Niels Brisbane part 2 | #006

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Niels Brisbane:
Farming needs a facelift basically, essentially, and there it needs to be appreciated for what it is, but then the other piece is like it’s a lot of work and so there needs to be a financial incentive.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcasts.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hoodies, connecting with farmers and figuring out how farmers can have a seat at the table. Again, in sort of defining what is the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. Last week we got to know award-winning Seattle chef, Niels Brisbane and his unexpected journey from sports to fine dining, to reconnecting with his farm town roots in Lynden, Washington, the same town that I grew up in, even though I hadn’t gotten to know Niels until this podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, we’re sharing the second half of that fascinating conversation I had with him, where we get into in the second half into the vision, his vision for reconnecting people with farmers and reinvigorating both our regional cuisine and the farms that are growing food right here. If you miss last week, go ahead and listen to that conversation if you’d like to learn more about Nell’s background. Thanks for coming along the journey again this week and let’s dive right back in where we left off last week. So you’re involved in this world that’s like culture and art and very urban, yet you grew up in a small Podunk farming community. It happens to be the same community that I grew up in. Interestingly, we didn’t know each other-

Niels Brisbane:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… until now. What was that like? How did that speak in to what you were doing and what did people even say when they found out, you’re from Lynden, Washington? Like what?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, for me that very much roots why I cook and why I’m involved in food at all, because it really does come back to how do we create a better food system? And part of that is like for me, I always want to be able to give farmers options. And like one of my favorite farmers, Dave Hudlin is in the Skagit County and has a great vegetable farm, grows [inaudible 00:02:43]. His tomato greenhouses are, they should be the eighth wonder of the world. They’re incredible. If you’re ever in Skagit, go visit Dave Hudlin’s farm.

Niels Brisbane:
But he always says is, I’ll butcher the quote. But it was basically like, “If you’re a farm and you’re selling to one person, then you’re an employee, and if you’re selling to 100 people, now you’ve got a business.” And so farmers need to be able to, I mean, the worst thing of walking into a negotiation, whether that be, especially when it’s a buyer is if they know you can’t walk out, and negotiate that price any better because they’re like, “Well, that product is going to spoil otherwise if you don’t sell it to me at this really low price.” And so that’s not a good place to be. So developing a system where there truly is an economy around things and not just a path that’s been traveled before.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a big problem in farming.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s a huge problem in farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because different than most other economic arrangements. If we say that farmers are usually the ones with their back against the wall-

Niels Brisbane:
Usually.

Dillon Honcoop:
… they’re price takers as we here said.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you experienced that, you see that kind of from this other vantage point.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And if anyone gets the squeeze, it’s usually the “like lowest person on the totem pole.” And for a farmer that it’s because they’re the first person with the product, that’s why they’re “like the lowest person on the totem pole.” Is like, the chef doesn’t want to pay that high price, so they put the squeeze on their producer or onto their wholesaler. The wholesaler needs to keep their margin. So then they push that squeeze onto the farmer and so they by default have to take that lower price.

Niels Brisbane:
And if they got to… so we were really big on like working directly with farmers and buying, trying to work with them and it’s a headache, but like trying to figure out ways where you can be like, okay, grow all these carrots and we’ll buy all of them. Or we’ll do like what do you want to grow? What did you make a fantastic margin on last year? It was this random beat. Okay, well like maybe we can come up with a great beat dish and move this product for you.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually having those conversations. I mean, what ends up happening is like the complexity from a restaurant standpoint is again this was like a huge benefit that a place like Canlis could afford with time and money is allowing me to figure out all of those pieces and the other sous-chefs to like figure out this sourcing mayhem. I mean, we had, over 100 people that we would source from, from like farms and figuring that out logistically is a nightmare.

Niels Brisbane:
It took, I mean, a huge part of my job honestly was like, it was the creative part, but it was like figuring out how do we get the best product through the front doors in a consistent way. And in most places they just want to make one phone call and get the produce through the door, which means they work with a wholesaler and that’s why that business model exists, but it puts the squeeze onto the farmers and the restaurants lose the face of like, this is a farmer that’s trying to work hard to sell this product.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me that’s just like a shame. And so trying to think of new ways to structure it so that again, like these farmers can have a face in the economy again, it’s like just so that they can kind of compete again and be understood is ultimately how I kind of see a renegotiation of this food system. So whether that be, I mean, it’s either there’s small farms that are starting to figure it out of like, okay, well, I’ll sell at the farmers market and I’ll do a CSA and then I’ll do some wholesale and all these different pieces. And if any one of those were to fail, the business wouldn’t go under.

