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.

John Griggs | #014 03/16/2020

He's only 24 years old, but John Griggs is determined to keep his family's 120-year-old cherry and apple farm running. He shares what it's like growing up in a small Eastern Washington town, and why farming is harder than it used to be.

Transcript

John Griggs:
It’s getting hard to do it now. I mean, minimum wage, H-2A. It’s just kind of, we’re still getting the same pricing as we did five years ago when it was $9. It’s hard. But we got to make it work. I don’t see myself losing this farm, and I’ll do anything to keep it.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay, so I’m going to geek out a little bit on this week’s episode. I grew up on a family fruit farm in Washington State and so did our guest today, but on the other side of the Cascade Mountains. And so, so many of his experiences fit with mine, yet the specific details are different, if that makes sense. So forgive me for just wanting to know everything about how his farm works. We’re going to talk with John Griggs. He’s a fifth-generation true fruit farmer. They do cherries and apples and a few pears over in Orondo, just north of Wenatchee.

Dillon Honcoop:
And he reminds me of myself and I guess kind of who I would have been if I would have decided to stay with the farming thing, which I had to think a lot about when I was in high school and deciding what was I going to do after high school. Was I going to stick with the farming thing? Was I going to go to college for farming? Or for something else? I was also passionate about communications. I took the communications route, obviously. But there’s still part of me that wonders, “Should I have done the farming thing?” I still have it in my blood, I still love it so much. And that’s the life he’s living. He’s a true-blue farm kid, so that’s why I’m really pumped to share his story and the stuff that he faces day-to-day.

Dillon Honcoop:
So again, John Griggs, Jr. His dad is John Griggs as well. Join me now in getting to know him and hearing what his life is all about, somebody who’s super passionate about farming and growing apples and cherries and pears. This is the Real Food, Real People podcast documenting my journeys across Washington State to get to know the real people behind the food that we grow and eat here.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grew up around this.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
From being a baby, you were on the farm.

John Griggs:
This is life.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like growing up?

John Griggs:
I learned how to drive a tractor at 10 years old and I was working, swamping during the summer. Right after school it was, “Go work.” But it was really nice. I really enjoyed it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So when is cherry season? When do things really get crazy, like right after you would get done with your school year?

John Griggs:
Yeah, mid-June is right when it starts. But build up to that, still, and getting the dormant sprays on. And then we end usually third week of July, is when our sweethearts come off. No, it was friends came second, obviously, but it was always fun to run around in the orchard and hang out and enjoy the sunshine.

Dillon Honcoop:
As a kid, what did you do like during harvest time? What was your job, like once you maybe were a teen and stuff?

John Griggs:
Yeah. When I first started, I was down with my dad at our loading area and watering down the buckets and getting them ready to put in the reefer. But when I was about 12 I started swamping, which, that was a task.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah so what does that mean? What is swamping?

John Griggs:
Swamping, you’re really just putting buckets in bins and following tractors around, making sure you don’t miss anything.

Dillon Honcoop:
So like full buckets? Like buckets that people have picked into?

John Griggs:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
The crews pick into a bucket.

John Griggs:
Yeah. The crews pick into a, it’s like a 17.5-pound bucket, and put them into the bins, so that’s for yellow cherries. And then, red cherries, we do pick into these 30-pound crates and then dump them in the bins.

Dillon Honcoop:
Probably got to dump pretty careful not to-

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Soft. Soft, soft. It’s a heavy day.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, how many hours a day?

John Griggs:
Usually you’re up at 3:00 and go until about 2:30 and then you go talk to dad and see if you have to spray at night.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, now I’ve heard things about sometimes with the heat you have to take time off.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Heat’s a big part of it. You don’t want to pick when it’s above 90 degrees. That’s when you’ll start to get some bruising and it’s just, cherries don’t like heat.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you were working like crazy as a kid on the farm. At what point did you decide, “This is what I want to do”?

John Griggs:
I think when I was like five years old. Just seeing my dad and how he worked. And he drove a semi after work to Seattle and to the airport to dump cherries off. And just seeing his drive and providing for us and I really wanted to be like him. Still do.

Dillon Honcoop:
You get to go along on those trips sometimes?

John Griggs:
I did, I did. I slept in the back on the bunk and I’d go over with him, try to go as many times as possible until mom said, “No. You’re staying home for the night.”

Dillon Honcoop:
How many pounds of cherries on a semi?

