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

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.

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

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.

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.

Devin Day | #010 02/17/2020

A tech guru becomes a farmer, producing some of the most unique food products in Washington. Meet Devin Day of Valley Farmstead Rabbits and Neil's Big Leaf Maple Syrup, and hear him share how he's found his niche.

Transcript

Devin Day:
I actually gave a baby rabbit, just born, mouth-to-mouth. I just, little, little puff puff, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Devin Day:
Little chest compressions, and it took this huge gasp of air. And within like two minutes was just as healthy as the other ones. Blew my mind.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
This week on the podcast, we spoke with a guy who’s rethinking a lot of stuff about farming and where we get food from, and doing some unique stuff. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. Thanks for being here and joining us. On my continuing journey to get to know the real farmers in Washington State, and share their stories with you here. Devin Day of Valley Farmstead Rabbits and Neil’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup, both in Acme, Washington, has an incredible story to share of growing up in town and only becoming a farmer later in life. So, join us as we get to know Devin Day and the fascinating stuff he’s doing out in Acme.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, when did you actually become a farmer? What’s your story to the farming world?

Devin Day:
Well, I’m actually fairly new to farming. Most of my background is in technology, computers, software. That sort of thing. My stepdad, who’s Neil, was working out here in Acme and I was working, again, still in tech stuff. He just called and said, “Hey, you want to come work out on the farm?” And I said, “Not really.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the farm at that time? What was he doing? Beef?

Devin Day:
There was a lot of beef there. We have a couple bison herds and growing a lot of grass to feed different animals. It was kind of a program that was building as it went, so to speak. We did that for a couple years and this whole time, he was still playing with the maple trees and cooking out in the woods and doing that sort of thing-

Dillon Honcoop:
Cooking out in the woods. That just sounds like it’s going to be sketchy. Like, what kind of cooking out in the woods do they do in Acme?

Devin Day:
Yeah, maybe I should clarify that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Exactly, yeah, let’s clarify that.

Devin Day:
Well, he was collecting sap from maple trees and he had this big stainless steel tub that he made. He built a big fire pit and he would, down by his shop, and he would cook the maple sap down to the point where it was maple syrup. Then that kind of became the very first, I mean, there’s a few hobbyists out there. There’s some eclectic forums you can find other people that are tapping some of their trees in their backyard. He was doing that, so he would give away sap, or not sap but maple syrup for gifts and it just got more and more popular. That’s where it all started. Just a guy out in the woods cooking.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, he had asked you to come work on the farm or see if you were interested, and you weren’t?

Devin Day:
At first, no. But the more I talked to my wife and we’d … I grew up in the city, then moved out to the county during my high school years and I liked-

Dillon Honcoop:
City being Bellingham?

Devin Day:
City being Bellingham, yeah, not like the-

Dillon Honcoop:
Big city-

Devin Day:
No. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m from Whatcom County, too, so I mean the big city is Bellingham to me.

Devin Day:
Yep. So, just the more we talked about it, it sounded cool. We really wanted to raise our kids out in the county, being able to run around with their shoes off and doing that sort of thing. We already homeschooled our kids and so, it made a lot of sense. We didn’t have a lot tying us down so we just went for it. That was about six years ago, and yeah, now-

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like taking that step? That’s a scary step to make-

Devin Day:
Yeah, it is-

Dillon Honcoop:
To do that.

Devin Day:
I did college. I did, I went on a baseball scholarship and then I hurt my knee and got bitter and left and that whole bit. So, I definitely love doing the tech side of things. It wasn’t necessarily a scary step, it’s just I didn’t know how much I was going to like being on a farm. I wasn’t a farm kid. Didn’t grow up as a farm kid. I think that was my biggest hesitation. But, talked about it and one of the things, too, is I did get to … This whole farm is owned by a larger group, even though we’re doing kind of our own things on the farm, I do work for a larger group and I work for my stepdad. He’s the manager of a lot of different farms out here in Acme.

Devin Day:
So, I did get to do a lot of IT and stuff still for the group itself. So, I still got to have my hands in there. So, it wasn’t … I got to go into town, into the offices and fix everybody’s computers and-

Dillon Honcoop:
What? Farming involves IT now?

