Posted on April 1st, 2011
Kurt Timmermeister has made me feel better about urban farmer’s markets. Or, at least, about the following decidedly controversial opinion that I’ve privately held for some time now: I am not sure that I like them.
When I first thought to contact him for an interview, having read the story of his farm in Culture magazine, having chuckled over his wry and thoughtful journal entries on his own website, and, having longed for his Dinah cheese (a close friend is a cheesemonger, and cannot say enough good things about its entrancingly creamy innards), I worried. I fretted. I wrote an essay about the fretting, last week, and pondered what I might possibly ask of someone, on the subject of farming, as a person who failed to grow tomatoes in a backyard garden last summer. As someone who, even now, looks at the raised beds, sprouting dog detritus and a lone banner of brussel sprout, and despairs a bit over getting out there to set things aright. As someone who, despite her best-laid plans, invariably finds herself at the large, bustling, downtown farmer’s market thinking, ‘Well, hell. What did I come for, again?”, as the crowd surges forth on a tide of reusable bags, and her grocery list is lost, borne aloft on a breeze of artisinal vinegar and fixed gear bicycles. Surely, I thought, a real farmer, within the first few minutes of speaking with me, would ferret out my heart of darkness, and know me for a fraud.
I needn’t have worried. Kurt Timmermeister–a man posessed of a wry chuckle, a lively sensibility, a passion for his land, and a refreshing honesty about what it really means to work it–is on your side. He thinks that your backyard farm, despite its tomato losses, is worth championing. He wants you to eat better sandwiches. And, as this interview shows, he really wants you to understand what better food can be–and what you can do to find it, a few yards from your back door, or, many miles north, in his.
FG: Hello!–can you hear me okay?
KT: Yes, that sounds great.
FG: Great! Ok. So, we’ve been doing a bunch of articles about food and geography in our magazine, and I wanted to ask you some questions about how your own personal sense of geography has shifted in owning a farm. I know that the island that you’re farming on isn’t that far from Seattle in terms of miles, but I’m sure your sense of landscape, and where you’re from, has changed a lot in terms of farming vs. living in the city.
KT: Yes. I like these questions, so far. This is good
FG: How do you think your sense of place has changed?
KT: Sense of place?
FG: When you’re part of a landscape–even though geographically Vashon and Seattle aren’t that far apart in terms of miles, and they share a climate—do you think people would say they’re from the Seattle area if they live on the island? Or would they say they’re from Vashon?
KT: Oh. Yes. If you’re on the island you’d say you were from Vashon—there’s a sense of possessiveness, for sure, about this island—One thing that comes to mind is the sense of being a steward of the land. I don’t think that people have that sense of being a steward [in the city]. I think when you live in Seattle or Portland, I think you have a sense of being kind of transient, even if you live in your house for 20 years. I think you’re kind of a resident, and you’re there, and you’ll leave, and even if you might move down the street—not that your community isn’t important to you, I don’t mean that–but I think you’re just..kind of a tenant, for this time period. And here—this feels different. I am responsible for this little piece of the earth, and it’s my responsibility to just.. take care of it—hopefully it will be better when I’ve done with it—and I have an incredible connection to it. And possessiveness, not just in terms of financially, or something like that–just that I know every inch of this place, I’m here all the time, and I take great pride in this sense of place—so that seems different. (And I haven’t owned a house in the city, so, I’m kind of guessing on that). And amazingly, this is thirteen acres, which isn’t that terribly large–but occasionally people have stopped in here when I’m at the grocery store or something, or, even worse, they’ve stopped in here and put out a cigarette butt on the lawn, and I will find it, three seconds later. I just know where everything is here. Every tree, and every flower and so on—I have a huge personal connection to this piece of land.
