• Monday, April 30, 2018

The 110-hour Work Week

Kookoolan Farms is nestled in the heart of wine country just outside of Portland, Oregon. Among the rolling vineyard hills and the grassy farmlands speckled with livestock, you’ll find Koorosh and Chrissie Zaerpoor’s farm — Kookoolan Farms — peacefully situated right off the highway. Starting their farm from scratch, they’ve molded it into the successful enterprise. While Koorosh and Chrissie love the opportunity they’ve had to live the farming lifestyle, they both recognize that their lives could have taken a turn that would have led the nature of their livelihood in a whole other direction – 33.9 million miles away to be exact.

Chrissie and Koorosh have spent the last 12 years making Kookoolan Farms what it is today. They produce grass-fed beef and lamb, raise and slaughter free-range chickens, offer farm-fresh eggs, and make their own kombucha and mead. Chrissie has also published a cookbook about the foods that pair well with her mead. While they’ll openly admit that it hasn’t been easy, the Zaerpoors have created a life working in an industry that both challenges and satisfies them.

Chrissie and Koorosh met while working at Intel where they were both engineers. Koorosh remembers being “offered a job to [conduct] a feasibility study at Aerospace Corporation to put a nuclear reactor on Mars. It was the dream job.” Koorosh and Chrissie had grown close during their time at Intel, so when she learned of the offer, Chrissie applied for a different position at Aerospace in the hopes of following Koorosh to Southern California.

Though she was willing to move to stay together, living in Los Angeles was not at all part of Chrissie’s dream. She asked what it would take to make him to stay, and his answer was characteristically direct and simple: “Buy me a farm.”

Koorosh explains that there is often a DIY spirit among farmers, and that this industry offers a unique way to make your mark on the world. This appealed to him very much. “I’ve always wanted a farm, to have animals.” He smiles. “You know, maybe a couple chickens, an acre or two, some ducks maybe.”

So, in 2005, after touring nearly 200 properties, the Zaerpoors bought a farm. The name “Kookoolan” comes from the nickname Koorosh’s father gave to him. So, when it came time to name their new farm, the decision was already made.  And so, began the transformation of the property now known as Kookoolan Farms. “The farmhouse that stands on our property today is a far cry from what we started out with,” Chrissie explains, “but the shell of the original home is still in here.” Today, their home looks like something out of a prestigious home decorating magazine.

Having found a new dream, they stayed on as full-time employees at Intel while also working to establish the farm. This made for a rough first few years. Neither Chrissie nor Koorosh had a firm grasp on what it would take to run a farm. So they started with what they knew: as engineers at Intel, they were tasked with the testing, improving, and troubleshooting of processes. They applied these strategies to running a farm. Chrissie ruefully describes that time as “trial by fire.”

In addition to their 40-hour work weeks, their days now included feeding and watering the animals, slaughtering chickens in the ODA-certified slaughterhouse, packing the chickens, stocking the store, going to farmers’ markets, barely sleeping, then doing it all over again the next day. Chrissie recalls “working the graveyard shift” in the slaughterhouse and thinking to herself, “I went to graduate school for this?!” Koorosh admits his moments of doubt, remembering when he told Chrissie, “You know all of those fools who say we are living the dream? Email them right now and if they write back in twenty minutes, they can have the farm for free.”

They both say that some of the biggest lessons they learned were about how far the human psyche and body can be pushed. “We discovered that the max number of hours a human being can work in one week is somewhere around 110 … We were working around the clock for pretty much three years straight. It was exhausting,” Chrissie recalls while Koorosh nods his agreement.

After three years of “no Saturday nights” and what they say were “800 divorces,” they finally found some relief. While the Farmers Market had been a wonderful platform to grow their reputation, immerse themselves in the agricultural community, and build a client base, the time and costs of attending each week no longer made sense for them. By this time, Chrissie had already left Intel to focus on the farm. So when Koorosh suggested they pull out of the farmers markets, she agreed the time was right for a change. Now, with a solid list of devoted clients, Chrissie and Koorosh sell their products from the farm store on their property—a unique store that operates on the honor system.

Starting a farm from scratch is a daunting task, and they caution friends from making the decision to do so lightly. But if you’re the right person (with the right tolerance for sleep-deprivation) it can be incredibly rewarding. These days, Chrissie and Koorosh refer to their “800 divorces” with humor. The hard lessons they learned during their first few years enabled them to streamline their processes and hone in on the most efficient practices for their farm. Ultimately, they are passionate about their farm and proud of the goods they provide to their community.

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