John Griggs:
Our semi’s rated for 105,000 pounds. So, you got about 110 bins in that semi. We got four reefers that are 53 feet long.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what happens to your cherries? How do they marketed? Is that a fresh product that people are consuming?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, so we do a lot in our export. So Asia, Taiwan, Singapore. We go through a marketing company and they’ll kind of tell us what to pick and we’ll go with it. And this past year, we used to be in the packing business as well, we owned Orondo Fruit Company, and it was for about 40 years, and so we packed cherries and we did it ourselves. But now, things change, and we’re going through them. We do some domestic. We got our own cherry and that goes domestic.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you mean your own cherry?

John Griggs:
We actually have our own patent on a cherry.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

John Griggs:
Yeah. It’s called the Orondo Ruby, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So explain, what’s special about it?

John Griggs:
It’s kind of an early Rainier. It’s a little bit more tart than a Rainier, but still yellow flesh and really pretty red, like a ruby, I guess. But we found that about 12 years ago, my grandpa.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain. How does that happen, that he found it?

John Griggs:
He was walking through one of our blocks, actually, on our home blocks, and he noticed the cherry was a little earlier, and it was in a Rainier block. My grandpa was like, “Let’s send it off. Let’s take a sample and give it to a nursery and see if they can…” And it was totally different. It’s a hybrid. We don’t know, the alleles are totally different, it’s just kind of one in a million, like…

Dillon Honcoop:
So wait, was it just a happenstance cross between something else that happened to be in your…?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, it was dead center in one of our Rainier blocks.

Dillon Honcoop:
And it was just one tree?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), one. We call it the mother tree. Yeah, it’s weird, and he doesn’t know how it happened. And he’s been farming, he’s almost 80, he’s 75, and he’s never seen it happen before.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s crazy.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because I know, like, growing up with the raspberry business on my parents’ farm, it was always, you know, coming up with a new variety, which varieties to cross. And, you know, there were scientists that were working on this to come up with a berry that’s better or more hearty, or, you know, all these desirable qualities, which is why we have a lot of the fruits and veggies that we have.

John Griggs:
It is. And a lot of people don’t know that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, yeah. Anything.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Almost every apple now, it’s crossed either with a Honeycrisp or an old apple back in Michigan or New York. I mean, it’s weird.

Dillon Honcoop:
But for it to just happen spontaneously, that’s crazy.

John Griggs:
Yeah. And even the nursery was like, “We don’t know.” But we farm that, it’s about the third week of June that gets harvested. Got about 80 acres of it.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many acres total do you guys have fruit on?

John Griggs:
About 480. Yeah. About 230 of it is cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what’s the rest?

John Griggs:
Apples and four acres of pears.

Dillon Honcoop:
So talk a little bit about your family history. You’re fifth-generation on this farm.

John Griggs:
Yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re, what, like 23?

John Griggs:
24.

Dillon Honcoop:
24 years old.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did your family end up here? Where’d they come from?

John Griggs:
I think my great-great-grandma was from Norway and she was a fisher. And then she moved here in like the late 1800s. And she moved, her husband built a house, first stick-built house in Douglas County, and then started farming. We started with peaches. We farmed about 50 acres of peaches, which, that was a tedious task.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. What’s the deal with peaches? Being from western Washington, I don’t know about growing these kinds of fruit.

John Griggs:
They’re just hard… if you look at them wrong, they’ll bruise.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really, wow.

John Griggs:
When they’re ripe. And just packing them is tedious. We packed them in a red barn. We packed them until I was 15 in a red barn and then we finally took them out. But the family, we’ve been farming I think since 1900, and started. And we just tore down our last cherry tree from, it was at least 100 years old, and finally stopped giving us fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that was like one of the original trees?

John Griggs:
Yeah, it was about 25 feet tall.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. And it had one limb that had fruit left on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what happens? The cherry trees just get too old and don’t put fruit out anymore?

John Griggs:
Yeah they’ll start to get some rot in them, and it’s just time for them get out. But it was hard, especially on my grandpa. But no, I’ve never moved out of the valley. I mean, I went to college in Wenatchee and went through the tree fruit program, and it’s the only place I really live[d].

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it like, you grew up right here in Orondo?

John Griggs:
Right.

Dillon Honcoop:
How big is this town?

John Griggs:
It’s got a gas station, a golf course, and one restaurant. And that’s about it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess I could Wikipedia this, but what’s the population of Orondo?

John Griggs:
Like 500, probably. And then during harvest about, probably 3,000.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because of all the workers.

John Griggs:
Just all the workers coming in.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s it like growing up in a town that small?