Niels Brisbane:
Like, but if Darigold declared bankruptcy tomorrow, there’d be a lot of farms that would not have anywhere to sell their milk, and that to me is like, well, that’s an issue. Like they’re not… I mean, they own their own businesses, so they’re taking all the risk, but they only have one buyer. So they really don’t have the reward of being an independent business owner on some level anymore because it’s like they’re dictated to. And so like there’s…

Dillon Honcoop:
And we have something unique hee even, like you mentioned Darigold being a farmer’s cooperative. Then in some other parts of the country where they don’t have that.

Niels Brisbane:
They don’t even have that. Right. Exactly. If anything like Darigold is the best model and so because at least you’ve got a large group that can kind of create that advocacy. But-

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s still that risk, that question mark.

Niels Brisbane:
There’s still that risk of like, well, what’s going to happen if that didn’t work out? And it’s like, well, it’s going to take a lot to rebuild it. It’s not going to happen in five or 10 or 20 years even. But like there’s the companies that are thinking about that. It’s like, well, what if we made cheese? What if we made a new dairy product or whatever it is, rethinking about it and being like, well, this isn’t less work, that’s for sure.

Niels Brisbane:
But actually creating a face of like, well, this is… I mean, it was a joke at the restaurant because I was obsessive with dairy specifically as my… we had five different milks that we kept in the restaurant based on what the usage was. So we had a milk that we would use for steaming for coffee, and we had a different milk that we would use for our basically like milk focused sauces.

Niels Brisbane:
So sauces that you actually were supposed to taste the milk. It wasn’t just like an ingredient. And then we would have a milk for desserts and each one was not just like, a random dartboard, we’ll buy from this farmer this week. It was very thought out. We had brought in 25 plus milks. I mean, it was a really unique experience to be able to even do that in the Pacific Northwest of like, there’s actually 25 plus dairies that you can go out and buy milk from and you could taste the difference between each farm and you could… people were blown away, I think it was like MyShan up in Lynden, actually it was really close to where I used to live and I actually didn’t know…

I don’t think they were an independent farm when I was living up there anyways, but or independent like as in you could buy their stuff wholesale. But they’ve got like a Guernsey farm and people had never really tasted that before, and I don’t know what their processes, but it’s like their milk has a distinct like caramel note that you don’t get from, say like a Cherry Valley, which is down here in King County, and they would have, there’s was like super grassy.

And so if you tried to make coffee with theirs, it tasted like you were licking and eating dirt, like, a little bit while you were drinking your coffee. And so it wasn’t so good for coffee even though it was a fantastic milk. But then their milk was fantastic for coffee because it just, the carameliness really meshed and really high fat content, which is also perfect for coffee versus the grassy one.

If you were matching that with, sauce that was going with beef, that grassiness and the fact that you were, the ironiness, the dirtiness of it, “like it was perfect for me.” And so it was like actually tasting those different pieces and… but people always laughed about how much milk we had in the restaurant and it was a bit of a nightmare. And the cooks would come to me and be like, “Chef, we’re out of this type of milk. How am I supposed to make this sauce?” Because they like understood how different it tasted when you did these different sauces. And so it was interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grew up in a town surrounded by dairy farms like this, and berry farms and potatoes and everything else. What was your awareness of farming at that time growing up? Like were you around farming at all?

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. So my best friend growing up was Rick Heerspink. And so he’s part of the Edaleen Dairy world. And so I spent a good amount of time on his dairy, scraping the lanes and everything else, and that was just… and also just the idea of like, it’s a Saturday evening or afternoon and you want to, go to the basketball game on Saturday night. And just like the uniform experience of everyone of basically could be like, “Well, yeah, I just have to finish my chores. I’ve got like…” just like having high schoolers that would buy their own vehicles because they’ve been working since they were 12 years old or earlier.

Niels Brisbane:
They’ve been getting paid since they were 12 years old is probably the best way to put it. They’ve been working since they could walk. But just the farming community in the way that, everyone is just like, it’s a lifestyle more than anything. It’s like there’s, cows don’t take days off. They need to be milked every day. And just how I remember, I mean, we had like hobby animals. My dad, I mean, he had a construction company, but he sold Quarter Horses on the side.

