeding beef, all this kind of stuff, but what about the next step, the person that takes that beef and turns it into something that you and I can buy at the store and cook up or that a chef in a restaurant can cook up? I wanted to talk with one of those people. This week, we talked with Bobby Morrison and it turns out he’s so much more than just that. He is a meat cutter, a butcher at Del Fox Meats in Everett, but he has a background as a cook and a lifelong passion that you’ll hear about for food.
Join me as this journey continues. This is the Real Food Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this is all about my journey to get to know the real people behind our food, the farmers, the ranchers, the butchers, the chefs and many more of the people that create the things that we eat. Thank you for being here this week.

What does a typical day look like for you on the job working with food? You work at Del Fox meats, right?

Bobby Morrison:
Correct. Yeah in Stanwood, Washington. It changes day to day, but well, typically, there’s nothing as typically right now with COVID.

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Bobby Morrison:
Our business is busier than ever. Normally this time of year, we’re slower. Maybe we’re cleaned up and out of the shop by 3:00, 4:00, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
How early do you start in the morning?

Bobby Morrison:
Normal 8:00 this time of year, but right now, it’s been 7:00 or 6:00 and we and we don’t clean up anymore. We got a cleanup crew or a guy that comes up and cleans up, so in that way we can cut as long as possible and literally we are cutting from, so say Monday morning, we start at 7:00. We’ll start set up, put everything, scrap barrels, hooks, luggers, trays, get everything, all our [inaudible 00:02:39], everything is set up in place. Then, they almost roll out the beef and start cutting. Then, we have a break at 10:00. It’s about 20 minutes. Then, we’ll have another break at noon. Then, we’ll have a break at 3:00, but we’re cutting beef the whole time. We don’t stop until like 5:00, 5:15. It could go longer. Who knows what else comes up?

Dillon Honcoop:
Cutting beef, how does that work? What do you start with? Just in a nutshell, what does the process go?

Bobby Morrison:
Every shop is different. Every shop is different. Everyone cuts different. Everyone has a different theory or just a different method, however you want to put it. No one really cuts meat the same unless they’ve been cutting together for a really long time. Everyone breaks it just a little bit different. It’s like you could have it an inch different one way or an inch different another and it changes the muscle structure a little bit, but typically, the way we do it is we break everything by the half, and then, it’s quartered on the rail, so you would have what you would call your four quarter on the front and then the hind quarter on the back.
That four quarter that’s on the front, that’s where you get your … We’ll go from the bottom from the neck because that’s at the bottom up to your ribeye. You get your neck, your brisket, shank, arm roast, clod roast. You could get your flatirons and teres majors out of there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Let’s move this over for you a little bit.

Bobby Morrison:
No worries, my voice carries. Then, you’ll get into your chuck, short ribs and into your plate and then up into your ribs. There’s a couple other cuts you can get out of there, but that’s typically that front side, and then, what we’ll do is we take it and we’ll clean up the skirt and the neck and just anything that’s got some age on it. Then, we break it in between the fifth and the sixth rib. Then, we have it, and then from there, we’ll end up dropping it onto the saw, and then, it splits the arm and the brisket. Then from there, you get your chuck, your clod. The way we break is pretty basic. It’s nothing like you would see in a retail shop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about Del Fox Meats. What is it and what’s the whole vibe of what the whole team is doing there?

Bobby Morrison:
What we’re doing is we’re doing on-farm slaughter, bringing it back to the shop and then aging it and then processing it that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
How long do you age it?

Bobby Morrison:
Beef is typically 14 days. We’re right on 14 days because we can’t go any longer or any shorter because our coolers are full and then-

Dillon Honcoop:
What happens if you go shorter?

Bobby Morrison:
Then, the customer doesn’t get a very good product and then we’re just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Aging determines the quality?

Bobby Morrison:
Correct and it also depends on how fat the beef is. When you get into that, it’s a little bit more delicate because you can age things longer if you want to, but again, we don’t have time and the space to do something like that for people. Some people want a three-week hang. We can do it in slower times, but right now-

Dillon Honcoop:
You got to keep stuff moving.

Bobby Morrison:
We don’t have space. We go out to the farm. We have a butcher truck, which the owner of the shop runs or is on. It’s a three-man crew and they go out. They go as far as the Canadian border. They’ll go all the way down to Carnation and farther.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a big territory.

Bobby Morrison:
They’ll go out to the Friday Harbor. They go out to all the islands, would be a lot. They go butcher in the field and then bring it back. Then, we’ll weigh it, wash it or wash it or weigh it, put it in our chill cooler. It sits for 24 hours. In the morning, I’m usually the one that will take it out and rotate. It goes into one of three coolers that we have, depending on which one is full and rotation on. Then yeah, two weeks. Then, we roll them out and then we start cutting just like I was just saying in that exact way. We have one guy who will break, like I was saying, that front quarter. Then, we have another guy who break the hind quarter.
Then, we have myself and another guy and we have another guy filling in right now because we’re so busy. Then, we’re just trimming, break and just cleaning stuff up, making steaks, briskets, roast, netting stuff, just making it simple and then passing it over. We got two ladies that wrap, do amazing job and we got a guy who makes hamburger. He’s got to keep up with us and he does a great job because we it’s like we have to keep up with the butcher truck because they can kill faster than we can process, right? The pace that they keep us at is crazy, right? Because they’ll kill 20 beef in a day, right? They’ll make two or three loads right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many pounds is in the average beef?

Bobby Morrison:
It varies from anywhere from six, depending on the farmer and the cows and the feed, but it varies from anywhere from 600 to 1,200 pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s finished product?

Bobby Morrison:
Finished hanging weight product. We get grass-fed cows that are lean as all get out. You honestly wish you could almost add fat to, and then, you have some cows or beef that’s just so fat you just see it and your hand just starts to hurt and the fats hard. You’re just wishing and hoping that your knife is sharp enough to get through it sometimes. It could be a razor and it just stops, and even, it could be older too. That doesn’t help.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re cutting me all day every day?

Bobby Morrison:
We did 63 pigs last week on Tuesday.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s another thing I was going to ask. We’ve been talking about beef, but you do pork as well.

Bobby Morrison:
And lamb.

Dillon Honcoop:
And lamb.

Bobby Morrison:
And goats and alpaca.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Bobby Morrison:
And deer and elk and bear.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bobby Morrison:
Alpaca is about the craziest thing I guess. I don’t even know if it’s crazy and I’ve eaten it. It’s good.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you compare it to?

Bobby Morrison:
It’s like a mix between beef and lamb. Red meat, really dark. It wasn’t … I forgot what cut. I think it was like pieces of top sirloin, but it’s really good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Of all those, what’s your fave?

Bobby Morrison:
Pork.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people are just kind of meh on pork.

Bobby Morrison:
Well, because they don’t understand the value of pork and what it brings to just, I don’t know, I guess my opinion is different because I see it through a cook’s eyes. Then, I get to see it through my butcher’s eyes first because I started cooking before I even got into this meat world. It was planned a little. I cooked all over Seattle for 10 year, nine years from small cafes to big huge catering at Nintendo, to fine dining, doing eight to 10 courses.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of stuff were you making? What was your specialty?

Bobby Morrison:
Oh, man, I never really could say that I could have specialties, but I was so ADD about my cooking. I never cook the same thing. If I do, it’s just like I just always try to improve it. I’ve always had this, “You know it’s good, but I can always make it better,” mentality. That’s just life and everything for me. I’m always looking for ways to improve, but I really like curing bacon.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really? Did that start only once you had gone from being a cook to being a butcher?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, that just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain how that works. What’s the process of making and curing bacon?

Bobby Morrison:
Making and curing bacon. For me, I like to just be as simple as possible. I don’t like to overcomplicate things. For me, bacon is pork belly, 50/50 salt to brown sugar.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Bobby Morrison:
I just give a nice even coat rub on the belly. Then sometimes, I’ll have it in a container or I’ll put it in a plastic bag and I’ll rotate that bag every day, every of couple days, check the moisture levels because what you’re doing is you’re pulling all the moisture out the fat or a little bit out of the fat because there’s not too much and mostly out of the protein. You’re just sanitizing it almost. Then making it so that beneficial bacteria can grow if you let because you have to age that. If not, you just … It’s about five to seven days rotating. You might have to re-salt it once because if you do it a little bit more, it’s a little salty. Then you just got to add fat and cook it with other things. I’ve aged bacon for a year. Let it get black mold on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. I just wipe it off with vinegar.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
See all these things that we’ve been trained for so many years to be scared of when actually they’re part of a natural process.

Bobby Morrison:
Actually, I learned this technique from Brandon Sheard, the Farmstead Meatsmith. Early in my career in between right when I was getting into butchery or meat cutting, I took a couple of his classes when he first started up like eight to 10 years ago, something like that. I’ve been just loving it ever since and just the simplicity of it. You can change the flavors of your bacon by just where you let it sit and just hang out. From your countertop to having it in your fridge.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because of the temperature difference or-

Bobby Morrison:
Temperature difference, the smells of your kitchen cooking. That’s why unlike a lot of you would see like old text or in other old butcher shops or anything like that, you always see cured meat hanging above things, right? It’s doing that not only for air and circulation, but it’s also picking up the smells of your environment.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about smoking it?

Bobby Morrison:
That’s a choice. You could either smoke it, add flavor within your smoke woods or you can just let it hang out after you rinse your cure off, your salt, sugar after about five, seven days and then you just kind of let it hang out on the counter.

Dillon Honcoop:
Then, how long does that go?

Bobby Morrison:
As long as you feel like.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Doesn’t have to be refrigerated?

Bobby Morrison:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Open air?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How long do you do that before you slice it typically?

Bobby Morrison:
You could do it that day. You do it two weeks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it better the longer you wait?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. It just depends on how develop flavor you want to go because I’ve noticed that the longer you do it a little bit, you get more of that funk, cheesy-

Dillon Honcoop:
Gamey?

Bobby Morrison:
I wouldn’t say gamey, but it’s more of a cheesiness. It’s just a different palatable mummy-ish flavor I want to say just because it’s like something that your tongue and your mouth isn’t used to, but at the same time, you can’t put your finger on it. I’ve done this and I’ve taken this bacon into like guys’ trips and they’d get pissed off of me because I don’t bring enough. I bring all this meat, I bring steaks and every, but they just want the bacon. You can eat it, just slice it and eat it raw like then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. Just because of the air, the circulation, the salt, the sugar, it’s like prosciutto. You just slice it real thin and you can see like. You can almost see through the fat. It’s cool stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
How different is that than the bacon you buy in store? Because you can’t do that with bacon that you buy in the store, right?

Bobby Morrison:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
That stuff goes bad.

Bobby Morrison:
It can. The bacon in the store too is because it’s all pressurized cured. Even at our shop, we use a tumbler and we can have bacon cured in four hours. Then, we let it hang out for a day and then we smoke it. Then literally, you have bacon in two days, opposed to five to seven. There’s no way you could do it, you could but you could have a lot of space to do it that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Store all of it as it cures.

Bobby Morrison:
There’d be no way you could charge the same price.

Dillon Honcoop:
More expensive.

Bobby Morrison:
No one would want to buy bacon. Well, they probably would, but they would just scoff at the price.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about this stuff that you buy at the store that’s like uncured because people that are worried about things that go into cured bacon, that’s curing it probably with different stuff than we’re talking about doing?

Bobby Morrison:
Correct. It has a celery powder. See, I should do more research on this and I’ve always needed to, but I’ve always just stuck with my salt and sugar just because-

Dillon Honcoop:
Old fashioned?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, and I know what it is. Don’t get me wrong. I buy bacon from the store. I don’t have time to cure it like I used to because everyone works a lot, but I like being dad. I like coming home, being present and not having to be like, “Hold on. Let me take five minutes to make this bacon,” because it doesn’t take very long, but it’s like-

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s another thing to do.

Bobby Morrison:
It’s another thing to add to my plate.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many kids do you have?

Bobby Morrison:
Just one. Just one five-year-old, and man, she just keeps me so busy. We’re playing horses this morning. She’s just, “Dad, play with me. Dad, play with me.”

Dillon Honcoop:
I have a four-year-old, so I know the game.

Bobby Morrison:
Man, she just cracks me up. I forgot what she told me this morning, but she called me a knucklehead or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you grow up?

Bobby Morrison:
I grew up in Ellensburg, Washington. It’s crazy because I grew up in a farm town, beef town and I didn’t really want anything to do with it then. I just wanted to hang out, play my sports, hang out my friends, ride my bike, but no, I wanted nothing to do with farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your dad do back in Ellensburg?

Bobby Morrison:
My parents actually separated. My dad, I actually got the best of both worlds, I thought as a kid because my dad always lived over in Seattle. When my parents split up, my mom moved us over to Ellensburg. I got the city life on the weekends, and then during the week, I got to hang out in the country. I always thought that was awesome because I get to experience it all and most people don’t. It allowed me to connect with a lot of people and in a lot of different spaces and relate to both sides. It’s definitely helped me out in my career and my journey and my path on this food passion that I have.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your mom do in Ellensburg?

Bobby Morrison:
My mom, she moved over there and she was doing, it was rehabilitation for at risk youth when she first moved over there and then she ended up starting her own business. What was she selling? It was like old Western antiques.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your dad do in Seattle?

Bobby Morrison:
My dad, he worked for CLC Light as a carpenter. My dad’s always worked with his hands. I didn’t realize I was going to end up working with my hands when I was younger, but I knew probably right around middle school I wanted to cook.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. I knew I wanted to cook, but I never like-

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it that you were doing at that age where you were inspired by that?

Bobby Morrison:
I can remember actually my cousin cooked, making scrambled eggs with me when I was actually younger. That is the memory that’s always stuck with me in cooking, that was my eggs. Eggs were my first love and cooking was with scrambled eggs with my cousin.

Dillon Honcoop:
By the time you were saying in high school, what kind of stuff were you cooking?

Bobby Morrison:
Not a whole lot to be honest.

Dillon Honcoop:
But it’s still interested you?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, it just interested me. It’s not like I pursued it or went to work in a restaurant. My first job was as a seventh grade, I worked for a logger and then I did that. I did work for him for a long time. Then once, I turned 17, I started working at the Albertsons in town. I did that at 17, 18 and then I graduated. As soon as I graduated high school, man, I was gone. I moved right over to my dad’s house two days. Garbage sack over my back and I was looking for a job in a restaurant as soon as I graduated.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that first gig? What did you do?

Bobby Morrison:
To be honest, it was in the mall, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. I don’t know if I’ve ever really told anyone that, but only my close friends know. I wasn’t there very long, but at the same time, it’s cool because I did that when I was 18, and then all of a sudden, it’s like, I’ve been cooking for a while. Went to culinary school at North Seattle. Worked in a couple cafes and stuff. Then, a handful years later, all of a sudden, pretzel buns and pretzels become huge, right? Like everyone’s wanting pretzels.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re like, “I’ve done this.”

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, it’s weird, man. People are trying to figure out in the bakery section, cooking, they’re like, “I can’t get these as golden brown as I want.” I’m like, “I can help you.” I’m like but-

Dillon Honcoop:
What is it? About the right amount of butter and the right heat-

Bobby Morrison:
No, to be honest, it’s baking soda and water. It’s just gives it a nice shine. You just brush it on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. Just as you’re done baking it and then throw your salt on.

Dillon Honcoop:
No kidding?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. If it doesn’t work, don’t hold me accountable. Just because you heard it on the podcast doesn’t mean it always works.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s true. Don’t believe everything you hear on our podcast.

Bobby Morrison:
At least try it though.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the coolest restaurant cooking-

Bobby Morrison:
Experience that I’ve ever had?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bobby Morrison:
I want to say Purple Cafe in Bellevue, is really what … It wasn’t so much the restaurant itself, but it was the environment and the other cooks and the chefs I was working with that made the experience. That restaurant could have been … It’s in your restaurant could be, it all depends on who’s working in your team because I’ve worked in a lot of different restaurants. I was one of those guys that like I changed restaurants every year. I’ve worked in, I don’t know how many different restaurants-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that pretty typical in that business?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You move around?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, because you’re always getting paid the same. Someone might offer you a quarter more an hour. You’re like, “A quarter more, I’ll take it. I’m out. I’m learning something new.” I worked two jobs for a while. I work morning shift somewhere, and then, I go work night shift somewhere.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a day then were you putting in?

Bobby Morrison:
16, 18.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bobby Morrison:
For a year, year and a half.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s intense.

Bobby Morrison:
I had some hospital bills I had to pay.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened?

Bobby Morrison:
Well, I didn’t know if it was from stress or what, but I ended up getting migraines in my stomach. They called it neuro-cyclic vomiting syndrome. Literally, for a period of three or four years, I had a really sensitive gut.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would think like ulcers or acid.

Bobby Morrison:
I ended up getting those. They ended up giving me that just because I was thrown up so much. I ended up getting like two ulcers. I had to take medication for that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you, too much stress and you weren’t eating or what?

Bobby Morrison:
No, it could have been that because drinking a lot of soda and coffee, because working in restaurants, you get unlimited soda, man. I don’t drink pop. I don’t drink it anymore really, but I used to drink almost like a gallon a day because you get these 32-ounce cups, they call them portion cups. All you got to do is put it up in a window and someone fills it for you unlimited. Purple cafe in Bellevue is probably one of my funnest experiences working. I learned a ton. My chef there, his name is Harry Mills. Guy’s amazing. Just a great team leader and just knew how to challenge people just to the right amount, just perfect and get the best out of them and be able to promote such a great work environment.
If I could go work for someone again and he was doing it, I would leave my job and I would go work for him in a second. I could tell you hundreds of people that have worked for him, they would probably say the same thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bobby Morrison:
Then another, his name is Kyle Cole. Where’s he chef now? He’s doing a pizza restaurant, I think, at Redmond. The guy’s wealth of knowledge in food and just passion. He pointed me in the right directions, showed me some different chefs, different techniques, taught me about doing the research and looking for the little details that are going to make a difference. Just the little things that are going to make your day that much better, but then are going to make your work even better and taste that much better.
He might not say it, but it’s just his personality and what he just brought to the table every day. He was intense. He was fiery. I think he’s a couple years younger than me even. I’m 36. It was an awesome team, man. Then from there, I went and worked at Google. That was an awesome experience.

Dillon Honcoop:
Doing food stuff?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, cooking in their kitchen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, it was a good buddy of mine. He got me the job. Wait, sorry. I got to backtrack. Sorry, I went from Purple to Altura which is actually was nominated James Beard Best New Restaurant Pacific Northwest that first year that I was there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bobby Morrison:
That chef there, that guy’s amazing. His name is Nathan Lockwood. He’s from this area, went down live in California and worked for, I believe, the restaurant was Acqua. It was a two or three Michelin star restaurant. I only got to work with him for six months. Then, we had some family issues. My wife needed me home more. I had to take a day job. Then, that’s when I started working for Google, working in their kitchens. That was a great experience, ton of freedom. Just evolved at that way, and then after that, then I left and I went into retail butchery. I’ve worked in a retail shop and that was my first experience and that was at Bill the Butcher in Woodinville.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you make that transition from cooking to butchery because that’s pretty different?

Bobby Morrison:
It is, but it’s always been in my plans going back to when I was in high school and I knew I wanted to cook. I had a friend of mine or my mom’s friend who one day pulled me aside, half drunk and said, “What do you want to do when you graduate?”

Dillon Honcoop:
That classic question.

Bobby Morrison:
I said, “I want to cook and I want to cut me. I want to be a butcher.” She said, “Well, cook first.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
“Don’t go cut me first. Cook first.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What was her background that she could give you that advice?

Bobby Morrison:
She was in beef sales. At the time, she owned her own business selling beef, grass-fed beef out of New Zealand. She had grown up a cattle ranchers daughter who ended up being, I believe, excuse me, head sales for IBP and marketing at one point, I think in the ’80s, and then around the late ’80s and then mid ’90s broke off and did her own thing and saw that beef was going more towards the grass fed. That was mid ’90s. Then, I didn’t get to hang out with her as much because shortly after, she passed away, but I’m doing exactly what she wanted me to do and that plan that her and I talked when she was a little blitzed.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sometimes, that’s when the real truth comes out, right?

Bobby Morrison:
She didn’t hold anything back.

Dillon Honcoop:
You get in to butchery and first you started retail. What’s the difference between what you’re doing now in retail? How big, how much different is that?

Bobby Morrison:
A lot. I think it’s a lot different because different customer base, different process. It’s like you’re going from setting up a case of meat out of a box that literally you’re just like denuding or trimming fat and being able to make it presentable and putting it in a case.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s got to look good.

Bobby Morrison:
You got to make it look good. Then from what we’re doing now, now it’s speed, being able to debone stuff because when you’re working with box stuff, you’re not deboning a whole lot. Just nice skills in general are a lot different. You’re having to use different positions. You’re using a lot more leverage, gravity for a lot of things, seaming. Just the cuts you’re working with are a lot different that you don’t see in a retail space.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the most underrated cut of beef that people don’t usually buy or think about but is actually awesome?

Bobby Morrison:
Oh, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
You people who cut me, you guys are the ones who know this stuff.

Bobby Morrison:
I know and it’s crazy. We were talking this off air about the difference between the city market I want to say and the rural is the best way to put it because you come out to my shop and like a hanger steak is, “Eww, why would you ever eat that? That’s gross.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s a hanger state like what?

Bobby Morrison:
For me, the hanger steak is a diaphragm muscle. It’s a singular muscle that literally hangs inside the cow and it helps breathe. It’s part of the skirt steaks and stuff, but it’s going to be one of the beefier cuts. Anything on the inside is going to have a lot, I want say, beefier flavor, so you got your hanger and your skirt. Maybe even your flap flank because they’re more on the interior side and there’s not a whole lot in between.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m thinking like carne asada.

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, your skirt steak or flap … It’s called a bavette.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t there a lot of stuff that is sold in the regular grocery store that’s called carne asada, but it’s just true-

Bobby Morrison:
It’s just carne asada. It’s just a style of thin cut me. You come get carne asada for us, it’s like depending on how you want it. You could get it out of top round. You could get it out of chuck, you could get it out of ribeye. It just depends on who’s cutting.

Dillon Honcoop:
Recently, I just cooked …

Bobby Morrison:
On the grill.

Dillon Honcoop:
… a London broil And way better grilled than the old school way of doing it which always tends to overcook it.

Bobby Morrison:
In an oven with a broiler on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Grill over charcoal, way better.

Bobby Morrison:
I’ve never done that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Way better.

Bobby Morrison:
I’ve never done that. I need to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was skeptical, but man, read online, “Okay, this person says do it,” so I did it. It was awesome, but it really helped me taste the different flavor of the London broil. That was another cut that’s like it’s a little bit more of almost a gamey flavor to it.

Bobby Morrison:
The beefy, to be honest with the London broil, the London broil is actually just a style of cooking.

Dillon Honcoop:
True.