John Griggs:
You kind of are free to roam the land, really. Everybody knows each other. You’ll see the old folk at the gas station in the morning, drinking coffee and talking about what their orchard’s doing, really. All my family lives here, really, or Waterville, which is just up the hill from us. I don’t see it any other way. Like going over to Seattle or Spokane, it’s still just wide-eyed, like, “Why is there so much traffic?” But no, I went to school, I guess there’s a little schoolhouse. But I mean I grew up with all my buddies and I’m still friends with them, and they’re still out here, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sometimes when you grow up in a small town there are a lot of kids. I grew up in a small town, not as small as Orondo, but there were a lot of kids who were like, “I want to get out of here,” you know, “I’m just waiting to get done with high school and I’m going to go to college and I’m gone.”

John Griggs:
Yeah. My mom and dad wanted me to but I was like, “I don’t see it.”

Dillon Honcoop:
They wanted you to leave?

John Griggs:
Well, they wanted me to get out and experience another town, even if it was like WSU Pullman or wherever. They were like, “I was never given that chance, so do it.” And I was like, “No. I’m going to be stubborn and stay here” and I don’t regret it. I don’t know, I just can’t see myself any other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Are there bad things about growing up in this small of a town?

John Griggs:
Yes and no. The drive to town is about 35 minutes, which is fine.

Dillon Honcoop:
To Wenatchee?

John Griggs:
Yeah. During the summer you get a lot of boats on the river, people being dumb, but that’s it, really. I don’t see it. I don’t see very many negatives. Sometimes the fires, we get pretty good fires. But that’s it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ever had a fire affect the orchards?

John Griggs:
No. We’ve had one close but nothing burned, thank goodness.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the future look like, do you think? What are your plans? What do you want to see this become?

John Griggs:
I want it to get a little bigger, but it’s getting hard to do it now. I mean minimum wage, H-2A, it’s just kind of… we’re still getting the same pricing as we did five years ago when it was $9. But I see us, we’re in a good spot. We can still grow, and we’re planning on it, just finding the right opportunities and partners and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you talk about the minimum wage. That’s a higher cost for the farm with-

John Griggs:
Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not like you’re getting more money for your fruit, you’re saying?

John Griggs:
No, no. We’re getting same pricing five, 10 years ago on fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you mentioned H-2A, too. How has that affected this whole situation?

John Griggs:
That’s made the minimum wage go higher than regular minimum wage, and I think it’s like $15, high $15, and we had to bring in 100 guys this year. And we have about 275 people working during cherries and pears and stuff, which is, I mean, we pay by bucket. But if they don’t pick the bucket rate, which, minimum wage, I mean, it’s hard to pick that many buckets in an hour. It’s just made costs go way up. Chemicals keep going up, and land prices are up, and just kind of a tough spot.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do you handle working with employees? There’s been a lot of talk about that and are workers being treated fairly.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. The foreman, our foreman, he’s been here for 35 years. I grew up with his kids, I’m friends with them, I hang out with them, I go to the worker dinner, like potlucks and stuff. Every year we do like a soccer game down at the school and we’ve got about 30 guys that I’ve, they’re pretty much grown up, and taught me a bunch, pruning. I’ve worked alongside with them, I’ve been to people’s soccer games, I’ve gone to their kids’ wrestling matches. Our guys, I’m very thankful for them for being here for us and try to treat them good. They all live in our housing and stuff like that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right now, in any line of work anywhere, people are just looking for good people.

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah. You got to be there for your employees and stand up for them and help them out, I feel like. That’s what my dad’s taught me.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s been a lot of talk, though, about how hard it is to find people who want to work on a farm.

John Griggs:
It is. Especially the swampers, the teens, the high schoolers, they’d much rather not work. They’d rather go up to Chelan and go swimming up at the lake. It’s really hard to find a young kid that wants to work in an orchard, get their hands dirty, be hot all day, and work, get up at 3:00. You can’t find very many. I’ve got cousins that are having to work for us and they like it, but it’s not their favorite.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. If you’re good, how much money can you make during season?

John Griggs:
Oh man.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like, by the hour?

John Griggs:
Well, we do by bucket if you can pick that many. One day we worked until like 5:00 at night picking before a rain storm, and I was driving a tractor, and I came up to one guy and was scanning his card and I was like, “He has a 105 buckets already!” And that’s like $600, $700 and I’m like, “Oh my God!” And I go and tell my mom and she’s like, “I know. I know.” You can make good money. If you work hard for it you’ll make a decent, you’ll probably make $10,000, $15,000 in a month and a half.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. If you’re fast, you’re good.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that difficulty of just finding enough people to do the work, though, that’s why you guys had to bring in H-2A?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. Yeah, we used to be able to do just 150 guys but our production’s gone way up. Nobody would even stop by. We used to have people stop by looking for work. Now it’s almost nonexistent. We go to like the WorkSource and put our name out there. I mean we even upped our per-bucket pay, and… nobody. So we were like, “We got to do this or…”

Dillon Honcoop:
What if you paid even more?

