Anna Nicholson | #052 04/05/2021

In the face of her father's struggle with a debilitating disease, Anna Nicholson wants to continue her family's small orchard and fruit stand near Leavenworth. Hear about the struggles making that future uncertain for Anna and her siblings as we visit her orchard.

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Mariah Butenschoen | #045 10/19/2020

She's a high school teacher and first-generation organic blueberry farmer who, along with her husband, grew her farm from the ground up. Oh, and they distill craft liquor, too. Mariah Butenschoen of Breckenridge Blueberries and Probably Shouldn't Distillery shares about the risks and the hardships they faced on their journey to realize a dream that many said wasn't possible.

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Corby Groen | #044 10/12/2020

A rare medical condition nearly took the life of organic dairy farmer Corby Groen earlier this year. He shares the amazing story of how doctors raced to figure out what was killing him from the inside, and how his family and the surrounding community was able to keep the farm going while he was hospitalized for months.

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Macala Wright | #043 10/05/2020

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

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Rosella Mosby | #037 08/24/2020

Vegetable farmer Rosella Mosby grows literally tons of local food just minutes from the heart of Seattle. She shares some big challenges our food system faces to make locally-grown produce more available.

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Rosella Mosby:
He just called me up one day and he said, “Hey, you want to go have dinner?” and I was like, “Sure. Why not?” A man in my life at that point was not on my list either because here I am, I’m self-employed, I’ve got two kids. You know what I mean? And it was just one of those weird times in your life where you’re thinking, “I do not have time for this.”

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Getting locally-grown food in the city, in Seattle doesn’t have to be that hard, and in fact, there are growers producing amazing food not that far away. And that choice to buy food that’s locally grown can have an effect on the community, on workers, animals, even the surrounding environment, our rivers and fish, which ultimately impact the orcas. There’s so much to eating locally grown food and that is so much the focus of our conversation this week with a veggie farmer in Auburn, Washington, just outside of Seattle, just in Seattle’s backyard really, Rosella Mosby. I think you’re really going to enjoy this conversation and learn a lot about the reality of our local food system.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, how many different kinds of food do you guys grow at Mosby Farms?

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, that’s dwindling actually over the years.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, sure. We don’t grow no green beans, no peas anymore. It’s too labor-intensive. So, we are currently down to rhubarb, leeks, beets, zucchini, yellow squash, some hard squashes, pumpkins for fall, sweet acorn that we sell from pumpkin patch. We don’t have we a retail stand anymore either. Thanks to some regulatory requirements from King County, we were going to stay open. We would have had to put in a well and a water treatment system, and for a part-time stand, it’s like, “No, thanks.” So, we don’t grow some of those odds and end items that end up in a store too. So, yeah, we’re just down to the things that we wholesale to mostly every grocery chain and produce house in the Pacific Northwest.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because that was going to be my next question, where can you find all of this food?

Rosella Mosby:
Grocery store-

Dillon Honcoop:
If I live in Seattle-

Rosella Mosby:
… restaurants.

Dillon Honcoop:
… how do I know if I’m getting something from Mosby Farms?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, you should ask for it every single time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Good idea.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. It’s fun because you do get photos from your friends that are like, “Hey, look. I found some beets in the grocery store in some random town in the Pacific Northwest,” not even remotely close to us and it’ll have a tie on it. And so, that’s cool to get those.

Rosella Mosby:
We sell to Charlie’s Produce and they have contracts with the cruise ships. Right now, that’s not happening, right? And then, restaurants and pretty much all of the players in the Pacific Northwest, we sold to. So, if it’s not in a grocery store, it’s in a restaurant.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, if it’s in a grocery store, is it going to have your sticker on it or something?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, it’ll have a tie or a sticker. Not always, it depends. Like rhubarb’s not a stickered item. It’s comical because I’m a consumer myself, right, so sometimes I’ll roll through the produce department and I’ll notice that the rhubarb will say it’s from Mexico, and I’ll say to the produce guy, “Hey, rhubarb doesn’t grow in Mexico, so why is it tagged that it’s in Mexico?” and they’re like, “Well…” And I’m like, “No, no. You can’t get away with telling me that it’s legit because it’s not. We grow rhubarb.” And so, it’s interesting to go through the produce section and just see what either your product looks like or what your fellow grower’s product looks like and how this door is marketing that product. Yeah, I don’t know. It is what it is. We’re just trying to survive.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, that’s the thing though. The labeling and the stickers and stuff, you say something’s going to have stickers on it, some things aren’t going to, but a lot of people like myself are trying to go to the store, buy as many local things as they can, and realizing that’s not going to be possible with everything. But it’s hard to know sometimes how to know-

Rosella Mosby:
You should ask. And the reason you ask is because… Oh boy, we’re going to dive in deep right in the beginning.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Do it.

Rosella Mosby:
The reason you should ask is because the produce buyer in Cincinnati, his job is to get produce in his store for the lowest price possible, right? I don’t believe he really gives a rip what is happening in Auburn, Washington on Mosby’s vegetable farm. He likes that we’re here and he likes that somewhere in the store, there’s a poster hanging with our faces and our names on it and claiming that we’re a local grower. But at the same time, that’s not his job. His job is to get product in the store for the lowest price because he’s trying to give the consumer the lowest price.

Rosella Mosby:
But wait a second, at the same time, there’s a difference between staying afloat and thriving for the farmer. And so, if you’re staying afloat year after year after year and you’re scraping, you’re rubbing your nickels together but that doesn’t turn into $1 anywhere, right? And so, we still are using equipment, we’re still using trucks, we’re still having to maintain those things and still think about going forward. How are we going to invest in better irrigation that’s more efficient, better equipment that’s more efficient? Whose trucks are we buying that are second-hand, right? Because we’re a first-generation farm, so no previous generation paid for anything where we are.

Rosella Mosby:
And so, when you think about the difference between staying afloat and thriving, the thriving part ensures that we can invest in the future, right? So, we live in Washington, our farm is 40 minutes from Microsoft. I mean, you think about what is happening in the tech world and how we can tie that into agriculture, and we’ve had people out measuring our equipment because they want to know how far apart the cultivators are and those little details because I’m sure they’re working on robotics.

Rosella Mosby:
Okay so, say, they achieve those goals, they have this great piece of equipment, well, what farmer that is staying afloat is going to be able to actually invest in those tools to make their job more efficient. But yet, the consumer expects us to be more “sustainable” and try to make those moves. But if we’re still staying afloat barely, how do we do that? How do you invest for the future?

Rosella Mosby:
So, that’s really, I think up to the customer, the consumer, to be saying at the grocery store, “Hey, I want to buy what’s in season and what’s local. Help me. Tell me what that is.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re saying people are actually asking that question at the store. What if it’s just some young guy working there and doesn’t know anything? Does it still make a difference if you ask those questions?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, it sure doesn’t make the produce guy look very smart that he doesn’t know. I think as consumers, that should be our expectation, is that our produce guys should be able to answer those questions.

Rosella Mosby:
He might come back with an “I don’t know.” I asked, I’ll go to a grocery store, I’ll go to some really higher end grocery stores because they have better cheese, and I really love cheese, and I’ll walk through the produce section and I’ll say, “Hey, where’s your rhubarb from or hey, where’s your zucchini from? Do you still have your box?” And sometimes they’ll go on the back and they’ll say, “I don’t have the box,” and sometimes they come out with ours, sometimes they come out with Richter’s, sometimes they come out with Sterino’s or whatever. I don’t care. I just like to know that it’s a locally-sourced product and that our regional farmers are being supported.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does that signal go back up the chain though if I ask at the grocery store? Can that-

Rosella Mosby:
I hope so.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you ever heard back from people who were asking for local stuff or your Mosby Farms stuff or anything like that?

Rosella Mosby:
I haven’t heard that directly, but I do believe that the marketing you hear on the radio is a result, or the marketing you see in a newspaper or what have you is those grocery chains trying to appeal to consumer demands, right? So, we have conventional on our farm, we have organic on our farm. Well, we’re switching slowly to organic because that’s where the market is going. And for us on our farm, I would say that doesn’t apply to every aspect of agriculture. But for us, it’s like motorboats and sailboats or bicycles and motorcycles, right?

Rosella Mosby:
So, for us… I keep coming back to rhubarb, but rhubarb is a great example. Rhubarb grows. It doesn’t… For us, there’s not really much to apply to rhubarb on a conventional end or organic end, and the organic rhubarb actually is ready two weeks before the conventional rhubarb, and we can sell it as conventional if it’s organic. And so, for us, rhubarb is rhubarb, whether it’s certified or not.

Rosella Mosby:
People are always going to pay more for designer cheese and designer wine and designer shoes, and if you go those extra steps to get that certification and people are willing to pay for it, there’s a market there. And so, if retailers start saying that that should be your only choice, that’s wrong. You know what I mean? So, I think we’re lucky to live where we live and have choices. That’s a beautiful part of living where we live is having food choices.

Rosella Mosby:
So, I think my issue to a point with the marketing part of that is that I think they steer that boat a little bit, like, “Hey, you need this because it has this label, or you need this because it was raised this way, or you need…” At the end of the day, I think if consumers really want to send the message that local agriculture is important and that I want to support what is grown here, they need to be saying that to their produce person because it should be getting back to that department manager who should be relaying that to their buyer.

Dillon Honcoop:
And honestly, the reason I often don’t think to do something like that is because I’m cynical. I think nobody’s going to care, but maybe sometimes it will actually work. I don’t know. Or can we… Is there any other mechanism to help push this local food movement along and get the market more aware of those of us who want local food or demand or desire to have local grown stuff?

Rosella Mosby:
Honestly, if I didn’t at Kroger or Safeway, whatever, I’m probably going to get cut off as a farmer. But a consumer could do that all day long when it comes to social media, like a Twitter tag or a social media post taking those companies. I think social media, especially when it comes to agriculture is underutilized. And I think as a grower, I don’t know that that’s the right direction for us because we’re depending on those companies for sales. But a consumer, they have nothing to lose and demanding that local agriculture is supported.

Rosella Mosby:
Because when you think about the carbon footprint of something that has grown at our farm, and we deliver it 15 miles to the distribution center in Puyallup, and then we deliver it 7 miles to the distribution center in Auburn, and then we deliver 25 minutes to Seattle, that’s a very low carbon footprint, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, compared to grown overseas or in Central or South America-

Rosella Mosby:
Or California.

Dillon Honcoop:
It has to travel hundreds or more likely thousands of miles to get to Seattle.

Rosella Mosby:
And we’re growing 350 acres of… We did hand-harvested produce. And so, out of that… We’re stewarding 500 acres. And so, that 350 acres is under production, but the other acreage is either forestry buffers next to the Green River or a little bit next to the White River, or in Orting. I don’t think we’re next to anything in Orting really, but… Or it’s in cover crops. We’re trying to build soil, so I don’t think people realize that just because that acreage is there, doesn’t mean that we’re planting every little bit of it. There is this rotation plan and there is a conscious effort to invest into the soil for the future because it’s all we got.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it too much of a stretch though to say that if I go to the store and say, “Is this locally grown? Can you guys get locally grown in? Can you bring more stuff into the store that has grown locally?” and that create some sort of signal of demand up the chain. Maybe I post some things on social media and at them or whatever it takes, and they start realizing there’s an increasing demand for locally-grown food, that in turn helps support you and other local growers which helps keep local farmland in production, right?

