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

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that bacteria?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That applies to so many things.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You do any organic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Schultz part 1 | #026 06/08/2020

His journey to farming took him to Iraq and back, and now he's changing the way wine grapes are grown in Washington state. Meet Andrew Schultz, US Army veteran and founder of Brothers in Farms near Benton City.

Transcript

Andrew Schultz:
It still felt like maybe I’m not a farmer. I’m pretending or something, but after about year three, year four, after we dealt with some pretty hard curveballs that were thrown to us, I was like, “Okay, I think I’m in this and I think I’m good at it.” Now, I’m a farmer so [laugh].

Announcer 1:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
The amount of work and science and art that goes into those Washington wines that we’ve all grown to love so much is incredible. Our guest this week gives us an eye into what’s going on behind the scenes with all that, how it really works and how they grow amazing grapes here in Washington to make wine. Andrew Schultz is our guest this week and next. I learned so much about growing grapes and how it makes amazing wine in this conversation. I kind of geeked out as a farm kid. Also, some people are just natural born leaders and that’s Andrew.

Dillon Honcoop:
By the end of this conversation, I was feeling like, “Can you hire me?” His vision for what they’re doing, I just wanted to be a part of it. It was magnetic. So, join me in this conversation, really cool stuff. You’re going to learn so much about what really goes into wine and really be inspired by Andrew and his backstory, the things that he went through to lead him to where he is now, incredible stuff. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast and we’re glad that you’re here this week. Don’t forget to subscribe. I know you’ve got a long backstory, but let’s just start with how did you get into farming?

Andrew Schultz:
Farming in general? So, I got out of the service, was where I actually started, were actually I was farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
You served in the Marines?

Andrew Schultz:
I was in the US Army.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the army, yup. Okay.

Andrew Schultz:
I got out. We had the GI Bill and I actually wanted to be a brewer. I became a brewer within six months of exiting. I basically listened to a bunch of podcasts from California while I was driving back and forth, going to school. Then I sat down at a local brewery, I didn’t know I was sitting next to a head brewer. Him and I started having a conversation. He was supposed to teach me how to distill. Instead he calls me up in like a month and asked me to work for him. It was kind of interesting working for him because he liked doing all the production brewing and all that stuff for the main products, but he kicked down the majority of the odd beers to me and brewing club and stuff. So, I ended up brewing 12 to 14 styles, probably on average per year.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was your thing? What was your favorite? I mean, you’re talking odd stuff, what kind of stuff were you working on?

Andrew Schultz:
One of my favorite beers is an Altbier from Germany and reason why I like the Altbier is it’s like the predecessor to the red beer. I’m not even really that much of a red beer fan, but it’s a predecessor to it, which is really cool because Louis Pasteur came out with basically a yeast. It was for pilsners and stuff like that, produces a lot more phenolics and that’s why they have a lagering process. Back in the day, they didn’t have temperature control for grain to be able to roast it. So, it was either really heavily toasted or it was really lightly toasted.

Andrew Schultz:
So, how they created these red beers out there back in the day was it was built and fermented and treated just like a Pilsner except for in the process, in the beginning, they had a small portion of really heavily roasted grain essentially. So, what you end up getting is this really light bodied beer that has this roastiness to it. So, that was one of my favorite styles of beer that I like brewing.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re making me thirsty for beer already. We’ve just started talking. This isn’t good.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, I should have brought some beer along with.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So, you were in brewing, and then how did that lead to farming?

Andrew Schultz:
Well, so I was going to community college in Pendleton for the first six months to pick up classes because I needed to do something after I got out. I basically took nine months off of not working or whatever. Started at WSU in the fall, had that conversation with that brewer sometime around August or September right after I’d started classes, and was living in Tri-Cities and bought a home. So, I actually accepted that job to be the brewer and I did it on the weekends.

Andrew Schultz:
And then at the same time, I’d send an email to a professor that worked at IAREC which is Irrigated Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Prosser, one of the largest research centers in the US for agriculture. It was Dr. Naidu Rayapati. He was interested in having somebody basically help him do grape leaf roll virus epidemiology, and I accepted that as well. That was flex time during school. So, basically, in the afternoons during the week, I would go out and I would count these fields based on this visual identification. We put them in Excel sheets to map the virus spread over a number of years.

Andrew Schultz:
I’ve worked with him for about 11 years now in different capacities over the last three or four years because I’ve had different jobs but we still do research on our properties and use him quite a bit to help him understand how to deal with that major virus in the wine industry. It was funny because they put me on this property that we’re out right now, which is Klipsun Vineyards. I met the GM at the time which was Julia cook, and she ended up hiring me for a job because she liked me. So, so now I got three jobs, right? Plus, I was taking full time classes 15, 16 credit hours in school.

Andrew Schultz:
What I said when I was going into essentially school, “If I’m going to go to school for this thing, I’m going to work in the industry that I’m going to school for so that I can cut the curve of actually getting a good paying job when I get out and all those other things.” I wasn’t planning on forming yet at the time by picking up those two jobs, the epidemiology job and then work in flex time as a VitTech at Klipsun. I actually fell in love with farming. I was looking for a solution, I don’t want to be in an office anymore, sitting behind a desk. I found out I was pretty good at, so I just kind of hammered down on that. So, then I said, “Well, brewing seemed to be pretty easy. I think I’m going to go this farming path.”

Dillon Honcoop:
You wanted more of a challenge.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah, I think that’s really what it came down to in the end based on the other jobs and stuff I’ve had to pass, I’m a systems thinker. So, the ultimate system is one that takes away a lot of control, and you still have to get the same outcome in the end. That’s essentially a really concise way to put farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
There are so many things that are just entirely out of your control, aren’t there?

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest thing for you guys that’s you can’t control it and it could totally mess you up?

Andrew Schultz:
Trying to understand how much heat’s going to be in a particular year, you can build your crop a different way. But for the most part, now we’ve kind of systematize the whole thing, at least the way that my company looks at growing grapes. So, we measure a bunch of different factors in the vineyard essentially that help us understand how much light is coming into the canopy. We really do that on how many shoots are per lineal foot within a canopy, and then the trellis equation basically says that you have to have 40 inches of canopy so we do what we can to get there. And then the fruit load should be as far as what we’ve seen for really high-quality stuff between 1.6 and 1.8 pounds per foot of court on out there.

Andrew Schultz:
So, if you can hit all those parameters in any one year, then by and large you’ll get what you want in the end. But we create all those systems, because every year and I have yet to see anything different, these are all decisions. If we hit these, then we should be in some pretty high-quality bracket. What that allows us to do is that systematizes a lot of our normal decision-making process and that kind of allow us to basically manage the anomalies. They happen different every year. 2016 and 2017 were some of the highest winter rain for our area in the last 20 years. So, getting rid of that water is probably the biggest trick that we have is. Essentially what we do is we let the plant farm that, so we won’t irrigate during that time. So, the plant pulls out and uses as much as possible.

Andrew Schultz:
When we get down to where there’s near zero plant availability, then we basically manage and control that stress over about a three-week period, and then we go back to full irrigation for the rest of the year. So, the biggest trick is being able to get rid of the water and years where we have a bunch, or understand that we don’t have enough, or maybe it’s evenly distributed in the soil and how we’re going to approach those things. So, those are usually the biggest decisions, those types of anomalies. There’s other ones too that pop up some really odd ones. One of them was for example, it would have been 2016, we had a really warm start to the year. So, soil temperatures in the valley were sitting right around 47 degrees.

Andrew Schultz:
A lot of the plants start to come out of dormancy, but it’s a biological system. So, not everything comes out of dormancy evenly. What ends up happening is part of those buds came out of dormancy, and we’re working at a really slow metabolic rate because the temperature went back down for about a month. Part of them hadn’t come out of dormancy. So, when the temperature warmed up, the canopy was uneven a on a per plant basis, which means that it’s not human created. And then two months later, we’re trying to make decisions on how to shut the canopy down or when. You’ve got canes in there that are at your 40 inches, and you’ve got canes in there that are at 30 inches. Which one do you manage to?

Andrew Schultz:
So, what we ended up doing in that particular case was we just bit the bullet on the cost. We managed to the shortest canes, because that was going to get everything to where we wanted. We went back and it ended up not being as bad as we thought. We ran some guys through some machetes real quick. They knocked off the tips of a lot of those canes that were long, and then everything was great.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does this all mean for the wine drinker? All these things that are changing and you’re dealing with, is that changing the flavor, what they experienced when they open that bottle? Is it changing just how much of it’s available?

Andrew Schultz:
So what I can speak to is or at least what my job is or how I view my job is what we do is we try to give the winemaker as much material to use as possible to make the best wine possible. So, some of those things that are, I call them non-purchasable. They absolutely are purchasable. These large companies buy things like mega purple and stuff like that to make wine have more color or tannins that are derived from either other plants or the same plant. A lot of those are a single type of tannin or maybe a single type of acid and not what you actually get in nature, which is this really nice wide breadth of natural acids or natural tannins, different sizes and things like that. So, we try to give that to the winemaker, so they can make the best wine possible.

Andrew Schultz:
One of those things is essentially the skin of the berry has all the stuff in it that makes a wine in case of red wines makes a wine red. It makes a wine have mouthfeel and all these other things that people want, flavor. So, that’s essentially what we’re trying to increase. There’s arguments with the way people look at these things or whatever, but what I kind of view is total polymorphic pigments is really what we’re trying to increase, because that’s the hardest thing from a wine quality standpoint, are the thing that can be washed out by over-irrigation or not enough stress in a particular point in the year.

Andrew Schultz:
So, you can literally have two crops side by side on the same property, same environmental conditions, everything, and one crop will be four tons per acre and the other crop will be four tons per acre. There’s a huge quality difference. The four on the left might take 35 clusters to get to four tons per acre, and the other one might take 25 clusters to get to four tons per acre. At surface to volume ratio is huge so you want-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s going to change the flavor.

Andrew Schultz:
Absolutely. So, you want the one that’s got 35 clusters, because you’ve got more skin in that. So, when they press it out, in many cases with the stuff that we’re producing, and whether it’s a property or part of our management, could be in contention but essentially the numbers that we’ve returned back consistently as high end stuff is considered somewhere around 3,000. Low end management might return about 1,200 in this concentration of total polymeric pigments. Really decent management somewhere in 1,600 to 1,800 range. Our stuff over the last several years, we’ve been producing is somewhere between 25,000 and 28,000.

Andrew Schultz:
The finished product of a lot of these high end wines, they actually take our grapes and manage it down to about 2,100 to 2,200, in some cases 2,300, as opposed to like basically getting those grapes in and then trying to beat the skins to get as much stuff out of them as possible or bleeding off some of the juice and replacing it with water to get the alcohol and concentration to be correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
What makes an amazing wine? I mean, you’re talking about high end wines, what does that mean? What’s a high-end wine? How do you define that? What really kind of separates the wheat from the chaff so to speak?

Andrew Schultz:
That’s a difficult question. A large percentage of Washington State is, say 90+% actually goes to three main companies in the state. So, they formed those grapes completely different. A lot of with machines and stuff like that, and that’s three main wineries. I think, to date, maybe there’s somewhere around 1,000 wineries in Washington State. So, it kind of shows you the breath that exists out there even on that 5 to 10% level. So, the guys that we deal with primarily and what we try to do and what they’re looking for is they want to have the right property that naturally gets to the right bricks and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Bricks being the amount of sugar, of sweetness.

Andrew Schultz:
Absolutely, yeah. They want him to get to right amount of sweetness so that they’re not under ripe and so they produce these flavors. Certain sites lend to that easier every year and some sites don’t, but through correct irrigation and stuff like that, you can essentially build this grape where the winemakers actually take it in and they just try not to screw it up. That’s kind of like what my version of a high-end wine is.

Andrew Schultz:
It doesn’t necessarily mean price point either, because there’s some winemakers out there that are making $25 and $30 bottles that are absolutely worth every penny and more based on their flavor and their winemaking style and how consistent they are. And then there’s guys out there that charge $100, $150, or $200 per bottle. Some of those are really great and some aren’t worth the money either.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was going to ask you. These really high dollar bottles of wine, if I go to a restaurant and see that I can go to the… Well I guess, I was going to say top of those. Usually, it’s the bottom of the list, that bottle that’s $100 and some dollars. Is that really going to be that? But I never buy that one because I can’t afford it. But does it really taste that much better and why?

