Alex Durney part 1 | #012 03/02/2020

She's a former vegetarian Evergreen State College ecology student who now manages a beef ranch. Hear Alex Durney's unexpected journey to embracing farming and finding a whole new dream for her future.

Transcript

Alex Durney:
Like I’m pretty positive my grandfather is disappointed in me, because I went to college to get a college education so that I didn’t have to just be some rancher or farmer and here I am doing that. But with that comes a platform in a change that we’re able to make within this country and I want to be able to help with that. I want to be part of that change.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Farmers come from so many different backgrounds, but our profile this week may be one of the most unexpected. I talked with Alex Durney. She grew up in suburbia. She went to Evergreen State College and studied freshwater ecology, very passionate about environmental issues. She was vegetarian, but now she manages a ranch raising cattle for beef. Not what you would expect at all. She has a pretty incredible story of how she got to where she is and all the things that she’s learned and still her passion for the environment as well as for farming and ranching. This will be the first of two parts of my conversation with her. We just had so much to cover and she brings such a cool perspective with her education and background. So please join me in hearing from Alex Durney. She’s the manager for Colvin Ranch in Tenino Washington. Great conversation. My name is Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my personal journey to get to know the real farmers and the real people behind our food here in Washington state.

Alex Durney:
I actually ended up starting to go to Idaho State University in my home state and I started out as a biology major. I really wanted to be an ultrasound technician and then I realized I didn’t really want to work with people very much, or at least I didn’t want to work with people with health concerns, I guess. I didn’t want to tell people that there was something wrong with them. I wouldn’t be happy in my job and that was the biggest thing. I wanted to find happiness in my job. So that’s where that journey began.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were like, “No healthcare, can’t do it.”

Alex Durney:
No healthcare. And so then I was scrambling to figure out what I could do. At one point I was actually debating becoming a veterinarian, I mean that links us to what I’m doing a little bit right now. But then I ended up becoming a cosmetologist so I did hair, skin and nails for a little bit and that’s great. I’m glad that I have it because if something fails I always have that. But the first week that I was sitting in my cosmetology class, that was a two and a half year program, I realized that I wanted to be an ecology major.

Dillon Honcoop:
How does that just come to you at that point?

Alex Durney:
I have no idea. I was just sitting there and I was like, crap, that’s what I really want to do. But I did not want to be the beauty school dropout. So I refused and I stuck out the two and a half years and I graduated and now I have that certificate. But I’m glad that I had that two and a half years because it gave me the time to decide on a school. And I ended up going to Evergreen State College in Olympia, which-

Dillon Honcoop:
So this was after the cosmetology degree?

Alex Durney:
This is after the cosmetology. So I graduated from the cosmetology in December of 2015 and then in September of ’16 I started at Evergreen and started in as a freshwater ecology major. Took a bunch of different classes, actually programs, if anyone knows anything about Evergreen, which I mean it has been in the national news for not super great things. The programs there though are amazing because they allow you just to dive super deep into these theories and have a teacher that you can sit there and discuss with them as if they’re not your professor, as if they’re-

Dillon Honcoop:
And for people who don’t know, Evergreen is built on a totally different philosophy of you do education, right?

Alex Durney:
Oh yeah. You don’t take classes. You’re not taking a chemistry 101 or English. You’re taking a program that’s 16 credits that requires all of your time and that’s all you take is that one program each quarter. But that’s what allows you to dive so deep into those subjects is you’re spending hours and hours talking about these subjects. And you’re not just doing projects to get you to a test goal, you’re doing projects that are actual things that you’ll do in day to day life. So my very last course at Evergreen, I ended up doing that with a large animal veterinarian. So we had two professors at the time, so there was about 50 students in this class.

Dillon Honcoop:
So hold on, you’re doing freshwater ecology, but you were taking a program with a vet?

Alex Durney:
You can do whatever you want at Evergreen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Alex Durney:
It was ecology based. That was the main credential for me was all of my classes needed to be ecology based. I was also at the time doing undergraduate research with actual stream ecology. So that’s why I can label my degree as a freshwater ecology degree, because I have outstandingly more credits of freshwater ecology than any other ecology credits.