John Griggs:
I don’t know. I’d hope people would come. I mean, I’d much rather work outside than in an office. But we’ve tried almost everything, ads in the paper, put them in Orondo stores or Wal Marts. Nobody. Calling my cousin’s friends, “Hey, you want to come work for a couple weeks? You can stay out at our place,” but they’d say no.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about your dream, as you continue on with this family farm, to get bigger. Could the issue of finding workers keep you from being able to do that?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely. You’d almost have to bring a whole, probably a couple of hundred H-2A in. You also need housing for them, which, we had to bus them out from Cashmere. We bought three school buses just to get– we even pay people’s rent for their housing and that didn’t work. But the H-2A, they’re here to work and they’re slow at first, but they catch on pretty good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because they’re people, you know, they haven’t done this particular kind of work before?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Some of them have been up here before, but mostly this isn’t even their profession. I mean they’re contractors or just farmers themselves. But yeah, when they come up here they’re kind of like “ugh,” and of course they’re far away from home.

Dillon Honcoop:
So from what you’re saying that’s pretty expensive to do, though, to bring those people.

John Griggs:
It’s very expensive, yeah. It’s about, I think it’s like $1,500 a person to get them up here.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then the wage that they make.

John Griggs:
And then the wage they make and the housing we have to pay for, which, yeah, it adds up.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you have to do that-

John Griggs:
You have to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because there’s nobody else?

John Griggs:
Yeah. You got to do it. The farther north you go, the harder it gets to find people, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you talk about getting bigger. That would be just adding more acres of cherries? Or do you want to branch out into other stuff?

John Griggs:
Probably go more into apples. I feel we’ve got plenty of cherries, got about three million pounds of cherries.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah. It’s crazy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of apples do you guys have?

John Griggs:
We got Buckeye Galas, it’s a high-color Gala, Aztec Fujis, high-color, pretty much everything high-color. Honeycrisp.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean, high-color?

John Griggs:
Really red and more… the older varieties were lighter and the new ones are bam-in-your-face red. And Honeycrisp, Royal Red Honeycrisp, the newer version. And SugarBee, SugarBee’s a club variety.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that mean?

John Griggs:
The warehouse that owns the variety, well, the marketing company owns it, but we have to go through our packing house to get it.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is like a proprietary thing where you get licensed to do it?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah we pay a royalty for the trees. We got about, I think we pick 1,200 bins of those, it’s like a really sweet apple.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve seen them in the store but I can’t honestly say I’ve had one, now that you bring that up.

John Griggs:
They’re very good, they’re super sweet. It’s almost like a candy.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome.

John Griggs:
But no, that’s a very good apple. And I guess we got some Ambrosia, too, that are grafted. And Grannies.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re busy in, like, June into July with the cherries.

John Griggs:
Yep.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then, what, you have a lull in the middle of the summer?

John Griggs:
We have about three weeks and then we start pears. But thankfully, we only have a little bit. But then right after pears is apples, Galas, and it’s go until about a week after my birthday, which is in October. Yeah. Last year we went a little late on the Fujis and Pink Ladies.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now, I read somewhere that there’s some people who had apples they didn’t even pick this year. Was that because of weather?

John Griggs:
Yeah. We had a freeze come through in the Quincy area and stuff and they literally froze. And I mean, you can’t do anything, they’ll shrivel and it’s just no good. A lot of people for their Fujis did that.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a late variety?

John Griggs:
It’s a later variety, yeah. But help was pretty hard this year, too, so some people were picking with half a crew. On the bigger orchards, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because they couldn’t get enough workers?

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. And they were paying, like, $35, $40 a bin, and that’s a lot of money.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what this state is famous for.

John Griggs:
It is.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s it like to know that you’re raising and providing that food that’s world famous?

John Griggs:
It’s kind of cool. But at the same time, it’s a task. I mean, you got to get in a good market to even hope to make some money. I think we grow the right varieties, and the new varieties which people are seeing in the stores. But it’s definitely different. You can’t have old orchards anymore. You got to have new, high-density, really high-density orchards to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that? Why does the density make a difference?

John Griggs:
More bins per acre, just more volume. People are trying to up the volume. You can’t do like 40 bins an acre anymore, you go to be 80, 100. Some are at 120.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much does a bin weigh?

John Griggs:
About 800 to 1,200 pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a lot of weight.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Pears are heavier.