Rosella Mosby:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
And not just all of it in production, but then in rotation or farms to be able to be here. That’s actually by asking that question and making that purchase at the store, I’m helping the rivers and the fish. Is that too much of a stretch to say that?

Rosella Mosby:
No, I don’t think so. And as long as they’re thriving, you’ve just summed up sustainability, right? So, we’re employing, I think, I signed 81 paychecks last week, and that’s 81 families that we’re helping to put food on the table for. And so, at the end of the season, when we write that check to the bank and attempt to pay everything back, if there’s a little bit left, then we’ve accomplished our goals. We’ve created something that we can invest back into the farm and we’ve helped out our employees have a roof over their head and food in their bellies and we’ve provided food for our community. And that also includes food that is donated to local food banks.

Rosella Mosby:
Because when you have boxes of zucchini in your cooler and you have sold so many but you have this little bit of extra, we could dump them in the dump truck to go to the compost pile over the bridge for [Arny’s 00:16:20] cows or we can send it to the food bank and feed people. That’s a straight-up donation. That is a loss of box, which the box is $1.75 each. And that’s a loss of labor. And so, you take this farm out of the community equation and it’s a loss. It’s a loss of land stewardship, it’s a loss of community impact when it comes to feeding people who are having food access issues, and it’s a loss to paychecks for 81 families.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I think it’s a loss to I was thinking about the river system and the water and fish and habitat here too. I mean, what happens to this valley that you’re in? You’re so close to the city. If you go away, what happens to it?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. Well, that’s up to the next owner, I guess, it would be.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, I would think, would houses come in here, pavement, development?

Rosella Mosby:
No, that’s the one thing about that you have to give King County credit for. So, this is FPP land. This has had the development rights purchased, and so it will always be farmland. It’s been preserved. That happened before we got here so everybody else… This piece, the previous owner benefited from that. The main warehouse piece is a different piece and that was sheltered dairy at one time, and they benefited from that development right purchase. But no, this will always be farmland.

Dillon Honcoop:
But it is just your farm. What about the area around it? How much of this area is protected?

Rosella Mosby:
Quite a bit of the Green River Valley. This is an agricultural production zone. And so, King County has worked hard to protect its Ag zones. And so, this whole Green River Valley which used to have hops in it and then it’s had strawberry farms, and now mostly cattle, there’s blueberry farm up the road, and then there’s us. So, we didn’t come here until, I think, Burr bought the main warehouse piece around 1990.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, that’s when the farm started, or was he farming before then?

Rosella Mosby:
No, you’ll have to hit him up for a podcast because he’s a great story in himself. So, he was 14 when he started doing hay in the Orting Valley. His dad was a pharmacist who left the family farm when his dad would not upgrade the mules, names were Tom and Jerry, to a tractor, but he always loved equipment. And so, he was a pharmacist. And his mom grew up on a Holly farm up where the second runway of SeaTac is. And then they moved out McMillan, which is this tiny little town that doesn’t really exist anymore, on your way out to Orting, and he and his brother started baling hay.

Rosella Mosby:
And then, mentors are awesome people, right? And so, he had a mentor. Her name is [Thalia Chapa 00:19:35]. Her maiden name was Vaca. And so, we always call her Mrs. Vaca. She’s still alive. I think she’s right about 99 years old at this point. And she said, “Hey, Burr, you should be growing zucchini and leeks,” and so he delved into that at 17. So, think about that he’s still in high school, made his first delivery of acorn squash in the back of a pickup truck to Safeway in 1977.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s awesome.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. Which would never happen today. I mean, today you have food safety craziness, right? And you have to deliver it in a refrigerated truck and it gets temperature-checked and you have to have the little tab, the temp trail, that goes on your pallet and it tells you the temperature of the whole route of… You have to make sure it didn’t get too warm on delivery.

Rosella Mosby:
Anyway, so I have huge admiration. His brother went on to work at some new tractor and then bought into some new tractor and went that route, but Burr really just kept going on the farm and turned it into what it is now. So, I have huge respect for the guy that works harder than anybody I know.

Dillon Honcoop:
When did you join the picture?

Rosella Mosby:
I missed all the late nights of headlights on the tractor until midnight and eating lettuce out of the field because it’s all you can afford. I came along later. Let’s see. We grew up… Actually, I grew up two miles up the road from Burr. We are 14 years to the day because we share a birthday. We’re 14 years apart. My older brother went to school with his younger sister, and our circles touched. We knew a lot of the same people, Sumner is a small town, but we didn’t really know each other.

Rosella Mosby:
I worked at the local pharmacy, he would come in. I always thought he looked like Tom Selleck because he had this big mustache and dark hair. It was dark, now he’s all grayed out. Anyhow, he looked right through me, talked to the pharmacist in the back. And we had some mutual friends that got married. So, one of my really good friends from school got married to a local turf farmer. And so, we chatted, I think, the first time there but I was there with a boyfriend, didn’t end up marrying that boyfriend, but we would run into each other for probably 13 years at weddings because I have relatives that are farmers in the Sumner Valley, weddings, funerals and McLendon hardware, which is just weird. And so, we talked to each other-

Dillon Honcoop:
That still happens. And it’s not even that far from the big city, but those meetings where there’s community around things like a hardware store. I love that.

Rosella Mosby:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
I love that.

Rosella Mosby:
And I love the hardware store. I had a decorative painting and plastering business, so I’ve always worked in a man’s world, I guess. Backing up a little bit, my little brother played football in high school and then ended up at Western playing football. That time, my dad got cancer. And so, I went to school locally and never went off to college. It’s like I was the only girl, I was the middle girl. I’m going to stay and help my mom. The priority was my little brother because he had this great opportunity, right?

Rosella Mosby:
So, my dad passed when I was 20. And so, here’s my mom. She worked for the sheriff’s department, and we had cows. She’s up and trying to feed these cows at 4:00 in the morning so she can go to work and I’m going to school. It was just chaotic. So, that’s about the time that I talked to Burr at that wedding. Anyhow, so just different. I just had this path where I ended up getting married, had a couple of kids, eventually started my decorative painting and plastering business, ended up divorced. Chapter 1, Chapter 2 situation, right?

Rosella Mosby:
I would go to this coffee shop early in the morning and Burr’s foreman work there, or his mechanic guy, one of his foremen. I was there for my 30th birthday and I was like, “Hey.” I go, “Guys, I’m…” and it was not a time in my lifetime to have a party. And I said, “Hey, I’m so glad you guys are here. Hey, happy birthday. It’s my birthday today, my 30th. That’s a milestone.” And Boyd said, “Today’s your birthday? Today is Burr’s birthday. ” So here I knew for 13 years, we would have these 20-minute conversations in the middle of McLendon Hardware, and never knew that we shared a birthday.

Rosella Mosby:
So, anyhow, he just called me up one day. I mean, there were a few other weird coincidental things that happened in there that made him call me up one day, and he said, “Hey, you want to go have dinner?” and I was like, “Sure. Why not?” A man in my life at that point was not on my list either because here I am, I’m self-employed, I’ve got two kids. You know what I mean? And it was just one of those weird times in your life where you’re thinking, “I do not have time for this.” I’m cleaning trowels and brushes at 11:00 at night and trying to do bids and get my sample boards done.

Rosella Mosby:
But Burr was an easy relationship for me. It was almost like going home because we’re both from Sumner, we knew a lot of the same people. Our conversations were great. And when I left my parents, I was like, “Oh, I’ll never have to put hay in a barn again.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Little did you know.

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, yeah. Well, I still don’t have to put hay in a barn, but I move bales for pumpkin patch every year, but I can handle that. Had an uncle who had a tremendous garden and he would always try to give me leeks. I’d say, “Uncle Gil, I don’t know what to do with the leeks. Can I have some grapes off your grapevines?” Then, I end up marrying a leek farmer and I have so many leek recipes, and it’s not even [inaudible 00:26:11].

Rosella Mosby:
So, anyhow, yeah, so I came along. I was about 30, 31, so that’s 17 years ago. And I think because of just having a taste, my dad was definitely more of a gentle man farmer, he worked in construction and was a foreman, and so he handled big project kind of stuff, I just have respect for the industry and respect for the process and respect for what happens here. And I think he appreciates that. It’s like he gets home when he gets home, and he’s the first guy to go to work. Well, except for during zucchini season. Those guys show up at 5:00 in the morning. But he’s always the last one to come home.

Rosella Mosby:
I took a picture from our house of the warehouse last week and the office lights were on, and everything was dark. And here he is volunteering his time because he’s the chair of the King Conservation Board of Supervisors. And I’m like, “So, here’s this guy who’s worked his ass off all day, and he’s sitting there, hopefully drinking a beer while he’s doing his meeting.” But sitting there, trying to take care of something that is all volunteer hours. I think that’s another thing that people don’t always realize is the amount of volunteer time that farmers contribute to agriculture issues. They sit on boards about water issues, or they… So, yeah, I have huge… There’s my Burr Mosby plug.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, how did you get into the actual farming part of it though? How did that go? Because I guess you had some kind of farming experience, but you hadn’t done farming like this.

Rosella Mosby:
Right, because I had my own business.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re kind of an artist, right? It sounds like with your business.

Rosella Mosby:
What happened is we got married, and I was running my own business and doing well. I mean, I did it for 13 years, and I liked it. I had lots of flexibility. And so, Burr says, “Hey, so the gal who’s going to run our farm stand isn’t going to come back. Will you run it?” And I was like, “No, hire somebody. I have a job. I like my job. No.” And he’s like, “Oh, come on.” I’m like, “Dude, I want to be married to you 10 years from now.” We have very different styles when it comes to leadership and working. No, I’m not going to work for you or with you ever. Yeah, a total fail on that.

Rosella Mosby:
So anyhow, I said, “Okay, fine,” because he’s really good at procrastinating, I said, “Okay, fine.” I have a business. And so, here I am, business, I have two kids, right, who are already in school, because I have two older kids, and then I have this new baby. And I’m trying to run this business. I said, “I will run your farm stand. I will not stand behind the till. I will hire, I will fire. I will do your produce order. I’ll carry your tills down. I’ll make sure that things are done, but I am not going to be there 24/7.”

Rosella Mosby:
Oh my gosh. So, there was a day, in particular, that my babysitter fell through for Lily, number three out of four. I’m on a ladder in a Forza coffee shop, which was one of my commercial clients, and I’m moving glaze on a wall, and my phone is in the crook of my neck. And I’m making a produce order, and I got a screaming kid in a stroller. I’m like, “What the F am I doing with my life right now, seriously? Why? Why? Why?” And so, I made a really… It was a hard decision for me, but I chose to give up my business, which was probably better for my shoulder anyway. Eventually, did have to have surgery. And the farm became the priority. It was better for my family and we eat lunch together most days.

Rosella Mosby:
So, I jumped into the produce stand end of the farm. And Burr was so happy because I increase sales 50% the first year. And then, he’s like, “Oh, hey…” And so, he took me to Italy thinking we’d get pregnant with Henry, and actually went to Italy six months pregnant with Henry. So, whatever. Anyway, he’s trying to talk me into doing it again, and I was like, “Oh.”