Alex Durney:
But the very last class that stuck with me the most obviously was this perennial agricultural class that I took with Mike Perros and Steve Sharelle and that class taught so much. And the biggest thing that I was drawn to was the animal health aspect of it. Of course, I really loved how the grass grew, all these other perennial agricultures, but learning about the animals and how they functioned was just fascinating to me. Within these programs, you have this opportunity to go to all of these different places, field trips. I hadn’t taken a field trip since second grade, but I took a field trip every single Thursday in that class. But I learned so much because we were going and visiting these model ranches and model farms in Washington and Oregon and getting to see how people do this in the best way possible.

Dillon Honcoop:
Real world stuff.

Alex Durney:
Real world scenarios here. And one of those ranches that we visited just so happened to be Colvin Ranch. It was one of the very first places that we visited. And standing on that ranch that day, I definitely wouldn’t have expected that I would have been living on that ranch. But things changed and I continued through this class, learned a lot more, absolutely fell in love with it. And by the very end, my professor was just like, “Hey, you did an amazing job. I know that there’s someone who needs some help because their manager is leaving. Do you want me to get you in contact with them?” And that’s when I got in contact with Fred and yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
The rest is history.

Alex Durney:
The rest is really history. Now I’ve been their ranch manager for almost two years. And in their terms, I’ve changed their life I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Alex Durney:
They never had a ranch manager before that would get other things done. It was like they would leave and the bare minimum would get done, the feeding, whatever, but there was never anyone who was like, “I’m going to overhaul your marketing. We’re going to completely redo everything and make all of this better.” They never had that before so for them, this is amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So Colvin Ranch.

Alex Durney:
Colvin Ranch.

Dillon Honcoop:
Tell us about it. What is that actually like?

Alex Durney:
So Colvin ranch was homesteaded in the 1850s by Ignatius Colvin, which is just a sweet name if you ask me.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ignatius.

Alex Durney:
Ignatius Colvin.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s legit.

Alex Durney:
So he came and at one point in time, the ranch equaled over 3,000 acres. But over the course of time with family and people dying and inheriting and marriages and all these different things, the land slowly just got parceled out smaller and smaller and smaller, until we have what we have left, which is just over 500 acres.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is it at?

Alex Durney:
It is in Tenino, Washington, so not Eastern. We got a little bit of Western influence here.

Dillon Honcoop:
People think ranches, they think Eastern Washington, right?

Alex Durney:
Yeah, they do, the Highland Desert and everything. But there’s a lot of rain in Western Washington, so a great place to grow cattle. Most people think of it as actually the dairy portion for Oregon and Washington. But we run a full cattle operation there. The operation has changed multiple times over the years. It’s gone from cow-calf operations to stocker operations. And what we are in now is kind of what I like to refer to is an intergenerational ranch.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain what those different terms mean, like cow-calf operation. People say that in the ranching world all the time. What does that mean?

Alex Durney:
So cow-calf operation is where basically your main thing that you own is cows and you’ll bring in either a bull or you’ll do artificial insemination on all of those cows each year, in determination of when you want them to calf. And all of that really matters with when you want them to calf, to when you want to wean those calves off of their moms and when you want to sell them to get the top market dollar. And that’s the thing that scares me. With those you’re subject to the market, which is kind of scary.

Alex Durney:
So that’s a unique thing about ours is we also have the stocker operation built into it, which is the opposite side. The stocker is the one who purchases the calves from the cow-calf operation and raises them up until they’re able to go to harvest. And so we do all of that in one. So we have our cow-calf and we have our stalker that goes to harvest and we also do the direct marketing for that as well. So not only do we raise all of our animals, but we sell all of them directly to the public.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was going to ask you, like, you do some of that? But you’re saying no, all of-

Alex Durney:
We do all of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the beef is-

Alex Durney:
All of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sold directly.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. Another unique thing about our ranches that we are all grass fed and grass finished. So we never feed corn or soy or any supplemental thing. We’re raising cattle how they should be raised. It’s natural. They want to eat grass, it’s what their bodies are made to digest and we just want to make sure that they’re able to live the best lives that they can.

Dillon Honcoop:
So here you’ve come in some ways full circle from almost from where you started, because it was about health stuff and then you went cosmetology and then it was still like biology, freshwater ecology, but then you’re back to animal health and you’re still dealing with-

Alex Durney:
Still dealing with people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Living bodies and health and yeah.