Devin Day:
Yeah. But I got a lot of free rein and I got to come up with a lot of ideas for putting efficiency sensors on this, and temperature sensors on that. You get to come up with a lot of different ideas, so it was fun. And then, I got introduced, I’m kind of veering here so if you want to-

Dillon Honcoop:
No, go for it.

Devin Day:
I got introduced because it was all food-oriented. So, the group itself owns some restaurants and things like that, so I was exposed to a lot of chefs and things like that early on. With my marketing and IT and technology background, I’d been exposed working in that agency side of things, so I wasn’t afraid to go and introduce myself to other chefs and things like that. So, it kind of snowballed. You had asked me earlier, “How did you get going with this?” And it really just ended up with being exposed to a lot of those people, hearing that feedback of what they were interested in. I had already been working with some chefs on some rabbits and that’s, we do a lot of rabbit protein to chefs down in Seattle and it’s expanded from there. I brought them one of the little bottles of syrup that my stepdad was cooking out in the woods, and they just freaked out. They were like, and this was a very high-end restaurant that was buying rabbits for all the fancy customers, et cetera. Once they found out, “Wait a minute …” They already used maple syrup, that was the interesting side. When they heard that this was made in Washington with maple trees up here, and that’s never been done, and the flavor profiles are very, very unique. Great for cooking applications and, like I said, they just, they had to have it.

Devin Day:
It slowly snowballed into, “You guys got to set this up so you can start selling this to us.” And that’s what we did.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, back up a little bit. You came out to work on the farm. They were doing beef and bison and other stuff, and you mention this rabbit stuff. How did that get started? I want to hear the rabbit story.

Devin Day:
Yeah, who, rabbit, right? Well, and that’s always the funny thing. It’s like, “So, you’re a rabbit farmer.” “Yeah, I raise rabbits.” So, it’s one of those things. I started to study rabbits and I started to understand how efficient rabbits were. Their manure is higher in nutrients than beef, pork, chicken. You can put it cold on, too. So, we started raising a few for ourselves just for the homesteading side of it and having some really high quality protein. Then because we were exposed to so many different restaurants and chefs already with all the other aspects of the business, it was like, “Oh, you guys have rabbits?” And it was like, “Yeah, I could expand a little bit, grow some for you.” Started with one restaurant and then another restaurant, and then now we do about 20,000 pounds of rabbit annually with probably 50,000 plus pounds of demand that we can’t currently supply.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. I go to the store. I don’t see rabbit.

Devin Day:
You don’t find it in the store. It’s funny. I talk to a lot of older people and they would say, “Oh, it used to always be in the grocery store.” I don’t know exactly why it disappeared. I would imagine because of the success of the marketing poultry. Maybe, maybe the whole kind of pet side of things. I don’t know. But, it is a very high quality meat. So, to give you a perspective of usage of land inputs, that sort of thing, we did probably 50 plus head of cattle. We have 200 acres to deal with those cattle. Fences, staff, labor, all over the place. And we are in one-third of an acre. I have this little field that used to be for beef and I put up my hoop houses. In probably about a third an acre, I’m putting out the same amount of protein grown per year as the 50 head of cattle. That, to me, just blows my mind. My inputs are smaller, my outputs are the same, if not more, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, are rabbits just more efficient eaters or something then? What’s the key to that? How’s that even possible?

Devin Day:
Yeah, so I think one of the key things is I have a market ready, what they call a fryer, just like a chicken, a market ready fryer in eight weeks, 60 days. No hormones, no antibiotics. It used to, when I first got started, it took me 12 weeks to get to there, to get to market ready. Once I started to research and really understand diet, animal health, when I first started, I just bought commercial rabbit feed, not knowing that there’s better food out there for animals. So, there was that. There was just overall health of the animals. There was animals per unit that you’re raising them in. All of these factors played in a big role. There’s also nutrition. So, this might sound nerdy but I learned huge, huge, huge benefits of vitamin C and huge benefits of a product called yucca, which has a very high steroidal saponin content in it. It is absolutely destroys pathogens. It destroys any sort of coccidiosis and things that you just deal with on a farm.