The other thing that is seemingly kind of different in terms of landscape from Seattle, from when I grew up in Seattle, is that this piece of land is way more active than anything I remember, even as a child—there are deer here, which is kind of a large example of things not in the city, but there’s just way more bugs, there’s way more animals, there’s way more weeds, there’s way more everything—and if I could take a one meter square and dig it up and count how many things there are compared to my backyard as a kid in Seattle, I think it’d be a thousand times greater. There’s just so much going on here, because it’s not paved over, it never has been paved over –there’s one person living on these 13 acres, as well as large animals, and it’s just a way more varied and populated piece of land –and I don’t see that in the city. And sort of the best/worst example is to go to a park in the city, where it’s entirely created—a manufactured landscape, and I think that’s what people think nature looks like (in the city). And this is a dairy farm, it’s very manufactured as well, I occasionally have bulldozers out here, leveling the land and so on–but there’s a sloppiness to it here, as well. City parks are so controlled, and I think that that’s what people’s daily [urban] contact with that landscape is.
FG: That’s an interesting answer—I grew up in a really rural place myself, and I’ll never forget the experience of being in college, in western Massachusetts, and there was a fox, behind one of the dorms as I was leaving an English class, and one of the girls standing near me grabbed my arm and said, “Look! NATURE”, and just pointed at it–
And I thought wow, this is all new for you. You’ve never seen a wild animal before. So, my next question is: in light of that answer that you gave, is do you think that that sense of belonging, and that longing to be both part of something, and to be caring for something, is part of why people seem to be so currently fascinated by and drawn to the idea of farming? Because it definitely seems like we’re having a mini-agrarian revival, where people are getting more interested in traditional foodways, and where their food comes from, and I’m kind of curious about what people who are actually farming think about why other people might be so drawn to their chosen profession.
KT: Boy—I was silly and idealistic 20 years ago, so I was that person, and now I’m sort of on the other side of the fence a bit, or I hope to be at least considered to be on the other side of the fence a bit—I think that one kind of general fallacy to address is that people think and have thought for a long time, that this agrarian fantasy is a reality—I think they really do think that it’s really simple, and everything is beautiful, and everyone gets along, and nothing dies, and everything tastes good, and it’s always sunny–smart, intelligent, educated people think that, and are shocked when it’s not true. I thought that. I moved here for that reason, probably. I’m kind of embarrassed to say. And then you’re confronted with the reality that animals kill other animals, violently, and you have to clean it up, and crops fail, and food doesn’t taste good, most of the time, unless you’re really good at it– and that nature just doesn’t care what you think. It does whatever it wants to do. So there’s certainly some of that. I want to think that this return to the land, part 6, or whatever number we’re on here right now—it’s not new—is about food, but I don’t know. It depends on if we’re talking about people actually leaving Portland, and buying 40 acres in the Willamette Valley, and growing hazelnuts, or if it’s someone who retires to a condo with half an acre because they don’t want to be in traffic–I think people really do want to make better food, but I think they’ll be a little disappointed when they get there, in many cases. Not all. I think it’s certainly sincere [that desire]. I wouldn’t say it was ever not that.
FG: So you’re talking about that sense of your own naïvete, and that sense of idealism, that you moved to the island with–you’d been working as a chef before that, and I was curious–both farmers and chefs work really long punishing hours in the service of food production, but sort of on different ends of the spectrum, and I was wondering if you felt that your work as a chef had prepared you in any way for farming, in terms of sort of anticipating that there were going to be daily disasters or disappointments, or if it was really just sort of all new, and if your feelings about food sort of shifted–
KT: On the first part, yes, it was very handy. I am used to working a lot, and working on weekends, so that was no surprise, and certainly, [while] running a restaurant you learn to roll with the punches and deal with adversity and still make it work, and that is very very handy in growing food for sure—what was the second part of the question again?
FG: If your sense of food, and your feelings about food and making it shifted or changed, in making that transition.
