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

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the rest you sell to-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Cattle, yes.

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

Bridget Coon:
All your cows are cows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then like even climate change related.

Bridget Coon:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I know my car looks like it.

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Ruminant animals.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, are you calling me old?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bridget Coon:
You just stared at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
You’re going to have some.

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

Bridget Coon:
It’s kind of gross.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Are more and more doing that?

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, all the time.

Bridget Coon:
And-

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
From wine.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
At home.

Dillon Honcoop:
… aren’t on the go.

Bridget Coon:
Like baking bread.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How far is it by the way?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Buy a freezer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Which is never the case.

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Yeah. The fatty acid ratio.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I did not know that.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Marketing, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s all marketing.

Bridget Coon:
That’s genius marketing.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, both.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
I am a soulful marketer.

Dillon Honcoop:
No, that’s good.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was this?

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

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

Bridget Coon:
Winding?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been busy.

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget Coon:
We’re back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And now you live in Benge.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Zoned in on the work.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
A beef boot camp.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
So much alliteration, so good.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s awesome.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, he wasn’t-

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

Dillon Honcoop:
… working his angles here.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You career zoned him.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Holy smokes.

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

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

Bridget Coon:
He was highly intentional.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
She cleared in right away?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s so awesome.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

Bridget Coon:
So life has been pretty fast paced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 2 | #017 04/06/2020

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

Transcript

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

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

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe it was just the freak storm.

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

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

Camas Uebelacker:
As gone. Literally, I couldn’t find it. It was gone, loaded all the way. So, I mean, literally, you’re making decisions off of that crop while you’re cutting it, looking at it like, “Man, this is nice. Hey, this is going to go up really good. The weather looks great. I’m going to sell this and we’re going to get some money. Maybe I should buy a new pickup. Maybe I should take my wife out to dinner.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are all the things that are going through my head, and then you go out there to bale it, and you’re like, “Where in the hell did it go?” All those dreams and thoughts that you had are gone, and it’s not that somebody stole them from you or it wasn’t like my house got broken into and I got robbed. It’s nothing like that. It’s just literally gone, and there’s nobody to blame, there’s no fingers to point other than much mother nature. She can be fickle.

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

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a complete pain in the ass, man. I mean, it is. We’ve had blizzards in the feedlot, where cattle walked over fences and walked away, but I tell this to my kids that I’m super proud to be part of an industry that when the weather gets as bad as it gets, we go outside, we don’t go home.

Camas Uebelacker:
You might be going out and checking to make sure your circles are pointed in a direction where the wind won’t blow them over, but you’re out there in it, right? It’s funny because it’ll be evening here and we’ll get a storm or something like that, and then all of a sudden, you start seeing headlights driving around on the county roads and things because all the guys are out checking stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I’m proud to be part of an industry that when the weather hits and it’s crappy and it’s blowing sideways and it’s snow, we’re out there. It’s cool. I try to tell that to them because it’s not the norm. Most of the time, they’ll close work or, “Hey, school’s closed today. You got a snow day.” Well, guess what, guys? Get your gloves. We’re going.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s extra work today in the snow.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah, and I’m proud of that. I mean, I’ve got no problem doing that. I’m happy to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
When it does get stressful, whether it’s a storm or a crop loss or anything like that, what do you do to deal with the stress?

Camas Uebelacker:
I go fishing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where?

Camas Uebelacker:
On the Columbia, that’s no joke. I got a boat and I go fishing. That’s my golf. I mean, I can sit in that boat and think about things and you can scream and yell cuss words as loud as you want and nobody’s going to hear it, and I come, and I’m happy, but you don’t really get, I wouldn’t say there’s no escape, right? I mean, it hangs over. It’s in the decision. The hard thing that I had to learn was that it’s whatever you do today basically is going to affect you a year out.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, if we have that crop loss, and you’re supposed to be paid for it at a certain time, I mean, it basically takes a year to dig out of it or offset it somehow. Diversity is huge. That’s why I like to farm and I like to have cattle because we’ve got our hands in a little bit of everything. We grow some seed crops. We do some other things. Diversity is a good thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you ever expect to be, I mean you, you said from a young age you were interested in cattle and stuff.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would your young self say about where you’re at now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, man. I think he’d say he’s proud of me. I think. I don’t know. Either that or … You got a 50/50 chance.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, did you ever expect to be doing what you’re doing now?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. So, you’ll get a kick out of this. So, like I said, my father-in-law helped me buy our original home place. That was a gentlemen’s agreement hee and I had. My wife wasn’t even really privy to that when we did it, but he kept asking me like, “Where’s your business plan? How are you going to model this? How are you going to make this work?” I had never really ever gave him one.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think now when he comes and visits, to be honest with you, I think he went into it thinking, “All right. I’ll help this kid out. He can work a job in town and do it part time and this and that,” but we’ve turned it into something that it’s a full-time job not only for me, but we have three full-time employees also. I think it probably blows his mind more than it does mine. So, I mean, I didn’t-

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you had more faith in yourself.

Camas Uebelacker:
I did. I knew that if we got a shot, I could take care of cattle. That’s what we’re good at, and that’s, like I said, that’s because we care for them so well that’s why we exist. I mean, we have an extremely low death loss, a really good conversion, a high average daily gain. We have everything that a customer wants, and we have the great facility to do it. It’s clean, it’s tidy. When they drive in, we have an open door policy. There’s no secrets. If they got a question, come find me and we’ll answer it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I have that with my bank, too. They’re welcome anytime. I think that’s the other beauty of our industry is there’s, literally, I mean, there’s no hiding anything. I mean, it’s all out in the open, right? I mean, I can’t tell them like, “Man, look how good my corn crop is.” How are you going to hide 200 acres of corn, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they can drive by and be like, “Man, I can see you can grow corn,” or “That looks like crap.”

Dillon Honcoop:
“What did he do?”

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. So, it’s an open door policy, right? “Come on, drive by, take a look. We’ll tell you what happened or we’ll go take a look at it,” but especially on the feedlot side of it, when they drive through, I’m never nervous. We’ve got nothing to hide. I encourage them to come. They come once a week and it’s a cool deal. We drive through, we eat lunch and go on about our day.

Camas Uebelacker:
The younger me, I don’t know. Maybe the younger me should have said, “You should’ve started this younger.” I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud of what I do every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you would’ve never gotten that break with the wheat?

Camas Uebelacker:
With the wheat or even the opportunity to buy the place? I couldn’t tell you. At hindsight, I have no idea what I’d be doing. I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in 10 years. I don’t know what it’ll grow into.

Camas Uebelacker:
The other thing that I think a lot of younger guys need to remember or need to get the mentality because all my neighbors, they’re all really good farmers. They’ve got modern equipment. Everyone’s … In this day and age, if you’re still farming, you’re a good farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
You have to be to survive.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. I think of the guys that were struggling and for whatever reason, crop loss knocked them out or age or any of those things., I mean, if they’re still going in this day and age, they’re doing a damn fine job, and that’s the bottom line because we have all the regulation in the world on us. Everybody we’re trying to feed thinks we’re trying to kill them, and it’s some of the most suppressed prices we’ve ever had with the highest costs on everything else we’ve ever had.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, somebody’s doing something right, right? I think the younger me knowing what I know now would have said buy more land 10 years ago if it was at all possible, but it wasn’t. So, I think that’s what I would have said.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think of the impossible burger beyond meat?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I could get on my soapbox on this, and this could go a couple of different ways, but the beauty of America is you get a choice, right? So, if you want to eat that, eat it, but don’t knock me for not eating it, and I’m not going to knock you for eating it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I I think that that is good marketing. I think if the person that wants to eat that should really look at what’s actually in it. I don’t think it’s as great as for the environment as what is in beef or how beef is raised. I’m not going to throw stats out there and stuff, but the the US cow herd and the US cattle feeding industry feeds more people today with less cattle because we’re so efficient at it and good at it.

Camas Uebelacker:
I don’t see how making something out of 900 or I don’t even know. I’m not going to say numbers, but I don’t know how many products are in an impossible burger, but it’s a lot. Beef is beef. So, you want to eat it, eat it. I won’t. No way.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you say to folks say across the cascades in Seattle who are a little skeptical about where their beef comes from or where their food in general comes from? What’s your message to those people?

Camas Uebelacker:
I think if I had something to tell them, I would say that be proud of where you live in Washington. The packing houses that we do have here are the highest quality grade and some of the highest yielding plants in the United States. So, your Washington farmers and cattle feeders are on the nationwide level are higher than most. So, if they’re my neighbors across the hill, you should be proud, proud to live here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can they trust you to provide them safe food?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh, yeah, all day long, all day long. There’s a lot of checks in place that, I mean, it’s mind-boggling when you tour a processing facility where they harvest cattle, the lengths that they go to to make sure that that product is safe for somebody to eat, the recall state, the stuff that they have. If there isn’t a need for a recall, the things that are in place for that, it’s amazing. I mean, it’s a very safe, very clean, very well-managed, very well-handled industry.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’ve got a guy that we actually feed cattle for always says this. He says, “Everybody wants their food produced like it was by their grandpa.” The truth of the matter is you don’t want your food produced like it is today. You want it going to be produced like it’s going to be tomorrow.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, this stuff that we do now is so cutting edge in comparison to even when I first started and the evolution of even processing facilities, the feeding industry, I mean, it’s amazing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re saying you don’t want the stuff the way that your grandpa produced it?

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why not? What’s wrong with that?

Camas Uebelacker:
Well, I mean, for one, we’ve got refrigeration. We can freeze stuff. We can do all. I mean, we’ve got all this modern technology at our fingertips that we can trace stuff, we can track stuff, we can test things. We have all of these insurances in place to make sure that when I sell my animal to a consumer or through the packing process and it ends up on a consumer’s plate, I would be happy if they had to look at my face on the package when they opened it. I’d be proud to put my name on it. I mean, I believe in it that well. It’s a safe quality, well-produced, well-managed product.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t the idea, though, that, “Oh, back in grandpa’s day or even dad, previous generation, a generation ago, the operations were smaller and it was maybe more hands on with the farmer. It was maybe more environmentally friendly because of that.” You’re saying that’s not true?

Camas Uebelacker:
I would say that the way we monitor and how we utilize the things that we have at our fingertips today are better. Like I said, my small facility feed 65,000 people. My grandpa sure as hell didn’t do that and he had the same amount of land. So, with what we produce in a narrow window of time, I mean, the US farmers, US ranchers, US cattle feeders, we produce a surplus.

Camas Uebelacker:
I mean, we rely on an export market. We’re good at making food, really good at it to the point that we can feed everybody here and still have them complain about it, but we can still sell it over overseas and we can feed other countries. It’s phenomenal. So, no.

Camas Uebelacker:
If we go back to that, I would rather those people that are saying that they should have to pick out who starves to death, not me. I don’t want to. I’m going to keep making it, but that’s not the road that you can go down to feed the masses of people that we have. You can’t. That’s not the answer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about your family. You talked about your wife and she’s very supportive of what you do. You have kids, too, now?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep. My wife’s awesome. She works in town full-time at an agriculture bank. She’s been there ever since we started this. So, she’s been there about 12 years. Got three kids. My daughter, she’ll be nine in November. My son just turned six, and I got another daughter that just turned two here in July. So, yeah. I got three of them running around.

Dillon Honcoop:
I bet that can be a zoo.

Camas Uebelacker:
It is. It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know it is around my house, anyway. I’ve got little munchkins, too.

Camas Uebelacker:
They’re all into different stuff. My daughter likes soccer and she’s about a year and a half away from being a black belt karate. My son just wants to play basketball and ride four wheelers. My youngest, she just likes to color. So, I mean, just color and pet the dogs. That’s it. So, they’re all very unique. It’s pretty cool. I mean, we’ve got a little orchard here back at the house, and they’ve got chickens and rabbits and goats and horses and cats, and we’ve got a little greenhouse.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, they got chores every morning that they got to do before they go to school. They got them every night when they come home. Something as simple as feeding three cats can take an hour because you get sidetracked by … I mean, the cool part, I love where I’m raising him. We can throw them outside and there’s nothing that’s going to hurt, I mean, they’re safe, and they can go be kids.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you see any of them becoming farmers or ranchers following in your footsteps?

Camas Uebelacker:
My daughter shows some interest in the health side of animals. She’s not a big fan when we ship them, but she likes the health side of it. So, I don’t know if she’d ever become a veterinarian or not, but I think if she was going to lean towards something in agriculture, it would be more on the animal health side of things.

Camas Uebelacker:
My son, it’s equipment. He likes tractors, he likes loaders, he likes bulldozers and he likes the circle irrigation. He’s wired to know why that stuff works, but he tells me all the time he wants to be a farmer. My youngest daughter, I think, she’s only two. So, she’s still learning how to talk.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. See where she goes when she gets into, really, with all of them. When it comes time, and let’s say your son keeps doing this farmer thing, wants to keep doing this farmer thing, what are you going to tell him?

Camas Uebelacker:
So, it’s funny you say that. I’ve sat down with my wife before and we’ve had that conversation like you were saying in those low times. I think to myself, “There’s no way in hell I would wish this upon my kids.” It’s so much easier to go get a job, work for somebody else, find a different trade, but then there’s the great days where you get all your jobs done and it’s noon and, you got all this land to enjoy. So, it wouldn’t be a decision to make lightly that come home and farm because you’re going to make all this money and life’s going to be great. That isn’t the case, but you’ll make a living and it’s an interesting part of the US economy where less than 2% of us in ag feed 98% of the US or the world. I mean, it’s pretty cool.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, when we get together like our cattle feeders association, the joke is we can fit everybody in the super cab pickup because there were many of us, right? It’s a small industry in the Northwest but it’s very significant. I mean, we feed it. There’s a lot of cattle on feed in Washington, but I would have no shame and encouraging my son or my daughter, I mean, any of them, any kid to get involved in ag. I think there’s a great future in it. I think people are going to keep having babies and there’s going to be more of this that we have to feed.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I think I would encourage him. I do think that in the future, smaller acreage farms are going to be more viable. I think it will be easier, I shouldn’t say easier, but I think it’ll be more financially stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why do you say that? A lot of people are saying the opposite of that, that things are just going to keep getting bigger.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I disagree, and the reason I do is because there’s just going to be more people and if you can produce a certain amount of food off of one or two acres and make a little bit of live and doing it, I mean, by all means, go do it, right? So, I mean you’ve got other states that are in droughts that are huge producers of vegetable crops that people eat. The beauty of Eastern Washington is we’ve got water and there is a great future in this area for my kids to come back and do, and I think that the opportunity to be there on a smaller scale also.

Camas Uebelacker:
I think big farms are going to be big. That’s just how it is, but behind all of those big farms, I mean, all the farms that are around me are big farms, and I know those people that own those and run those, they’re my neighbors, right? It’s still a family farm, but they might farm 6,000 acres or 11,000 acres or 20,000 acres, but it’s still a husband and a wife and kids that are keeping that ball rolling.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s cool because we’ve been here long enough now that I’m seeing some of those kids are coming back and they’re good kids and they’re working hard and the employees enjoy them. They have a little maybe a different outlook than their dad did, “Dad, you can’t work them on Sundays like this. Let’s give them a half day or get them on a schedule.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Ag has evolved a lot in that manner as well. They’re not bad jobs. They’re great jobs. They pay really well. Matter of fact, when the minimum wage increases in our state have happened, it didn’t affect anybody out here because nobody makes minimum wage. If you are a skilled worker that has a talent or even a drive, no one’s going to start at minimum wage. It just doesn’t exist.

Camas Uebelacker:
So, I would encourage this younger generation coming up. I mean, buckle up, it’s going to be a ride, but I think there’s definitely a future in it, for sure. People got to eat.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s hard to have more leverage than that issue.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right? Yeah. I mean, it’s tough. Like I said, it’s hard to hear people complain with a full belly. It’s hard to even fathom that, that they can sit there after they ate lunch and say that we’re bad for the environment and all of these. It’s frustrating. This is the easiest way to say that.

Camas Uebelacker:
I read this stuff on Facebook and it just drives me nuts. I mean, maybe I need to try harder on that social media deal, but I just wish they’d call me and be like, “Hey, man. Is this true?”

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m like, “No. Hell no. That’s not true. Where do you hear that or where did you read that or who even is dumb enough to write that?” I encourage everybody. Ask a farmer, ask a cattle feeder, ask a rancher, but just ask them. We do this every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
What if somebody does ask you and you tell them, and tell them the facts as you know them and that still doesn’t change their mind? What do you say to them then?

Camas Uebelacker:
I did my part. I tried. Beyond that, there’s really nothing more that you can do. I’m not going to get on a soapbox because I produce beef and tell everybody that’s a vegan. That’s a terrible idea. I’m not that guy. That’s your choice, man, but don’t beat me over my choice. I’m not going to beat you over yours. Just don’t do it to me. I think that there’s a certain, a very small percentage of organizations make the loudest noise, right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Those are the ones that there’s no way in the world that I as a cattle feeder in my remote area where we’re at will ever change their mind. If I even did engage with them, all it did would probably just stoke the fire. I’m not that guy. I mean, we’re just going to do what we do, but if somebody is on the fence and has some questions like that, I would encourage him to look up some of these associations.