Andrew Schultz:
I’ve been fortunate enough to have a lot of people give me wine or be in tastings where we’ve done these things and compare them side by side. Yeah, so it’s hit and miss. It’s really hard for the consumer to know. I mean, the reality is, is when they walk into a grocery store and I don’t know what the average is now, but a few years ago, the average was like 1,600 skews or something like that of just wine in one store. When they’re purchasing a $10 or $25 or $30 bottle, even at that end, they don’t want to make a mistake and get something that they don’t like necessarily. So, once they find something that they do, a lot of times they’ll stick-

Dillon Honcoop:
Stick.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, or maybe they go on tasting.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I do. I go there, and I’m like overwhelmed by all the different brands. I try to do some reading for a while. Usually, I’ll spend a few minutes there reading bottles and trying to understand and looking at years and stuff. And then I’m just like, “I don’t know,” and either just kind of pick something that looks cool based on what the graphic design, or something that I’ve had before?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. For people in Washington, I mean, Woodinville’s an excellent resource. Walla Walla, if you want to make a trip, or even in the Tri-Cities area, there’s some major outlets that have a ton of wineries. Now, I think they’re charging some tasting fees, but it’s fun to go out, find something that you like that’s local. Ask the people there and get the story and taste the wine. If you like it, great. I’m sure that anybody can find something that tastes great, is locally produced, and a really high-quality wine at many different price points in Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, when did it hit you that “I am a farmer and I’m passionate about it,” like it became an identity thing for you?

Andrew Schultz:
So, I ended up dropping out of school. I went to four years of college for Viticulture and Enology. I brewed that whole time on the weekend, ended up quitting that job. When I picked up my job to go basically be a General Manager at a farm and where it was 110 acres at the time. In over five years, we built it up to about 175 acres. There’s other properties and tree fruit and stuff that we dealt with besides grapes, but 175 acres of grapes is what we dealt with there in 23 varieties. Part of that was done in test blocks and things like that, but it was a really cool undertaking because you kind of understand all the personalities of these grapes.

Andrew Schultz:
They all have different personalities, and how they grow, or why they want to grow, or how much they want to produce, or how to control them, how they deal with water, or the season. I mean, some like wind, some don’t. Some like a lot of water, some don’t. So, once I moved to his property after the first year, I was like, “Okay, I really kind of dig this.” And then the second year, it was like, “I’m really digging this.” It still felt like maybe I’m not a farmer. I’m pretending or something, but after about year three, year four, after we dealt with some pretty hard curveballs that were thrown to us, I was like, “Okay, I think I’m in this and I think I’m good at it.” Now, I’m a farmer so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you grow up? You didn’t grow up around farming, did you?

Andrew Schultz:
Indirectly. I grew up in Hermiston, Oregon which is a big farming town. I’ve had aunts and uncles. I come from a big family, so aunts and uncles and everything that had been in farming. Some of them currently build stuff for processing facilities and things like that, but other than hanging out with my dad when I was a kid… He worked for a place called Circle C, which did hay cubes. They sold those hay cubes to Japan, but he did that job for 17 years. Probably 5 or 6 of those years, I was old enough to remember. We’d go on truck rides and stuff together. I go out to the farm and stuff, but really wasn’t directly related to or didn’t spend a whole lot of time in any way.

Andrew Schultz:
My grandfather was big farmer, but he died when I was really young, right around 1988 or 1989. He was a German guy, he loved his sheep. He had pigs and a lot of watermelons and stuff that are grown down in Hermiston. But again, I was really young, and I didn’t get exposed to a lot of that. And then going to high school and stuff, I didn’t hang out in FFA or with any of those guys necessarily. I had cowboy friends that farmed wheat and all this stuff, but again wasn’t directly in…

Andrew Schultz:
When I came back from Iraq, because I came back from Iraq and literally was like 8, 10 days later, I out-processed and left Germany. I was back in the US. In that spring, among attending and going into school at Pendleton, I took a greenhouse class, which I really enjoyed. We produce stuff for the local market and so there was timing and all these things that we had to plan for it. It was fantastic. Yeah, so that was kind of when I first started. So, I really wasn’t exposed to it much other than I grew up around it, but I never really dealt with it.

Andrew Schultz:
I was more into going snowboarding and bike, stuff like that when I was a kid, or fishing really, that was my main thing. I think I used to joke, because I fished like 300 days a year or something on the local route. We weren’t even catching anything good. I mean, I could count on my hands. Maybe twice a year, I might get some smelt or something that was running up the river. I might get a smallmouth bass like once a year or something, but the rest of it was all squab fish so.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you were having fun fishing.

Andrew Schultz:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Fishing is more about the process, right? Which is why I’m no good at it, because I have no patience. Talk about the army. Did you go into the army right after high school?

Andrew Schultz:
No, I didn’t, kind of took an odd path. I went in at 24, which is a lot older. So, they had to put me right around 2004. I didn’t go into the army. There’s a lot of people at that time when they were going in the army, they were going in because of country pride or family tradition type of deal, or something that’s probably the main stuff. I went in at that time mainly because, one, I think I was trying to escape my situation. Somewhere on the back end, now that I look back at it, not that I was in a bad situation, just that I felt like I needed to change or do something.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have you been doing after high school then up until 24? How was enlisting?

Andrew Schultz:
I was fairly successful. I’ve always been put in charge of stuff. The same thing happen when I went into service too, but at 16 years old, I was supposed to be a busboy. Within three months of getting hired there, they fired the chef. He asked me, “Hey, kid, are you hungry?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well then cook it yourself,” and he used an expletive when he did. The guy was kind of a jerk. He was a Type A individual, so he’d written all these notes all over the kitchen. So, he taught me how to read all of his notes. Three months later, when he got fired on a Thursday night, the owner thought that he was going to come back. He didn’t. It was like Friday.

Dillon Honcoop:
Called his bluff.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, and it was a steakhouse in Echo, Oregon, called the Echo Hotel that used to be an operation. It was a pretty good steakhouse. It was four-star at one time, but when I was there, it probably wasn’t. Anyways, so really long pause when the owners like “Hey, does anybody know how to cook prime rib?” Nobody says anything, and the 16-year-old kid is like, “Yeah, I know how to cook it.” We cooked 5-, 6-, 30-pound prime ribs every Friday and Saturday night plus during the week and everything. So, that’s what I did while I was in high school, and I got done doing that. I went into warehousing essentially.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I worked for Walmart Distribution System Center in Hermiston for two years. I was put in charge of the dock within six months, not as a manager or anything, but I ran all the doors. So, we bring in and out, unload 50 trucks in a day. So, that was kind of my first foray into management. So, I had 15 people that would take all the pallets around the warehouse, off of the dock, and 15, 20 people that would unload those trailers. Then I left there and decided to go to school in Portland for art school, which was kind of an odd move, but that was kind of what my passion was at the time. So, I went down there, and started going to that, and started lifting weights when I was in Portland, and ended up dropping out of that school.

Andrew Schultz:
The main reason why I dropped out of that was I basically sat there and for me, I was like, “Well, as a graphic designer, how am I going to sell anything to a world that I don’t know about?” I realized that I didn’t know anything about the world yet, because I’m only 20 years old and lived in a small town all my life except for the last six months or a year or something like that in a big city or a larger city. So, that’s when I kind of dropped out of school and I started working for Sears and warehouse. I did that for a couple years. And then I went into beer and wine distribution, which is actually what I got into. I did that for another year. And then I enlisted in the service and left. I did it for leadership purposes.

Andrew Schultz:
By that point, I’ve been put in charge of warehouses and people and things like that, that I started piecing together how this whole thing worked, even though I wouldn’t really consider myself a real good leader at that point. But yeah, I started piecing all these things together, and I said, “Well 232-year-old organization at the time,” I was like, “they got to know something about leadership.” So, I went in, and that’s exactly what I got schooled on. There was excellent leadership and there was absolutely terrible leadership at the same time. I learned just as much from each one of those individuals as I could. I went in the service. In basic training, I ended up most distinguished honor graduate.

Andrew Schultz:
And then when I went to training for another six or eight months for the radar stuff that we dealt with, I was put in charge of platoons there, and then I was put in charge of the next platoon that I was in on that base. And then I showed up to my unit in Germany. Within about a year, I was put in charge in my section, and then put into a sergeant role at about two and a half years. In the day I was promoted to E-5, they put me in E-6 role to run the division for what we did. And then we were sent to Iraq. And then there was supposed to be an E-7 in charge of us and he got augmented out to Baghdad. So, I ran his show and it’s like an E-5. It was 25 different vehicles. We had two different groups per hours and six different radars and told that we were managing in theater.

Andrew Schultz:
Of course, this came down to a lot of computer programming. We’re doing a reset. We’re basically moving from old internet and things like to actual Category 5 cables and real internet connections, which seems kind of late to be doing that around 2007, but that was a reality. Yeah, and so that was really fun. So, I learned a ton. I didn’t have the dangerous job necessarily in Iraq, but because of where the radars were located and our teams were located, I went to just about every single base. Some of them were absolutely terrible ones, not much bigger than a dog kennel in the middle of the desert in Northern Iraq. So, pretty much everywhere in Baghdad North where we had a base, I’ve stopped by there probably at one time or another.

Dillon Honcoop:
What a unique perspective or at least it seems like it to me, because I don’t think of people going in, enlisting in the army thinking, “I’m going to get basically professional development on leadership.” It makes a ton of sense looking at it from this view, but I know especially at that age, I would not have thought about it that way. Certainly with what was going on in the world at that time, I would have been scared like, “I’m going to be put in harm’s way if I do this,” with what was happening with the Iraq war. That had been going through your head at that point, like, “What am I signing up for here?”

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. To be honest, I mean, the reality is I was just young and dumb. Not that it’s dumb, it’s absolutely fantastic job. There’s great professional development, a lot of pluses for going in and serving the country and doing those things. So, I’m not taking away any of that or anything that anybody else puts in, whether they stay in the whole time or not. Even during a time of war, I mean we don’t really know what that is until we go and see it. So, I didn’t understand it completely and I didn’t understand what the full commitment really is. Because even after you get out, there’s stuff that you have to deal with on a personal level that you didn’t even… I like planning ahead. There’s things that I didn’t understand that I didn’t plan for that happened to me after I got back, and we had to deal with that stuff.

Andrew Schultz:
One really interesting one, I mean, obviously, I don’t know if you’ll get this in this interview or not, but I have a really good memory typically. I don’t know if that’s because I read a ton or not, but I lost it temporarily after I got back. I mean, literally, it was as bad as the day or two after I got back, I mean, I park my car, go into a subway or something like that, and come out. I’d have to search for my car, every single time. I mean, it was really weird.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? What did that?

Andrew Schultz:
What I ended up figuring out later, it took me about six months. It wasn’t quite that apparent. The first few weeks were really apparent, and then after that, I still had issues. One of the issues when I started going to college, WSU during that summer course that I took was I told the teacher. I just said, “Hey man. I’m not trying to be disrespectful or anything like that, but if I don’t show up to class, I may just have forgotten.” That was real, I told him. I said, “I really enjoyed the class, and I really enjoy you as a teacher, but sometimes I just forget this stuff. It’s hard for me to remember and it was. It was four or five years later, I found that old schedule and I looked at it. It was literally it was five days a week at 11:30 AM.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I mean, it was the easiest schedule to remember, but literally I’d be… I lived 40 minutes away at the time or something like that, but it would be like noon and then I’d realized that I forgot my class. So, what I found out what had happened, it really had nothing to do with me lose my memory. But once you’re over there and your priorities are different, remembering where your car parked is parked and stuff like that isn’t a priority, as opposed to the other things that are going on. And then you get back after you haven’t… Because you’re over there and something may happen or whatever.

Andrew Schultz:
So, when you get back, it’s like your mind has built all this stuff of potential or what you can do or whatever when you get back. So, in my mind, I figured out it was just rolling so fast that I just wasn’t paying attention to the things were right in front of my face. So, I kind of retrained my brain to slow down, and take the opportunities that come, and pay attention to the present. It was a real thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically, living and working in a warzone in that capacity, you have to be so keyed up to be managing that.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, and you don’t even think about it. I mean, all the normal things that somebody has is basically taken off your plate. I mean, foods in the same place every day if you’re on a base or something like that, or it might change if you’re on a different base. But you don’t have to worry because foods provided, so you’re not really worried about going to the store. There’s nobody hammering you with marketing or advertising, because you’re not watching TV. I mean, there’s no cell phones or anything back in the day that had any capabilities like that. So, we weren’t doing any of that. The internet still was fairly marginal at that time, especially for what you could get over there plus communications were bad.

Andrew Schultz:
So, I mean, literally, you’re removed from the world. Which is was a good thing too for me, because I saved all my money while I was in Iraq exactly for that reason. We didn’t have to spend it, so I didn’t. I saved and I had probably $40,00 to $50,000 that was saved between… And then I was injected back in January of 2009 to one of the worst economies in American history. I took that money and I bought a house. It’s $57,000, which is ridiculous to think nowadays, because they went up. All those same houses now are selling for like $180,000 and I sold mine after I went to school with a little mortgage and all that stuff. I sold it for $140,000 and that kind of got everything paid off.

Andrew Schultz:
Essentially, I went back to zero but with an education which was fantastic, because I have four years of school and didn’t owe anybody anything. So, then I could start building from there. That’s where the ideation for building a business and stuff like that came from. This is like, “Hey, I’m on a level playing field and I made some smart moves, even though I didn’t realize I was making them when I was that young. We’re going to roll with this.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you see some scary stuff over there in Iraq?