Bobby Morrison:
I don’t know it, do you know was it a top round?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bobby Morrison:
Cool, because some places market it a little bit different. Like I said, regional-

Dillon Honcoop:
That new style of cooking has become synonymous with that cut but really-

Bobby Morrison:
Exactly. You could do the same thing with … When I was younger, a London broil for me was a flank steak, right? I don’t know why, but that’s just what my mom did. I didn’t know any different until I started cutting meat. It’s regional. It’s how you grow up. If you’re not around it, you’re not exposed to it. You just don’t know. It’s not your fault. It’s just how it is. Everyone treats cuts differently. A London broil, when I was working in the retail shop at Bill the Butcher rarely sold London broil, rarely would even someone come in and ask for a London broil because we would take that top round or bottom round even and we would use them for jerky or stew meat or hamburger.
I don’t know. It was really weird. We just never, but up north, we sell them all the time. All the time. Then, going back to hanger steak, flank steak or not the hanger, the skirt, bavette, what’s another one coulotte which is a cap of the top sirloin, in the city, you got people wanting those like crazy. Then, you come up north, it goes in the grind. I had a friend of mine come up and cut with us and she worked. Her name’s Alice. She works down in Mercer Island, but she’s moving down to Portland, but she came up and cut with us.
Her favorite cut is a flap steak or a bavette. She’s cleaning up all nice. I’d have her making it in stew meat and stuff. She’s like, “Really, no one actually wants this as a steak.” I’m like, “It’s not on our cutting card and Nope.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, so we always turn it into stew meat. It’s great for stew. Then, the one time that we got a no stew meat, I looked at it. She was cleaning up. I was like, “Here, there’s no stew meat. You want to see what we do?” I just took my knife and go, “Wab, wab, wab, wab.” Three pieces, clean off a little bit of fattening and I threw it in the logger. She was like, “You got to be kidding me.” “Nope.” She’s like, “You are breaking my heart right now.” I almost thought tear because it looks nice-

Dillon Honcoop:
If you throw it in the logger, what does that mean? It goes to grind?

Bobby Morrison:
It goes to grind.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hamburger?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, the hanger steak, same thing, goes to grind. Skirt steak goes to grind. She’s seeing this because she markets all these cuts all the time. People just like, she can’t keep them in her case long enough.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. Then I’m throwing it into grind. She’s just like … I can just see her heart breaking.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why are you so passionate about food?

Bobby Morrison:
I think in all honesty because my mom cooked the living out (beep) of it when I was a kid. Like my vegetables, I will almost eat raw opposed to cooked. It’s just barely blanched when I cook it. They say perfect in some restaurants, it’s like you can go through your carrot or your asparagus and you should be able to cut it with a fork, right? Literally, it shouldn’t smash, but you should be able to have a little bit of force but be able to cut it with a fork. That’s almost too cooked for me. I just like it just barely cook because my mom, she would take a can of cooked beans and boil them.

Dillon Honcoop:
That drove your passion to like, “There’s a different way to do this.”

Bobby Morrison:
I guess because that’s the only thing I can come up with from looking back and trying to just reflect on how I’ve got here, right? Because I do that quite often to just give myself checkpoints and see how I’m doing. Yeah, that’s just a lot of what I come back to. My wife is the same way. My wife works in food. Well, kind of now, but not really because COVID

Dillon Honcoop:
What was she doing?

Bobby Morrison:
She was working at Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, serving steaks.

Dillon Honcoop:
They cut back because of COVID?

Bobby Morrison:
They haven’t been open since.

Dillon Honcoop:
They just laid a bunch of people off?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, because they’re all on unemployment, but they actually start back up tomorrow. My wife’s actually got her first shift back on Sunday.

Dillon Honcoop:
COVID has really done a lot to the food world.

Bobby Morrison:
Oh, my God. Man, it’s changed the way we do business. Like I said at the beginning, we’re slammed. We’re so busy. It’s like fall. It’s busier than fall right now. We are doing so much beef and pork and people are wanting to fill their freezers more than ever before.

Dillon Honcoop:
They just want to stock up?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or is it because they’re home and cooking more?

Bobby Morrison:
That could be it too or they don’t trust the food system. They don’t trust what’s going on. Your podcast you did with Camas, he had a lot of great things to say about our food system and what we do here in Washington. We live in one of the best food states in the world. It’s just hands down. Our climate, everything, that’s changing a little bit, but in the passion that our farmers and the people producing the food have is, I can’t say it’s the best because I haven’t been other places, but all I know is that people that come here are just surprised and just blown away by the products that we’re able to put out.
It’s cool because the different temperature climates that we get all over the state from the San Juan Islands to where we’re at now in Everett, up to Stanwood, up where you’re at and Lynden, all the way over to the desert when you go to Ellensburg and farther over to Sunnyside, Walla Walla. You get in … It’s like you got potatoes up north, you got potatoes out east, you got wine grapes up north, you got wine grapes out east. It’s just like, “Are you kidding me right now?” Not only that, then you got all this cider and apples and cherries and it’s just like, more and more and more and more.

Dillon Honcoop:
What don’t we have here other than like tropical fruit? I’m trying to think of what else we don’t grow in Washington State and grow amazingly well.

Bobby Morrison:
Coffee beans, we grow coffee beans here.

Dillon Honcoop:
We do?

Bobby Morrison:
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I haven’t seen that.

Bobby Morrison:
You said, “What don’t we grow?” and I said coffee beans. Someone’s going to do it. It can be done. I know someone tried to do it in Wyoming.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, or Wisconsin, one of the two.

Dillon Honcoop:
Boy, you just opened a whole new can of worms. I’m going to have to go google this now.

Bobby Morrison:
I’ll send you a link. I’ll send you links because I’m always researching, I’m always looking, like I said, to do something better, someone who’s doing it better.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the people buying food at the store or at a restaurant or wherever need to know about where their food is coming from? You’re talking about how lucky we are here in Washington.

Bobby Morrison:
Just ask questions. Don’t just assume that the person serving you, handing you your food knows what they’re actually doing because to be honest, some people, they just don’t educate themselves on it. They could be serving it to you, but that’s just their job. You as a consumer, if you care about your food, you should do the research. You shouldn’t just act like you care about it. Just ask. Just do the research. Grow it yourself. It’s not it’s not hard, but it’s not easy, right? You just have to put in the time. That’s all it takes. Time, a little bit of research and grow your own food. That’s huge.
Know a farmer. That’s another one. If you can’t grow your own food, know a farmer. Everyone should know a farmer or have a farmer like they have a mechanic or a dentist or a doctor, because in the end, that is really what’s going to make you healthy. It’s not going to the doctor and to have them tell you, you’re having issues because you’re eating too much sugar. Well, all the candy. I have that issue. Probably if I go to the doctor, they’re going to tell me, I’m probably close to diabetes because I like candy.
At the same time, I know I do, I should not eat it as much, but at the same time, it’s tough sometimes when your wife makes a bunch of brownies and put salt and powdered sugar on top of them, and then, you got your five-year-old being like, “Dad, these are so good. Will you just have a brownie with me?” “No, I’m not trying to do that.” “Okay.”

Dillon Honcoop:
There are a lot of trends and fads out there and there are a lot of things that people are really worried about with their food. Are those things accurate generally that people worry about or are they kind of, in my experience at least, people are not worried about maybe things that they should be and that all obsession, super scared about things that aren’t actually bad at all?

Bobby Morrison:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Has that been your experience, knowing the backend of the food system?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. Again, it just goes back to educating yourself as a consumer. When I was working at the retail shop in Woodinville, I was blown away with how much the consumers knew about the product that I was selling compared to even some of the people that I worked with because they didn’t know. Literally, I had customers tell them more about the meat that’s in that box than what they knew. For me, it was a real eye opener to be like, “I need to know more if I’m selling this and I’m talking to someone.” I’m going to tell you the truth. It’s just that’s the way I have always been.
I try to be as honest as transparent as possible. I try to pass that on to my daughter. I just tell people to educate themselves and I’ll do whatever I can to help put them in the right position to do that. I’ll answer all their questions, but yeah, it’s just looking them up, talking to the people raising it, looking into the people that are processing it, looking at those practices, looking to where it’s coming from, what’s the carbon footprint. There’s a lot of different variables and it depends on what you’re passionate about and what you want your end goal to be with your food and in your health because in the end, that’s what it is, is your food is your health in general. The healthier … You could say, “Yeah, I eat healthy,” but at the same time, it’s all in perspective.
My wife says we really healthy and I’m like, “We could eat healthier.” She’s going to scoff at me when she hears this, but at the same time, it’s like we grow a good amount of food at our house. We don’t have a big pot or anything, but it’s like the experience that we get or I get when I can watch my daughter come out to the yard pull carrot out or we’ve been eating strawberries like crazy like handfuls a day and just that experience and it’s like having her like eat a white strawberry and the bitter sourness that it has compared to just like one that’s too far ripe where it’s like fermented where you’re just like, “Oh, that’s alcohol,” but it looked awesome.
It’s like being able to experience that. To be honest, when I was five, I didn’t get experience. I don’t know. It’s just bringing those food experiences and just trying to connect with your food as best as possible. It’s like, yeah, it’s hard to do in the grocery store and everything, but it’s convenience. I totally understand convenience shop on the outside of the aisles, shop in the middle and you’re just going to go down a road that is not the best, but it’s not going to kill you. I don’t think yet. I can go off on tangents. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do people need to be worried about their food like living here in Washington State? Again-

Bobby Morrison:
Again, if you’re getting stuff from our state, no, not really because people are worried about the food, and again, do your research because the restrictions and the guidelines that we have to follow when we’re processing animals, the USDA is really strict, right? We have a lot of strict rules that we have to follow to make the meat that we’re producing. Wholesome and safe for people to eat. Yeah, there are bad actors out there and people that try to fake the funk, but again if you care and there’s a reason why these guidelines are in place, being able to find people that are transparent, wanting to show if they hide things, I wouldn’t trust them so much. If you can’t see what’s going on, it’s tough for me to trust you.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s my thing with food that’s grown farther away and especially in a different country or truck.

Bobby Morrison:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do I know that …

Bobby Morrison:
You don’t know-

Dillon Honcoop:
things are enforced?

Bobby Morrison:
Exactly. Like you go to a grocery store and box meat, it’s like especially … It’s amazing what food and food programs can do for the quality of your animals. My buddy over in Ellensburg, Kyler, he’s starting up his beef business. It’s Pacific, PNW Beef. He’s got this cool feed program and I haven’t got to try his beef yet. I’m really anxious because he’s talked it up to me, but his feed program is he’s using, I believe it’s spent grains from Iron Horse Brewery over there. He’s got this, I think, I might mess this up. Sorry, Kyler, but it’s like chaff or something. It’s like loose hay that they mix a specific variety I think. Then, he’s got this other waste product. I believe it’s from a bakery that he mixes in with it.
It’s all formulated, right? Then they mix it and what he says is like the fat is like soft. How the hell is he describing it? The way he was describing is almost wagyu because it’s just got this soft, saturated, just melt really quick. For beef, it doesn’t happen very often, right? It all depends, but sometimes you see it and it’s just gross, but sometimes you see it and you’re just like, “Wow, that’s really interesting.” All fat on every beef is different. When you get the saturated stuff, it’s easier to cut, but sometimes you’re just like touching it and you’re just like, “Wow, it’s liquid already. How does it happen through gloves?” It’s just like, “How can that clog your arteries?” I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like the science is evolving on that with fats too. It used to be, “Oh, fats are way clogging your arteries and cholesterol and stuff.” Now, they’re saying no, it’s actually the cholesterol that your body produces and it actually is a response to potentially eating too much carbs which they told us to eat for a long time. Now, they’re like, “No, actually fat is maybe not the terrible thing,” but they used to tell us that it was.

Bobby Morrison:
I’ve been so busy, but I want to try this beef, and not only that, it’s from my hometown and it’s a friend of mine. It’s cool. I’m getting relationships with all different types of farmers from all different backgrounds. My buddy Kyler, he knows Camas. He’s good friends with him, who you did on your podcast, and then, it’s like I got small farm friends that I moved from like Snohomish down to Orting. Everybody is having issues getting their animals processed, 100%, whether it be pigs or lambs, their beef.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the issue?

Bobby Morrison:
Everyone’s busy, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just not enough processors like you guys there at Del Fox to do it?

Bobby Morrison:
Not just processors, meat cutters in general doing what I’m doing. Well, it’s because it’s hard work with not a lot of pay in the end. We work like 10 hours a day, 10+, 12. Where was I? I had golf with my uncle yesterday and I was telling him and he’s like, “Oh, I was a machine mechanic. That’s not that bad. You’re preaching the choir.” I’m like, “Yeah, I get it,” but you wake up and your hands are numb and you can’t button your shirt in the morning. Then driving to work and your hands go numb again. Then when you get on the block, you’re starting to cut. You can barely grab a piece of meat with your left hand because it’s numb then you can’t grip your knife because it’s numb. Then, you have to just shake it off.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just from using your hand so much.

Bobby Morrison:
All day. All day, flipping, pulling, tearing, grabbing. I feel really good because I’ve had time off, but it’s going to be nice to go back to work on Monday. We’ve gone a week, but yeah, it’s my back, my arms. I feel good now, but last week, my body was in a bad shape. I could barely bend over.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve never thought of that that being a butcher would be that hard on your body, but it makes sense.

Bobby Morrison:
Man, I’m standing in one spot for like nine hours. I could feel my ass disappearing, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bobby Morrison:
Then my hamstrings are just so tight and I’ve just been trying to stretch them all week long. I change my shoes maybe twice a day, once a day. I have a pair of boots and I wear my Romeos. I just go back and forth because I got to change. Your feet are important. I learned that-

Dillon Honcoop:
That affects your back too?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, and I learned that being in the restaurant working 16 hours. It’s different because I had different shoes on then. I’m more in a boot now. Kitchen shoes are more comfortable. At the same time, we work with hoses and water all the time. I don’t feel like being wet at work. That sucks because it’s cold.

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Bobby Morrison:
We’re out here in 80 degrees, but we go in the cut room. It’s 40, going in the cooler and it’s 30, 25. You go in the freezers, it’s -15. I’m usually in a hoodie and a button up of some sort.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for sharing your story.

Bobby Morrison:
No problem.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the steps that I wouldn’t have expected, but as you explain all of it, it makes sense, the journey that you’ve on. For sure.

Bobby Morrison:
It’s not going to stop, man. It’s just going to keep going, getting better, evolving, meeting more farmers, doing more every day. I’m always looking for the next step, new projects, staying busy in this meat world.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Bobby Morrison:
Thank you. Appreciate it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
After that conversation, I really want to try that old school way of curing bacon that he described earlier on. I should go back and actually write down the steps that he explained and see if I can make it happen. What a fun conversation with Bobby and a guy that’s just really passionate with such a broad perspective of our food system and what’s good and what’s bad out there. I have so much fun talking with the people that we encounter here on the podcast. Please support us just by following us on social media, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @rfrp_podcast. Check it out.
Also, go to our website if you haven’t already, realfoodrealpeople.org and feel free to email me anytime, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org

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

Bridget Coon part 2 | #030 07/06/2020

She's a digital communications expert and consultant, but she also runs a beef ranch in Eastern Washington. In the second half of our conversation with Bridget Coon we hear her dream for changing our food system for the better.

Transcript

Bridget Coon:
I have to stay connected. I have to try to bridge these two worlds because that’s who I am and who I’ve always been, but it’s just kind of grown and become a career on one end and then also carrying on this beef cattle legacy that I grew up with.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
COVID is changing our food system and it’s exposed vulnerabilities, but at the same time, it’s kind of turned us back to the importance of the food that we grow here and buying local but it’s left a lot of us with questions, is our food system something that we can trust? We heard about meat shortages and problems with meat processing. What was really going on behind-the-scenes?

Dillon Honcoop:
We tackle that and a lot of other really big picture stuff this week with beef rancher from Benge, Washington, Bridget Coon. She’s our guest again this week. This is part two of our conversation. If you want to hear some of her personal backstory and how she got to where she is now, make sure to check out last week’s episode, Episode 29 of part one with her. This is the second half of that conversation. Whether you’ve listened to that first half or not, there’s a ton of gems that come up in the conversation this week about what’s really happening with our food system and what the truth really is about how our food is produced here in Washington State and in this country.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop. These are crazy times that we live in with everything that’s going on in the world right now. Again, it’s leaving a lot of us with questions and that’s part of the focus of this podcast is to get some answers. We do some of that this week. I really hope you enjoy this conversation. We pick up right here where we left off last week with Bridget Coon around her kitchen table in Benge, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
Technically, what’s your gig now? Is it just basically freelancing stuff or what do you do, aside from the ranch stuff, your other work?

Bridget Coon:
I held on to sort of that employment level situation with the Beef Commission until about 2017 and that was after having two kids. It was just really hard to be performing at the level that I wanted to be in that job and then not shortchanging the family, not shortchanging the kids. There’s not a lot of childcare options out here. Notice and so I tried to piece it together for a long time and I think I finally just got to the point and it should be a pretty, it’s like probably a pretty relatable feeling for a lot of women in my kind of my set that I just finally realized that I couldn’t get up earlier and I couldn’t put more effort in and I couldn’t really control for sort of this ongoing feeling like I get to the end of the day exhausted, but not really feeling like I did a great job being a mom and not doing my job at the level that I’m used to doing because I’m doing this works well before this arrangement.

Bridget Coon:
What I do now, just started with actually quitting, which is probably one of the hardest changes that I had to come to and stop being stubborn and realizing that this was the change that had to be made but I just never really lacked for work and that’s kind of your farm kid, you’re just wired for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
The fun stuff to do.

Bridget Coon:
People, if someone knows that you can do something, it’s just you’re going to get that opportunity. What started with quitting parlayed into actually just sort of, I don’t have to do nothing. I just couldn’t do exactly what they needed. It ended up being a contract to buy the digital advertising, which is something we had already been doing for the commission and still getting to do a lot of that work, but it’s just a sliver of it. Then, it took less than months to get outreach from people I know in the industry that want to do more. They wanted to do more communication and more, what we call having a digital footprint, I guess, and using email communication instead of just newsletters and all these things that most organizations that are smaller organizations don’t have like the room internally to do.

Bridget Coon:
I basically had two clients from the beef or cattle world within a matter of a couple months and then have been approached. I’ve never pitched any work. I was reluctant to call it a business or call it what it was but it was really only this year that both my kids are school aged and we have a little school in Benge. It’s like six miles away but enrollment this year is higher than it’s been in a while, 17 kids.

Dillon Honcoop:
I drove past it.

Bridget Coon:
Did you see it?

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s quite small, but it looks like a very nice, newish building.

Bridget Coon:
Well, they actually just did some renovations. So sad about the kids not being in school right now. It’s like, cool. They actually-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, it’s the time to do it.

Bridget Coon:
My husband went to school there…

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh wow.

Bridget Coon:
… in elementary school. He’s pretty amazed in seeing that work that’s just been done. They got a small school or rural school grant and that work was done this last summer. But anyway, my kids then were supposed to be in school learning. I kind of had this window of six, seven hours in the day that I haven’t had in seven years. My work just sort of has ramped up naturally. Like I said, I haven’t pitched anybody. Right now, I don’t have more room for that. I’m kind of feel like I’m somewhat… I put myself back in a familiar position with this unexpected change of life where the kids were home before summer. I figured I could figure out how to shuffle a summer and get some help from family to make sure that I felt like they were having a great summer and I was still getting work done for my clients.

Bridget Coon:
Then, I had my last work meeting off, actually my new client that wanted to have some work done. I’ve since shuffled that off to someone else because there’s just no way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome to the COVID world.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, because I feel like I’m fairly well built for it because I’ve been down this road and it’s just things that I’m used to navigating. I work from home. I’m comfortable with that but that sort of abruptness, didn’t really leave room to shuffle anything around.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much has COVID changed on the ranch here?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, nothing, other than the kids being home from school instead of that school. It’s, I say short of nuclear fallout. Cows are going to get fed, water is going to get turned on, farming is going to happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s pretty easy to slow the spread when there aren’t. There aren’t any other people for miles.

Bridget Coon:
Social distancing is our way of life. I only go to the store and even my husband was having to go for parts because those stores are open in order to support agriculture. He could stop a little store in Ritzville and grab groceries and I can live along for a long time. I’m pretty crafty in the kitchen. I have a freezer full of beef.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about with the markets and stuff and then we heard about all these beef or meat plant closures? What does that mean for you guys and big picture, what’s the truth about what’s going on there?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, obviously, we have an issue in our supply chain. When this started happening and testing for COVID-19 testing around really any processing plants, but like food processing plants are about the only ones that were open still because they were essential. It’s not like it’s a national or global problem at this point but what was concerning rate of COVID-19 cases coming from meat plants. Those plants have been working with their local health department and working within the CDC guidelines and basically working in to solve a problem to make sure that workers can process meat safely and not be transmitting COVID-19 to each other. It’s kind of one of those fix the problem while it’s happening situations and that started with slowdowns with the plants, again, losing workforce because some workers were sick and then also just figuring out how to reshape their operations to make them safer for their workers. Some of that has resulted in shutdowns.

Bridget Coon:
Every time a plant shuts down, essentially, you’ve got ranches like ours feeding into feed yards, whereby cattle are at a certain point, they’re ready, they’re ready for slaughter but if our capacity to process them is diminished for any reason, in this case, it’s COVID-19 and the efforts being done in plants, you have a backup of cattle. Then, if you back that all the way up to the ranch level, the opportunities to market your calves to the feed yard shrink because there’s animals that are ready to leave. They’re taking have space at the end, so to speak.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can’t just have them keep hanging out here on the ranch?

Bridget Coon:
You can’t. At least from our perspective and I like to say there’s a million different ways to do it. Every ranch has the general responsibilities like we talked about managing lands, managing animal health, making decisions about breeding and doing that swell, that looks totally different here than it does up in Okanogan or over on the west side.

Bridget Coon:
For our part, we’re usually kind of a, we have the ability and we try to take the ability to be flexible in our marketing. When we market that, at what weight do we market? You watch the markets to see, okay, can we have them gain another couple hundred pounds here before they move on but that also depends on if we get enough moisture or we have enough hay to get through a winter.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, there’s so many factors. It’s really kind of complex but the main thing is that we’re watching this all unfold. It’s completely kind of unprecedented. It’s not as if we’re not used to markets going up and down like any commodity and you’re going to have that but there is something weirder about that prospect of, well, I have buyers when I’m ready to sell because those buyers don’t have orders because we have backup.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s so bizarre about it is there’s extra product meat in the system, animals, yet at the same time, there are shortages and prices are going up for the consumer. It’s that breakdown in between…

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, but…

Dillon Honcoop:
… that’s causing a problem like you described.

Bridget Coon:
… people can eat cattle and beef. This is really an essential step in the supply chain. It is the right thing to do whatever it takes to ensure that people can do the work safely, that they can have their health but how you actually accomplish that and not completely upend markets for people like us or the market for the consumer, that can’t be understated how complicated and complex that is and it’s challenging.

Bridget Coon:
I had a chance to go into one of the plants here in Washington last week after they had been shut down for two weeks. They tested everyone that works in the facility. We got to go in and see the specific changes to their operations, all the PPA, any of the new… A lot of it was based around employee education and awareness and doing that in multiple languages that are spoken in a facility like that.

Bridget Coon:
Again, I’ve been through processing plants several times and under normal circumstances. It absolutely felt slow. You’re slowing down the speed and affording for. They don’t have a lot of workers that are absent because they’re ill but there are workers that are not, you can’t force someone to go to work and do this work but most of the people we saw they were happy to be back at work after being gone.

Bridget Coon:
There was like a hundred percent use of masks and vinyl partitions between those positions in the processing line where people have to stand kind of close to each other. I mean, I saw a lot of buy-in for the changes. From what I can tell and from conversations and just looking at the numbers on weekly kill, we’ve gone back up from this sort of inverse bell curve. Processing capacity is up now that it looks like these interventions, again, it’s kind of waiting and seeing if they will work to keep people healthier, keep people testing negative for COVID.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are we going to see in the grocery store?

Bridget Coon:
Right now-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because there’s like a time lag, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was reading all these farmer tweets about how bad things were but it didn’t really hit what I was seeing in the grocery store for weeks after them talking about these things happening coming down the pipeline.

Bridget Coon:
Some of the changes really are I’d say more nuanced for the consumer. Yes, there’s going to be some price increases because you have these distributors and retailers vying for a more limited amount of product, supply and demand 101. You’re going to see different prices but you’ll also see maybe a different selection of cuts. Some of the extra processing, again, that requires extra people, people working next to each other and then slows the process down to get beef to the market or to the retailer, you’ll have maybe roasts instead of steaks. Then, you can actually cut most roast down into steaks. If people are willing to do it, they’re going to get a value on a roast cut.