Niels Brisbane:
And so at like one point we had up to 18 Quarter Horses on the property. And we always had, more of the hobby animals, the chickens for eggs and we would always get a couple of… we’d would finish a beef cow every year and some of those other pieces where I was like, I had been on enough farms and enough of like the horse farm, that it’s like you get the ideas of farming. I won’t claim to have been a farmer like some of my peers were, but still just like the concept of getting pulled out of school because a fence broke and all of the animals are out and like you would leave and you’d go and everyone in class is like, “That makes sense.”

Niels Brisbane:
And then also just the idea of like middle of the night or early in the morning or you’ve been working all day, but you have to finish this product or a project because you have to finish it. Like it doesn’t matter how long it takes or how long you’re out there, it’ll be like put your headlamp on and keep fencing because we can’t not do it. And just like that mentality versus then working in basically less so in the restaurant.

Niels Brisbane:
Restaurants can kind of be similar to that. But even still you can be like, you got that stock on lay. Like it’s not ready but, fine. Just cool it down, we’ll start it again in the morning. It’s like, that’s not an option in farming. It’s like, there’s farmers who will cut corn for days on end essentially because it’s like a rain is coming and otherwise that is garbage if that… so that mentality of, it like, it creates this foundational work ethic that is different. And so while I don’t, like I said, I won’t claim to be a farmer, but that work ethic just kind of infuses life in Lynden and I think is a valuable life lesson.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I know you’ve said in an article I read about you that when you were at the bread lab working with farmers on developing things, that it reminded you of working with people amongst the farming community or being around that culture when you were growing up in Lynden, a county north, mind you. So how much does that influence then what you do?

Niels Brisbane:
It’s huge. I mean, I think, like I said, like it’s all, for me, the food system is built on the backs of farmers. But I do sense that there’s been this… especially, I mean the age of farmers has, I don’t know the current statistic, but basically it’s like there’s a whole generation that is getting older and is in their 60s and would love to retire soon, but they don’t have anyone coming in under them.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s our generation, in their 20s, 30s, 40s, there’s nobody that’s farming. Not nobody. There’s a lot less people that are farming in those generations. And I think part of that is just like, because farming needs a facelift basically, essentially. And there, it needs to be appreciated for what it is. But then the other piece is like, it’s a lot of work. And so there needs to be a financial incentive for how much work it is.

Niels Brisbane:
And so it’s like, nobody wants to be working 80, 90 hours a week to make 50 grand. It’s like they’re going to go to other jobs and eventually there’s going to be a reckoning with that. And so my hope is that by creating different avenues and different ways and honestly like a different mentality around how people think about farmers, we may actually be able to get people interested in farming again.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, I mean, most of my favorite people in working with the restaurant, some of my most like, nearest and dearest relationships from the restaurant were with farmers who I got to spend time with, visit their farms. They would come by once a week with their produce and you’d make them a cup of coffee and sit for two minutes and they could complain about the weather. And it’s like, that’s amazing.

Niels Brisbane:
But they need to be a community that has the spotlight shown on them a little bit more. But part of that is not just shining the spotlight on them, but actually giving them financial options and directions so that they could actually be like, well, this is, I could grow a whole bunch of this and sell it or I could, process it in a different way and may work on ways to create that infrastructure because that infrastructure has been dropping for the last 50 years, and how do we create, build up infrastructure so that it can support these small farms? And ultimately they, it’s like people want to feel proud of what they’re working on. And so if they can see that people actually appreciate it, then it’s like, well, then I think there’ll a resurgence to farming in these younger generations.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you see the future and the dark clouds over the future of farming and local farming. You see that as a real threat to the system that you’re involved with and even the food system, the restaurants, fine dining, all that kind of stuff is threatened by what’s threatening farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say hugely. I mean, the farming community has, I mean, there’s a lot of pressure on them. I mean, I’ve heard this from a good source, but it was that like suicide in the farming community is higher than suicide in the veteran community, which has traditionally been the highest kind of group in the country. And as well as like, I mean, there’s been such consolidation of farming and just kind of the loss of identity in that.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there’s just pressures being put on those farmers where it’s, again, they are getting the squeeze of the Whole Food system on top of them and everyone’s trying to keep their margin. And so then the only margin it can come out of is, the people who are actually producing the food, who have to accept that price. And so, I mean, it’s hard because we live in a country where our food system is subsidized in so many ways that it’s, as a percentage of income, the US doesn’t spend very much on food.