Camas Uebelacker:
Washington Cattle Feeders Associations got a website. Washington Beef Commissions got a website. I mean, all these. The information is out there. Just look in the right place, please. That’s what I would encourage.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for opening up, talking about your family and your history and your farm and everything. It’s really been a great conversation and really interesting. I appreciate it.

Camas Uebelacker:
No problem, man. Happy to do it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, does a conversation like that make you want to get into farming? I know. If you’re like me at all, it leaves you conflicted because part of it sounds so incredible to be growing food that people eat. I don’t know. Maybe is that just because I grew up on a farm? It’s in my blood. I know that for sure, but then part of a conversation like I had with Camas makes it sound pretty scary and like, “Why would I ever want to sign up for that? That’s something that would take over my life and could potentially lead to really hard times and a huge amount of hours and a lot of physical pain and the threat of bankruptcy.” Why?

Dillon Honcoop:
Like he said, at some points he just feels like, “I should just work a regular job, clock in, clock out, and this whole farming thing is not worth it,” but then he has his good days where he’s like, “Wow. I wouldn’t want my life to be any different.”

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d love to hear your reaction to a conversation like this or any of the conversations that we have. Share your comments on our social media posts with this or other episodes or shoot me an email. Dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email. My first name Dillon is spelled D-I-L-L-O-N, not the Bob Dylan way, the Matt Dillon way, if that makes sense. Not that I necessarily identify with either of those people, but people always ask. So, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. We’ve got some really cool conversations coming up in soon weeks here, too, and more and more about how COVID-19 is impacting the farming world and the people in the farming world, both on a personal level and then on a business level and even beyond business like on a bigger economy level.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s going to happen here is pretty unclear at this point and there are a lot of people who are worried. In some ways, just to give an advanced heads up of some of the things I’m hearing from the people who we’re hopefully going to be having on the podcast here in coming weeks, there may be some really cool opportunities right now for local food and farmers because of what’s happening with this virus, and the way it’s changing markets, and the way it’s causing people to think differently about their food and where they live and if they’re secure, but especially with what’s happening to the bigger national and global markets.

Dillon Honcoop:
There are some very scary times ahead for farming as well. I’m also very worried about a lot of local farmers. So, it’s a mixed bag. We’re going to be hearing more about it certainly every week as we go because it’s on everybody’s mind right now. So, expect that in the next few weeks coming up as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for joining me on this journey of mine to really get to know these farmers of all different stripes, as well as other people in the food chain, the food system, whatever you want to call it, other people behind our food here in Washington state. That’s what the Real Food Real People Podcast here is all about.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m Dillon Honcoop. It’s a privilege to have you join me for these conversations. Listen in, download, subscribe on whatever you’re subscribed on if you haven’t already. I sure would appreciate it. I sure would appreciate a share on social media, too. If anything that we talk about on the podcast, one of our guests says, whatever, if it strikes a chord with you, I’d really love it if you shared it on your social media platform. It just helps us grow this conversation to more and more people. That’s part of our mission is to get more and more people reconnected to their food and where and who it comes from.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the more people that we can get plugged in on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, the better job we can do to change the landscape of at least people’s awareness about food and farming here in Washington State. So, I’d really appreciate that and don’t miss next week as we continue here on the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

Camas Uebelacker part 1 | #016 03/30/2020

He didn't grow up on a farm, but he started a feedlot in Eastern Washington. Camas Uebelacker has a passion for his job and doing the right thing, and he answers some hard questions about how feedlots really work. In the process he breaks some negative stereotypes about how beef is produced here in Washington.

Transcript

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s nothing more noble than feeding somebody. If I met some guy on the side of the road, he’s hungry or whatever, and I brought him home and fed him, I did him a bigger solid than giving him five bucks. That’s going to last a little longer than five. For me to be able to say that I feed 65,000 people… and it’s something that it’s so important to us that every employee that we have knows it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Feedlots, it’s a dirty word right now, at least in some people’s minds as far as the way to produce beef, but what is the truth on feedlots? Are they bad for animals? Are they bad for the environment? I wanted to talk with someone who actually ran a feedlot here in Washington to find out what they’re all about, and what they do, and to ask some hard questions.

Dillon Honcoop:
I connected with Camas Uebelacker with C&G Cattle Company over in Othello, and we had an incredible conversation. His answers to some of my hard questions were not at all what I expected and we ended up talking about climate change, and the environment, and taking care of animals, and all of these things that you would not expect with the stereotype that feedlots have.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I encourage you to listen to this conversation with an open mind. I know he changed my perspective on quite a few things. Again, his name is Camas Uebelacker. He’s our guest this week and next. I had to split this in two parts. We had such a good conversation, it just kept going and there was a lot to share.

Dillon Honcoop:
So this is the first part of our conversation about how beef is produced here in Washington and in a lot of parts of the United States. But as you’ll hear him say, he thinks we have something special with how we do it here in Washington, and you’ll find out that he cares deeply about these issues that people are worried about with feedlots.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for joining us this week. Please subscribe on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and all those other players. Don’t forget to follow us on social media. I’m Dillon Honcoop, again your host here on Real Food, Real People. Grew up on a farm in Western Washington and now I’m journeying all over the State to places like Camas’ operation to get to know what really drives the people who are producing our food here in Washington and how they’re really taking care of the things that we hold so dear; the environment, how they’re taking care of people, how they’re taking care of animals.

Dillon Honcoop:
So sit back, enjoy this first part of our conversation. Really cool stuff here from Camas.

Dillon Honcoop:
You come from a family of farmers or what’s your-

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… background in this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I don’t. I’m first generation so I started our operation. My wife and I bought it in 2007 and my father-in-law helped us buy it and that’s how we got the ball rolling on what it is we’re doing now.

Dillon Honcoop:
How old were you when you started this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I was 27.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is a 27 year old guy who hasn’t been in farming do to so start?

Camas Uebelacker:
I had an interest in it and I went to college and had an Ag background in it. Then when I got out of school, I worked for a ranch for a while, always mainly in livestock. And then did that, worked for a feedlot, went back to college, got a better degree, worked for a bigger feedlot, and then this place came up for sale and I went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you go to college? Same place both times?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I went to Walla Walla Community College and Montana State is where I graduated from.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you went to college the first time, what was your plan?

Camas Uebelacker:
To be completely honest, I really didn’t have one. I knew I wanted to get a degree. I come from the age of kids where they just pound that everyone has to go into college.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Same here.

Camas Uebelacker:
Trades are super important, even more so now than they were when I went to school, but that was the time, that’s what you did when you got out of high school, so I did it. I had a great job in high school. I was working as a diesel mechanic and had all the options to just continue to work and go to school for that, but I didn’t want to lay on my back on a concrete floor until I was 60.

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus, I think they all told us at that time, “Well, if you really going to get a good job then you got to go to college.”

Camas Uebelacker:
I would never discourage anybody from going, but that is not necessarily the case these days. The trades are super important and pay in a lot of circumstances better than any education that you would get.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know about your experience, but I know I have plenty of high school class mates of mine that didn’t go to college and got into the trades and right away they were making more money than me and they’re still making more-

Camas Uebelacker:
And they don’t have student loans and everything [crosstalk 00:05:11] else. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they had the comfort in some ways of knowing what they were doing right away rather than, “I’m not sure what I’m going to read.”

Camas Uebelacker:
Or you got to go find a job and work my way up and you can pretty well start and within a few years be going.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where’d you grow up?

Camas Uebelacker:
Outside of Yakima, Wiley City.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. But not a farm family. What’d your dad do?

Camas Uebelacker:
My dad was a college professor at Central and my mom, she was mainly in the education field.

Dillon Honcoop:
So both sort of teachers.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And did they want you to become a teacher too?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. It wasn’t anything like that. My folks were divorced and I had a stepdad that was real into cattle and that’s how I got the interest and I just liked it. It was like every day it felt like a Saturday. And it still does, so I just.

Dillon Honcoop:
At what age were you starting to think about even just like being on a ranch? When did you first get the chance to go out and do that?

Camas Uebelacker:
In all reality, I was probably 15, 16, somewhere right in there and just really into it. I like cattle and I like the work and it was interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you lived in town but got to go out to a farm?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. We always lived out. It wasn’t like I was just straight out of town, but no, we had some acreage and we always had horses and cattle and things like that growing up, but never on a scale of what we do now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So there you were, young kid, which… I grew up on a berry farm and both my parents had grown up on dairy farms, so I’ve been around animals a bit too, but I always thought the ranch and cattle thing was cool.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you’re young, it sounds cool. Right?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was it what you thought it was when you were a kid? What did you find out from there until-

Camas Uebelacker:
I’ve pretty well done every gamut where you’d take three horses and ride out, and camp for a week, and check cattle. That’s really cool for the first week and then it’s, “Man, it’d be nice to be home and get a shower.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Like a real cowboy deal. You’ve done that.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. And it was fun and it was definitely one of those things when you’re 20, if you’re into it, I would encourage anybody, just go for it, man. But the reality is those jobs are there, they’re still there. The West is still alive and doing cool stuff like that, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you did that here in Washington?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, that was in the Dakotas.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the Dakotas.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. Went back there for a couple of years and that was before all the oil field stuff, when minimum wage was still 475 and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah, it was pretty fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that where you were doing the cowboy thing?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, I think it was probably less than that because I was on salary, but you can’t win them all. But no, it was cool. It was a great experience. That stuff’s neat and it evolved. Matter of fact, when I got done with that job, I moved home and I was going to take a couple of weeks off, and I have an uncle that has a feedlot out here and he asked if I could come help for high moisture corn harvest, supposed to last two weeks and I ended up working for him for two years.

Camas Uebelacker:
That’s how I really got the interest in the feedlot. I was just blown away by what you can do with an animal in a fairly short period of time. But the day I started working there, that’s the best I was ever going to be, so that’s why I went back to school to think if maybe I could get a job at a bigger yard, managing it or something like that, and I did that.

Camas Uebelacker:
I ended up working for a bigger feedlot for a couple of years. I really enjoyed it, but then when the opportunity came up for me to do my own, I jumped. I went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that scary?

Camas Uebelacker:
Super, man. I’ve never signed on a line and had my name look so shaky. That’s a lot of money and as young, no one really gave me, I guess credibility. I had a good name in the industry and that’s part of the reason that we’re where we’re at now is because somebody gave me a shot. And we’ve had that same customer almost since day one. As they’ve grown, we’ve grown with them to what it is now.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you thinking at that time? You decided like, I’m going to do this.

Camas Uebelacker:
The crazy thing is, if you got enough guts, anybody could… You could build a feedlot and put a sign up front says, “I’m a feedlot.” Doesn’t mean anybody’s going to send any cattle. And we’re accustomed feedlot so we don’t necessarily own the cattle. We might own a percentage or something like that, but to be in the custom business, it’s a pretty big leap of faith.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’d be one thing if I owned all my own cows and I put them into my own feedlot and had all that going, but I don’t have that, so we’re strictly custom. So your name means a lot, it’s still like that. Everything that we did was, like I said, in 2007 and it was done on a handshake.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that? To buy the land? To buy the machinery?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, that was to start taking in custom cattle for the customer that we had. Like I said, you can have a feedlot, but it doesn’t mean anybody’s going to send you anything. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So did you have the land then or?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. I had bought it and I wasn’t really sure how this was all going to work out. I still had a great relationship with the feedlot that I was working for and thinking, well, maybe I’ll knock on that door. But the place that I bought was so dilapidated and run down that there wasn’t a panel that would hold an animal, so I had a bunch of work to do.

Camas Uebelacker:
So I worked full time at the feedlot I was working at and then in the afternoons I’d get off work and I’d come work on mine. And I did that for about a year and it just got to be too much. We harvested our first wheat crop that year and that was… I think I sold soft white wheat for like almost 10 bucks a bushel.

Camas Uebelacker:
That was in 2008, I believe and that gave us a boost to be able to go buy some more boards and posts and fix some more stuff. And then we fired it up and it’s been running ever since.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know prices for wheat. Is that a good price?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah it’s crazy. Yeah. I think that was the highest, I think it’s ever been since I’ve farmed.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it at now, and you know?

Camas Uebelacker:
I think it’s just right at five bucks or under 5 bucks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Half of what your-

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. In all honesty, farming cattle, I wouldn’t say that it takes a lot of luck, but a guy needs a good break every once in a while for it to keep running. And that particular year was our first year and we got that boost. I’m not going to say it set the stage for the entire process, but it was damn sure a good boost that a guy needed.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want to talk more eventually about your family and stuff? Did you have family at that time or was it just you starting this?

Camas Uebelacker:
I was in engaged.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were engaged.

Camas Uebelacker:
My wife and I weren’t even married yet and we were crazy enough to buy it together, and I don’t… Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was she saying at that time? Was she sure she’s [crosstalk 00:11:43]-

Camas Uebelacker:
She’s awesome. I married absolute big, it’s not even funny. But no, she was very encouraging. She knew I could do the work, she knew that it was a good opportunity. The cool part about it is she’s in the banking industry and I won’t say names, but I can’t bank where she works because it’s a conflict of interest.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
But I was really good at the work and she was really good at helping me make the right business decisions.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
I really wish I wouldn’t have got an animal science degree, I wish I would’ve got a banking or economics or some sort of business degree as opposed… Because the stuff that we do everyday out in the feedlot is stuff that you will learn on the job, or a veterinarian, or a nutritionist, or somebody can help you with, but running your own business, you really need to be intimate with it and know that if I buy this piece of equipment, it’s going to put me back a year, or two, or five, or how am I going to pay for this?

Dillon Honcoop:
And is that worth it?

Camas Uebelacker:
Is it the right decision to make-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Camas Uebelacker:
… because potentially you might be the best cattle feeder on the earth, but if you don’t make the right business decisions you know it’s going to sink you.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you made the right decision with that soft white wheat?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. That went really well. That was a good move. And I contracted at all at the peak of the market and sold it and it was awesome. I was like, “Man, I don’t know why everybody doesn’t do this. This is easy.” I did start at the right time. Ag was going to be good and it has been good after that point for another six years or so, and then it peaked out and has been on a a steady decline.

Camas Uebelacker:
But it gets you for those first like six, seven years where you’re paying off a lot of equipment, a lot of land debt, a lot of just debt period, and I feel pretty fortunate that we started when we did because to do it on a day like today where the markets are down and it’s a lot tougher.

Camas Uebelacker:
Land’s worth more now, rents are higher. It’d be pretty tough.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re saying it’s still pretty darn scary to jump in both feet?

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh yeah. Looking back at it now, I can’t believe I did it. And I don’t know how I made it work, but we did.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like your first year was a lot of hours for sure.

Camas Uebelacker:
Oh man. [crosstalk 00:13:59] It was crazy. And like I said, I got a good wife. She was cool with it and-

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a day were you putting in when you were working basically another full job?

Camas Uebelacker:
I used to have to co-feed at that other feedlot and so I would be there… We had to be there at 4:30, and then I’d get off about 3:30 or 4:00, and then I’d come to my yard and work on it until probably 8:00 at night and go home.

Dillon Honcoop:
I do the math on that. That’s a couple of hours right there.

Camas Uebelacker:
It was tough, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
And that was every day?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. At that yard we worked a six and two schedule, so six days on, two days off. And then obviously if it’s just me, there’s no days off here.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

Camas Uebelacker:
I did that for about a year and a half. Matter of fact, I think it was three years before I ever even hired an employee to help me. I needed a break. It was pretty tough, but like I said, my wife was on board and we went for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain what it is you actually do. You’ve been talking, you have C&G Cattle Company-

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… you run a feedlot to a lot of people. That’s a dirty word-

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
… but what does it really mean?

Camas Uebelacker:
My operation is what in the industry, what we call it, backgrounding yard or… Basically what we do is we bring in light cattle that would have just been weaned off a cow, and we bring them in at 550, 600 pounds, and then we’ll take those to 900 pounds. And then after that, those will go to a finish feedlot where they put a finish on the animal.

Camas Uebelacker:
And then those cattle are typically harvested at this time, 1,450 pounds. So they’ll take them for quite a while longer after I have them. But what we do is we get the health straight on them and we have a really good solid vaccine program that we use on them, a good feed program. And we basically get them healthy, get them eating, getting them straightened out.

Camas Uebelacker:
And then when the finish feedlot takes them, it’s pretty push button for them. It’s really easy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you mean straightened out? What does that involve?

Camas Uebelacker:
My specialty and I guess why I exist in the world is we’re pretty good at high risk cattle, meaning that those that are cattle that came from a ranch, that they take them to a sale yard. Our buyers put them together into usually truck load sizes and we buy from Canada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, California and they’ll be brought in into my place.