KT: Oh, it totally changed, that’s a huge sea change—I thought that I knew a lot about food, and I thought I knew what good food was, and I think that [that] was just youth, more than anything. I have a much better sense of where it [food] comes from, and how it’s produced, and I definitely moved here and started doing that [farming], for that reason. I wanted to get better food, and to find really high quality food, and I thought I had found it–and then I suddenly had this epiphany–‘oh my god, this is crap’— and until you have the epiphany, you don’t really understand it, I think. Probably the most quoted part of that book of mine is a bit 20 pages into it, and it talks about chicken breasts in restaurants–frozen, skinless boneless chicken breasts, and half the reviewers write about that one page–and what they seem to not understand, is that that’s most likely what they had for dinner last night. And they all put a distance to it, saying ‘Oh my god, he had this restaurant, and they served really bad food, and isn’t that weird’. And the point is that it’s not that restaurant, it’s every restaurant, with the exception of the top one percent, or two percent, in the downtown cities—it’s everywhere, it’s all really bad—when you see it, in the back room, behind the curtain, in volume, it all looks like Costco, and it’s really kind of dreadful. And the job of restaurants, essentially, is to cover up the lack of flavor in commercially made, prepared food, I would say—you might not agree with that, but, that’s what I feel.
FG: No, I think a lot of people would see the restaurant industry, or, parts of the restaurant industry, that way. I mean, if you look at the restaurants that most of America is eating at, certainly, I think that that’s the function of them for sure.
KT: It’s amazing–I rarely eat bad food, it’s the rather rare exception, but I had a bit of a book tour in January and February, and so I ate bad food, because you’re on the road. I was having this very predictable sandwich, that I actually probably used to serve, which was focaccia with turkey, and havarti, with lettuce and tomato and some mayonnaise–a ‘panini’. And I’m sure I sold, you know, a thousand of these things, in my time, and I was eating it, and it was perfectly fine, it was exactly what I would’ve served twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years ago. And yet when I really stopped, there was absolutely no flavor to it whatsoever. It looked like a tomato, but there was nothing there, it looked like lettuce, it looked like turkey, and there was nothing—and yet it was sweet enough, it was salty enough, it was gooey enough, it was hot enough, that if that’s all you’ve ever eaten, you think you’re having a turkey and havarti sandwich—until you actually eat those things, you don’t realize that there’s nothing to that sandwich whatsoever, because it hits the right flavor profiles.
FG: And do you think that that’s something that’s more unique to the United States, as compared to the food culture that you experienced when you were in Paris? That we don’t know what real food tastes like?
KT: I think we, “we” meaning 95 percent [of us], I think we’ve lost it. I think we can get it back, but, I think we’ve definitely lost it—there are very very few people in the country who’ve ever had, [for instance] raw butter—it’s not legal, it doesn’t exist anywhere, you would have to be on a small farm to actually taste it. Little things are showing up, certainly vegetables, at farmer’s markets and so on, that certainly helps—I think meats are starting to show up, and a lot of them are good—I would say unfortunately, at the same time that we’re starting to have more access to—I don’t want to say ‘homegrown’ [products], but, that sort of thing–at the same time, large business is taking it over, so now, yes, you can get organic vegetables, but they’re made by Earthbound Farms, and they’re not tasty either. They’re organic, but that’s about it. I can imagine grass-fed beef being that way pretty soon, where it’s actually Hormel that’s making the grass-fed beef.
FG: That’s kind of sad and horrible to think about.
KT: Yeah—I think it’s always going to be harder to find that small rancher, that small egg producer, that’s making really good meat, for legal reasons, and distribution problems and so on.
FG: Well, it’s interesting, because farming seems to be both the nexus of, and sort of the antithesis to–or small farming at least–the American Dream. Because you have places like Earthbound Farms, that started as really small farms–it was two people, and a roadside stand at the beginning, and now everybody recognizes that logo, and you’ve probably put that little package of lettuce in your grocery basket more times than you can count. So I think it’s interesting, that sort of intersection, where we’re a nation of people that pride themselves on that sort of ever-more false ideal of capitalism, where the goal is eventually being able to run your own business/make a living, and at the same time, this longing to get back to the land, our roots, and the geography that we’re from as opposed to “America,” the concept.
In light of that, I was just curious to hear what you think about farmer’s markets–if you think farming shapes communities differently than simply going to a farmer’s market might—sort of contrasting people who live on Vashon and get to know farmers in their neighborhood, and that notion of having the small-town farm where everybody gets their milk from, vs. people in a city, going to farmer’s markets and meeting farmers, but meeting them in a really transient sort of way.
