By Dustin Gouker
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Andrew Bloo was not a farmer before founding Cascade Hop Farm, despite the fact that his roots were in agriculture.
“I was the first person that didn’t farm in my entire family,” Bloo said on a recent warm August morning in the shadow of his second-year farm near Bend, just outside of the small town of Tumalo.
After a career spent mostly in business — in marketing and as CEO of a software company — Bloo turned to hop farming as a way to spend more time with his family while starting a new endeavor.
Despite a lack of experience — outside of voluminous research on hop farming conducted by Bloo and help from his family of farmers — the first year resulted in a successful fresh-hop crop in 2015. Redmond’s Wild Ride Brewing used Cascade Hop Farm’s product for its Three Sisters Wet Hopped Red Ale.
“It’s exciting from the standpoint that someone showed the faith to buy it from us, a first-year farm, a local provider, instead of going to Yakima or over to the [Willamette] Valley,” Bloo said.
The Three Sisters beer quickly sold out last year, and Wild Ride came back to Bloo’s farm for enough hops to make a double batch this year.
The farm is also contracted with Central Oregon’s Cascade Lakes Brewing Company and Juniper Brewing Company this year. Bendistillery — literally right next door to the property — is also experimenting with a hop-infused product, Bloo said.
After that first year, Cascade Hop Farm has already increased its hop acreage from one to three acres in 2016. Another acre is planned for the coming years. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing in year two for Cascade: A late, hard frost in the middle of June killed most of the plants. But good weather and a solid root system allowed Bloo to start over nearly from scratch right as summer was starting. The farm, which is growing Centennial, Cascade and Nugget hops — is planning on harvesting early in September.
Cascade Hop Farm has helped to prove the so-called “craft hops” movement is on in earnest in Central Oregon, with a handful of small farms providing hops for area breweries.
For Central Oregon brewers, the advantage of getting their fresh hops locally is that the time from pick to boil is cut down dramatically. Getting hops from the big growers west of the Cascades or in Washington could take hours. Hops at Cascade Hop Farm or another local grower could go from bine to brewing in half an hour.
“You have such a limited window,” Bloo said on the harvest period for fresh hops. “A., you have to schedule a brewing opportunity, and B., your crop has to be ready. You can’t really sell hops until it’s time, and there’s this kind of tension of when brewers need it and when you can actually harvest a quality crop.”
Cascade has a lot of other things going for it besides having a quality product and attracting brewers who want to support a local business. Most of the property on which the farm is set is a wildlife preserve. The grounds surrounding the farm have been left in a natural state, and hop trimmings and spent bines are placed around the preserve so that animals can use it for habitat.
It’s also a truly family endeavor.
Bloo’s wife and children were out surveying the land in the morning as Bloo talked about the farm. Bloo’s mother lives in a house and acreage right next door to the farm and checks on the plants daily. Bloo’s father also visits regularly and plies his agricultural expertise to help the farm get off the ground.
“Our goal is really to do this as a family and spend our time out here,” Bloo said.
Capitol Farms may be a modest-sized hop farm compared to other local growers, but the multigenerational family operation has deep roots and devoted workers. Some of the hop harvesters pictured here, Jorge Hernandez (foreground), Sergio Bravo (left) and Fidel Sosa, put in long hours when the cones are ready to come off the bines. Photo by Emma Browne
By Erica Tiffany-Brown
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
When you ask hop grower Mike Kerr about his favorite variety of hop, he’ll tell you it’s the Nugget.
“It’s just an absolutely outstanding hop to grow. It’s vigorous; it’s adaptive, if you will. It can adapt to hot growing seasons, cold growing seasons. It’s just a wonderful hop.”
Just like how the Nugget hop can adapt to whatever Mother Nature throws its way, Mike and his brother Andy have also had to learn how to become resilient.
At 160 acres, their Salem-area hop farm is quite humble compared to most local growers, but that hasn’t stopped Capitol Farms from having a full-scale amount of setbacks.
It was late summer 2013 when an aggressive thunderstorm made its invasion onto the farm, threatening the hard work the brothers and their crew had put so much time and effort into.
“We could watch it coming in on the radar and it was just horrible to watch. And it came and it knocked down 95 acres of Nugget hops. They were within just days of being harvested,” Mike said.
“At that point, you’re really faced with some challenges. You have your harvest window based on a 24-hour picking cycle and you immediately lose 12 hours because you can’t harvest at night because you have to bring in this complex machinery to help raise the trellis so that you can pick the hops. Then, you’re also faced with about a seven-day window before the hops start turning bad that are lying on the ground. So at that point, we didn’t think we’d be able to get through 50 percent of what was left. In fact, we knew we wouldn’t be able to.
“So, you’re out there walking through these fields that are just devastated … crop poles are looking like matchsticks … I mean it’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen in your life. And you’re looking at it going, ‘There’s just no way in hell.’”
And that’s when the Davidsons showed up.
A multigenerational family of hop growers about 20 miles north of Capitol Farms, the Davidsons had just finished harvesting their hops the day before and had sent their team home, but when they heard what had happened to the Kerrs, they called within hours to say, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll be there.”
All of a sudden, truckloads of equipment started coming in.
“Not only did they spend a week harvesting our hops side by side with us, but it wasn’t just a matter of sending their crew out to pick hops … I mean those guys were out in the field treating it like it was their own.”
Where does that desire to lend a hand come from? According to Mike, it comes from a family with a great sense of responsibility.
Jim Davidson, who passed away many years ago, held a monthly breakfast as a means to get other hop growers together and just chat, which helped foster a sense of camaraderie in the business that still lives on.
“The Davidson family was just remarkable; they literally saved our crop,” Mike said. “And I think you would find that anywhere in the industry today. People will really pitch in and help each other.”
Whether by blood relation or not, hop growing definitely seems to be rooted in a family environment.
Capitol Farms was started by Mike and Andy’s grandfather in 1951. He had grown hops in the St. Paul area and was the local buyer for S. S. Steiner, which is still a very prominent hop dealer today — located just down the road from the farm. His son, Mike and Andy’s father, came back after a stint in the Air Force and he farmed for a while before opening a computer store in 1980. Shortly thereafter, Mike ended up leaving Oregon State University to come back and help out with the farm, which ultimately led to the brothers purchasing the farm from their parents.
Mike and Andy made the decision a long time ago to diversify the farm, so they added a perennial nursery. “It’s a nice balance, it creates more work for our labor force year-round, which we feel is important,” but, Mike emphasizes, “Hops are our history, they’re our blood. Can’t imagine doing anything else.”
The brothers grow four varieties of hops on their farm: Nugget, Willamette, Centennial and Cascade. When asked about his favorite part of the growing process, Mike said it’s the springtime. “It’s the season of renewal. You start turning the earth and it just smells wonderful. It’s almost miraculous to watch the growth rate in the spring. Everything’s fresh, everything’s new.”
Mike, of course, enjoys the other times of the year, like the harvest season, but says, “It’s so go-go-go that you really rarely get a moment to pause to appreciate and enjoy it. You have to remind yourself to stop and enjoy those moments during that time because it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the rush.”
Although the Kerrs have weathered their share of storms, it sounds like they’ve found their balance. And just like those resilient Nugget hops, they’ll continue to adapt and grow with some helping hands and a good foundation.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.