Andrew Schultz:
Personally, no. I mean, I say personally, no. My version in being mortared is probably different than most people’s. Four hundred or 500 feet away is not being mortared in my mind. But to somebody else, it may be or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Like having a mortar hit that close to you?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah. Sometimes you don’t even see.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that would be mortared for me. Yikes.

Andrew Schultz:
You don’t even you don’t even see them. I mean, that’s the scary part, right? Yeah, you don’t even see them. It could be at night, like you’re leaving it 12:00 midnight or something like that. You’re walking back to your containerized housing, what they call the CHU. That’s protected by these hesco barriers, which are filled with dirt and stuff like that to keep any shrapnel. Anyways, one could hit, and you don’t know where it hit necessarily. It was fairly close, but didn’t rock your world, so you’re good. I mean, I’ve had to call up. I had a team of sergeants that I was in charge of that would go out and repair these radios.

Andrew Schultz:
There are several times where I had to call up and see whether those guys had… Because there’s several people that died on a base or something like that. We had make sure that our guy was okay and all that. So, I mean, that stuff kind of jerks you in. Of course, we’re dealing with division operation center. So, we’re watching a lot of stuff that happens. We’re seeing a lot of stuff. It’s actually a really good point when we started talking, I’m not saying whether I’d PTSD or not. But when we started talking about that, the battlefield has changed from what it used to be. It used to be there’s this what they call the FLOT, Forward Line of Troops. Bad guys are over there, and good guys are over here. They’re going to clash and something’s going to happen. Now, it’s kind of all around.

Andrew Schultz:
From that standpoint, the safety of the troops and the equipment stuff that they have is I mean, it’s massive. I mean, literally a guy can get shot with an AK-47. If he gets hit in the plate and fall down and he might have a bruise and be a little bit rattled or whatever, but like he’s good, or they can get wounded in other senses and still make it home because of the medical that we have and how fast response time is and all those things that came up. So, what ended up happening is this smaller portion of people go into battle and experiences being a thing. So, maybe in the past, it was like 80% of people on the front line and 20% people in support.

Andrew Schultz:
Now, it’s more like 20% of the people on frontline and 80% in support. So, you concentrate all these experiences into this small number of people, but what’s important is that small number of people, they only see what’s right in front of them and how horrific it may be. The people in the back don’t necessarily see that, but instead of seeing just one or being in one individual scenario, you got all these people that they’re fed information from every area. They’re looking at all these or they’re hearing the response come into these facilities that are making the responses to help these guys out, but they’re doing it for 5 minutes or 10 different areas and all week long and working longer hours too, 18 hour days in some cases doing this stuff. I mean, it just takes a toll on you.

Andrew Schultz:
I mean, even for what we did, I think the most I’ve ever worked was when I was in Iraq. I did 400 days in a row or something ridiculous like that. All of them were 18-hour days. Some of them were 20-hour days. So, that kind of stuff has a toll on the human body in the end. So, you come back and you have some fatigue issues and things you got to figure out how to reset, probably the biggest thing aside from the pills they try giving you or these other things. It’s just exercise, eat right, and try to keep moving.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that affect you now in what you’re doing, that whole experience? I mean, it sounds like there’s definitely some bad, definitely some good as well with the leadership stuff that you were able to do.

Andrew Schultz:
Now, there’s massive amount of humility with people in general. Especially some of the stuff I’ve learned over the last several years, it’s like the world will try and tell you that there’s all these things coming up or they might have priorities for you. But priorities are big, being able to pick and choose which ones are the right priority, where you’re going to put your time and energy, and where you’re not going to put your time and energy. That allows you to get a lot of stuff done. There was, at the time, probably self-judgmental, things like that. I think being self-judgmental on anything is not going to get you going in the right place.

Andrew Schultz:
So, sometimes just dropping that expectation that you’ve created in your mind and just trying to wake up, do the best thing you can in the moment. List your priorities and just keep rocking and rolling. That’s probably how it’s affected me the most but having a really wide experience background as far as that’s concerned and some of the other things I’ve done. I find it funny, especially when I talk to either soldiers or other people. They say, “Well, I’ve done all these things, but I can’t do that, because I don’t have the experience in that.” But the reality is, is those are the backgrounds… Everybody has a really unique background. All of those things when you’re trying to build a team, they come into play.

Andrew Schultz:
So, having all these unique backgrounds put together, you can get some really interesting solutions for and build some teams that have a really strong from taking all these parts and pieces of their lives that they’ve learned and trying to get them to work in unison towards a single goal. So, I think that that kind of realization is good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys do customed Viticulture, and it’s called Brothers in Farms, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is kind of an homage to your military background.

Andrew Schultz:
Yes. Yeah. One of the questions I asked is “How can we help veterans and stuff like that?” One of my answers to that was okay, let me build something that’s as strong as possible, and then we’re going to start integrating in ways to help service veterans as they get out and all of that. I’ve got some buddies that I met through the school and stuff like that that I went to that are doing some great things in Washington for veterans. So, we’ve been reaching out to those. We may start doing some scholarships for some of these vets that come back to help ease any of the cost and stuff like that as they go through school.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can farming be a good thing to do when you get out? You talked about having that time where you kind of needed to reset.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, first thing I started doing was growing a garden. For veterans that are dealing with stuff… I also picked up a dog too, have had a dog by my side for the last 11 years now that I’ve been out, or it’s been 11 years. Anyways, having something that you need to go out and water and take care of and something that says, “Hey, there’s something out there that’s bigger than you,” that gives you humility and keeps you less focused on yourself and more focused on the things that need to happen. Her name’s Blue. The most inspiring thing I learned during that hard period of my life was every day, she would come in and she would eat the exact same dog food every single day. She was just as happy, if not happier to eat it at that moment than any other time. So, that’s inspiring to see.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of dog is Blue?

Andrew Schultz:
She’s a German Shorthaired Pointer.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you guys do customed Viticulture, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean?

Andrew Schultz:
Essentially, we do custom farming for clients. So, if a company or person owns a property and they aren’t necessarily interested in taking all the liabilities and all that stuff to grow the grapes or maybe they want a specific product off of that property, my company comes in. We offer the solution to do everything on that property for them and say for doing the sale of grapes essentially everything to get it to harvest and then we harvest it. Their clients come and pick it up and take it back to the winery. Some of the clients are real discerning, and some are less discerning. We take a lot of data and stuff like that, which is different. We’re trying to integrate the newer world into what we do. Part of that is the communications and the computer science and stuff like that.

Andrew Schultz:
So, we built databases in the background of the business to deal with the payroll stuff, and legalities, and chemical records, and all that stuff. So, literally, my guys are going out. If we’re taking a shoot length measurement on a property, they’re doing it on an iPad, and it goes in. Literally the end of the week, we print off a PDF report, send that to the client, shows them exactly what’s going on the property and why we’re making those decisions. So, it’s pretty cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, these are people who want to be able to own a vineyard kind of thing.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup, some are people, some are companies. A lot of them already exist in the marketplace, but as labor price is obviously going up, we’ve taken $1.5 increase this year alone. But over the last five, six years,, we’ve went up about $3 or $4. So, labor gets pretty expensive. For us to come in and say we’re farming 450 acres currently, but we build a crew as such that those people are on and off that property. The tractors are on and off those properties. So, a company or an individual doesn’t have to go in and buy an $80,000 tractor and use it for 500 hours on a property. We can use it for 1,000 hours between all of our properties.

Andrew Schultz:
We might have three or four tractors and have the implements and things like that to do it, not only that, but the labor to be able to go in there and get things done in a timely fashion. So, essentially, we’re leveraging time and creating efficiency through scale. So, several small guys can get a cost that would be economical while we’re taking the brunt of the work and moving it around to properties on an economical level.

Dillon Honcoop:
At that level, it’s just like the custom farming I grew up around. Actually, when I was quite young, my dad was a custom farmer. I mean, his version was he had a tractor and some dirt work implements. He’d to go out and work people’s fields for them, because they were maybe a small dairy farm. They couldn’t afford to have that tractor and implements. He couldn’t either if he was just doing that small amount, but because he was driving on… Yeah, same thing.

Andrew Schultz:
Yup. Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Spreading that around and letting somebody else kind of deal with that part of it. Does that put more risk on you though without the reward of being the owner?

Andrew Schultz:
I think if you guys listen to much of my story, I’m not really that worried about risk. I’ve always been kind of a risk taker. I’m pretty good at hedging downsides. The biggest thing as far as risk is concerned is I probably am at some larger amount of risk, but we do a lot of things to hedge those. I mean, we have contracts in place that are put in by attorneys and stuff like that to make sure that that I’m hedging on my bets in the right direction. Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of money floating out there, and making payroll, and stuff like that. I mean, it’s a real deal. That’s why when we look at the values of why we do what we do or how we do what we do, we go back to the original values and that’s what we make decisions on.

Andrew Schultz:
The biggest thing is providing a product to our customers that people like or they want but more importantly, it’s communication and it’s being real with the people. The people being either those in the management level of my business or the people that are actually out doing the work. We’re trying to provide a really solid job for them. From that standpoint, there’s definitely jobs out there that they can get in farming. As the cost increases, what we’ve seen for these other businesses, we’re actually driving a lot of employees from tree fruit or whatever towards us or operations like us. Because as that price increases, those farmers are in many cases asking those employees to do more or by the piece and faster.

Andrew Schultz:
Ours isn’t necessarily about that, we’re more about quality. We’re trying to give them as much work as possible throughout the year. People in general, it doesn’t matter whether they’re working in a field or whether they’re working for business, they want to work for somebody that’s organized. Whatever they do in the field, somebody doesn’t come in and make another decision and say, “Undo that and go do this.” It gets real confusing for somebody. So, those are the types of things that we try to provide to the workers. So, we’ve been successful driving people towards us in a short labor economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. How does that go? Are you able to find enough people?

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, I mean, we just turned down a couple guys the other day, because we just picked up four to help us with some stuff that we’re trying to get off our plate this spring. We had guys that contact us last year and I said, “Hey, we work in tree fruit. We’d like to come over to you guys because things are getting real tight over there and we see what you guys are doing.” By and large, a lot of these families at workforce, they all go to the same church locally. So, everybody talks behind closed doors, and they find out what’s going on where. So, our perception is good from that standpoint.

Andrew Schultz:
Right now, we’re capping the business at 50 people for the time being, and then we’re going to walk over that 50-person line as soon as I feel comfortable to. But for this year, based on how fast we’ve grown, what I want to do, and what I am doing is we’re investing back into the infrastructure of the business as I build out the administrative side. That’s going to create a really nice concrete, solid launchpad, and then we’re going to ramp it up from there.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future look like? I know, the wine community here in Washington is kind of coming of age from what I’ve heard and read. That it was growing like crazy because it used to be a California thing, and then it became a Washington thing, right?

Andrew Schultz:
Washington on the world stage has been doing amazing. There’s one major reason behind that amongst others, but one of the major reasons behind that is essentially we don’t have very much rain over here in this part of the state. Six inches per year is probably the average. Some cases, we have a little bit more. Some case, we have a little bit less. But again, we go back to what’s the number one thing that’s going to improve quality and it’s water, how much water you have there. So, if you don’t have enough water to grow a great plant, then you get to choose whatever you want to put on it. That’s going to change quality in the end.

Andrew Schultz:
As a case in point, first irrigation in many cases for say Napa Valley is 7/15, so say July 15th or something like that. They’ve already grown up, set the fruits, fruits going in close to Verizon at that point. For us, if we don’t irrigate that grape, by the time it even gets into bloom, we’re not going to have any bloom. So, we get to choose how fast and how long those canes grow, which is going to give us a canopy density not only reduce cost, but canopy density. From a canopy density standpoint, you’re going to get more sunlight into grapes on average year in and year out. If somebody managed to do irrigation correctly, we have the ability to hit really tight brackets on how big those berries are and what kind of concentration levels they have. That’s been playing out.

Andrew Schultz:
As the farmers get better and they have over the last 10 or 11 years, we’ve seen a lot of really good farmers come out and start improving some of their operations, even putting in some of these new trellising system stuff like that that kind of naturally gets the grapes to where they want to be. I think Washington’s got more 90-point wines in this state than any other wine region in the world on a yearly basis is what I’ve been told. That’s massive, that means that we’re just creating a massive amount of really good wines every year. That’s hard for anybody to go back and say, “Well, knock that area.” So, we’re kind of emerging this big power. I think it’s fantastic from a quality standpoint, which is fantastic.

Dillon Honcoop:
But some things are starting to slow down as far as the market for Washington wines, right?

Andrew Schultz:
It’s not just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Or changing.

Andrew Schultz:
It’s not just the Washington market. Essentially, we had several really good years or high crop quantity years. So, the bulk market is full right now. But based on some of the economists that we’ve looked at typically or I’ve talked to or listened to, it happens every so often. They only last two to three years or something like that, and then we bounce back from them. We actually went a fairly long time without that. Although we’re feeling a little bit of pain right now as far as those things are concerned, not a concern over the long run in my opinion.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is part of it what variety is cool at a given time and the amount of time that it takes to get a variety up and producing which is years, right, that the market may have moved on to something else that’s trendy?