Rosella Mosby:
And so, I did it until about six years ago. It grew a ton. But 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers, and that was their missing link, the gal that was there before. It’s like if you’re going to make a stir fry, you have to buy peppers. People are coming through. We may not grow them, but you need to supply them. People will buy peppers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because they just want to go to one place. They won’t to have to go to five places to put their stir fry together.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. And so, I mean, I started carrying wine and beer and cheese and meat and doing borrow a basket, where people could borrow this basket and then they could buy a little picnic and go out and there was a tablecloth and a deck of cards or a little tiny backgammon, little book for comments, two wine glasses, and a cutting board. And people would spend money buying their snacks, enjoying a space on the farm, and then they come back through, buy what they ate again, because they thought it was so good the first time and they have to take some home. And then, they would leave. I mean, it was because I put a basket together.

Rosella Mosby:
And so, I think what I bring to the farm is Burr’s very linear thinking and concrete and I’m all over the place, so I’m definitely more abstract. And so, when it came to the retail end, I was like, “No, let’s do this and let’s do that.” Unfortunately, for me, sometimes I’m like, “Let’s do this,” and I say it and then I have to own it, right? You say it, you own it. So definitely then I’m like, “Oh wait, whose idea was this? I think it was mine. Oh no, why did I say it out loud?” So, I’ve had a few moments like that along the way.

Rosella Mosby:
How I got into the more of the advocacy end was because the labor issue became a bigger, more profound problem for our farm. And so, we started becoming much more vocal about “Wow, this is really a problem.” We’re in South King County, where there’s plenty of people, and we still can’t get people to come to work. And so, that just became my drum to beat. And that’s how I got more involved in the speaking out and the advocacy part of the farm.

Rosella Mosby:
So, Burr’s like the guy who’s trying to do the day-to-day stuff and I try to fill in on all of the retail end and the community outreach and I’m typically the one who sits on boards, the cabinet communicator.

Dillon Honcoop:
The communicator.

Rosella Mosby:
He’s a good communicator too. He just doesn’t have the time.

Dillon Honcoop:
Lots of farming to do when you have 300 acres in production.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How would you describe the size of your farm? What category does that fit into?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, if you ask people in King County, we’re probably the big evil entity in the county.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, I think so. A little bit. There’s a bigger farm. I’d say we’re one of the bigger farms in King County. But scale-wise, in the real world, we’re small.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m just surprised that people don’t like, because you’re growing local food here basically in Seattle’s backyard.

Rosella Mosby:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). People are like-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s frowned on because you’re too big?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, I think there’s the element of either other agriculturalists or consumers who really like that super small CSA style farm that get a little bit judge-y, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s too bad because those are great too, but we can’t especially afford it. I’m saying this as somebody who’s not made a money, I can’t always afford the high end super small farm stuff. I think it’s really cool that people are doing that and that some people can afford that. I can’t always afford that, and I want just local food. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I just want to know it’s grown close-by.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. And I think that’s something too that usually goes unrecognized is that all aspects of agriculture have value. When you think about the biggest restaurant in your town, it’s likely your school district, and people don’t always think about it like that, right? And so, if your school district is your biggest restaurant in town, think about the hotels, the convention centers, hospitals, those kinds of things.

Rosella Mosby:
Those buyers or chefs or whoever is coordinating their food part of that business or organization isn’t going to go shopping at a farmer’s market, isn’t necessarily going to take the time to buy direct from a farm. They want to call the middleman produce guy and be like, “Hey, I need your order guide. I need three boxes of zucchini. I need 50-pound bag of potatoes. I need so many bags of onions.” You know what I mean? And they’re going to have it show up on a pallet because that’s what’s efficient and that’s what’s affordable, because they have a bottom line to meet too.

Rosella Mosby:
And so, when I say that there’s always going to be that consumer who buys more expensive cheese and more expensive wine and better shoes, that is true within every aspect of what we buy. It’s true for cars, it’s true for clothes, it’s true for our food. And so, supporting whatever you want to support is a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing that we have those choices. And so, I don’t like that we…

Rosella Mosby:
Even within agriculture, everybody goes, “Oh, well, they do this and they do that,” and it’s like, “Oh, stop, stop, stop,” because it should never be an us in them kind of thing. The us in them should actually be we’re in agriculture and there are people out there who don’t like us. And while we’re busy fighting amongst ourselves, which I don’t think we fight amongst ourselves too much, but while we’re busy nitpicking each other, there’s this whole other entity out here that is trying to attack us as a whole.

Dillon Honcoop:
What is that attack? Who are these people? What’s their motive?

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, I don’t know exactly who they are.

Dillon Honcoop:
But just generally.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, yeah. But I mean, there’s groups out there that are trying to undermine the work of local agriculture. I mean, look at regulation, look at carbon taxes that are just going to make it super expensive for farms to be able to operate their machinery. We had a group of leadership people who came up from California last summer, who were ooh-ing and ahh-ing at our little tractors, because we have little tractors with implements that are set up for everything. So, we have one that’s set up to cultivate beets, one set up for leaks, one set for zucchini, and they’re all these little small, old, first generation. We’re back to that whole thing, right? But they all have this purpose. And these guys from California we’re like, “Wow, this is so cool.” You can’t operate this kind of tractors on our farms-

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Rosella Mosby:
… because there’s too much emissions. They can’t utilize older equipment because the regulations are too strict.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, they have to get new?

Rosella Mosby:
They have to get new and it has to meet these emission requirements. And so, when you think about how hard it is for a new farmer to get started or anybody to get started, right, so what are those barriers? Well, equipment. New equipment’s expensive. So, when you think about an older piece of equipment that you can make use of to just get going, are we setting ourselves up for failure by having these regulatory issues be so strict that we aren’t growing ou agriculturalists?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So, instead of going from that old tractor carbon footprint to a newer tractor carbon footprint, you’re going to food from Mexico carbon footprint or food from-

Rosella Mosby:
Which we have no control of.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I’m just saying, yeah, it’s like apples and oranges on scale if you’re really worried about what the carbon footprint of your food is. I don’t know, obviously I’m biased on this. That’s why I’m doing all this. But to me, advantage local food times 10 right here, even if the tractor isn’t the most efficient and it won’t last forever anyway. Eventually, it will have to be replaced by that more efficient tractor. But even if its carbon footprint is a little bit bigger, it’s so much more important to have that food grown locally than have a truck or a train or a ship bring it thousands of miles here.

Rosella Mosby:
Absolutely. And the older tractors, typically you can work on those easier, right? You don’t have the whole right to repair issue. I don’t know, think too about when it comes to food safety regulations. We control what we grow here, right? We are a farm. We’re responsible. We do third-party audits. We have this whole food safety thing that takes a tremendous amount of time and paperwork and effort to track and yearly audits that we go through. And so, we adhere to that and we’re proud to do that. We’re proud to grow safe food here.

Rosella Mosby:
When we are bringing food in from another country, we can’t control what they’re doing in another country. And they may say, “Oh, yeah. No, we do it this way. Oh yeah, checked the boxes, whatever,” but are they really? Do they really? I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, the question is what food can you really trust?

Rosella Mosby:
I don’t know. I’d rather eat something from here than anywhere else. I mean, I think, don’t they still put [inaudible 00:42:01] on grapes and chili or something like that?

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Rosella Mosby:
I don’t know if somebody told me that. Yeah. So, we’d have to check that factoid out. But we don’t do that on apples here and everybody had this big huge thing, but then we’re happy to eat grapes grown and chili that are imported here. And so, just because something isn’t approved to use in the United States doesn’t mean-

Dillon Honcoop:
As long as it’s not happening in my backyard. If it’s happening in another country, I’m not going to care, which doesn’t really make sense at the end of the day, because it’s about the food that you’re putting in your body.

Rosella Mosby:
Right. I mean, look at farms that spread manure, there’s regulation on that. Don’t ask me what it is, but there is. You can only spread certain times a year and you can only spread so much per acre. I mean-

Dillon Honcoop:
To protect the streams and things like that.

Rosella Mosby:
Sure. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s not as simple as just, “Yeah, go throw some manure out there.”

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I know that from having grown up around dairy farms, and still living in a dairy farming community.

Rosella Mosby:
I heard a statistic the other day that blew me away. 7% of American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that true? Really?

Rosella Mosby:
When you think about it, it blows you away. But when you actually put the number that that’s over 16 million Americans-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s scary.

Rosella Mosby:
… that’s a problem.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s scary.

Rosella Mosby:
But the same… Here’s another good one for you. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Are those adults or are those kids?

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, these are adults. It said adults.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, man.

Rosella Mosby:
So, the other good one that my good friend, April Clayton, loves to share is that the number of farmers in the United States is the same number of people who believe in aliens. I love that statistic. It’s brilliant. It’s little over 1% or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are you saying that farmers believe in aliens?

Rosella Mosby:
No, I’m saying-

Dillon Honcoop:
No, I know what it is. That is how small the farming community has become.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. And when you think about, when you define that 1%, I think it’s half of them really gross like $10,000 a year or something like that. So, when you think about the ones who are actually in production living off of it-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, grossing $10,000 a year and you back all the costs out and your profit’s maybe, what, 100 bucks?

Rosella Mosby:
So, it’s like a schedule H or something they file for their taxes. I don’t know. I think especially with our current situation and coronavirus and when you’re looking at empty shelves, people should be asking more questions. They should be saying, “Hey, I want to see local. I don’t just want to see the poster hanging in the store. I want to see you actually…” It’s not just a marketing tool. Sometimes I feel like that poster is a marketing tool as a farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, back to the farm stand thing. You don’t do that anymore.

Rosella Mosby:
No, no. And we have the intention of building a new one with a partner right next to the freeway where our pumpkin patch is, but oh my gosh, just the cost of doing it within the city just turned into an astronomical. Oh my gosh, I came home one day, and I said to Burr, “Hey, so this whole retail thing is in my lap, and I have one question.” I go, “Do you like that your wife is home when you get home from work?” And he said, “Well, yeah,” and I go, “If we do this, I’ll never be home when you get home from work because we’re going to be in this new hole we’re going to create for 20 years probably.”

Rosella Mosby:
I mean, I don’t know, we’re just at the point… We’re trying to get our farm set up for second generation. We have a 25-year-old and a 22-year-old and then Lily’s 13, almost 14, and a 12-year-old, and everybody’s working on the farm. And so, it’s like we need to be figuring out what our next step is and how we become more efficient on the farm. We decided adding something new like that was going to be a lot.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the one that you had couldn’t keep going?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, we would still have to put in this new well and water treatment system and that’s before you even apply for a Risk 1 grocery permit, so that is to carry anything with an expiration date. So, you’re not cutting anything. You’re not-

Dillon Honcoop:
You mean something that’s just grown on the farm here?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, but then you’re just doing produce and the money really is, it’s all those other things. It’s the guy who comes by and he picks up corn, and a 22-ounce microbrew, and it’s the cheese, and picking up a bottle of wine, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, like you were saying earlier, having a variety of things, your own stuff and then other stuff, so keep looking. And so, then that puts you in a different category as far as the rules you have to follow?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, anything refrigerated with an expiration date. So, if you’re talking cheese-

Dillon Honcoop:
Packaged stuff.

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah, totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
And so, what would it take to do all that to be able to-

Rosella Mosby:
About $75,000 and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Rosella Mosby:
… doing a well and getting a water treatment system in. This is crazy. So, if you have a distillery, people want a natural water source, right, water spring, that’s awesome. Well, we have a natural water spring, but that’s not good enough for the store’s situation. We would have to drill a well and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Even though you already have a natural water source?

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, yeah. And the water is tested because we’re a farm. We have all of our water tested. It’s part of our food safety program. I mean, that’s a perfect example of regulatory inconsistency where you have one agency that’s like, “Oh, hey. No, this is cool. You’re good,” and then you have another agency that’s like, “Oh, no, we require this.” It’s dumb. Maybe we’ll go back to it at some point.