Alex Durney:
Living bodies and health, it’s a lot easier to tell a cow that she has a foot problem then to tell a human that they have a blocked artery. So that’s kind of why I chose that. I mean I still, with the direct marketing to the public, we still have to deal with people, but you’re not giving them bad news. You’re helping them with a service that right now is hard to come by. So the grass fed and finished holds heavy weight for a lot of people, especially within the state of Washington, fairly liberal community for the most part. And they’re all wanting to get away from that. They care about the environment, they want to see a change. I mean a lot of them don’t agree with the cattle industry in the first place, but we’re doing our best and doing it in the most natural way that we find possible in order to help those people.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was curious to ask you about though, because the assumption, the stereotype, you’re coming from Evergreen, you’re coming from an environmental program at Evergreen, the assumption is that you’re going to be anti beef altogether, anti-meat. You’re going to probably going to be a vegan or something.

Alex Durney:
Oh, definitely. I mean I was vegetarian for three years.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were a vegetarian?

Alex Durney:
I was a vegetarian.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who’s now managing a beef ranch.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What changed?

Alex Durney:
So I started out with the vegetarian thing being on the environmental side. I ended up finishing out my vegetarianism because I was anemic and we found out that the only way that my body can really absorb iron well, because we increased other like iron high vegetables and other things like that, it just wasn’t working. And then what they found once I started eating meat again was my iron levels went right back up to where they should’ve been. And so what we realized is that my body cannot absorb iron from other sources. I have to have a meat protein in order to absorb iron.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that pretty common for people?

Alex Durney:
It can be, yeah. It’s more common than you think it is. Also, I mean the veganism thing is fantastic and I celebrate the people that are able to do it, but a lot of people aren’t able to do it. I’m one of those people. Also, it’s not really what we would call this word at Evergreen is the S word, but sustainable. Veganism isn’t sustainable either. We can’t produce enough vegetables within this country to feed everyone, but it’s not sustainable for the aspect of meat is needed for people that maybe can’t afford higher quality vegetables. It’s also needed for ritual things for religions and other aspects of life, meat is sometimes really important to their culture and their identity, so we can’t take that away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now that you’re in the farming world, you probably hear a lot of the other side of it, the angst and the frustration with vegans.

Alex Durney:
Oh yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you respond to that then?

Alex Durney:
Everyone has a right to their own opinion. I honestly, I just try and remain humble with those people. If they’re so set in their ways, there’s nothing I’m going to be able to say to change their mind. Them being more exposed to the actual farming industry and maybe going and visiting, there are a lot of ranches, I know we allow open visits to our ranch. Anyone can contact us and have a full hands-on personal tour that’s two hours long on our ranch if they would like to, so that they can truly understand what we do. And so I guess just educating those people, but there’s no forcing someone to change their views. They have to want to change their views.

Alex Durney:
So to me until those people are ready to want to sit down and talk about it and be open minded about it, just like they want me to be open minded about their veganism or vegetarianism or whatever, it goes both ways. You can’t shut out the other side just because you’ve discovered and you think that it’s so wrong, it doesn’t mean that it is it. Yes, aspects of it sure are. There are definitely things within the beef industry that I do not agree with, but I do agree with how I’m raising my animals. And our customers believe in that and that’s why they come to us.

Dillon Honcoop:
I just see people getting lumped together so often where it’s like, “Well, you’re beef, you must be bad.” And it’s like, “No, it’s not all the same.”

Alex Durney:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That part is really frustrating to me. As far as the vegan issue goes, me coming from the background of farming, having grown up in that community, you know where my bias is going to come from, but ultimately I agree. Hey, if somebody wants to be vegan, by all means, I have no problem with that. What I do have a problem with is when people are hating on other people. Same thing for the farming community. I don’t think it’s appropriate if people are just hating on vegans for no reason when they don’t really understand. You know what I’m saying?

Alex Durney:
I do. And I think that’s because I’m able to see both sides coming from this Evergreen background, this sustainable, environmental, you have to be vegan. No. You don’t have to. But I see it from both sides and I see why both sides are angry, but there is a middle ground. There is a spot where we can all sit down and talk. We just have to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t it because people want simple answers?

Alex Durney:
They do.

Dillon Honcoop:
And good guys and bad guys when it’s not that simple?

Alex Durney:
It makes it so much easier to make things white and black, but it’s never white and black. It’s always gray and we all know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why are you so passionate about this? About farming and ranching and cattle? Beef?