Andrew Schultz:
When you start talking about time for planning and investment and stuff like that, in general, I look at crops that you can get a full crop within one year, or say even 18 months or two years or something like that. Typically, those crops have huge swings in varieties and changes and stuff like that, because they’re a lot cheaper and faster. Not they’re necessarily cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than say a vineyard pulling out or something like that. But hops is a big one or has been. Now, there’s some reasons why that market stabilized more than it has in the last 400 or 500 years of its history. With the microbrew’s taken over as opposed to a lot of the large farmers in quantity and volume used.

Andrew Schultz:
But in the grapes, I mean, yeah, it takes three years to get up and get a partial crop. By the time you’ve taken all that cost and about the 25,000 or 30,000 an acre to input that stuff, you’ve got a significant investment. So, most people that are planting are planting safe bets. There are people that will plant out there and they’ll plant some funky stuff. Some of it goes overwhelmed. Some of it doesn’t. Some of it gets changed. But yeah, by and large, when a property goes in, people will make some pretty safe bets as to what they’re going to put in.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the trending for righties over the last few years and how has that been evolving?

Andrew Schultz:
I mean Cab is king. That’s kind of the nature of the beast in the hot wine growing areas of the world. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the cooler growing areas, but Chardonnay is still in the warm growing areas for a while. So, those really haven’t changed a whole lot from the standpoint of what varieties there are. The big thing has changed probably over the last 5 or 10 years is the number of clones that we’ve got that we have of those varieties. So, there’s a lot of opinions floating out there about was it clone 8 or is it close whatever, you name it. I mean, there’s tons of them out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
All that stuff the consumer never sees, because they just see, “I’m buying a bottle of Cabernet.”

Andrew Schultz:
Yup, yeah. We do those tastings and stuff like that to see if there’s any reliability there in one year or the next. Some of them are non-perceptible or would probably be largely non-perceptible to standard customer that’s out there buying it. But essentially a winemaker, the biggest part of their palate or what they’re going to create is… I mean, obviously, they could do it from a clonal standpoint, but the difference is less significant there than if they just chose different growing regions.

Andrew Schultz:
So, you might buy something off of Red Mountain, which is really hot growing region. You might go down to Benton City and buy something else that you’re going to put in that blend that’s maybe a different variety. It might keep a little bit better acid down there. You’re going to blend it with something you get from Walla Walla or maybe higher elevation or down at White Salmon or something like that. That’s one of the cool things about Washington is we have so many microclimates. There’s a lot of really hot and cool places.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what you mean when you talk about a hot growing region and a cool growing region that can just be down the road here, basically.

Andrew Schultz:
Yeah, absolutely. It’s two hours right now from here to White Salmon, and we can drop the number of heat units that is received in a year by half.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Andrew Schultz:
We’ve got 33,000, 35,000, or 38,000, or whatever the long term is here. We can go down there, it’s literally like 1,500 or 1,600. That affects the types of varieties that you can grow and ripen and changes to season parameters. There’s this heat that’s accumulated over time, but probably the best way to look at what these different growing regions can do is what time bud break happens and then what those temperatures are out or like throughout that period of that grape’s life every day on average, the highs and lows. That’s really going to affect what happens with that grape.

Andrew Schultz:
So, if you have Cabernet Sauvignon that comes out on some property two weeks earlier than on another property, every temperature for the rest of the season is going to be at a different part of that particular plant’s growing cycle. That’s going to end up making the flavor different in the end. So, there’s going to be different parameters that come with that. When a winemaker goes out there, he’s picking and choosing these regions. In many cases, if they’re doing a blend, sometimes they do bend your designates from a single vineyard or something like that.

Andrew Schultz:
But for the most part, he’s going out there and he’s picking Cabernet Sauvignon from three maybe particular locations or maybe it’s three particular growers that he really trusts. And then he’s going to put something together for us customers that hopefully they’ll enjoy.

Announcer 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Doesn’t that change the way you think about Washington wine? I just want to go have some now. Since that conversation that we had, which by the way was pre-COVID, it wasn’t time yet to talk about the impacts that COVID had on the future. It’d be interesting to go back and talk with Andrew now. But it just makes you think different things about the wine that you’re drinking. Andrew Schultz, awesome guy. We get into more big picture stuff next week, so you won’t want to miss that one either. Make sure to check out our website, realfoodrealpeople.org. Don’t forget to subscribe and follow us on social media as well.

Announcer 2:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org and by dairy farmers of Washington supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Chad Kruger | #020 04/27/2020

He's now a key leader in the same university research system that his farmer grandpa would look to for guidance on his strawberry farm decades ago. Chad Kruger shares how WSU scientists and farmers are working together to grow food better.

Transcript

Chad Kruger:
Before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing. He always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he was such an inspirational person.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re to get kind of sciency. We’re going to get into some science stuff this episode on the Real Food Real People Podcast. I’m host, Dillon Honcoop. Glad you’re here. We’re talking with a guy who’s basically a farming scientist, for lack of a better term. His team is made up of the key people who are studying scientific issues in farming and growing food here in Washington State. These are scientists who are trying to help farmers make better food and make their food better, if that makes sense. Improve the quality of what we’re able to produce, as well as improving the process of growing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this is so much about the technology now that’s involved in farming and knowing every little thing about the plants and the soil and the food and what makes it good and what makes it not good and what the impacts are. It’s really extensive, and it’s pretty amazing. Chad Kruger is our guest this week, and he actually grew up in a farming family in Eastern Washington. It was kind of cool, during the conversation we realized we had this family roundabout connection that we would have never otherwise recognized other than this talk, about how what his grandpa was doing was actually connected to my family as well as my wife’s family.

Dillon Honcoop:
My wife didn’t even grow up in Washington State, but she’s connected to this story, so you’ll hear that part, and I thought that was super cool to find out. Chad has a really great perspective on what’s happening with technology and science and farming and the production of food and why it’s uniquely challenging here in Washington, but also why we have such incredible opportunities. We talk about climate change as well, that could actually end up being an opportunity for farming in Washington State in the future.

Dillon Honcoop:
But he also has some warnings with how we’re handling that and if we’re taking action soon enough on issues. So we get into all of it this week, again with Chad Kruger. He’s with the Washington State University Center For Sustaining Agriculture And Natural Resources. He’s based in Mount Vernon, Washington, here in Western Washington, North of Seattle, and he’s got so much cool stuff to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
First, talk about what you do now and how you are connected to the food system in maybe a way that people don’t recognize. What is it that you have been doing for the past, what has it been, 10, 15 years out here?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. Maybe starting right now and working backwards a little bit, I’m currently the director of Washington State University’s research and extension centers in Mount Vernon and in Puyallup, which are both in Western Washington. Puyallup is the original off-campus agricultural experiment station and Mount Vernon is the newest of the off-campus agricultural experiment stations, and we call them both research and extension centers now, but essentially they’re labs and research farms. And so my role as director of those is kind of an unusual thing in terms of a university system, in that it’s really focused on oversight to facilities and operations management for these entities where a whole bunch of faculty research programs and extension programs operate out off of.

Chad Kruger:
So it’s not quite the same as you might expect with an academic program at a university, these are really research-based programs and my role is really responsibility for the overall campus operations and big picture investments.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sounds pretty complicated and technical.

Chad Kruger:
Yes and no. Bottom line is, it’s still just a leadership opportunity trying to work within the university system and with our partners and the agricultural community and the broader community to make sure that the partnership between the land-grant university and the community is mutually beneficial and that we’re doing things that matter in the real world and that the real world is bringing things that they need help on to the university.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the real world ultimately is producing food, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, exactly. The vast majority of what we do in our college, it’s College Of Agricultural, Human And Natural Resource Sciences, but we really are the land-grant college of agriculture that many people would have historically understood in including both the academic, the research, and the extension dimensions of that. But we’re also in the process of evolving into a future that’s not alike every other part of the food world, things are not the same as they used to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
So basically, it’s where science and farming come together, right? These are farming scientists in a way at the university level, is that fair to sum that up? Like you’re managing basically a group of farming scientists?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I might say that we’re getting more and more to the end where it’s the scientist’s side of that equation relative to the farming science dual factor, whereas 20, 30 years ago, I think you might’ve said that the science farmer was as much science as farmer. I think based on just the evolution of research needs and capabilities, we tend to focus more on getting the scientists that can help the farmer at this point in time, but you still have to have a pretty good understanding of, how do you actually grow a crop? And you need to understand your crop in the way that a farmer has to understand the crop in order to actually be able to do research on that crop that’s relevant to the farming world.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess how scientific is farming right now then?

Chad Kruger:
It’s becoming more and more science-based, more and more data-driven. And I think what we’re seeing in the ag and food world right now is, all of the technology that’s in the broader world around us is looking for its opportunity within the ag and food production and ag and food system at a level that even five years ago it wasn’t quite looking at it as intensely. And I think it’s going to continue to be that way where technology and data and understanding becomes more and more important to success in farming be able to grow a crop or produce a product that goes off into the marketplace, whether that market is local, regional or global.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are some of the biggest things that you and your team that you work with have found or discovered or tested? What kind of stuff are we talking about when we’re talking about data and science of farming and growing plants in particular? I think a lot of this is plant stuff, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. WSU historically has been very well known on the plant science side, not that we don’t have strength in animal sciences too, but historically, WSU’s expertise and reputation really has been on the plant sciences side. And that crosses everything from the grains to the specialty crops, fruits and vegetables, with a lot of background and focus on that. And so the facilities that I’ve been in charge of and a lot of the work that I’ve been involved with really is plant science focused, quite a bit of animal systems as well. People work on everything from breeding and genetics to crop protection; diseases, insects and pests and weeds, to soils and environmental issues, economics, the whole nine yards.

Chad Kruger:
We touch a little bit in a lot of places. We tend to be most focused on the actual crop production systems as opposed to, at least in the entities that I’m responsible for, as opposed to up the value chain if you will, of the food system, though there has been some work on food processing, value added, and that kind of thing. But the majority of our investment really has been growing a plant and keeping a plant growing successfully, ensuring that that’s done in an environmentally appropriate way and that we’re minimizing impacts on the larger environment.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. When you talked about the processing stuff and whatnot, I do think of stuff that you guys have done even there in Skagit where you are like the Bread Lab, that we talked about here on the podcast with Nels Brisbane several episodes ago, but really cool stuff there. But that tends to not be the main thing, the main thing is more on growing the plants and the farming side of it, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think that’s a little bit of legacy in terms of where the long-standing partnership between, at least WSU and the ag community has been, is really the help is always been needed on the production system side. I think we are thinking more and more about the bigger picture and where other dimensions of our work need to be. We did have a faculty member in food science who had joined us for a short period of time at one of the research centers recently. So it’s something that’s on our mind and we do have a food science department, food engineering, and then of course entities like the Bread Lab that really are trying to wrap their mind around this bigger picture of agriculture isn’t just about the production system but it’s about the whole system as it comes together and then the need for the market to facilitate success on farm and becoming more intentional about that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the coolest thing that you feel like in your time there you have been a part of or worked on as a team?

Chad Kruger:
For me, particularly at the Mount Vernon center, I think one of the coolest things that I’ve been able to work on is helping to bring the first soils’ faculty to the center there. The Mount Vernon center has a long history in working in Northwest Washington on a number of the cropping systems that are important here, and it always seemed to me to be a bit of an oversight not to have a soils’ person in the mix. Well, there’s always been a soils’ person in the mix at the Puyallup center and in many of the other areas where I’ve worked over the years, it just felt like a key missing ingredient, if you will, of a viable cropping systems team.

Chad Kruger:
And so bringing soil’s faculty to the table in Mount Vernon that can work with the faculty that are more focused on the plant or the organism that affect a plant above the soil or in some cases below the soil, I think that was a really important thing to do. Part of that is, there’s a lot of questions that are emerging about crop performance that can’t be answered with a simple approach of diagnose and add a chemical and solve the problem. They really are systemic problems that we have to think about from a systems’ perspective. And bringing a soil scientist into the mix enables our team to have all the pieces that they need to go about asking bigger picture tougher questions that 30 years ago maybe you didn’t need to figure all that out, but we really do need to do that going forward.