Rosella Mosby:
But at the time, going into the time that that was, it was a tough… There’s been some pretty lean years on the farm in the last few years, especially when you’re dealing with you can grow cucumbers and beets, but when… This is the thing about exporting, right, we can export but you can’t just export. You have to import too. Part of the problem with that is that you have cheap cucumbers or cheap beets that come into your area. I mean, you guys see it and walk with berries. Well, it happens with vegetables too. And so, you can’t compete with that when our wages are way bigger than what they make there. So, they can grow that product for less, and when they’re flooding your market with cheap product, it’s like, “Okay, great.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not a fair level playing field.

Rosella Mosby:
Mm-mm (negative). No. And they certainly aren’t living in your zip code to know what your expenses are. And so, I think we figured out that in the last four or five years, the minimum wage has gone up little over $4 and our produces either gone down or gone up, at the most, a buck. So, when you think about that, okay, so when minimum wage goes up… And we pay more than minimum wage on our farm because we’re in South King County. You compete with warehouses. You know what I mean? We have to. And in the past, we’ve paid per hour bonus if you stay all season because we’re trying to get people to stay all season.

Rosella Mosby:
And so, when you think about wages are going up, okay, well, they don’t just go up for us, they go up for everybody. So, they go up for the propane people and the fertilizer people and the seed guys and the mechanic guy and our tire guy. You know what I mean? Everybody goes up. So, things become more expensive, your labor becomes more expensive. And if your box price for your produce stays the same or goes up 25 cents, or goes down, which we have that happen-

Dillon Honcoop:
Why doesn’t that go up then too because there are people buying stuff in the store should have more money to spend and that kind of…

Rosella Mosby:
Because we’re price takers, not price makers. And so, you got… Back to the guy in Cincinnati, his job, right? And if you have somebody else who will sell it for less and he’s selling volume, right, then he’s going to say, “Okay, fine. I’ll sell it for that,” because you have a buyer who’s just, “Oh, this guy will sell it for whatever.” And the farmers don’t talk to each other enough, and they need to be. You can’t set prices, but you need to be talking to each other more and you need… Just so that it’s like, “Hey, I’m going up. Period. We should all go up.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What does the future hold for you and for this farm?

Rosella Mosby:
Well, like I said, we’re trying to get to the second generation. We’re trying to-

Dillon Honcoop:
Any of your kids interested in…

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, yeah. There’s discussion. We have first generation growing pains, right? So, we have dad who’s, “I’ve been doing it this way. It was a 40-plus-year-old farm.” He has his way of thinking. And then, you have younger people who, because they’re adults now, I can’t call them kids, right, who are trying to think out of the box, “Hey, maybe we should try this or maybe we should try that.”

Rosella Mosby:
My son, Casey, he’s 22, and he… I mean, they’ve all worked on the farm since they were 12. Casey’s worked on pretty much every crew. He was 17 and putting in 100 hours on irrigation crew and loving these big paychecks and his buddies are like, “Wow, man, I want to work on the farm.” He’s like, “You can’t. I can because I’m the family.” You can’t, that would be child labor, right?

Rosella Mosby:
So, we’re trying to wait and see how it all plays out, and there’s a lot happening right now. There’s a lot happening. It’s interesting times, and it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out and how the regulatory end of agriculture stuff however that heads, right? And so, I don’t know. It’s like that book we talked about, right, Who Moved My Cheese. Our cheese might move a little bit and we have to figure out where it went.

Rosella Mosby:
And as far as me, personally, I’m going to keep advocating for agriculture. I think it’s our most valuable industry. You can’t work or put food on your table or clothes on your back or a roof over your head without food in your belly. That’s where it all begins. And so, if we don’t recognize that as a society, we have a big problem. So, that’s my goal. I am trying to figure out how to work smarter and not harder in that department, and school is going to be interesting this fall and we’re going to take a little bit different direction there. And so, that’s going to impact my time. I’m figuring out what boards to drop and what commitments that I need to figure out how to get out, in a way, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
The shifts caused by COVID in our lives, right?

Rosella Mosby:
Yeah. And I think that applies to a lot of industries. But at the end of the day, I mean, we’re still here and we’re still growing food. And our kids, we’ve been packing USDA farm to families boxes. Lily and Henry, they’re 12 and 14, almost 14, and they’ve been putting together boxes for us to pack, and they have 1,000 boxes. So, today is Thursday, and we’ll pack again on Monday. They’ll put together 1,000 boxes for that project, and then they’ll have two days to put together 1,000 more boxes, and they’re getting paid to do that. It will go down as a memory for them.

Rosella Mosby:
We all have perspective changers, right? I think my first big one was losing my dad at 20 and going through that experience, and I think these guys are having their first real perspective changer in their life where they’re like, “Wow.” We’ve had some really interesting conversations about food and food security, and when your 12-year-old son is like, “There’s a reason we have freezers,” and I only get it. There’s a reason you actually put stuff in the freezer. Because when you can’t get something at the store, that’s a scary prospect, and we are blessed and lucky to be able to do that.

Rosella Mosby:
You think about families in little tiny apartments that are pretty stuck in there and can’t… Especially, Auburn is one of the least healthy cities in the state of Washington, and so when you think about how families in a town with 30 different languages spoken and I’m sure there’s a lot of food security issues, those are things that we care about on the farm and we try to be a positive impact in our local community. So, I don’t know. It’s going to be interesting going forward to see how it all plays out.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story and keeping this farm going.

Rosella Mosby:
Oh, absolutely, Dillon. I’m glad you finally got it around.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I know we’ve been talking about having this conversation for a long time. But what you guys do here is pretty cool, especially in my mind, because of how close you are to the Big City and how much different local food you guys grow. I mean, that list at the beginning was… Even though you said it’s shrunk, it was still a pretty long list, in my mind. I had come from a farm where we did one thing, raspberries, so it’s cool to hear about all that.

Rosella Mosby:
We can’t do it without our team, and I say it often, we can sign our name on the dotted line, but it takes a career to make it all happen and we are lucky to have a three generation family that works on this first generation farm and it is a farm family, for sure. We have huge respect for them and vice versa, and we all work together for that common goal of being successful every year. We try hard. It doesn’t always work but we try hard.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So, some pretty big takeaways from this conversation with Rosella. Ask where your food is coming from, ask at the store. Even if that one conversation doesn’t do it, multiple conversations, if people keep asking, more and more people are interested in it, stores will respond and will put more emphasis on that. That will eventually go up the chain. And also, you could takeaway that buying local does make a difference on so many levels that we talked about. So, it is worth doing that. And it is important in our community and to change in our food system.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then also, one other important takeaway is that some ideas as far as changes and rules and things like that may sound good on the surface, like they’re supposed to help things, but may have unintended consequences that actually hurt more than help. So, we need to be careful when we’re putting new laws and regulations. What is the global impact of this? Will it accomplish a small thing over here while causing a much larger harm elsewhere? We need to ask those questions before we back ourselves into a corner. Again, Mosby Farms, Rosella Mosby. You can check them out online. You can check out their pumpkin patch in Auburn.

Dillon Honcoop:
And please subscribe to the podcast if you haven’t already on whatever your favorite podcast platform is. Follow us on social media. We’re on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and make sure to check us out on YouTube as well where you can watch the full video of this episode and see the gorgeous historic barn that we recorded the whole conversation in. Thanks so much for following and supporting Real Food Real People.

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.

Steve Pabody | #035 08/10/2020

A freak incident almost killed Steve Pabody, completely changing his perspective on how he manages his small farm in Ferndale, WA. Hear how he and his wife started Triple Wren Farms with no farming experience, and grew it into a diverse, thriving operation.

Transcript

Dillon Honcoop:
They saved your life.

Steve Pabody:
I think so. I think several times, probably.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
The good news is, those nurses, I told them, I said, “You guys saved my life and I can’t really return the favor, but you get free blueberries for life.”

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
A very scary freak incident almost killed Steve Pabody. He’s our guest this week. He and his wife founded and own Triple Wren Farms in Ferndale, Washington, producing various veggies and some fruit and blueberries and a lot of flowers, dahlias and other flowers. That’s kind of their claim to fame. He came from no farming background and worked his way into being one of the biggest flower producers in the area. He has an incredible story to tell, including that scary episode where he almost lost his life but bounced back, and it’s changed his perspective. So join me in this conversation with Steve Pabody at Triple Wren Farms. I’m Dillon Honcoop. This is the Real Food Real People Podcast, documenting my journeys around Washington State to get to know the real people behind our food.

Steve Pabody:
A friend of mine, his wife’s always posting, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Steve Pabody:
So he posted one, a picture on Instagram. She’s a flower farmer as well. He’s looking down. He goes, “This is what my opinion is of all my wife’s photos. Oh, my poor flowers.” I said, “Yeah, that’s spot on, man. Spot on.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey, but if it works, if it sells the flowers, right?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. 27,000 Instagram followers, it’s got to be working.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you guys do that?

Steve Pabody:
We just post pictures of … Well, two things, two things. Number one, we have an amazing flower field and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, as we can see here.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Yes, yes. And of course, my wife’s photography. But then a lot of what she’s done the last couple years is we’ve just kind of shared our heart. So where she may be learning some personal things or we just navigate some sticky situations, she just shares that. I think that really kind of connects with people, so they get excited about that. But without good photography, I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s all about the photography, especially on the ‘Gram.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. On Instagram for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
I mean, you’re a flower farmer. We’re going to hear all about the farm. But you didn’t start farming, right?

Steve Pabody:
I didn’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you doing professionally before you decided to become a farmer?

Steve Pabody:
I actually went to school for theology.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Yes. And so I worked at some ministries, a Christian camp, and then I was in the pastorate for a little while, and then it was just a brief time where I was between really God’s direction in my life and a friend of mine offered me a chance to babysit their orchard. I told him, I said, “Hey, I don’t know anything about apples. But even worse, I don’t know anything about farming. I don’t know anything about agriculture. I don’t even know anything about business.” So he asked if I would maintain his property and watch over his orchard and run the whole operation. So meanwhile, my wife picked up a book at the library and it says, “How you can be a flower farmer.” She thought, “Oh, that’s awesome.” She showed it to me and I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m going to run this orchard and we’re going to grow vegetables and be market farmers.” And I didn’t sell a lot of vegetables.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where was this?

Steve Pabody:
It was right in Ferndale. Ferndale, Washington, yep. And so while I was busy trying to figure out how to grow apples and how to keep everything alive, she was reading flower farmer books and it just … I don’t know, I think it kind of ignited something in here where she was like, “Hey, yeah. I always thought it would be cool to grow a lot of flowers and now we can do it profitably.” We sold every stem she grew, and what the rabbits didn’t eat of my vegetables, we composted whatever we couldn’t consume ourselves. And so I knew that that was not the future for me, and so we started growing flowers and it just kind of took off from there. Now obviously-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, how did you get this farm?

Steve Pabody:
Well-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s one of the hardest parts, is to get in to get some ground to grow stuff on, right?

