There aren’t many people today who can say they’ve “…worked 4,000 hours in [a single year], worked more than 48 hours [straight] with no break, skipped countless meals, [and] worked more than 1000 consecutive days, each more than 12 hours long, without a single day off.”
Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor, co-founder of Kookoolan Farms, is among these few.
“People have an image that living on a farm is a bucolic, slow, gentle lifestyle,” Zaerpoor said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Starting a farm, or really, being an entrepreneur and starting any business from scratch, is harder work than most people are willing to do, or even able to imagine.”
The hardest part of running the farm, according to Zaerpoor, is that “it’s all the time and every day. If we’re on the farm, there is really no minute off. Most meals are interrupted by customers or by employees with questions. It’s very hard to sleep in, to stop for dinner, to have a day off, or to have a vacation.”
The story of Kookoolan Farms begins in 2000, when Zaerpoor said she “was a 36-year-old engineering manager at Intel with the usual barely-clinical chronic health problems: high cholesterol, allergies, asthma, acid stomach, insomnia, acne.”
“I was trying to eat better, and incrementally found myself reading Andrew Weill, shopping at farmer’s markets, New Seasons Market, Zupan’s, and City Market, and eating more wild fish and vegetables and whole grains,” she said. “I was looking for grass-fed and pasture-raised meats, and there just weren’t any to be found then. I was looking for milk from cows that were better-fed and less medicated, and less processed, and there just wasn’t any then.”
The Zaerpoor family wanted more control over how their food was grown and processed; they also wanted to start a family business they could work at together.
“Basically the farm was born of a temper tantrum: we couldn’t find what we wanted to eat, so we finally decided we were going to have to do it ourselves,” she said.
A shipment of 600 day-old chicks arrived a mere two weeks after the Zaerpoors signed the papers on their farm. “We’ve been going full-speed ever since,” Zaerpoor said.
Each January, the farmers take a critical look at what they accomplished that year and question what they might want to change.
“What pieces do we most enjoy? Which are profitable and which are not? Which enterprises support each other and which work against each other? Which are compatible with the weekly, seasonal, and annual rhythms of the farm?” Zaerpoor said. “Then we prune the enterprises that don’t work anymore, and we decide which new experiments we want to try.”
Kookoolan Farms has tried many products over the years, including raw milk, vegetables, fruit orchards, livestock, meat animals, mead, and kombucha. Recent enterprises include Tepahce, a Mexican fermented cider, and kombuchas based on “exceptional teas rather than foo-foo flavorings,” as Zaerpoor said. The farm also sells produce to restaurants.
“[All our products] are my favorites,” Zaerpoor said. “If they weren’t, we wouldn’t be producing them.”
Though the work that has made Kookoolan Farms successful is difficult, the farm’s philosophy is anything but complicated.
“We strive to create a business that produces the best food available anywhere, free of chemicals and medications and excessive processing, in an environment that is healthy and wholesome for the animals, our workers, our customers, and our family,” Zaerpoor said. “Really everything else follows from that.”
“There have been innumerable inspirations. Dick Layden, a farmer from my home town in Hoopeston, Illinois, was a huge inspiration, although I didn’t realize it at the time,” Zaerpoor said. “Joel Salatin’s books, certainly. Many local farmers including Katie and Casey Kulla, Charlotte Smith, Mike Payne, Susan Sokol Blosser and others have all taught me something.”
She adds, “My dad, who was an attorney and an entrepreneur, always told us that when young attorneys would ask him the secret for his business success, he would answer “I always return my phone calls.” This has been very inspiring to me:
I hear every day from customers who say they inquired from many other farms, but I was the only one who returned their phone call!”
“Without question, [the most rewarding part of running the farm] is the impact that we have had on the local Yamhill County economy,” Zaerpoor said. “We have created four year-round, full-time, above-minimum-wage jobs filled by local Yamhill County residents.”
All of Kookoolan’s supplies, feed, and labor are found within Yamhill County. Kookoolan also supports other local businesses, such as Frontier Custom Cutting in Carlton. Frontier processes almost all of Kookoolan’s red meats. “We constitute about 5 percent of their total business,” Zaerpoor said.
Unique aspects of Kookoolan Farms include producing all of the compost used on the farm from their own animals’ manure. “We combine the straw bedding from cattle and the pine shavings from our chickens, and compost the two manures together, along with the solid wastes from our poultry processing, and various vegetation waste from around the farm,” Zaerpoor said.
Kookoolan even produces and uses solar power. The farm installed a 75kW, 4,000-square-foot solar array and uses the electricity produced to run all of their daily operations. “[It also] provides us with 4,000 square feet of covered outbuildings,” Zaerpoor said. “You can park your electric vehicle in front of our farm store while you shop, taste, or attend a class, and fill up your car’s battery for free with 100% solar-generated electricity!”
Kookoolan Farms currently offers fresh eggs from pastured hens; grass-fed beef, pork, chickens, and lamb; Oregon olive oil; local raw honey; kombucha, mead, walnut wine, and vegetable CSA shares. The farm store is open 365 days a year, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
If you are interested in visiting Kookoolan Farms, or want to learn more, visit: www.kookoolanfarms.com