Camas Uebelacker:
And so from there, we don’t really necessarily know any vaccine history on them. We don’t know if they’ve ever even had a vaccine. We know where they came from because most of them are branded, but beyond that, we know very little.

Dillon Honcoop:
High risk, what’s the risk? The risk is to you?

Camas Uebelacker:
No, the risk is to a customer. We try to mitigate that risk as much as we can with the protocols and programs that we’ve put in place over the years. It’s crazy how much it changes. I wouldn’t say so much year to year, but from when I first started doing this to now, we’ve fed enough cattle that we have a pretty solid program put together.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s it’s definitely, I would say less… I shouldn’t say less on the technical side, but it’s it’s a little bit more… It’s a slower process. We’d go real easy with them, a lot of high roughage diets. We’re not trying to push them, we’re not shooting for a really high average daily gain.

Camas Uebelacker:
Basically we want to get them eating, make sure they’re healthy, lots of access to fresh water. We have a really intense and very technical mineral package that we put together because a lot of cattle that come from different areas of Washington, or Oregon, or Idaho, certain areas of those States the grass is deficient in minerals and it can affect their immune system.

Camas Uebelacker:
So over the years, that’s one thing that we’ve really developed. It’s all key laded vitamins and minerals. It’s readily available. It’s in every load of feed that we produce and we’ll get those cattle caught back up on nutrition-wise what they need and then they stay healthy and put on pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, these are cattle that have been out on the range somewhere?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yup. Yeah. These would be calves that would come off of a cow that were grazing. It could be in the high desert of Oregon, it could be in the Plains of BC, or it could have been… We don’t get a lot of coast cattle, but if we buy out of central Oregon, sometimes we’ll get coast cattle off of like Coos Bay, those areas.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so when you talk about high risk and risk to the customer, the customer would be whatever operation is going to buy them to finish them and harvest them?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. The risk would be basically the day they buy them from the sale yard. So they’re going to own them all the way through. You’re going to feed them and take care of them for them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Camas Uebelacker:
And under that feeding care is our program that we basically get them straightened out, and healthy, and looking like good cattle.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to what I said, some people feel like feedlot’s dirty word. What’s your response to that?

Camas Uebelacker:
I love what I do. We don’t have the prettiest aspect of the livestock world. A ranch has green grass, rolling hills, pine trees and everything else. We’ve gotten metal corrals and concrete feed bunks. So it’s not the prettiest thing, but the thing that blows my mind every year is at the end of the year when I get done and I sit down and I look at how many cattle we put through there, the pounds of beef that we put on animals and all of that, it’s typically if you use the average of what a consumer eats every year, my facility feeds about 65,000 people a year.

Dillon Honcoop:
65,000 people worth of beef.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yep. That’s my response. I don’t really know how else to say that. In my opinion, there’s no nothing more noble than feeding somebody. If I met some guy on the side of the road, he’s hungry or whatever and I brought him home and fed him, I did him a bigger sell than giving him five bucks. That’s going to last a little longer than five.

Camas Uebelacker:
For me to be able to say that I feed 65,000 people and it’s something that it’s so important to us that every employee that we have knows it because… And the cool part about a feedlot is we literally use the most modern technology that anybody has in the Ag industry. But we also still use the old school stuff where somebody sat on a horse. And there’s very few industries that you can say that.

Camas Uebelacker:
Row crop farming, it’s you’re climbing a tractor and you’ve got the most modern tillage equipment and all that, and I farm and we have that. But when it gets down to the feedlot, it’s a different mentality. It is long hours, it’s dirty, dusty, stinky work, but food is a dirty, dusty, stinky job and I’m happy to be part of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you do think about it in terms of the food that you produce for people? Your team with the things that you’re doing on a day to day basis, that’s in the back of your mind?

Camas Uebelacker:
Absolutely. And it’s also one of those industries when people say, “Every job here’s important.” And I agree with that in most industries, but I would say at my feedlot, that rings more true than anywhere because we wash the water tanks regularly and that’s typically when you hire a guy, that’s where he starts.

Camas Uebelacker:
If he wants to move up through the chain of command and eventually be a pen rider, or a feed truck driver, or some of those jobs, or a processor or any of those, that’s where you start, but that job is very important. If you don’t watch the tanks, there’s a potential that you could have sick cattle or something like that. So it is pretty cool that it is a neat industry, a neat trade that literally every job there that gets done every day on a daily basis is important and you feed people.

Camas Uebelacker:
Whether or not they want to eat it or not, but that’s the beauty of America. They can choose to buy beef or they can choose to buy other protein products, but the people that choose to buy it, I’m feeding them and I’m cool with that, and I’ll keep doing it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I think more and more people, as much controversy as there is about as far as some people go with different takes on beef, I think there is also an awareness that people are coming around to that it’s an important protein source.

Camas Uebelacker:
It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
And not all protein is created equal.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, no, it’s not. Whether or not you choose to buy it, that’s the beauty of where we live. There’s more options out there than you can ever imagine. What I was telling you earlier in the beef sector, there’s conventional, there’s organic, there’s grass-fed, there’s natural, there’s all these different segments.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I don’t really care what you eat as long as you’re eating beef. I’m team beef. You never take your wife out to a chicken dinner.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ll remember that.

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s a reason they make a steak night, not a chicken.

Dillon Honcoop:
Chicken night.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m just joking. But to go back to where your initial question, they’re not beautiful, but they’re designed to be extremely efficient. They’re designed to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Feedlot.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. Not waste. I can tell you exactly how much my corn silage pit is going to shrink in the next 12 months. We’re down to the pounds, and extremely efficient. We’re in a business of the margin is literally penny sometimes, so if I make a decision to change a feed additive that would maybe help in the immune system, typically the salesman is going to tell me, “It’s in sense per head per day.”

Camas Uebelacker:
And that might not sound like a lot. Right? On one head you’re like, “ell, it’s going to cost me two cents more per head per day.” But when you spread that over 4,000 head and you’re going to do it over the next 90 days, well that’s a chunk of change.

Dillon Honcoop:
You say feed additive, I’m sure some people might say, “Oh, what kind of chemicals are you given these animals?”

Camas Uebelacker:
No, no, it’s nothing like that and any feed additive that we do feed would have a zero day withdrawal because it’s in the feed. Antibiotics, if we do [doctrine animal 00:23:48], it has a withdrawal. Those are set by the FDA. We have to follow. No animals with any residue are ever shipped, can’t do it. It’s illegal.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying any beef can’t have antibiotics in it?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. And I’ll even help out the other industries, any meat product that you would see in a supermarket cannot have any antibiotic residue in it. It is illegal and it won’t have it in it. That’s why we have the safety checks. That’s why America’s awesome. Other countries, I don’t believe they have… I shouldn’t speak to those countries, but I know for a fact I’ve toured the processing plants, I’ve seen the steps and measures that they go do it and I am 100% proud to say I’m part of that industry.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why is it that some things you see in the grocery store might say antibiotic free and others don’t then?

Camas Uebelacker:
Because it all has to be antibiotic free and it’s a marketing, I shouldn’t say scheme or something like that, but it’s purely marketing. And I would encourage, if someone does have a question, I wouldn’t jump on Google, and I wouldn’t jump on Facebook, and I wouldn’t jump on Instagram, and all those other deals where everyone gets their news now, but I would call a farmer. We’re in the phone book.

Dillon Honcoop:
So this whole like this meat is antibiotic free, it’s a farce because it’s all supposed to be, otherwise it’s illegal?

Camas Uebelacker:
Illegal. It’s all antibiotic free and it’s a marketing ploy. But it’s tugging at the heartstrings of consumers and I don’t think that’s fair. You’re not going to get that from a guy like me, you’re going to get that from the bigger companies that are trying to sell that product.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back to the feedlot issue, I think one of the things that people worry about or fear and the image that they have in their mind is that animals are not being treated well in a feedlot. You’re talking about getting animals healthy in your feedlot. Where’s the breakdown there? Why is it that people think feedlots are bad for animals?

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re saying, you’re actually getting them healthy in your feedlot.

Camas Uebelacker:
I guess I can break a day down for you real quick just to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Sure.

Camas Uebelacker:
… make it crystal clear for everybody. We check their feed every morning. My guy that does it starts at 5:30. He drives through, checks every feed bunk, every pen gets checked. At the time when he’s typically doing that, he’ll check the water tanks to make sure they’re full, or not overflowing, or there’s some issue there.

Camas Uebelacker:
Then once the feeding and water and everything’s checked, every pen is checked, so every animal gets looked at. We have developed facilities and updated everything to the point that there isn’t even a hot-shot on my farm. We don’t own one. We don’t need one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hot-shot, what’s that?

Camas Uebelacker:
All the electric prods-

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay.

Camas Uebelacker:
… that everybody thinks that-

Dillon Honcoop:
To get an animal moving?

Camas Uebelacker:
Yeah. We don’t use them, we don’t have them. There’s no need. We’ve updated, we’ve designed, we’ve become… Every guy I have is Beef Quality Assurance certified and part of that training program is moving cattle, loading cattle, unloading cattle, processing cattle. We’re big on it. The cool part is it’s so relaxing when we are doing those things and moving cattle. It isn’t even hard.

Camas Uebelacker:
This isn’t whipping and spurs, scream and yell. This isn’t working cows with your grandpa. We do this every day, we’re good at it, we care about them and literally, I make my living from taking care of them. That’s the whole reason I have a job.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why would you be hurting them, I guess is the question.

Camas Uebelacker:
There’s no damn reason in the world to ever treating an animal ill. We have a saying and it hangs above my shop door that says, “Treat them like they’re yours.” Because we truly are in a custom business where there aren’t our animals, but we do… And the guys that work for me, most of them have been with me a long time and we hold ourselves to a very high standard.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I think we have to, and I think that’s also part of the reason that we’ve grown how we have and we’ve been able to maintain an existing customer for as long as we have. And also grow to be basically the largest grow yard in the Northwest. I’m proud to say that. But we treat every one of them as if we own them.

Camas Uebelacker:
And I’m not going to try to scare people off and throw dollars and cents and “Oh, I have this huge investment in them.” But to boil it down for you, when my feedlot’s full, it’s $4 million in cattle inventory, just cattle. That’s not feed, that’s not anything else. And I’m a 4,000 feedlot. These big guys, the bigger feedlots have even more. So to say that I would ever treat one of them poorly, or deny them water, or fresh feed, or any of that thing is just, it’s asinine.

Camas Uebelacker:
You’re not gonna do it, you can’t. And like I said, the reason we’ve been able to excel and expand and become who we are is because we care for them so well.

Dillon Honcoop:
What you’re saying resonates with what I hear from a lot of farmers and what I know practically to be true, which is, if you want to do well, if you want an animal to produce well, why would you want to abuse them or hurt them? Doesn’t make any sense. But yet there still is this perception that the way that farms are now is just an industrial farming or a factory farm and they’re just pushing animals through, and they’re abusing them.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just going off of what I’m assuming the mindset is here, that they’re abusing them to save money and get more out of them somehow, which-

Camas Uebelacker:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re saying that’s backwards?

Camas Uebelacker:
It is. Very much so, and it’s to the point where we also have saying that it’s “Quality feed, quality animal.” I grow the majority of the feed for my feedlot on my own farm ground. I’ve got a neighbor that grows a lot for me, but the other beauty of feedlots is we take products that aren’t typically… They would typically in another industry be waste.

Camas Uebelacker:
One ingredient that I don’t personally feed, but a lot of them would do in the area that we’re at is a French Fries, and they’re called French Fries because it has a black spot on it and McDonald’s won’t sell it. And if you did get it in your French Fries, you might take it back and say, “Hey, this one’s burnt.” But it’s perfectly good cattle feed.

Camas Uebelacker:
So for us to be able to use the byproducts that come from other industries, like we feed a lot of bluegrass straw. Bluegrass straw comes from the grass seed industry that planted your front lawn, or a golf course, or lawns around hotels and all these places that have green grass. It comes from somewhere and we feed a byproduct out of it.

Camas Uebelacker:
Same thing every time you fill up your car with gasoline E85, the other 15% is ethanol and we feed a lot of ethanol by-product. It’s called wet distillers grains. After they extract the part that they’re going to put in gasoline, we feed what’s left over and it’s awesome feed.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would happen to it otherwise?

Camas Uebelacker:
I couldn’t even tell you. With the intent when our government decided that they needed to up the ethanol in it and production went up and people… You can buy it dried, you can buy it in a pellet, you can buy it wet, you can buy it different ways, but it’s all going to end up in animal feed.

Dillon Honcoop:
But other than animal feed, it’s pretty much wouldn’t be good for anything?

Camas Uebelacker:
You’d dump it. But it’s good animal. It’s great animal feed. It’s not just good, it’s great. The potato industry is huge in our area, so there’s a lot of feedlots that feed the potato byproducts. There’s stuff what they call hopper waste, there’s slurry, there’s various parts of the process that prepare that potato for human food. It ends up in a byproduct that feedlots utilize.

Camas Uebelacker:
That’s another cool part of the industry is that, I think they call them upcyclers. I guess if you know it. I always say it’s trash to cash, so we buy those products, we store them here on site and then we feed it.

Dillon Honcoop:
These animals are basically taking, like you talk about this distiller’s waste and they’re turning that, which would otherwise be unusable.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
And certainly is not edible.

Camas Uebelacker:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re turning that into high quality protein for humans-

Camas Uebelacker:
For humans.

Dillon Honcoop:
… to consume.

Camas Uebelacker:
Yup. Yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do you think then about all this, we gotta get rid of beef because it’s using up land, and water, and all these things and causing climate change?

Camas Uebelacker:
I read through those, but the cool part about my feedlot, and I’m going to speak about mine, we reuse everything. So the manure that comes out of my pens goes back on my farm ground. And it’s not raw manure, we typically age it, compost it, and screen it, and then it goes back on as… I remember my grandma always used to buy [Begs Deer Manure 00:32:44]. Well, I make it by the truckload.

Camas Uebelacker:
And we spread that back on our farms at agronomic rates, and the cool part is, is when I started doing that, my fertilizer bill went down close to $30,000 a circle and that comes out of my yard, my feedlot. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s heading towards organic right there.

Camas Uebelacker:
I’m pretty much the greenest hippie you’ve ever met. When people say things like that, it really bugs me because we work so hard at making sure that we don’t waste anything. My guys get tired of me telling them, “Hey, quit spill and feed. Make sure he shoveled at. Clean that up. Scrape that into a pile.” The part-

Dillon Honcoop:
Maybe that’s just because you’re cheap though.

Camas Uebelacker:
No, it’s efficient. I’m efficient.

Dillon Honcoop:
I just had to give you a hard time.

Camas Uebelacker:
And there’s all this other stuff, when people say that, I look at them and I want to ask them, “Well, what is it that you do to change it? You drove here, you use plastic, you’ve got garbage in your garbage can. What are you doing?” By the way, I farm a couple hundred acres that sequesters carbon.

Camas Uebelacker:
Sometimes when I read that, I just want to say, “You know what? You’re welcome. I’m glad I could help you out.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re not concerned about cows causing climate change-

Camas Uebelacker:
Not at all? Nope. I’m more worried about all the people that drive that probably should just walk. I think that the noise about those things that are coming to people like me that are trying to feed people, I think that maybe those masses should do a little something to change. I think that they do, but I don’t think they do it on the scale that I do. I have a hard time buying it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Obviously, we’re talking about the environment here. What else do you do for the environment? You talked about manure, people have environmental concerns about manure and how it’s handled. You mentioned you put it on your fields, you mentioned agronomic rate. What does that mean?

Camas Uebelacker:
We put on and typically we will fall apply or spring apply manure. And in the area that we’re in, it’s extremely dry. Our average rain fall’s six inches a year, so we don’t typically worry about the leeching into groundwater or anything like that. We’re also 600 feet to ground water, so it’s a ways down there. But the agronomic rate, so if we… We pull soil samples every spring, every fall so we know where we’re at with what the crop would use and what it’s going to need, and we don’t over apply.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you don’t apply beyond what the crop is going to use?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. It’s really cool. Like I said, it’s a cool industry. We’ve got the most modern… The tractors that pull the wagon got GPS, the wagons have scales. I know how many pounds are going on every acre. And the part of the reason is, you want to talk about trash to cash, this has become a valuable product because it’s not just the nitrogen, the N, P and K that’s in it, it’s also all the micronutrients.

Camas Uebelacker:
It’s a living product that when you apply it to soil, plants, it’s readily available. There is no process that has to go through. So it’s good for ground and it’s to the point now that it’s a saleable product. So when people think that we’re out here just over applying it, there’s really no monetary reason to do that because if you can utilize what it is that you need… Like my farm, I utilize what I need on mine and then if I have leftover I’ll sell it. But if I don’t, I’ll use it.

Camas Uebelacker:
So there is no reason for me to just throw money out the back of my manure spreader just because I have to get rid of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s not a waste?

Camas Uebelacker:
No. Nope. It’s a waste product in the feedlot, but once it hits farm ground, it’s as good as gold.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re big into soil health stuff then?