Chad Kruger:
And then I think the other piece of this is as these Northwest Washington farming communities continue to move forward, the pressure around environmental issues is going to just keep increasing, and it’s already very, very tight in terms of what a farmer can and can’t do and the impacts that farming has on the environment. And one of the best tools from a research perspective that we can bring to the table is soils research because so much of what happens in terms of impacts on the environment happen through the soil as a lens or a gateway into water quality, other issues like that. And so having soil’s members as part of the team better enables us to serve an ongoing partnership between the agricultural community, the farmers, as well as the larger community that’s living around agriculture in the region.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about how important soils are as affecting so many things. And you talk about water quality. Then there’s the huge issue that everybody’s talking about, which is climate change, that’s another big soil-focused issue, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. There’s certainly an interaction between soils and vegetation and climate, or the global carbon system. I think a lot of people don’t understand that the relative amount of the global carbon budget that’s fixed in the soils versus the atmosphere, it’s much greater in soil. Soils are a much bigger reservoir of carbon than the atmosphere. And while we talk a lot fossil fuels in the context of the global carbon cycle, soils and vegetation are pretty big part of it. And while soils aren’t going to solve the whole problem, they are part of a solution. And the beautiful thing is, the kinds of things that we want to do from a farm-level perspective to improve soil management, help crops perform better, potentially help on the financial side for the farmer, those kinds of things tend to be good for the global carbon system as well.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s one of these very seemingly rare things where being focused on healthy soils is a win, win, win kind of scenario, and that is why-

Dillon Honcoop:
Rather than some trade off where it’s like, “Oh, well, you have to do the right thing, it’s going to cost you, but it’s the right thing to do.” Well, here it may benefit on both ends, is what you’re saying?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, definitely. And yet we still don’t know very much, and I think that’s the other big picture issue is, if we’re going to make progress that’s beneficial to farmers or the environment in soils, we need to know a whole lot more than we currently know. And that’s both a general issue everywhere and a specific issue in this region where we haven’t actively had soil science just working in these cropping systems, is really to understand what do we not know how to do and how do we increase that knowledge and give producers more tools that they can to improve their soil management?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like you said, there’s a lot that we don’t know, but how much is farming going to change with all of this focus on soil and learning about soil and all the science that you guys and so many other universities and agencies are doing? Is it going to change the face of farming in the near future?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer to that question. My suspicion is there will be changes, but they may not be readily observable in the sense of looking at one field compared to another field and saying, “Oh wow, that’s a big difference.” The soils don’t tend to reflect changes quickly, and so it takes a lot more time to understand how a management intervention or a management change affects the soil positively and negatively and whether or not you’ve achieved something that you’re trying to achieve. And that’s one of the great challenges that we talk about in the context of agricultural research, is soils and cropping systems types of research questions don’t tend to be easily solved with a quick experiment, and you really have to keep after them for awhile.

Chad Kruger:
And I don’t think it’s just the soil questions at this point in time anymore, I think some of the disease questions and even some of the weed management questions that historically may have presented fairly simple solutions… We’ve answered a lot of the simple questions, and we’ve done that. And the questions or the challenges that we’re dealing with today don’t have simple answers and often the answer is in the interplay between the plant and the soil or the other organisms that interact between the plant and the soil. And that’s much more complicated and not quite as easy to find solutions to. I have high hopes, but I’m not quite so convinced that there’s going to be overwhelming discoveries that really quickly help us figure out how to change things.

Chad Kruger:
And perhaps a way to think about this is thinking about it in terms of human health, it used to be you got sick, you went to the doctor and there was a new medication that the doctor could give you and all of a sudden you were better. And in agriculture and food, we were in that place for quite a while where the technology coming out of the science world was able to come up with some fairly quick fixes, but we’ve used up a lot of that. And now we’re at the point where if you talk about human health, a lot of it is about diet, exercise and other things that you can do that are focused on making a whole person healthier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Holistic health.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, holistic. And that’s also, I think where we’re at in terms of farming and food production and food systems, is we’ve got to start thinking a lot more about the big picture and the interactions between the different pieces of that big picture.

Dillon Honcoop:
And talk about the soil stuff and the holistic way of thinking. I’ve gotten passionate about that over the years because of my dad. And I’ve talked at a time or two on this program about… probably more than a time or two, about how I grew up on a red raspberry farm here in Northwest Washington where you are a scientist, and I grew up on a red raspberry farm where my dad was very passionate about these issues and plugged in with what you guys are doing there at Washington State University. So I’ve been exposed to some of this stuff and been thinking about it for a long time. What’s it like working with farmers like that and seeing some of these things happen on the ground in the real world, like for instance on my dad’s farm?

Chad Kruger:
I personally think that’s one of the most exciting about this whole wonderful opportunity I’ve been dropped into the middle of, is people like your dad who just have an incredibly curious and inquisitive mind and yet are doing their best with the state of knowledge right now to produce a crop that goes into an existing system but is never quite satisfied with the feeling that we know everything we need to know, and he’s always asking new questions, he’s always observing something in the field and then saying, “Hey, I just saw this. What do you think that is?” And most of the time, we can’t answer that question when he asks it. And I think it’s really valuable for our side of the partnership to have people like him who are out there trying things who are…

Chad Kruger:
And I’m trying to think of a way to explain this, but they say farming is a pretty unusual thing and that you basically have 40 chances in your life to figure it out, and each of those 40 chances ends up looking very, very different. And the 40 chances of course are that the number of seasons that you have to grow a crop. And to be successful, you really have to be observant and thoughtful and you have to record your data, if you will, and understand how what you’ve observed in the past might be similar to or different from what you’re observing in the future, and know when you need to ask the right question or what specific observation that you’re seeing in the field you need to pursue that one.

Chad Kruger:
And having producers like him that work in partnership with us where you can have these conversations and dig deep into what we do know to figure out where are the important, critical emerging questions that we need to start doing research on in order to help solve a problem before it’s another crisis or to be able to capitalize on something that someone’s observing that they say, “Hey, I’ve been doing this and it seems to be helping. Can you tell me why?” And I think one thing that’s evolved within the ag research world, and as I point back to one of the things I said earlier about the science farmer thing where I think we’re getting more and more on the science end of that partnership, is the questions that are being asked now take a lot more knowledge and a lot more technology in order to answer them.

Chad Kruger:
And so it’s becoming more and more specialized on the science end of the equation in order to run an experiment that gets an answer that a producer needs. And so whereas 30, 40, 50 years ago, there was this sense that the land-grant university was going to do research and come up with new practices and technologies that would then get extended out to the farm and the farmers would pick them up and use them. I don’t think that’s the case anymore, I think what we’re seeing now is the producers that are observing things and asking those questions are bringing those things to the scientists now.

Chad Kruger:
And what our job is becoming more and more about is helping the producer understand the phenomenon that they’re observing and helping them figure out what management strategies could be employed to minimize the negative things that we see and maximize the positive things that we see. And I think going forward, producers are going to have to be more and more knowledgeable in order to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
They basically have to be scientists themselves, it sounds like.

Chad Kruger:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re farmers, does a farmer make a good scientist? What you’re describing here is a switch from a top down approach, which it sounds like you were saying the old school approach is more top down, now this is more like bottom up, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah, and I think that’s the way it should be. We’re long since passed the point where the university system knows more about these crops than the farmers do. I think we’re at the point where the farmers know a whole lot more than we do, but we have what I’d call cool tools to be able to answer very specific questions that the producers are not going to be able to answer themselves. And so I think as we go forward, we’re going to see more and more of that character to the partnership between the science community and farming community.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about scientists? Do scientists make good farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I know a lot of scientists who could do a pretty good job farming, but I think for the most part, most of them will tell you that they’re really glad they’re scientists and not the farmers themselves because farming is a much more complex and challenging thing than I think most people give it credit.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the misunderstanding is there from those of us who just go to the grocery store and buy food about the science that goes into it? What you’re describing is pretty extensive as far as the amount of research and data that’s going up.

Chad Kruger:
Yup. Part of it I think is very few people ever grow a plant to me more or care for an animal at any level. And so a lot of the historic, what’s often called indigenous knowledge doesn’t exist within the greater population anymore. And so I think there’s just a lack of full appreciation for how complicated it is to produce food and to do it at the scale and with the proficiency and quality that we do. And so I think anybody can read a book or watch a video and come to a conclusion and think they know something, but 40 years of experience, 40 chances is a wealth of knowledge that I think is just often underappreciated and undervalued.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been your favorite time working with farmers?

Chad Kruger:
I think one of the things I have always appreciated the most, and this comes in all the different roles that I’ve had, is the chance to sit down with farmers and talk about the future, talk about where their concerns are about continued viability, where their concerns are about sustainability issues, whether those are profitability environmental issues, big picture, global markets and other things like that. The opportunity to sit down with a group of farmers, especially a group of farmers that come from different perspectives and can sit down and have a good conversation around what is the future looking like and how do we ensure that we have a successful future and that we’re able to continue to improve what we’re doing and continue to put a good product out for consumers and do a good job with stewardship.

Chad Kruger:
I think overall, that’s why I get up in the morning and that’s why I do what I do, is the opportunity to work with forward-looking farmers.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that future look like? I guess, there’s challenges and maybe this is a weird way of asking it, but I almost want to say like pre-COVID, what were the dark clouds in the future that we need to deal with as far as producing food here in Washington State?

Chad Kruger:
Everything. And I say that facetiously, but in reality it’s true, it’s economic profitability. At the bottom line, if a farm can’t make money, it’s going to go out of business. And I think one thing that a lot of people don’t understand is the more and more farms that can’t make money can go out of business, the more it takes with them. So there is this strange thing about competition amongst farms, even within an area, but also that there’s a critical mass where a certain amount of cooperation of the farms in an area is important to everyone’s success and health. And the pressure around cost of production, the pressure around the value of the product is never going to let up.

Chad Kruger:
I just don’t see that ever letting up, even as we’ve gone through this recent little bit upset where people are thinking about things like, “I can’t go to a restaurant,” or “I need to get a particular type of food.” Or, “I can’t get something that I want.” While we’re thinking about this now about maybe the least cost product isn’t necessarily the best choice all the time, a year or two years down the road, I wonder how that’s going to come back to us. Are we still going to be thinking about the fact that there may be reasons that we need to not just take the least cost producer of food in order to ensure that we’ve got some resilience and robustness in our food system.

Chad Kruger:
So that’s a big one, that’s bigger than any of us, and how to address that is monumental. It’s a wicked problem. The environmental side and obviously, I’ve worked on the side, the pressure is going to continue to amount for many people in the broader public to the point where the idea that farms have any impact on the environment that’s negative is a problem. That’s a challenge, it’s an almost an insurmountable challenge because the very act of producing food has an impact. The very act of eating food has an impact. And so how do we continue to work with that challenge and continue to improve and do better, which drives up the cost of production?

Chad Kruger:
And so I think that’s a big one. And a lot of that tends to come out in terms of practical, real world impact on farms. There’s regulation, and so every time we interviewed or surveyed farmers about big issues, it doesn’t matter if they’re a wheat farmer or a tree fruit producer, a dairy farmer, a potato grower, a berry producer, it doesn’t matter if they’re big or small, conventional or organic, anywhere in between, regulation tends to come up as one of the biggest challenges to sustainability in farming. And it is what it is. We’re in a world where regulation is becoming ever increasingly the mechanism by which we do everything. And so how do we help our producers navigate that world of regulation.

Chad Kruger:
Competition. We’ve really seen this in some of our key Northwest Washington industries, that competition isn’t just local, it’s global. And there are a lot of other places in the world that can produce the same things we produce and do it cheaper. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing it better, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re protecting the environment in the same way, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re producing a product that’s as high of quality as we are, but in a marketplace that’s looking for the least cost producer, that’s a real challenge to address for Washington farms.

Chad Kruger:
And I’ve got a number of colleagues who’ve talked about the fact that Washington State will probably never be the least cost producer on a lot of the things that we produce. And that just is what it is, and it’s because we have pretty high level environmental regulations. Our labor costs are much higher than much of the rest of the world, they’re much higher than much of the rest of the country. And environmental issues, regulations, all of these things make it so that we’re never going to be competing on the same playing field as a lot of other locations around the world. And in many cases, around the country. And so we’re just going to have to do better and we’re going to have to have a better product than everybody else is producing in order to be competitive.

Chad Kruger:
I could keep going down the list, energy issues, they tend to rear their heads up and down. Right now, energy is not a problem, but that’s not going to be a long-term trend. It’s going to come back, climate is going to be an issue. Relatively speaking, we seem to be insulated from some of the more dire predictions on the climate side, but sooner or later there’s going to be direct effects, there’s going to be indirect effects, water supply. The fact that we look relatively good compared to a lot of other regions means that a lot of food production in a lot of other regions is going to start looking at the Northwest and saying, “Hey, we need to move there.” So what are the dynamics that that’s going to create?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Why other than, and I’ve heard that elsewhere too, that Washington really hasn’t been as effected by climate change as other parts of the world to date. So far it seems to be a slower thing here than maybe elsewhere, but beyond that issue, what are the advantages for growing food here in Washington? And you’re talking about the challenges, I guess maybe some of those challenges are also insight into some of the benefits too, but ultimately, yeah, what’s so great about growing food here in Washington?

Chad Kruger:
On the climate side, that is one of the things is, if you think about our geographic location in the globe, we’re pretty far north. There aren’t a whole lot of regions further north than us that are big fruit and vegetable production regions. There’s some grain producing regions that are further North than us, but generally speaking, the fruit and vegetable production regions are South of us. And so if you think about climate in terms of getting warmer… Another way to think about it is moving south. So if you think 10, 15 degrees of warming, you are in the Central Valley of California, that looks pretty good for us.