Dillon Honcoop:
Per acre.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Yeah, you’re picking a lot of fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s amazing.

John Griggs:
And we don’t have, it’s still picked the same way as it was way back when. There’s no picking machine yet. You still got to have the bodies. And people don’t like picking apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

John Griggs:
It’s heavy, your back is shot.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hard work.

John Griggs:
Hard, hard work. Your fingers hurt and you’re all sweaty.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talk about different varieties and stuff. There’s been a lot of buzz about Cosmic Crisp.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Anybody doing that around here?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. We didn’t have any acreage to open up for it. But yeah, almost everybody north planted some.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s another one of those like SugarBee where you have to pay a royalty, right?

John Griggs:
I believe so. But I know it’s only us in the state that can grow it, the apple growers. But it’s a great apple, stores really well, it’s crisp. I like it a lot, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s always interesting because you hear the buzz in public. I always wonder, you know, what are the farmers saying behind the scenes on something new like that? Like, “Oh, this is our champagne in the butt,” or something like that.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. It’s a pain to open up the land, get it all ready, buy the supplies and materials, and then plant it.

Dillon Honcoop:
To put a new variety in.

John Griggs:
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Otherwise, how long does a planting last in apples?

John Griggs:
We’ve got some trees that are 40 years old.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

John Griggs:
Yeah, some Granny trees in our driveway.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they still produce good?

John Griggs:
Yeah. They’re 80 bins an acre right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
When you say Granny, you mean Granny Smith?

John Griggs:
Granny Smith, yeah. The old… I don’t like those apples.

Dillon Honcoop:
Too tart for you?

John Griggs:
Way too tart.

Dillon Honcoop:
See, that’s what I like about them.

John Griggs:
Oh, really?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

John Griggs:
They make a good pie. But yeah. I like Galas, Goldens, and Fujis are my main ones.

Dillon Honcoop:
What makes a really good apple, or for that matter, a really good cherry? What’s the secret to that? Because I know the fruit that we produce here in Washington, and particularly here in this area, Wenatchee, Orondo, is some of the best anywhere.

John Griggs:
Yeah. You need the weather, good weather. You need a good microclimate. Where we are in this valley, I mean, I think we produce some of the best cherries in the world. I know it’s my family’s orchard, but we’ve been in billboards in China, I mean, I’ve seen people fighting over our fruit over there.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve been over there a few times?

John Griggs:
Yeah. Well, at least my dad has. He’s sent me pictures, of course, but no. You got to work hard for it, you can’t miss a task. If you miss one you might be like, “Oh shoot, it’s not this big.” You got to have the right sprays, you got to have the Mylar pulled out to make them red.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now explain, how does that work?

John Griggs:
So the sun reflects off the Mylar underneath the cherries. The tops of the cherries get red, for yellow cherries. Red cherries, they get red no matter what. But you pull out, we have this, it’s like a fabric-y kind of stuff. It’s called Extenday. It’s a white Mylar film, it’s reusable. So you pull it out, the sun reflects off it, you got about seven hours of good sun for it to pretty much, my grandpa says it bakes the fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you’re basically, it’s reflective, bounces the light back up.

John Griggs:
Bounces off into the bottoms of the fruit to redden the bottoms and sides, and it’s pretty much a mini-sun on the bottom of the trees.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like people who use reflectors when they’re out suntanning or whatever, I’ve seen people do that before.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Exactly, exactly like that. Just on a bigger scale.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, I guess. It’s got to be quite the job to put all that out.

John Griggs:
Putting it out and picking it up, it’s a pain. You’re hot and it’s just, ugh, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, because you don’t do that when the weather is cool.

John Griggs:
No, no, you’re baking if it’s cool. If it’s hot, you’re like, “What do you want me to do now?” I’ll go pick it up… It gets water on it… Yeah, it’s hard.

Dillon Honcoop:
Does it take a lot of irrigation for these trees?

John Griggs:
Yeah. On apples, we use overhead cooling, overhead sprinklers to keep them cool. Or else it will… apples will bake on the tree. Cherries-

Dillon Honcoop:
Sunburn, or…?

John Griggs:
They’ll get sunburned. They’ll start to shrivel if it’s hot and then cool. Apples are a lot harder to keep cool.

Dillon Honcoop:
And they have to be out there for more of the hot summer, too, since they aren’t ripe until-

John Griggs:
Uh-huh, they got to make it through until fall, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I don’t think the cherries could probably make it, could they?

John Griggs:
No. Cherries would-

Dillon Honcoop:
If they were.

John Griggs:
They’d turn into a raisin. Yeah, it takes quite a bit of water. But we got a bunch of wells. Summers are hot, but not enough to make things difficult.