Dillon Honcoop:
Mind blown, yeah.

Bridget Coon:
It’s really about if people can be… Honestly, it seems like pretty minor adjustments for the consumer to make in order to still enjoy beef. Grilling season is around the corner and we actually just came up with we’re getting an infographic out there that’s like called steak swap. It’s like, if you don’t see a tenderloin, you can get the same eating experience out of a strip loin or New York strip steak. If you don’t see one of the meat case, but you see the other, you can still grill it hot, grill it to medium rare.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s like the people in the store, buying at the store are having to do some of the same learning that someone who might be buying direct like we talked about earlier we’ll also have to be doing. I know I did that a while back. Well, just to back up a little bit. I grew up around the dairy farming world. Both sets my grandparents were in dairy farming so our beef naturally was called dairy cows, which isn’t the greatest beef in the world, but it serves its purpose.

Bridget Coon:
Grind it. That’s protein.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, we have a lot of hamburgers and that was the thing. We never really did a lot of stuff with those other cuts. Then, jump forward many years, this is just a few years ago, local farmer was selling an animal and my family split it up between my mom and dad and I think my sister and brother-in-law, I mean, my wife. We shared this. We got an assortment of cuts, some of which I knew nothing about but in the era of Google, and I will say this, the era of instant pots.

Bridget Coon:
Giddy up.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, there was some pretty amazing things that happened and I’m like, “Hey, short ribs?” This is cool. I would have never ever cooked that but because of that experience, I did and I think a lot of people are going to be turning onto this kind of stuff right now.

Bridget Coon:
Enter your new world of beef that you don’t even know existed, absolutely. I find few silver linings to this situation. I don’t want to talk about it. Think about it because it makes me cranky but I do see, I do like to see that. I like to see this opportunity for people to move beyond just I don’t know much but I have this preference because that’s what’s trendy or that what’s his that’s what’s acceptable in this culture, urban culture they live in but to actually dive in and be like, “I would buy that but I don’t know how to cook it,” and then starting to build that knowledge. Yeah, we’re so focused on providing convenient products. When the supply chain is working well, we can do that but when we have a hiccup like this, it is incredibly important that people start to learn more about food preparation, just a very simple basic concepts.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s so much easier with Google and granted you can get burned on bad tips on Google, just like you shouldn’t get medical advice from… Well, Google’s probably better for cooking advice than it is for medical advice but it’s like yeah, there’s no reason why you can’t, with some careful reading, figure out how to do it and then like I said, the Instant Pot thing you used to, some of these cuts in the way you’d have to cook it, you’d have to really get technical and you’d have to invest a lot of time to really do it right and when we have devices like that, it’s kind of weird that I keep bringing this one little thing out, but it’s become such a trend and everyone’s, “Oh, yeah. [inaudible 00:18:34]. First, I didn’t really get it and then I got using it and I love it.” Of course now it’s air fryers apparently.

Bridget Coon:
Oh, I’ve got both. I’ve then got-

Dillon Honcoop:
The Instant Pots are like two or three years ago and now it’s air fryers but for me, I can actually cook this for dinner and not have to start it at noon.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, think about that, you’re getting cuts of beef, for example, that are a better value as far as price per pound is lower because you’re not competing with steak houses and high end uses but people have perceived them as that convenient because they are longer cooking time to get a really enjoyable meal out of it. Yeah, bring in the technology of an Instant Pot, which is just an electric pressure cooker and we’re back.

Bridget Coon:
I think of my grandmother a lot of times. She used the pressure cooker on the stove to do different things to me like tongue and like weird stuff, [inaudible 00:19:30] weird stuff but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Using all parts of an animal though.

Bridget Coon:
That’s where, I mean, I hear a lot of this chatter and I have to pay attention to that based on my work in the industry online. Anytime like the rubber is actually meeting the road on people going out there and that’s some of the things that they’re even been choosing to share and then other people get the idea and they’re actually practical, not just like look at my very boutique steak I bought, tofu or whatever.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, there’s a sustainability angle there because you aren’t just only using, like we talked about earlier, people and they just get the rib eyes and the sirloins and then what happens everything else, grind it up into hamburger, I guess? No, it gets used and even things like tongue or cheek or all kinds of… Tripe, for crying out loud, it also may sound gross but the trend of getting into more cultural foods and learning the foodie idea of getting into different cultural ways of preparing stuff like that that you normally wouldn’t even eat at all, I like I got into pho.

Bridget Coon:
I love pho. Pho is my chicken soup.

Dillon Honcoop:
Am I really saying that right? I always get criticized on how I say it. I’m not enough of a foodie to be really hardcore about it, but I do love it. There, again, it has all different things that, I always get like, “Okay, get the adventurous one with all the tendons and everything else in it because I want to experience that but then all these other good things are happening because of it too. All that stuff isn’t just ending up in the garbage.

Bridget Coon:
No, and we don’t usually have that. That’s where our exports are actually really important to our industry. Particularly here in the northwest, we have access to Asia. As long as, trade agreements wise, that that matters but in general, there’s a high demand for US beef and different cuts that really generally US consumers aren’t jazzed about that we get a better value.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, it’s like people in other parts of the world just tend to be better at using more of the different stuff and getting a little bit more exotic than just the sirloin steak.

Bridget Coon:
Their cuisine incorporates this type of thing. It’s natural that that’s a market for some of the parts that… That’s why. I mean, there’s so much… People are really kind of, I think, fairly quick to criticize in our supply chain and like, “Oh, it’s all messed up. It’s all big,” and I’m like, “Yeah, but it starts with people like us,” and we don’t have really a desire right now to feed cattle out because we’d actually have to truck feed here to get them to that prime choice like right spot and we don’t really have a desire to safely process beef here. That specialized part of our supply chain that, again, when it works, it works and we have this really high quality beef that just about anyone in our country can get access to. I think sometimes some of our higher ideals about knowing where foods comes from and having opinions and placing value, like in a little elitist because we can afford it.

Dillon Honcoop:
True.

Bridget Coon:
We talk about things just because we can afford it but then only when there’s only a roast that we’ve never cooked and we have [inaudible 00:22:56], then we can start getting creative. Again, I try not to be hypercritical about it. I understand. I mean, I grew up in a school where like, my brother and I were the token farm kids and I understand that. People don’t have the awareness that I do about their food on this basic level. I would never give someone a hard time about that. I would never sort of think of them lesser because of that but I just would love it if people kind of didn’t like skim past these basics into these opinions about our food supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
Totally. Well, because with COVID and everything that’s happening, what we just talked about with meat processing, people are saying, “Well, it’s revealing cracks in our food system or it’s showing how our food system is broken.” You’re saying that’s not true?

Bridget Coon:
I’m saying that we should have… What I think it’s not either or, it’s and. Yes, it’s problematic when we have an issue in our food supply and then, again, these ingredients. Whether it’s potato and onion or cattle that [inaudible 00:24:09] we can’t get to people, but we have the raw product, obviously, that’s a problem but from what I can tell, based on again, this sort of inverse bell curve that we’re working with on how fast cattle are being slaughtered now, we’re already kind of on the upswing of that. It’s going to depress prices for people like us, but proteins are still going to get to people.

Bridget Coon:
I’m not I’m definitely not one to condemn it wholesale. Think about the other aspects of it. I think it would be awesome if we had more smaller processors that people could access, the producers could access and then consumers could access from but consumers will then need to change their shopping patterns and change their kind of desires. Really, our food supply has been led by consumer demand. If that demand changes, I believe that the beef industry as an example, agriculture in general, can pivot and get where people need us to be but this is like one of those things that I get. It’s been the kind of the irony of ironies to me growing up in the ’90s in Western Washington raising cattle around, the dairy farms around us and everything and as the suburban area grew, that’s where our regulatory framework and the stuff that makes it hard and more costly to locally farm-

Dillon Honcoop:
Our farming goes somewhere else.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, a lot of those guys, a lot of dairy guys I knew came over here to Eastern Washington. I think my grandfather called it, had a good time because we were having a hard time as that valley filled with warehouses and I don’t really feel bad about that either because you’re in between two major ports and freeway system and rail system, I’m not convinced that the highest best use of land that we used to farm on isn’t distribution warehouses. I may differ with people. I don’t get super sentimental about even though it was good farm ground, I mean, we did it for a long time. It’s a little bit ironic to me that in the ’90s, we saw this sort of exodus of farming and it makes it being really hard for producers to stay local based on neighbors coming in complaining about everything from smell.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where everybody when they see these things and there are issues. Our food system is as a broad umbrella term but the first people we need to look at whether I think we’re and this is me getting on my soapbox just for a few seconds, is whether we’re a farmer, a rancher or we’re a consumer who lives in the city. We all need to look at ourselves, I think, first because I think everybody can do things better. That’s what we’re being forced to learn right now.

Bridget Coon:
I love that and I love that perspective because there is, there’s a lot of like a blame game kind of running around.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody else wants to… Farmers want to say, “This is not fair.”

Bridget Coon:
The consumers, they don’t always, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
The consumers get on that farm. Why are farmers, they created such a terrible food system.

Bridget Coon:
That’s not.

Dillon Honcoop:
No.

Bridget Coon:
That’s not what we’re working with here. I truly believe that. I think with some ownership, it can do that. I’m not asking for someone to own it but it is ironic to me that the issues that we faced two decades ago, the same people are the ones that are really hopping on the local food train.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
The same people, it’s not like the next generation of people.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t think those people even put that together.

Bridget Coon:
They wouldn’t put that together and it’s really obvious to me. I had to stop, it was several years ago but I was at some meeting and I love my off ranch work because it gives me such a good perspective of not just, if you’re really easy, especially with me internet, if I didn’t have internet, I need to have internet. I do but you could get pretty sucked into our level, like in just our sector of our beef world very easily but my work has made me and I’ve enjoyed getting out there and seeing all angles.

Bridget Coon:
There’s really smart, really successful guys out here that are really surprised that the amount of time and energy that they put in to communicating about how we raise cattle to consumers. This wasn’t something that was obvious to them a couple decades ago and I’m sitting here like, I wish 10-year-old me could have gotten a time machine, came here and told these guys out here because they weren’t exposed to the Seattle media. I was. These issues that we were facing already as farmers in Western Washington, they wouldn’t have known.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nobody would believe.

Bridget Coon:
They would have not have known.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nobody would have believed you though.

Bridget Coon:
Do you think so? I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think there are still people who are waking up to that realizing no, they need to share their story. They don’t even realize what they have because it’s all maybe that they’ve known. I know, farmers who they’ve just been doing their thing and they have a great story to tell. What they do is pretty incredible but they don’t feel any sort of, they feel like why do I need to tell anybody that. I just make food and then people buy in and eat it, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, and I can’t fault them for kind of feeling that way either and I’m not faulting consumers for wanting to know more. That’s why I feel like I’ve found myself in this spot. It can be frustrating some days. Sometimes I just want to retract and go hunt mule deer. In general, I try to stay connected and I have to stay connected. I have to try to bridge these two worlds because that’s who I am and who I’ve always been but it’s just kind of grown and become a career on one end and then also carrying on this beef cattle legacy that I grew up with. I feel like I tried to give everybody on all sides a lot of grace and I use sarcasm to vent off steam. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love it because all these details are different than my story but the theme is the same because I grew up a farm kid as well. Went off, did the communications thing and I’m really passionate about advocacy and being a communicator but still love this community that made me who I am and it’s still so important to me. That’s why, that’s the story of this podcast. That’s why I’m doing it because I want to bring that together to tell these stories and do the storytelling, the communication and connect people, but have it be about our food and the people who grow it. Wow, this is like-

Bridget Coon:
I hope we’re getting there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, this is like-

Bridget Coon:
We made some progress there. No, I think what’s weird to me if I’m thinking about this whole full circle situation and feeling I’m back to my roots, but really doing that work to try to connect people, I know I’m trying to figure out my strategy because my kids are growing up in this rural environment but I knew I would enjoy rural life. I knew that I, I mean, I feel very comfortable here but I want to make sure.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, I grew up with people that were totally different. Their lifestyles were totally different. They lived in apartments or their parents worked a Boeing or whatever. I always felt like I had a different setup than the people that I was around and then out here, everyone around here is kind of rural. I feel like really, I need to figure out a strategy on making sure that my kids, because I think it’s been beneficial to me to understand all different kinds of people based on how I was brought up. I have to figure out how to do that and I actually I have to try. It was natural for me. It was not my parents. I’ve tried to do that but I can do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
But that’s healthy for kids, for anybody to be around people from a lot of different backgrounds and perspectives. That’s part of our problem with the food system, with our political system is where we have these silos and there’s the city and there’s the rural and there’s fewer and fewer people in the rural areas and more and more people in urban areas and neither side listens to each other very well because they don’t really understand.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, we can be… One of the cool beef commission projects that they do and I’ve gotten to participate in is collecting chefs, meat buyers, bloggers, media, and go through and take them to a ranch to a feed yard and through the processing plant over the course of two days and it’s fantastic and we see what their opinions are before and see what they are after. Then, it help them network with our industry after they we build longer relationships there but what I find is I’m observing our tour hosts and the other rancher types that we bring along, they’re there to be a resource and there to answer questions, is their feedback because they get so much value from this opportunity to connect with that part of the supply chain, because they’re not doing on a regular basis. They’re running a ranch or a feed yard.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s supposed to be the other way around expose the-

Bridget Coon:
It’s well the point.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
Well, the point is to educate or at least sort of build that basic level of understanding. On the restaurant menus, they’re not like oversimplifying.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, I understand what it means. They’ve actually seen it.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, it just makes it all better. It makes it better from start to finish but it really it’s so beneficial. I take it for granted because through my work, I’m forced and I enjoy it but I am forced to stay connected with our consumer mindset and trends. I’m like the average rancher out here. Why would they do that? I mean, you only have so much space in a day and so much space in your brain. In fact, that’s probably my biggest challenge right now is figuring out how much, in the digital space, obviously, it changes and everything, moves really fast there and having to stay on top of that can take a lot of energy and effort.

Bridget Coon:
I need to and on behalf of the people I do work for but I also have, I mean, my husband and my father-in-law have been out here practically their entire lives. I’m always trying to catch up on knowledge, whether it’s managing grazing or breeding or whatever. I just feel like, I grew up with cattle and with the family but that’s the only similarity because it’s a different family. If you think about any issue, take water. Obviously, there are water issues in Western Washington, completely different.

Dillon Honcoop:
So much different.

Bridget Coon:
We have drainage and we have many more. Then, here we have maybe 12 inches of precipitation all year. Managing water is like completely turned on his head and I’m fascinated by all that. I want to be engaged in that. I don’t know where I’ll go as far as like this ranch or my outside work. I have my kids that it’s awesome because they are sponges and they’re absorbing everything they see in here, out here. I’m hesitant to complain about this COVID situation because we have all this space and I have empathy for the person like in their house or in their condo with kids or without like, day after day and they’re not used to working from home or whatever their situation is, I feel really thankful and really blessed that this isn’t mine. If anything, this is sort of like really life affirming to some of my life decisions that…

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Bridget Coon:
… we discussed, those kind of rash decisions about nine years ago. I feel like I’m in a good spot if we have to be in a pandemic.

Dillon Honcoop:
Definitely. What’s the future?

Bridget Coon:
I think the future is, I just basically have an endless, just an endless pot of knowledge that I need. I want to have an experience I want to have here on our ranch raising beef. In the work I’m doing to try to connect people and using the digital space to do that. I feel really fortunate that just some of the storytelling I’ve been able to do with these other farms and ranches that I’ve been in contact with, them trusting me with their stories. I mean, that’s really like, I’ve done interesting things in my career but that’s definitely something that I feel most positive about.

Bridget Coon:
If I’m doing something that I think matters or is bigger than just here, bigger than myself, I really care about that. Yeah, I don’t know how much room I have for either one and I’m usually I’m like I’m in this place where I’m trying to assess where my limited… I mean, 20 somethings don’t understand the value of time and energy and how finite that time and energy feels by the time you get to, I mean, this is only my perspective, so it’s probably going to sound dumb to someone older, but to your mid-30s, with a couple of kids that grow rapidly and I’m just feel like I’m living in this space where I only have so much time and energy and I’m figuring out day by day how to use that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Budgeting is not just for money.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, adulting sucks, adulting sucks because there’s budgeting on all the things.

Dillon Honcoop:
I only have so much time and I got to figure out what I’m going to spend it on. I only have so much money and I got to figure out what I’m going to spend it on.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Things that they didn’t make you do in high school or college.

Bridget Coon:
No, I mean, I don’t know if you can. Like I said, I don’t think you can tell a 20 something. I don’t think the most eloquently written editorial piece about this topic from someone older would have, even if I was willing to read it, reach me as a 20 something running around Capitol Hill just living my best life…

Dillon Honcoop:
Totally.

Bridget Coon:
… working my butt off, but also going to happy hour because I lived in a hovel row house and we just ate at the bar every night.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, I appreciate that having those experiences. I don’t take it for granted but it also feel so small compared to what I’m trying to accomplish here with our family, with our ranch, with my work. I think that’s probably a good spot to be in.

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Bridget Coon:
I never am sitting back being like, “Glory days.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, if anything, I do feel like I’ve taken experiences that I was given earlier on and just try to keep applying them to be more useful to the people around me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, thank you for sharing so much about food, and beef, as well as your personal story, which really resonates with me but I think it overlaps with a lot of people’s experience, particularly in our generation of going through multiple careers and kind of having to reinvent ourselves and morph with technology as it develops. I mean, we were the kids that grew up with normal TV and telephones on the wall and things like that and had to learn this all as it came about, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. I try to even put myself in a younger person’s perspective where there’s… My son knows how to log on to probably like a dozen different websites by the time he was five.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because the internet has always been a thing.

Bridget Coon:
It’s always been a thing for them and it’s awesome because they don’t watch commercials. We noticed that whenever we have YouTube TV. We’re cord cutters. We actually have freakishly fast internet out here. Thanks to my husband. It’s not common out here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Lucky.

Bridget Coon:
In fact, I think if there’s anything that I’m passionate about maybe going forward if I was going to try to make an impact locally, it would absolutely be kind of diving in and seeing if there’s a way to promote better connectivity in rural areas because how do we expect farmers and ranchers to connect with consumers whether it’s to get the sort of direct marketing opportunities like we talked about or just getting that sharing that real like, these are real families, this is a real process, not sort of adding complexity to people’s understanding of our food supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
For these rural kids, like yours, to be able to have different experiences and different connections.

Bridget Coon:
Right. I wonder about and in this context, where everyone is just home, home. Maybe some folks are going into town to grip off a little internet at the library or a cafe or something and that hasn’t even been a thing. I do think that’s important. I’m not trying to be Pioneer Woman or like I do some weird stuff I make kombucha. I do weird stuff. I do things that are kind of off grid but I absolutely value that connectivity. I think that if we want these rural areas to be healthy going into the next generation, you’re going to want to have the infrastructure that an average person would expect to have and especially if you want new people or some new energy to come in, you got to have some internet.

Dillon Honcoop:
Totally.

Bridget Coon:
Satellites not cutting it. That’s why I think a lot of people around us have satellite still. It just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Dillon Honcoop:
For those of… It used to be people in cities didn’t realize how much they were taking for granted as far as connectivity. Now, it’s almost in anywhere on the west side because I don’t live in a city, but I’m now used to having at least two or three bars of my LTE all the time and unlimited internet on my phone. I’m constantly connected.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I get out here and it’s like, wow, I drive for an hour and get signal maybe one time.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, yeah, as soon as I walk out my porch, we use two way radios to kind of communicate to make sure someone’s not dead out in this expanse because we just don’t have that. Yeah, there’s a public safety. There’s a sort of a, it’s an issue that I don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t know, public, private, whatever. I haven’t really even skimmed the surface but I think I wouldn’t be doing everything that I should be doing if I don’t kind of dive in and use some of my affiliations and some of my work and some of my energy to get that make sure that it’s the awareness is there. Like you said, awareness is that’s the world that people live in that isn’t as connected. It’s not like, “Oh, it’s really expensive.” We should be able to get access cheaper. It’s like no. You could make it rain and Benge, would not get any internet because we don’t have the infrastructure available to you in 2020.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Bridget Coon:
We should work on that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, we’re going to hold you to it.

Bridget Coon:
Well, I’ll let you know what I come up with.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think we’re going to have to have you back someday on the podcast and get an update on this.

Bridget Coon:
Well, I can probably… Hopefully, I can just Zoom it from my friend’s house, the phone satellite right now. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really. Well, thank you for opening up and sharing on the podcast.

Bridget Coon:
Thanks for coming to Benge.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s awesome here.

Bridget Coon:
I think so.

Dillon Honcoop:
You might not get me to leave. We’ll have to see.

Bridget Coon:
This is not an uncommon thread of feedback, actually. You’re welcome back here anytime. We can grill.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome.

Bridget Coon:
Steaks.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, obviously I’m here now. I did end up leaving Benge but what a cool place in the middle of nowhere. Google it. Check it out on the map. See where Benge actually is and there’s not much there other than just a corner and a couple of buildings in a little schoolhouse but a really cool conversation with Bridget Coon and she’s up to so much stuff. My guess is she’ll be back on the podcast sooner rather than later because she’s got big things in mind and she wants to do so much more.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for subscribing and following along here with the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and it is my mission with this podcast and with Real Food Real People to reconnect the people who grow our food to all of us who eat it and to help heal our food system and a lot of the misunderstandings that caused problems in our food system. We started this before COVID but COVID has made that I think even more important right now. Let’s stay at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Please subscribe. Please follow us on social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to support what we’re doing really helpful if you share the podcast on any of those social media platforms to bring more people into the fold. I feel like the more people we can bring into this conversation, the better we can make our food system, the better we can become as eaters and the better our farming community can be in what they do.

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 savefarming.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.

Bridget Coon part 1 | #029 06/29/2020

She used to have an office next door to the White House, but Bridget Coon says she's happy to be back in Washington state, growing beef and hay near the tiny locale of Benge, WA.

Transcript

Bridget Coon:
So even though they’re going to a larger processing facility, they’re going to be marketed under a brand that you might be familiar with seeing in the grocery store, that’s coming from ranches, family ranches like ours.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
From growing up on a farm in Western Washington to working next door to the White House, then back to Seattle and now farming in Eastern Washington, our guest this week has done so many things and has so much cool professional background, but she also has a really cool personal story. Bridget Coon, she and her husband and their family raise beef on a ranch in Benge, Washington. And as she says on her website, you’re probably going to have to Google where exactly that is.

Dillon Honcoop:
She shares how she got to know her husband, how she ended up in this career in politics and how that eventually led her back to her farming roots. And we also get into some of the sticky issues too, about food and about beef and the controversy. You’re really going to love this one. She’s a lot of fun to hear from and hear her stories. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this is the Real Food Real People podcast documenting my journeys across Washington State to get to know the real farmers and ranchers. And this week we talk with Bridget Coon on her ranch in Benge, Washington.

Bridget Coon:
We raise beef out here. It’s this really dry rocky scab land, and so about the only thing you can grow on it is beef. And we also raise hay for premium and export market, and then of course, those two commodities work together on our farm and ranch where we can feed hay throughout the winter.

Dillon Honcoop:
So some of your hay is for your cows.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the rest you sell to-

Bridget Coon:
Primarily, so we have basically two enterprises or two parts of our family farm with the hay and ranch with the cattle.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how does that work? How do you determine like which land you do hay on and which you do cattle on?