Chad Kruger:
So I think that’s something that may not be on a lot of people’s radar or screens yet, but as we move forward, there are going to be opportunities in our region, in part, because we’ve got a lot of good viable farming land and we’ve got a lot of resiliency and the resources that are necessary to produce fruits and vegetables like water supply. So I think we do have some opportunities in front of us, but we need to be thinking about them and planning for them. And one of the things that concern me a little bit about the COVID-19 situation hitting was, all of a sudden, everybody’s focused on an immediate crisis, which is a big thing, very serious, but if we don’t quickly address this crisis and get our eyes back on the big prize of the long run, we’re going to miss key investments that we need to be making relative to our future success.

Chad Kruger:
And that’s something that’s always difficult to do in the crisis as you get so caught up in the day to day that it’s easy to forget about thinking one, two 10, 15, 30, 50, 100 years ahead, which in order to continue being successful, you’ve got be looking ahead all the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can see that in a couple of decades down the road, we could be saying, “Well, why didn’t we get that going back then?” “Well, because remember we were in the middle of that whole virus thing.” “Oh yeah.” That would be a sad and really at that time looking into the future, a really frustrating thing to look back on and say, “Yeah, we were worried about that and it was a bad thing, but now we’re suffering here in the future from things that maybe we didn’t have our eye on the ball enough with at that time.”

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. And I think this virus thing is one of those, we should have seen this comment. In fact, some people did see this coming, and we should have been ready for it and this is not going to be the last time it happened. But we have this thing that we do that we tend to focus on, recent experience as the guide to the future and we tend to forget things that were really important until they hit us again. And we’ve got to get better about learning from our experiences and being ready and prepared for the next time. A good example of that was drought in the region. 2005 was a pretty rough drought and then we were in pretty good shape in the region for about 10 years.

Chad Kruger:
And then we had a big drought again in 2015, and it was surprising how much had been forgotten. Between 2005 and 2015, response options and strategies and infrastructure and institutional knowledge that should have been there, ready to respond wasn’t there. And coming out of the 2015 drought, there was a lot of learning that happened that should make the next time we deal with drought because it’s coming again, should make it easier to deal with in the future. And yet I’m not so sure that we’ve got that one figured out yet either.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into this world of food and farming and obviously, you’re so passionate about it. Did you grow up around farming?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I have the immense blessing to come from a family that has generational farms in Washington State in both my mother and father’s side. So my mom’s dad was a very grower from Lynden, Arneson Farms. He was a really innovative guy, he came out after World War II and started a diversified farming operation and ultimately got into strawberries. And so growing up, I got to spend quite a bit of time with him and learn from him. And in fact, he used to tell me stories of working with the WSU scientists at the Puyallup and Mount Vernon experiment stations where I’m currently the director.

Chad Kruger:
So I knew about those stations and I knew about Ag science before I ever knew what the land grant was. And so that was a pretty important thing. And then on my dad’s side, we were an Eastern Washington wheat and cattle ranching family, the family came out at the end of the civil war. So I think I’m sixth generation relative to the ones who came out, first settled in the state,

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to your mom’s side, the Arneson, I remember them. I remember that farm, my uncle worked for the Arneson. In fact, my wife who is from BC and I met her in college, she remembers coming down from BC to the Arneson Farm to pick strawberries. That was her memory of Lynden, before I knew her. It breaks my heart now to see that original Arneson homeplace covered in homes, but I understand that’s the way of the world these days, but every time I drive by it’s like, “Yeah, that used to be a strawberry field right there. What do you think… So that was your grandpa on your mom’s side?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think he would say about you seeing you’ve being the director of these things that he was interacting with as a professional, as a farmer back then?

Chad Kruger:
Well, he knew that he was a big part of my curiosity and push towards this direction and before he passed away, we had a lot of conversations around where I was going, what I was doing, he always encouraged me in that way. I miss him a lot because he such an inspirational person, he always had a new thing he was going to try, a new approach. He loved the farming, but he loved the people too. He talked a lot about all of those customers that came down, particularly customers from Canada who crossed the border every year for decades to come and pick strawberries.

Chad Kruger:
And the relationships he developed over the years. And for me, that was a big thing because while I was interested in the farming and the science, he taught me that the relationships were probably as/or more important than all of it. And it’s a juxtaposition from my other grandfather who were out in the middle of nowhere in Eastern Washington, there was a saying that anytime he was more than seven miles from the homeplace, he was stressed. And I feel a little of that too, so it’s this interesting juxtaposition of two foreign families, two grandfathers that had a lot of influence on me and where I’m at.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do you think about that day-to-day? Does that cross your mind sometimes when you’re doing stuff?

Chad Kruger:
Every day, every day. I think about it every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you want your legacy to be?

Chad Kruger:
That’s a great question, and it’s one that as I get older I’m more and more thinking about. And part of this is watching my dad who’ll recently retire and he’s thinking a lot more about his legacy. And so I’m starting to think about, “Maybe that’s something I should be thinking about too.” It’s doesn’t come naturally to me, I tend to do the thing that’s right in front of me, to do that needs to be done at that time. And if that means sticking a shovel in a pile of manure, half the time, that’s what it is. But I think more and more and the leadership opportunities that I’ve been blessed to have is I’m more effective when I’m helping someone else figure out how to solve the problem that they have in front of them.

Chad Kruger:
And so more and more as I grow older and have more opportunity, I’m seeing that what I feel success in is when other people are able to succeed in part because they figure out how to work together, whether that’s the farmer-university partnership, that kind of thing, or to other people however they come together, helping people figure out how they get over these hurdles that we tend to throw up in our human organization and make sure that we can succeed going forward.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you actually grow up? Where was home for you as a kid?

Chad Kruger:
I grew up in Eastern Washington, I grew up in a little town called Othello. We’re about 90 minutes from our Eastern Washington ranch, but Othello is the place you stop to get gas between Ellensburg and Pullman. And so I grew up there and actually my first official experiences in Ag research were for WSU as a high schooler working at the Othello experiment station, doing some field work in potatoes. And so I worked on an experiment that was looking at irrigation rates and fertility rates and potatoes and another experiment looking at some of the early root imaging for potato work. So trying to understand what’s going on underneath the surface of the soil as potatoes grow.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s crazy. We just recently had on the podcast, Camas Uebelacker from Othello. He’s a feedlot owner and operator out there, so hey, you’re from that same town, that same neck of the woods that maybe a lot of us haven’t necessarily spent a whole lot of time in, but man, a lot of the food that we eat here and all over the place comes from that part of the state, between the potatoes, the beef and everything else, and the fruit and everything.

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. If you really think about it, the central part of Washington where it’s irrigated, a lot of that was broken out within the lifetimes of many people who are still farming. And it’s become one of the most productive areas of the world in terms of a lot of vegetable and fruit production systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for you?

Chad Kruger:
Well, I’m not totally sure yet, as I said earlier, I tend to do the thing that’s in front of me, very soon I might find out. I did announce last fall that I was going to step down from the Mount Vernon and Puyallup Research Centers. It had been five years at Mount Vernon and three years at Puyallup, which I was doing from a distance and the call to go back to Eastern Washington and be a little closer to that family ranch was getting more and more powerful. So we’ll see where I end up, but fairly soon, I think we’ll know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. You want to be back to that family road. Are you going to farm yourself? What do you think?

Chad Kruger:
Probably not going to farm myself, I don’t think my wife would take the finances of it. It’s a little joke, but someday, I’ll go ride fences and be a cowboy again.

Dillon Honcoop:
There you go. That’s awesome. Well, thank you for sharing and opening up. We just really touched the surface of a lot of really big things that I know that you’ve spent years working on. So I appreciate you being willing to take that summary look at it because maybe some of the stuff doesn’t do it justice, but I think it’s so important and something that maybe a lot of people aren’t aware of is part of really the food system here is the university involvement and the science. And I don’t know, some people even get scared with how it’s so scientific and technical. I really view it as a good thing, right?

Chad Kruger:
Yeah. I don’t see how going forward it’s avoidable, and whether it’s the university or private sector or someone else, the pressure on the agricultural and food systems to be able to answer questions with data and to be able to manage with data are just going to increase. And so I think the long term partnership between the land-grant university and the farmers gives a bit of a leg up in that, but it’s something that we’ve got to double down and invest in to ensure that we’re going to be successful.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for sharing your story and talking with us and also with this whole COVID thing going on, stay safe and healthy out there.

Chad Kruger:
All right, thanks, Dylan.

Speaker 4:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
I still think that’s so cool that his grandpa was all about and would talk about people like my wife and her family, who had come down and pick berries, and here, years later, me and Chad ended up connecting over that. What a cool guy though, and somebody who is really accomplished as a scientist but also a manager. And to do that, you have to be about all the data and all the technical stuff, but you also have to understand the people and the big picture, where this is all going and why even are we applying science to food? Well, it has to do with our future as a community, as a state, as human beings, and doing the right thing and producing food the right way, but also efficiently and competitively.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s just so cool to hear his focus on all of that, and we need to keep track of what he does next if he’s headed back to Eastern Washington. I have a hunch he’s going to find himself farming in one shape or form one day, but we’ll see. It’s just one of those things that’s in your blood. Thanks for joining us this week on the Real Food Real People Podcast. Please stay safe out there, stay healthy, follow the guidelines, and we’ll get through this thing together. Oh, and I should also thank our sponsors, Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe 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.

Lydia Johnson | #015 03/23/2020

She's about to finish her degree in Environmental Resource Geography, but Lydia Johnson grew up on a Washington dairy farm, and has a unique perspective on why farms in this state are at risk.

Transcript

Lydia Johnson:
They got out of dairy in the year that I moved to college. And I have to say that that’s a little heartbreaking because I felt like I was responsible for it. No matter how many times they’ll tell me, “No. No, you need to go. Go do what you need to do.”

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the Real Food, Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and I’m glad you’re here. Hopefully things are going well if you’re self-isolating and keeping to yourself, as I hope we all are right now, keeping everyone in a safe and healthy as possible. This week we hear from a young woman who is studying at Central Washington University, just about to get her environmental resource geography degree. She grew up on a Washington state dairy farm. And the perspective that she brings from her academics as well as her life experience growing up on a farm is really, really valuable, I think, as far as what’s happening in this state politically and with the environment and with farming. So I’m glad you’re here for this conversation this week. Her name is Lydia Johnson.

Dillon Honcoop:
And as I mentioned on Real Food, Real People Instagram over the weekend, I actually met her at a bar. I know it sounds weird. I was just driving through Washington. I was in little Kittitas, Washington, and stopped in to what I thought was this really cool, old time-y restaurant and bar, The Time Out Saloon, and she was working behind the counter. And we just happened to chat a little bit, and I found out that she grew up on a farm. And so we talked a little bit more and I thought she’s got to be on the podcast and share her perspective and her story. Such cool stuff. So thank you for being here. Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter as well. If you can, subscribe on your favorite podcast outlet, Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts, you name it. And of course, check out realfoodrealpeople.org.

Dillon Honcoop:
So without any further ado, here’s Lydia Johnson and our conversation this week on the Kittitas podcast, my continuing journey around various parts of Washington state to get to know the real people behind our food and the real culture of farming and food here in Washington state. We think it’s more important now with everything that’s happening than ever before to know not only where your food comes from and to get food grown locally and from Washington state, but also to know who grows your food and to understand the care and respect that goes into it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So sitting in a bar, strike up a conversation with the bartender, you-

Lydia Johnson:
Right, yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you tell me that you grew up as a dairy farm kid.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah. Yeah, so born and raised on a dairy farm, originally starting down in Vancouver, Washington. My dad got into dairy farming, had to pick up and move the entire dairy up into the raging, booming town of Ethel, Washington, where I say, “Oh yeah, I’m from Ethel,” and they’re like, “What? Bethel?” No Ethel, Washington, population: our dairy farm and a post office.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is Ethel, Washington?

Lydia Johnson:
Southwest Washington-ish, right off of Highway 12 on your way over White Pass, about 10 miles off of I-5. Yeah. So if I’m explaining it to somebody, I’ll be like, “Okay, do where Olympia is?”

Lydia Johnson:
And they’ll say, “Yes.”

Lydia Johnson:
“Okay. Do where Centralia is? Okay, 45 minutes southeast of there.”

Lydia Johnson:
And they’re like, “Oh, okay. I know right where that is. I’ve probably driven right past it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So tell me about the dairy. How many cows did you guys have? Was this your whole life, basically?

Lydia Johnson:
Yes. So we started out as a conventional dairy farm and as I was growing up, we eventually made the transition into an organic dairy. And we began at like 400 cows. And then when we got to an organic dairy, we were only milking about 160. And so this was only my mother, father and I, and we were the only ones doing it. We didn’t have any hired hands. We didn’t have any help. It was just the three of us. And at the time, I didn’t know it was weird or abnormal to just be us three running this dairy, this little 12-year-old girl. And then both my parents had full-time jobs, and so we were just making it work. And so they would wake up early, 3:30, 4:30 in the morning.