KT: Boy, oh—this is a tough one. I’m so not the poster child for this one. I have some experience with farmer’s markets, but not a lot, so, that’s the first caveat. I used to show at the Vashon farmer’s market, which is a very small one, and I did it for probably, I don’t know, two or three years, and I didn’t like it.
FG: What didn’t you like about it?
KT: It’s a tremendous amount of time, that you have to stand there, that’s the hard part—you’re setting up, you’re breaking down, you’re selling—[there are] a couple of things, I can kind of speak to. One thing that friends of mine were shocked about was that they had this idea that we were all friends. That it was just this big party. And all the farmers are just buddy-buddy, and oh my god, no—and this is Vashon, and it’s [still] kind of cutthroat. Stories of New York City greenmarkets are vicious, and even the city of Seattle—it’s competitive, and it’s political, and it’s back-stabby, and it’s gossipy, and there’s all this going on, this backstory that people don’t really see. That’s my first thought—I can rattle on about farmer’s markets for quite a while, unfortunately,
FG: Please do!
KT: The other one that’s kind of funny, is that they’ve become big business—I’m speaking about Seattle, primarily, in this case– I make cheese, I make a fair amount of cheese, I can’t really say how many pounds a year, but, I’ve got 16 cows, I milk five or six at a time, we sell 300 pieces a week or something—small, but still not nothing. Enough to keep the farm going. I… probably couldn’t get into a market in Seattle. I’m too small. And it wouldn’t really be worth it to me–but, in order to be in a farmer’s market in Seattle, in one of the good ones, you have to be established—you have to have enough product, and you have to have the staff to do it, you have to transport it, and so on. So it’s not Ma and Pa Kettle, who have a few tomatoes on their farm or something—they’re fairly large at this point, because you have to have enough going on, that you can fill a stand, in a big city, on a Saturday, all day long—and then you need employees.
So what you get, the downside of that, (and I’m thrilled that they [the farms there] are big enough so that they can actually do it), is that the person you’re talking to there is not necessarily the farmer, or, in many cases, it’s not even someone from the farm–it is someone who lives in Seattle, who sells the peaches from eastern Washington, say, who’s never even been to the farm. Which is kind of funny to me, and I don’t want to judge it–I don’t mean anything bad by it, but the farmer’s market, the person who’s standing there for seven hours a day, the person you’re talking to, isn’t necessarily the farmer himself.
I sell primarily to grocery stores, I sell to restaurants, and that works well, for me. Other people love the farmer’s market. So that’s the first thing that comes to mind—I like farm stands, I think those work well, and I like people finding me, to buy cheese from—although it takes a great deal of time. I kind of constantly have this conflict, if you will, between people’s perception of the farm, and the reality of it—I think they think—what do I mean—if I’m standing talking to you for 45 minutes to sell one piece of cheese, it means I’m not making cheese, I’m talking. And I don’t get paid to talk, I get paid to make cheese, and to take care of my cows. I think people think that I can spend all day, sitting around the dinner table, talking about farm policy, and I actually have to make cheese all day, and take care of my cows—and it’s a very strange thing. So—that’s kind of part of the farmer’s market, people thinking that the vegetables are just sort of appearing somehow, and the farmer stands there all day long, at two or three or four markets a week— and if he’s doing five markets a week, he’s not at his farm, or someone else is doing his farming for him.
FG: That sort of gets back to what we were talking about earlier, about people not knowing what real food is—a lot of the food experiences that they think they’re having, are experiences that don’t really exist. Someone going to a farmer’s market goes there, ostensibly, to sort of feel more of a connection to the farmer that’s producing their food, but half of the time they’re not even meeting the farmer—and it’s sort of like eating that turkey and havarti sandwich, without really knowing what those things should taste like.