Niels Brisbane:
And so we don’t spend much on foods. So then we pay taxes that can then get subsidized. So it’s like we do spend a lot on food, but it’s like, it’s not a realized cost yet. And so it’s not helping, but the small farmers are not the ones receiving the subsidies. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and it’s a system that really kind of wants its cake and to be able to eat it too, if you use one of my dad’s favorite phrases because we want our food cheap, but we want it healthy. And we want it locally sourced and produced and grown on a small farm where people care and all this stuff. But at the same time we want it available year round.

Niels Brisbane:
And shelf stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
And shelf stable and we want it to be in beautiful packaging and all this and close to home. All these things and-

Niels Brisbane:
And I want it in five minutes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And a lot of those pressures are what’s pushed in some of these farms to get bigger or it to be tough for small family farms because they’re forced to try to survive with those demands. Yet at the same time that consumer is coming to them saying, “Hey, why are you getting so big? Why you’re making money on this?”

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, don’t get me started on that.

.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you keep coming back to that and I think that’s so important. But it’s something that people tend to balk at because they feel somehow there’s this idea of the small farmer, just making food and that’s what they do. And then very quickly, if it’s recognized that, that farmer is making some money at that, then it’s like, well, that’s-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. “You’re a sellout!”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the sus… It makes them suspect. Is that maybe part of what you think needs to happen when you talk about a face left-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I think it is like, I mean, figuring out ways where people need to realize that like what is the farmer bringing to the table? And it’s A, our whole food system, but have selling products that are directly recognized. I think. So creating more individual self identity and venturing out, which is scary, especially in Lynden. It’s like there’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Or any small farming community.

Niels Brisbane:
Any small farming, doing something different is like, because if you succeed then people are like, well, then it’s like that can almost be, there’s like a Danish term where it’s like the tallest tulip gets cut. And so it’s like, it’s not even… sometimes even succeeding above the average is not even a good thing in those small communities because it’s like, well, you’re not helping the community then.

Niels Brisbane:
But then it’s, if you try something and fail, then you don’t want that because you’re like, I should’ve just stuck with what I wanted to do. And so like I get that, that is a real struggle and a real conversation. But there needs to be tools for people to start investigating that. And this is another way that I think more… I mean, you made a perfect point of like what the customer demands and how many things the customer demands it’s like, so now you can’t just produce a delicious vegetable anymore. You have to produce a delicious vegetable and have a well, like a good Instagram feed and like it has to be in the right packaging and-

Dillon Honcoop:
I won’t trust it unless it’s marketed the way that I like.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And so it’s like, but to me, yes that’s really hard because it just keeps kicking up that overhead and making that a bigger and bigger slice of the pie. But it also does create an opportunity for all of these, “non farmers” who have grown up in the farm. Like if you grew up in Lynden and you loved to draw and you went to art school and you feel like there’s no place for you back in Lynden now because you don’t farm and you have no interest in farming, like no because all these farmers need to redo their packaging and rethink about that.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, a really talented graphic designer may be exactly what those farms need. And so it actually allows people to, not just stay in Lynden if you farm, sell equipment or repair equipment. Like there could actually be these, you can create this own independent economy right there that actually supports all of these pieces. But that’s hard. There’s no place for an independent graphic designer and labeled designer in Lynden if there’s only, 10 independent farms. But if there’s 50 independent farms, 100 independent farms, like each one of those needs a new graphic every couple of years and now you’ve actually created a position for someone who, “didn’t have any place in Lynden,” in the traditional economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So changing communities beyond just the traditional-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… farming community. At the same time, you’re talking about pushing the farming community into a place where some have gone, like you talked about MyShan, they’re an example.

Niels Brisbane:
Or Twin Brook

Dillon Honcoop:
From our community that both you and I grew up in examples in there are across the state people who have decided to go direct and really embrace that and brand themselves. But really that’s not the lion share of farms yet.

Niels Brisbane:
No, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s definitely not the comfort zone of a lion’s share of farmers in the state.

Niels Brisbane:
Pretty much not.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re saying that’s kind of what’s needed?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean that’s what I think is needed. I’m embracing the difference and not to say that, that won’t… I mean, I don’t know if every single farmer in Lynden could be independent. I don’t know. Like at the end of the day people will still need bulk milk. But I think that there is, a market for someone to do some value added products that, like who’s to say that Lynden… maybe it’s one farmer starts selling a blue cheese or something like that, that just goes wild and Danish blue or Dutch blue or whatever you want to call it.