Camas Uebelacker:
Absolutely, have to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the key to good soil health?

Camas Uebelacker:
A good crop rotation. In our area, our soils are mostly, what they call arid soils it’s a highly… We’re in an arid area, so our soils inherently, they’re low in organic matter, so anytime that we can put that back in, it helps with the water-holding, water penetration, just overall soil health.

Camas Uebelacker:
If we decide to do high moisture corn for harvest, all those corn stocks will go back into the soil. If we choose to do silage, we’ll take the silage off, but we’re going to put compost back on. Over the years that I’ve owned this farm, every year it continues to yield higher, and that’s the goal.

Camas Uebelacker:
There is no reason to just farm it, to farm it, it’s a longterm project and it’s a longterm investment. It’s not cheap to spread manure, it’s not cheap to just apply it. You’re talking, there’s a guy on a tractor, a guy on a loader, you’re talking burning diesel. There’s all those things, but when it’s all said and done, when you talk about the greenhouse gas and all that other stuff, those crops that we’re growing are going to sequester carbon.

Camas Uebelacker:
So I think that my footprint is probably smaller than most people’s. I truly believe that.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Next week in the second half of our conversation with Camas Uebelacker, we find out more about his family and what he sees as the future of farming and the issues around producing food here in Washington State. He has more answers coming up next week that you probably wouldn’t expect to hear from a guy who’s running a feedlot.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s really cool and encouraging to hear people across the board breaking stereotypes of the things that they care about, the things that are important to them and what really drives their operations. So a big thank you again to Camas for opening up with us and sharing some of this. And I’m really excited to next week share the second half of our conversation again with Camas Uebelacker of C&G Cattle Company in Othello, Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
As I’m always reminding you, make sure to follow us on social media, Real Food, Real People Podcast on Facebook, on Instagram as well. I think the handle is… What is it? @rfrp_podcast. That’s the handle on Instagram as well as on Twitter, so we’d love it and we’d really appreciate it if you followed us there, shared our content.

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re just trying to get these stories to more people in Washington so they can start to hear from the real farmers that are producing our food here. Rather than having to hear from anyone else, why not straight from the horse’s mouth, as the saying goes. We really appreciate you supporting the podcast in that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
And of course, always welcome feedback on any of those social media platforms as well as dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org. That’s my email address. Feel free to shoot me an email anytime you want. If you’ve got a thought on the show, maybe you didn’t like something that someone said or you have a different perspective, maybe you know somebody with a different perspective on an issue that I should have on the program.

Dillon Honcoop:
We want to hear from all perspectives here on Real Food, Real People, and we really appreciate you following us and listening along. We’ll catch you next week for the second half with Camas Uebelacker.

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

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.

Alex Durney part 2 | #013 03/09/2020

She never expected to be involved in farming and ranching, but now that she is, she says it's changed her life. In the second half of our conversation with Colvin Ranch manager Alex Durney, she opens up about her dreams for the future of her ranching career.

Transcript

Dillon Honcoop:
Five years ago, what would you have said if you heard yourself just say what you said now?

Alex Durney:
I would have said that you’re absolutely crazy. Absolutely crazy.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Last week on the podcast, we got to know Alex Durney a bit, and she is a rancher now managing Colvin Ranch in Tenino, Washington, but that wasn’t her background. She didn’t grow up around farming or ranching, and just a couple of years ago she was a vegetarian. She was a student at Evergreen State College. Just hearing about that change and what it’s meant for her life has been so incredible and inspiring.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, we get to hear more about what this means for her future. She shares some really neat insights about the promise and the opportunity that this has given her, joining the agricultural community, and the new dreams that she has. It’s pretty inspiring, and it’s such a great story to share with you of the real people like Alex behind the food that we eat, here in the Pacific Northwest.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast, and it’s all about my journey around Washington State to share with you these stories of the real people behind our food. Thank you for being with us, and enjoy the second half of the conversation with Alex Durney.

Dillon Honcoop:
You touched on this earlier, saying that you don’t really fit the mold for what someone expects for a rancher. What’s it like to be a woman in the farming world?

Alex Durney:
It’s really hard. You’re not taken seriously at all. By very few people are you taken seriously, I feel like. That’s the biggest thing for me, especially since I’m so young. It’s like, “What do you know,” kind of thing, and that is really hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that a young-versus-old, or a male-versus-female thing? Or is it a background [crosstalk 00:02:25]

Alex Durney:
That’s a young-versus-old and male-versus-female.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Are you part of the family? That could be another element to that.

Alex Durney:
I am not part of the family either. I am the one coming into a family ranch and taking over. I mean, had their daughters taken over, they only had daughters, so they would have had a female rancher right there.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you deal with that?

Alex Durney:
I just brush it off. Females are growing in the farming and ranching industry. It’s happening. Classes that I’ve taken, the female population within those classes is rising each year. More and more women are becoming interested in this. I think it’s because we’re finally realizing that we don’t have to stay within this stereotype that I want to say America and a lot of other countries have given us. We can do all of these things. We are not these little fragile beings. We can make it happen.

Alex Durney:
I don’t want to mean this in a bad way, but I mean, sometimes we work a little bit smarter and not harder. Even we just went through a workshop today where he said, “You can hire a cowboy or you can hire a cowgirl. You’re probably going to make a better profit off of hiring yourself a cowgirl, because they’re not going to drive things as fast or break things as quickly. They’re going to work with their brain, not with their muscles.”

Alex Durney:
Just a funny aspect of it, but I mean, things are changing. More and more women are becoming interested in this. Because of how things have been changing in society, we finally have the opportunity to embrace it, and it’s great.

Dillon Honcoop:
You said earlier something to the effect of you don’t want to see it go away, meaning the kind of ranching that you’re doing.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. I don’t want to see these small-scale ranches go away, the ones that are just going down like flies.

Dillon Honcoop:
What are the pressures that are causing that to happen?

Alex Durney:
Larger operations, and also customer influence. If more and more customers supported the local smaller operations, there would be a demand for it. Cattlemen and women would not have to sell off their animals for super cheap. They would be able to direct market them to the public right next to them that’s in their vicinity. It’s kind of the best part. More people need to buy local, support that.

Alex Durney:
It’s mostly customers and where they’re putting their dollar, whether you’re putting your dollar into buying from Tyson at the grocery store, or you’re going to your local farmers market or co-op and buying directly from a ranch or a farm that, if you very well wanted to, you could drive by or possibly visit.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does this all mean for your personal life?

Alex Durney:
For my personal life? I feel like my personal life has been turned upside down the last few years. We all have this dream of getting out of college and getting your dream job. This was not my dream job, but it’s turning into it. What this means for me is I have this whole new opportunity that I’m possibly being given, and I mean, this is a ranch that their children don’t want to run it. They need to find someone to run it.

Alex Durney:
The fact that I have the opportunity to learn how to run it from the family who has been doing it since the 1850s is truly a gift, and to possibly be able to own it one day would be great, and be able to run my cattle in the same way that I do now under their name and for their business. The opportunity has given me a lot personally.

Dillon Honcoop:
Five years ago, what would you have said if you heard yourself just say what you said now?

Alex Durney:
Two years ago. Not even two years ago.

Dillon Honcoop:
“I dream of running my cattle one day on this.”

Alex Durney:
Yeah. No.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you have said?

Alex Durney:
I would have said that you’re absolutely crazy. Absolutely crazy. I never would have thought that. If you would’ve asked me five months ago when they asked me if I wanted to buy in, I initially said no because it scared the crap out of me. The unknown is scary, but there’s just such a big opportunity sitting there with the way that things have been changing within the agricultural industry, and also the political platform that this ranch in particular has.

Alex Durney:
I went into freshwater ecology to make a change, and had I continued that career path, in order to obtain that and possibly make a change, I probably would have been in my 50s or 60s before I ever really got a chance to make a change. Sitting here now, I could possibly make a change before I’m 30, and that’s fascinating to me, and make a change with an industry that’s so many people are hating on right now and want to see die.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that part of the list of threats?

Alex Durney:
Kind of. It’s like I want to prove them wrong.

Dillon Honcoop:
How are you going to do that? How are you going to prove them wrong?

Alex Durney:
Run cattle, and how they were meant to be run, and just do it in the best way that maintains the land, keeps that land how it’s been for almost over, now, 170 years. That land is immaculate, in my terms. To someone else’s, they’d be like, “This land is horrible.”

Dillon Honcoop:
You say it’s your dream to not see this go away. It’s potentially your dream to one day call this ranch your own.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Who knows what may or may not happen, right, but you’re saying it’s becoming maybe your dream job kind of thing. You’re still not sure.

Alex Durney:
Yeah. I mean, it’s a purpose. Everyone’s got to have a purpose.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re also talking about people who want to see that whole thing go away. What would your message to them be? If you could just talk to them about it directly, what would you say?

Alex Durney:
Just having an open mind, broadening what they see as the beef industry and what we do. It’s not all the same. You can’t put us all underneath the same umbrella. There are a lot of different umbrellas, and identifying the best ones and hopefully moving towards more of that, and being open to that idea and working with them. I want to be able to work with them.

Alex Durney:
Having all beef, this carnivore idea or this full-on herbivore idea, we need to find a middle that works for everyone. I believe that I’m on the side of the beef, that could actually maintain and move forward and be able to create a cohesive environment for these two ideologies to exist. That’s what I want to work towards. That’s my goal. I want both of those things to exist in a place.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, that is a big dream.

Alex Durney:
That is a big dream.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because so many people think it’s not even possible right now. There’s just too much polarization, that people are in their own camps on what they think about this stuff. You’re talking about blowing that up.

Alex Durney:
I mean, a divided country we live in right now, divided in so many different ways, and at the end of the day, we all know that we need to just talk. We need to come together and we need to speak, and we need to not only speak, but we need to listen. We’re not going to make a change unless we do those two things.

Dillon Honcoop:
How can you do that from a ranch in Western Washington?

Alex Durney:
Perfect. I’m located only about 15 minutes from the state capital. It doesn’t take me very long to go annoy some legislators about some policy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do they need to hear?

Alex Durney:
I guess that’s kind of hard, because we have the polarized communities working against each other. They’re listening to both sides. How can they really do it? What do they need to hear? I guess it’s not even really what they need to hear. We need to come together as a community first, because they’re not going to be able to decide on either side while we’re still so divided.

Alex Durney:
Because in their terms, no matter what they decide, someone is going to be angry. Whereas if we at least try to come together as a community, and even if you hate one side of it, you don’t have to support it, but you can work to try and make things better on that side, or at least come together to agree on something that maybe … you know, you’ve got to give a little to get a little. For us to come together and actually be able to go to our legislation about what we want to do would be the most ideal thing, but how we come together is difficult.

Alex Durney:
There are multiple organizations specifically within the meat industry that I know of, trying to get more people in the meat industry, beef, poultry, these other sides of it, to come together to create, again, more of a platform to be able to really show people what the small portion, the small family farms, what they’re all about, so that there is more of that voice so that people can see that, so that hopefully we can sooner or later get to that point where we can come together as a community and not really come to a decision but get more in that gray area, as we were talking about earlier, to come to a decision to bring to our legislation and possibly actually make a change within this country. In order for us to be more comfortable, we have to make ourselves uncomfortable.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s uncomfortable going to look like?

Alex Durney:
I mean, vegans being okay that there might be some beef out there, but also the beef industry being completely fine with really drastically overhauling things and giving a little bit towards a more environmentally-friendly way of doing things, and protecting the land. Because if we don’t do that, why are people who are so against the beef industry ever going to want to come over onto our side? You don’t have to love it. You just have to be okay with it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it helping us move in that direction when people are ranting about no one should be eating beef ever under any circumstance, and if you do, you’re a terrible person?

Alex Durney:
Yeah, no. I believe that that is making the divide so much deeper, personally. Whenever people are aggressive … I guess that’s probably the best term to use, aggressive … on their technique of conveying their ideology, I don’t want to be part of a group that’s aggressive or accusatory or any of those things. That’s not a space or people that I even really want to surround myself with.

Alex Durney:
To me, just looking at that for face value, it really turns me off. Also, you could turn the exact same thing towards beef, and I understand where those vegans are coming from. That’s how I’ve been saying, of we really just have to come together. We can’t polarize each other in that way. We’re not going to make a change by excluding others. We need to include others.

Dillon Honcoop:
In that equation, let’s put the militant vegans on one end of the spectrum. What’s the other end?

Alex Durney:
Those would be the meat-and-potato guys. “That’s all you need. What is this kale sitting on my plate for?”

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t see them out.

Alex Durney:
They’re not, because they know that they have a place. People eat beef and people love it. It’s a lot harder to tell people not to eat beef. Maybe that’s why vegans have to be so aggressive about it. Do I think that’s the best way of going about their message? No. A lot of the time, the polar vegans are just really driving people away from that doorstep by being too aggressive.

Alex Durney:
I mean, would they be still super mad if they came onto a ranch similar to ours where they’re able to just see animals grazing about? I mean, we’ve had Evergreen students come out that are no longer vegan or vegetarian, because they for the first time saw that there are other options. They simply didn’t know.

Alex Durney:
For different people, I mean, vegans have their different reasons why they’re vegan. There’s the environmental and then there’s the emotional. I totally get the emotional. I’m not going to try and change the way that you think about beef. If that is how you feel, great. Do not change that.

Alex Durney:
With the environmental aspect, there are things in this world that have far worse environmental impacts than a small family ranch. Your car driving back to work is probably a larger environmental impact just for you on a daily basis than it probably is for half of our ranch. There’s bigger issues.

Alex Durney:
I think that there’s also a lot of data that is messed up. Not messed up, but there’s a lot of private-party data being collected.

Dillon Honcoop:
On what?

Alex Durney:
Just CO2 emissions, greenhouse gases, all these different things. There’s a lot of these private-party surveys going on and data coming out, and which ones are really true is the hard part. I think we’re struggling with that, not just with what we’re talking about, but with so many other things right now. Finding the facts and weeding through everything to find out what is truly a fact is becoming more and more difficult, and it’s requiring more and more time by the consumer in order to figure that out.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the hardest thing, coming into the farming, ranching world from your background, which really isn’t that at all?

Alex Durney:
Pretty much nonexistent. The largest challenge, learning everything. Learning. This industry is so complex, and there is just so much to it on a daily basis. I love my job because I go to work and it’s different every single day, but it is also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’ve had to learn more than I think four years of college ever taught me in a matter of a couple of months, in order to make sure that I could actually be productive for them as a business or from a business standpoint.

Alex Durney:
That’s probably the hardest thing, was the amount of information that I had to just jam into my brain, which then made it so obvious how much information the public does not know, and I think that’s kind of a special part. I went from being this person of just general public, taking sides, being a vegetarian, and coming into this and just basically completely turning my world upside down in a sense, and just opening my mind to what this industry really is. It’s a lot more than people see.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you only had 30 seconds to convince somebody of that, what would you tell them?

Alex Durney:
Oh, the elevator talk.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that the world that you’re in is different than people think.

Alex Durney:
Oh, gosh. How would you ever explain that to someone in 30 seconds? You can’t explain that to someone in 30 seconds. That took me months. I’m still learning. I mean, I feel like people should just know that what you see, I mean, everyone has a different view of everything. Your view of the world is completely different from my view of the world. Just being open to listening to those different sides, and taking in all the information that you possibly can to make yourself a more educated consumer.

Alex Durney:
That’s the thing. I’m not going to try and change their mind. I just want them to be more educated. I want them to step more out of their comfort zone and look at what’s really going on. Go to these ranches. If you really want to be against it, really look into it. Don’t just hate it.

Alex Durney:
It’s like when your mom always told you “Don’t hate it until you try it” when it’s a food item. Just because sushi has raw fish in it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be disgusting. You can’t hate it until you try it.

Dillon Honcoop:
If you do try it and you don’t like it, that’s fine.

Alex Durney:
Great for you. I’m not going to try and change your mind. I don’t really think that there is a cattle person who would try and change your mind. If you don’t like it, it’s not for you, great, but don’t hate it until you try it, or at least don’t hate it until you investigate it a little bit more and truly understand it as a consumer.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about yourself, though? You say you’ve learned so much in the last two years. You’ve described it as it’s turned your life upside down. What about the next two years or the next ten years or more? What are you going to say in five or ten years about the positions that you have right now? Could your mind change on other things?

Alex Durney:
Yeah. I mean, I’ll always be open to new things. The world’s going to be changing a lot too. As most people know, we are now calling this a climate crisis. That’s going to have a lot to do with what happens in the next five, ten, twenty years. For me, I just want to be able to hopefully grow with that and continue to adapt to it, to make sure that people still can have sustainably-raised meat.

Alex Durney:
Whether that is still going to be beef, I don’t know, but there are other animals that do have lower impact on the land, if that’s the way that I have to move in order to continue growing as a business and also to just adapt to the environmental changes. I mean, every year is the newest worst drought year, and it could be very possible that at some point in time you can’t raise cattle on that land. Just adapting and changing with that.