KT: Right. The best review of my book that I got was from the Wall Street Journal—the first four paragraphs were talking about farmer’s markets—and what she was talking about was that in many ways, the function of farmer’s markets is not about getting connected to a farmer, it’s not about getting good food, it’s about being smug, and sanctimonious, and showing off to other smug, sanctimonious people, who are in high-income, swanky cities on the coast. And we’ve all been to those markets, where it’s ‘oh, yes, I only buy arugula from Bob’s because I know better’–it’s a lot of that, and it’s really not necessarily about feeding your family—but, it’s a good way to make full retail, for selling food, so for the people it works for, it’s great, and it’s not that we shouldn’t have them, it’s that they’re just more complicated than they seem.
FG: Right–it’s not exactly the drum circle love fest that people think it is. So, for you, then, when you were talking about actually having to work the land, and not being able to talk about cheese all day because you have to make cheese–what is the most rewarding part of working the land for you?
KT: Boy—part of it is, I don’t have a distributor, so I personally distribute my own cheese. I put it in ice chests, in the back of my truck, and I drive around, all day long, once a week, to restaurants and grocery stores—and besides the fact that I don’t really want to pay a distributor, it’s a chance for me to see where the cheese goes, many times to the actual customers, and that is a thrill—just making a product and shipping it, you don’t really get that—but it’s really exciting to see it on a plate, in a restaurant, and seeing someone eat it, and enjoy it. That’s the biggest thrill of all—to really just be [there], from the beginning of milking the cow one day, and then three days later it’s on a plate in a restaurant and someone’s enjoying it, that’s fabulous. So that’s one thing. Simply improving the land is incredibly rewarding for me, and it happens slowly enough that it’s more that when I look at a photograph, that’s five, or ten, or fifteen, or twenty years old, that I think oh my gosh, it is better, it has changed, I did get something done. It’s when I see the photographs that I can really get a sense of ‘this has grown, this has improved tremendously’—because everything is fairly slow. I mean we had a calf born this morning, I think we have sixteen cows here, now.
KT: Unfortunately, it’s a bull calf, but he looks great, so we should have more milk starting tomorrow morning—but it is an odd thing: I had one cow, seven years ago, and now I have sixteen of these things, and it sneaks up on you, kind of slowly, and you don’t even really notice until you’re saying ‘oh my god, there’s a lot of cows out there!’ And that’s exciting, just from sort of a business point of view, of—wow, this is fun—we make a lot of cheese. We have a lot of cows.
FG: What’s your favorite moment of the day on the farm?
KT: Milking the cows, in the morning, in the summer, on the perfect day, is really pretty good. If the sun’s kind of just getting up, and I woke up on time, and I had a nice cup of coffee, and the cows are good, and it’s dry–it’s so perfect, if everything is going just fine. The other end of that is, you know, in January, when it’s so much mud and manure, and it’s pouring down rain, and the cows are cranky, and they’re knocking over stuff, and you overslept, and the coffee was bad—that’s the low point.
FG: *chuckling* Right. So, I’m imagining that transitioning out of restaurant work to farming involved having to have a lot of patience, because as you mentioned, the time scale on which things happen is just so different—one is a long-term investment in things sort of slowly coming together, and the other is every day, doing the same things, and doing them quickly, and doing them well—what do you think the biggest myth about farming was, that you came up against, in the early days of making that transition to a different time scale, and what was the hardest thing to have to learn?
KT: I’m going to kind of address that in an odd way—I just picked up PCC, which is a big grocery store chain here, relatively—they have nine stores—and then I have another one, called Metropolitan Market, that’s five stores, and they’re great stores, and they’re local, and they’re relatively small, for big chains–
FG: They’re sort of like the New Seasons of Seattle.