Devin Day:
There’s a chicken slaughter plant on here, on the property, and chickens from all sorts of farmers come in. See coccidiosis all the time and we don’t deal with that because of steroidal saponins in this yucca product, which is all natural-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s part of the feed?

Devin Day:
We put it into the feed. We get a spray dried version you can put in the water if you want to. It’s a 100% natural product that’s in all kinds of other animal feeds out there. It’s nothing that’s totally new. It’s just something that we’re … It’s very high in vitamin C, fiber, you name it. And they just, once I figured out the right recipe, so to speak, they just, their growth rates, and their genetics, I spent a lot of time finding the right genetics for the herd. It wasn’t me just jumping on Craigslist and finding a few rabbits and growing to a few thousand rabbits, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How many rabbits do you have right now?

Devin Day:
It’ll vary depending on time of year and our slaughter rate at the time, but probably anywhere from 1500 to 3000.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Devin Day:
And we’re expanding. The demand is high. We get a lot of people who have really bad autoimmune problems, and they’re a naturopath and the people that their doctors, they’re not supposed to eat meats. Rabbit’s the only one that they’re supposed to be eating according to their doctor. I get those calls all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that? Why is it different?

Devin Day:
I don’t know. For some reason, it’s just a very clean protein. Either that, or maybe their body hasn’t adjusted to that protein itself, so they’re not showing any autoimmune issue. I don’t quite know exactly but I serve probably 15 or more people that have reached out. The funny thing is is they reach out because they know the way that we raise, our lack of antibiotics, our lack of any sort of inputs to manipulate disease or growth. It’s all natural. And they do really well on it. Do really well on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Devin Day:
Have one lady that drives out from Blaine weekly and buys like five rabbit and off she goes. So, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you talk about, you have a third of an acre and you can raise this much protein. Part of that is because of the amount of protein per pound of meat is a lot higher than beef, right?

Devin Day:
Well, when I say protein, I mean like poundage of meat.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Devin Day:
Yep, yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because even per pound, there’s more protein in rabbit mean, right?

Devin Day:
So, I can take … Yes. I can take three does, three female rabbits and one buck, which is the male sire, and I can grow up to 600 pounds annually with those three. So, the amount of … So, they’ll do roughly about nine litters a year and the average cycle of litters annually will give you about 600 pounds of meat. So if you’re, and that’s the thing too, let’s say if you’re, you don’t have a lot of property but you want to be able to raise your own meat as well but you don’t have … you don’t have the property for a cow or you don’t have the energy or time for a cow, you can have three does, which is, you can, the housing you have to have for them is very minimal, and one buck and raise 600 pounds of meat per year for yourself. They’re very easy to home slaughter and they’re extremely healthy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the amount of space, if you’re talking about a couple hundred acres of beef, of ground to have 50 head of beef on, they’re eating all that grass and stuff though. These rabbits, they aren’t just fed by the grass that grows on the third of an acre, are they? Because you’re bringing in feed as well.

Devin Day:
Yeah. So, we have a garage that we converted into a fodder house, fodder beans, sprouted barley, so we do a lot of natural inputs into those. So, we do bring in a commercial feed that’s a custom blend from a local mill. We do have a mill on site that is almost ready, so by spring we should be 100% all inputs from the farm so fresh sprouted barley, which is very high protein and they just love that-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re growing the barley or you bring it in?

Devin Day:
So, we can do 1000 pounds a day in the facility that we converted. So, we do that. We also do a lot of … we have about a third of an acre of comfrey that we do, which is high protein. And we also grow all our own hay as well, so we have a lot of inputs to be … and there’s also, there’s a local, the place where we get our barley, they do malted barley. So they have a process where they actually sprout their barley and then they dry it all in the same machine, and then those sprouted that they dry, the grass that comes off and gets dried out, is an extremely high protein. We can actually take what is a waste product for them-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it Skagit Malting?

Devin Day:
It is, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
On there, they’re like the biggest and one of the only in the region.