Lydia Johnson:
My job was to bring in the cows, so I would always be looking for an excuse to go out and ride my horse. So I sat on my horse in the barn early in the morning and go out and bring the cows in. My dad would always yell, “Don’t run the girls. Don’t make them run. Just walk them.”

Lydia Johnson:
I’m like, “Oh, Dad, come on, let me go.” But after I got a little bit older, I understood, so…

Dillon Honcoop:
So you wanted to be a cowboy, is what you’re saying.

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, it was cowboy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or a cowgirl.

Lydia Johnson:
Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I grew up in this weird dynamic where it’s like I wasn’t really raised to be like a cowboy or cowgirl and do the rodeo thing because I grew up on a dairy farm, and dairy farmers, they don’t. They’re dairy farmers, and you show at the fair and the 4H and the FFA, which I did that too, but I was also involved heavily into junior rodeo and high school rodeo and things like that as well. So it was kind of a strange dynamic, but it’s definitely a childhood that made me who I am. And I’m forever grateful to my parents just because all these other students that I was going to school with or things like that, they had just woken up at 8:30 in the morning and I had already had half a day on them. And just having that experience really impacted me as a person, and it has given me a little bit more of, I would say, an upper hand, definitely an upper hand, but.

Dillon Honcoop:
Upper hand how?

Lydia Johnson:
As far as maturity levels and responsibilities and caring for another creature that isn’t a human. It’s a different dynamics to something. You’re raising calves or you’re feeding heifers or just these different aspects of growing up on a dairy create, I don’t know, just more fulfilling, I would say; probably more fulfilling life.

Dillon Honcoop:
Were you ever frustrated with all of that?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, yeah. Easy, easy. I would always think what would it be like to have a normal childhood, like growing up in a suburb or something like that. And thinking back on that, I was like, what was I thinking? Why would I ever wonder something like that? I know what it would be like: miserable. Not necessarily, but definitely-

Dillon Honcoop:
When did that change? When did you switch from being like, ah, this is just a whole bunch of work to starting to really value it?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, when I was in middle school, I was probably like I had been enslaved for that long already feeding calves. And it didn’t feel like slavery at the time, but it was something that I had to wake up and do every morning and every Saturday, Sunday, holiday, everything. So my friends would be out and they’d have sleepovers or something, but I’d have to get picked up early because I’d have to come home and feed calves or something like that, or just something small. But when I got into high school, I really started appreciating it because it made me a little bit more mindful of time management and how to execute all the things that I needed to get done within the day. But I worked them around milking schedules, so that was really interesting, too. Not very many students had to deal with that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the milking schedule on the farm?

Lydia Johnson:
Usually we would milk at like six 6:30, six o’clock in the morning, and then milk at 6:30, six o’clock in the evening, if not earlier, because it’d depend on how early I could get out and get the cows in because sometimes things don’t always go the right way. And we had a small dairy, so a lot of things went wrong, like pumps weren’t working or something would freeze, or the parlors flooded one morning. Just small, weird things that probably don’t happen on, I don’t know, I guess larger farms. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think they happen everywhere, from the people I’ve talked to.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah, I would say so too, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Murphy’s Law: if it can break, it will.

Lydia Johnson:
It will. Yeah, no. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why did your parents have to move the dairy east, and at what point in your life was that?

Lydia Johnson:
I think I was only two or three.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you probably don’t really remember?

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah, I don’t really. Well, I remember … So, we were releasing some property from a gentleman down in Vancouver, Washington. And my dad had already started the herd and started milking down here in Vancouver. And then they had sold the dairy before our lease was up. And so my dad had started frantically shopping for another dairy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So they sold it out from underneath him?

Lydia Johnson:
Right, yeah. And I was pretty young when this happened. And so I think the Indian tribe is where it ended up. And so there’s a new casino down there, like, ilani, or something like that. That is where our dairy was.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah. So that’s a bittersweet deal. But there’s a couple of dairies up in the county where I grew up, Lewis County, that were available at the time, and there was one in Alaska and one in Ethel, and the one in Ethel was home. We moved there in 2000. So everybody’s still refers to it, if they’ve lived there long enough, as the old Dureya dairy, because that’s who lived there before us. And they’re like, “Oh, you live with the old Dureya dairy?”

Lydia Johnson:
I’m like, “That was 20 years ago, but yeah.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, both sets of my grandparents were in dairy farming. And to me and to a lot of people, they’re their farms and they’re still there. I actually own the homeplace of my mom’s parents’ place.

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, that’s amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
But to the real old timers, because they bought them from other people. Sam Bajema. Wait, oh that was the… And, I can’t remember… the Leenders dairy was my Grandpa Honcoop’s later. So I totally get that. And that kind of stuff carries on when the same family can’t keep doing it.

Lydia Johnson:
For sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Did you think about staying with dairy?

Lydia Johnson:
I actually did, but what I really wanted to do was I wanted to bring dairy back to the Ellensburg Valley. And this was an idea that lasted for maybe six months or something like that. It didn’t last that long because the technology that I was wanting to get into was something that probably wouldn’t be that attainable for me as an individual. And I’d have to find other people that are gung ho about it as much as I am. I was like, “Oh yeah, I’ll get a robotic milker, because I like to travel a lot and I like to go do these things, and I ride horses and I’m doing things like that.” But there aren’t any dairies in the valley anymore. And so that was really strange to me when I moved here that there wasn’t the local dairy or something small, anything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, that would make it harder to run a dairy farm here, right-

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… because there’s no dairy support businesses here.

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely. And there was somebody that had told me that it was because of trucks not making it up here from Sunnyside because that’s where the Darigold plant is, or something like the restrictions on waste management, because the county is definitely turning a leaf in its political stance.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I guess we’re talking about the Ellensburg area now.

Lydia Johnson:
The valley, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And like we mentioned earlier, I met you at this bar at Kittitas, where you’re bartending and I just stopped in for a bite to eat. And we’re actually recording out here behind the bar in the empty beer bar. There’s snow on the ground, actually. And so if you hear cars or trains in the background, that’s why.

Lydia Johnson:
Right outside, so.

Dillon Honcoop:
So the reason I mentioned that is how did you end up here from growing up down there in Ethel?

Lydia Johnson:
I know. It’s a big transition from small town of Ethel to the small town of Kittitas. I mean, well, so I was looking at colleges, and I’d done plenty of research and all that stuff. I was looking for a college that I could rodeo at and compete in college rodeo. But I also wanted a four-year university that I could just knock out the four years and graduate, which didn’t end up happening anyway because I’m on my fifth year, but I’m graduating this spring.

Dillon Honcoop:
I did five. I’ll confess that right here. It took me five.

Lydia Johnson:
Five years, that’s been the average. Yeah, so that’s really what brought me here. And during my first year here, I was thinking about transferring to somewhere. I was going to leave the state. I was pretty set on, oh yeah, I’m going to go to Colorado state or go to a little bit more ag-based college somewhere. And I ended up staying and then I became a part of the community when I started working at the bar because now I can’t go anywhere without somebody recognizing me: “Oh, you’re the bartender from the Time Out.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you go to Central, which is in Ellensburg.

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is what, like 15 minutes from here?

Lydia Johnson:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dillon Honcoop:
But actually, when you came out here, you started living right away in Kittitas?

Lydia Johnson:
I did live in Ellensburg, but for a very short time. So it was like for the first year and a half or two years, and then I eventually moved out. My address is still Ellensburg, but I live out past Kittitas. It’s like 15 minutes from here even. I don’t even have internet there. It’s one of those type places.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? Why didn’t you stay in town?

Lydia Johnson:
Gross. I wouldn’t say in town. I like being outside. And I have horses too. I have horses and I’ve got six cows here with myself, myself and my horses.

Dillon Honcoop:
I like that you say staying in town is gross.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah. Well I mean, it’s just like your typical college student walking distance from the campus and things like that. And I don’t really mean it that way, but it’s too confined. I’m renting 25 acres with two other girls and I have my two horses and my six cows, and I have access to an arena and I can go rope whenever I want. So it’s way better out here. I pay the price, but it’s way better out here, for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want to find out about this rodeo stuff, too, because he talked about being younger and into the whole cowgirl thing. You wanted to continue that.

Lydia Johnson:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you do with that?

Lydia Johnson:
So as far as rodeo goes, at the moment, I’m riding a three year old so she is a little slow on the draw when it comes to … I mean, I’m still doing a little bit of roping on her but she’s a little young to be competing on. But just this last spring, I sold one of my good horses that I was team roping and breakaway roping off of. And he was a bang up little horse, but I had a lot of him go. So I did that, but prior to selling him, I did a lot of team roping and breakaway roping and went to rodeos, mostly college rodeos and some small jackpots here and there, and did quite a bit of mounted shooting on him as well, which has become a passion for me as well. It’s just so much fun. It’s like barrel racing, but with guns; way better, way better. Everybody should give it a try.

Dillon Honcoop:
So rodeo, I mean, for a lot of people, that’s like [inaudible 00:16:23] rodeo. I think the sense is it’s really unnecessary and it’s abusive of animals and all of these things. What’s your response to some of that? I mean, I guess one thing I should say, this is a Real Food, Real People podcast. What does rodeo have to do with food? Why it even necessary?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, I guess I would say that rodeo is a little bit more of a showcase of the capabilities of your horse and the amount of training and practice. And I mean, the animals that we use, they’re animals that love their job. The rough stock that’s being bucked out, I mean, they’re bred specifically to do that. I mean, you put them out in the field and just feed them, they’re bred specifically for this job, and it’s not … I mean, calves too, same thing… bred to run.

Dillon Honcoop:
But it’s still skills and a way of life connected with producing food though, right?

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like the beef world… real cowboys still exist to this day.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, especially in this valley. Back home, you find more dairy farms over on the west side where I grew up. And here, people are getting permits to put their cows out on public land. And there’s a lot more acreage for people to push cows around. And it’s more of a practical sense when you’re talking about cowboy and things like that when you’re going out you’re branding or you’re vaccinating and things like that. It’s crucial.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, even roping is about cattle health, right?

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
People just think it’s a show, which, I mean, the rodeo stuff is a showcase of that skill.

Lydia Johnson:
But the root of it is a necessity. Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your favorite thing with rodeo?

Lydia Johnson:
Probably team roping. Probably team roping.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, so I headed for several years, and this horse that I’ve gotten now, she’s pretty small and I can’t head on her. And so I’m really missing team roping and I’m really missing going into … Yeah, it’s been tough, but I’m working through it and I think she’ll be big enough that I could heel off of her; maybe not be a head horse. But yeah, definitely team roping.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re going to keep doing rodeo stuff after college?

Lydia Johnson:
I intend to. I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you keep doing that? Do you have to be pro to keep going?

Lydia Johnson:
You got to make money. Your bank account has to support you. No, even in town, there’s a bunch of small jackpots that you can keep going to. And then you enter in … You pay your NPRA or Pro West entries, and things like that, the smaller … I mean, they’re not smaller, but there are different regions, and there’s a little bit of flexibility. But in the northwest it’s a tough circuit to be in, in the Columbia River circuit.

Dillon Honcoop:
So other than keeping rodeoing-

Lydia Johnson:
Rodeoing, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
… as a hobby or maybe some pro stuff, what else are you planning to do once you get your degree here in a few months?

Lydia Johnson:
So my ultimate goal is there’s a overpopulation of feral horses down in southwestern United States in general, and it’s actually encroaching on the Pacific Northwest as well. And I don’t intend to work for the government, as suggested by professors: “Oh, you should work for the BLM,” or, “Oh, you should work for the Forest Service or DNR.” And granted, those jobs are great and I’m sure of it, but they’re kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. They’re caught up in so many different lawsuits from other advocacy groups that are just … Half of their budget is tied up in fighting lawsuits. So a lot of that is not making any progress. So things that are making progress are research on different sterilization ideas or birth control, like PCP is a current thing going on down there, but they are keep-

Dillon Honcoop:
To keep feral horses from reproducing?

Lydia Johnson:
Reproducing, right.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s a feral horse? Explain what that really looks like in the real world.

Lydia Johnson:
So technically, they’re called wild horses, and that’s a legal term. It’s not because they’re actually wild, because every horse that is on that range is of domestic descent. And so the species, the actual species of them, is of domestic descent. And so there are no wild horses. The only wild horse that there is in Mongolia and it’s called the Przewalski’s horse. And it’s like three feet tall, and just this tiny little horse. That’s the only wild horse that’s in existence right now. And so when I refer to feral horses, it’s kind of like a negative term against the law that’s the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1970. And so that needs to be changed.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve never heard of any of this stuff. This is so cool.