Bridget Coon:
So like I said, most of this is we’re in the channeled scab lands here. It was carved out a million years ago in the Missoula floods, and it’s just a lot of rock. You can’t grow anything. You can’t till it. You can’t farm it. So cows are about the only thing that can come from it that turns into food.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s still quite a bit of grass and stuff though, around the rock, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yes. So it’s just what we’d call range land, and cattle are really good at taking what’s growing out here and we just do our part to manage the land, determine how many head of cattle can graze a pasture and keep the pasture healthy for us to be able to do this year, decade, generation after generation. That’s kind of our … that’s our job, I mean-

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you tell, like how do you know how many cows to put on a field, cattle I guess I should say.

Bridget Coon:
Cattle, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
I grew up around dairy so all the cows-

Bridget Coon:
All your cows are cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the cattle were cows, yeah. But you have boys and girls.

Bridget Coon:
Yes, we do. So we mostly have, we are what’s considered a cow calf operation or a cow calf ranch. And so what we do is we have a herd of mother cows, and then we have a little squad of bulls and the cows are bred each year to produce a calf each year. And then the calf stay here for about a year nursing their mothers. Eventually weaning, but grazing on this grass. And then those go on to finish at a feed yard before they’re ready for slaughter. And so it’s just really this continuous cycle year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation, if we’re doing it well.

Bridget Coon:
And then each year it varies how many cattle we can run on a given pasture based on how much moisture we’ve had based on our decisions the year before and whether or not we are kind of on the money with moisture and that equation. So I’m learning a lot still.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happens if you have too many cattle on a certain chunk of land?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, gosh, this is where it gets so complicated because some of the better practices in range land management are actually, if you can put in the time and effort to create smaller paddocks within a pasture, and actually what we’d call intensively graze these cattle. And they come in and they do this really great work by essentially controlling. They control the weed population. They basically graze just the right amount of grass to where it’s left to where it can regrow. And then we move them on to another fresh pasture and only rotate them back to that pasture.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s maybe less about the total number of animals and more about those decisions on timing and moving animals and giving the pasture rest that it needs to come back before you bring cattle back on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because basically, and correct me if I’m wrong, if you have too many cattle on a certain amount of land for too long and they eat it down too far, you’ll basically kill all that grass and stuff, that’s they’re-

Bridget Coon:
It just won’t come back to the level that you want it to. Yeah. You’re like, oh, you’re overworking it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So yeah. So that’s what you’re managing?

Bridget Coon:
You’re really, you’re managing grass. And then of course we have a lot of … we have our animal health and we have our decision making as far as how many cows we decide to be here. Genetics, deciding what type of bulls we’re breeding to our cows. But the basic job on our level of raising beef is managing land so we can grow cattle on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, the cattle are eating this grass on scab land. I saw it driving in like there’s rocks everywhere. So like you said, you can’t farm it. You couldn’t go in there and run a cultivator and plant whatever crop. So is that grass just the grass that’s always been there, or do you kind of like put seed out there or like?

Bridget Coon:
So most of the range land isn’t seeded, but then we have some areas where we can come in and do some supplemental seeding. I know in the past, before I was here, my father in law has worked with WSU on test plots of different types of native grasses that could be seeded or could be managed out here to benefit the range and benefit cattle. So it’s a cool time to be doing this because we have a lot of tradition and a lot of knowledge from generations and generations of doing this. But then we also have some really cool research from the university level and some collaboration we can do there to keep doing what we do better, and that’s kind of the spot that we try to live in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s a whole soil health thing, right?

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then like even climate change related.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as like carbon sequestration and all that kind of stuff that these practices accomplish, right?

Bridget Coon:
Cows are really cool in that regard. And I think it’s through that overlooked piece of our food system that it’s pretty trendy to just sort of blame everything from climate change to other environmental problems on cattle. But really what we’re able to do with cattle in the US is take ground that could not be used for food production and cattle use it. But I don’t know, I mean, luckily you didn’t hit a deer on your way here, but we have a really-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know my car looks like it.

Bridget Coon:
… healthy meal dealer population, pheasants, quail, you name it, like every everything you can think of as far as other wildlife. So it’s any ground, any land that cattle are using, it’s really a multiple use proposition.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, because a lot of people say, well, cattle are so inefficient because they use all this land to grow the feed for them to eat, to turn into beef that we eat. But I realized as I was driving here after miles and miles of this ground that I saw was loaded with these monster boulders and ravines and just all kinds of rock, like you couldn’t go out there and grow people food.

Bridget Coon:
No, no, that’s definitely a myth where cattle compete for the land we need to grow other food for people. It’s just a myth because when you actually add up the acreage of cattle on range, it’s not competing, it’s actually just adding to the party.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Really cool stuff and I’ve been learning more about the whole soil health thing too. So it was cool to hear you explain this whole like intensive grazing thing, because I had heard about that. And at first I’m like, what, like how does that actually improve soil health? And then I read some books kind of explaining the science of what happens with like a grass plant and when it gets pulled on by a cow, which is kind of like the what? Bovines, which were historically like bison across the plains here.

Bridget Coon:
Ruminant animals.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was kind of the same thing that they did on these range lands, right? In time in memorial.

Bridget Coon:
I mean, as far as this land, highest best use for sure is running cattle on it. And then it’s up to people like us to make decisions that make it actually feasible as far as environmentally. And then we have to make it somewhat profitable in order to continue to do what we do here. And so when we talk about sustainability, but I mean the definition to, I know like the cattle industry, we really think of it in that, kind of that way where we need to have environmental sustainability, just because its natural resources based.

Bridget Coon:
And we’re the first ones to notice if that natural resource starts to disappear, starts to degrade. And then taking care of the animals, animal welfare, we have to have healthy animals, otherwise it does not turn into the product that we need it to. And then it has to be sustainable economically for us.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the food question, then what makes great beef? I love an excellent steak. I recently did a London broil and I was like, whoa, this is really different flavor than my sirloin that I usually like to grill and just different thing. I love beef. There’s a lot of flavor going on there. There’s a lot of protein. My body likes it. I know a lot of people … For a long time red meat was like this terrible thing, but I’m more like, I’m not Keto, but like I need my protein and I need to stay away from my carbs. What does it take on your end to create that?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. A lot of people these days are on the protein train and for good reason, because they can just kind of see it’s the food that when you eat it, I mean, you feel good. You feel like it really helps you. We know scientifically it helps as far as maintaining, especially at our age, when you get to your mid 30s or later.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, are you calling me old?

Bridget Coon:
I don’t know, I don’t know how old you are. But I know for myself and some of the research we know is that as soon as we get to a certain age level, if we don’t do things to maintain or grow muscle mass, we start losing it and eating an adequate amount of protein is really important to that. So as far as beef goes, I mean, it’s kind of whatever your preference is, but in the US and on an operation like ours, we are really focused on hitting that prime or choice grade bullseye, which is indicated … the grade is determined by the amount of intermuscular fat or marbling that ends up, the flavor inside those steaks you were just talking about.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not the big chunks of fat around the edges. It’s the stuff that’s in them.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. And so what someone who’s enjoying a steak thinks about as far as quality is similar to what I would, as I’m enjoying a steak, but from the people who are actually raising it, it also, again, has to hit those other markers where the cows that we have here need to be bred to actually perform or be healthy here and raise calves each year, and that’s what helps us be sustainable in our business. And then those have calves that end up having those great beef traits as we’ve call it where they’re healthy, they gain weight well and stay healthy while doing it. And then they end up with all kinds of delicious buttery marbling.

Dillon Honcoop:
Stop, you’re making me hungry. But like, if you guys didn’t … like let’s say you manage really poorly hypothetically, would at the end of the day, I’d be able to taste that in the beef? Like oh, this isn’t as good.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not so much what you would taste at the end of the day as it is if it wasn’t an efficient process to get that animal into the final stage of being food, you kind of just end up with a product that is really useful. There’s actually really not any unsafe. Once you get to that level where an animal’s ready for slaughter and it’s slaughtered and it goes through the process when it’s graded, then it’s determined where it goes, right? So I mean, we can all enjoy a five guys hamburger too.

Bridget Coon:
We can all enjoy sort of beef in different contexts. So if you don’t do like this fantastic job with breeding and feeding and finishing and getting to that prime or choice grade, not the end of the world for the person eating, because that product ends up in [inaudible 00:14:21], you know what I mean? There’s so many different ways that beef ends up in kind of our food world that, it’s kind of all good in a different way.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is going to be one of those interviews where I just end up really hungry at the end of it.

Bridget Coon:
You staring at the taco soup, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
You just stared at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

Bridget Coon:
It’s pretty good. You’re going to have some.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just going to just forget about that because I don’t want to eat here on the microphone while we’re conversing.

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to have some.

Dillon Honcoop:
That just doesn’t sound good to those listening to the podcast.

Bridget Coon:
It’s kind of gross.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly. So I’ll eat later, but you mentioned, oh, getting like a five guys burger, there’s so many different places you can get beef. All the way from Mickey D’s to fancy fine dining. How here in Washington, my big focus is I want to get food that’s grown here in Washington, if at all possible. I’m not like mega strict about it, but when it’s possible and doable, I want to do that. How can people do that with beef? How do they know it’s say from Washington or if they don’t know that for sure that it’s at least from the US?

Bridget Coon:
Sure. So there’s a few different ways. Like I said, just like there’s as many varieties of beef that end up on the dinner plate, there’s different ways that people can go about sourcing their beef and making those choices. So the most direct way to know that your beef is coming from a local rancher is to find one that sells directly to the public.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are more and more doing that?

Bridget Coon:
So interesting you say that. There is a lot of indication as far as like search traffic online and local butcher shops that do this kind of slaughter are getting booked out months if not into next year. So definitely, I think we’ve seen people now in this COVID-19 context, going into the grocery store and seeing space in the meat case that given retailer, pick whatever retailer you go to, and there’s some space there and Americans are not used to seeing that space.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, with that panic buying like a couple months ago, I know I’d never seen empty shelves of any kind in a grocery store, like where they’re legitimately out of food. And I think most anybody in the US who has grown up here and always lived here has never, ever seen that until now. So that’s a big game changer, but from people I talked to, they were already kind of moving in the direction of, “Hey, can we like just sell it right from the ranch one way or the other? Like is there an Amazon for beef, you know?”

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. There’s a lot of cool things taking place in this space and watching consumers link up with producers, but keep in mind … So for example, the beef that is raised right out here on this ranch goes to typically a feed yard in Othello. We either retain ownership there where we pay the feeder by the rate of gain or days on feed. But we retain the ownership and then we are paid when those animals are ready and they go down to the packing plant.

Bridget Coon:
So even though they’re going to a larger processing facility, they’re going to be marketed under a brand that you might be familiar with seeing in the grocery store or generically into restaurants where you’re not seeing a brand, that’s coming from ranches, family ranches like ours. And I think people maybe the impression at this day and age, because we have this big, efficient food supply typically, other than right now, you can go into a Walmart, you can go to Fred Meyer, you can go into a Safeway and you just have like your pick of every cut of beef you could ever imagine.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, all the time.

Bridget Coon:
And-

Dillon Honcoop:
The only decision is how much do I want to spend on it, and do I go for the cheaper cut or not?

Bridget Coon:
Exactly. So we are used to all these choices, right? And so then for an outfit like ours, we’re not really close to consumers if you notice. Did you pass a lot of people on your way?

Dillon Honcoop:
No, in fact, I didn’t see anybody for like a half hour before I got here.

Bridget Coon:
So other than like my persuasion to be, I work in the digital space and I find it really fascinating. Some of the digital marketing and different things we could do. My background with my family before coming here was we fed cattle and finished cattle. And so I’m familiar with it and I like it. So it’s always kind of in the back of my mind that we could do some more direct marketing than we have in the past and make it a thing. But it’s not really that efficient.

Bridget Coon:
Like if we’re spending our time doing that, then we have less time to do like the temporary fencing it requires to make these small paddocks, to intensively graze. We have irrigation water to move with the hay. It’s really about all these individual ranches. If you have the human resources and the desire to connect with consumers that way, it’s possible and can be beneficial. But at this time, like it’s probably not the best use of our energy when we do what we do really well, the feed yard that our calves go to, they do what they do really well. They get feed right from around Othello. They get corn and hay, and they get a grape Burmese from the grape stuff. I don’t know what the word is.

Dillon Honcoop:
From wine.

Bridget Coon:
From wine making, and that’s all done closer to them than it is to us. And so feeds kind of come into those animals and they do a great job, and we get the results back that we’re hitting that choice and prime target consistently, and we’re providing that consistent product to typically the consumer desire to have that at will at any grocery store that they go to.

Bridget Coon:
So I mean, interested in it, love to see it. I have a client that we launched a website in order to help them do more of that and sold out an inventory of beef that we projected to last two months in two weeks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bridget Coon:
We have a local beef directory on the beef commission website wildbeef.org. There’s 400% increase in page views on this tool where people in Washington can do it, use a drop down by county and find people that we have listed there that are doing this.

Dillon Honcoop:
These friends of yours that just started going, trying to do some direct sales, they couldn’t have picked a more perfect time to do it.

Bridget Coon:
Totally coincidental. It’s a project we’ve been working on. I know they have been thinking about for a long, long time, and we’d been working on for about a year to get it kind of just so, and we’re kind of ready to roll with that at this time. And so, I mean, for their business and everything, I think actually they’ll be pretty successful consistently. And there’s some interest related to this and I can’t deny it just based on everything else that I see. But if anything, this situation, people who have considered buying directly from a rancher, a lot of that usually involves buying more in bulk. We can only raise … there’s only so many cuts per animal.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s not the same as shopping the meat case, I’d say that people-

Dillon Honcoop:
Where you just want the rib-eyes.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. Like there’s only so many rib-eyes. So people have to think of it like going to shop their freezer for beef instead of going to the grocery store to shop it? And so it’s a shift, it’s convenient. I think most things, most foods, new food marketing has focused on convenience because people are busy. Like your life is run by work and activities and people are on the go.

Dillon Honcoop:
But COVID has totally like messed with that, because a lot of people-

Bridget Coon:
At home.

Dillon Honcoop:
… aren’t on the go.

Bridget Coon:
Like baking bread.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they’re seeing shortages in the grocery store, and even if there is meat there it’s maybe more expensive than it used to be. And so then, like you’re saying, they’re suddenly interested in, “Hey, maybe could I get this like straight from the farmer, straight from the rancher and how would that work?” So it’s totally turning a lot of those things on their head. Like maybe people will suddenly be, I guess we just don’t know what’s going to happen with COVID and how long this goes on and how much of our world continues to be turned upside down. But could this be the moment for local food and for local meat or regional even?

Bridget Coon:
It’s having a moment, and like I said, it’s really cool to see some of those connections being made. Those seeds were already there for a lot of consumers, and this is like pushing them to take action and actually buy from someone or do more in depth research too.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then once they had, they’re like, “Hey, this wasn’t actually so hard,” or like, “I have a relationship now with this ranch, that’s where I get our meat from and we like them.”

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. When it’s not really desirable. I mean, some of the consumer research that I’ve seen, people are going to the grocery store multiple times a week. Obviously I can’t relate.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It’s a bit of a drive from where you’re at to the grocery store.

Bridget Coon:
We’re out here. So I don’t-

Dillon Honcoop:
How far is it by the way?

Bridget Coon:
So there’s a little grocery store in Ritzville, it takes about 40 minutes, but then to like a Safeway, Walmart, Costco, it’s an hour, everything’s like an hour in any direction you can think of. So I don’t have those habits, but I know looking at it, people typically are just sort of going in and out of the grocery store. Well, when you have to wear a mask and there’s like arrows, it’s very, I mean, I’m a little antsy because I don’t go very often and I have to call my friend and be like, “Okay, so what are people doing? What’s socially acceptable in the grocery store right now because I don’t know, because I haven’t been since it started.”

Bridget Coon:
So yeah, you’re taking what was a convenient choice and kind of, it’s not so appealing anymore. And then here’s another choice that maybe wasn’t perceived as convenient, but maybe people will learn that it’s really not as hard. That being said, economically, there’s still only a certain set of consumers that have the savings or have the room to buy in a way that works better for the rancher typically to be efficient. Again, we’re not selling one or two … what would happen if you just only sell individual cuts just from one ranch say our size or maybe a little bit bigger than ours?

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to run out of rib-eyes, you’re going to run about tenderloins. You’re going to end up sitting on these other products. And so I think I’d say if I had any messages, it would be like learn to be a good customer to a rancher that you’re working with, and like let them lead you, expectation-wise on their offering a box that they’ve decided on or they’re offering it by the half or the quarter or the whole, it’s for a reason and it’s because they need to be able to make a living off of this. So just learn what you can. Ask questions and really listen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Buy a freezer.

Bridget Coon:
Get a freezer first. But I’ve heard there’s been a run on freezers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, if you can find one, a lot of people have gotten freezers and you’re talking about this whole convenience thing and people’s money. There’s been a big shift in that too. And I think we’re all really worried that none of us are going to have very much money in coming months and years with the economic forecasts and really scary things like that. But at the same time, like the panic buying and the staying at home changed people’s priorities with that too, where it’s like, oh yeah, I need to spend more of at least the money that I do have right now on my food, because suddenly like survival instinct comes back into play. So maybe I will spend some more money so I can get beef and good food at the store. Like all this panic buying was incredible. To watch what people bought was fascinating to me.

Bridget Coon:
I still am puzzled by water and toilet paper. It not an earthquake.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, we’ll never ever figure out the toilet paper one.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not an earthquake. It’s not as tsunami, it’s not a natural disaster. No, I think … I’m kind of the mind that, and this is what kind of annoys me about our food culture today and what I see kind of out there is that everyone wants to have an either or mentality, like this is a good way to buy beef and this is a bad way to buy beef and I have to be able to track it back to the farm, and if I can’t, then I don’t trust it or something. And that’s not how people’s actual buying habits end up taking place except then we all go to five guys or whatever.

Bridget Coon:
But at the end of the day, it’s not either or, it’s and, and so it’s great that there’s choices. And then that again, people are actually acting on some of those choices, but hopefully also learning more about how we raise beef. So when people get really like specific preferences, I want grass fed or finished only, I want organic only or whatever. But to me, I’m seeing a lot of these really, it’s almost like rushing to have a stance, almost like you would a political position, on beef, on food, the types of food choices we make, but they don’t know the difference between a cow and a steer and a bull and a heifer. I mean, in a lot of cases, they just don’t have like the basic knowledge of how we raise cattle. And so to me, it’s odd to like skip into, I have a very defined-

Dillon Honcoop:
They have a stance but they don’t have a-

Bridget Coon:
… preference over what type of beef I have, but I don’t really understand that cattle that are fed grain in a feed yard, spent half their life on grass at a place like this.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was going to ask you about that back when we were talking about feeding cattle and we had Camas Uebelacker here on the podcast for two weeks. I forget the numbers of the episodes, but you can go back and check in the list if you want to, but that’s what he does is like you were describing. You have a cow calf operation, cattle literally out on the range. He takes them, finishes them as a custom operator, kind of specializes in what he does and then they go to harvest.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where they’re fed corn in a lot of cases. He talked a little bit about that. Lot of people say, “Oh, well, corn is bad. I want all grass fed.” You’re explaining already that’s more of a misnomer than maybe people realize, but explain more what’s going on with this whole grass fed versus grain fed.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. It’s just over simplified, and I think some of our more over-simplified messages about food for people who are. They are trying to be conscientious for whether it’s for their health or the environment or whatever it is they feel they care about. But at the end of the day, the actual knowledge of how to take a calf and get it up to a really palatable, really enjoyable beef product it’s not as simple as slapping a label on this was grass-finished or this was, usually it’s grass fed or grain fed, and then people assume that everything else is grain fed, which means they’re like force fed corn their whole lives or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is never the case.

Bridget Coon:
Which is not a thing. In fact, I was just looking at some stats the other day, and it’s the actual amount of corn in a cattle diet over the course of its life is way overstated or just sort of generalized as this really key element in it. When really they’re always fed some kind of roughage, some kind of hay is always in a ration. Chemist did a great job explaining what a cattle feed ration is, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Only those who heard from people who would say, well, cows aren’t designed to eat and digest corn.

Bridget Coon:
That’s not a thing. In fact, so most of the corn that they’re fed is, there’s dry steam flake corn. So that’s also already been processed, think of cornflakes like we eat or whatever. And then you have most of the corn they eat is like siloed and it’s chopped the entire plant. Corn is a type of grass technically. So to say that ruminate animals can’t digest and process and convert a crop like corn into beef efficiently is just scientifically false. It’s nothing.

Dillon Honcoop:
People also say aside from the sustainability conversation, environmental concerns, et cetera, et cetera. They say that grass fed beef has, what is it? Like more omega three fatty acids or something like that? Correct me if I’m wrong on the specifics there.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. The fatty acid ratio.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Is the beef actually different. I mean, I have a cousin and her husband, they’re both nutritionists and I talked with them about it and they’re like yeah, omega threes are super trendy right now, but you don’t need too many of those, and omega six is kind of like, whoa, it’s bad. It’s from corn, but you don’t need too many of those, but you can’t live without any, like it’s way more complicated once they started explaining it.

Bridget Coon:
Right. So to simplify it, but not oversimplify it, the fatty acid ratio. So it’s that six to three ratio is what is usually referred to, is so slightly different between grain finished and grass finished beef. It’s marginal first of all. Again, the intermuscular fat that we’re talking about actually has a similar fatty acid profile too, like olive oil, which would be considered like a healthy fat, which is some people don’t really realize.

Dillon Honcoop:
I did not know that.

Bridget Coon:
But then further, because I feel like now I’ve gone down this rabbit trail, but it needs to be addressed that the beef people are never going to say like, get your omegas from beef because it’s not … beef is essential, I mean, it has essential nutrients and it’s a great source for several proteins, zinc, iron are the top three, right? But there’s actually quite a few, the omegas aren’t in there. Go eat salmon, go get a copper river salmon. Use an actual significant source to get your omegas.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s interesting you said copper river salmon. I have a good friend who’s a lifetime fisherman. He’s like a whole copper river thing. That’s just-

Bridget Coon:
Marketing, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s all marketing.

Bridget Coon:
That’s genius marketing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which we’re saying about … you’re talking about beef and I could tell you marketing things about other crops and stuff that what is really underneath it, and when you talk to the farmer, they’re like yeah, you get a whole different story. That’s why I’m doing this podcast to talk to the farmers rather than the marketing people.

Bridget Coon:
It’s to the point where you just, I literally assume when I’m seeing or reading something about an industry that I’m unfamiliar with and it feels simplified or oversimplified. I’m just like, yeah. If I want to know more about this, I need to go read some more because I have a feeling that this is meant to sell me something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That’s our generation now too, right?

Bridget Coon:
Oh, just being skeptical or just being marketed to by people who try to make you dumber.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, both.

Bridget Coon:
I do. I think of … So I do fill some marketing roles in my work and I kind of keep that mantra of, I don’t want to make people dumber. Like if I do anything with this work it’s to shed some light on areas of the process of getting food to people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are you telling me you do marketing yet you still have a soul?

Bridget Coon:
I am a soulful marketer.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, that’s good.

Bridget Coon:
I started, I mean, I really started out my career more in advocacy and more like, I’m just more of a … I was like a nerdy kid that listened to … I grew up on the west side [case 00:34:00], but we had a feed yard and a family ranch. Right? Actually, we raised hay. I think my first job in life was to sell sweet corn that we grew, pick it and sell it on the roadside.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was this?

Bridget Coon:
In the Green River Valley, Auburn and Kent. So my grandparents and my parents and my brother and I, kind of all worked together since I was a little kid. And so that’s a really urban market even back in the 90s. So it’s kind of second nature to me to be communicating to people who don’t have a firsthand understanding of like farming and ranching because I was doing it since birth. But it makes me want to help people understand. And yeah, just I’ve been attracted and had the opportunity to do work that’s allowed me to continue that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how did you end up here in Eastern Washington and on a cow calf operation, but also doing digital marketing work and all kinds of stuff online and like what was the road from there to here?