Niels Brisbane:
And all of a sudden there’s such a demand that they require, more milk from, but they can pay a little bit higher price because it’s a premium product that they are getting that higher price for. And now all of a sudden they can create their own little cooperative that, of 10 dairies or 20 dairies that are all feeding into this specialty milk or specialty cheese product. And then you’ve got, maybe a yogurt maker that kind of does the same thing and eventually you could create a system where a farmer, there’s a plethora of co-ops that they could join essentially or they could then totally go independent and launch like, okay, I want to go elbow to elbow with, [inaudible 00:26:04] and I think I can, make a better product than them and my eggnog recipe is twice as good as theirs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Good old fashioned competition.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And like actually support that. And so maybe it’s not, if there’s 100 dairy farms, we’ve got 100 different cheeses coming out of Lynden. Like maybe that’s not necessarily how it goes, but there is room to create specially like, I mean, Lynden is adorable. It’s like it’s a cool town. And like, honestly, the brand of Lynden just isn’t being like flexed. I mean, that’s one small little. I mean, you could take that-

Dillon Honcoop:
And you can say that about a lot of towns around-

Niels Brisbane:
A lot of those towns what Twin Sisters is doing in Ferndale like that what they’re doing is very cool. And you could potentially… I mean, you go to France and again it’s taken generations of commitment, but there’s over 100 different types of cheese, not only just like producers of cheese, but literally types of cheese like in France. And you go to all these little different areas and each one is producing a different type.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me, if you can create that brand of like, it’s essentially what like goat milk did of like, getting people aware of the milk industry, but it’s like, okay, we need to hyper focus it though and be like, what is unique about this place? Like let’s embrace what we do differently. Let’s embrace the fact that like, well, if we feed our cows a little bit differently, we can get a change in the finished cheese that makes us totally unique.

Niels Brisbane:
And we know the 10 farmers that produce our milk and so we can get them all on a really regimented feed, process and you can create these systems that have a lot more flexibility and in the end give, if a farmer can sell to five different places and has those options, then they can actually shop around for the highest price.

Dillon Honcoop:
And giving them the incentive to do things like something that otherwise may be a big financial risk, it may be a pain in the butt, will require a lot of, investment and infrastructure, whatever on the farm. It’s like why am I going to do that if that’s really not going to get me anything?

Niels Brisbane:
You’re spinning your wheels to just get to the same place.

Dillon Honcoop:
But if there’s a system that will reward that, and I think there’s a lot of people who want to do that, but just feel like, I don’t know where the reward is going to be-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in our system right now.

Niels Brisbane:
And that’s the thing is you’ve got a lot of great business people in that area. I mean, basically if you own a business, you have to be. You get a quick primer on becoming a business person. And so like, they’re not going to do it if they don’t see the payoff. So people, working in the university where you have a lot of academics that are like, “Well, why don’t the farmers just do this?” And I’m like, “Because do you know how much equipment that would cost?”

Niels Brisbane:
And they’re selling things and making literally like pennies per gallon, and once they pay for all their costs then they’re like, do you know how long it would take for them to pay off $1 million piece of equipment making pennies per gallon? Like you’re talking generations. Like there’s no payoff for that. Or they could just, keep making that money, take the little bit of profit and put it in the stock market and it’s going to grow faster than… So it’s like they’re good business people. So they’re not going to be foolish with their money. And so again-

Dillon Honcoop:
And then when you pay off that piece of equipment too, you’re just going to be like, well, you-

Niels Brisbane:
Then you don’t have to replace it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And also it’s going to be like, well, you’re huge. Look at this huge equipment that you have. You’re just a factory. Well, no, it’s we just had… I don’t know. What do you think about the criticisms for farmers too? I mean, I’m sure you hear that a lot in the urban community, even in the foodie community and environmentally focused world, and that disconnect of what it takes to actually make some of those things happen.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s a very interesting conversation I’ve had. So just as I’ve been moving to the more business development side of things and realizing that there’s a minimum size of profitability, even like, if you want to be a whiskey maker that and you want to spend this whole time making whiskey and you just want to make like one barrel of whiskey a month, at the end of the year you’ve got 12 barrels of whiskey and to make back all your costs and pay for your living wage and it’s like you’re going to have, each bottle is going to be thousands of dollars, and nobody’s going to pay that.