Steve Pabody:
It is. It is. And in the beginning, when we were just watching somebody else’s property and doing this as an experiment, we didn’t really think that we would ever own our own place. So we just started looking around, started talking to farmers here in Whatcom County that know about what ground is good and what’s important. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with farmers and they say, “If I could do it all over again, I would make sure I had 100% water rights.” That’s probably the first thing that everyone tells me. Have water rights. And then know what kind of soil you have. Another smart farmer told me, “You should grow whatever your soil is set up to grow already. Don’t try to grow broccoli in Whatcom County. It’s going to be a tough run.” So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey, I hear that it can be done.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, and I know-

Dillon Honcoop:
On the right soil if you can find it.

Steve Pabody:
And there’s some great farmers who do that. But yeah, even in the flower world, there are some flowers that like a thick, heavy soil and there are some flowers that don’t. And so we’re on this beautiful berry soil. It’s got that Lindale loam and that trope loam, and I got a little bit of [inaudible 00:05:37] muck as my property slopes down to the peat bogs over there. But yeah, I don’t do good with flowers that need that thick, heavy, chunky stuff. I do stuff that grow beautiful on this loam. And as you can see, something’s working.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re doing all right. Something is working.

Steve Pabody:
They’re doing just fine, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk about that journey. You get this piece of land at some point and start … What was your philosophy going into this? How much was it just pieced at a time and how much was there an overarching plan of, “This is where we want to get to”?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. The story of how we got it, or … It is an adventure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Either one.

Steve Pabody:
I don’t want to bore you with that, but …

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, either one. No.

Steve Pabody:
Well, I guess-

Dillon Honcoop:
We’re here to hear the details. All the gory details.

Steve Pabody:
Okay. Should I drop names? Do we want that, too?

Dillon Honcoop:
Hey, whatever you feel comfortable with.

Steve Pabody:
I got to be friends with Randy Craft with Barbie’s Berries and very graciously he answered about a billion of my questions like, “Hey, I’m thinking about doing this,” or, “What do you think?” Just even irrigation questions and just general knowledge that I should have had that I didn’t that he and just … Again, I could name probably 30, 40 farmers that have just graciously looked at me like I look at my small children and patiently told them what’s going on.

Steve Pabody:
So when I was talking about land, I knew that I probably should just find some farmers who knew the area and knew what might be available in a couple years or what is a good place to look. Randy said, “Hey, you should look at that property that the USDA is up for foreclosure. They’re auctioning it off and they’re looking for a new farmer, a young farmer to come take it up.” And it just worked out. We got in there right when they were closing it and they did a raffle, almost. And so we still had to pay for it, but we had the ability to-

Dillon Honcoop:
It wasn’t like, $2 ticket and who comes away with the property kind of thing? Not that kind of raffle?

Steve Pabody:
Unfortunately. No, no, no, no. I wish it was that kind of raffle. No. But the have a program where some of their funds are allocated toward new farmers, young farmers, beginning farmers, socially disadvantaged farmers, and if you’ve been farming for more than three years but less than 10 years, you qualify as … You just need some help, generally. And so that’s how we got this property. Then when we got here, we were still at the orchard. We were trying to do both, trying to manage the orchard and trying to manage this, trying to get this up and going. It was a foreclosure, so the property owners kind of took away everything that you would think that … They took the pump and they took a lot of stuff. So anyways, it took a lot longer to redo the house than I was anticipating, and then just to get things in place that I didn’t have and didn’t know exactly what I needed. So again, the great community here at Whatcom County selling me what I needed.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what were you doing to be able to pay the bills at that point? How were you making it go?

Steve Pabody:
After we got this property?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Well, we were selling flowers and hoofing it. I mean, in the very, very beginning, how we started getting an income is I did have my housing and a living because I was managing somebody else’s property. I was living at their place, so just had utilities, basic things. And we just grew flowers and sold them to anybody that would buy them, so that meant driving to florists, talking to grocery stores. And eventually, it just happened that we found a couple of buyers at grocery stores that said, “Oh yeah, we’ll buy your product.” We’d take sample buckets and say, “Hey, look, this is what we can do and we can do it for you.” So they were gracious enough to give us a shot, and then we just started tripling and quadrupling what we were growing every year. And now we have a little bit of extra.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you had kind of a philosophy, though, of sustainability in putting this all together, right?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, I think that in the beginning, it’s a very romantic notion to think that you could just jump into the middle of something that we’ve been doing for hundreds of years and make sense of it, number one. But getting back to the land, growing our own food, growing agricultural products that we’re reselling, the idea was, let’s do that in a way that benefits nature and the world around us instead of takes away from it. And I think there’s so many people now that have just been awakened to a lot of the flip side of that, just making a profit at the cost of everything around you. In the community that I’m in, the agricultural community, I don’t know anybody who thinks that way because that’s just like burning the bridge that you’re walking on, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Eventually-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a good analogy.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I mean, maybe burning it behind you as you’re walking, maybe, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
But still, that’s stupid and-

Steve Pabody:
Right, and nobody does that. I mean, farmers understand, “Okay, so I’ve got to manage everything. So that means keeping water on my field but doing it efficiently so I’m not spending all the money in infrastructure, electricity, and just wearing everything out.” So it’s all about balancing everything out. “There’s bugs on my vegetable.” Well, nobody really wants to eat vegetables with bugs. They don’t. So you got to do something to keep them off. You can go out and pinch them all off if you want, but that’s going to limit the amount of vegetables you can grow effectively, right? So all of those things, just really understanding how the plant is growing, what it needs, how can you help it.

Steve Pabody:
So sustainability was a thing that we were striving for in the very beginning because there are some family goals that we have and the idea … When the opportunities started to present themselves … I say opportunities because it’s almost like we’ve course corrected every year. We do one thing, it’s working great, and then the customer decides, “Oh, we don’t need those sunflowers anymore.” Okay, now what am I going to do with 1,000 sunflowers a week for five more weeks? Well, better find somebody else to sell them to. When we started scaling up our dahlia operation, we were wholesaling them to another farmer who was then retailing them. And we said, “Great. What’s the limit?” They said, “Oh, there’s no limit. We’re selling out, so as many tubers as you can give us, we will sell.” And then they decided, “You know what? We’re going a different direction,” after we just bought a bunch of tubers.

Steve Pabody:
But, I mean, we’re indebted to Chris and Erin Benzakein out of Mount Vernon with Floret Flower Farm. We’re indebted to them because Chris said, “Well, why don’t you just retail your tubers?” And I said, “Man, we can’t do that. We’re not you. You’re the picture perfect flower farmer.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Everybody knows Floret now. They’ve become such a thing, right?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Well, I mean, Erin posts a picture and a bazillion people say, “Yay, I want to be just like you and own a flower farm,” and so when they decided to stop selling tubers and start breeding their own, I had a bunch of tubers that I was planning on them selling. So Chris says, “Well, you just sell them.” And I was like, “I can’t do that.” We sold them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Steve Pabody:
And consequently, we’ve had to triple what we’ve had the last couple of years. We keep tripling every year. This year, I’ve got about 28, 29,000 in the ground. Believe it or not, it’s August and I’m still putting tubers in the ground.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. So I don’t think I’ll triple next year. 100,000 dahlias is too much for me. But yeah, it’s safe to say that we’re in the 30,000 dahlia range, and we’re still selling most everything we can produce.

Dillon Honcoop:
And selling them to who? Just online direct to the consumer, or what?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah. Online is the place where we sell our tubers. And then fresh cut flowers, we sell them everybody in the area. Well, anybody who wants them. Currently, we just packed an order up for Charlie’s Produce, and I was amazed to find out where they’re going. I said, “Where are these things going to end up?” I thought probably a chain in Seattle. She goes, “Actually, these are going to Wyoming.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
I said, “What?” She goes, “Yeah, I’m not sure if these dahlias are going to Jackson Hole, but the last order we did with them went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming.” I’m like, “That is insane.” So closer to home, we sell Whole Foods. Not all of their stores, just about all their Washington stores are using our dahlias. And then the Metropolitan Market, it’s a chain in Seattle. They get our stuff. A couple other chains that sometimes order and sometimes don’t. We’ll just see how the new normal is. We’ll see if we still sell to those or not, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
Nobody knows, really, what’s going to happen next.

Steve Pabody:
No. Yeah. So we’re just trying to stay flexible and get ready to course correct again if we need to. But yeah, that’s where we are now.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s not just dahlias that you grow, though, right?

Steve Pabody:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
You kind of have a whole rotation going.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. We used to grow more variety. But in the beginning, we grew more variety because we would really specifically grow to what our customers would say they need. So when we were selling to small florists, they would really need us to succession plant everything so that they could have sunflowers whenever they needed them, or some of the more ethereal, delicate flowers. So we would grow lots of different kinds of those flowers where one particular flower like a cosmos … I mean, we might grow … In the beginning, now, we might grow five or six different varieties so that we could get the different colors so it would match what they needed. That’s just a lot of variety, a lot of planning. Fortunately, my wife handles all the planning. So that’s what we-

Dillon Honcoop:
Same.

Steve Pabody:
There you go. Very good. So that’s what we did in the beginning, and then we started to find that there was a bit more opportunity for us in the way that our overall goal was to grow more of less varieties. So again in the beginning, 150, 200 different types of stuff. That was insane.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like different types of dahlias, or dahlias and all different kinds of flowers?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Everything. Everything from hellebore starts in the winter to ranunculus, anemone, onto your summer flowers, then your fall flowers.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
At the same time, on rented land, we didn’t do a lot of this but we started to establish some perennials, so we put in some roses and some hydrangeas and some stuff that we knew was a longterm crop. But yeah, now that we’re on our own place, we’re still doing that. We’ve got a couple thousand roses and we put in four new colors this year, so put in the coveted Koko Loko and Distant Drums and Honey Dijon and State of Grace. So those are roses that even a designer can’t always go to the wholesaler and get them because they’re just not as bulletproof as some of the South American roses that are available. And so when we find-

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s the stuff that’s in the grocery store, kind of all the time, middle of winter? That stuff’s coming from South America?

Steve Pabody:
Middle of winter, probably, yeah. There’s a lot of great farms down there, and I love the fact that as a … Because part of what we do is also we design for events and weddings. Not this year, but we had 60 two years ago, 44 or 45 weddings last year, and this year everybody canceled except two.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
Now, fortunately, some of those that had canceled have actually … They just needed to do really small backyard ceremonies, so we’ll sell them flowers, but it’s not the whole …

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, totally.

Steve Pabody:
… couple thousand dollar flower budget. No, they’re looking for $100 worth of flowers, some, because it’s them and their in-laws.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, exactly.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, but with the roses, the ones that are coming up in the winter, those are … or they’re for sale in the winter … those are very sturdy and they’ve been bred so that they store well and that they ship well and that they last a long time. That’s a little bit different than your grandmother’s roses that you went out there and smelled and just remember her baking cookies and going out and walking through her flower garden, yeah. So those are the kind of roses that we’re growing. I’m thankful for those South American farms that produce flowers when we can’t, but I’m sure willing to put my flowers against them …

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Steve Pabody:
… during season any day of the week.

Dillon Honcoop:
Local.

Steve Pabody:
Local, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where it’s at.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, and it’s just if you’re getting a rose at a grocery store that’s coming from South America, that was picked sometimes a week and a half ago, put in cold storage, kind of like Han Solo from Star Wars, frozen. Not quite, but … And then by the time it gets to the grocery store, a lot of those are going to a distribution center and then it’s taking another day to transit, then it’s coming here. I mean, by the time you get it here, it’s already almost on its last leg.

Dillon Honcoop:
A little different than when people get your flowers. They’re cut the same day.

Steve Pabody:
A lot of times, yep, same day or the day before.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or the day before.