Bridget Coon:
Winding?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
Windy. Yeah, so I grew up on a farm and feed yard, family operation on the west side. I was probably influenced by obviously at that time Ag wasn’t like a growing industry over there. Again, the dinner table conversations and just sort of the activity around the farm. I was really aware of like regulatory framework that was growing, whether it was water issues or endangered species act issues, whatever it was. Seattle area is like the epicenter. I feel like everything else, as far as like our environmental culture right now, it’s just catching up to like kind of where things were a decade or two ago in the Seattle area as culturally, right?

Bridget Coon:
So I paid attention to that as a little kid, I ended up at WSU, Go COUGS. And I had been really encouraged in writing, and so based on sort of not knowing if I had this role in production agriculture going forward and being kind of encouraged in other ways, I ended up with a policy pre-law degree because I thought maybe I could be an attorney and like go fight the good fight for farmers or something, right? I wasn’t sure where it would go. And then I did some campaign work and some like rabble rouse, like conservative or Republican rabble-rousing on campus.

Bridget Coon:
And anyway, campaign jobs that beget appointment in the Bush Administration. So I went from Pullman, basically straight from Pullman to DC as a young 20 something. And so I got to spend a few years out back East where you can get a lot of experience in a short amount of time.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what kind of stuff were you doing back East?

Bridget Coon:
So my first job back there was … I didn’t even know when I started volunteering for campaigns and then getting like staff campaign jobs. I got to run around Eastern Washington, which was really cool, that was my territory, and so I love it. I already knew I loved it out here. But I didn’t even know there was like low level appointments that you could get from supporting the president, in this case is president Bush’s re-election in 2004. And so other people I worked with were like, give us your resume.

Bridget Coon:
And so I started out at the most boring federal agency. I don’t know if you can guess which one, the GSA, the General Services Administration, we buy pencils and bombs. I worked for the Chief of Staff there and government procurement was like not like my thing. So actually my boss out here in the campaign had ended up landing a job in the Political Affairs Office, they kind of staff up during the cycle. So during the 2006 cycle, I was his what they call desk coordinator where I just wrote briefing papers, for any time like the president or vice president or first lady, whoever was traveling, we’d have to sort of update these briefing documents that they would presumably read on their way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were writing stuff that the president was reading.

Bridget Coon:
So I wouldn’t go that far because I was never on like Air Force One to confirm that. My boss was and so sometimes he’d have some stories to come back to you, but I will say I had a weird experience where I was in my office there, it’s in the Eisenhower, the EOB building next door to the West Wing. And I’m there like doing my thing at my desk and the TV was on and it was a live feed of I think it was a rally in Montana and that was in my territory that I had to cover for my work and the president’s giving his remarks.

Bridget Coon:
And I’m like, man, that sounds familiar. And I still had like the document because the speech writers, they didn’t always ask us, but sometimes they’d ask us for bullet points to incorporate. And so I was feeling pretty high on life to hear the president-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your briefing document probably made it to the speech writer who worked some of your words.

Bridget Coon:
No, we actually did talking point sometimes. So these were actually talking points that the speech writers asked for, in addition to our typical briefing papers. I do know that Karl Rove actually read them because one time this is where I also almost died and fell over on the floor because there was like a weird anomaly in one of the Montana counties and Karl’s going through this briefing paper and we put historical election results in it and he thought it was wrong because it was like a weird flip on like whatever the congressional district results was.

Bridget Coon:
And so my boss is calling me because he’s traveling with Karl Rove, they’ve just flew commercial and stuff like he wasn’t on Air Force One or anything, but he’s calling me from the road being like, “You need to look at these numbers and check them.” I was like, “Oh my God, did I just get that wrong?” Freaking out, and then luckily it was correct. But that was like weird. I mean, it’s just like I found myself in some weird spaces. And again, just getting this great experience to then I would say like some of the stuff I did out there was pretty intense.

Bridget Coon:
And again, like if people like that are reading something you’re writing it needs to be accurate. It needs to be a certain degree of it’s going to be out in public. It’s made other things that I’ve done that maybe are a little bit stressful or pressure full, is that a word?

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s a good word. I’ll keep that one if that’s okay.

Bridget Coon:
It’s not as … Not that many things seem that hard after that. Fast forward and I’m trying to like work with kids and also now being a homeschool mom, like I am humbled. I don’t care what I’ve done in the past. I am supremely humbled by trying to manage this household and everything we do at the ranch and my business and stuff, but it’s been weird I must say.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. To continue on this road though, to back up a little bit, like I know from hearing from a lot of people like, oh, the holy grail is to make it back to DC for a lot of different things that people do. And then once people are out there, they’re like, ah, I hate this city. I hate how everything works in this town and how people are so fake and yada, yada, I just want to get back home. And so how did you extricate yourself from that world and end up back here?

Bridget Coon:
I went out without an exit plan. I really wasn’t sure, I was 22, maybe when I landed out there and I have a little bit different perspective. I probably didn’t stay up there long enough to be completely jaded, maybe that’s part of it, but I really do. I think I met and worked with some of the best people that you’ll ever meet and some of the worst people, that’s universal. I feel like, so it’s not like the people are worse, I guess I’ll put it this way. I can’t be that jaded because I got my hands on some like cool stuff.

Bridget Coon:
As a very young person with just really like the best intentions to just … I’m not going to sit back and complain about things, I’m going to get in there and kind of put my energy in places. So I feel like I thrived pretty well. I sold my pickup and like flew out there with a couple of suitcases. I mean, I really, I kind of just whole sale, I lived on Capitol Hill. After that stint in 2006 at the White House, I ended up getting a job at a firm that is based in Bellevue Washington Advocates is what it’s still called. The principal’s there worked for Slade Gorton, Senator Slade Gorton. So they were awesome people to work with.

Bridget Coon:
And then that set of clients that we did public affairs work, basically were lobbyists. But we worked with dirt and water clients. So I started at that point, I started kind of like finding my way back home to agriculture, at least working on agriculture issues. They represented the PDs that run our hydropower dams, Chelan County, PUD, those kind of things I got sort of getting sharp on those types of issues that are really important here in Washington where [houser 00:43:05] at the time there was a big conflict with the tribes and the shellfish growers and so shellfish growers are farmers. I don’t think I’ve probably ever really thought about it like that when I was younger, but I was like, man, these are farmers and they have all these like similar issues, but it’s shellfish.

Bridget Coon:
And so I got to work on cool projects that directly related back to agriculture and the Pacific Northwest based on the people that this company worked for. And then I kind of got poached from there back to Dino Rossi’s gubernatorial campaign in 2008, and that’s how I ended up back in Washington. Not sure if I would stay after doing a eight month campaign stint, but I got a master’s degree in there somewhere. I don’t like-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been busy.

Bridget Coon:
I don’t know. Like I wasn’t as tired as I am now. Is that weird? I feel like, maybe I guess-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know the feeling. I totally know the feeling.

Bridget Coon:
You know it, you get it. I packed a lot in during that sort of like time in my 20s and ended up back in Washington. And then after that campaign, we lost, this happens and you need a new job or even when you win you need a new job. So from there I ended up working for Reagan Dunn on the King County council. So I worked at downtown Seattle in the courthouse and I did agriculture land use and communications for him. So I started finding my way into this sort of like jobs I didn’t know existed when I was even in college and this direction that while I had sort of just been taking great opportunities that presented themselves to me through networking and just where I was being led.

Bridget Coon:
I did stop at one point, I was like, oh, I guess I am doing what I really probably, as a young person thought I could be useful doing. And then my parents were still farming in that area. So I would just on the weekends I was at their place, but yeah, I was probably … figured out that I was like the only person on the 12th floor of the King County courthouse involved in policymaking for the council that had any agriculture background whatsoever. So I felt the need to like get in there and make sure that some of those interests were being represented. And then again, these issues that can be oversimplified walked back and explained.

Dillon Honcoop:
So then how did you end up in Eastern Washington, because we got you all the way to DC-

Bridget Coon:
We’re back.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and then all the way back to Seattle-

Bridget Coon:
We’re almost back. Sorry this is a long story. I know it’s a long story.

Dillon Honcoop:
And now we’ve got to get you … No, you said lots of twists and turns, so I wanted to hear them.

Bridget Coon:
Yeah, it’s interesting. And so it’s like I find it interesting when I stopped. I don’t often stop and think about it. Nobody has time for that, but after working for Reagan, Patty over at the Beef Commission dialed me up and she was looking for someone in like in consumer information space that at that time the Beef Commission board had said, “Hey, we want to really invest in telling the production side.” Like they’re seeing that people have more interest in how food’s raised, but like the knowledge gap is really vast. And then we’re getting all these sort of negative myths developing around how we raise cattle.

Bridget Coon:
And so that’s why I was attracted to it. I mean, I like cooking beef. Like I love eating and cooking beef. But I wasn’t attracted to the job to like teach people how to make chili with five ingredients or I mean, I do, I will say like, searing, I love smoking my trigger. I mean, there’s some cool stuff to do with meat, it’s one of my hobbies, but I really was like, this is an opportunity to take things like so full circle back to the industry that I grew up in and do that communications work that clearly needed to be done and still needs to be done today. And so that was like 2010, and I just sort of right after I started that job coincidentally that my now husband, he is a rancher.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was he already doing that at that time?

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. So his dad … how did this work? So it’s like literally the second or third day on the job was like the Washington Cattleman’s convention. It was over in Sancadia. And it’s one of those instances where you’re the new person and everyone meets you, but you don’t necessarily meet everyone. And I had some interaction with Dick Coon, my now father-in-law because one of my first projects that first week was reviewing some ad, some radio ads that he had voiced.

Bridget Coon:
And then also there was some copy and they’ve spelled Benge where we are now, they spelled it wrong. And I knew that because I’d been traveling 26 past the sign to Benge, to WSU, to Pullman all those years before.

Dillon Honcoop:
And now you live in Benge.

Bridget Coon:
And here I am. But anyway, so I’d had just light interaction with Dick and I didn’t know what was going on yet. I was just trying to get with my job. I mean, that’s the zone I’d been in at that point since college and so … I don’t know if I should go into this, you can cut it out, but it’s kind of funny.

Dillon Honcoop:
This means it’s about to be the best part of the interview when people say that, you know something good is coming, so you must carry on that.

Bridget Coon:
So it’s funny, it’s a little funny. This is kind of hilarious and I still find it a little bit hilarious. So my now family, my in-laws were all there at the convention. And my now brother-in-law, my now husband was on the way and he was just joining everyone. And apparently my now brother-in-law kind of like saw me in the hallway and didn’t know anything about me yet, right? But he’s texting him, like you need to get here and you need to like, maybe meet this person, you know like.

Bridget Coon:
So this is all happening, I have no idea this is happening. He gets there. So the Beef Commission meeting is going on. This is my first board meeting. And I’m like pretty like trying to figure out what I’m doing here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Zoned in on the work.

Bridget Coon:
Zoned in, and these two dudes come in to the meeting and I remember Patty leaning over to me and saying, “Who are those guys?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I just started,” because she likes to know who’s in the meetings. So I had no idea, never met him and then fast forward to January. So it was November, January, a few months later. There’s a program up that WSU did and it was for everyone from a rancher, to a feed yard employee, to a packer. It’s like this cool course about beef, everything from like genetics and like range management to, we made sausage and we looked at grading the rib-eyes that the grade that they come in with. It’s a-

Dillon Honcoop:
A beef boot camp.

Bridget Coon:
Beef boot camp, but that’s not what they called it but they should have. Anyway, so last minute-

Dillon Honcoop:
I didn’t even plan on the alliteration for that.

Bridget Coon:
So much alliteration, so good.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s awesome.

Bridget Coon:
So anyway, my father-in-law and my now husband kind of last minute decided because there were like an hour from Pullman here, decided to join as attendees, and then the Beef Commission is sponsored to a degree. And so I was kind of sent over to write it up and do some promotion after the fact. And so you’re so really new and I’m like, everyone’s just so nice, but really like he was talking me up, he was chatting me up the whole two or three days as this thing was going on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait a second. So he just happened to decide to go to this beef boot camp.

Bridget Coon:
I didn’t even know I was going until like a few days before, because we weren’t … it was kind of not essential.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, he wasn’t-

Bridget Coon:
So that part, there was no stocking.

Dillon Honcoop:
… working his angles here.

Bridget Coon:
There was like no stocking, it was actually completely … So it’s funny, is like he didn’t shoot his shot in November and I didn’t know he existed. And then in January here we are again and these circles are small in an industry like ours. So not to say that it’s completely out of the blue, but it was not, it was just sort of a coincidence. And he, yeah like by the end of the week, he’s like, “Hey, can I call you sometime or maybe come visit?” Because I lived on the west side, I lived in Auburn and so anyway, I finally let him come visit me like in February, and then he-

Dillon Honcoop:
You say that, so you let him come-

Bridget Coon:
I was in the career zone, man. I was not thinking about this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody talks about friend zone, but is this a step even farther than friend zone?

Bridget Coon:
No, no. There was a lot of text messages. Like if you were to-

Dillon Honcoop:
You career zoned him.

Bridget Coon:
Well, I didn’t obviously. This is why, so then things got real. Things got real so fast. Anyway, so finally I think he came over for like Super Bowl weekend or something and I made him go to a hockey game with like 20 of my friends and family because I’m like that person, the facilitator of fun, like in the family, like that’s kind of my role. And so I was like, “Let’s go to a hockey game, but let’s get a group rate and like get tee shirts or whatever.” So I put them through the paces. We like had to go stop at the beauty shop and like meet my grandma. And like, it was a whole thing, but he was undeterred. And so that was like the beginning of February. He proposed on mother’s day that year, so that’s how I can remember it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holy smokes.

Bridget Coon:
So that was May, and then we’re just kind of going with it. We’re just like sending it, is the only way I can describe it. And so that was May-

Dillon Honcoop:
This whole thing was moving along rather slowly until you suddenly said, you first actually really hung out in February or like dated, whatever you want to call it, and you were engaged to him by mother’s day.

Bridget Coon:
He was highly intentional.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess.

Bridget Coon:
Which I hear is not really a quality of millennials dudes these days, but he was all on board, and so we’re engaged in May and then we got married October 1st.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bridget Coon:
So I actually didn’t know what would become of like my job and which is not the greatest feeling to me because I really care about this type of work and it was really things are going in this direction. And so it was really Patty, my boss that got creative and I had been doing a lot, obviously a lot more of our work is done online. You can do it from anywhere. And so we were able to sort of do a lot of different gyrations with that job that allowed me to stay doing it to a degree. Like I said, I was pregnant 2.6 seconds after we got married. In fact, I didn’t even live here yet.

Bridget Coon:
So essentially we got married October 1st. December 1st was when I moved here and even then I had some events swing that week. And in between that time it was like Thanksgiving. And I was like, okay, I think something’s up, and he like came over for Thanksgiving. And so we had to tell my grandma, like we said, I think we announced it. Like we were thankful. You’re going around and like, what you’re thankful for. And I said, “We’re thankful for fertility.” And my grandmother whose like 90 years old at the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
She cleared in right away?

Bridget Coon:
I mean, her eyes got so big. It’s just like one of those best moments. But she’s passed now and so I just have some of these great moments to be … she was involved in and got to hold our son. But we got to do this sort of announcement on Thanksgiving.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s so awesome.

Bridget Coon:
But I thought it would be a long winter at least on the ranch. So it was really like, oh, I should probably like get doctors, and it was this-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

Bridget Coon:
So life has been pretty fast paced.

Dillon Honcoop:
In less than a year’s time, that was a lot of stuff.

Bridget Coon:
That’s a lot, but I kind of, change has never really bothered me. And I kind of always wondered where I would land in life probably because of that, because I was never like, I want to be an accountant and I will do this. And I tried to be really open minded about having like a suburban life or an urban life, and it’s just none of that ever took. So in some cases it seems like kind of crazy to be out here, but really to me it like feels right. Living next door to family, we had that type of setup growing up.

Bridget Coon:
And so to have my kids see their grandparents, their great grandmother lives next door here. We were just planting vegetables and seeds in the garden the other day. And so I go from like, “Hey, I need to focus on explaining to people why our processing plants are slowed down,” and there’s like space in the meat case, in a situation like this and work on those tougher issues. And then I’m like, “Let’s go plant some vegetables in the garden with Nana,” because I mean, we need to do these things and we have this ability to do it here.

Bridget Coon:
So I really couldn’t be more thrilled at how things kind of have shaken out. And my husband and I have these conversations sometimes. Even like after really hard days, which are just sucky days where things just go wrong and they can go wrong with your kids. They can go wrong with my work. They can go wrong with the ranch. And like some days can be pretty rough. And it’s not enough just like scenic out here well, but like there’s been more than a few times where we’ve stopped and been like, “Yeah, I don’t really care. I feel like this is where I would want to be.” And so you can’t really deny that feeling. And so I’ve kind of just started going with it, several years ago and it’s only grown it hasn’t sort of … so luckily like really short term decisions have worked out.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the part where I say, but wait, there’s more, that’s just part one of the conversation. And she shares so much more of her story and insight into food and farming and ranching and what’s going on in the world. Bridget Coon part two is next week, so make sure to stay tuned for that, make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it. People keep asking me, “Where can we find your podcasts?” Pretty much on any of the podcasts platforms out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I have been mentioning to people and I’ll say this to you as well, if there is a platform that I’m not on that you think I should be, send me a message dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address, right to my phone. I’ll see it right away and I’ll figure out if there’s any way to get on that platform, we’ll do it. Also, @rfrp_podcast on Instagram and Real Food Real People podcast on Facebook. Don’t forget to follow us there. What is it? @rfrp_podcast as well on Twitter. So make sure to connect with us there and continue to follow along as I travel all over Washington State to meet and really get to know the people behind our food.

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.

Camas Uebelacker part 2 | #017 04/06/2020

Growing food takes an emotional toll on farmers, and Eastern Washington cattle feeder Camas Uebelacker has experienced highs and lows as a first-generation farmer. In the second half of our conversation, Camas opens up about the struggles he's faced.

Transcript

Camas Uebelacker:
All those dreams and thoughts that you had are gone and it’s not that somebody stole them from you. You know? It wasn’t like my house got broken into, and I got robbed. It’s nothing like that. It’s just literally gone, and there’s nobody to blame. There’s no fingers to point other than mother nature. She can be fickle.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be stressful, though.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a complete pain in the ass, man.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the Real Food Real People podcast. Farming is tough and, of course, there are a lot of the reasons that we often think about, out in the elements, dealing with weather, hard, backbreaking work, but sometimes it’s the emotional toll and the stress, the uncertainty, the impact on families. We get into that more this week as we talk with Camas Uebelacker.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the second half of our conversation. Last week was the first where we talked more about the nuts and bolts of his operation, what his views on the environmental impacts of feedlots is, and how much he cares about doing the right thing with his operation producing beef for, as he mentioned last week, 65,000 people.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, he opens up a bit more about the personal stuff. It gets a little bit more into what this means for his family and his future, what he’s going to tell his kids about getting into farming someday when they get to that age, and he also lets us in a little bit on his own kind of internal struggles with doing this sometimes. So, stick around for this half of the conversation.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you want to know more about how Camas’ operation works, listen to last week’s episode. You certainly don’t have to listen to that one first to have this one make sense for the most part. I think there are a couple of things maybe that we referenced in the second half that go back to the first, but for the most part, you can listen to this first if you want to, but if you want to know more about Camas and what he does, the kind of operation he has and how he runs it, you’ve got to listen to last week’s part one episode with him.

Dillon Honcoop:
He’s a cattle feeder, a feedlot owner in Othello, Washington. Great guy that somebody connected me with and I said, “He’s got to be on the podcast,” and I was so happy that we were able to make this conversation happen.

Dillon Honcoop:
My name is Dillon Honcoop, and this podcast is documenting my journey to places all over Washington State to talk with the real people behind our food. A lot of those are farmers, understandably, like Camas, but other people as well, like Niels Brisbane in the world of the culinary arts, and trying to connect farms with eaters, and like Sandi Bammer in Wenatchee selling food from her small local grocery store.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for me on this journey, and I’m sure that you will enjoy this part of my conversation with Camas Uebelacker. Fascinating stuff. Some of the things he says really give a good idea of the mindset of farmers and the things that they face and the reasons why they do some of the things they do. So, buckle up for another great part of the conversation.

Dillon Honcoop:
What has been the hardest thing through all this? What was the hardest time?

Camas Uebelacker:
The hardest time? I would say anytime we’ve decided to make any growth decision, and I don’t want to scare anybody young off that is deciding or thinking about going into ag, but it is probably the toughest nut you’ll ever crack to get your … Everybody says, “Oh, I want to help you. I want to help you,” but when the rubber hits the road, you have to have enough acres, you have to have enough equipment, you have to have enough of that stuff, and you can rent ground, you can rent tractors, and you can rent all those things, but the cost is just, it’s mind blowing.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, some crops you’ll have $1,250 an acre. If you’ve got a couple of hundred acres of it, there’s a lot of coin wrapped up. The other hard part is you get that wrapped up in it and you get paid once a year. So, you got to make it last and you got to have a budget. I mean, you really got to nail it down.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s one of those things that when weather screws you up, and I’ve had it happen. We had an our entire corn crop blow down flat one year when we had a lot of wind come through. It took two years to dig out of that hole. As you know, it was one of the better crops I’ve grown, and then you wake up in the morning and it’s flat. You’re like, “Man! Now, what do I do?” Well, we harvested as best we could. We lost a lot of corn. We lost a lot of money that year.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are you telling yourself in a situation like that?

Camas Uebelacker:
No joke, I mean, some days I was like, “Man, it’d be so much easier to work for somebody else. If I could just get a paycheck right now, that’d be cool.” Typically, I mean, when that had happened, we had some history farm and we had some history with our bank. They understood and you just work through it, but at the time, there’s a lot of head scratching, and then the other hard part is … So, you lost your crop, right? Now, well, it wasn’t lost. It just became extremely difficult to harvest.

Camas Uebelacker:
Well, then you just get your teeth kicked in from getting it all blown down and then you’re going to get a bill because it’s going to cost more to harvest it because it’s laying down flat. So, it’s like the beatings just never stop coming, right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Until it’s done and then you wipe that slate clean, but the beauty of farming is there’s always next year, right? “Well, we’re going to change this. What did I do wrong? Was my fertility wrong? Did I need more phosphate or potash in the soil to help for stock strength?” You start second guessing what it is that you’ve done in the past that worked great, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe it was just the freak storm.

Camas Uebelacker:
It was, and that’s what it boiled down to because I took tissue samples and we took them in and had them checked, and I was like, “Man, well, it wasn’t something I … Maybe I didn’t screw that up,” but there is a lot of those lessons learned that when you get … That particular year, that was it. That was a tough one. We also had hay cut at that time, and that circle typically on that cutting should have done two and a half ton to the acre dry hay, and I think I got like 29 bales off of it and the rest of it I had a pitch fork out of my neighbor’s front yard. So, it-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the rest of it just blew away?

Camas Uebelacker:
As gone. Literally, I couldn’t find it. It was gone, loaded all the way. So, I mean, literally, you’re making decisions off of that crop while you’re cutting it, looking at it like, “Man, this is nice. Hey, this is going to go up really good. The weather looks great. I’m going to sell this and we’re going to get some money. Maybe I should buy a new pickup. Maybe I should take my wife out to dinner.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are all the things that are going through my head, and then you go out there to bale it, and you’re like, “Where in the hell did it go?” All those dreams and thoughts that you had are gone, and it’s not that somebody stole them from you or it wasn’t like my house got broken into and I got robbed. It’s nothing like that. It’s just literally gone, and there’s nobody to blame, there’s no fingers to point other than much mother nature. She can be fickle.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s got to be stressful, though.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a complete pain in the ass, man. I mean, it is. We’ve had blizzards in the feedlot, where cattle walked over fences and walked away, but I tell this to my kids that I’m super proud to be part of an industry that when the weather gets as bad as it gets, we go outside, we don’t go home.

