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.