Dillon Honcoop:
So somebody going grocery shopping, what should they be looking for when they’re looking for cherries, for instance?

John Griggs:
Well, check the stems. The stems, if they’re not green, I wouldn’t buy them.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does that tell you?

John Griggs:
It’s just, the cherry’s been sitting there for a while and it’s probably really soft.

Dillon Honcoop:
So it’s an indicator of freshness.

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah. And check and make sure the stem’s like not that big, not tiny, but more long. It’s just how you… I say the quality of the fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right.

John Griggs:
Yeah. That’s how I was taught to look at fruit. But you got to think of how long it takes. You got to have them packed, you got to… you won’t get to a fruit until it’s probably a week old, but they hold their freshness.

Dillon Honcoop:
Probably also should check and make sure it’s grown in Washington.

John Griggs:
Yes. Check and make sure it’s here, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s competition for you guys? Is there fruit that comes in from other parts of the country or the world [inaudible 00:31:11]?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. California, Turkey. Chile is a big one. Chile, I think they’re either picked or picking soon, their fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right, because they’re-

John Griggs:
They’re totally different, it’s their summer.

Dillon Honcoop:
Opposite side of the year. Right.

John Griggs:
Yeah. Europe has quite a bit of cherries, surprisingly. Who else…

Dillon Honcoop:
Those don’t end up over here, though, do they?

John Griggs:
Sometimes you have to buy them.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just different timing of seasons?

John Griggs:
It’s different timing, markets change, tariffs change. I mean, things lift and they’re like, “Flood the market, let’s go!” And you’re sitting here, “No!” You got to check with all that kind of stuff. And sometimes you’ll get fruit that’s not even from the United States, but yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
No thanks.

John Griggs:
No thanks.

Dillon Honcoop:
I want fruit from here.

John Griggs:
I want fruit from here and to be my fruit.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. Well, and there’s, it’s just different standards here.

John Griggs:
It is. I think this state grows, by far, the best fruit. Whether it be apples, cherries, peaches, I think we get it done and right.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

John Griggs:
The weather. The people growing them, they care. They want their product to be well, and they’ll complain if they don’t get it done right. I mean, I know my family does if the cherry doesn’t… if we’re picking a little green on one day, we’ll say, “Oh, we’re done.” We want them to be good for the consumer. We care about them. That’s what keeps us [in] business.

Dillon Honcoop:
With it being tougher and tougher to find labor and other pressures here, do you think there could be a future where there’s more and more stuff that’s just brought in from other countries?

John Griggs:
There could be, yeah. That’s definitely, I mean, our standards are way different than elsewhere, I can tell you that. I’ve seen some that I’m like, “How is that even possible? I would never do that!”

Dillon Honcoop:
From, like, other countries?

John Griggs:
Yeah, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like what kind of stuff?

John Griggs:
Like I’ve seen, my dad’s sent me pictures of like apples on the ground, like bare ground, dirt, and they’re selling them like that with a tarp over them. I’m like, if we did that we’d get in a lot of trouble.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, no kidding.

John Griggs:
And we got really strict standards here, not just us but everywhere, and you’ll get bit for it if you don’t.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the biggest pressure for the farm? What’s the hardest thing for, like, thinking about the future, to keep it going?

John Griggs:
I’d say labor, mostly. Yeah. Our guys are getting older. I’d say most of our guys are over 45, 50 years old and they’re going to want to go do stuff. And it’s scary but you got to keep doing it, I guess, one way or another. We’ve thought about bringing platforms in, going more mechanical, but they don’t have a picking machine yet. But they’re trying. We just… Efficiency, I guess. Labor, equipment’s not cheap anymore. But yeah, everything, everything’s gone up tenfold.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what do you do, then, to do deal with that? Because you’re saying you’re not getting any more, really, for your product.

John Griggs:
You got to make sure you got the right stuff. Labor, equipment. You got to keep up on equipment more, you’re going to have to put more hours on the already over-houred tractor, you’re going to have to be smart, try to be more efficient. Just think of creative ways to farm now instead of just do the same thing your dad did.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. That doesn’t get it done anymore I know, for sure.

John Griggs:
Sadly.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think about the whole organic thing? You guys aren’t doing the organic thing?

John Griggs:
No. Organic, I think it’s getting flooded. The first people that did it, they hit home runs. But we tried to go organic on our pears and we were spraying more then than on our conventional stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wait, your organic?