Camas Uebelacker:
You might be going out and checking to make sure your circles are pointed in a direction where the wind won’t blow them over, but you’re out there in it, right? It’s funny because it’ll be evening here and we’ll get a storm or something like that, and then all of a sudden, you start seeing headlights driving around on the county roads and things because all the guys are out checking stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I’m proud to be part of an industry that when the weather hits and it’s crappy and it’s blowing sideways and it’s snow, we’re out there. It’s cool. I try to tell that to them because it’s not the norm. Most of the time, they’ll close work or, “Hey, school’s closed today. You got a snow day.” Well, guess what, guys? Get your gloves. We’re going.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s extra work today in the snow.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah, and I’m proud of that. I mean, I’ve got no problem doing that. I’m happy to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
When it does get stressful, whether it’s a storm or a crop loss or anything like that, what do you do to deal with the stress?

Camas Uebelacker:
I go fishing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where?

Camas Uebelacker:
On the Columbia, that’s no joke. I got a boat and I go fishing. That’s my golf. I mean, I can sit in that boat and think about things and you can scream and yell cuss words as loud as you want and nobody’s going to hear it, and I come, and I’m happy, but you don’t really get, I wouldn’t say there’s no escape, right? I mean, it hangs over. It’s in the decision. The hard thing that I had to learn was that it’s whatever you do today basically is going to affect you a year out.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, if we have that crop loss, and you’re supposed to be paid for it at a certain time, I mean, it basically takes a year to dig out of it or offset it somehow. Diversity is huge. That’s why I like to farm and I like to have cattle because we’ve got our hands in a little bit of everything. We grow some seed crops. We do some other things. Diversity is a good thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever expect to be, I mean you, you said from a young age you were interested in cattle and stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would your young self say about where you’re at now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, man. I think he’d say he’s proud of me. I think. I don’t know. Either that or … You got a 50/50 chance.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, did you ever expect to be doing what you’re doing now?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. So, you’ll get a kick out of this. So, like I said, my father-in-law helped me buy our original home place. That was a gentlemen’s agreement hee and I had. My wife wasn’t even really privy to that when we did it, but he kept asking me like, “Where’s your business plan? How are you going to model this? How are you going to make this work?” I had never really ever gave him one.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think now when he comes and visits, to be honest with you, I think he went into it thinking, “All right. I’ll help this kid out. He can work a job in town and do it part time and this and that,” but we’ve turned it into something that it’s a full-time job not only for me, but we have three full-time employees also. I think it probably blows his mind more than it does mine. So, I mean, I didn’t-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you had more faith in yourself.

Camas Uebelacker:
I did. I knew that if we got a shot, I could take care of cattle. That’s what we’re good at, and that’s, like I said, that’s because we care for them so well that’s why we exist. I mean, we have an extremely low death loss, a really good conversion, a high average daily gain. We have everything that a customer wants, and we have the great facility to do it. It’s clean, it’s tidy. When they drive in, we have an open door policy. There’s no secrets. If they got a question, come find me and we’ll answer it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I have that with my bank, too. They’re welcome anytime. I think that’s the other beauty of our industry is there’s, literally, I mean, there’s no hiding anything. I mean, it’s all out in the open, right? I mean, I can’t tell them like, “Man, look how good my corn crop is.” How are you going to hide 200 acres of corn, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they can drive by and be like, “Man, I can see you can grow corn,” or “That looks like crap.”

Dillon Honcoop:
“What did he do?”

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. So, it’s an open door policy, right? “Come on, drive by, take a look. We’ll tell you what happened or we’ll go take a look at it,” but especially on the feedlot side of it, when they drive through, I’m never nervous. We’ve got nothing to hide. I encourage them to come. They come once a week and it’s a cool deal. We drive through, we eat lunch and go on about our day.

Camas Uebelacker:
The younger me, I don’t know. Maybe the younger me should have said, “You should’ve started this younger.” I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud of what I do every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you would’ve never gotten that break with the wheat?

Camas Uebelacker:
With the wheat or even the opportunity to buy the place? I couldn’t tell you. At hindsight, I have no idea what I’d be doing. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10 years. I don’t know what it’ll grow into.

Camas Uebelacker:
The other thing that I think a lot of younger guys need to remember or need to get the mentality because all my neighbors, they’re all really good farmers. They’ve got modern equipment. Everyone’s … In this day and age, if you’re still farming, you’re a good farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have to be to survive.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. I think of the guys that were struggling and for whatever reason, crop loss knocked them out or age or any of those things., I mean, if they’re still going in this day and age, they’re doing a damn fine job, and that’s the bottom line because we have all the regulation in the world on us. Everybody we’re trying to feed thinks we’re trying to kill them, and it’s some of the most suppressed prices we’ve ever had with the highest costs on everything else we’ve ever had.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, somebody’s doing something right, right? I think the younger me knowing what I know now would have said buy more land 10 years ago if it was at all possible, but it wasn’t. So, I think that’s what I would have said.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think of the impossible burger beyond meat?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I could get on my soapbox on this, and this could go a couple of different ways, but the beauty of America is you get a choice, right? So, if you want to eat that, eat it, but don’t knock me for not eating it, and I’m not going to knock you for eating it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I I think that that is good marketing. I think if the person that wants to eat that should really look at what’s actually in it. I don’t think it’s as great as for the environment as what is in beef or how beef is raised. I’m not going to throw stats out there and stuff, but the the US cow herd and the US cattle feeding industry feeds more people today with less cattle because we’re so efficient at it and good at it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I don’t see how making something out of 900 or I don’t even know. I’m not going to say numbers, but I don’t know how many products are in an impossible burger, but it’s a lot. Beef is beef. So, you want to eat it, eat it. I won’t. No way.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you say to folks say across the cascades in Seattle who are a little skeptical about where their beef comes from or where their food in general comes from? What’s your message to those people?

Camas Uebelacker:
I think if I had something to tell them, I would say that be proud of where you live in Washington. The packing houses that we do have here are the highest quality grade and some of the highest yielding plants in the United States. So, your Washington farmers and cattle feeders are on the nationwide level are higher than most. So, if they’re my neighbors across the hill, you should be proud, proud to live here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can they trust you to provide them safe food?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, yeah, all day long, all day long. There’s a lot of checks in place that, I mean, it’s mind-boggling when you tour a processing facility where they harvest cattle, the lengths that they go to to make sure that that product is safe for somebody to eat, the recall state, the stuff that they have. If there isn’t a need for a recall, the things that are in place for that, it’s amazing. I mean, it’s a very safe, very clean, very well-managed, very well-handled industry.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’ve got a guy that we actually feed cattle for always says this. He says, “Everybody wants their food produced like it was by their grandpa.” The truth of the matter is you don’t want your food produced like it is today. You want it going to be produced like it’s going to be tomorrow.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, this stuff that we do now is so cutting edge in comparison to even when I first started and the evolution of even processing facilities, the feeding industry, I mean, it’s amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re saying you don’t want the stuff the way that your grandpa produced it?

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why not? What’s wrong with that?

Camas Uebelacker:
Well, I mean, for one, we’ve got refrigeration. We can freeze stuff. We can do all. I mean, we’ve got all this modern technology at our fingertips that we can trace stuff, we can track stuff, we can test things. We have all of these insurances in place to make sure that when I sell my animal to a consumer or through the packing process and it ends up on a consumer’s plate, I would be happy if they had to look at my face on the package when they opened it. I’d be proud to put my name on it. I mean, I believe in it that well. It’s a safe quality, well-produced, well-managed product.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t the idea, though, that, “Oh, back in grandpa’s day or even dad, previous generation, a generation ago, the operations were smaller and it was maybe more hands on with the farmer. It was maybe more environmentally friendly because of that.” You’re saying that’s not true?

Camas Uebelacker:
I would say that the way we monitor and how we utilize the things that we have at our fingertips today are better. Like I said, my small facility feed 65,000 people. My grandpa sure as hell didn’t do that and he had the same amount of land. So, with what we produce in a narrow window of time, I mean, the US farmers, US ranchers, US cattle feeders, we produce a surplus.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, we rely on an export market. We’re good at making food, really good at it to the point that we can feed everybody here and still have them complain about it, but we can still sell it over overseas and we can feed other countries. It’s phenomenal. So, no.

Camas Uebelacker:
If we go back to that, I would rather those people that are saying that they should have to pick out who starves to death, not me. I don’t want to. I’m going to keep making it, but that’s not the road that you can go down to feed the masses of people that we have. You can’t. That’s not the answer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family. You talked about your wife and she’s very supportive of what you do. You have kids, too, now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep. My wife’s awesome. She works in town full-time at an agriculture bank. She’s been there ever since we started this. So, she’s been there about 12 years. Got three kids. My daughter, she’ll be nine in November. My son just turned six, and I got another daughter that just turned two here in July. So, yeah. I got three of them running around.

Dillon Honcoop:
I bet that can be a zoo.

Camas Uebelacker:
It is. It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know it is around my house, anyway. I’ve got little munchkins, too.

Camas Uebelacker:
They’re all into different stuff. My daughter likes soccer and she’s about a year and a half away from being a black belt karate. My son just wants to play basketball and ride four wheelers. My youngest, she just likes to color. So, I mean, just color and pet the dogs. That’s it. So, they’re all very unique. It’s pretty cool. I mean, we’ve got a little orchard here back at the house, and they’ve got chickens and rabbits and goats and horses and cats, and we’ve got a little greenhouse.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they got chores every morning that they got to do before they go to school. They got them every night when they come home. Something as simple as feeding three cats can take an hour because you get sidetracked by … I mean, the cool part, I love where I’m raising him. We can throw them outside and there’s nothing that’s going to hurt, I mean, they’re safe, and they can go be kids.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you see any of them becoming farmers or ranchers following in your footsteps?

Camas Uebelacker:
My daughter shows some interest in the health side of animals. She’s not a big fan when we ship them, but she likes the health side of it. So, I don’t know if she’d ever become a veterinarian or not, but I think if she was going to lean towards something in agriculture, it would be more on the animal health side of things.

Camas Uebelacker:
My son, it’s equipment. He likes tractors, he likes loaders, he likes bulldozers and he likes the circle irrigation. He’s wired to know why that stuff works, but he tells me all the time he wants to be a farmer. My youngest daughter, I think, she’s only two. So, she’s still learning how to talk.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. See where she goes when she gets into, really, with all of them. When it comes time, and let’s say your son keeps doing this farmer thing, wants to keep doing this farmer thing, what are you going to tell him?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, it’s funny you say that. I’ve sat down with my wife before and we’ve had that conversation like you were saying in those low times. I think to myself, “There’s no way in hell I would wish this upon my kids.” It’s so much easier to go get a job, work for somebody else, find a different trade, but then there’s the great days where you get all your jobs done and it’s noon and, you got all this land to enjoy. So, it wouldn’t be a decision to make lightly that come home and farm because you’re going to make all this money and life’s going to be great. That isn’t the case, but you’ll make a living and it’s an interesting part of the US economy where less than 2% of us in ag feed 98% of the US or the world. I mean, it’s pretty cool.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, when we get together like our cattle feeders association, the joke is we can fit everybody in the super cab pickup because there were many of us, right? It’s a small industry in the Northwest but it’s very significant. I mean, we feed it. There’s a lot of cattle on feed in Washington, but I would have no shame and encouraging my son or my daughter, I mean, any of them, any kid to get involved in ag. I think there’s a great future in it. I think people are going to keep having babies and there’s going to be more of this that we have to feed.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I think I would encourage him. I do think that in the future, smaller acreage farms are going to be more viable. I think it will be easier, I shouldn’t say easier, but I think it’ll be more financially stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you say that? A lot of people are saying the opposite of that, that things are just going to keep getting bigger.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I disagree, and the reason I do is because there’s just going to be more people and if you can produce a certain amount of food off of one or two acres and make a little bit of live and doing it, I mean, by all means, go do it, right? So, I mean you’ve got other states that are in droughts that are huge producers of vegetable crops that people eat. The beauty of Eastern Washington is we’ve got water and there is a great future in this area for my kids to come back and do, and I think that the opportunity to be there on a smaller scale also.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think big farms are going to be big. That’s just how it is, but behind all of those big farms, I mean, all the farms that are around me are big farms, and I know those people that own those and run those, they’re my neighbors, right? It’s still a family farm, but they might farm 6,000 acres or 11,000 acres or 20,000 acres, but it’s still a husband and a wife and kids that are keeping that ball rolling.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s cool because we’ve been here long enough now that I’m seeing some of those kids are coming back and they’re good kids and they’re working hard and the employees enjoy them. They have a little maybe a different outlook than their dad did, “Dad, you can’t work them on Sundays like this. Let’s give them a half day or get them on a schedule.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Ag has evolved a lot in that manner as well. They’re not bad jobs. They’re great jobs. They pay really well. Matter of fact, when the minimum wage increases in our state have happened, it didn’t affect anybody out here because nobody makes minimum wage. If you are a skilled worker that has a talent or even a drive, no one’s going to start at minimum wage. It just doesn’t exist.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I would encourage this younger generation coming up. I mean, buckle up, it’s going to be a ride, but I think there’s definitely a future in it, for sure. People got to eat.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s hard to have more leverage than that issue.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right? Yeah. I mean, it’s tough. Like I said, it’s hard to hear people complain with a full belly. It’s hard to even fathom that, that they can sit there after they ate lunch and say that we’re bad for the environment and all of these. It’s frustrating. This is the easiest way to say that.

Camas Uebelacker:
I read this stuff on Facebook and it just drives me nuts. I mean, maybe I need to try harder on that social media deal, but I just wish they’d call me and be like, “Hey, man. Is this true?”

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m like, “No. Hell no. That’s not true. Where do you hear that or where did you read that or who even is dumb enough to write that?” I encourage everybody. Ask a farmer, ask a cattle feeder, ask a rancher, but just ask them. We do this every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if somebody does ask you and you tell them, and tell them the facts as you know them and that still doesn’t change their mind? What do you say to them then?

Camas Uebelacker:
I did my part. I tried. Beyond that, there’s really nothing more that you can do. I’m not going to get on a soapbox because I produce beef and tell everybody that’s a vegan. That’s a terrible idea. I’m not that guy. That’s your choice, man, but don’t beat me over my choice. I’m not going to beat you over yours. Just don’t do it to me. I think that there’s a certain, a very small percentage of organizations make the loudest noise, right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are the ones that there’s no way in the world that I as a cattle feeder in my remote area where we’re at will ever change their mind. If I even did engage with them, all it did would probably just stoke the fire. I’m not that guy. I mean, we’re just going to do what we do, but if somebody is on the fence and has some questions like that, I would encourage him to look up some of these associations.

Camas Uebelacker:
Washington Cattle Feeders Associations got a website. Washington Beef Commissions got a website. I mean, all these. The information is out there. Just look in the right place, please. That’s what I would encourage.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for opening up, talking about your family and your history and your farm and everything. It’s really been a great conversation and really interesting. I appreciate it.

Camas Uebelacker:
No problem, man. Happy to do it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, does a conversation like that make you want to get into farming? I know. If you’re like me at all, it leaves you conflicted because part of it sounds so incredible to be growing food that people eat. I don’t know. Maybe is that just because I grew up on a farm? It’s in my blood. I know that for sure, but then part of a conversation like I had with Camas makes it sound pretty scary and like, “Why would I ever want to sign up for that? That’s something that would take over my life and could potentially lead to really hard times and a huge amount of hours and a lot of physical pain and the threat of bankruptcy.” Why?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like he said, at some points he just feels like, “I should just work a regular job, clock in, clock out, and this whole farming thing is not worth it,” but then he has his good days where he’s like, “Wow. I wouldn’t want my life to be any different.”

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d love to hear your reaction to a conversation like this or any of the conversations that we have. Share your comments on our social media posts with this or other episodes or shoot me an email. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email. My first name Dillon is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N, not the Bob Dylan way, the Matt Dillon way, if that makes sense. Not that I necessarily identify with either of those people, but people always ask. So, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. We’ve got some really cool conversations coming up in soon weeks here, too, and more and more about how COVID-19 is impacting the farming world and the people in the farming world, both on a personal level and then on a business level and even beyond business like on a bigger economy level.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s going to happen here is pretty unclear at this point and there are a lot of people who are worried. In some ways, just to give an advanced heads up of some of the things I’m hearing from the people who we’re hopefully going to be having on the podcast here in coming weeks, there may be some really cool opportunities right now for local food and farmers because of what’s happening with this virus, and the way it’s changing markets, and the way it’s causing people to think differently about their food and where they live and if they’re secure, but especially with what’s happening to the bigger national and global markets.

Dillon Honcoop:
There are some very scary times ahead for farming as well. I’m also very worried about a lot of local farmers. So, it’s a mixed bag. We’re going to be hearing more about it certainly every week as we go because it’s on everybody’s mind right now. So, expect that in the next few weeks coming up as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for joining me on this journey of mine to really get to know these farmers of all different stripes, as well as other people in the food chain, the food system, whatever you want to call it, other people behind our food here in Washington state. That’s what the Real Food Real People Podcast here is all about.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop. It’s a privilege to have you join me for these conversations. Listen in, download, subscribe on whatever you’re subscribed on if you haven’t already. I sure would appreciate it. I sure would appreciate a share on social media, too. If anything that we talk about on the podcast, one of our guests says, whatever, if it strikes a chord with you, I’d really love it if you shared it on your social media platform. It just helps us grow this conversation to more and more people. That’s part of our mission is to get more and more people reconnected to their food and where and who it comes from.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the more people that we can get plugged in on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, the better job we can do to change the landscape of at least people’s awareness about food and farming here in Washington State. So, I’d really appreciate that and don’t miss next week as we continue here on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

Camas Uebelacker part 1 | #016 03/30/2020

He didn't grow up on a farm, but he started a feedlot in Eastern Washington. Camas Uebelacker has a passion for his job and doing the right thing, and he answers some hard questions about how feedlots really work. In the process he breaks some negative stereotypes about how beef is produced here in Washington.

Transcript

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s nothing more noble than feeding somebody. If I met some guy on the side of the road, he’s hungry or whatever, and I brought him home and fed him, I did him a bigger solid than giving him five bucks. That’s going to last a little longer than five. For me to be able to say that I feed 65,000 people… and it’s something that it’s so important to us that every employee that we have knows it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Feedlots, it’s a dirty word right now, at least in some people’s minds as far as the way to produce beef, but what is the truth on feedlots? Are they bad for animals? Are they bad for the environment? I wanted to talk with someone who actually ran a feedlot here in Washington to find out what they’re all about, and what they do, and to ask some hard questions.

Dillon Honcoop:
I connected with Camas Uebelacker with C&G Cattle Company over in Othello, and we had an incredible conversation. His answers to some of my hard questions were not at all what I expected and we ended up talking about climate change, and the environment, and taking care of animals, and all of these things that you would not expect with the stereotype that feedlots have.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I encourage you to listen to this conversation with an open mind. I know he changed my perspective on quite a few things. Again, his name is Camas Uebelacker. He’s our guest this week and next. I had to split this in two parts. We had such a good conversation, it just kept going and there was a lot to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
So this is the first part of our conversation about how beef is produced here in Washington and in a lot of parts of the United States. But as you’ll hear him say, he thinks we have something special with how we do it here in Washington, and you’ll find out that he cares deeply about these issues that people are worried about with feedlots.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for joining us this week. Please subscribe on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and all those other players. Don’t forget to follow us on social media. I’m Dillon Honcoop, again your host here on Real Food, Real People. Grew up on a farm in Western Washington and now I’m journeying all over the State to places like Camas’ operation to get to know what really drives the people who are producing our food here in Washington and how they’re really taking care of the things that we hold so dear; the environment, how they’re taking care of people, how they’re taking care of animals.

Dillon Honcoop:
So sit back, enjoy this first part of our conversation. Really cool stuff here from Camas.

Dillon Honcoop:
You come from a family of farmers or what’s your-

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… background in this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I don’t. I’m first generation so I started our operation. My wife and I bought it in 2007 and my father-in-law helped us buy it and that’s how we got the ball rolling on what it is we’re doing now.

Dillon Honcoop:
How old were you when you started this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I was 27.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is a 27 year old guy who hasn’t been in farming do to so start?

Camas Uebelacker:
I had an interest in it and I went to college and had an Ag background in it. Then when I got out of school, I worked for a ranch for a while, always mainly in livestock. And then did that, worked for a feedlot, went back to college, got a better degree, worked for a bigger feedlot, and then this place came up for sale and I went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you go to college? Same place both times?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I went to Walla Walla Community College and Montana State is where I graduated from.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you went to college the first time, what was your plan?

Camas Uebelacker:
To be completely honest, I really didn’t have one. I knew I wanted to get a degree. I come from the age of kids where they just pound that everyone has to go into college.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Same here.

Camas Uebelacker:
Trades are super important, even more so now than they were when I went to school, but that was the time, that’s what you did when you got out of high school, so I did it. I had a great job in high school. I was working as a diesel mechanic and had all the options to just continue to work and go to school for that, but I didn’t want to lay on my back on a concrete floor until I was 60.

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus, I think they all told us at that time, “Well, if you really going to get a good job then you got to go to college.”

Camas Uebelacker:
I would never discourage anybody from going, but that is not necessarily the case these days. The trades are super important and pay in a lot of circumstances better than any education that you would get.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know about your experience, but I know I have plenty of high school class mates of mine that didn’t go to college and got into the trades and right away they were making more money than me and they’re still making more-

Camas Uebelacker:
And they don’t have student loans and everything [crosstalk 00:05:11] else. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they had the comfort in some ways of knowing what they were doing right away rather than, “I’m not sure what I’m going to read.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Or you got to go find a job and work my way up and you can pretty well start and within a few years be going.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you grow up?

Camas Uebelacker:
Outside of Yakima, Wiley City.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. But not a farm family. What’d your dad do?

Camas Uebelacker:
My dad was a college professor at Central and my mom, she was mainly in the education field.

Dillon Honcoop:
So both sort of teachers.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And did they want you to become a teacher too?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. It wasn’t anything like that. My folks were divorced and I had a stepdad that was real into cattle and that’s how I got the interest and I just liked it. It was like every day it felt like a Saturday. And it still does, so I just.

Dillon Honcoop:
At what age were you starting to think about even just like being on a ranch? When did you first get the chance to go out and do that?

Camas Uebelacker:
In all reality, I was probably 15, 16, somewhere right in there and just really into it. I like cattle and I like the work and it was interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you lived in town but got to go out to a farm?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. We always lived out. It wasn’t like I was just straight out of town, but no, we had some acreage and we always had horses and cattle and things like that growing up, but never on a scale of what we do now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there you were, young kid, which… I grew up on a berry farm and both my parents had grown up on dairy farms, so I’ve been around animals a bit too, but I always thought the ranch and cattle thing was cool.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you’re young, it sounds cool. Right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was it what you thought it was when you were a kid? What did you find out from there until-

Camas Uebelacker:
I’ve pretty well done every gamut where you’d take three horses and ride out, and camp for a week, and check cattle. That’s really cool for the first week and then it’s, “Man, it’d be nice to be home and get a shower.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Like a real cowboy deal. You’ve done that.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. And it was fun and it was definitely one of those things when you’re 20, if you’re into it, I would encourage anybody, just go for it, man. But the reality is those jobs are there, they’re still there. The West is still alive and doing cool stuff like that, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you did that here in Washington?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, that was in the Dakotas.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the Dakotas.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. Went back there for a couple of years and that was before all the oil field stuff, when minimum wage was still 475 and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah, it was pretty fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that where you were doing the cowboy thing?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I think it was probably less than that because I was on salary, but you can’t win them all. But no, it was cool. It was a great experience. That stuff’s neat and it evolved. Matter of fact, when I got done with that job, I moved home and I was going to take a couple of weeks off, and I have an uncle that has a feedlot out here and he asked if I could come help for high moisture corn harvest, supposed to last two weeks and I ended up working for him for two years.