Devin Day:
It’s a local … Yeah, so that’s been a really cool opportunity as well. So, just every single input is something. That input is a waste product for them, but an extremely … if we had to go buy that as an input and it’s a waste product for them, if we had to buy that as an input, it’d be a very expensive product. So, we’ve been very lucky to have just these really natural … And that’s the thing, too, is we give tours all the time. Chefs will come and they’re just like, “Wow.” It’s so vertically integrated that it’s all just single source, it’s raised here. It’s bred here, it’s processed here. It’s packed here, it’s delivered. We do all the deliveries ourselves down through Seattle region and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And again, it’s mostly chefs and restaurants that are driving this demand right now?

Devin Day:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because rabbit, like we were talking about earlier, it’s not something you find in the grocery store. It’s really not a common meat anymore. As you were mentioning, it used to be a lot more common. So it’s just kind of coming back.

Devin Day:
And that’s the thing. Like I came from, like I said, a tech marketing internet marketing background, you’re always looking for a niche, right? I don’t want to do something that everybody else is doing. So if you can find enough people for that niche, there you go. And it was funny, I said, “Hey …” I told my wife, I said, “Let’s try selling it online.” Because another benefit with rabbits is it’s not licensed by the USDA. It’s FDA regulated. So, I don’t have the same interstate regulations, so I can, and it’s not like poultry, I can, with my WSDA license, I can ship all over the place-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Devin Day:
Anywhere in the nation, which is great. So the demand, I optimized my site because I had an SEO background. My rankings on Google skyrocketed organically because I knew what I was doing. I said, “Okay babe, let’s flip the switch.” I flipped the switch, and literally I woke up the next morning with a few orders and I’m like, “Oh boy.” So, we started shipping and again, we shipped to individuals and I take it down to my local little small town post office, and off it goes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do people get weird about eating rabbit?

Devin Day:
Not if they’re buying it.

Dillon Honcoop:
But the perception, especially until they’ve tried it is, “Oh, that’s weird.” Or maybe-

Devin Day:
There are a few out there. I’ve had those conversations. But usually when I explain the benefit versus their understanding of it, they tend to be like, “Oh wow, that’s really interesting. That makes a lot of sense. Wow, okay.” And then when I tell them we used to do beef and we needed 200 acres and now we don’t do that and now I grow it in a third of an acre, they’re like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” So, I don’t usually get the, “Oh, you’re an evil rabbit raiser.” I know that there’s those folks out there that are kind of sensitive to that. But the good, I mean, they’re almost the ideal meat in a way. They’re such a clean animal. So, that’s … So, they slaughter in a very clean fashion, where you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
What about the cute factor, though? People think rabbits are cute, so it may be harder for them to-

Devin Day:
Yeah. Well, if you come over and get bit by a few rabbits, they’re not going to be as cute to you as they are.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with cows being kicked, pushed, they’re smelly. I don’t have any problem eating cows, but some people do.

Devin Day:
Yeah, no they are, and that’s the thing is that the kind of compartmentalization. We adore and go far and beyond, even for a rabbit that’s hurt or … we have this attachment to them, but at the same time, we understand and have what they’re for. They’re for the food system. We also have a bunch of pets, too, rabbits. All my kids have their own pet rabbits. They’re different breeds but these are bred as a commercial meat rabbit. That’s the breeders and the breed and the strain that I bought them for and from and they are quite a different animal than your standard pet. So, but it’s kind of having a respect for them at the same time. We … I’ll tell you a really … My wife still teases me about this sometimes, in a fun way. So, I had a mom that had a litter and it really, and it’s not because of the revenue factor, but I hate when rabbits, when they’re born and they don’t make it. It bothers me. We’ve had a very high success rate from where we started to now of our birthrates staying very high. But it still bugs me. I try to get to 100% because I just, I don’t like losing rabbits and it’s not because I’m thinking, “Oh, that guy doesn’t get to go to slaughter in eight weeks.” It’s because it’s a life at that point.

Devin Day:
So, I thought, “I wonder …” You ever seen that scene in 101 Dalmatians where he’s rubbing the dog and it comes back to life, the little puppies when they’re born? Well, I actually gave a baby rabbit just born that was stillborn mouth-to-mouth because I just … Just little, little, puff, puff, little chest compressions. It was a total blob in my hand. It wasn’t firm, like normal little … And it took this huge, and it was just out of curiosity, took this huge gasp of air. And within like two minutes was firm, hard and just as healthy as the other ones. Blew my mind. And I’ve done that many times now because some reason they come out not breathing, if you get a little bit of air in their lungs and they’re so tiny, you don’t even have to really do much. You just get a little air moving through their nostrils and air vent and they, a lot of times, just pop right back up. Take a big gasp and there they are.