KT: Yes, absolutely, and still—when I”m talking to them, they’re saying ‘Well, we need more cheese– next week is Thanksgiving’, and I’m thinking (chuckles) ‘You don’t understand. It doesn’t work that way’. I’ve often said, ‘Oh, I’ll have more cheese for you soon!’ and what I mean by that is, you know, today, in March, I have two more cows that are gonna calf in September, and then I have a calf that I’m gonna breed here this summer, and she’ll calf next March, so that will be more milk, so then we’ll have more cheese, after it ages, so—yeah, next June, I’ll have it!’ And they’ll say ‘I need it on Monday’, and….it just doesn’t work that way. This is just such a long, long long long, process, especially something like cows—changing soil takes years as well, but I could conceivably, if you said you wanted radishes, I can go out and seed them right now,and you’ll have them in three weeks—but to change a dairy, takes years and years and years and years. If there is a mistake… this cow that had this calf this morning…could die tonight, from milk fever, and then that cheese I promised you that I would have in late April isn’t going to happen. I mean, hopefully, you know, she’ll live through the night, but it’s very possible that she will keel over tonight from milk fever, I won’t be awake, and she’ll be dead in the morning. And I can’t just call up cow dot com,
and say send me a Jersey, six years old, that’s producing five gallons a day, that’s in milk right now—it doesn’t exist. It’s conceivable that it could be in Eastern Oregon, and I’d have to drive and get it or something—but that’s how business works, that sense of ‘well, just fix it now!’ And it just doesn’t work with this at all. And I’m finally kind of learning that, things like ‘Yeah, this part of the pasture is bad, but if I keep keeping the cows there, with manure, in five years hopefully it will be a little better’—and that’s the best option, there is no better option than that. I can put some lyme on it next November, and hopefully in two years it will kind of kick in—that’s how I have to look at things. Which is okay, except the business end of it doesn’t follow that same schedule.
FG: Right, because people don’t—now, moreso than ever before–people just don’t have the patience for that. I find myself, if someone doesn’t reply to that email I sent them, within ten minutes, wondering, “Well, where are they? What’s going on?”
KT: Right, there’s a problem!
FG: Right, and you just sort of assume things, and you forget that people used to write letters, that took months to get there, and in the meantime, you just waited.
KT: And they had full, lovely lives. (laughs)
FG: They did! Without all of that.
KT: I’m confused by that one, endlessly, but yeah.
FG: So–in terms of both your own farm, then, and people’s understanding of farm-produced food, and people being more interested in that, do you have a sense that eventually, people will have more patience for the actual pace of production? Or do you think that that American need to have things yesterday is always going to sort of be at war with what people say they would like to do, which is support smaller production farms, local farms?
KT: Boy—a couple of answers. One, one is [that] I produce a cheese that is not a unique cheese, by any means, it’s a very traditional Camembert cheese, but it’s the only one around here. There’s a kind of similar bloomy-rind cheese that’s 200 miles away, but for Seattle, I’m the only bloomy-rind, so—I don’t really care if they catch up or not. I am what they want, and I will sell it to you when I get around to it, essentially—not in an arrogant way, but it’s just ‘I have 50 cheeses for you today’. If you need 100, I’m sorry, I have 50, and that’s all I can do. You can’t find any elsewhere, nobody else has any—you’re going to have to make it work somehow. So that’s part of it. So, man, this will be me at my most cynical—I would say that—especially if I go into grocery stores, god, I hope people don’t read this! (laughs) I mean, for you, I hope lots of people read this, but, yeah—it’s funny, when you actually make food, you understand what the seasons are, and you understand what that means, when you actually are one of those local farmers.
And then you walk into grocery store XYZ, and it could be a national chain, with no names of course, or a smaller chain—smaller chains are a little better, but not necessarily—and you look at the big photographs on the walls, and the big slogans painted all over the sides of the buildings, and you realize it’s crap. It’s just sales’ promotion. And for god’s sake—everything now is sustainable, or green– motor oil, for my car, is now ‘sustainable and organic’, and it’s ludicrous, in many ways—and it’s not necessarily based in any kind of science or reality. So, I don’t know if people really want to support local agriculture, necessarily—I’m not saying everyone—but a lot of it is logos, and messages, and in many ways, what they want to support is not necessarily what the reality is. Especially when you put price into it—you see people and they say ‘oh yes, we support local agriculture’, and you say okay, well, your vegetables are going to be twice as much, and your peaches are going to be three times as much–what do you think? And then they’ll say ‘Well….you know…I try to go to the farmer’s market’—it’s a lot of people wanting to feel good, and people wanting good food and so on, but they don’t want to give up the big screen t.v. just to buy the vegetables—you’d really rather have the vegetables be the same price, or only 20 percent more. If it costs three times as much, would you still support it? That’s my kind of bitter reaction.