Steve Pabody:
Yep, so we can condition them and get them to you so they’re just in the perfect state.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Now, you guys grow more than just flowers, though, too, right? You’ve got blueberries, other stuff. What else do you have?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. The addictions, they run deep. We did-

Dillon Honcoop:
Addictions. I like that.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Well, just as kind of a side note, I started keeping bees because we needed bees for the orchard, so I just started talking to the beekeeper who brought them in and I thought, “This is amazing. I love this.” And he goes, “Well, you should buy a couple of hives.” And I’m like, “Okay.” So I bought-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re a beekeeper, too.

Steve Pabody:
So I bought three hives and then he’s like, “Well, if they’re healthy and they’re getting lots of nectar, you need to split them and keep them healthy, keep them balanced. You split them.” So I split them, and all of the sudden I had nine hives at the end of the year. Then I had 14 and all the sudden I turned around and I had 37 or 38 hives and I was like, “This is a problem.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Another addiction.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. So it’s the same way with, hey, I love good food and I love to grow things, and so I’ll start planting some garlic and then next thing you know, I’m like, “I got 600 feet of garlic. What am I going to do with 600 feet of garlic?” So yeah, we got a lot of vegetables and what we kind of pivoted this last year is growing vegetables and just edible flowers so that we could use them for our events. However, our events, all of our night retreats have been canceled.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. All these big plans that a lot of people have had related to events this year, 2020.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. However, we’ve been eating really good here at Triple Wren Farms. These gourmet tomatoes and all the specialty sweet corn. [crosstalk 00:20:42]

Dillon Honcoop:
You have a little you-pick thing going on here, too, right?

Steve Pabody:
I do.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that just for blueberries, or can some of those other veggies go to people that way?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, sometimes we do put other veggies in our farm stand up there. But yeah, when we got the property, it had two and a half acres of blueberries on it, and so I was like-

Dillon Honcoop:
Blueberries take a long time to establish, so hey, they’re already there, a lot of that work’s been done, right?

Steve Pabody:
Right, yeah. So thank you to the person who planted them and maintained them for the last couple of years. But yeah, they’re actually about 30-year-old bushes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh wow.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. So I don’t do hardly anything to them, much to the chagrin of most of the blueberry farmers listening, I would imagine. But yeah, I mow them and try to keep the blackberries out, but I don’t even have a water on them yet. Fortunately, most of them are in really good, thick soil so they can make it through. And this year, we’ve gotten the extra rain. The berries are huge and they’re delicious. So yeah, with minimal effort, we have a phenomenal blueberry for you pick. It’s a great way for people to pick blueberries, spend some time outside of their quarantine area, and then walk through the flower fields. A lot of people love to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many total acres do you have here?

Steve Pabody:
There’s a little over 20.

Dillon Honcoop:
20 acres.

Steve Pabody:
Or in the words of a wise farmer … I said, “I’m looking for about 20 acres.” He goes, “That’s a lot of grass to mow.” Should have listened a little bit more to the wise, sage advice. The more property you get, the more management it’s going to take. So yeah, five acres is looking pretty good right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you wouldn’t be able to produce nearly as much product as you do, right?

Steve Pabody:
Well, that’s true. Yeah, there’s about six acres in the flower production. Then I’ve got the blueberries, and I’ve just tilled up another four acres in the back that I’m just trying to put the fertility back in there. For years, the people who were here before me hayed it, and that, done well, is great for your soil. But if you don’t put any nutrition back in, or if you just cut and don’t ever give back … So yeah, I’m in the process of putting some dairy solids. My generous neighbor, Mr. Ed, has got all the-

Dillon Honcoop:
The manure.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I asked him in the beginning, I said, “Hey, do you mind if I grab some of that press solids?” And he said, “Yeah, I mind if you grab a little. You should take it all.”

Dillon Honcoop:
That sounds like Ed.

Steve Pabody:
He said-

Dillon Honcoop:
I know your neighbor.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I said, “Well, you want me to call and let you guys know that I’m there picking it up? I’ll just drive over and pick it up with my tractor because I’m next door.” And he goes, “Do I want you to call?” “Yeah, so people don’t think I’m stealing.” He goes, “Stealing poop?” He said, “Trust me. Steal all the poop you want.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh man. So you grow food, you grow flowers. Talk about your family. I mean, you guys are kind of doing it all, plus some extra crew that comes in at times for harvesting things, et cetera?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Of course, COVID changed all that. We normally have quite a bigger crew early spring, and then harvesting, there’s … We ship thousands of stems every week, and so we just physically can’t do that with two people. We tried. It’s not possible. So yeah, there’s about a dozen people that are seasonal. A couple of them are closer to full time and this last year, pretty close to year round, but still just a little bit of gap when that COVID hit us. So we had to scale that back, especially with inside, the shipping and the tasks that we had to do that was inside a barn, we couldn’t really socially distance. And so that we just had to do all in house, so it was Team Pabody. But yeah-

Dillon Honcoop:
Work, work, work.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. But during the season, like I said, there’s about … I think we’re at 12, maybe 14 people. And that will drastically be reduced after we get our first frost, because from July til … For us, we get a frost the first week of October, and so from then it’s go time. We’re out in the fields cutting flowers, shipping flowers, and then once we get over that, then the wonderful task of working in the Pacific Northwest, October and November, digging the plants out of the ground, storing them, getting them ready for winter, is a race against that freeze. Frost is one thing. With that freeze comes and if you didn’t get it out of the ground before then, that’s it. Game over.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’ll kill the tuber.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah. Kill the tuber and any of the other plants that you were trying to grab.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, explain that with dahlias, because that’s kind of your main thing. That’s your claim to fame. You saw the flowers and you saw the tubers. Explain how that works. They’re not like a normal flower that you would grow from seed that people are used to. They have a tuber, kind of like a potato, that’s in the ground and then you save it for the next year. Not really like bulbs. Related I guess, sort of, but-

Steve Pabody:
Perhaps distant cousins. So the dahlia is originally a Central American flower. That’s another reason why we love Central American flower farmers, because they gave us the dahlia. So it was imported to Europe as a food crop, and then, right, next-

Dillon Honcoop:
They ate the tubers?

Steve Pabody:
You can eat the tubers. They’re a little fibrous and they don’t taste as good as those Idaho golds.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I would imagine.

Steve Pabody:
So quickly, people said, “This is way too much work to get something subpar to a potato, but the flowers are amazing.” So then they started making it to the gardens. I don’t know how long they’ve been really popular. They seem to have recently got a surge, probably in part to Floret, maybe some other big names out there. But when we first started growing them, we were just growing them just for the cuts, and now we grow them for all of the above. We grow them for the cuts, for the tubers, and then we’re doing some breeding, just a little bit.

Steve Pabody:
But yeah, in the spring, around here with this climate, we usually tell people to go for around Mother’s Day, you want to get your tubers in the ground, and then just wait. So it warms up, they start popping out, and they’ll flower all the way until … if they’re cared for. If you keep water on them, keep them fed, and you keep cutting them. Believe it or not, if you stop cutting the dahlias, it doesn’t flower as much because it starts putting seed pods. It signals for the plant that it’s going to reproduce that way. So it’ll reproduce with seeds and it’ll also reproduce with tubers. So while you’re seeing those seed pods up top, it’s producing tubers down below. And what comes out of the seed is not going to be the same flower that formed that seed pod. There’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Because it’s a cross, right?

Steve Pabody:
Well, yes. And, I don’t know, just the way the dahlia’s made, a seed doesn’t come true. Sometimes it’ll be very close. It’ll have the same color, maybe even the same form factor, but it’s never the same flower. The tubers, however, are exactly the same. So we bring those up, like I said, in October. Dig them up and store them and then divide them and sell some of them and plant some of them and do it all again. Rinse, sleep, repeat. I can’t ever remember how that thing goes, but yeah, we do a lot of that around here.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s you and your wife and then you have two kids?

Steve Pabody:
Two kids, yes. Fortunately, my son is getting old enough now that I can put him on the mower and say, “All right, go put in your couple hours of mowing.” And he has joined the harvest crew for some of that. It’s just such a mad rush, because there’s that window where you can harvest the flowers and have a pristine product that once it gets to be about 10:00 in the morning, that window is done.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. We’ve tried starting really early, but with our crew, we generally don’t start before 6:00. So 6:00 to 10:00 is when we’re all hands on deck.

Dillon Honcoop:
Go, go, go, go.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah. And of course, Sarah and I sometimes will be out here as soon as we can start to see, and then take a little break for the heat of the day and just do other stuff, or we weed. That never seems to stop around here. Mow, tie up flowers and get our stuff straightened up, and then in the cool of the evening, a lot of times we’re coming back out to harvest more flowers. So yeah, that’s why we have so many hands on deck, and so my son’s gotten incorporated into that. My daughter cuts flowers, but generally not that we’re going to resell. She loves to design and she’s got four or five arrangements in her bedroom right now, so it’s great.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, isn’t she part of the name of the farm, too?

Steve Pabody:
She is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did Triple Wren come from? Or how did-

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, so, you got to be in the circle of trust to know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, well.

Steve Pabody:
In the very beginning when we realized, “Hey, this farming, it really is hard work. We got to have a plan. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to have to go all in.” And so we decided, well, what motivation do we need to get out of bed at 5:00 in the morning? Okay, well, we can build something for our kids. Maybe they don’t want to go into agriculture. I’m not sure. But we want to at least give them the opportunity. So our stewardship of the land, our stewardship of our opportunity, all that went into why we initially started doing this, and we thought, “What’s a cool name?” Well, my son is Steven George Pabody, III, so there’s the triple. And my daughter’s name is Chloe Wren, so there’s the Wren. Triple Wren Farms.

Dillon Honcoop:
Got it.

Steve Pabody:
So with any luck-

Dillon Honcoop:
It was named after your children.

Steve Pabody:
It is, yeah. Like I said …

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s cool.

Steve Pabody:
… something’s got to get you out of bed in the morning and keep you going until midnight at night sometimes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, I would say, from what I’ve seen of what you guys do, part of your success has to do with how you’ve branded yourself, too. People recognize who you are. You stand for something. Well, talk about that. How did that come about? I mean, you explained how the name came about. How did you do the branding? How big of a role has that played in how you have put this together?

Steve Pabody:
Well, I think that with the popularity of social media, people are looking for stuff out there that they connect with. Everybody loves flowers. So at the very beginning, we just started really picking up on the need to have good photography of the flowers we grow. I’m always reminded of this, especially here in Whatcom County. There’s some incredible farmers here. There’s some incredible growers of flowers, and I’m surprised nearly every year, I learn of another incredible farmer or incredible grower, but nobody knows about them. The people that know about them have met them or know somebody who knows them, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s why I’m doing this podcast, because I want to go and get to know these people and allow a lot of other people to join in and also get to know them and know their heart for what they’re doing.

Steve Pabody:
That’s a very lofty goal. That’s great. So yeah, we realized very quickly that we needed to present ourselves on social media. And even though most farmers don’t want to take the time to put content up, whether that’s just pictures and a funny picture about what the cow is doing that day, like Erica. She’s doing a great job with this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Erica DeWaard, yeah. Farmer Girl.

Steve Pabody:
Oh, she’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Episode three of the podcast.

Steve Pabody:
Oh, is she?

Dillon Honcoop:
My third interview …

Steve Pabody:
I-

Dillon Honcoop:
… on Real Food Real People. You can go back in the archives and look at it.