John Griggs:
Yeah, you’re spraying more on your organic than your conventional. You don’t have the same potency, everything’s like a virus. For insecticides, they’re pretty much a biological virus for the insect, doesn’t affect anybody else. But yeah, we were spraying two times a week instead of once, or sometimes three. If we were getting a lot of coddling moth, or any insect, really, we had to go back through.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. I know previously we had April Clayton from up the road on the podcast here and they were doing organic cherries and had to stop for that reason, because the organic products that they were having to use were killing their cherry trees.

John Griggs:
Yeah, oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’ve seen that?

John Griggs:
I’ve seen that all the time. Organic cherries are, that’s hard, hard, hard to do. Chemicals are totally different. And even right now, our stuff isn’t like it was.

Dillon Honcoop:
I guess people are worried about chemicals being on their fruit.

John Griggs:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you tell them?

John Griggs:
I wouldn’t be nervous. I eat fruit right off the tree and I’m fine. But I don’t see it being a big issue, not anymore.

Dillon Honcoop:
Back in the old days.

John Griggs:
Back in the old days, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
So why do you have to do that, I guess, for somebody who’s curious, why do you have to spray anything? Why do the organic people, why do they even have to spray? What are they trying to deal with?

John Griggs:
Keeping pests down. I mean, ou don’t want to be the guy that has a coddling moth, or a cherry fruit fly, which, if you get cherry fruit fly, you’re done with the warehouse. You got to stop.

Dillon Honcoop:
They’ll kick you out and they won’t take your fruit.

John Griggs:
They’ll kick you out. They’ll… “No, sorry.” They’ll even, what they have they already packed, they’ll throw away.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that probably what leaves little tiny worms in the fruit or something?

John Griggs:
Yeah, it’s a little tiny worm in the cherry.

Dillon Honcoop:
Ugh.

John Griggs:
Yeah. But very few people get that. If they don’t upkeep their orchard, they’re the ones that get it. But you got to spray to keep pests down, you got to spray nutrients on the leaves, you got to get the leaves big. You got to fertilize them, you got to feed the tree. It can’t do it on its own. If it does, it’s going to be a gnarly-looking tree. After a cherry season, the trees, they’ve produced 20, 30 pounds of fruit on their tree, some more. You got to give them some food and put them to bed. Put ’em to sleep.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do they go, like, dormant then? Or what do they…?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah. They’ll go dormant, they’ll lose all their leaves. Buds will start coming in, they’ll be tight, but they’re just getting ready for the spring.

Dillon Honcoop:
I can tell you love it.

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why? Why do you have so much passion for this?

John Griggs:
It’s freedom. I mean, I get to work with my family, I get to help just give product that I’m passionate for. And it’s all I’ve known. I didn’t see myself sitting in an office all day long. But even here, I can be working from 3:00 to God knows when. One time I sprayed 22 hours straight and then had an hour off to sleep and I had to go drive a tractor in the cherries. Yeah. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I get to see my family. I live on the farm. I’m two minutes away from my grandpa. He’s probably my biggest motivator, biggest to do anything, I’ve lived right next to him for 24 years.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have you learned from him?

John Griggs:
I’ve learned what the varieties are, I’ve learned how he does things, I’ve learned how to tree train. I’ve learned how to plant orchards. I’ve learned what a high density orchard is compared to a medium density, to a low density. I’ve learned how to know when fruit’s ready. Pretty much everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Being raised in this world, what was it like going to college for that program? It sounds like maybe you could have taught the classes yourself.

John Griggs:
Yeah, it was… I learned some stuff. I had to get something to work out here. I don’t even work out here full-time yet.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what else do you do?

John Griggs:
Inside sales for an ag chem company in east Wenatchee.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of farmers have jobs off the farm to keep doing it.

John Griggs:
Yeah. They need to now. You’ll get people working for the DOT in the winter to plow roads. Some of them don’t even… they’re hobby farmers. They’ve got five, 10 acres and they’ll do it, “Well, I got to go prune,” they’ll do it by themselves.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do you hope to one day be entirely on the farm?

John Griggs:
Oh yeah. I hope soon.

Dillon Honcoop:
What will that take?

John Griggs:
My dad, my family’s young. They had me young, so he’s about 18, 19 years older than me. So I’ve got a… and he doesn’t own the orchard fully yet. So, kind of got to wait for that to happen then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Keeping a farm like this in the family is hard if you’re-

John Griggs:
It’s hard, hard. But we got to make it work. I don’t see myself losing this farm, and I’ll do anything to keep it.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve asked other people in your situation if they feel a lot of pressure, but it sounds like, to me, it’s not that you feel pressure other than just your own, like you’re passionate about it and want to keep doing it.

John Griggs:
I’ve got to do it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not because somebody else is telling you to.

