From Corporate Engineers to Sustainable Farmers

Tales of corporate executives who dream of transforming their passions into small businesses are common. But those who are able to realize their dream while maintaining a career and a family life are far more scarce. That’s what makes the story of Chrissie and Koorosh Zaerpoor so inspiring.

In 2005, the two highly educated engineers founded Kookoolan Farms, a 100 percent chemical-free farm in heart of Oregon’s pinot noir country. At a time when many small vendors struggle to remain competitive with major food manufacturers, the couple has cultivated a successful and self-sufficient operation. They produce vegetables (using chemical-free compost); free-range poultry, beef, and pork; cheese; mead; and a host of other goods. Their commitment to selling only high-quality foods has made Kookoolan Farms a valued supplier to customers, area chefs, and local restaurants. Chrissie works full-time on the farm, which operates 365 days year; Koorosh still works full-time as an engineer, and together, they’ve raised five children.

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently caught up with Chrissie to learn more about how she and Koorosh balance the demands of work and life while staying true to their entrepreneurial vision.

ISBB: How do you manage the challenges of being in “both” worlds of corporate and self-employment at the same time?

Chrissie Zaerpoor: I am on the farm full-time. Koorosh still works for Intel. His current assignment has him working closely with offshore colleagues in Asian time zones, so he is able to work as a farmer early in the day and then work online with Asia in the afternoons and evenings. Having great employees (we have three who are full-time, year-round, a few seasonal workers, and one consultant) is also crucial to maintaining life balance.)

You both grew up in farming environments, but most of your education is geared toward the corporate world. How does your engineering background contribute to the challenges presented by the farming/food industry and entrepreneurship?

It has made us fearless and able to teach ourselves by reading. Our neighbors thought it was pretty funny watching us put up fencing with three different DIY books open on the pasture! Our corporate engineering backgrounds — like writing white papers, designing experiments, and qualifying factory processes, equipment, and the factories themselves — turned out to be a skill that transferred directly to building and licensing processing facilities on our farm.

You started Kookoolan eight years ago. How has experience helped to shape your current business model? 

We take a firm look at our books every winter, using both the financial numbers and notes in our diary to determine which enterprises are working best. Deciding what not to do is at least as important as deciding what to do. Every year, we prune one or more enterprises off the list of products we offer, and we usually end up trying one or two new things. Some work; some don’t. It’s important to stay flexible.

How has Intuit Online Payroll changed helped your business and overall operations?

Once we decided to hire our first full-time employee in 2008, we started looking at various payroll services. We’re smart, educated people. We have realized that we earn the most when we’re doing our own professional services (like legal, accounting, and taxes) rather than paying someone else $200 an hour to manage them.

Intuit Online Payroll quickly calculates the paycheck and prints the monthly and quarterly reports I need (to send the right checks to the right government agencies on the right due dates) and not a lot of extra stuff I don’t need. It’s the right service at the right price for me — and a terrific value. I’m a genuine fan.

How do you compete with larger food producers and restaurants that have lower costs and more buying power than you do?

We offer products others don’t. For example, we make mead (wine from honey) and kombucha (fermented tea), and we don’t compete with large poultry producers. Our chickens are pasture-raised, truly free-ranged, pampered from their first day to their last, hand-caught, and hand-processed. The story of their gentle handling is right there on the perfect carcass. These are products essentially nobody else produces, and ours are terrific.

About Stephanie Taylor Christensen

Stephanie Taylor Christensen holds a master’s degree in marketing and has 13 years of marketing management experience for Fortune 500 companies and small businesses. She is a regular contributor to sites like ForbesWoman, Real Simple, Mint, Minyanville, and SheKnows, and writes for several private business clients. Her work is frequently syndicated and sourced by Yahoo! Finance, SFGate, TodayShow.com, and The New York Times. She is also a small business owner, having founded WellnessOnLess.com, and Om for Mom Prenatal Yoga in Columbus, Ohio. Connect with her on Twitter @WellnessOnLess.
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