FG: No, I understand—when you tell people that eating locally means that they’re not going to be able to have strawberries in January, that you’re going to eat nothing but potatoes for five months–
KT: Right, or, ‘You will never have a lemon again. You’ll never have oranges. You’ll never have pineapples. You’ll never have bananas. Those are not local. You’ll eat a lot of kale in the winter. And potatoes.’ And then, it’s ‘Ohh. Well, I don’t really want that’. And, I mean, I tend to eat that way, because I tend to eat what I grow, but I get bored with it, my god, I buy oranges all winter, and in the summer, I guess I don’t buy much of anything different, but sometimes I just think ‘My god, I want something else’, you know. And that’s me—and I’m kind of thoroughly convinced that I want the great food that I grow here, and I get sick of it. The person living in the condo in the Pearl, who wants to walk over to Whole Foods, they don’t want someone telling them they can’t have something.
FG: I used to work for Whole Foods, so, I understand that pretty intimately.
KT: Oh, you do?
FG: Oh, I used to. And there is a lot of greenwashing. It’s sort of like the Toyota Prius of grocery stores.
KT: It’s about making you feel good.
KT: And I often describe, to friends of mine, what it’s like to deliver to grocery stores, and restaurants too, but grocery stores in particular—the loading docks of these things, there’s nothing pretty about them. They’re kind of all the same. There are no pretty slogans on the loading dock. It’s just moving product as fast as they can. And it’s funny—people are okay with it—that’s what’s kind of most surprising to me. I get into the little minutiae of it—they’ll have little slogans in the cheese department about raw cheeses—and I’ll think, it’s not really accurate, you really don’t know what you’re saying. All you’re really saying is that if you buy more stuff here, you’ll be happy.
FG: Right, you’ll be a better person, somehow.
KT: Yeah—and you know, that is possibly true, but you’re confusing raw milk and raw cheese, and aged cheese and soft cheese, and this isn’t really true, what you just said here, on this little slogan—and that picture that you have up there has nothing to do with that, over there—but for someone who really doesn’t know the difference, well, it doesn’t really matter. I can spot it in a second.
FG: So, do you personally, as a producer of food, feel any urge to educate people about it, or is that one of those things where it’s ‘I don’t have time to tell you how you should be a better eater?’
KT: Um…boy. It’s a very hard thing to do. I’m trying to write more, so that’s kind of why, so that people will know a little bit more about it—certain things are immensely complicated. Raw milk is incredibly complicated, it’s very hard to get it down to a paragraph that would appear in somebody’s blog—so that’s a very hard one to deal with. And the very, very difficult thing is to talk about the situation and options without saying [something like] ‘You’re a stupid person because you go and buy food at X store’…Once you say that, they just turn off, and they’re gone—or they get mad at you, or they’re hurt, or whatever it is—and that’s really not what I would ever say, I don’t mean that—I mean ‘You’ve been co-opted, and you don’t even know it’. And I want to tell you why. But it’s a very challenging kind of thing, to explain things without being didactic, or judgmental.
FG: Right. How to get the word out, without making people resent you for bringing the word in the first place.
KT: Yeah. It’s… kind of trying to lead them to it, without beating them over the head with it—so that they can discover the truth on their own. Michael Pollan is very good at that kind of thing. He’s the master of saying something without telling people what they should do, I think.
FG: So, cynicism aside, is there any advice that you would give to somebody, who was considering starting a farm, or was interested in making cheese, who was sort of interested in following that path?