John Griggs:
No. My dad told me, “You go do you,” whether it not even be in the farm. He doesn’t care. As long as I’m making a living and doing good in society, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re like, “No, I want to keep this going.”

John Griggs:
Yeah and same with my sister. I mean she worked in the orchard but she was like, “Ugh, I got to do this.” But she liked it and now she wants to be on the marketing side. And in the orchard, too, but. As long as you’re passionate about it, go for it, they say.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you say to folks in Seattle who are eating [inaudible 00:42:06] fruit from over here, or food from anywhere grown in Washington?

John Griggs:
Know it’s grown with passion. Even if it’s a big two, three thousand-acre farm, I mean, there’s people behind it. You got to know they have families and you’re here providing for them, really, I mean this is their job, their life. They’re just as passionate as I am. Whether they’re in that situation or not, they still do it. Big farms are still owned by families, too. I’m really good friends with big growers and they’re just like us, just two or three times bigger. But they don’t see themselves leaving, they want the small growers still, and everybody helps each other out in the farming. We share people with our neighbors, I mean, I have an uncle that lives right to us that has a 13-acre pear orchard and we come and pick it for him, and he helps us out, too.

Dillon Honcoop:
Can the consumer trust the fruit that they’re buying that’s grown in Washington?

John Griggs:
Absolutely. Know it’s grown with care.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s your biggest fear with all of this?

John Griggs:
Not being able to do it. That’s a big… disappointing, I guess. I mean, that’s tough. Getting told that you’re done, that’s probably the biggest fear.

Dillon Honcoop:
You remember hard years in the past?

John Griggs:
Oh, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What have been the roughest times that you can remember?

John Griggs:
I remember my dad saying, he’s like, “We might not be able to fix this tractor.” Back when, early mid-2000s, I mean that was a tough time for orchards. Even people that had the new varieties were still, “Nobody’s buying our fruit. What do we do?” Well, everybody goes through a tough time. Even the big boys go through times. You can tell.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did that mean for your family during that time? What was that like?

John Griggs:
It brought us close. We were really close already, but we were eating dinners together trying to, “Hey, what do we do? What can I do to make things better?” Even when we owned the packing shed, we were still, “What can we do? Do we pack this variety? Do we say no?” I mean, that’s one of the tough things. No grower wants to be told “no.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you just want to keep growing more.

John Griggs:
Yeah they’re like, “We just want to farm.” I mean some people, that’s all they’ve been doing. That’s all my family’s done, but we don’t see it any other way.

Dillon Honcoop:
You hope to have a family and kids one day and have them continue it on into the [future]?

John Griggs:
Yeah, I’d hope so, but I mean I’ll give them option, I mean it’s always here for you. But don’t just abuse it. That’s what I’ve been told.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would abusing it be?

John Griggs:
Oh just kind of, “Oh, I farm but I really don’t work,” “I have got a bunch of free time on my hands and I’m not doing anything.” That’s kind of what I see it as. That’s what my dad’s told me, playing X-Box when I’m 18 years old and, “What are you doing?” “Uh, relaxing.” “Come on, we got to go.” “Oh, no.” Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s not typically what the 18-year-old playing X-Box gets told.

John Griggs:
No, they’re like, “Okay, 15 more minutes.” No, it’s, “You’re done right now or else I’ll shut it off.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Well thank you for sharing your story, I appreciate it, and thanks for what you do. I can tell you just put everything you have into producing the fruit that you guys do here.

John Griggs:
Yeah, thank you.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Talking with John and hearing that conversation again, now, just makes me want to get back into farming in some ways so much. And I don’t know if it affects other people that way. I think it’s because of my upbringing and growing up on a fruit farm. So much of that stuff just makes sense to me. But in some ways it’s part of me that’s sort of dormant, I guess.

Dillon Honcoop:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop, and this is kind of documenting my journeys around Washington State to get to know the real people behind our food. I loved talking with John. We’ve got a lot of really cool conversations coming up. And we really would appreciate a follow on Instagram, on Facebook, if that’s what you like to do, or on Twitter, whatever your preference is, or all of the above.

Dillon Honcoop:
Also, if you could subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify or whatever platform you prefer, that would really help us, too. And share these episodes, we’re trying to bring more people into the conversation and get the word out that farmers here in Washington are real people, too, and I think it’s important that we get to know them and understand the realities that they face, because we want to keep farming and farmers and farm land here in our state. And making sure that farmers have a face is, I think, important.

Dillon Honcoop:
Again, this is the Real Food, Real People podcast. Subscribe, follow us on social media, and if you want to reach out directly to me, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address.

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.