Alex Durney:
For me, it’s going to be changing with the land and what the land gives me the capability of. I don’t think that my idea on animal products is going to change entirely back to my point of vegetarianism, and I guess that’s my point with if I can’t run cattle, I’ll try and run something else, until they can’t be run anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for opening up and sharing your personal story … your journey, really is what it is … to get to this point, and I’m really excited to watch and see what happens too, because it sounds like you want to do cool things with this ranch that you’re managing and there’s this future of maybe it’s your ranch someday, but you want to do stuff beyond that.

Alex Durney:
I do. I do. We will definitely see what happens. Thank you so much for having me.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I just loved it when she said really this has given her a new dream. You know, so many young people grow up and especially go to college and have dreams about changing the world, but what does that actually look like and how are they going to do it? Her explanation, of how joining the farming community actually bumps that up for her and makes that a much more real possibility and makes it happen sooner, she’s really pumped for what she’s doing, and it’s so cool to see.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks again for being with us here on the Real Food, Real People podcast. We’ve got more great conversations coming up. I’ve been talking with a lot of cool people, and excited to bring them on the program here with you. You can subscribe on Apple podcasts, on Google podcasts, on Spotify and a lot of other services, so make sure to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Please also follow us on social media. That would be awesome as well, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as well. You can find us on those channels pretty easily. Anytime if you feel like it, you can certainly reach out by email, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you again for being here, and we will be with you again next week with another incredible story of the real people behind your food, here on the Real Food, Real People podcast.

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

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

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So this was after the cosmetology degree?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Real world stuff.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The rest is history.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So Colvin Ranch.

Alex Durney:
Colvin Ranch.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Ignatius.

Alex Durney:
Ignatius Colvin.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s legit.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Where is it at?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
We do all of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the beef is-

Alex Durney:
All of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sold directly.

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

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

Alex Durney:
Still dealing with people.

Dillon Honcoop:
Living bodies and health and yeah.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
You were a vegetarian?

Alex Durney:
I was a vegetarian.

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

Alex Durney:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What changed?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that pretty common for people?

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

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

Alex Durney:
Oh yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you respond to that then?

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
Yeah.

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
They do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Durney:
I am.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Tenino, Washington.

Alex Durney:
Yes.

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

Alex Durney:
Anywhere around 250.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devin Day | #010 02/17/2020

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

Transcript

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devin Day:
Yeah, maybe I should clarify that.

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
City being Bellingham?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Big city-

Devin Day:
No. So-

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

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

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

Devin Day:
Yeah, it is-

Dillon Honcoop:
To do that.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
What? Farming involves IT now?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
No, go for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

Devin Day:
Yep, yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it Skagit Malting?

Devin Day:
It is, yeah.

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

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

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

Devin Day:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh really?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Do people get weird about eating rabbit?

Devin Day:
Not if they’re buying it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
That was me growing up.

Devin Day:
Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
To get the 200-

Devin Day:
To get the 200-

Dillon Honcoop:
Gallons of finished product?

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

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

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

Devin Day:
Evaporator-

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Tubes everywhere.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Versus the sugar maple?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Plus the cost of getting there-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devin Day:
Yeah, they are-

Dillon Honcoop:
And they want real-

Devin Day:
Absolutely. I totally agree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Devin Day:
Yeah, appreciate it.

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

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

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

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

Sandi Bammer | #009 02/10/2020

In the face of big challenges, Sandi Bammer opened her own local food store in downtown Wenatchee, Wash. She shares how hard it can be to bring locally-grown food to her community, what she's learned from the farmers she's worked with over the years, and why she's no longer a vegan.

Transcript

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Seeing what they’re doing and watching them post pictures of their land five years ago versus their land now and reading about the carbon sequestering abilities of grassland, and regenerative farming, all of this stuff I think that that has really changed my perception of the meat/dairy/egg industry.

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

(music)

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So I’m in Wenatchee for a meeting a couple of weeks ago just walking down the street. I’d never been in downtown Wenatchee, you go to check it out and I stumbled on this little grocery store right in the heart of downtown and I had to walk in. So I checked it out and up on the board was, “Know Your Farmers,” and all this stuff about buying local food, and the woman behind the counter ended up being the owner of this little shop, so I invited her to join us for a conversation here on the podcast.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I went back to my car, got my gear, and we just set up right there in the middle of the store with the coolers running in the background and it just happened. The name of the store was Rhubarb Market and Sandi Bammer is the owner. We had a great conversation about so many things. I got to know her as we recorded the podcast. It was a really, really cool experience and totally an unexpected stop on my journey across Washington State to get to know people behind our food. I’m Dillon Honcoop, this is the Real Food, Real People Podcast. And thank you for joining us this week.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
(music)

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So I met you earlier today and you have this incredible store in Downtown Wenatchee, which is where we are right now.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, in the store.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
In the middle of the store.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Downtown.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So, tell me about the store. How did this get started? What is the store? What’s it all about?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
okay, so it started… I’ve had the store for almost six years, I’ve just moved downtown. I moved it last summer, so I moved in in June and I just opened the doors to the public in November because it took a long time to get things ready. The way it came about, I worked for a nonprofit, as I was telling you earlier, and I worked for them only for a year, but I’d been involved with them for probably five years prior as a volunteer. And I was part of a group called [Eat 00:02:44] which was education and agriculture together and we did a bunch of educational, I don’t know, programs and we did like farmer, restaurant meetups and tried to just… The local food scene in Wenatchee, I guess, I was part of that and after the nonprofit closed down, I didn’t want to see the store go away and I also couldn’t find a job in Wenatchee, so I decided that I either had to move or I would start my own business. So I opened Rhubarb and it’s been six years of, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So wha-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
A little bit of struggle, local food and have… So the store itself, I guess my mission is to buy and connect the community with local food as much as possible. Now, the store I worked for for the nonprofit, we only sold things that were grown in North central Washington. So we were pretty limited and I was the store manager, I ran the CSA and I noticed that customers would come in and they’d say, “Oh, if we could get coffee here that would be great.” They’d come pick up their CSA. And so there were all these things that I thought, “If I had a store, I would do this.” And so it’s been great because I definitely… Not everything is local I try to get as much local as I can, but we have a good variety. I call myself Wenatchee’s greengrocer, our focus is vegetables.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
We buy direct from small family farms most of the time, in the winter I do use a distributor a little bit to supplement so I have more than carrots and [crosstalk 00:04:17].

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, people still need a reason to come in.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, for sure. So yeah, and I don’t know, we’re just like a fun little grocery in downtown Wenatchee, which I think it’s going to be a fun spot for us because there’s a lot going on downtown now. There’s people living here, there’s a lot of people working downtown and I think we add a fun, I don’t know, to the mix. We’re good, we’ll mix in well.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Being here I realized, I don’t think I’ve ever actually spent time in downtown Wenatchee until today when I was strolling along and happened upon your market, what people do you serve? Who comes in, who is really interested in what you’re all about like your loyal customer base?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So I think they’re definitely motivated by buying local. There’s… I have a core group of people that have followed Kim who was the originator of farmhouse table and then me and they like the idea, they love coming in and seeing the list of the farms that we buy from. They know that I know all the farmers, they like that I can tell them stories about where their food has been coming from, they know that they can ask me how to make something or what do they use rutabagas for. It’s just, I think they come in because it’s more personable than going to the grocery store in many ways, they know where their food is coming from, they can talk to somebody about their food, they’re people who really like to eat, they’re people who are excited about organic and sustainable and…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Is all of your stuff organic?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Not everything. My first… I want to buy local first, not everybody gets certified organic. Most of them grow organically, but some of the smaller folks don’t get certified. I think there’s a lot of people now and maybe will disagree with me, but there’s some people now who don’t think organic, getting the certification is necessarily worth it. They either sell direct, they have relationships with people so they’ll say we’re better than organic. And so…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What do you think about that issue, what’s your personal take on that? People get so passionate about that sometimes.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I work with-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
One way or the other.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I work with a lot of growers who do both and talking to them they’re like, “We wish people knew that we don’t just go out and dump a bunch of cancer causing chemicals on your food, it’s our orchard too, it’s our land.” They try to be very deliberate about… And that organic, it’s not necessarily better. There’s some nasty things that go into organic pesticides as well and you still have to control for that stuff.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You have to be careful regardless.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, so I mean-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Maybe that’s why these people are saying they’re better than organic because people want to know them and that they trust them specifically.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, I think that there’s definitely something about that. Knowing who is growing your food, they’ll tell you, “This is what we’re doing, this is why we’re doing it.” Like, “Yes we use this, but we use it because at this targeted time because this one bug will destroy our crop.” And I don’t know, it’s…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah, a while back on the podcast, just actually up the road from here in Orondo I was talking with April Clayton with Red Apple Orchards and they do mostly organic, but as she talked about here on the podcast, they actually quit doing organic with their cherry trees because the organic stuff that they had to use to control a couple of things was killing the trees. So they found it was actually better to go the other way, but all their apples are still organic. It’s-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I think when most people think of organic they just want to know if there’s nasty stuff on their food and the organic label includes a lot more than just that, and conventional doesn’t always mean that there’s nasty stuff on your food. I’m not a farmer though, so I can’t speak really intelligently to that.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
That’s what I’m interested, how did you get involved in the world of food if you aren’t, and did you grow up on a farm or what drew you to this?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
No I did not grow up on a farm, but my family always had big gardens, we grew a lot of our own food.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Where did you grow up?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I grew up in Spokane. My grandparents were wheat farmers in Montana, but that was not my experience they didn’t live on the farm. Visited but never lived there, but we had big gardens, my grandma canned, that kind of thing. And then when I moved, I moved to Bellingham to go to college, I was a vegetarian, I was concerned about the environment, and I just started getting involved in local food, sustainability, environmentalism. There’s a lot of things that happened, I traveled, then I saw like, “Oh, I…” For me, I was a vegetarian for a long time. When I started getting involved in local food and I could see where my food was coming from, I started eating meat again because it made me feel better to know that animals were being cared for, the land is being cared for, that kind of thing. I just I worked at Boundary Bay Brewery in Bellingham for many years and-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Love those guys.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I think sustainable connections was just getting started and, so Boundary jumped on that and we were sourcing a lot of local food and I just started getting into that. I like to eat, I like good food so… And then when I moved here, that was the way that I thought I could hook up with people of similar interests. So I sought out a local food movement and that’s how I got involved with [Eat 00:09:50] and community farm connections, and just went from there.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But that wasn’t what brought you here to-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
To Wenatchee?