Camas Uebelacker:
That’s how I really got the interest in the feedlot. I was just blown away by what you can do with an animal in a fairly short period of time. But the day I started working there, that’s the best I was ever going to be, so that’s why I went back to school to think if maybe I could get a job at a bigger yard, managing it or something like that, and I did that.

Camas Uebelacker:
I ended up working for a bigger feedlot for a couple of years. I really enjoyed it, but then when the opportunity came up for me to do my own, I jumped. I went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that scary?

Camas Uebelacker:
Super, man. I’ve never signed on a line and had my name look so shaky. That’s a lot of money and as young, no one really gave me, I guess credibility. I had a good name in the industry and that’s part of the reason that we’re where we’re at now is because somebody gave me a shot. And we’ve had that same customer almost since day one. As they’ve grown, we’ve grown with them to what it is now.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you thinking at that time? You decided like, I’m going to do this.

Camas Uebelacker:
The crazy thing is, if you got enough guts, anybody could… You could build a feedlot and put a sign up front says, “I’m a feedlot.” Doesn’t mean anybody’s going to send any cattle. And we’re accustomed feedlot so we don’t necessarily own the cattle. We might own a percentage or something like that, but to be in the custom business, it’s a pretty big leap of faith.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’d be one thing if I owned all my own cows and I put them into my own feedlot and had all that going, but I don’t have that, so we’re strictly custom. So your name means a lot, it’s still like that. Everything that we did was, like I said, in 2007 and it was done on a handshake.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that? To buy the land? To buy the machinery?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, that was to start taking in custom cattle for the customer that we had. Like I said, you can have a feedlot, but it doesn’t mean anybody’s going to send you anything. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So did you have the land then or?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. I had bought it and I wasn’t really sure how this was all going to work out. I still had a great relationship with the feedlot that I was working for and thinking, well, maybe I’ll knock on that door. But the place that I bought was so dilapidated and run down that there wasn’t a panel that would hold an animal, so I had a bunch of work to do.

Camas Uebelacker:
So I worked full time at the feedlot I was working at and then in the afternoons I’d get off work and I’d come work on mine. And I did that for about a year and it just got to be too much. We harvested our first wheat crop that year and that was… I think I sold soft white wheat for like almost 10 bucks a bushel.

Camas Uebelacker:
That was in 2008, I believe and that gave us a boost to be able to go buy some more boards and posts and fix some more stuff. And then we fired it up and it’s been running ever since.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know prices for wheat. Is that a good price?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah it’s crazy. Yeah. I think that was the highest, I think it’s ever been since I’ve farmed.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it at now, and you know?

Camas Uebelacker:
I think it’s just right at five bucks or under 5 bucks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Half of what your-

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. In all honesty, farming cattle, I wouldn’t say that it takes a lot of luck, but a guy needs a good break every once in a while for it to keep running. And that particular year was our first year and we got that boost. I’m not going to say it set the stage for the entire process, but it was damn sure a good boost that a guy needed.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want to talk more eventually about your family and stuff? Did you have family at that time or was it just you starting this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I was in engaged.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were engaged.

Camas Uebelacker:
My wife and I weren’t even married yet and we were crazy enough to buy it together, and I don’t… Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was she saying at that time? Was she sure she’s [crosstalk 00:11:43]-

Camas Uebelacker:
She’s awesome. I married absolute big, it’s not even funny. But no, she was very encouraging. She knew I could do the work, she knew that it was a good opportunity. The cool part about it is she’s in the banking industry and I won’t say names, but I can’t bank where she works because it’s a conflict of interest.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
But I was really good at the work and she was really good at helping me make the right business decisions.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
I really wish I wouldn’t have got an animal science degree, I wish I would’ve got a banking or economics or some sort of business degree as opposed… Because the stuff that we do everyday out in the feedlot is stuff that you will learn on the job, or a veterinarian, or a nutritionist, or somebody can help you with, but running your own business, you really need to be intimate with it and know that if I buy this piece of equipment, it’s going to put me back a year, or two, or five, or how am I going to pay for this?

Dillon Honcoop:
And is that worth it?

Camas Uebelacker:
Is it the right decision to make-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Camas Uebelacker:
… because potentially you might be the best cattle feeder on the earth, but if you don’t make the right business decisions you know it’s going to sink you.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you made the right decision with that soft white wheat?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. That went really well. That was a good move. And I contracted at all at the peak of the market and sold it and it was awesome. I was like, “Man, I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do this. This is easy.” I did start at the right time. Ag was going to be good and it has been good after that point for another six years or so, and then it peaked out and has been on a a steady decline.

Camas Uebelacker:
But it gets you for those first like six, seven years where you’re paying off a lot of equipment, a lot of land debt, a lot of just debt period, and I feel pretty fortunate that we started when we did because to do it on a day like today where the markets are down and it’s a lot tougher.

Camas Uebelacker:
Land’s worth more now, rents are higher. It’d be pretty tough.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re saying it’s still pretty darn scary to jump in both feet?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh yeah. Looking back at it now, I can’t believe I did it. And I don’t know how I made it work, but we did.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like your first year was a lot of hours for sure.

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh man. [crosstalk 00:13:59] It was crazy. And like I said, I got a good wife. She was cool with it and-

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a day were you putting in when you were working basically another full job?

Camas Uebelacker:
I used to have to co-feed at that other feedlot and so I would be there… We had to be there at 4:30, and then I’d get off about 3:30 or 4:00, and then I’d come to my yard and work on it until probably 8:00 at night and go home.

Dillon Honcoop:
I do the math on that. That’s a couple of hours right there.

Camas Uebelacker:
It was tough, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that was every day?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. At that yard we worked a six and two schedule, so six days on, two days off. And then obviously if it’s just me, there’s no days off here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
I did that for about a year and a half. Matter of fact, I think it was three years before I ever even hired an employee to help me. I needed a break. It was pretty tough, but like I said, my wife was on board and we went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain what it is you actually do. You’ve been talking, you have C&G Cattle Company-

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… you run a feedlot to a lot of people. That’s a dirty word-

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… but what does it really mean?

Camas Uebelacker:
My operation is what in the industry, what we call it, backgrounding yard or… Basically what we do is we bring in light cattle that would have just been weaned off a cow, and we bring them in at 550, 600 pounds, and then we’ll take those to 900 pounds. And then after that, those will go to a finish feedlot where they put a finish on the animal.

Camas Uebelacker:
And then those cattle are typically harvested at this time, 1,450 pounds. So they’ll take them for quite a while longer after I have them. But what we do is we get the health straight on them and we have a really good solid vaccine program that we use on them, a good feed program. And we basically get them healthy, get them eating, getting them straightened out.

Camas Uebelacker:
And then when the finish feedlot takes them, it’s pretty push button for them. It’s really easy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you mean straightened out? What does that involve?

Camas Uebelacker:
My specialty and I guess why I exist in the world is we’re pretty good at high risk cattle, meaning that those that are cattle that came from a ranch, that they take them to a sale yard. Our buyers put them together into usually truck load sizes and we buy from Canada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California and they’ll be brought in into my place.

Camas Uebelacker:
And so from there, we don’t really necessarily know any vaccine history on them. We don’t know if they’ve ever even had a vaccine. We know where they came from because most of them are branded, but beyond that, we know very little.

Dillon Honcoop:
High risk, what’s the risk? The risk is to you?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, the risk is to a customer. We try to mitigate that risk as much as we can with the protocols and programs that we’ve put in place over the years. It’s crazy how much it changes. I wouldn’t say so much year to year, but from when I first started doing this to now, we’ve fed enough cattle that we have a pretty solid program put together.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s it’s definitely, I would say less… I shouldn’t say less on the technical side, but it’s it’s a little bit more… It’s a slower process. We’d go real easy with them, a lot of high roughage diets. We’re not trying to push them, we’re not shooting for a really high average daily gain.

Camas Uebelacker:
Basically we want to get them eating, make sure they’re healthy, lots of access to fresh water. We have a really intense and very technical mineral package that we put together because a lot of cattle that come from different areas of Washington, or Oregon, or Idaho, certain areas of those States the grass is deficient in minerals and it can affect their immune system.

Camas Uebelacker:
So over the years, that’s one thing that we’ve really developed. It’s all key laded vitamins and minerals. It’s readily available. It’s in every load of feed that we produce and we’ll get those cattle caught back up on nutrition-wise what they need and then they stay healthy and put on pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, these are cattle that have been out on the range somewhere?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yup. Yeah. These would be calves that would come off of a cow that were grazing. It could be in the high desert of Oregon, it could be in the Plains of BC, or it could have been… We don’t get a lot of coast cattle, but if we buy out of central Oregon, sometimes we’ll get coast cattle off of like Coos Bay, those areas.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so when you talk about high risk and risk to the customer, the customer would be whatever operation is going to buy them to finish them and harvest them?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. The risk would be basically the day they buy them from the sale yard. So they’re going to own them all the way through. You’re going to feed them and take care of them for them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Camas Uebelacker:
And under that feeding care is our program that we basically get them straightened out, and healthy, and looking like good cattle.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to what I said, some people feel like feedlot’s dirty word. What’s your response to that?

Camas Uebelacker:
I love what I do. We don’t have the prettiest aspect of the livestock world. A ranch has green grass, rolling hills, pine trees and everything else. We’ve gotten metal corrals and concrete feed bunks. So it’s not the prettiest thing, but the thing that blows my mind every year is at the end of the year when I get done and I sit down and I look at how many cattle we put through there, the pounds of beef that we put on animals and all of that, it’s typically if you use the average of what a consumer eats every year, my facility feeds about 65,000 people a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
65,000 people worth of beef.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep. That’s my response. I don’t really know how else to say that. In my opinion, there’s no nothing more noble than feeding somebody. If I met some guy on the side of the road, he’s hungry or whatever and I brought him home and fed him, I did him a bigger sell than giving him five bucks. That’s going to last a little longer than five.

Camas Uebelacker:
For me to be able to say that I feed 65,000 people and it’s something that it’s so important to us that every employee that we have knows it because… And the cool part about a feedlot is we literally use the most modern technology that anybody has in the Ag industry. But we also still use the old school stuff where somebody sat on a horse. And there’s very few industries that you can say that.

Camas Uebelacker:
Row crop farming, it’s you’re climbing a tractor and you’ve got the most modern tillage equipment and all that, and I farm and we have that. But when it gets down to the feedlot, it’s a different mentality. It is long hours, it’s dirty, dusty, stinky work, but food is a dirty, dusty, stinky job and I’m happy to be part of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you do think about it in terms of the food that you produce for people? Your team with the things that you’re doing on a day to day basis, that’s in the back of your mind?

Camas Uebelacker:
Absolutely. And it’s also one of those industries when people say, “Every job here’s important.” And I agree with that in most industries, but I would say at my feedlot, that rings more true than anywhere because we wash the water tanks regularly and that’s typically when you hire a guy, that’s where he starts.

Camas Uebelacker:
If he wants to move up through the chain of command and eventually be a pen rider, or a feed truck driver, or some of those jobs, or a processor or any of those, that’s where you start, but that job is very important. If you don’t watch the tanks, there’s a potential that you could have sick cattle or something like that. So it is pretty cool that it is a neat industry, a neat trade that literally every job there that gets done every day on a daily basis is important and you feed people.

Camas Uebelacker:
Whether or not they want to eat it or not, but that’s the beauty of America. They can choose to buy beef or they can choose to buy other protein products, but the people that choose to buy it, I’m feeding them and I’m cool with that, and I’ll keep doing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think more and more people, as much controversy as there is about as far as some people go with different takes on beef, I think there is also an awareness that people are coming around to that it’s an important protein source.

Camas Uebelacker:
It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
And not all protein is created equal.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, no, it’s not. Whether or not you choose to buy it, that’s the beauty of where we live. There’s more options out there than you can ever imagine. What I was telling you earlier in the beef sector, there’s conventional, there’s organic, there’s grass-fed, there’s natural, there’s all these different segments.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I don’t really care what you eat as long as you’re eating beef. I’m team beef. You never take your wife out to a chicken dinner.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ll remember that.

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s a reason they make a steak night, not a chicken.

Dillon Honcoop:
Chicken night.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m just joking. But to go back to where your initial question, they’re not beautiful, but they’re designed to be extremely efficient. They’re designed to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Feedlot.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. Not waste. I can tell you exactly how much my corn silage pit is going to shrink in the next 12 months. We’re down to the pounds, and extremely efficient. We’re in a business of the margin is literally penny sometimes, so if I make a decision to change a feed additive that would maybe help in the immune system, typically the salesman is going to tell me, “It’s in sense per head per day.”

Camas Uebelacker:
And that might not sound like a lot. Right? On one head you’re like, “ell, it’s going to cost me two cents more per head per day.” But when you spread that over 4,000 head and you’re going to do it over the next 90 days, well that’s a chunk of change.

Dillon Honcoop:
You say feed additive, I’m sure some people might say, “Oh, what kind of chemicals are you given these animals?”

Camas Uebelacker:
No, no, it’s nothing like that and any feed additive that we do feed would have a zero day withdrawal because it’s in the feed. Antibiotics, if we do [doctrine animal 00:23:48], it has a withdrawal. Those are set by the FDA. We have to follow. No animals with any residue are ever shipped, can’t do it. It’s illegal.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying any beef can’t have antibiotics in it?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. And I’ll even help out the other industries, any meat product that you would see in a supermarket cannot have any antibiotic residue in it. It is illegal and it won’t have it in it. That’s why we have the safety checks. That’s why America’s awesome. Other countries, I don’t believe they have… I shouldn’t speak to those countries, but I know for a fact I’ve toured the processing plants, I’ve seen the steps and measures that they go do it and I am 100% proud to say I’m part of that industry.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why is it that some things you see in the grocery store might say antibiotic free and others don’t then?

Camas Uebelacker:
Because it all has to be antibiotic free and it’s a marketing, I shouldn’t say scheme or something like that, but it’s purely marketing. And I would encourage, if someone does have a question, I wouldn’t jump on Google, and I wouldn’t jump on Facebook, and I wouldn’t jump on Instagram, and all those other deals where everyone gets their news now, but I would call a farmer. We’re in the phone book.

Dillon Honcoop:
So this whole like this meat is antibiotic free, it’s a farce because it’s all supposed to be, otherwise it’s illegal?

Camas Uebelacker:
Illegal. It’s all antibiotic free and it’s a marketing ploy. But it’s tugging at the heartstrings of consumers and I don’t think that’s fair. You’re not going to get that from a guy like me, you’re going to get that from the bigger companies that are trying to sell that product.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the feedlot issue, I think one of the things that people worry about or fear and the image that they have in their mind is that animals are not being treated well in a feedlot. You’re talking about getting animals healthy in your feedlot. Where’s the breakdown there? Why is it that people think feedlots are bad for animals?

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying, you’re actually getting them healthy in your feedlot.

Camas Uebelacker:
I guess I can break a day down for you real quick just to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Sure.

Camas Uebelacker:
… make it crystal clear for everybody. We check their feed every morning. My guy that does it starts at 5:30. He drives through, checks every feed bunk, every pen gets checked. At the time when he’s typically doing that, he’ll check the water tanks to make sure they’re full, or not overflowing, or there’s some issue there.

Camas Uebelacker:
Then once the feeding and water and everything’s checked, every pen is checked, so every animal gets looked at. We have developed facilities and updated everything to the point that there isn’t even a hot-shot on my farm. We don’t own one. We don’t need one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hot-shot, what’s that?

Camas Uebelacker:
All the electric prods-

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Camas Uebelacker:
… that everybody thinks that-

Dillon Honcoop:
To get an animal moving?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. We don’t use them, we don’t have them. There’s no need. We’ve updated, we’ve designed, we’ve become… Every guy I have is Beef Quality Assurance certified and part of that training program is moving cattle, loading cattle, unloading cattle, processing cattle. We’re big on it. The cool part is it’s so relaxing when we are doing those things and moving cattle. It isn’t even hard.

Camas Uebelacker:
This isn’t whipping and spurs, scream and yell. This isn’t working cows with your grandpa. We do this every day, we’re good at it, we care about them and literally, I make my living from taking care of them. That’s the whole reason I have a job.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why would you be hurting them, I guess is the question.

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s no damn reason in the world to ever treating an animal ill. We have a saying and it hangs above my shop door that says, “Treat them like they’re yours.” Because we truly are in a custom business where there aren’t our animals, but we do… And the guys that work for me, most of them have been with me a long time and we hold ourselves to a very high standard.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I think we have to, and I think that’s also part of the reason that we’ve grown how we have and we’ve been able to maintain an existing customer for as long as we have. And also grow to be basically the largest grow yard in the Northwest. I’m proud to say that. But we treat every one of them as if we own them.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I’m not going to try to scare people off and throw dollars and cents and “Oh, I have this huge investment in them.” But to boil it down for you, when my feedlot’s full, it’s $4 million in cattle inventory, just cattle. That’s not feed, that’s not anything else. And I’m a 4,000 feedlot. These big guys, the bigger feedlots have even more. So to say that I would ever treat one of them poorly, or deny them water, or fresh feed, or any of that thing is just, it’s asinine.

Camas Uebelacker:
You’re not gonna do it, you can’t. And like I said, the reason we’ve been able to excel and expand and become who we are is because we care for them so well.

Dillon Honcoop:
What you’re saying resonates with what I hear from a lot of farmers and what I know practically to be true, which is, if you want to do well, if you want an animal to produce well, why would you want to abuse them or hurt them? Doesn’t make any sense. But yet there still is this perception that the way that farms are now is just an industrial farming or a factory farm and they’re just pushing animals through, and they’re abusing them.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just going off of what I’m assuming the mindset is here, that they’re abusing them to save money and get more out of them somehow, which-

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re saying that’s backwards?

Camas Uebelacker:
It is. Very much so, and it’s to the point where we also have saying that it’s “Quality feed, quality animal.” I grow the majority of the feed for my feedlot on my own farm ground. I’ve got a neighbor that grows a lot for me, but the other beauty of feedlots is we take products that aren’t typically… They would typically in another industry be waste.

Camas Uebelacker:
One ingredient that I don’t personally feed, but a lot of them would do in the area that we’re at is a French Fries, and they’re called French Fries because it has a black spot on it and McDonald’s won’t sell it. And if you did get it in your French Fries, you might take it back and say, “Hey, this one’s burnt.” But it’s perfectly good cattle feed.

Camas Uebelacker:
So for us to be able to use the byproducts that come from other industries, like we feed a lot of bluegrass straw. Bluegrass straw comes from the grass seed industry that planted your front lawn, or a golf course, or lawns around hotels and all these places that have green grass. It comes from somewhere and we feed a byproduct out of it.

Camas Uebelacker:
Same thing every time you fill up your car with gasoline E85, the other 15% is ethanol and we feed a lot of ethanol by-product. It’s called wet distillers grains. After they extract the part that they’re going to put in gasoline, we feed what’s left over and it’s awesome feed.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would happen to it otherwise?

Camas Uebelacker:
I couldn’t even tell you. With the intent when our government decided that they needed to up the ethanol in it and production went up and people… You can buy it dried, you can buy it in a pellet, you can buy it wet, you can buy it different ways, but it’s all going to end up in animal feed.

Dillon Honcoop:
But other than animal feed, it’s pretty much wouldn’t be good for anything?

Camas Uebelacker:
You’d dump it. But it’s good animal. It’s great animal feed. It’s not just good, it’s great. The potato industry is huge in our area, so there’s a lot of feedlots that feed the potato byproducts. There’s stuff what they call hopper waste, there’s slurry, there’s various parts of the process that prepare that potato for human food. It ends up in a byproduct that feedlots utilize.

Camas Uebelacker:
That’s another cool part of the industry is that, I think they call them upcyclers. I guess if you know it. I always say it’s trash to cash, so we buy those products, we store them here on site and then we feed it.

Dillon Honcoop:
These animals are basically taking, like you talk about this distiller’s waste and they’re turning that, which would otherwise be unusable.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And certainly is not edible.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re turning that into high quality protein for humans-

Camas Uebelacker:
For humans.

Dillon Honcoop:
… to consume.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yup. Yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do you think then about all this, we gotta get rid of beef because it’s using up land, and water, and all these things and causing climate change?

Camas Uebelacker:
I read through those, but the cool part about my feedlot, and I’m going to speak about mine, we reuse everything. So the manure that comes out of my pens goes back on my farm ground. And it’s not raw manure, we typically age it, compost it, and screen it, and then it goes back on as… I remember my grandma always used to buy [Begs Deer Manure 00:32:44]. Well, I make it by the truckload.

Camas Uebelacker:
And we spread that back on our farms at agronomic rates, and the cool part is, is when I started doing that, my fertilizer bill went down close to $30,000 a circle and that comes out of my yard, my feedlot. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s heading towards organic right there.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m pretty much the greenest hippie you’ve ever met. When people say things like that, it really bugs me because we work so hard at making sure that we don’t waste anything. My guys get tired of me telling them, “Hey, quit spill and feed. Make sure he shoveled at. Clean that up. Scrape that into a pile.” The part-

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe that’s just because you’re cheap though.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, it’s efficient. I’m efficient.

Dillon Honcoop:
I just had to give you a hard time.

Camas Uebelacker:
And there’s all this other stuff, when people say that, I look at them and I want to ask them, “Well, what is it that you do to change it? You drove here, you use plastic, you’ve got garbage in your garbage can. What are you doing?” By the way, I farm a couple hundred acres that sequesters carbon.

Camas Uebelacker:
Sometimes when I read that, I just want to say, “You know what? You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help you out.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re not concerned about cows causing climate change-

Camas Uebelacker:
Not at all? Nope. I’m more worried about all the people that drive that probably should just walk. I think that the noise about those things that are coming to people like me that are trying to feed people, I think that maybe those masses should do a little something to change. I think that they do, but I don’t think they do it on the scale that I do. I have a hard time buying it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously, we’re talking about the environment here. What else do you do for the environment? You talked about manure, people have environmental concerns about manure and how it’s handled. You mentioned you put it on your fields, you mentioned agronomic rate. What does that mean?

Camas Uebelacker:
We put on and typically we will fall apply or spring apply manure. And in the area that we’re in, it’s extremely dry. Our average rain fall’s six inches a year, so we don’t typically worry about the leeching into groundwater or anything like that. We’re also 600 feet to ground water, so it’s a ways down there. But the agronomic rate, so if we… We pull soil samples every spring, every fall so we know where we’re at with what the crop would use and what it’s going to need, and we don’t over apply.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you don’t apply beyond what the crop is going to use?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. It’s really cool. Like I said, it’s a cool industry. We’ve got the most modern… The tractors that pull the wagon got GPS, the wagons have scales. I know how many pounds are going on every acre. And the part of the reason is, you want to talk about trash to cash, this has become a valuable product because it’s not just the nitrogen, the N, P and K that’s in it, it’s also all the micronutrients.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a living product that when you apply it to soil, plants, it’s readily available. There is no process that has to go through. So it’s good for ground and it’s to the point now that it’s a saleable product. So when people think that we’re out here just over applying it, there’s really no monetary reason to do that because if you can utilize what it is that you need… Like my farm, I utilize what I need on mine and then if I have leftover I’ll sell it. But if I don’t, I’ll use it.

Camas Uebelacker:
So there is no reason for me to just throw money out the back of my manure spreader just because I have to get rid of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s not a waste?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. Nope. It’s a waste product in the feedlot, but once it hits farm ground, it’s as good as gold.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re big into soil health stuff then?