Niels Brisbane:
So it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s just not profitable. So you’re going to have to build up a little bit. And so, but yes, there is this like romantic idea of how big a farmer is, size wise and I think people don’t understand that you need to be a certain size to even break even or be profitable hopefully. And as far as changing the perception of that, I don’t know. People need to… That people don’t view farming as a business, which is a little bit sad.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know. Maybe because it was like subsistence farming used to be a thing. So it’s like if you can cut down the trees, you need to build your house and grow the food you need to eat for a year, then “you’re a farmer.” But I’m like, that’s more of a settler.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and really if you’re a subsistence farmer then everybody has to be a farmer.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you’re just growing the food for yourself.

Niels Brisbane:
You’re just growing food for yourself. So it’s like realizing that, and again, this probably feeds back into the problem of why we have less and less farmers is like, we need more farmers so then, or maybe the farms we have can just produce more, and so then less people have to farm so they produce a little bit more, so then less people farm. It like feeds into itself.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I think we’ve been seeing.

Niels Brisbane:
I think so.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I think it gets worse than when people start to demonize that.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually criticize the beast they’ve created, which is interesting. It’s like, if you want the farms to be smaller, you should go start farming. It’s maybe the answer. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it feel like to be at this place where you have this growing understanding of not just the science, not just the nutrition, not just the food and the art, but now looking at the business side of it and all of these things coming together. That’s kind of where you start talking about the word system. Right?

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Focusing on food systems is kind of a project that’s the next phase. It kind of gets back to the, “How do we make a million of them” question. I mean, restaurants are so great because you have a small, like you only have to feed 150, like in Canlis’s case, like we feed 150 people a night. That’s it. And if it’s different from one night to the next, they enjoy that. You don’t get a slap on the wrist for that.

And so it allows you to be very dynamic. But on the downside, you’re feeding only 150 people a night, and 150 people can’t consume that much food. And so it’s like you spend a lot of time. So like, I spent all this time sourcing five different types of milk but at the end of the day I’m serving people these tiny little portions and telling them this huge elaborate story, which is super fun and great. But it’s like, I’m only buying a couple gallons a month or maybe a week, like maybe three gallons a week.

That is not going to substan… like, and that’s not going to help any farmer really on their bottom line. I mean, I’m sure they love the press. I’m sure they love the Instagram post, but like ultimately they’re running a business and they need to sell more than three gallons a week. And so that made me realize like, okay, the next step is figuring out how to create a larger buyership essentially because I know that’s something I can do, is how do we create a system that can actually, move product and start to work on those outlet things that I was, you know…

How do we create those products through great marketing and great, having just really delicious products to start? And how do we then take the burden off of farmers needing to take that leap of faith and be like… I mean, how is a farmer getting produce the world’s like next greatest cheese where it’s like they have zero… they’re starting from zero? Just because they produce milk doesn’t inherently mean that they know how to make chees

So there’s a disconnect for some like I come from the food world. Like I know how to make cheese, I know how to make a delicious wheat product. And so one of my… I had taken a huge amount of inspiration from the head baker at Grand Central, actually it’s a local bakery here in the city, Mel. And she’s the head baker there and has been doing it for like over two decades and has been working really hard.

I mean, I think she’s got it down to this point where she’s only sourcing Washington flour and it’s like, that is taken 20 years of nonstop work. And now she’s not only getting it down to Washington flour, but she’s getting it down to like individual. Like there’s a farm out in Walla Walla, Small’s farm that’s doing a really, really incredible job with flour. And he built a little mill and he’s a character and a half. And I would laugh.

He would come into the restaurant and he’d talked to you about, why the flour is going to be a little different this year because it’s coming from here. And it’s like she’s working really hard to continue to narrow down. But she’s also baking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of loaves per day. And they’ve got multiple cafes. And so she actually represents a pretty big buyership.

And so she actually carries some weight in the flour world, and she can go to different markets or she could approach a farmer and be like, plant, I don’t know, 600 acres of wheat and I’ll take it in the first quarter. And it’s like, wow, that pencils out really nicely for me and that’s a great option. And here’s a mill that we can get it milled at and cleaned at. And so building more models like that, which again, like, yes, it’s not the rustic bakery where he’s producing 25 loaves a day and like that’s really beautiful on Instagram stories and all those different pieces.