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Yeah.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
No.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Did you come here from Bellingham or what was the journey?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I did, I moved here from Bellingham. I fell in love and he lived here and I lived there, and one of us had to move. So I came here, which is great I love Wenatchee. It’s funny because there is a lot of opportunity in Wenatchee. I think this store probably wouldn’t have happened in Bellingham because there’s a ton of stuff already going on like that in Bellingham, it would’ve been a hard market to break into where here nobody was… Community Farm Connection was its own thing nobody else is doing that, and then I think what I’m doing is my own thing. Nobody else here is doing anything really like this. So, I don’t know. Pybus is doing some stuff similar, but…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So, talk about your time though with this nonprofit. You were working with farmers then to start making some connections between-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So we try-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Growers and…?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, they did a lot of different things. There’s kind of an umbrella organization that had these separate programs underneath. So we did a CSA, we did the farm store, we did a farm to chef program, we did a farm to school program trying to get local food into the schools and a lot of just educational… We would, I don’t know, they would go to the schools and educate like, “What’s this month’s vegetable?” I wasn’t involved with those. I worked with mostly the… I worked with the CSA and the farm store I didn’t do a lot of the other stuff, and it ended up being that there were other groups that were picking up some of that work.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Like I said I think, we had a really hard time with farm to chef, farm to school was easier. The school district was pretty, especially at that time. There were some great people who are really into getting local food into the schools and so that made it easier. The hardest was working the restaurants, I think here in Wenatchee it just wasn’t quite the time, there wasn’t quite the demand for local food in the restaurants from the customers and then that makes it hard for the owners to see a real value in going through the extra effort to get local food. A lot of people use the term local food, but not everybody wants to follow through or they’ll do one thing local on the menu and say, “We serve local food here.” It can be difficult with them.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And the nonprofit dissolved for many different reasons that nonprofits dissolve and, like I said, I didn’t want to see the storefront go away because I saw that as the most useful community building connection with consumer and being able to get that out. And I didn’t want to see the CSA go away because at the time there weren’t a lot of farm CSAs in this area. I think there were maybe two in Leavenworth, there weren’t any in Wenatchee, and over the past five years that I’ve been open there’s been more that started in both Leavenworth and Wenatchee, but I still think that I have a, or I serve a purpose in the… I can buy from farms that are maybe too small to have their own CSA, but they can still sell a fairly large quantity of stuff through my CSA.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Explain a CSA for people who maybe aren’t familiar with how that works.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So traditionally it’s… So CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and it started as a way for a farm to get some seed money literally early on in January and February. So people will buy a share on your farm you-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It’s subscription basically.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah. So you pay upfront, the farmer gets money, they buy the seed supplies that they need, and then you get a share. So all summer they’re supplying you with whatever’s coming fresh off of the farm. And so we sort of… That’s what we do, we buy from 15 to 20 different farms. So we call it [inaudible 00:14:02] a cooperative CSA, some of the farms we work with have their own CSA, some are just wholesale farms, some do market and sell to us. So we buy from a variety of people, but it serves the same purpose for us. I have people who are signing up right now, which is great because January is my slowest time of the year so it helps me get through until spring, and then we can provide them great food all summer.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You mentioned that some farms that [inaudible 00:14:31] the CSA doesn’t quite work out. I haven’t really thought about this before, but really you have to grow a certain breadth of different things.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, you have to grow a lot of stuff if you want to have a CSA off of your own farm, which for some people is…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So if you just want to be like, “Hey, I love growing broccoli, I’m really good at broccoli, my ground is perfect for that, that’s what I do.” You can’t do a CSA?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Right, you can’t do a CSA off your farm, no. Yeah, and there’s a lot of places that do that or they maybe just grow five different things because they sell a lot wholesale or they sell certain things to restaurants and those are the things that they specialize in, but they wouldn’t be able to do a CSA. So, I think it’s that we provide something for those guys because we can buy stuff from them for our CSA.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Absolutely.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, it’s just a… Like I said, and some of the farms we work with do have their own CSA, which is great because they grow a huge variety of things and we get some really fun stuff from them, but I don’t really see it as a competition. I just think the more people that are able to do that it just brings it to more people. There’s a lot of people in the Valley here who are potential CSA customers, so there’s no… I would love to see more farms do it. More farms do those kinds of things, but the fact that we have such a variety of different farms doing different things is great for us because we benefit from what everyone is doing for sure.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It sounds more and more, as I think about this issue with bringing local food to people who eat everybody in our communities is not the growing of the food, it’s the process of getting it to them from that farmer to the eater. And like you’re talking about getting food in restaurants or CSAs, there’s always these complicating factors like sourcing is challenging. Like a restaurant, they don’t want to have to deal with it. We heard that on this podcast a while back from Nails Brisbane working at Canlis and Seattle and they’re trying to do all this local food, but it took a huge amount of his time just to manage all of that.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, for me doing the CSA I can call 10 to 15 farmers in a week to try to see what they have, what’s fresh, what’s coming up, what do you think is going to be available, and not all chefs or restaurants have the time to do that. So it makes it a lot easier when they can just… They get an order form from Charlie’s Produce or FSA and they can just tick off what they want and it comes all in one delivery. So it’s definitely, I think, sourcing and using local food, it’s not… Like you said, it’s not always about the growing it’s how you get it to market, even farmer’s markets are great and they’re great community. A great way to connect with the community, but even that is for a farmer sometimes sitting in the hot sun for eight hours, you have to get there really early, you stay all day, you don’t always make a lot of money.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
It’s a great way to connect with the community, it’s maybe not always the best way to get all of your food out. So, we have a lot of farmers that just don’t do farmer’s market they don’t like it. We have some farmers that love doing the farmer’s market, but it’s just interesting how the different ways to try to get food out to the community… Again, I think we provide a store front we’re like a farmer’s market all week long, you can come in and get the stuff that you could get down there as well. It’s not always convenient for everyone to go down to the market, I’m not knocking farmer’s markets at all I love them, but it’s not always the best way to get the maximum amount of your food out to the community if you’re a farmer, I think.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And what you’re saying speaks to the individuality of farmers too and their operations, what they know how to do, what they’re comfortable with. What’s it like working with farmers? Because a lot of people want to know what’s up with farmers, what farmers are like but don’t know them, you know a lot of them.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I can’t speak, there’s definitely not a type. There’s all types of people who farm, which is awesome, for me it’s great. I know a lot of really cool people that are doing really cool things, but I would say that there probably is an individualism streak in all of them because they are doing what they’re doing, but there’s no one type of person. I have farmers, I work with people who’ve been doing it for 30 plus years, I work with people who just started two years ago, people who worked on someone else’s farm and they wanted to start their own, people who’ve never farmed at all and they’re like, “I’m going to be a farmer.” It’s cool, they all have a desire to do something meaningful and they’re their own boss and all of those things, but I don’t know.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I work with a lot of really cool people, but it is definitely like a person that… There’s all kinds of personalities, they’re all very passionate about what they do for sure. It’s really cool on my end to work with those people and you see the effort and the work that it takes and the love hate relationship you have with it. I don’t know, it’s… I wish more people could see that from where their… I think you would appreciate your food more if more people knew their farmers or where their food was coming from.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
No, that’s why we’re-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
It’s really hard work, I’m very thankful for the people that grow the food because I don’t think I could do it, I don’t think I could be a farmer for sure.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And that’s why we’re doing this podcast. We have a lot of farmers on and other people behind the food like you because you aren’t a farmer, but like we were just talking about sometimes the hard part’s growing the food and everybody knows the hard work outside in the dirt with the animals, whatever it might be. Then also all this complicated stuff of what you’re doing here, a store and all the infrastructure that goes with it and the sourcing and the relationships and business and all that stuff. It’s a lot, you obviously have a huge amount of passion for it to do this just like a farmer has to have passion to be out in the hot sun working for hours on end.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, I think so. I like to think so, I do have a lot of passion for this. I don’t want to equate what I do as being as hard as what they do, but it’s…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Having grown up… I’ll just say this, having grown up and who’ve been around a lot of farmers my whole life, there were some who would much rather do this or do what they’re doing then do this is what I’m trying to say.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, everyone has their role to play I guess is-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Exactly.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And I’m happy to have this part of it for sure, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What about big farms versus small farms?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I think probably the biggest farm I work with would be like Nash’s Organic and [Squim 00:21:32], they’re a really big farm. They have a lot of land, but I still feel like what… I don’t feel like they’re too big, my felling is that they’re not. I don’t know how their farmers feel about that, I work-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So what would feel too big to you and what would be your concern with a big farm? Or a too big farm I should say.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So, I guess losing the relationship. So I think I said earlier in the winter, I do use a distributor, I use organically grown company, they’re out of Oregon, they’re like a farmer owned cooperative distributor. I like them because they do work with smaller farms, they’re super transparent about where their food is coming from, I can ask questions and they have the answers, but I still try when I order from them, I try to get it from the Northwest. I ask them to make sure if it’s available, I want it from a small family farm like P- and I don’t even really know what… In my head I think that that is, a lot of the farmers that I work with here it’s two people maybe, a husband a wife, maybe one of them works outside the home as well as farming because you can’t always make a living farming.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So those are the people that I’m mostly buying from and I would stay away from the places where it’s sort of, I don’t know… And I don’t know why, mostly I think because I’m trying to support those people… I want to support those people who are trying to make a living at something that they love doing even though people who are working on large farms, they’re also trying to make a living. So I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But this is the thing a lot of people struggle with too because the ideal in a lot of people’s minds, or at least it’s trendy or whatever right now is that small family, the smaller the better, but where is that line and what’s good and what’s bad, and does it really have to do with the size or does it have to do with the mentality?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, I think, I don’t know. Maybe the mentality… I think there’s a place for both I don’t think it has to be one or the other, but it’s something that I honestly haven’t thought a ton about because I’m always just busy doing other things. I do think about it, so the first three years that I was open I didn’t use a distributor. So in the winter time I would only… I was really adamant about, “I’m only buy farm direct. I’m not going to use a distributor I’m only going to get Washington grown produce that I buy direct from the farmer.” And that was great in theory, but then there was one, and it went okay the first two years. Thankfully at that time Nash’s was growing a lot of wholesale crops and they had a fairly good variety of things that I could buy. My local farmers didn’t really have anything in the wintertime, they didn’t have a lot of storage capacity because they’re smaller farms so they wanted to be finished by the time farmer’s markets were over.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So after October it would be really hard to get food, so I was going to the West side, I relied on Nash’s fairly heavily. Nash has, they’ve started decreasing the amount of wholesale food that they’re making available so I’ve had to increase my net that I’ve cast for winter produce, and in my CSA I still put only food that’s Washington grown that I buy direct from the farmer, but for the store. So there was a really bad winter and there was… I almost went under because I think I maybe had potatoes and onions and some cabbage, that’s all I had to sell for a whole winter and then it got to be really bleak and nobody wanted to come in because that’s… I still had my really… Thank goodness for these people that would, they would come buy their potatoes and onions from me first. And I had a few other grocery things that they would get too, but before they would go to Safeway, but there wasn’t a lot of reason for people to come in.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And at that point I was like, “Okay, what service am I doing if I go under?” So that’s when I made the decision to work with a distributor, at least in the winter time so that my store had a little more to offer than potatoes and cabbage. I got really creative with cabbage we ate a cabbage that winter, but… And it’s been great because I’ve also… There’s been farmers, they’ll come and they’ll say, “Where are your gaps? What do you need? If I were to start doing something, what would you need me to grow?” So I’m always like shoulder seasons, winter we work with a great guy that does hydroponic lettuce and he’s been a lifesaver the last two years, we get this beautiful lettuce and arugula that he’s growing just right up the road, which is awesome.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So, it’s also in some ways it’s like helped expand, it gives people an idea. Some of the local farmers, they grow a little bit more now so there’s a little more that I can buy from them through the winter because they can rely on me to buy it. So they don’t need to get it all sold by the end of farmer’s market season so…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
That’s the vicious or virtuous cycle it can go either direction, right?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
As you can provide more they can grow more, and that can continue to grow.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, but back to the big farm, small farm, I don’t know… I’m thankful for some of those big farms in the winter that are able to provide stuff that my small farmers can’t, for whatever reason. They don’t have the infrastructure or they’re working to make money so that they can farm during the summer. So, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So why do you have so much passion for it?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What drive that?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I really, I don’t know… I love being, I enjoy this work because I love being my own boss, I love having a store, I love being a… I wouldn’t say I’m a hub for the community, but I feel like this definitely is a place where there’s certain people that… I love it when people run into each other and they know each other from something else and I like having that working at Boundary, honestly. We were going to open a brewery here in Wenatchee that was my dream, was to come to Wenatchee and I was going to open a brewery.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
There wasn’t any here and part of the reason I wanted to open a brewery is because I loved the community feel that boundary Bay had, they were super involved in the community, people met there, it was just a fun place to be and I wanted to have a place that was like a community meeting place that did good in the community. So the brewery didn’t work out, but this is and it’s sort of… I think maybe that’s why I have a lot of passion for it, it’s just fun being in that. I like having people come to my store and seeing people and making those connections, I love to make the connections between people, between farmers, between the community members. So, I guess that’s why.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And when-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
And it’s fun to be my own boss I like that too, so…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
When you had to make that step to continue it on your own and make it your own business, what did that feel like?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I had worked service jobs, I’m super over-educated and I went to grad school and… But I always, I’d never had a professional career, I’d always been a waitress or I did a few other things, but I’d never… So it was really scary, I did not know what I was doing. I worked one year in a real job when I worked for Community Farm Connect and I felt like I worked, I had an office job. Basically I ran the store, I was in charge of the store, I was in charge of the CSA, it worked for one year and then I was like, “I’ll just start my own store.” It was ridiculously crazy, but it’s worked out. It’s been, I don’t know. I’ve made it work out.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I’ve been pretty determined that I don’t want to see this go away so I’ve worked hard to make sure that it doesn’t, but it was really scary. It’s still scary, I had to move recently so I lost my lease in March in a spot that I had been in for five years and I was pretty comfortable there. It wasn’t the best spot for some reasons, but it was a good spot for others and I was just starting to feel like I was maybe going to start making a profit, I’d been not a profitable but profitable business. I’ve been a break even business for five years, which I knew going into that one, it’s a food business really small margins too. It takes at least five years to get your feet under you, but just as I was feeling like I was going to get my feet under me, I lost my lease and I had to move.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So that was also a big scary step because it was like, “Okay, do I just call it quits now and just walk away? You tried it, you did it, it was great. Or do you make this leap, spend all this money to…” But I did, I didn’t want to see it go away and I ended up with a really great spot and I honestly think now that I’m downtown, that this could be a really good turning point for what I’m doing.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So maybe a blessing in disguise?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
So much so, yeah for sure. It was so sad when I had to move, when they told me they weren’t renewing my lease I was so, so upset and there were even a few places that I thought I had that I lost. I just fell into the place that I have right now and it ended up being the perfect spot. So I’m not usually one of those people that’s like, “Oh, everything works out for a reason.” But it really did so I’m super happy to be downtown, there’s a lot going on down here now and there’s a lot of, like I said, people working and living down here, which even in the last five years that’s changed a lot. So it’s a good, we’re going to have a juice bar, we’re going to have like grab and go food and I think that it’s going to go over really well here, which just means that I can buy more local food. We can have it in the juice bar, we can have it in the deli, how many places can we…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So many of the things that you’re talking about, about the business and the passion that you put into it is so much like a farmer.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
A farmer.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And dealing with years of breaking even or even losing money for that hope, that dream.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I know, that someday.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
So really you’re fighting a similar battle and it probably feels like an uphill battle a lot of the time and, like you said, it’s scary too. That’s another thing I think people don’t think about is the emotional side of being in this work.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes although again I think, “Man, I’m glad that I…” I work with 20 plus different farms so if somebody is having a bad year, there’s usually somebody else that’s not. So thinking about being a farmer or an orchardist, and it’s just so boom or bust. If you have a bad year it’s just a bad year, you don’t have anything to… So, I don’t know. I think it would be so stressful to be a farmer, so much more stressful than what I’m doing.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What does this mean, though, for your personal life? Because you have to… How many hours do you put in to running this?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
A lot, the one thing it’s… I just did an interview for The Business Journal and they were like, “What’s the one thing that you didn’t know starting your own business?” And I was like, “The fact that I think about it 24/7. I don’t ever not think about this place, whether it’s what am I going to order? what do I need? What do I need to do for next week? Do I need to drive over the pass? Who do I need to order from or are the bills paid? Did I remember to pay the phone bill or is my internet going to get shut off?” There’s this, I’m always thinking about this, which is great. I feel fortunate that I’m… I try to tell myself that I’m in a very privileged position to be able to own a business, not everybody gets to do that. So when I feel really stressed about it that’s what I tell myself, that I’m fee- “You’re privileged to feel this stress.”

Dillon Honcoop (host):
In all of this, what’s been the hardest thing?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Money, just… Financially just always, which again I just… I feel like it’s a really common thing, you just feel like you’re getting ahead and then the cooler breaks down and you have to fix it, and so any money you had set aside for whatever is gone and just always thinking about, financially like, “Okay, can I do this? Can I afford this? Can I order this? Can I fix this?” I think that’s just the hard, the stress that always worrying about financially are we going to make it? Is the hardest thing. If that wasn’t a factor it would be the best job in the world. It’s already a really good job, but that’s just always worrying about the financials. Like I said, now that I’m downtown the foot traffic is crazy, it’s so much better than my old location. So I have really high hopes that that might not be as big of an issue as it has been for the past five years.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Earlier you talked about your motivation to get into this and your passion for this going back to college and thinking about the environment and all of that, how does that play into that now? How has that perspective of yours evolved over time?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
I definitely think it’s changed in some ways like what being a good steward of the land is when I see what people are doing. Again, it’s something that I feel a little bad saying, that I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it in the last five years. Not as much as I did before because I haven’t had the time. That sounds really terrible, but I definitely think that probably the biggest place my thinking has changed, I was a vegetarian for 15 years, I was a vegan for half that time. I think just my perspective there has changed so I work with a lot of… I’ve worked with people who do meat they call themselves grass farmers, but they do grass fed beef and lamb and they have chickens and seeing what they’re doing and watching them post pictures of their land five years ago versus their land now, and reading about the carbon sequestering abilities of grassland regenerative farming.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
All of this stuff I think that that has really changed, shifted my perception of the meat, dairy, egg industry, which I used to have a really… And I think there’s still a lot of people that, again like I said it’s probably a hot button issue, but I don’t always think necessarily that of… There’s a lot of issues with being a vegan and vegetarian too that come up with food, like where’s your food coming from? What’s the impact in other countries and cultures of you wanting to have avocados and coconuts and almond milk? I just think that my view has widened, I’m a little more open to the impact that all of our choices make in food and the environment and, I don’t know, I’m trying to take in a bigger picture than what I used to.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
But you were passionate about this stuff all along?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yes, like I said, I love to eat, I love food. I have, I wouldn’t say, I dunno, a foodie background, and just I feel like it’s such a way for… Everybody eats, it’s just a really good way to connect with people all across the board, I feel like my store has a real cross section of… So Wenatchee is a pretty conservative or has traditionally been a pretty conservative community, I came from a pretty liberal community from Bellingham, I had liberal views, I moved here, there were a lot of people that didn’t think what… And still don’t, I’ve had people come in and I’m pretty, I wear my political leanings on my sleeve pretty much here, but I have a lot… There’s just a huge cross section of people, I know there’s a lot of people that come here and we don’t connect on a political level or a social level.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
We have very different beliefs maybe in religion or, but you can connect in food and the importance that we all place on knowing where our food comes from and getting good food and feeding our families. And I think that that’s cool because I’ve connected with people that I probably wouldn’t connect with in other areas of my life, because we don’t run in the same political or religious or social circles, but we connect here over what do you do with your cabbage? What do you make with rutabagas in the winter? So I think that that’s pretty cool too.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
What’s your vision with all of this not just this store, but with this idea of local food? What needs to happen?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Oh gosh I don’t know, I really don’t. I don’t-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
I’ve heard some people say, “No, that’s the future people are… That’s the direction they’re going.”

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Like local food only or…?

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Ish.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, and-

Dillon Honcoop (host):
And I think that even that’s what’s you’re describing, is you can’t be a purist you have to make some compromises sometimes and when you can’t get the right thing… But still try your best.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, and I don’t know, I think that that’s… I think maybe that’s the future, is trying to diversify a little, having a variety, having people who are producing food locally and… People still, I still want avocados, I like getting oranges. So we’re not… I can’t say that everyone should only eat what they can get within 50 miles of where they live, but maybe having a little more diversity in our food options would be a good thing? I don’t know, I just would love to see more people growing food and experiencing that because I think that’s pretty cool, but there’s challenges, there’s…

Dillon Honcoop (host):
You ever thought about doing it?

Sandi Bammer (guest):
No. No, that’s not true I have. I would love… I’ve definitely had the dream of like, “Oh, if only I had a few acres and some goats and chickens and…” But then I reel myself back in very quickly and think, “I don’t think that would…” I’m very appreciative of the people that do that, I don’t think that I could do it. I don’t even have a garden anymore, I don’t need one I get a lot of really great food here, but I just don’t have the time to do that, but I do miss it. I miss gardening and having my hands in the dirt and that thing, but I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Maybe someday you’ll get-

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Maybe someday, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Sucked into this terrible world of farming.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Into the- of farming. Yeah, I don’t know, maybe. I feel like I’m getting too old to be a farmer.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Never too old to farm.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Yeah, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop (host):
Well, thank you so much for opening up and sharing your personal story, which is so much tied to what’s going on with us in this community here and far beyond.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
Well, thank you for stopping into my store today and asking me to do this.

Sandi Bammer (guest):
(music)

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

Dillon Honcoop (host):
It’s amazing what you’ll find just walking down a street and keeping your eyes open and walking in somewhere and asking a few questions, and that’s how I got to meet Sandi Bammer there at Rhubarb Market. Such a cool experience, not what I expected at all in downtown Wenatchee and her story is awesome. What a cool perspective she brings to the world of connecting us with where our food comes from, who our food comes from. That’s what we’re all about here on the podcast. Thanks for joining us again this week and please subscribe, we’d really appreciate the support in that way. You can subscribe on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and a bunch of other outlets, pretty much anything you can think of out there it’s available so search us up. Also realfoodrealpeople.org is our website and my email address is dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org so you can reach me there anytime, and we will talk with you next week as we continue this journey to connect with the people behind our food here in Washington state.

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.

Niels Brisbane part 2 | #006 01/20/2020

He's passionate about bringing farmers back to the table, in more ways than one. In the second half of their conversation, award-winning Seattle chef Niels Brisbane and host Dillon Honcoop talk about how a facelift for farming could help reconnect eaters with the people who grow their food.