Devin Day:
It’s weird. You learn a lot of these little things that you’d never think of, and I think of all the little babies that I could have saved if I’d known that. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. It reminds me of Erica Deward that we had on the podcast a while back. She raises dairy cows and a lot of people get grossed out, but she tells the story all the time, she does CPR, mouth-to-mouth quite a bit on dairy calves. It works. It’s a real thing.

Devin Day:
No, it’s still to this day … the other thing that works really well is, and again, we don’t use any pharmaceuticals, so there’s never withdrawal period, even with the breeders themselves. We use high dose vitamin C. I have had little kits, they’re called, but little baby rabbits just born, and various issues or whatever. If there’s ever an issue that goes beyond something that isn’t like it came out not breathing or something like that, I’ll give it a little shot of high dose vitamin C. So, for us, the equivalent of kilograms of my body weight, if I were to take what I gave the rabbit, it would probably be 30-40,000 milligrams of vitamin C, and they come right back.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Devin Day:
Especially if it’s anything viral or bacterial. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they’re animals. They have their things.

Devin Day:
I just don’t want to piss off the pharmaceutical companies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Devin Day:
But yeah, it’s an amazing thing. It works time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time ad nauseum again. It is, when traditional hasn’t worked, works almost every time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family. You’ve talked about your wife and making decision to go from town to farm and do that whole switch, and kids too. You were mentioning they’ve got some pets and stuff. How big is your family? How many kids do you have? How old are they?

Devin Day:
I have four kids. So, one is right in that decision making of looking for his first place, so he’s 20. The other one is, jeez, my wife is going to smack me. No, 14. No, just turned 15. 15, 13, and just turned 11 recently. Two boys, two girls-

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that … you were talking about, that was a part of the draw to go to the farming world. What has that meant for your kids and your family?

Devin Day:
Oh, they’ve loved it. We have … We’re on the Nooksack River so we have, they get to go down there all the time if they want. They have 200 acres to roam around on, which is cool. All the time we have two UTV vehicles and my youngest, who just turned 11, I’ll be working somewhere and I’ll see her way across the field just, “Do-do-do-do.” Flying down in one of the vehicles, doing one of her own projects. I’m just like, I love it. I love it.

Dillon Honcoop:
That was me growing up.

Devin Day:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
I had my motorcycle and I was out doing this, that and the other thing.

Devin Day:
So, that’s been good. They … It’s everything we do here, it’s family-run. The maple, the rabbits, my wife, she does all the breeding. She’s kind of the project manager of the up close and personal with all the rabbits. She breeds them. She clips all their nails. She brushes them. So, every time they get bred, it’s kind of spa day for the does, and she takes care of all that. She keeps all the records, breeding records, all that kind of stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your kids going to get into farming at all? Have they worked-

Devin Day:
They’re all helping right now, yeah. We just added a bunch … we added 600 egg chickens, which was probably not a good … that, I probably should have waited a little while on.

Dillon Honcoop:
We were just talking about chickens being smelly.

Devin Day:
Yeah, I know. So, yeah, go big or go home, right? So, all the kids help. They feed, they water, they help clean. They do everything with us. So it’s a side-by … what’s cool though, is the amount of entrepreneurial side of things that they’ve learned is great. They’ve seen mom and dad start from scratch multiple businesses, and they’re both doing really well now. So, they get to see that, they get to participate in that. They get to ask questions. They get to understand all of the factors that go into it because mom does bookkeeping, dad does deliveries. Dad does slaughter, dad builds out and designs WSDA facilities. Dad, you know so you got-

Dillon Honcoop:
Does SEO. Don’t forget about the website stuff.

Devin Day:
Yeah, he does all of the web stuff. So they get to see every aspect of it and they’ve learned a ton. And all the time, they’re coming up with their own ideas and participating and solving problems. It’s been good. It’s been real good.