Alex Durney:
I guess the bigger thing is it’s not even, I’m more passionate. I don’t want it to end and I don’t want the good side of it to end I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
You don’t want what to end?

Alex Durney:
I mean the average age of a farmer in our country right now is what? 63 years old. And it’s what we would call an OWG, an old white guy. And being a 24 year old female going into the ranching industry, I am the exact opposite of what someone thinks of as a rancher, but we need more people like me because if the average age of a farmer is 63 years old, what do people think is going to happen?

Alex Durney:
Those people are going to die. Their kids don’t want to take it over. What’s going to happen to the beef industry? There’s a lot of people out there that want beef. No one’s producing anymore. That’s not great, but there is this opportunity where this younger generation is growing up. We realize what has been done wrong in the past and we’re trying to do right and we just need to be given the opportunity to make it right.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that take? What does that look like making it right?

Alex Durney:
For I guess a lot of ranches, it’s letting go of the old way of doing things. It’s expanding your mind. All of us need to expand our minds, but expanding your mind and looking outside of how you’ve done things for years, accepting the ideas of your children that are coming in straight out of school that haveā€¦ I mean the agricultural cultural sciences part of universities is dying, it’s becoming more soil sciences and there’s a reason for that.

Alex Durney:
People don’t want to go into the agricultural aspect of it because those people are so stuck in their ways and that’s not the way to be. You have to be able to flex with how things are changing. So much is changing in this world. Things are not the same as they were when the 63 year old ranchers were in their 20s taking over their family ranch or whenever they took it over. Things are not the same and things aren’t going to continue the same. We need to be able to change with that. And the newer generation, the people who are willing to just be like, “You know, I’m going to have this ranch job. I’m going to try and make it better.” Even to my own family, I’m pretty positive my grandfather is disappointed in me, because I went to college to get a college education so that I didn’t have to just be some rancher or farmer and here I am doing that, but with that comes a platform and a change that we’re able to make within this country and I want to be able to help with that. I want to be part of that change, so that’s why I’m passionate about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that starting to happen? What’s your take on the new generation, people my age or your age even who are in the farming world?

Alex Durney:
They’re pushing back towards the local. I feel like that’s the overall message is pushing back towards local. At one point that’s how you got all of your groceries. You went to your butcher, you went to the bakery, you didn’t go to the grocery store and the grocery store just made things so convenient in our lives and yes, it is fantastic. I will go to the grocery store as long as there are grocery stores, but stepping out and going to your local farmer’s market and stuff, that’s what this new generation is pushing for. And also pushing to get the local products in the grocery store. If people want that convenience, let’s make it happen for them. And so, I mean that’s why we have our beef in our local co-ops and stuff. So it does give people that convenience factor, but they do have to go shop at the local co-op.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about farmers your age? Are they doing a good job? Are there cool things out there happening?

Alex Durney:
I mean, I don’t know if they’re all doing a good job. I mean, we’re all going to fail. We’re all going to succeed all in different times. We’re still playing the exact same game. We’re just trying to play it in a slightly different way. We’re looking deeper and by looking deeper, I mean we have a lot more knowledge now. We have the soil lab analysis and soil survey, all these different things that we’re able to gather data from. There’s so much more data and using that makes us more powerful. We’re not just going off of, oh well this worked last year or the year before, these are how these aspects work. Yes, that plays a very important role, but there is the important role of also just the raw scientific data from across the world of how to do things in possibly a better way. And I think that’s going to be the aspect that shakes up what we’re used to in the agricultural fields, whether that’s farming or ranching.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you are the ranch manager at Colvin Ranch.

Alex Durney:
I am.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Tenino, Washington.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many head of cattle do you guys have there?

Alex Durney:
Anywhere around 250.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wouldn’t some people say that’s a huge herd neck and people shouldn’t be farming that many animals?

Alex Durney:
No. That’s small. That’s really small. I mean there are herds out there that are 16,000. I mean that’s not unheard of. Even here in Eastern Washington, it’s thousands of head. We just have 250, but for us that’s what our land is able to maintain. And I guess that’s a very important aspect. Our land is able to maintain 250 head and that’s all we care about. Yes, would we love to have 400 head? That would be fantastic, but it’s not possible on our land. We’ve played with it with stocking rates and utilization and so many other aspects they’ve played with and what they come down to is about 250 is what our land can handle with keeping it the way that it is. But we also have quite a few protections on our land as well. 90% of our land is in a permanent conservation easement with the state of Washington, so there are certain sections of our land that are also deferred at certain parts of the year.