KT: There was just someone here, this afternoon, who said he was 25, and he has a farm on the island where he grows vegetables—it’s a hard one, it’s a very difficult thing. I have the most hope for…my kind of long answer, is that Tom Vilsack was on the radio a little while ago, and he was talking about the official classifications of farmers in America. The first group is, I want to say 60 percent—people who are technically listed as farmers, they might have an acre or two or three or four, and they raise three pigs a year, and they sell one. And they actually are lawyers, or pharmacists, or whatever they are. So there’s that group, they produce some food, but it’s not their business, and they don’t make money really, and so on—and then the next group was half as big, I think, and they make up to 250,000 dollars a year in sales—and they’re like this place [Kurtwood Farms]. It’s kind of their job, they might have an outside income–they have a hard time, but they produce a fair amount of food—and the third group was half again as much, and they produce more than 250,000 dollars gross product per year, and they produce 90 percent of the food in America. And they are very profitable, and they do very well.
So. I have hope for—I like that first group. The backyard farmer. I have great faith in that. And I think we could change the laws, tweak them in some small ways and make that [idea] work more and be more profitable and be more accessible—federal slaughter rules, zoning, and things like that. And I think that’s great—two people, one person working in the city–one raises some vegetables, one raises raspberries, one makes jam, one makes cheese—whatever it is, and it contributes to a local food supply. I think that’s perfectly valid. The middle is a little challenging—I think the large middle we could improve upon, tremendously, but that’s not a 25-year-old that’s just out of college who wants to be a vegetable farmer—that’s someone who’s invested small amounts of money, meaning a couple million dollars, and has something like 100 acres—still technically small business, technically small farms—but [something that] could be viable. I think that is where a lot of growth should be. The big ones, I don’t know anything about, and, who knows—but I think we could improve those [middle] ones.
I think when you’re in the first group, and you think you’re in the second group, it’s really dangerous—it’s nearly impossible, you’re not going to be able to buy a piece of land with a home mortgage near San Francisco, near Portland, near Seattle–and grow vegetables, and sell them for four months of the year at a farmer’s market, and pay your mortgage. And your health insurance. And your student loans. No—it’s damn hostile. But do something!—scale it back, or don’t scale it back and have your partner do the cash job—I think that’s fabulous, I think that’s great. Or, that next ring up, I think we could change things, whether it’s land use, or zoning, or health insurance so that that next group up is more profitable, and then we’ll have more of those—but those are much bigger businesses, they’re not small, by what we think of as small.
FG: We’re interviewing Jenna Woginrich, who wrote ‘Made From Scratch’, who is doing just what you’re talking about, which is why I’m bringing it up—by day, she’s a graphic designer for Orvis, and at home, she’s running this small, burgeoning sheep farm.
KT: That’s great! I think that’s great—and it’s funny, culturally, you’re sort of pushed to be bigger–and you’re not considered legitimate if you’re in that set, and I think that’s almost the biggest push, the biggest liability, is that everybody’s saying, ‘oh, you’re not a farmer’, you know, ‘you’re supported by your wife, your husband—’. It’s a funny thing– I see it [being a farmer] as sort of this cultural classification, at least around the people that I know. Everybody wants to be the full-time farmer. I do. I’m right there. And every once in a while someone does climb out of the backyard and does somehow pull it off–in some part, I have, I hope—but I’m not even certain. The guy I was talking to this afternoon was saying, ‘well, if someone just gives me a plot of land (then I could do this)’—and I was thinking ‘my land is pretty much paid for, that’s not the problem,’—the problem is that you have to pay for your health insurance, your property taxes, and the liability insurance, and the utility bills, and it just goes on and on and on–
FG: Right, and then something is always going to go wrong, too–
KT: Yeah–constantly, constantly constantly constantly.
At this point, I truly had the sense that, time allowing, we really could have talked farm policy, local food, the future of this latest growth of a decades’ old back to the land movement, long into the night–were we at a dinner table, fortified by cheese and drink of an appropriate vintage. Were there not an actual farm, waiting–and, as I thanked him for his time and thoroughly, honestly interesting replies, the farm itself drove the final point home. There were cows, waiting to be milked. There was one man, to milk them. And, having spoken with that man, for even this span of time, I can say with confidence: there is no better man for the job.