Transcript

Niels Brisbane:
Farming needs a facelift basically, essentially, and there it needs to be appreciated for what it is, but then the other piece is like it’s a lot of work and so there needs to be a financial incentive.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcasts.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hoodies, connecting with farmers and figuring out how farmers can have a seat at the table. Again, in sort of defining what is the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. Last week we got to know award-winning Seattle chef, Niels Brisbane and his unexpected journey from sports to fine dining, to reconnecting with his farm town roots in Lynden, Washington, the same town that I grew up in, even though I hadn’t gotten to know Niels until this podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, we’re sharing the second half of that fascinating conversation I had with him, where we get into in the second half into the vision, his vision for reconnecting people with farmers and reinvigorating both our regional cuisine and the farms that are growing food right here. If you miss last week, go ahead and listen to that conversation if you’d like to learn more about Nell’s background. Thanks for coming along the journey again this week and let’s dive right back in where we left off last week. So you’re involved in this world that’s like culture and art and very urban, yet you grew up in a small Podunk farming community. It happens to be the same community that I grew up in. Interestingly, we didn’t know each other-

Niels Brisbane:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… until now. What was that like? How did that speak in to what you were doing and what did people even say when they found out, you’re from Lynden, Washington? Like what?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, for me that very much roots why I cook and why I’m involved in food at all, because it really does come back to how do we create a better food system? And part of that is like for me, I always want to be able to give farmers options. And like one of my favorite farmers, Dave Hudlin is in the Skagit County and has a great vegetable farm, grows [inaudible 00:02:43]. His tomato greenhouses are, they should be the eighth wonder of the world. They’re incredible. If you’re ever in Skagit, go visit Dave Hudlin’s farm.

Niels Brisbane:
But he always says is, I’ll butcher the quote. But it was basically like, “If you’re a farm and you’re selling to one person, then you’re an employee, and if you’re selling to 100 people, now you’ve got a business.” And so farmers need to be able to, I mean, the worst thing of walking into a negotiation, whether that be, especially when it’s a buyer is if they know you can’t walk out, and negotiate that price any better because they’re like, “Well, that product is going to spoil otherwise if you don’t sell it to me at this really low price.” And so that’s not a good place to be. So developing a system where there truly is an economy around things and not just a path that’s been traveled before.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a big problem in farming.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s a huge problem in farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because different than most other economic arrangements. If we say that farmers are usually the ones with their back against the wall-

Niels Brisbane:
Usually.

Dillon Honcoop:
… they’re price takers as we here said.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you experienced that, you see that kind of from this other vantage point.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And if anyone gets the squeeze, it’s usually the “like lowest person on the totem pole.” And for a farmer that it’s because they’re the first person with the product, that’s why they’re “like the lowest person on the totem pole.” Is like, the chef doesn’t want to pay that high price, so they put the squeeze on their producer or onto their wholesaler. The wholesaler needs to keep their margin. So then they push that squeeze onto the farmer and so they by default have to take that lower price.

Niels Brisbane:
And if they got to… so we were really big on like working directly with farmers and buying, trying to work with them and it’s a headache, but like trying to figure out ways where you can be like, okay, grow all these carrots and we’ll buy all of them. Or we’ll do like what do you want to grow? What did you make a fantastic margin on last year? It was this random beat. Okay, well like maybe we can come up with a great beat dish and move this product for you.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually having those conversations. I mean, what ends up happening is like the complexity from a restaurant standpoint is again this was like a huge benefit that a place like Canlis could afford with time and money is allowing me to figure out all of those pieces and the other sous-chefs to like figure out this sourcing mayhem. I mean, we had, over 100 people that we would source from, from like farms and figuring that out logistically is a nightmare.

Niels Brisbane:
It took, I mean, a huge part of my job honestly was like, it was the creative part, but it was like figuring out how do we get the best product through the front doors in a consistent way. And in most places they just want to make one phone call and get the produce through the door, which means they work with a wholesaler and that’s why that business model exists, but it puts the squeeze onto the farmers and the restaurants lose the face of like, this is a farmer that’s trying to work hard to sell this product.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me that’s just like a shame. And so trying to think of new ways to structure it so that again, like these farmers can have a face in the economy again, it’s like just so that they can kind of compete again and be understood is ultimately how I kind of see a renegotiation of this food system. So whether that be, I mean, it’s either there’s small farms that are starting to figure it out of like, okay, well, I’ll sell at the farmers market and I’ll do a CSA and then I’ll do some wholesale and all these different pieces. And if any one of those were to fail, the business wouldn’t go under.

Niels Brisbane:
Like, but if Darigold declared bankruptcy tomorrow, there’d be a lot of farms that would not have anywhere to sell their milk, and that to me is like, well, that’s an issue. Like they’re not… I mean, they own their own businesses, so they’re taking all the risk, but they only have one buyer. So they really don’t have the reward of being an independent business owner on some level anymore because it’s like they’re dictated to. And so like there’s…

Dillon Honcoop:
And we have something unique hee even, like you mentioned Darigold being a farmer’s cooperative. Then in some other parts of the country where they don’t have that.

Niels Brisbane:
They don’t even have that. Right. Exactly. If anything like Darigold is the best model and so because at least you’ve got a large group that can kind of create that advocacy. But-

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s still that risk, that question mark.

Niels Brisbane:
There’s still that risk of like, well, what’s going to happen if that didn’t work out? And it’s like, well, it’s going to take a lot to rebuild it. It’s not going to happen in five or 10 or 20 years even. But like there’s the companies that are thinking about that. It’s like, well, what if we made cheese? What if we made a new dairy product or whatever it is, rethinking about it and being like, well, this isn’t less work, that’s for sure.

Niels Brisbane:
But actually creating a face of like, well, this is… I mean, it was a joke at the restaurant because I was obsessive with dairy specifically as my… we had five different milks that we kept in the restaurant based on what the usage was. So we had a milk that we would use for steaming for coffee, and we had a different milk that we would use for our basically like milk focused sauces.

Niels Brisbane:
So sauces that you actually were supposed to taste the milk. It wasn’t just like an ingredient. And then we would have a milk for desserts and each one was not just like, a random dartboard, we’ll buy from this farmer this week. It was very thought out. We had brought in 25 plus milks. I mean, it was a really unique experience to be able to even do that in the Pacific Northwest of like, there’s actually 25 plus dairies that you can go out and buy milk from and you could taste the difference between each farm and you could… people were blown away, I think it was like MyShan up in Lynden, actually it was really close to where I used to live and I actually didn’t know…

I don’t think they were an independent farm when I was living up there anyways, but or independent like as in you could buy their stuff wholesale. But they’ve got like a Guernsey farm and people had never really tasted that before, and I don’t know what their processes, but it’s like their milk has a distinct like caramel note that you don’t get from, say like a Cherry Valley, which is down here in King County, and they would have, there’s was like super grassy.

And so if you tried to make coffee with theirs, it tasted like you were licking and eating dirt, like, a little bit while you were drinking your coffee. And so it wasn’t so good for coffee even though it was a fantastic milk. But then their milk was fantastic for coffee because it just, the carameliness really meshed and really high fat content, which is also perfect for coffee versus the grassy one.

If you were matching that with, sauce that was going with beef, that grassiness and the fact that you were, the ironiness, the dirtiness of it, “like it was perfect for me.” And so it was like actually tasting those different pieces and… but people always laughed about how much milk we had in the restaurant and it was a bit of a nightmare. And the cooks would come to me and be like, “Chef, we’re out of this type of milk. How am I supposed to make this sauce?” Because they like understood how different it tasted when you did these different sauces. And so it was interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grew up in a town surrounded by dairy farms like this, and berry farms and potatoes and everything else. What was your awareness of farming at that time growing up? Like were you around farming at all?

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. So my best friend growing up was Rick Heerspink. And so he’s part of the Edaleen Dairy world. And so I spent a good amount of time on his dairy, scraping the lanes and everything else, and that was just… and also just the idea of like, it’s a Saturday evening or afternoon and you want to, go to the basketball game on Saturday night. And just like the uniform experience of everyone of basically could be like, “Well, yeah, I just have to finish my chores. I’ve got like…” just like having high schoolers that would buy their own vehicles because they’ve been working since they were 12 years old or earlier.

Niels Brisbane:
They’ve been getting paid since they were 12 years old is probably the best way to put it. They’ve been working since they could walk. But just the farming community in the way that, everyone is just like, it’s a lifestyle more than anything. It’s like there’s, cows don’t take days off. They need to be milked every day. And just how I remember, I mean, we had like hobby animals. My dad, I mean, he had a construction company, but he sold Quarter Horses on the side.

Niels Brisbane:
And so at like one point we had up to 18 Quarter Horses on the property. And we always had, more of the hobby animals, the chickens for eggs and we would always get a couple of… we’d would finish a beef cow every year and some of those other pieces where I was like, I had been on enough farms and enough of like the horse farm, that it’s like you get the ideas of farming. I won’t claim to have been a farmer like some of my peers were, but still just like the concept of getting pulled out of school because a fence broke and all of the animals are out and like you would leave and you’d go and everyone in class is like, “That makes sense.”

Niels Brisbane:
And then also just the idea of like middle of the night or early in the morning or you’ve been working all day, but you have to finish this product or a project because you have to finish it. Like it doesn’t matter how long it takes or how long you’re out there, it’ll be like put your headlamp on and keep fencing because we can’t not do it. And just like that mentality versus then working in basically less so in the restaurant.

Niels Brisbane:
Restaurants can kind of be similar to that. But even still you can be like, you got that stock on lay. Like it’s not ready but, fine. Just cool it down, we’ll start it again in the morning. It’s like, that’s not an option in farming. It’s like, there’s farmers who will cut corn for days on end essentially because it’s like a rain is coming and otherwise that is garbage if that… so that mentality of, it like, it creates this foundational work ethic that is different. And so while I don’t, like I said, I won’t claim to be a farmer, but that work ethic just kind of infuses life in Lynden and I think is a valuable life lesson.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I know you’ve said in an article I read about you that when you were at the bread lab working with farmers on developing things, that it reminded you of working with people amongst the farming community or being around that culture when you were growing up in Lynden, a county north, mind you. So how much does that influence then what you do?

Niels Brisbane:
It’s huge. I mean, I think, like I said, like it’s all, for me, the food system is built on the backs of farmers. But I do sense that there’s been this… especially, I mean the age of farmers has, I don’t know the current statistic, but basically it’s like there’s a whole generation that is getting older and is in their 60s and would love to retire soon, but they don’t have anyone coming in under them.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s our generation, in their 20s, 30s, 40s, there’s nobody that’s farming. Not nobody. There’s a lot less people that are farming in those generations. And I think part of that is just like, because farming needs a facelift basically, essentially. And there, it needs to be appreciated for what it is. But then the other piece is like, it’s a lot of work. And so there needs to be a financial incentive for how much work it is.

Niels Brisbane:
And so it’s like, nobody wants to be working 80, 90 hours a week to make 50 grand. It’s like they’re going to go to other jobs and eventually there’s going to be a reckoning with that. And so my hope is that by creating different avenues and different ways and honestly like a different mentality around how people think about farmers, we may actually be able to get people interested in farming again.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, I mean, most of my favorite people in working with the restaurant, some of my most like, nearest and dearest relationships from the restaurant were with farmers who I got to spend time with, visit their farms. They would come by once a week with their produce and you’d make them a cup of coffee and sit for two minutes and they could complain about the weather. And it’s like, that’s amazing.

Niels Brisbane:
But they need to be a community that has the spotlight shown on them a little bit more. But part of that is not just shining the spotlight on them, but actually giving them financial options and directions so that they could actually be like, well, this is, I could grow a whole bunch of this and sell it or I could, process it in a different way and may work on ways to create that infrastructure because that infrastructure has been dropping for the last 50 years, and how do we create, build up infrastructure so that it can support these small farms? And ultimately they, it’s like people want to feel proud of what they’re working on. And so if they can see that people actually appreciate it, then it’s like, well, then I think there’ll a resurgence to farming in these younger generations.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you see the future and the dark clouds over the future of farming and local farming. You see that as a real threat to the system that you’re involved with and even the food system, the restaurants, fine dining, all that kind of stuff is threatened by what’s threatening farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say hugely. I mean, the farming community has, I mean, there’s a lot of pressure on them. I mean, I’ve heard this from a good source, but it was that like suicide in the farming community is higher than suicide in the veteran community, which has traditionally been the highest kind of group in the country. And as well as like, I mean, there’s been such consolidation of farming and just kind of the loss of identity in that.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there’s just pressures being put on those farmers where it’s, again, they are getting the squeeze of the Whole Food system on top of them and everyone’s trying to keep their margin. And so then the only margin it can come out of is, the people who are actually producing the food, who have to accept that price. And so, I mean, it’s hard because we live in a country where our food system is subsidized in so many ways that it’s, as a percentage of income, the US doesn’t spend very much on food.

Niels Brisbane:
And so we don’t spend much on foods. So then we pay taxes that can then get subsidized. So it’s like we do spend a lot on food, but it’s like, it’s not a realized cost yet. And so it’s not helping, but the small farmers are not the ones receiving the subsidies. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and it’s a system that really kind of wants its cake and to be able to eat it too, if you use one of my dad’s favorite phrases because we want our food cheap, but we want it healthy. And we want it locally sourced and produced and grown on a small farm where people care and all this stuff. But at the same time we want it available year round.

Niels Brisbane:
And shelf stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
And shelf stable and we want it to be in beautiful packaging and all this and close to home. All these things and-

Niels Brisbane:
And I want it in five minutes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And a lot of those pressures are what’s pushed in some of these farms to get bigger or it to be tough for small family farms because they’re forced to try to survive with those demands. Yet at the same time that consumer is coming to them saying, “Hey, why are you getting so big? Why you’re making money on this?”

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, don’t get me started on that.

.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you keep coming back to that and I think that’s so important. But it’s something that people tend to balk at because they feel somehow there’s this idea of the small farmer, just making food and that’s what they do. And then very quickly, if it’s recognized that, that farmer is making some money at that, then it’s like, well, that’s-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. “You’re a sellout!”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the sus… It makes them suspect. Is that maybe part of what you think needs to happen when you talk about a face left-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I think it is like, I mean, figuring out ways where people need to realize that like what is the farmer bringing to the table? And it’s A, our whole food system, but have selling products that are directly recognized. I think. So creating more individual self identity and venturing out, which is scary, especially in Lynden. It’s like there’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Or any small farming community.

Niels Brisbane:
Any small farming, doing something different is like, because if you succeed then people are like, well, then it’s like that can almost be, there’s like a Danish term where it’s like the tallest tulip gets cut. And so it’s like, it’s not even… sometimes even succeeding above the average is not even a good thing in those small communities because it’s like, well, you’re not helping the community then.

Niels Brisbane:
But then it’s, if you try something and fail, then you don’t want that because you’re like, I should’ve just stuck with what I wanted to do. And so like I get that, that is a real struggle and a real conversation. But there needs to be tools for people to start investigating that. And this is another way that I think more… I mean, you made a perfect point of like what the customer demands and how many things the customer demands it’s like, so now you can’t just produce a delicious vegetable anymore. You have to produce a delicious vegetable and have a well, like a good Instagram feed and like it has to be in the right packaging and-

Dillon Honcoop:
I won’t trust it unless it’s marketed the way that I like.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And so it’s like, but to me, yes that’s really hard because it just keeps kicking up that overhead and making that a bigger and bigger slice of the pie. But it also does create an opportunity for all of these, “non farmers” who have grown up in the farm. Like if you grew up in Lynden and you loved to draw and you went to art school and you feel like there’s no place for you back in Lynden now because you don’t farm and you have no interest in farming, like no because all these farmers need to redo their packaging and rethink about that.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, a really talented graphic designer may be exactly what those farms need. And so it actually allows people to, not just stay in Lynden if you farm, sell equipment or repair equipment. Like there could actually be these, you can create this own independent economy right there that actually supports all of these pieces. But that’s hard. There’s no place for an independent graphic designer and labeled designer in Lynden if there’s only, 10 independent farms. But if there’s 50 independent farms, 100 independent farms, like each one of those needs a new graphic every couple of years and now you’ve actually created a position for someone who, “didn’t have any place in Lynden,” in the traditional economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So changing communities beyond just the traditional-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… farming community. At the same time, you’re talking about pushing the farming community into a place where some have gone, like you talked about MyShan, they’re an example.

Niels Brisbane:
Or Twin Brook

Dillon Honcoop:
From our community that both you and I grew up in examples in there are across the state people who have decided to go direct and really embrace that and brand themselves. But really that’s not the lion share of farms yet.

Niels Brisbane:
No, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s definitely not the comfort zone of a lion’s share of farmers in the state.

Niels Brisbane:
Pretty much not.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re saying that’s kind of what’s needed?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean that’s what I think is needed. I’m embracing the difference and not to say that, that won’t… I mean, I don’t know if every single farmer in Lynden could be independent. I don’t know. Like at the end of the day people will still need bulk milk. But I think that there is, a market for someone to do some value added products that, like who’s to say that Lynden… maybe it’s one farmer starts selling a blue cheese or something like that, that just goes wild and Danish blue or Dutch blue or whatever you want to call it.