Dillon Honcoop:
The way you describe that is farming is so much more than the old guy in overalls turning dirt. The tech part of it. The construction part of it. The family part of it. Working with the animals. There’s just so multifaceted.

Devin Day:
Yeah. Farming is, in a lot of ways, to me, and the way I’ve approached it is very different than … I think it was Joe Salatan, I’ve watched a lot of his content over the years, and he’s always talking about the age of farmers. The average farmer is 60 plus years old. So, the way I’ve approached it, there is a lot of aspects to it and I’m actually, because of today’s market access, that’s one of the biggest things I’ve heard other farmers talk about, and I think I was very lucky to have worked in that sales, marketing, that whole role because I wasn’t afraid to go out there and get my hands dirty to talking to people. I’ll walk right into a restaurant I don’t even know the chef. I’ll introduce myself. I’ll take him a product. I do have the benefit of a pretty unique story. Maple syrup made in Washington. There’s nothing like that in the United States. We’re the first. And then, a rabbit with probably the highest meat to beat bone ratio they’ve ever seen.

Devin Day:
So, the conversation goes well quickly. I’m not bringing in a very common product. So, that’s been a good selling point. But I had to think that through beforehand. I could have done potatoes or chickens or broccoli or something. But I wanted to do something a little different. And we kind of stumbled into the maple but the rabbits were a little bit of a process of understanding a niche because it’s not common.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’ve kind of touched on the maple stuff but we haven’t really gotten into that. So, your stepdad was kind of playing with this, like you described, cooking out in the woods. No, not meth. He was cooking maple syrup in the woods, proving essentially that you can do maple syrup out here because-

Devin Day:
We were told for, told and told and told that it’s not possible to do, even by most of the experts in air quotes. And we’re doing it. Not in large quantities yet. We do about 200 gallons annually right now, which is, for the ratio you need on the West Coast versus the East Coast of sap to a finished product, we’re at times almost double. So you’ve got to collect a lot of sap. I kind of, just for ease of math consider it 100 to one. On the East Coast, it’s like 40 to one. Oftentimes, it’s even more than double. I just used that … and it’s often, right in that 75. I would say that after all the years of doing it, the average sap to finished maple syrup ratio is probably 75 to one on the West Coast, so you need a lot. We probably collect about 25-30000 gallons of sap a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
To get the 200-

Devin Day:
To get the 200-

Dillon Honcoop:
Gallons of finished product?

Devin Day:
Yeah. But we also get 10 times the price for it as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Break down in a nutshell, what is that process of collecting sap? I think the old school understanding and people who’ve seen the pictures from back East, where it’s a huge thing, somebody tapping a tree and I think old school way was I think hanging a bucket on a tree and that was it-

Devin Day:
Hanging a bucket, yeah. When we started … When we first started, it was all gravity, meaning, and by gravity I mean you’d drill a little hole, you put your tap in. You have a little tube that goes into a bucket sitting on the ground with a little hole in it so you’re not getting much rainwater in it. That was, that’s how we started. We would go out and we would have all these little buckets everywhere, and it was a very tedious process. You had to lug these five gallon jugs, one in each hand, and that’s five times eight, that’s 40 pounds in each hand. And you’re walking and tripping. It was a lot of work. So, we started that way and he would take it up in his truck and go to his little handmade boiler and cook out in the woods. The woods being next to his shop by his house.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Devin Day:
It mainly started as Christmas gifts and it just, the word got out. I took some samples to chefs. But it was that process that encouraged him to take it to the next step. Understand what they do on the East Coast, get a little more technical. Put a little technology into it. So, he hooked up a trailer, got in his truck, grabbed his wife and headed off to Wisconsin to buy one of those big stainless steel evaporators that cooks sap. Brought it back with some other equipment-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you pull the sap from the trees essentially, and that goes into this-

Devin Day:
Evaporator-

Dillon Honcoop:
Evaporator, which is basically cooking it down.

Devin Day:
There is one other step prior to that which is, so you have all the taps running. It’s like a big vein system, and all these connect back to a big mainline that runs through the woods.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tubes everywhere.

Devin Day:
Yep, tubes everywhere. So it looks like a big artery system running through the woods. And then it comes back to a vacuum system in a little pump house.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, what does this syrup taste like? What have people been saying about it?