Alex Durney:
We’re not even allowed to graze them because we need to make sure that the Camus and Balsamroot and all of these other native plants are able to go to seed set and actually continue to reproduce and make a healthy landscape and prairie for us. And then we go through and with the state of Washington, we actually use our grazing to help those plants. So with hitting invasives at very specific times in order to make sure that the Camus and Balsmroot can succeed and not get shadowed out by a taller grass or other aspects very similar to that. So we work very hard to maintain our land, not just the amount and our profit at the end of the day. Because you’re not going to have a profit if you don’t have good land to grow cattle off of it all. It all starts at the soil.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, and that’s what I was just going to say, you keep touching on soil health issues. That sounds like that’s a big part of what you do and your passion.

Alex Durney:
Oh yes. Down to exactly how we graze, when we’re applying fertilizer, all sorts of things. It’s all timed down to specific moments so that we can make sure that we’re optimizing the prairie itself because our biggest thing is that we are managing for feeding a cattle’s gut. We’re not feeding the cow. We’re feeding the bacteria within their gut. If we don’t have good grass, we’re not feeding the gut very well, we’re not feeding that bacteria, so we need to ensure that our soil health is the best it can possibly be to optimize that production right there.

Dillon Honcoop:
that also does other things though too, right with soil health?

Alex Durney:
So many other things. I mean with soil health then we have a super healthy pocket gopher population on our property. We have checkered spot butterflies, we have all sorts of animals. We have a healthy ecosystem.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about back to the vegan issue, because one of the biggest points that’s made has to do with the ecological impact and then the environmental climate change, carbon footprint impact of beef, right? Soil health is a part of this equation, isn’t it?

Alex Durney:
Very much a part of the equation and the equation has nothing to do with cattle. It has everything to do with management and the management that people deploy on their property. You can have great management and have fantastic soils and fantastic grasses and be able to actually have a higher herd population because of it. Or you can have bad management and you could have very few animals and you could just have devastated land and be causing so many environmental issues. It’s all dependent on what that person is doing on the ranch, it has nothing to do with cattle. I mean specifically at our ranch, if you drive along our highway, you’ll see our ranch and then right next to it you’ll see what used to be part of the ranch 20 years ago. That is completely covered in Scotch broom. And people all the time ask, “How do you keep the scotch broom off of your property?” Simple, we put cattle on that property. We just graze cattle once or twice a year in that pasture and Scotch broom never grows. It’s a great management technique if it’s used properly. So I mean, we’re moving towards something better.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I was curious when I was asking earlier if you’re seeing signs of change.

Alex Durney:
Yeah, that would be part of it. I mean every operation is trying to look better and be better.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It really is incredible to see somebody like Alex who came from a background that didn’t have anything to do with farming and in fact was some ways kind of opposed to what farming does to embracing it and understanding the potential there. At the same time, looking at the bigger picture, and again this was just the first half of our conversation. Next week we hear the second half where we get into more of what Alex sees for the big picture, what she believes the future is and how she views joining this ranch, Colvin Ranch in Tenino as a life changing opportunity. Here’s a little snippet of what’s ahead next week.

Alex Durney:
I could possibly make a change before I’m 30 and that’s fascinating to me and make a change with an industry that’s so many people are hating on right now and want to see die.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there you have it. Again, Alex Durney, she is the ranch manager at Colvin Ranch at Tenino, Washington. Totally leave your stereotypes at the door–I mean that’s with everybody on this podcast, and particularly with Alex. So pumped to be able to share my experiences getting to know Alex and other people like her here on the Real Food Real People Podcast. That’s what it’s all about, documenting my personal journey to get to know the real people behind our food like Alex. Sure would appreciate it if you would subscribe and you could do that on Spotify, you could do that on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and a whole bunch of other outlets out there as well, whatever your favorite spot is to get podcasts. Also, please follow us on social media. We’ve got more content there as well, so find us on Facebook as well as Twitter and Instagram, Real Food Real People, you can find us there pretty easily. Just give us a follow. We sure would appreciate it. Again, next week is part two of our conversation with Alex Durney. I’m so looking forward to sharing that with you. Until then, thank you for following and subscribing and supporting Real Food Real People.

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