But you’re not feeding people that drives costs up and you just aren’t, it helps one farmer maybe. But it’s like, if you really want to create these larger food systems, you have to be thinking about that next size up. And so Mel’s done it. She’s my food hero and she’s done a really incredible job at Grand Central working on that. And to me that level of thought and care needs to be put into every other area. So the dairy industry, the fishing industry, the meat industry, the vegetable growers, berry growers, they all need a Mel type person that can actually dictate change and support it financially on the backside and is willing to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So is that what’s next for you? I know you’re working-

Niels Brisbane:
That’s what’s next.

Dillon Honcoop:
… on a project that hasn’t been launched, isn’t really public yet. How much can you share with us right now?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, so right now I’m working with several companies doing like business development and product development. So it’s all about, and a couple of them are more of my babies than others. And we’ll potentially take over all of my work. But it’s all about leaning on how we can really move product and checking all those boxes that you talked about earlier. It’s like how do we make something that’s healthy for people and shelf stable and produce locally and has nice packaging and actually is moved in a volume that, we can go to farmers and make requests and have them again perk up and be like, you want that? Like nobody’s ever asked me for that before. Let me do the numbers. That makes sense. That works for me. Like let’s do it. And that’s how you can move the needle and then all of a sudden-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where the disconnect usually happens, because farmers are like, “Hey, we can do this in quantity,” and consumers are like, “Well, but no, we want something that’s more artisan and more hands on. And so farmers, why don’t you do this. Farmers, this is what we want.” And farmers are like, “I can’t afford to do that. Well, maybe I could, but I’m not sure if I can make the risk to switch to something like that.” So that’s where that gap always seems to where that gap is. So one of the-

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s a huge disconnect. And that was like, that was something we would come into conflict with at the restaurant, because even with… I mean, we even were willing to like finance things for farmers like, great, let’s buy all your seeds so that you can grow this specialty thing for us. And figuring out ways to play ball with them so that the risk wasn’t all in their court. But people don’t realize it’s like, I mean, farming is not a high margin industry, and so trying something new, a small margin on a small number is not worth their time and headache and amount of effort to like… I mean, doing something new takes a lot of mental energy and if it’s not going to pay off, they’re just going to stick to the bulk thing and as they should because that’s what makes sense. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had to explain that to people who don’t understand? Well, what do you say to people who are like, well, why don’t farmers do X?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say I’m getting better at explaining it to people. I mean, it’s an uphill battle and part of it is people don’t understand business well enough. And to me that should be like, that should be what high school is, is like teaching you business and probably mostly through like getting jobs. But people that don’t understand business is probably the biggest disconnect. And they just think that, these farmers are swimming in money or honestly that business people are swimming in money, like starting a business it’s just instantly makes you rich and it’s like, nothing’s further from the truth. My uncle has a say. He’s like, “The fastest way to make $1 million is to start a $5 million business.” So 4 million in the hole and you got 1 million leftover. So there you go, you’re a millionaire. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So true.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s that piece in just trying to explain the economics of it, but honestly like experience is kind of the only real teacher in that. So encouraging people to be like, great, put some numbers on a page and like, show me a business plan where what you want makes sense. And there’s no farmer that, if you have a business plan that makes sense, wouldn’t try it. Those are not farmers, but most of them are going to give it a shot and they’re going to be like, “Well, if it makes sense on paper, it’s good enough for me. I’ll give it a shot.” So that’s trying to get people to actually wrestle with the problem of like, even in there, trying to come up with analogies can help, but there’s no real experience. Like experience is the teacher.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this whole journey, what’s been the most challenging, difficult, hard thing for you personally?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, probably this thing that makes life hard, which is people, and trying to… like the politics of all of it and figuring out how to move things forward when there’s 100 reasons not to. And it’s like an asking, trying to get groups to, everything from like you’ll work really hard to get to groups of people to finally like, mutually trust and get excited about a project and then have it fall through. And then, you’re just adding to the distrust of that’s already out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what’s the distrust? What does that look like?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, even just like simple things like, it’s not like a systemic problem, but just like of one person. If a farmer needs a piece of equipment and they’re like, well, if you like, I need this piece of equipment and I’m willing to buy it because I’ve got that CapEx sitting on hand, but you have to promise me that you’re going to buy for the next three years like this much so that my business plan works out, and everyone’s excited and everyone’s like, okay, we’re going to do it.