Devin Day:
Well, it’s a little thicker than your traditional East Coast. There’s more minerals. There’s, because of that concentrated level that you have to, you know, the gallons that you need, you get a bit more caramel type flavors that come out. You get hints of vanilla. You even, if you have good taste buds and you’re sensitive to that kind of thing, you can pull out little hints of coffee, all kinds of stuff. Because of the rarity factor and just because of the kind of different flavor profiles, it’s been far more used as like cooking and pastries and recipes and sauces. One of the restaurants that we work with down in Seattle, they replaced all their refined sugar with it because it’s not … I mean, you tasted it, right? It’s very sweet, but it’s not overly sweet, right? It’s got a lot of depth to it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Devin Day:
So, it’s been very popular from a cooking standpoint and a recipe standpoint. Just to give you kind of an understand of quantities that are made, there’s about 12 million gallons of East Coast syrup made annually in the US. There’s 200 gallons, 200 gallons of Big Leaf Maple. So, these are different species of maple over here. So, it’s Big Leaf Maple Syrup and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus the sugar maple?

Devin Day:
Versus the sugar maple from the East Coast. And so, it’s … And because of our forestry practices here, you find these little pockets of Big Leaf maple groves, and when you do, it’s kind of like a … for us, it’s like a little mini gold rush. You’re out hunting and you find these groves of maple or you talk to somebody that works on state land or something. They’ve given us access to go up and look and hunt and find and test and see how the trees run up there. It’s gotten a lot of attention from that perspective because it was a weed. They poisoned the maple so they’ll quit growing but often they just continued to grow because they’re like a weed. They just won’t stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, I know you see a certain huge sustainability opportunity with this maple syrup thing, especially out here on the West Coast.

Devin Day:
Yeah. If you look at all the ways to deal with our changing climates and things like that, there’s one of the top ways, if you go and study it, is planting trees. There’s a lot of really good articles and there’s a lot of news coming out now, and planting trees is up there. So, what we see is because the tree itself living provides the revenue source, it continues … it’s like it’s own economic engine. The more you plant, the more you can continue this economic energy. But the trees themselves, they’re a huge shading factor for streams. They rebuild soils every year with the leaves that fall. They … just the trees themselves, they pull carbon out. There’s so many factors that go into them, you don’t have to cut them down. That’s the great part.

Devin Day:
They provide habitat for animals, bugs, just diversity. And the cooler thing is they need zero irrigation. They need zero fertilizing. They don’t need any inputs. You plant them and they grow like a weed.

Dillon Honcoop:
They can grow on poor ground too, right?

Devin Day:
They can grow on pretty poor ground. They can grow on very wet ground too, so it’s kind of like when you have [inaudible 00:38:51] areas and wetland areas and they’re planting that to remain that way. A maple’s a really good tree that can thrive in those kind of areas. So, you can have these non-prime so to speak agriculture areas where you could plant these along creeks and streams and this and they’ll continue to provide a high quality sap that is extremely … the demand is so high right now. We’re backed up years in … we just can’t produce enough and-

Dillon Honcoop:
But there’s only 200 gallons. How far can that demand go? How much of a market do you think is there? Is there any way to even tell?

Devin Day:
Well, they produce 12 million gallons on the East Coast and it hasn’t slowed down. So, I can only imagine how much we could produce here as … and because of the flavor profile, it’s not a replacement. It’s not a … but it’s something that can become another food product out there that can continue to provide reforestation. So, you look at all the hills around here and they’re either clear cut. You have a lot of fir trees with laminated root rot or beetle disease. So, there is a lot of revenue potential as a crop that you don’t have to destroy when the crop is done. There’s no tilling. There’s no … For me, it checks all the boxes. It’s been a pretty amazing … All of those factors combined is why it’s getting a ton of attention. Most of these, a lot of the schools are funded with the state lands and the forestry and things like that, and this is definitely another avenue of funding that can go into the forestry program.

