By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
To most folks, farming doesn’t sound like the kind of job that would be a thrill a minute. But if you ask the workers at Rogue about their experience, the words “exciting” and “fun” come spilling out of their mouths.
Perhaps the average person isn’t intrigued by farming because it’s become so far removed from our daily existence, beginning with the Green Revolution that brought on the use of chemicals and advanced technology in the 1940s, allowing for expanded production. Another factor may be simply that agriculture isn’t sexy. Combines and tractors and pulling things out of the dirt doesn’t really conjure up alluring images. And, quite frankly, farming sounds kind of dull. You are watching grass grow, in a way, as fans of passive pastimes would put it. But if farming were a spectator sport, the magnificent hop puts on one heck of a performance, climbing some 18 feet up a trellis in a matter of two months.
Hops are just one type of crop that the workers at Rogue Farms in Independence have to tend to during the harvest, which began in August and will run through September. The busy plot of land in the mid-Willamette Valley also produces grasses, multiple vegetables and honey from the resident bees. Each comes with its own unique challenges and this year, in particular, Mother Nature has thrown a couple of curve balls.
The best and most popular time to drop by Rogue Farms is during the harvest. There’s actually traffic — truck after truck comes rattling down the road, kicking up dust while hauling bulging loads of hop bines to the still-sturdy 1950s-era buildings for processing on site. The air is thick with the scent of the sticky lupulin powder from the cones. Down the way, another farm is sometimes simultaneously harvesting mint, creating a collision of unique, fresh smells. From sunup to sundown, the moving parts never stop. Even when the lights go out on the farm at night, one person keeps the kiln burning to dry the hops during the graveyard shift as crops adhere to their own schedule, not necessarily one that’s convenient for workers.
The bustling spectacle that is the harvest season is, of course, the highlight of the year for those who turn the soil. But getting to that point takes months of effort. Even when things have gone dormant on the farm, important activity is still underway. For example, the annual winter flooding on the property might sound potentially devastating, but it’s actually a gift disguised by nature. The nutrients and silt found in the water of the nearby Willamette River saturate the hop yards and replenish the soil. Rogue, who started growing the crop in 2008 to ensure they’d have an adequate supply in case of shortages and skyrocketing prices, started planning for the deluge by planting a cover crop of barley. The grass gets to be about 2 feet tall at its peak, but will never be harvested. Its sole purpose is to protect the hop rhizomes from washing away when the waters rise and act like a warm blanket during frigid nights.
While too much water doesn’t pose a threat, not enough water and this year’s exceedingly high temperatures can be risky. Luckily, hops love the sun. If the farm’s bines were a kid doing the rope climb in gym class, they’d have set a record. According to Rogue, that crop made its ascent faster than they’ve seen before. The cones developed right on schedule, but “ripened” a bit more quickly than usual.
The sun-soaked days moved up the harvest for many of the company’s crops, including corn, cucumbers, jalapenos, rye and wheat. Sweet pumpkins, which would normally rest on their land until September, were ready to go in early August. That meant that everyone from the Rogue office piled onto a bus, headed out to Independence armed with machetes and got to work on the squash, creating a sort of spontaneous team-building exercise without the eye-rolling-ly bad get-to-know-you games.
The ahead-of-schedule picking and plucking has kept the workers on their toes. But in Tygh Valley, about 30 miles south of The Dalles, the company has been facing fire warnings due to the dry conditions. One spark from a piece of equipment could ignite the field and tear through the crop. Rogue has continued with the harvest, but cautiously: they’ve slowed the speed of the combines, attached apparatus to tractors to create a firebreak if needed and kept a makeshift fire truck — a water tank — nearby.
Weather is just one risk in agriculture, and Rogue has learned that the hard way — as all farmers do. This year it was the attack of the killer slugs. Despite their reputation for moving slowly, these creatures made quick work of the farm’s rye seed. Twenty-four hours after planting 20 acres worth, the slugs had decimated half of the lot. That is the stuff of farmers’ nightmares.
Rogue also enjoys adding crops to their lineup. For instance, the farm’s jalapenos experiment started out in a planter box. They thrived and now occupy two acres in Independence. Last year, Rogue branched out by planting corn for the first time. They later discovered the seeds went into the ground a bit later than they should have. And come harvest time, Rogue couldn’t get anybody to combine the 5-acre patch because it was too small for the effort it would take. Workers ended up handpicking all of the ears instead. If that weren’t enough, another setback occurred after the corn was driven to Tygh Valley for floor malting. The shucker there broke on the first ear, so it was back to the manual version — removing the husks one by one. That experience served as a valuable lesson in organization, so this time around Rogue has someone who will combine and remove the kernels at the same time.
No two days are the same on a farm. The rain, the heat, the snow and the wind all make certain of that. And at Rogue Farms, there’s always the possibility that the brewmaster wants to take a chance on a new crop — continuing the adventures in agriculture. What Rogue or probably any farmer, for that matter, would want you to take away from a visit to the property is to truly understand and appreciate where the product — in this case beer — comes from. When people think about brewing, big, shiny fermenters and mash tuns likely come to mind. But there’s an entire agricultural endeavor that comes first. A day on the farm is an excellent way to bring brewing from the steel tanks right on back to the dirt.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.