Niels Brisbane:
And then, from the higher ups on the other side, the product gets pulled and they’re like, sorry, we have to back out. Like, even if we’re going to get beat up on this contract a little bit, but it’s like then the farmer’s stuck sitting on that piece of equipment and they just took a huge loss and it’s like all understandable because somebody has to take that risk and that just adds. So then it like, it makes those farmers like, I’m not going to do that again. That was really dumb. So it’s like, it creates a distrust between… honestly like a distrust of like change and a distrust of trying new things, which is fair.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about trust of farming from the public? I think about that in terms of you saying that farming needs a facelift. That tells me that there’s a problem and I feel that too. I guess I’m just curious from your perspective, what is that problem? What do they see farming as right now, and how is that right and wrong?

Niels Brisbane:
I think they see farming as this like old system of that’s like archaic on some level and has no, I don’t know the best way to put it. But it’s like it’s an archaic way of thinking and operating. And so like trying to think of a way where people can view that as the trade that it is and the skill and the amount of knowledge that’s there and the amount of hard work that’s there and the amount of stress that’s there.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there are ultimately a whole bunch of small business owners, which I think is what this country is supposed to prize as like the most championed group, but it doesn’t right now and that’s a little sad. So I don’t know. I don’t know exactly. I mean, I know how to like, or I have some ideas of how to potentially create that facelift of just two groups of people not really knowing each other is maybe what like the best way to describe it.

Niels Brisbane:
And so they need to interface with each other too because it’s like nobody, it’s the same problem of like the divisiveness that’s going on is because people aren’t sitting in a room talking. And it’s like you can often, you realize how similar people really are when you’re sitting across from each other sharing a meal or buying their product or anything else. And so that is it’s two groups of people that don’t understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
If you grew up in a city, it’s like going to another country, going to Lynden sometimes. And not in a bad way. Like it’s just very different. And honestly, I think a lot of Seattleites would really enjoy their time there, and a lot of Lyndenites would, if they could get around the traffic, would really enjoy the city. Like they’re two great groups of people and they need to understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
And I mean, for me, food is all about bringing people together and it’s about creating community. And when you share delicious food, pretty much all other things fall away. And so when you have farmers producing fantastic food and needing to sell it to large amounts of people, they are two groups of people that should get along very, very well. And there’s just that middleman that’s been, that’s difficult.

Niels Brisbane:
So it’s like, I mean, the amount of money that people will pay for something at like a farmer’s market can be astronomical because they’re looking at someone in the face and they know how much work it was for them. And they’re like, $12 for a gallon of milk, no problem. Like, I’ll pay that. And that’s just doesn’t exist in the current system. And so not that I think all farmers should go to the farmer’s market, like that’s not a business model that will work for everyone either. Like this is still the 21st century and we have to operate accordingly. But there’s businesses that can be created to help bridge those gaps and tell those stories and move things forward in a different way.

Dillon Honcoop:
I feel like there’s so much we could talk about here and I’m just loving the things that you’re saying because you’re coming from this different perspective. But it resonates so much with my experience and the things that I’ve been seeing, and I like the optimism too that you’re bringing not just talking about the problems, but you’re so much more focused on the solutions.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s all that really matters.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for opening up about your passion for all of this and all the work that you’re doing. Really, you’re kind of between two worlds and working to connect them. It sounds like it’s what you’re all about. So I’m really excited to see what happens with your ventures and I’m pumped for when we can find out more specifics-

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and open door for when you want to come back on the podcast-

Niels Brisbane:
I would love to.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and tell us more about some of that stuff because I think you’ve got got cool stuff ahead.

Niels Brisbane:
Cool. Thank you so much.

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

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t Niels such an interesting person, such a talented guy? And so crazy for me to meet somebody like that through this podcast who grew up in the same small farming town as I did. I think my sister, if I remember right, was in high school across country with his older brother. But seriously, that conversation we just heard was the first time that Niels and I had actually met in person.

So as I listened back now to that conversation with Niels, I realize we didn’t get very much out of him about how his new ventures to reconnect eaters with farms will actually work. But because of his passion for food and farming and because he’s obviously such a tenanted leader, I’m really excited to see what he does with that. I have a feeling we’ll be talking with him again down the road.

Make sure to subscribe to the Real Food, Real People Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and basically just about any other podcast platform you prefer to make sure you don’t miss any future conversations with Niels. And of course all of the other amazing conversations with farmers and people behind the food that we eat here in the Pacific Northwest. Also, feel free to email me any time with thoughts that you have on the show. Whatever it is that you’re thinking about, good, bad, otherwise, I’m all ears. dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. Dillon is, D-I-L-L-O-N @realfoodrealpeople.org.

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

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11 episodes