Camas Uebelacker:
Absolutely, have to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the key to good soil health?

Camas Uebelacker:
A good crop rotation. In our area, our soils are mostly, what they call arid soils it’s a highly… We’re in an arid area, so our soils inherently, they’re low in organic matter, so anytime that we can put that back in, it helps with the water-holding, water penetration, just overall soil health.

Camas Uebelacker:
If we decide to do high moisture corn for harvest, all those corn stocks will go back into the soil. If we choose to do silage, we’ll take the silage off, but we’re going to put compost back on. Over the years that I’ve owned this farm, every year it continues to yield higher, and that’s the goal.

Camas Uebelacker:
There is no reason to just farm it, to farm it, it’s a longterm project and it’s a longterm investment. It’s not cheap to spread manure, it’s not cheap to just apply it. You’re talking, there’s a guy on a tractor, a guy on a loader, you’re talking burning diesel. There’s all those things, but when it’s all said and done, when you talk about the greenhouse gas and all that other stuff, those crops that we’re growing are going to sequester carbon.

Camas Uebelacker:
So I think that my footprint is probably smaller than most people’s. I truly believe that.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Next week in the second half of our conversation with Camas Uebelacker, we find out more about his family and what he sees as the future of farming and the issues around producing food here in Washington State. He has more answers coming up next week that you probably wouldn’t expect to hear from a guy who’s running a feedlot.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s really cool and encouraging to hear people across the board breaking stereotypes of the things that they care about, the things that are important to them and what really drives their operations. So a big thank you again to Camas for opening up with us and sharing some of this. And I’m really excited to next week share the second half of our conversation again with Camas Uebelacker of C&G Cattle Company in Othello, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
As I’m always reminding you, make sure to follow us on social media, Real Food, Real People Podcast on Facebook, on Instagram as well. I think the handle is… What is it? @rfrp_podcast. That’s the handle on Instagram as well as on Twitter, so we’d love it and we’d really appreciate it if you followed us there, shared our content.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re just trying to get these stories to more people in Washington so they can start to hear from the real farmers that are producing our food here. Rather than having to hear from anyone else, why not straight from the horse’s mouth, as the saying goes. We really appreciate you supporting the podcast in that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
And of course, always welcome feedback on any of those social media platforms as well as dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. That’s my email address. Feel free to shoot me an email anytime you want. If you’ve got a thought on the show, maybe you didn’t like something that someone said or you have a different perspective, maybe you know somebody with a different perspective on an issue that I should have on the program.

Dillon Honcoop:
We want to hear from all perspectives here on Real Food, Real People, and we really appreciate you following us and listening along. We’ll catch you next week for the second half with Camas Uebelacker.

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

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

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

Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you deal with that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
Yeah. No.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you have said?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, that is a big dream.

Alex Durney:
That is a big dream.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What do they need to hear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t see them out.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
On what?

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
Oh, the elevator talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Durney part 1 | #012 03/02/2020

She's a former vegetarian Evergreen State College ecology student who now manages a beef ranch. Hear Alex Durney's unexpected journey to embracing farming and finding a whole new dream for her future.

Transcript

Alex Durney:
Like I’m pretty positive my grandfather is disappointed in me, because I went to college to get a college education so that I didn’t have to just be some rancher or farmer and here I am doing that. But with that comes a platform in a change that we’re able to make within this country and I want to be able to help with that. I want to be part of that change.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Farmers come from so many different backgrounds, but our profile this week may be one of the most unexpected. I talked with Alex Durney. She grew up in suburbia. She went to Evergreen State College and studied freshwater ecology, very passionate about environmental issues. She was vegetarian, but now she manages a ranch raising cattle for beef. Not what you would expect at all. She has a pretty incredible story of how she got to where she is and all the things that she’s learned and still her passion for the environment as well as for farming and ranching. This will be the first of two parts of my conversation with her. We just had so much to cover and she brings such a cool perspective with her education and background. So please join me in hearing from Alex Durney. She’s the manager for Colvin Ranch in Tenino Washington. Great conversation. My name is Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my personal journey to get to know the real farmers and the real people behind our food here in Washington state.

Alex Durney:
I actually ended up starting to go to Idaho State University in my home state and I started out as a biology major. I really wanted to be an ultrasound technician and then I realized I didn’t really want to work with people very much, or at least I didn’t want to work with people with health concerns, I guess. I didn’t want to tell people that there was something wrong with them. I wouldn’t be happy in my job and that was the biggest thing. I wanted to find happiness in my job. So that’s where that journey began.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were like, “No healthcare, can’t do it.”

Alex Durney:
No healthcare. And so then I was scrambling to figure out what I could do. At one point I was actually debating becoming a veterinarian, I mean that links us to what I’m doing a little bit right now. But then I ended up becoming a cosmetologist so I did hair, skin and nails for a little bit and that’s great. I’m glad that I have it because if something fails I always have that. But the first week that I was sitting in my cosmetology class, that was a two and a half year program, I realized that I wanted to be an ecology major.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that just come to you at that point?

Alex Durney:
I have no idea. I was just sitting there and I was like, crap, that’s what I really want to do. But I did not want to be the beauty school dropout. So I refused and I stuck out the two and a half years and I graduated and now I have that certificate. But I’m glad that I had that two and a half years because it gave me the time to decide on a school. And I ended up going to Evergreen State College in Olympia, which-

Dillon Honcoop:
So this was after the cosmetology degree?

Alex Durney:
This is after the cosmetology. So I graduated from the cosmetology in December of 2015 and then in September of ’16 I started at Evergreen and started in as a freshwater ecology major. Took a bunch of different classes, actually programs, if anyone knows anything about Evergreen, which I mean it has been in the national news for not super great things. The programs there though are amazing because they allow you just to dive super deep into these theories and have a teacher that you can sit there and discuss with them as if they’re not your professor, as if they’re-

Dillon Honcoop:
And for people who don’t know, Evergreen is built on a totally different philosophy of you do education, right?

Alex Durney:
Oh yeah. You don’t take classes. You’re not taking a chemistry 101 or English. You’re taking a program that’s 16 credits that requires all of your time and that’s all you take is that one program each quarter. But that’s what allows you to dive so deep into those subjects is you’re spending hours and hours talking about these subjects. And you’re not just doing projects to get you to a test goal, you’re doing projects that are actual things that you’ll do in day to day life. So my very last course at Evergreen, I ended up doing that with a large animal veterinarian. So we had two professors at the time, so there was about 50 students in this class.

Dillon Honcoop:
So hold on, you’re doing freshwater ecology, but you were taking a program with a vet?

Alex Durney:
You can do whatever you want at Evergreen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Alex Durney:
It was ecology based. That was the main credential for me was all of my classes needed to be ecology based. I was also at the time doing undergraduate research with actual stream ecology. So that’s why I can label my degree as a freshwater ecology degree, because I have outstandingly more credits of freshwater ecology than any other ecology credits.

Alex Durney:
But the very last class that stuck with me the most obviously was this perennial agricultural class that I took with Mike Perros and Steve Sharelle and that class taught so much. And the biggest thing that I was drawn to was the animal health aspect of it. Of course, I really loved how the grass grew, all these other perennial agricultures, but learning about the animals and how they functioned was just fascinating to me. Within these programs, you have this opportunity to go to all of these different places, field trips. I hadn’t taken a field trip since second grade, but I took a field trip every single Thursday in that class. But I learned so much because we were going and visiting these model ranches and model farms in Washington and Oregon and getting to see how people do this in the best way possible.

Dillon Honcoop:
Real world stuff.

Alex Durney:
Real world scenarios here. And one of those ranches that we visited just so happened to be Colvin Ranch. It was one of the very first places that we visited. And standing on that ranch that day, I definitely wouldn’t have expected that I would have been living on that ranch. But things changed and I continued through this class, learned a lot more, absolutely fell in love with it. And by the very end, my professor was just like, “Hey, you did an amazing job. I know that there’s someone who needs some help because their manager is leaving. Do you want me to get you in contact with them?” And that’s when I got in contact with Fred and yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
The rest is history.

Alex Durney:
The rest is really history. Now I’ve been their ranch manager for almost two years. And in their terms, I’ve changed their life I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Alex Durney:
They never had a ranch manager before that would get other things done. It was like they would leave and the bare minimum would get done, the feeding, whatever, but there was never anyone who was like, “I’m going to overhaul your marketing. We’re going to completely redo everything and make all of this better.” They never had that before so for them, this is amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So Colvin Ranch.

Alex Durney:
Colvin Ranch.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tell us about it. What is that actually like?

Alex Durney:
So Colvin ranch was homesteaded in the 1850s by Ignatius Colvin, which is just a sweet name if you ask me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ignatius.

Alex Durney:
Ignatius Colvin.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s legit.

Alex Durney:
So he came and at one point in time, the ranch equaled over 3,000 acres. But over the course of time with family and people dying and inheriting and marriages and all these different things, the land slowly just got parceled out smaller and smaller and smaller, until we have what we have left, which is just over 500 acres.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is it at?

Alex Durney:
It is in Tenino, Washington, so not Eastern. We got a little bit of Western influence here.

Dillon Honcoop:
People think ranches, they think Eastern Washington, right?

Alex Durney:
Yeah, they do, the Highland Desert and everything. But there’s a lot of rain in Western Washington, so a great place to grow cattle. Most people think of it as actually the dairy portion for Oregon and Washington. But we run a full cattle operation there. The operation has changed multiple times over the years. It’s gone from cow-calf operations to stocker operations. And what we are in now is kind of what I like to refer to is an intergenerational ranch.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain what those different terms mean, like cow-calf operation. People say that in the ranching world all the time. What does that mean?

Alex Durney:
So cow-calf operation is where basically your main thing that you own is cows and you’ll bring in either a bull or you’ll do artificial insemination on all of those cows each year, in determination of when you want them to calf. And all of that really matters with when you want them to calf, to when you want to wean those calves off of their moms and when you want to sell them to get the top market dollar. And that’s the thing that scares me. With those you’re subject to the market, which is kind of scary.

Alex Durney:
So that’s a unique thing about ours is we also have the stocker operation built into it, which is the opposite side. The stocker is the one who purchases the calves from the cow-calf operation and raises them up until they’re able to go to harvest. And so we do all of that in one. So we have our cow-calf and we have our stalker that goes to harvest and we also do the direct marketing for that as well. So not only do we raise all of our animals, but we sell all of them directly to the public.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was going to ask you, like, you do some of that? But you’re saying no, all of-

Alex Durney:
We do all of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the beef is-

Alex Durney:
All of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sold directly.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. Another unique thing about our ranches that we are all grass fed and grass finished. So we never feed corn or soy or any supplemental thing. We’re raising cattle how they should be raised. It’s natural. They want to eat grass, it’s what their bodies are made to digest and we just want to make sure that they’re able to live the best lives that they can.

Dillon Honcoop:
So here you’ve come in some ways full circle from almost from where you started, because it was about health stuff and then you went cosmetology and then it was still like biology, freshwater ecology, but then you’re back to animal health and you’re still dealing with-

Alex Durney:
Still dealing with people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Living bodies and health and yeah.

Alex Durney:
Living bodies and health, it’s a lot easier to tell a cow that she has a foot problem then to tell a human that they have a blocked artery. So that’s kind of why I chose that. I mean I still, with the direct marketing to the public, we still have to deal with people, but you’re not giving them bad news. You’re helping them with a service that right now is hard to come by. So the grass fed and finished holds heavy weight for a lot of people, especially within the state of Washington, fairly liberal community for the most part. And they’re all wanting to get away from that. They care about the environment, they want to see a change. I mean a lot of them don’t agree with the cattle industry in the first place, but we’re doing our best and doing it in the most natural way that we find possible in order to help those people.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was curious to ask you about though, because the assumption, the stereotype, you’re coming from Evergreen, you’re coming from an environmental program at Evergreen, the assumption is that you’re going to be anti beef altogether, anti-meat. You’re going to probably going to be a vegan or something.

Alex Durney:
Oh, definitely. I mean I was vegetarian for three years.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were a vegetarian?

Alex Durney:
I was a vegetarian.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who’s now managing a beef ranch.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What changed?

Alex Durney:
So I started out with the vegetarian thing being on the environmental side. I ended up finishing out my vegetarianism because I was anemic and we found out that the only way that my body can really absorb iron well, because we increased other like iron high vegetables and other things like that, it just wasn’t working. And then what they found once I started eating meat again was my iron levels went right back up to where they should’ve been. And so what we realized is that my body cannot absorb iron from other sources. I have to have a meat protein in order to absorb iron.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that pretty common for people?

Alex Durney:
It can be, yeah. It’s more common than you think it is. Also, I mean the veganism thing is fantastic and I celebrate the people that are able to do it, but a lot of people aren’t able to do it. I’m one of those people. Also, it’s not really what we would call this word at Evergreen is the S word, but sustainable. Veganism isn’t sustainable either. We can’t produce enough vegetables within this country to feed everyone, but it’s not sustainable for the aspect of meat is needed for people that maybe can’t afford higher quality vegetables. It’s also needed for ritual things for religions and other aspects of life, meat is sometimes really important to their culture and their identity, so we can’t take that away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now that you’re in the farming world, you probably hear a lot of the other side of it, the angst and the frustration with vegans.

Alex Durney:
Oh yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you respond to that then?

Alex Durney:
Everyone has a right to their own opinion. I honestly, I just try and remain humble with those people. If they’re so set in their ways, there’s nothing I’m going to be able to say to change their mind. Them being more exposed to the actual farming industry and maybe going and visiting, there are a lot of ranches, I know we allow open visits to our ranch. Anyone can contact us and have a full hands-on personal tour that’s two hours long on our ranch if they would like to, so that they can truly understand what we do. And so I guess just educating those people, but there’s no forcing someone to change their views. They have to want to change their views.

Alex Durney:
So to me until those people are ready to want to sit down and talk about it and be open minded about it, just like they want me to be open minded about their veganism or vegetarianism or whatever, it goes both ways. You can’t shut out the other side just because you’ve discovered and you think that it’s so wrong, it doesn’t mean that it is it. Yes, aspects of it sure are. There are definitely things within the beef industry that I do not agree with, but I do agree with how I’m raising my animals. And our customers believe in that and that’s why they come to us.

Dillon Honcoop:
I just see people getting lumped together so often where it’s like, “Well, you’re beef, you must be bad.” And it’s like, “No, it’s not all the same.”

Alex Durney:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That part is really frustrating to me. As far as the vegan issue goes, me coming from the background of farming, having grown up in that community, you know where my bias is going to come from, but ultimately I agree. Hey, if somebody wants to be vegan, by all means, I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when people are hating on other people. Same thing for the farming community. I don’t think it’s appropriate if people are just hating on vegans for no reason when they don’t really understand. You know what I’m saying?

Alex Durney:
I do. And I think that’s because I’m able to see both sides coming from this Evergreen background, this sustainable, environmental, you have to be vegan. No. You don’t have to. But I see it from both sides and I see why both sides are angry, but there is a middle ground. There is a spot where we can all sit down and talk. We just have to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t it because people want simple answers?

Alex Durney:
They do.

Dillon Honcoop:
And good guys and bad guys when it’s not that simple?

Alex Durney:
It makes it so much easier to make things white and black, but it’s never white and black. It’s always gray and we all know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why are you so passionate about this? About farming and ranching and cattle? Beef?

Alex Durney:
I guess the bigger thing is it’s not even, I’m more passionate. I don’t want it to end and I don’t want the good side of it to end I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
You don’t want what to end?

Alex Durney:
I mean the average age of a farmer in our country right now is what? 63 years old. And it’s what we would call an OWG, an old white guy. And being a 24 year old female going into the ranching industry, I am the exact opposite of what someone thinks of as a rancher, but we need more people like me because if the average age of a farmer is 63 years old, what do people think is going to happen?

Alex Durney:
Those people are going to die. Their kids don’t want to take it over. What’s going to happen to the beef industry? There’s a lot of people out there that want beef. No one’s producing anymore. That’s not great, but there is this opportunity where this younger generation is growing up. We realize what has been done wrong in the past and we’re trying to do right and we just need to be given the opportunity to make it right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that take? What does that look like making it right?

Alex Durney:
For I guess a lot of ranches, it’s letting go of the old way of doing things. It’s expanding your mind. All of us need to expand our minds, but expanding your mind and looking outside of how you’ve done things for years, accepting the ideas of your children that are coming in straight out of school that have… I mean the agricultural cultural sciences part of universities is dying, it’s becoming more soil sciences and there’s a reason for that.

Alex Durney:
People don’t want to go into the agricultural aspect of it because those people are so stuck in their ways and that’s not the way to be. You have to be able to flex with how things are changing. So much is changing in this world. Things are not the same as they were when the 63 year old ranchers were in their 20s taking over their family ranch or whenever they took it over. Things are not the same and things aren’t going to continue the same. We need to be able to change with that. And the newer generation, the people who are willing to just be like, “You know, I’m going to have this ranch job. I’m going to try and make it better.” Even to my own family, I’m pretty positive my grandfather is disappointed in me, because I went to college to get a college education so that I didn’t have to just be some rancher or farmer and here I am doing that, but with that comes a platform and a change that we’re able to make within this country and I want to be able to help with that. I want to be part of that change, so that’s why I’m passionate about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that starting to happen? What’s your take on the new generation, people my age or your age even who are in the farming world?

Alex Durney:
They’re pushing back towards the local. I feel like that’s the overall message is pushing back towards local. At one point that’s how you got all of your groceries. You went to your butcher, you went to the bakery, you didn’t go to the grocery store and the grocery store just made things so convenient in our lives and yes, it is fantastic. I will go to the grocery store as long as there are grocery stores, but stepping out and going to your local farmer’s market and stuff, that’s what this new generation is pushing for. And also pushing to get the local products in the grocery store. If people want that convenience, let’s make it happen for them. And so, I mean that’s why we have our beef in our local co-ops and stuff. So it does give people that convenience factor, but they do have to go shop at the local co-op.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about farmers your age? Are they doing a good job? Are there cool things out there happening?

Alex Durney:
I mean, I don’t know if they’re all doing a good job. I mean, we’re all going to fail. We’re all going to succeed all in different times. We’re still playing the exact same game. We’re just trying to play it in a slightly different way. We’re looking deeper and by looking deeper, I mean we have a lot more knowledge now. We have the soil lab analysis and soil survey, all these different things that we’re able to gather data from. There’s so much more data and using that makes us more powerful. We’re not just going off of, oh well this worked last year or the year before, these are how these aspects work. Yes, that plays a very important role, but there is the important role of also just the raw scientific data from across the world of how to do things in possibly a better way. And I think that’s going to be the aspect that shakes up what we’re used to in the agricultural fields, whether that’s farming or ranching.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you are the ranch manager at Colvin Ranch.

Alex Durney:
I am.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Tenino, Washington.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many head of cattle do you guys have there?

Alex Durney:
Anywhere around 250.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wouldn’t some people say that’s a huge herd neck and people shouldn’t be farming that many animals?

Alex Durney:
No. That’s small. That’s really small. I mean there are herds out there that are 16,000. I mean that’s not unheard of. Even here in Eastern Washington, it’s thousands of head. We just have 250, but for us that’s what our land is able to maintain. And I guess that’s a very important aspect. Our land is able to maintain 250 head and that’s all we care about. Yes, would we love to have 400 head? That would be fantastic, but it’s not possible on our land. We’ve played with it with stocking rates and utilization and so many other aspects they’ve played with and what they come down to is about 250 is what our land can handle with keeping it the way that it is. But we also have quite a few protections on our land as well. 90% of our land is in a permanent conservation easement with the state of Washington, so there are certain sections of our land that are also deferred at certain parts of the year.

Alex Durney:
We’re not even allowed to graze them because we need to make sure that the Camus and Balsamroot and all of these other native plants are able to go to seed set and actually continue to reproduce and make a healthy landscape and prairie for us. And then we go through and with the state of Washington, we actually use our grazing to help those plants. So with hitting invasives at very specific times in order to make sure that the Camus and Balsmroot can succeed and not get shadowed out by a taller grass or other aspects very similar to that. So we work very hard to maintain our land, not just the amount and our profit at the end of the day. Because you’re not going to have a profit if you don’t have good land to grow cattle off of it all. It all starts at the soil.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, and that’s what I was just going to say, you keep touching on soil health issues. That sounds like that’s a big part of what you do and your passion.

Alex Durney:
Oh yes. Down to exactly how we graze, when we’re applying fertilizer, all sorts of things. It’s all timed down to specific moments so that we can make sure that we’re optimizing the prairie itself because our biggest thing is that we are managing for feeding a cattle’s gut. We’re not feeding the cow. We’re feeding the bacteria within their gut. If we don’t have good grass, we’re not feeding the gut very well, we’re not feeding that bacteria, so we need to ensure that our soil health is the best it can possibly be to optimize that production right there.

Dillon Honcoop:
that also does other things though too, right with soil health?

Alex Durney:
So many other things. I mean with soil health then we have a super healthy pocket gopher population on our property. We have checkered spot butterflies, we have all sorts of animals. We have a healthy ecosystem.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about back to the vegan issue, because one of the biggest points that’s made has to do with the ecological impact and then the environmental climate change, carbon footprint impact of beef, right? Soil health is a part of this equation, isn’t it?

Alex Durney:
Very much a part of the equation and the equation has nothing to do with cattle. It has everything to do with management and the management that people deploy on their property. You can have great management and have fantastic soils and fantastic grasses and be able to actually have a higher herd population because of it. Or you can have bad management and you could have very few animals and you could just have devastated land and be causing so many environmental issues. It’s all dependent on what that person is doing on the ranch, it has nothing to do with cattle. I mean specifically at our ranch, if you drive along our highway, you’ll see our ranch and then right next to it you’ll see what used to be part of the ranch 20 years ago. That is completely covered in Scotch broom. And people all the time ask, “How do you keep the scotch broom off of your property?” Simple, we put cattle on that property. We just graze cattle once or twice a year in that pasture and Scotch broom never grows. It’s a great management technique if it’s used properly. So I mean, we’re moving towards something better.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was curious when I was asking earlier if you’re seeing signs of change.

Alex Durney:
Yeah, that would be part of it. I mean every operation is trying to look better and be better.

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Dillon Honcoop:
It really is incredible to see somebody like Alex who came from a background that didn’t have anything to do with farming and in fact was some ways kind of opposed to what farming does to embracing it and understanding the potential there. At the same time, looking at the bigger picture, and again this was just the first half of our conversation. Next week we hear the second half where we get into more of what Alex sees for the big picture, what she believes the future is and how she views joining this ranch, Colvin Ranch in Tenino as a life changing opportunity. Here’s a little snippet of what’s ahead next week.

Alex Durney:
I could possibly make a change before I’m 30 and that’s fascinating to me and make a change with an industry that’s so many people are hating on right now and want to see die.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there you have it. Again, Alex Durney, she is the ranch manager at Colvin Ranch at Tenino, Washington. Totally leave your stereotypes at the door–I mean that’s with everybody on this podcast, and particularly with Alex. So pumped to be able to share my experiences getting to know Alex and other people like her here on the Real Food Real People Podcast. That’s what it’s all about, documenting my personal journey to get to know the real people behind our food like Alex. Sure would appreciate it if you would subscribe and you could do that on Spotify, you could do that on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and a whole bunch of other outlets out there as well, whatever your favorite spot is to get podcasts. Also, please follow us on social media. We’ve got more content there as well, so find us on Facebook as well as Twitter and Instagram, Real Food Real People, you can find us there pretty easily. Just give us a follow. We sure would appreciate it. Again, next week is part two of our conversation with Alex Durney. I’m so looking forward to sharing that with you. Until then, thank you for following and subscribing and supporting Real Food Real People.

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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.