Steve Pabody:
I don’t know if I heard that one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or listen to it, I guess.

Steve Pabody:
I’ve heard most of yours, but I might have missed that one. So sorry, Erica. I’ll go immediately today and listen to your episode. SO yeah, I mean, just that connection. It really is just giving people a window into what you’re doing. We try not to put pictures of us digging the dahlias in October when everybody’s fingers are numb and it’s nasty outside and you’re just having to find joy from inside to keep-

Dillon Honcoop:
But isn’t that reality?

Steve Pabody:
That is, and we do post those occasionally. But mostly what we post is, “Hey, do this kind of hard labor and look what it’s going to do.” And the flowers and the beautiful side of it, and trying not to gloss over the negatives. Because it doesn’t matter what you do in life. There’s parts of that that you’re not going to like. If I was an accountant, it would be most of that job. But there’s some incredible things about an accountant’s job. I love accountants. So this is the highlight of what we do, is you see the finished product or you get to taste the produce or the blueberries, or you get to have that perfect, warty, twisted pumpkin on your front porch that I grew.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s right, you grow the pumpkins, too, yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, we got a pumpkin patch in the fall. But yeah, if you have the opportunity to come to a farm, you get that window. But then you kind of say, “Hey, remember when we went to Triple Wren Farm and ran to that dahlia festival that they have? I would like to grow some of those here.” And get on our Instagram or go to our webpage and you can see what flowers are available. It’s just off to the races from there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. Give us the shameless plug. What’s the web address?

Steve Pabody:
Triplewrenfarms.com.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s easy to remember.

Steve Pabody:
Easy peasy.

Dillon Honcoop:
And-

Steve Pabody:
Farms is plural. That’s the only thing that confuses some people.

Dillon Honcoop:
And @triplewrenfarms, I think, too, is the social media handle.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t know, the auto fill thing will come up.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, yeah, perfect. The Facebook, the Instagram. I’m not really posting on Twitter anymore, but all those other platforms we’re trying to get away from and just focus on a couple of them.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you said earlier to me when we were setting up here, you have a background in IT as well?

Steve Pabody:
Shh, don’t tell anybody that. They’ll call me for their computer problems.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, they’ll call you for their flowers.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I was in IT for a little while and was basically on upgrading systems, so the hardware side of things. Back before the operating systems were so intuitive and you actually had to tell them where to go to access the hardware pieces or to the system boards or to the memory, back when you had to get down and dirty with that stuff. Now you just go buy it from the store, plug it in, and-

Dillon Honcoop:
And it works.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. The wizards that come now are …

Dillon Honcoop:

[inaudible 00:34:28]

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I saw you messing around trying to get everything to sync up. So yeah, I have a little background in that, but don’t really delve into that too much these days.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like dealing with stress on the farm? Because you come from a different background, not from farming, so you’ve experienced stress in different realms, doing IT and doing stuff like dealing with camps and being like a minister, and now farming. They all have their own kinds of stress. How do you compare all those, and what have you learned through that journey how to deal with that?

Steve Pabody:
I’m not quite sure how to answer that. The stresses are different, right? And sometimes it may be a guilty pleasure of mine to just get out in the fields and just weed dahlias or get on the tractor and just mow.

Dillon Honcoop:
Let the stress go, yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Right. When you’re dealing with people, you just have to be a lot more observant because everybody’s problems aren’t the same. Everybody’s recollection of the truth isn’t the same, and so everything’s so different, especially in our climate today. Just so many things to think about and consider, and just to be gracious with. I think that maybe part of the blessing of having those different stress levels is I realize a crop failure is not that big a deal. I mean, it certainly could alter my future. It will alter my future, let me just clarify that. And it may inform what we do next year, but spring is coming. There’s a new season on the horizon. And-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve dealt with more stressful things than that in the past, gives you a different perspective.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. People dealing with interpersonal problems or with pressures that are life altering, stakes are so much higher when you’re dealing with that. As opposed to this, we’re going to get another shot next year to do it all again. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
Whether that’s a good or bad thing, it’s going to happen, yeah.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Pros and cons, you put in 10 acres of raspberries and lose those raspberries, it takes you a while to recover. Or some of our longer term crops. If we mess up with those, the stakes are higher. But at the end of the day, we can recover from those. And so with all of the pressures that’s going on and with all of the uncertainty in our society right now, in the world, those are much more monumentous as opposed to, “Where am I going to sell my flowers?” I’m concerned that I can sell all my flowers. And not to backtrack, but all of our planning this last January was for events, overnight retreats. We got these cute little … I say cute like I know what cute means. But according to my wife, it’s this cute little setup. I just look at it as a lot of extra extremity, lights and twinkle lights and lanterns.

Dillon Honcoop:
We won’t tell her that you think that.

Steve Pabody:
Hopefully she won’t listen to this. That’s the key. No, but she spent a lot of time and a lot of effort making them just feel nice and romantic and homey, and you get into these little tents, so that’s what you can do for overnight. And then in conjunction with that, having some different focuses in our workshops or we do farmer training. We had a dahlia camp set up for this year, trying to still pull that off in a different kind of way. And all of that kind of has changed. So those kind of stresses and those kind of pressures are related to what’s going on right now, but yeah, they’re manageable. They’re manageable. Because at the end of the day, you got to get out here, you got to keep your plants alive, manage everything, and then you just look at the flowers, listen to the rooster crow in the background, go out and feed the hogs, feed the animals, everything’s good again.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you made the decision to go into this farming thing, did you go full time with it right away? Or were you still part time, that was a side hustle, and then it-

Steve Pabody:
Yes. For me, it was unusual because somebody asked me to manage their property. So they did that. Again, that covered the land. I didn’t have to make a land payment. I didn’t have to worry about rent because I was living in their house. But I was also working off farm, like I think most farmers actually do. So working off farm, and then the flowers kind of, like I said, started as just an idea my wife had about what to do or just an experiment she was doing that was successful. So then what happened is we kept growing and I would work on it before work and after work. It just got so big so fast that I stopped my off-farm employment and then just jumped in both feet, full steam ahead.

Dillon Honcoop:
Was that scary?

Steve Pabody:
It probably should have been. Again, not paying attention to the sage advice that I was being given. “Don’t quit your day job.” But we just were running into so many opportunities so quickly that it wasn’t that scary because I was … I came to the point to where we had more opportunity than we had product, and so what we needed was to grow more flowers. So once we started doing that, then the income came in, at least for a little while.

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had a moment where you’re like, “Why did I do this?” Where you’re not sure if you’re going to make it? I know farmers kind of ride that rollercoaster where things are great and then they go through the valleys where things are like, “I’m not sure if this is going to work.”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, I think most small farmers anyways probably are there every year and they go, “Okay, so we-“

Dillon Honcoop:
Big farmers, believe it or not, too.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Yeah, probably now, especially. I know some dairy guys that are just like, “We gave away more milk in the scariest times than …” Years to recover that. Yeah, so sometimes it’s good to be a small farmer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Double-edged sword.

Steve Pabody:
Because 2,400 head of milking cows don’t stop producing milk and don’t stop eating.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you can’t wait and have them produce milk when it’s worth more.

Steve Pabody:
Right, yeah. “We’ll wait until everything gets back to normal and then we’ll start milking again.” Yeah, no, just unfortunately that’s not reality.

Dillon Honcoop:
So with COVID, it sounds like you guys are managing, even though it’s probably hurt the bottom line pretty badly.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Again, I think the thing about farming is not only is there the science of growing and just everything that has to do with that, but there’s also a farmer has to, at some degree, be a entrepreneur or a businessman. I think the key to entrepreneurship is flexibility. Seeing an opportunity, seeing a hole in the market, and filling it. “Nobody grows good sweet corn. Okay, I’m going to grow sweet corn. We don’t have a good beef producer.” And I know we have great producers here in Washington-

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re just saying hypothetical.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, hypothetically. Nobody’s growing ostrich in Whatcom County, so that’s a great thing for somebody to be in if there’s a market for it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, true.

Steve Pabody:
Not really sure that that would be my first choice, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
I thought there was somebody who did that or does that, a [crosstalk 00:41:46]

Steve Pabody:
I probably offended somebody. They’re like, “What? I got all these ostrich.” So if you grow ostrich, let me know. I’ll get some ostrich from you. Yeah, so the aspect of having to shift and to pivot I think is kind of in the whole … That’s what you sign up for. Sometimes [crosstalk 00:42:04]

Dillon Honcoop:
Helps with an annual crop, too. It’s easier than a perennial crop, like you were talking about.

Steve Pabody:
It is. Yeah. And fortunately, we have plenty of annuals, but we have some perennials that kind of … It helps, too, with that. So you get a infestation of something and it knocks out one crop and, “Okay, well, we do still have blueberries. We do still have roses and hydrangeas and all the other stuff.”

Steve Pabody:
But in answer to your question, I think just really trying to filter everything that we know is happening and realizing where the potential is. And then it’s kind of shifting. I got a good friend down in Seattle and his whole business, his whole … And I don’t know how many people he’s got working for him, but he’s a wedding … What does he call himself? He does everything. He’ll do the catering, he’ll do the planning, he’ll do the flowers, he’ll set up the whole venue.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, he’s a little bit amazing, I think. But when this whole thing happened, of course all of his events just said, “Nope, we’re not going to do them.” And so he’s just doing something different until he can do weddings again, because that’s what he really loves to do. He loves to choose the linens and everything, make it just perfect for you. And so in the meantime, he did a pop-up shop. He was doing little arrangements with some accents for your home décor, and I thought, “Man, there’s nothing that guy can’t do.” But he shifted because he obviously wants to take care of his employees and feed his family, and he put too much time and effort into his business to just watch it fly away, so he did something different and it’s working. And he’ll probably … well, not probably. I know he’s anxious to get back into the wedding game.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, for sure. As, I would guess, your wife probably is, too.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Yes. There’s a little bit of sadness that so many of our weddings canceled and more of them postponed. But again, it just gives us the opportunity to just do something different in the meantime. Pretty convinced that they’re not going to go away. People are still going to get married and they’re still going to want to have a nice spread with flowers. And so I know that’ll come back eventually. It may be different and we’ll pivot in accordance and meet what people need when it starts to run again.

Dillon Honcoop:
Pivot.

Steve Pabody:
Pivot.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the word of the day.

Steve Pabody:
There you go. I love that word. Probably use it too much.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s been the scariest moment in this whole journey?

Steve Pabody:
Well, you might be referring to my health episode.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, or anything else that … But I know that you almost died at one point.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. According to my nurse, I died several times. He just kept bringing me back.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
Well, yeah. I was-

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Steve Pabody:
I didn’t realize this until high school, but I was born with a heart defect and I didn’t discover it until I wanted to go out for football and they said, “You have to have a physical.” And so I did and the doctor said, “Oh, you got a heart murmur,” and I said, “What does that mean?” He goes, “Don’t worry about it. It’s stunted your growth and caused severe mental retardation, but other than that, you’re good.”

Dillon Honcoop:
He actually said that to you?

Steve Pabody:
He did. He was a football doctor, man. So-

Dillon Honcoop:
But he was just trying to rattle your cage?

Steve Pabody:
Football doctors are not known for their bedside manners. As a matter of fact, completely opposite, right? He was a great football doctor.

Dillon Honcoop:
You got to know your audience when you say something like that. I know there are some kids who would be totally crushed.

Steve Pabody:
NBA.

Dillon Honcoop:
But apparently you were okay with it. You got that he was joking.