Lydia Johnson:
Really? Okay. Oh, well, I wish I… Yeah, so things along those lines. Things need to be changed. And I’m not advocating for them to be removed or exterminated from the range land at all because there’s definitely a history behind them and they’re part of the West and how the Spaniards in the old Wild West … I mean, it was such a short time in history that it just … People want to preserve it that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you want to help preserve that or you want to help those … What really is your dream outcome here with this issue?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, it’s a pretty controversial topic, so I feel as though … The population doubles every four years.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Lydia Johnson:
And so something needs to be done, whether that is sterilization of mares or people need to quit breeding horses and only adopt feral horses. I’m not going to make that call because I buy expensive horses that are well-bred and things like that. They’re bred for what I do. And so it’s hard to say that there’s one solution to it. I would say conserving, not preserving because preserving what we have out there is not going to be sustainable for the range land, the people that use it, the cattle that are going to be put out on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you get into this issue? How did it catch your passion?

Lydia Johnson:
I spent some time in Utah, I saw some feral horses, talked to some locals in the area about how they felt about it. And then they very strongly wanted them removed. And where I grew up, a lot of people were buying horses from slaughter to take up to Canada or Mexico or things like that. So it was just not something that was totally new to me because I’d always been around it because the stock contractor, he knew somebody and somebody knew somebody: “Oh, that horsey,” and something like that. And it’s illegal to do that, by the way. And so it’s just something that struck me as a problem that needs to be addressed, and it needs to be addressed in a fashion that encourages learning.

Lydia Johnson:
So the biggest controversy between the thing is a lot of the people that are fighting for the rights of the horses, they’ve never seen a horse. They’ve never pet a horse. They’re like, “Oh, they’re just so beautiful.” They think of Black Beauty or things like that. They don’t think of a horse that is essentially starving itself out because there’s nothing for it to eat on the range. There’s no water. We’re in a drought. There’s nothing there for it. It starves.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not humane.

Lydia Johnson:
No, exactly. So it’s the balance between the two, and closing the gap in the knowledge. I mean, it could go on forever. I could-

Dillon Honcoop:
So what did you study in college? What’s your degree going to be?

Lydia Johnson:
Environmental resource geography with a certification in natural resource management and a certification in geospatial information systems.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a mouthful.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. So what kind of stuff are you doing academically, then, to get that kind of degree? What are you studying? What are you learning?

Lydia Johnson:
It’s kind of like a hybrid of different biologies, different chemistries, different geology, geography, climatology. That’s a class that I’m taking right now that’s kicking my butt. But it’s just a broad and mixture of everything that you would find in an environment from resources to weathers that impact the resources, and the actions of industries. And it’s just all-encompassed. Water resource; it’s a big, broad BS.

Dillon Honcoop:
You mean Bachelor of Science?

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, that’s exactly what I meant.

Dillon Honcoop:
All right, got it. Earlier we were talking and you were planning on leaving the state. Maybe not forever.

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you want to leave Washington, other than this horse thing? Are you done with Washington, or what?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, as much as I love Washington, I’ve spent a fair amount of time up in the mountains, in the Cascades, at Mount Rainier. And it’s a beautiful state. You get a little bit of everything from volcanoes to rainforest to desert to the ocean. It’s a beautiful state. I do love it, but I have been impacted by, as I mentioned once before, the politics, the prices, and the people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that changing in Washington, do you think?

Lydia Johnson:
I would say the growth of urban population.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that do to farming here?

Lydia Johnson:
Minimizes it. I mean the growth of Seattle, I mean, they’re moving outward. We’re getting people here in Kittitas County. The population … I mean, you’ll find a lot of people coming from Seattle. They’re a doctor from Seattle and they have a house in Ellensburg and they commute every day because it’s easier to commute from Ellensburg than it is from Olympia. And then from them moving here, that changes completely the dynamic of … The political dynamic is completely altered, not only from the expansion of urban areas but also from the college as well. So I would-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What are some of the pressures on farming? What happens with different people in the mix, like you’re describing?

Lydia Johnson:
Development of farmland, the minimizing of all this farmland that … I mean, this valley is number one, number two, top hay export in the country. And we were getting all these people from Seattle, “Oh yeah, we’ve got this nice 30-acre lot and we’re going to develop it.” Or even if they get their hands on some more expensive, bigger hay fields, they’re not going to sit on it. They’re not going to continue farming it. That’s our goal: “Oh, Ellensburg is beautiful. Yeah, let’s move there. It’s only an hour and a half, two hours from Seattle.”

Dillon Honcoop:
But I thought you’re in college, basically in an environmental program.

Lydia Johnson:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Shouldn’t you be caring about the environment?

Lydia Johnson:
This is why my department doesn’t like me. They’re like, “Oh darn, you got Lydia in your class this time? Oh, I’m so sorry. She sits up front and raises her hand, has something to say about everything.” Yeah, it definitely is a struggle. Well in my department, they do a pretty good job of keeping the balance between politics, and they’re relatively unbiased. But yeah, there’s definitely something that needs to be done as far as conservation of the farmland in this valley, especially.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What needs to be done to protect the environment here in Washington from your vantage point, studying this academically?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, that’s a tricky question because-

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, some people are saying farming isn’t good for the environment, and that’s one of the issues that they want to look at: should we be doing farming or doing farming the way that we’re doing it here in the state?

Lydia Johnson:
Well, I would start off with saying farmers are stewards of the land. I mean, regardless of whether a farmer’s out to make money or not, if they don’t take care of their land, if they’re not rotating crops, if they’re not treating the land, if they’re not replenishing nutrients that they’ve taken out by planning this specific crop, or something along those lines, it’ll affect their crop in the long run and their property in the long run.

Lydia Johnson:
And I mean, I experienced that growing up over on the west side. We grew hay on an old tree farm. And so tree farms are very acidic. And so we always did … chicken manure was the most common thing in our area. So to balance that out and bring up the pH levels, definitely have to be proactive in that, I guess; proactive in how you’re treating the land because in the long run it’s going to affect how your crops are going to turn out, how much you’re going to yield, what are the prices going to be like.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And your farming background, how much attention, how much time have you spent on the whole soil health issue? I mean, that’s what you’re touching on there, right?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, a stupid amount. We had haylage, we were feeding haylage, so we grew haylage and we had barley as well that we ground up and mixed with crack corn.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future for your family’s farm?

Lydia Johnson:
So at this time, both of my parents are retired. They got out of dairy in the year that I moved to college. And I have to say that that’s a little heartbreaking because I felt like I was responsible for it. No matter how many times they’ll tell me, “No. No, you need to go. Go do what you need to do,” type thing … but the farm is still being ran. It’s being leased out by a younger dairy farmer. And he’s running our farm as an organic dairy as well as two other dairy farms. One other is also organic and the other is conventional. So he’s keeping that going, which is impressive because that’s three dairies. I don’t know if I could, let alone one, but I’m sure … I mean, he’s got quite a bit of hired hands.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did the whole organic thing go? What did you think of that? How did your parents make that work?

Lydia Johnson:
So when we got into it, we were ahead of the curve. So it was before everybody was like, oh, go organic. It was before all of that. And so when we were in it, it was good for our family and we were doing well. And it was a really long process, though. I have to tell you, we had to get our land certified that we were making the hay on, which is not in the same location as where our dairy was. And so just getting that certified, and then we’d have to fence off our fences like six feet in because our neighbors sprayed their whatever. And so getting the cows certified, getting the land certified, it was just quite the process. I think it was like six years maybe before we could become certified.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is organic better? At least, I guess, in dairy terms, because that’s what you’ve experienced firsthand?

Lydia Johnson:
Oh, in dairy terms? I mean, it’s a nice idea, I guess. But as far as the quality of milk being produced, I would argue that it is probably on the same playing field: organic milk, conventional milk. I mean, I always drink it raw, so I don’t know what y’all are drinking at the store. No, I’m teasing, but we did always drink it raw.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did it taste?

Lydia Johnson:
Yeah, I scraped the cream off the top and put it in your coffee in the morning after it separates out. Like I said, there was no better childhood.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest thing with growing up a farm kid and getting to this point where you are now?

Lydia Johnson:
Hardest thing? I would say probably just a difference in my peers. So I don’t really identify very easily with other 23 year old girls in my classes at school. They’re like, “Oh yeah, I’m going to this party,” and I’m like, “Oh cool, I’m going home to ride my horse,” type thing. Yeah, I feel like I’m a little bit older than my actual age, and I think that’s because I was raised in this fashion that led me to be more mature. And I don’t know, I don’t want to sound conceited when I say those things, but I feel like, yeah, I don’t identify very easily with people my age because of the differences in our childhood upbringings. And it’s just very strange to me too because I don’t know where they’re coming from. They did totally different things when they were growing up. They got to travel when they were young, they got to leave the farm. No, I’m teasing.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, I know how that is. I grew up on a red raspberry farm, so summertime was not a time for vacation, like for everybody else. Well, thank you so much for opening up and sharing your story. Best of luck to you-

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, thank you.

Dillon Honcoop:
… on what you’re doing next. You ever think about getting back into actual farming, being a farmer yourself?

Lydia Johnson:
Yes, I miss it. Yeah, I definitely have considered it, especially with this most recent starting up a dairy thing. And my dad’s dream has always been to bottle and sell organic raw milk. And I don’t know, I guess it kind of rubbed off on me too because I just think that would be so cool to have your own dairy and then have the same store on the same place. And people would come to your farm and you could give them farm tours and educate them about where your milk comes from and, no chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows, and something like that. Yeah, it’s definitely a fantasy, but maybe someday. I plan on having my own garden and greenhouse and my own cows. I’ll be damned if I’m not drinking raw milk out of the tank when I’m settled or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well good luck to you. And again, really appreciate you being willing to share your story with this random guy, me…

Lydia Johnson:
It’s a long one.

Dillon Honcoop:
…that just showed up here at the Time Out-

Lydia Johnson:
Time Out Saloon.

Dillon Honcoop:
… Saloon.

Lydia Johnson:
In Kittitas, Washington, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you so much.

Lydia Johnson:
Absolutely. Thank you.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m always amazed by the things that people do talk about that they know that they’re involved with. And one of those was the whole feral horse thing. I didn’t know anything about that. And I had no idea that Lydia was involved with anything like that. So when she brought that up, I was like, wow. And now I need to do a little bit more research about what is that all about? That’s kind of crazy. It was really cool to hear her story and hear about her family. I hope for her sake … You can hear right there at the end, you could tell that she still wants to be part of that farming world. I hope she can find the right place and time to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for being with us here on the podcast. And hopefully, again, you’re staying safe and healthy out there. If you’re self-isolating, self-quarantining, whatever the case might be, with this crazy world that we’re in right now, you’ve got some time. Go catch up on some back episodes. You can find all of those at realfoodrealpeople.org or on your favorite podcast platform. So make sure to check it out and also follow us on Instagram and follow us on Facebook, and we’re on Twitter as well. I try to share stuff there as much as I can. I’ve been able to do a little bit more of that lately with everything that’s going on, and hopefully I can keep that up. With my busy schedule, sometimes I forget to share, “Oh Hey, this is what I’m doing, this is where I’m at.” So I’m trying to be better about that. And we definitely appreciate you subscribing and supporting the podcast every week.

Dillon Honcoop:
And like I said at the beginning, we appreciate you paying attention to where your food comes from. And of course with this podcast, it’s so important who your food comes from. With everything going on in the world right now, I think we’re more and more focused on our food and are we going to be able to get it? And who’s producing it? How far away is it from me? And that’s why these stories are such a window into the food production that’s happening in our backyard and here in our own state. It’s just so, so important right now. And I think this time with everything that’s changing with our society and with our economy right now, with this virus and other things that are going on, I think it’s bringing that focus back to where it needs to be on how we sustain ourselves, how sustainable our lives are right here at home in Washington. So thank you for being with us on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

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

April Clayton | #002 12/23/2019

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

Transcript

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: Let’s start at UC Davis.

April Clayton: Okay, so-

Dillon Honcoop: So you’re a chemist?

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

Dillon Honcoop: What’s been the biggest challenge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

April Clayton: Yeah, and like I said-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: How did you meet your husband?

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

Dillon Honcoop: Really?

April Clayton: Yeah.

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

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

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

April Clayton: Correct.

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

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

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

April Clayton: 14 years.

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

April Clayton: The agriculture side.

Dillon Honcoop: … the farmer title for yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah.

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

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

April Clayton: Yeah.

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

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

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

April Clayton: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: To break even on it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: Japan?

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

Dillon Honcoop: What month did you pick them?

April Clayton: July, all of July.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: That’s crazy.

April Clayton: Yeah.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: What’s harvest like?

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

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

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

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

April Clayton: Guest worker.

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

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

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

April Clayton: Yes.

Dillon Honcoop: … being used by local neighboring farms?

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: Just as a bonus.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: Plus a bonus.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: And then they changed the code.

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

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

April Clayton: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

April Clayton: Market return prices.

Dillon Honcoop: Yeah.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: So is that pretty normal for farming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April Clayton: No.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop: Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April Clayton: Thank you. Come back anytime.

Dillon Honcoop: … keep up the good work.

April Clayton: Thanks.

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

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