Devin Day:
Just as an aside to that, you talk about where could this go? What’s it doing? We’ve proven that commercially, it’s desired. That it’s doable, and that it can be done on the West Coast. All it needs is some scaling. But like University of Washington, we’ve been working with them. They actually got a pretty large grant that is for a maple program and research for maple syrup, it’s from USDA. And normally East Coast, it would be funding on the East Coast with one of the schools over there, Cornell or some of the schools that have maple programs. But they got the grant because of the article we had in Seattle Magazine showing that the commercial aspect of maple syrup on the West can be done.

Devin Day:
So, now they’re diving into the research. Washington State University has been calling and discussing the whole viability of this on this side. And there’s so much untapped trees out there that it’s a very viable, potential program without doing a lot of damage. Once you put up the infrastructure, it can be there for 10 plus years before you need to replace lines. So, every year, that same revenue stream is there without having to remove the tree to get that profit. That just … that’s mind blowing to me. And then you can, we’re working on ways to row crop it, like raspberries, and the revenue per acre, it’s huge. Huge with the Big Leaf Maples.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future? Not just this but farming and farming here in Washington State?

Devin Day:
I talk to foodies all the time. Like the new generation of foodies, the new generation of chefs, the new generation of farmers. And, a lot of it just comes to overall practice. There’s a lot of stigma right now … you hear the whole thing of, “Oh, we got to get rid of meat and everyone’s got to start having a plant-based diet.” I don’t know. I think a lot of it is just … Thinking about it, I have a kind of a concept that I looked at called small food, and it kind of evolved as I was doing the rabbits from the transition of the cows. It’s not necessarily that we need to stop eating meat or that we’re all going to start eating bugs like you read in some of the articles. I’m not going to start eating bugs for my protein source. But I think we have to be thinking and conscious about how we’re doing things. If you think about it, today, I think that farming is going to move … You can hear next door. We’re next door to … they’re cooking syrup next door and you can hear the filter pump kick on, and it’s bub-bub-bub-bub-bub. It’s awesome.

Devin Day:
It’s not just about having a unique food. It’s about how to scale it and get … it’s very hard right now with the mechanisms in place to get to that marketplace, and naturally-

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus the cost of getting there-

Devin Day:
Plus the cost of getting there, absolutely-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that cost makes it difficult for instance to feed the masses.

Devin Day:
And that’s the thing is I’ve been lucky because I know how to develop business models. I know how to think through niches, so I’m in a unique position. I am excited to see these things evolve in a way where those marketplaces get opened up to small farmers. Right now, it’s all CSAs and farmer’s markets. Those aren’t really large growth factors for opening up big market channels for these farmers to scale.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fascinating. Thank you for sharing your story and journey to this point. It’s going to be fun to watch some of the stuff that you … I mean, you’ve already come up with so much here already and you strike me as the kind of person who’s going to keep coming up with more and more stuff.

Devin Day:
Yeah, it’s growing rapidly. It’s a lot of fun. And yeah, we’ll … The biggest thing that I like doing is sharing the information. I don’t … to me, this isn’t about profit. It’s about making change, and I’m not talking about just the sappy side of let’s change. I mean truly getting people involved in something that benefits them, benefits the market, benefits the animals, benefits the planet. It’s got to be that whole picture and I love sharing that information because it’s not just about making profit.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people are ready for that. They’re done with the slogans-

Devin Day:
Yeah, they are-

Dillon Honcoop:
And they want real-

Devin Day:
Absolutely. I totally agree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Devin Day:
Yeah, appreciate it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Seriously, that maple syrup was incredible. You really should try it if you can manage to get your hands on it. As he was explaining, they make so little of it and the demand is just growing like crazy. Thanks again for joining us for the podcast today with Devin Day. As you can tell, he’s a super outside the box thinker, does really unique stuff and has such a cool story to share as well about his family and his background and what he sees for the future, too. I think we’ll be talking with him again on the podcast. I know he has so many ideas about what farming could look like.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, this is the Real Food, Real People podcast documenting my journey to hear farmer’s real stories and share them with you here on the podcast as well as at realfoodrealpeople.org. Please subscribe if you can on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Google Podcasts and the list goes on and on and on from there. Pretty much any podcast platform, you can find us. Also feel free to drop me an email any time you have an idea for the show, some feedback, maybe something you liked or didn’t like or whatever. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. Again, thanks for being here and we will catch you next week on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

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