Steve Pabody:
I understood that, yes. Not the smartest guy in the room, but eventually things trickle down and I do perceive the intended jests. So yeah, I didn’t really worry about it. Then I got to college. After a couple of years, they looked at me again and they said, “This has gotten a lot worse. You should consider having surgery.” And I said, “Okay.” And they said, “Actually, you’re going to have to have surgery eventually because this is not going to resolve itself,” just in the short amount of time that they had done some tests when I was in high school to when I was a junior in college. And so the ironic thing is I left college and I went to a youth camp where I was doing manual labor, and my health increased. I was working hard every day and [crosstalk 00:46:17]

Dillon Honcoop:
So you had been getting checked because your health wasn’t doing well? You were what, fatigued or something?

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, there was a flu that went on at the college that I went to and a third of the college got sick with this flu, so I was in the … they had their little on-campus hospital. And they said, “Hey, we hear something weird going on with your heart.” I’m like, “Oh yeah.” I said very arrogantly, “Wow, you’re a pretty good doctor because not everybody catches that heart murmur.” And she says, “Well, my specialty is cardiovascular health, so yeah, I’m going to catch any flutter that you have.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
So when she looked at my echocardiogram, the test that they had done, she said, “I want you to have another one because this sounds significant.” And then thankfully, she said, “No, this is a big deal for you.” So again, we took it really serious and I limited all my physical activity and my health actually started to decline. They gave me a key to the elevator in the student building so I could ride the elevator to the third floor instead of walk up the steps. And I was in the dormitories on the third floor as well, and they moved me to the first floor so I didn’t have to use the steps. And all of that stuff affected me negatively when I stopped doing it. So after college, I went to a youth camp. I maybe a bit naively just through caution to the wind and said, “I’m going to jump here because this is awesome fun.”

Dillon Honcoop:
So you start using your body and you get that energy back.

Steve Pabody:
I did. I did, and I started getting healthy again.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re probably thinking, “I’m fine.”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, that’s right. “I’m going to walk it off,” right? Isn’t that what all guys say? “Just let me walk it off.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that’s true.

Steve Pabody:
So that worked for … Well, it’s been a couple years since I’ve been in college, I’ll be honest with you. But now in my 40s and farming, things are going well for a while-

Dillon Honcoop:
So you still hadn’t done anything with it.

Steve Pabody:
No. And I am originally from the East Coast, so I was under a cardiologist’s care there and when I moved out here, I conveniently didn’t find one out here for a couple of years.

Dillon Honcoop:
I see what’s going on.

Steve Pabody:
Much to my wife’s chagrin. Finally, sense prevailed and she convinced me to go to a local cardiologist and they said, “Okay, well, you’re doing manual labor and you look good, so I think we just look at it.” And I said, “Well, you think I can get away from surgery?” My cardiologist is Dr. Tom Oliver and he said, “Oh, no, no, no. You’re going to go under the knife for sure. But you’re the best judge of when we need to do that.” And so just yearly checkups. And then 2017 came around. We got this farm that we’re on in 2016. Didn’t really get settled on it until 2017, but that’s when things really started to kick off and we expanded drastically. But then my health started declining and I didn’t understand, hey, it’s getting harder and harder to do what was already kind of difficult.

Steve Pabody:
Then in 2018, it really started to plummet, and so then we had a surgery scheduled. I went in, went through surgery fine and was actually walking right after surgery, and the doctor told me … My surgeon said, “You’re going to be out of here in a couple of days. This is amazing.” He says, “You’re walking, this is a good sign. Most people, it takes them a good half a week to a week to get out of the hospital after open heart, but yeah, you can maybe … Let’s see if you can do it in three days, four days.” And I’m like, “All right, you’re on.” Then my heart rebelled.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is while you’re still at the hospital?

Steve Pabody:
Yes, fortunately. Fortunately, yeah. I had another day, then I just real lethargic and thinking, “What’s going on?” My heart was beating real fast and then it would slow down and it was having trouble regulating. The surgery was pretty extensive. They replaced my entire aortic root and a couple of valves. While they were in there, they did a couple of other things that are helpful they wouldn’t normally do unless they already have you opened up. But they’re like, “Hey, while you’re open, let’s go ahead and put a clamp here and let’s put a safeguard here.” And so, great. I can’t say enough good things about my cardiologists over at North Cascade Cardiology with PeaceHealth.

Steve Pabody:
But when things started to come to a head, the heart would beat about three times what it was supposed to and then it would drop down. It was dropping down into the 30s and the 20s beats per minute, so if you know anything about your heartbeat, that’s not good. Even for super athletes, 30 beats per minute is too slow. So then it just gave out. Fortunately, my nurse … shout out to Aaron. Thank you very much, Aaron. He kind of foresaw that things were going south fast and so he got me all hooked up to this special machine that-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your heart stopped then while he was hooking you up, or what?

Steve Pabody:
No, he was quicker than that. He-

Dillon Honcoop:
He knew that something was going to happen and that he needed to hook you up.

Steve Pabody:
He said, “I think you don’t need this, but just so that the doctor knows that I’m thinking forward, I’m going to put these things on you.” So he put those pads on me, strapped them on, got me all-

Dillon Honcoop:
He’s probably saying that, but inside he’s like, “This is not looking good with this guy.”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. He’s probably saying, “I’m about to lose this guy.” So we’re still joking around, having a good time, and I was on, obviously, a lot of …

Dillon Honcoop:
Painkillers.

Steve Pabody:
… opiates, so I was having a good time no matter what. But then, yeah, then it just started dropping, dropping, dropping, and then we got down to 20 beats a minute and he said, “If it goes below this, I’m giving him the needle,” the epinephrine, I think.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
It’s amazing how much of the stuff that you remember when you’re right in the middle of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy.

Steve Pabody:
Or don’t remember, or refresh. But yeah, he had to give me that shot a couple of times and it didn’t work and then the heart just stopped. So they brought me back and then they put me on that external pacemaker and it kept shocking me when my heart would stop beating, and so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So your heart stopped beating more than once.

Steve Pabody:
Yes. Well, your heart beats how many times a minute, hopefully in the 60s and 70s.

Dillon Honcoop:

[crosstalk 00:52:16]

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. And so when it beats slower than that, it’s a problem. But then when it stops beating, it’s a serious problem. So yeah, he put me on that very nice machine that causes a little bit of pain, but the reward is worth it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So basically it’s hooked up to you but it’s like giving you the paddles that you hear about in the ambulance kind of thing.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, just not with a full charge, right, because my heart just needed a little bit of encouragement after they got me going again. Then they immediately took me to surgery and put a pacemaker in to keep that thing going.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how many times did your heart stop?

Steve Pabody:
I don’t know. I know every time it got below a certain amount, that machine took over and gave me a charge, so then it would beat again faster. So I think that’s the main thing, is that thing kept my heart up to where I was getting enough oxygen, so more mental retardation wasn’t kicking in.

Dillon Honcoop:
Crazy. See, that’s like knocking on death’s door, if your heart is continually stopping. What did they find out? How did they fix it?

Steve Pabody:
In the words of my cardiologist, “Sometimes your heart just throws a hissy fit after we go in and touch it.” So, I mean, the medicine … A number of the doctors told me this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
They said, “We call it practicing medicine for a reason.”

Dillon Honcoop:
No way.

Steve Pabody:
As much as they know, there’s always a loop, there’s always something unexpected. So everything looked like it was going smooth. I thought I was recovering smooth. A small part of me said no. So yeah, I’m thankful for the care I got at the hospital and the extra mile that the nursing staff and the doctors gave me, and here we are, ready to do it again.

Dillon Honcoop:
They saved your life.

Steve Pabody:
I think so. I think several times, probably.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Steve Pabody:
The good news is, those nurses, I told them, I said, “You guys saved my life and I can’t really return the favor, but you get free blueberries for life. Free flowers for life.” So it’s been a pretty joyful reunion to have some of my nurses come back out here and a couple of my doctors visit me during season and-

Dillon Honcoop:
Amazing.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah. I’m able to send them home with honey from my hives, gourds, zucchinis, produce, flowers, blueberries. “Take it. Take it all.” Eggs.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s amazing.

Steve Pabody:
Life is sweet, especially when you almost didn’t have it. So it makes you thankful and it makes the stresses and the plates that you have to juggle almost manageable.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s quite the story. How does that change what your future’s going to look like, what you end up doing next year, 10 years down the road, whatever your plan is with this farm?

Steve Pabody:
Well, the goal is to continue to grow it to where it’s sustainable. Not only the fertility in the soil so that it can sustain more growth and different crops, but on the business side that it’s paying for itself and it gets to a … Our plans are to grow it to where we can have more than one full-time person, or with Sarah and I, more than just a couple of us full time so that we have opportunity to do other stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like take a week off and go on vacation?

Steve Pabody:
Hey, let’s not get crazy here. We do this because we love it. We don’t want to go away from it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Every farmer I talk to on this podcast, “What’s a vacation? What are you talking about?”

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, from midnight to 4:00 in the morning, that’s my vacation every day. I take one every day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh man.

Steve Pabody:
Yeah, and we’re trying real hard to pour ourselves into our kids, and when you are pulling long hours, sometimes that kind of gets out of balance. So having the ability to take a day and do something fun with your kids, or my son is into archery, so I’ve told him for a couple of weeks now, “Hey, let’s build a target, a better stand for you.” So yeah, I’ve got the wood but I haven’t assembled it yet. So getting to a stage to where we’re focusing on what’s really important for our future, for our kids’ future. At the same time, continuing to enjoy the benefit of capitalism. We can build a business that provides for our livelihood and others, and really does something impactful on our community. There’s nowhere else in Whatcom County that you can come and see 30,000 flowering plants that I … Well, excuse me. Let me take that back, because I guess everybody that has vegetables here, they’re always flowering, right? Just maybe not quite as beautiful as the flowers that I have.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing your story and having me out here to the farm. I mean, this is amazing out here. And what you guys are doing is really, really cool. But the story is the best part, that journey that you guys have been on to get where you are. Really, really cool stuff.

Steve Pabody:
Well, thanks. I appreciate you having me on and it’s always good to talk with you.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
It was pretty cool to record that episode surrounded by flowers in the middle of the field. We’re going to work on getting the full video of it up on YouTube. Sure would appreciate if you would subscribe to our YouTube channel as well. Thank you again for being here on the Real Food Real People Podcast and supporting us by sharing our content far and wide to help grow the circle of those of us who are getting to know the real people behind our food. Find us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, and of course check out realfoodrealpeople.org.

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

Case VanderMeulen | #034 08/03/2020

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

Transcript

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

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Creatures of routine.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh, really?

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
How much do they get to eat?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct. Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise they’re just chilling out.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
The misters are going.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Three times a day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And so that’s it.

Case VanderMeulen:
And that’s it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Dairy farming in a nutshell.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yeah-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that right?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So heifer calves being a female-

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
The bulls being the boys.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
So they’re beef.

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
About 85 altogether, full time employees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And how many cows do you have?

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Technology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in the Netherlands.

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Is he still doing it?

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. It must’ve been-

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
… very hard.

Case VanderMeulen:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about you have kids or?

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, he does?

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Time will tell. Time will tell.

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Yes.

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve been there.

Case VanderMeulen:
But-

Dillon Honcoop:
On the son’s side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct. Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
And catch it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Thanks for sharing your story.

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

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

Case VanderMeulen:
Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.