Niels Brisbane:
And all of a sudden there’s such a demand that they require, more milk from, but they can pay a little bit higher price because it’s a premium product that they are getting that higher price for. And now all of a sudden they can create their own little cooperative that, of 10 dairies or 20 dairies that are all feeding into this specialty milk or specialty cheese product. And then you’ve got, maybe a yogurt maker that kind of does the same thing and eventually you could create a system where a farmer, there’s a plethora of co-ops that they could join essentially or they could then totally go independent and launch like, okay, I want to go elbow to elbow with, [inaudible 00:26:04] and I think I can, make a better product than them and my eggnog recipe is twice as good as theirs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Good old fashioned competition.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And like actually support that. And so maybe it’s not, if there’s 100 dairy farms, we’ve got 100 different cheeses coming out of Lynden. Like maybe that’s not necessarily how it goes, but there is room to create specially like, I mean, Lynden is adorable. It’s like it’s a cool town. And like, honestly, the brand of Lynden just isn’t being like flexed. I mean, that’s one small little. I mean, you could take that-

Dillon Honcoop:
And you can say that about a lot of towns around-

Niels Brisbane:
A lot of those towns what Twin Sisters is doing in Ferndale like that what they’re doing is very cool. And you could potentially… I mean, you go to France and again it’s taken generations of commitment, but there’s over 100 different types of cheese, not only just like producers of cheese, but literally types of cheese like in France. And you go to all these little different areas and each one is producing a different type.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me, if you can create that brand of like, it’s essentially what like goat milk did of like, getting people aware of the milk industry, but it’s like, okay, we need to hyper focus it though and be like, what is unique about this place? Like let’s embrace what we do differently. Let’s embrace the fact that like, well, if we feed our cows a little bit differently, we can get a change in the finished cheese that makes us totally unique.

Niels Brisbane:
And we know the 10 farmers that produce our milk and so we can get them all on a really regimented feed, process and you can create these systems that have a lot more flexibility and in the end give, if a farmer can sell to five different places and has those options, then they can actually shop around for the highest price.

Dillon Honcoop:
And giving them the incentive to do things like something that otherwise may be a big financial risk, it may be a pain in the butt, will require a lot of, investment and infrastructure, whatever on the farm. It’s like why am I going to do that if that’s really not going to get me anything?

Niels Brisbane:
You’re spinning your wheels to just get to the same place.

Dillon Honcoop:
But if there’s a system that will reward that, and I think there’s a lot of people who want to do that, but just feel like, I don’t know where the reward is going to be-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in our system right now.

Niels Brisbane:
And that’s the thing is you’ve got a lot of great business people in that area. I mean, basically if you own a business, you have to be. You get a quick primer on becoming a business person. And so like, they’re not going to do it if they don’t see the payoff. So people, working in the university where you have a lot of academics that are like, “Well, why don’t the farmers just do this?” And I’m like, “Because do you know how much equipment that would cost?”

Niels Brisbane:
And they’re selling things and making literally like pennies per gallon, and once they pay for all their costs then they’re like, do you know how long it would take for them to pay off $1 million piece of equipment making pennies per gallon? Like you’re talking generations. Like there’s no payoff for that. Or they could just, keep making that money, take the little bit of profit and put it in the stock market and it’s going to grow faster than… So it’s like they’re good business people. So they’re not going to be foolish with their money. And so again-

Dillon Honcoop:
And then when you pay off that piece of equipment too, you’re just going to be like, well, you-

Niels Brisbane:
Then you don’t have to replace it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And also it’s going to be like, well, you’re huge. Look at this huge equipment that you have. You’re just a factory. Well, no, it’s we just had… I don’t know. What do you think about the criticisms for farmers too? I mean, I’m sure you hear that a lot in the urban community, even in the foodie community and environmentally focused world, and that disconnect of what it takes to actually make some of those things happen.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s a very interesting conversation I’ve had. So just as I’ve been moving to the more business development side of things and realizing that there’s a minimum size of profitability, even like, if you want to be a whiskey maker that and you want to spend this whole time making whiskey and you just want to make like one barrel of whiskey a month, at the end of the year you’ve got 12 barrels of whiskey and to make back all your costs and pay for your living wage and it’s like you’re going to have, each bottle is going to be thousands of dollars, and nobody’s going to pay that.

Niels Brisbane:
So it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s just not profitable. So you’re going to have to build up a little bit. And so, but yes, there is this like romantic idea of how big a farmer is, size wise and I think people don’t understand that you need to be a certain size to even break even or be profitable hopefully. And as far as changing the perception of that, I don’t know. People need to… That people don’t view farming as a business, which is a little bit sad.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know. Maybe because it was like subsistence farming used to be a thing. So it’s like if you can cut down the trees, you need to build your house and grow the food you need to eat for a year, then “you’re a farmer.” But I’m like, that’s more of a settler.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and really if you’re a subsistence farmer then everybody has to be a farmer.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you’re just growing the food for yourself.

Niels Brisbane:
You’re just growing food for yourself. So it’s like realizing that, and again, this probably feeds back into the problem of why we have less and less farmers is like, we need more farmers so then, or maybe the farms we have can just produce more, and so then less people have to farm so they produce a little bit more, so then less people farm. It like feeds into itself.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I think we’ve been seeing.

Niels Brisbane:
I think so.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I think it gets worse than when people start to demonize that.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually criticize the beast they’ve created, which is interesting. It’s like, if you want the farms to be smaller, you should go start farming. It’s maybe the answer. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it feel like to be at this place where you have this growing understanding of not just the science, not just the nutrition, not just the food and the art, but now looking at the business side of it and all of these things coming together. That’s kind of where you start talking about the word system. Right?

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Focusing on food systems is kind of a project that’s the next phase. It kind of gets back to the, “How do we make a million of them” question. I mean, restaurants are so great because you have a small, like you only have to feed 150, like in Canlis’s case, like we feed 150 people a night. That’s it. And if it’s different from one night to the next, they enjoy that. You don’t get a slap on the wrist for that.

And so it allows you to be very dynamic. But on the downside, you’re feeding only 150 people a night, and 150 people can’t consume that much food. And so it’s like you spend a lot of time. So like, I spent all this time sourcing five different types of milk but at the end of the day I’m serving people these tiny little portions and telling them this huge elaborate story, which is super fun and great. But it’s like, I’m only buying a couple gallons a month or maybe a week, like maybe three gallons a week.

That is not going to substan… like, and that’s not going to help any farmer really on their bottom line. I mean, I’m sure they love the press. I’m sure they love the Instagram post, but like ultimately they’re running a business and they need to sell more than three gallons a week. And so that made me realize like, okay, the next step is figuring out how to create a larger buyership essentially because I know that’s something I can do, is how do we create a system that can actually, move product and start to work on those outlet things that I was, you know…

How do we create those products through great marketing and great, having just really delicious products to start? And how do we then take the burden off of farmers needing to take that leap of faith and be like… I mean, how is a farmer getting produce the world’s like next greatest cheese where it’s like they have zero… they’re starting from zero? Just because they produce milk doesn’t inherently mean that they know how to make chees

So there’s a disconnect for some like I come from the food world. Like I know how to make cheese, I know how to make a delicious wheat product. And so one of my… I had taken a huge amount of inspiration from the head baker at Grand Central, actually it’s a local bakery here in the city, Mel. And she’s the head baker there and has been doing it for like over two decades and has been working really hard.

I mean, I think she’s got it down to this point where she’s only sourcing Washington flour and it’s like, that is taken 20 years of nonstop work. And now she’s not only getting it down to Washington flour, but she’s getting it down to like individual. Like there’s a farm out in Walla Walla, Small’s farm that’s doing a really, really incredible job with flour. And he built a little mill and he’s a character and a half. And I would laugh.

He would come into the restaurant and he’d talked to you about, why the flour is going to be a little different this year because it’s coming from here. And it’s like she’s working really hard to continue to narrow down. But she’s also baking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of loaves per day. And they’ve got multiple cafes. And so she actually represents a pretty big buyership.

And so she actually carries some weight in the flour world, and she can go to different markets or she could approach a farmer and be like, plant, I don’t know, 600 acres of wheat and I’ll take it in the first quarter. And it’s like, wow, that pencils out really nicely for me and that’s a great option. And here’s a mill that we can get it milled at and cleaned at. And so building more models like that, which again, like, yes, it’s not the rustic bakery where he’s producing 25 loaves a day and like that’s really beautiful on Instagram stories and all those different pieces.

But you’re not feeding people that drives costs up and you just aren’t, it helps one farmer maybe. But it’s like, if you really want to create these larger food systems, you have to be thinking about that next size up. And so Mel’s done it. She’s my food hero and she’s done a really incredible job at Grand Central working on that. And to me that level of thought and care needs to be put into every other area. So the dairy industry, the fishing industry, the meat industry, the vegetable growers, berry growers, they all need a Mel type person that can actually dictate change and support it financially on the backside and is willing to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So is that what’s next for you? I know you’re working-

Niels Brisbane:
That’s what’s next.

Dillon Honcoop:
… on a project that hasn’t been launched, isn’t really public yet. How much can you share with us right now?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, so right now I’m working with several companies doing like business development and product development. So it’s all about, and a couple of them are more of my babies than others. And we’ll potentially take over all of my work. But it’s all about leaning on how we can really move product and checking all those boxes that you talked about earlier. It’s like how do we make something that’s healthy for people and shelf stable and produce locally and has nice packaging and actually is moved in a volume that, we can go to farmers and make requests and have them again perk up and be like, you want that? Like nobody’s ever asked me for that before. Let me do the numbers. That makes sense. That works for me. Like let’s do it. And that’s how you can move the needle and then all of a sudden-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where the disconnect usually happens, because farmers are like, “Hey, we can do this in quantity,” and consumers are like, “Well, but no, we want something that’s more artisan and more hands on. And so farmers, why don’t you do this. Farmers, this is what we want.” And farmers are like, “I can’t afford to do that. Well, maybe I could, but I’m not sure if I can make the risk to switch to something like that.” So that’s where that gap always seems to where that gap is. So one of the-

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s a huge disconnect. And that was like, that was something we would come into conflict with at the restaurant, because even with… I mean, we even were willing to like finance things for farmers like, great, let’s buy all your seeds so that you can grow this specialty thing for us. And figuring out ways to play ball with them so that the risk wasn’t all in their court. But people don’t realize it’s like, I mean, farming is not a high margin industry, and so trying something new, a small margin on a small number is not worth their time and headache and amount of effort to like… I mean, doing something new takes a lot of mental energy and if it’s not going to pay off, they’re just going to stick to the bulk thing and as they should because that’s what makes sense. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had to explain that to people who don’t understand? Well, what do you say to people who are like, well, why don’t farmers do X?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say I’m getting better at explaining it to people. I mean, it’s an uphill battle and part of it is people don’t understand business well enough. And to me that should be like, that should be what high school is, is like teaching you business and probably mostly through like getting jobs. But people that don’t understand business is probably the biggest disconnect. And they just think that, these farmers are swimming in money or honestly that business people are swimming in money, like starting a business it’s just instantly makes you rich and it’s like, nothing’s further from the truth. My uncle has a say. He’s like, “The fastest way to make $1 million is to start a $5 million business.” So 4 million in the hole and you got 1 million leftover. So there you go, you’re a millionaire. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So true.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s that piece in just trying to explain the economics of it, but honestly like experience is kind of the only real teacher in that. So encouraging people to be like, great, put some numbers on a page and like, show me a business plan where what you want makes sense. And there’s no farmer that, if you have a business plan that makes sense, wouldn’t try it. Those are not farmers, but most of them are going to give it a shot and they’re going to be like, “Well, if it makes sense on paper, it’s good enough for me. I’ll give it a shot.” So that’s trying to get people to actually wrestle with the problem of like, even in there, trying to come up with analogies can help, but there’s no real experience. Like experience is the teacher.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this whole journey, what’s been the most challenging, difficult, hard thing for you personally?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, probably this thing that makes life hard, which is people, and trying to… like the politics of all of it and figuring out how to move things forward when there’s 100 reasons not to. And it’s like an asking, trying to get groups to, everything from like you’ll work really hard to get to groups of people to finally like, mutually trust and get excited about a project and then have it fall through. And then, you’re just adding to the distrust of that’s already out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what’s the distrust? What does that look like?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, even just like simple things like, it’s not like a systemic problem, but just like of one person. If a farmer needs a piece of equipment and they’re like, well, if you like, I need this piece of equipment and I’m willing to buy it because I’ve got that CapEx sitting on hand, but you have to promise me that you’re going to buy for the next three years like this much so that my business plan works out, and everyone’s excited and everyone’s like, okay, we’re going to do it.

Niels Brisbane:
And then, from the higher ups on the other side, the product gets pulled and they’re like, sorry, we have to back out. Like, even if we’re going to get beat up on this contract a little bit, but it’s like then the farmer’s stuck sitting on that piece of equipment and they just took a huge loss and it’s like all understandable because somebody has to take that risk and that just adds. So then it like, it makes those farmers like, I’m not going to do that again. That was really dumb. So it’s like, it creates a distrust between… honestly like a distrust of like change and a distrust of trying new things, which is fair.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about trust of farming from the public? I think about that in terms of you saying that farming needs a facelift. That tells me that there’s a problem and I feel that too. I guess I’m just curious from your perspective, what is that problem? What do they see farming as right now, and how is that right and wrong?

Niels Brisbane:
I think they see farming as this like old system of that’s like archaic on some level and has no, I don’t know the best way to put it. But it’s like it’s an archaic way of thinking and operating. And so like trying to think of a way where people can view that as the trade that it is and the skill and the amount of knowledge that’s there and the amount of hard work that’s there and the amount of stress that’s there.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there are ultimately a whole bunch of small business owners, which I think is what this country is supposed to prize as like the most championed group, but it doesn’t right now and that’s a little sad. So I don’t know. I don’t know exactly. I mean, I know how to like, or I have some ideas of how to potentially create that facelift of just two groups of people not really knowing each other is maybe what like the best way to describe it.

Niels Brisbane:
And so they need to interface with each other too because it’s like nobody, it’s the same problem of like the divisiveness that’s going on is because people aren’t sitting in a room talking. And it’s like you can often, you realize how similar people really are when you’re sitting across from each other sharing a meal or buying their product or anything else. And so that is it’s two groups of people that don’t understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
If you grew up in a city, it’s like going to another country, going to Lynden sometimes. And not in a bad way. Like it’s just very different. And honestly, I think a lot of Seattleites would really enjoy their time there, and a lot of Lyndenites would, if they could get around the traffic, would really enjoy the city. Like they’re two great groups of people and they need to understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
And I mean, for me, food is all about bringing people together and it’s about creating community. And when you share delicious food, pretty much all other things fall away. And so when you have farmers producing fantastic food and needing to sell it to large amounts of people, they are two groups of people that should get along very, very well. And there’s just that middleman that’s been, that’s difficult.

Niels Brisbane:
So it’s like, I mean, the amount of money that people will pay for something at like a farmer’s market can be astronomical because they’re looking at someone in the face and they know how much work it was for them. And they’re like, $12 for a gallon of milk, no problem. Like, I’ll pay that. And that’s just doesn’t exist in the current system. And so not that I think all farmers should go to the farmer’s market, like that’s not a business model that will work for everyone either. Like this is still the 21st century and we have to operate accordingly. But there’s businesses that can be created to help bridge those gaps and tell those stories and move things forward in a different way.

Dillon Honcoop:
I feel like there’s so much we could talk about here and I’m just loving the things that you’re saying because you’re coming from this different perspective. But it resonates so much with my experience and the things that I’ve been seeing, and I like the optimism too that you’re bringing not just talking about the problems, but you’re so much more focused on the solutions.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s all that really matters.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for opening up about your passion for all of this and all the work that you’re doing. Really, you’re kind of between two worlds and working to connect them. It sounds like it’s what you’re all about. So I’m really excited to see what happens with your ventures and I’m pumped for when we can find out more specifics-

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and open door for when you want to come back on the podcast-

Niels Brisbane:
I would love to.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and tell us more about some of that stuff because I think you’ve got got cool stuff ahead.

Niels Brisbane:
Cool. Thank you so much.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t Niels such an interesting person, such a talented guy? And so crazy for me to meet somebody like that through this podcast who grew up in the same small farming town as I did. I think my sister, if I remember right, was in high school across country with his older brother. But seriously, that conversation we just heard was the first time that Niels and I had actually met in person.


So as I listened back now to that conversation with Niels, I realize we didn’t get very much out of him about how his new ventures to reconnect eaters with farms will actually work. But because of his passion for food and farming and because he’s obviously such a tenanted leader, I’m really excited to see what he does with that. I have a feeling we’ll be talking with him again down the road.


Make sure to subscribe to the Real Food, Real People Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and basically just about any other podcast platform you prefer to make sure you don’t miss any future conversations with Niels. And of course all of the other amazing conversations with farmers and people behind the food that we eat here in the Pacific Northwest. Also, feel free to email me any time with thoughts that you have on the show. Whatever it is that you’re thinking about, good, bad, otherwise, I’m all ears. dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. Dillon is, D-I-L-L-O-N @realfoodrealpeople.org.

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