By Jim McLaren
For the Oregon Beer Growler
The chickens in the yard are scratching at it.
A giant sprinkler in an adjoining scrub field is wetting it down.
Horses are grazing in the grass growing in it the next field over.
And beyond that, a young buck is bedding down in the shade of a tree line bordering another field — the dirt still warm from the afternoon sun.
The dirt is on Sauvie Island and Jordan LeaJames is worried it might not be good enough. If it is good enough, why hasn’t anyone else grown hops here?
That question was actually the third in a series that brought Jordan to this place. The first was to a young teacher named Maya: “Will you marry me?” The second question was asked of Maya’s uncle, who makes very good homebrew: “Did you ever think about growing your own hops here?”
The answer to the first question was “Yes.” To the second question, Maya’s aunt said ‘If you want to try it, go ahead.”
Sauvie Island, just outside of Portland, is bordered by the Willamette and Columbia Rivers and the Multnomah Channel. Named for a 19th century French-Canadian dairy farmer, the low-lying, 24,000-acre island is best known for its dozens of farms, nurseries and gardens. While another important beer-making ingredient, barley, is harvested on Sauvie, that didn’t answer Jordan’s question. Will this dirt grow hops?
Jordan knows what that takes. He’s had hops in his Northeast Portland backyard for about seven years. Plus he has a professional background in environmental engineering. Still, most Oregon hop farms are farther south in the Willamette Valley.
So before they decided to plant, Jordan and Maya scooped up some Sauvie Island dirt, boxed it up and sent it to an Eastern Oregon lab that analyzes soil. Jordan says they also “provide a recommendation on fertilizing, what you need to do to amend the soil, change the pH. They email you the results.” He continues, “When I got the email, it had all the results – to me they were just a lot of numbers, it looked good. But then the attachment, where they recommend what kind of fertilizing and what schedule to utilize, that page was blank.”
Blank! Is that good or bad? Jordan called a tech who explained, “The reason that page is blank is that your soil is so perfect for what you’re doing.” The analysis found that Sauvie Island dirt beat all the benchmarks. Nothing needed to be added.
Jordan and Maya understood why. The new hop farm would be a small part of a 26-acre parcel where nothing had been planted for about 30 years. Jordan says his uncle-in-law told him “They’ve just been mowing it, recycling and concentrating the nutrients into the soils. The soil is just super rich.” Maya, who grew up on a houseboat on the Multnomah Channel, remembers something else that helped: “The ’96 flood added nutrients.” Good news, yes. But better news was coming. Maya was pregnant. Both the farm and a family were beginning at the same time.
Farming can be a slow, deliberate process, but also hurried and deadline oriented. And this hop yard was behind schedule — in part because Jordan and his father John McCann were learning production farming. Also, as small growers, supply companies put them at the back of the line. But the pair pushed ahead and spent a lot of time prepping the soil for 600 plants.
“Cultivating the soil is hard,” John explains. “The clay is just about 3 or 4 inches down.”
Jordan adds, “It’s just loaded with so many roots — years and years of these grass root balls. We had to chop up each one. We used a rototiller, but you can only get so far with a hand-driven rototiller. What we should’ve done is plow the whole field first.”
“That’s what we will do in the future,” John says.
The process was further slowed when the farmers had to wait an extra month-and-a-half for trellis poles. Those poles finally arrived on a Thursday. Work and stress intensified for everyone that weekend when Maya went into labor. She delivered a healthy baby boy named Mateo. And as the family grew, so did the farm. Maya’s uncle and father-in-law continued boring holes for the trellis system. Jordan and his father then planted the hop rhizomes and hung special coir ropes, which the bines climb as they grow. The pair then carved out a second, smaller field using a circus tent-type trellis system. Jordan thinks it could make harvesting easier.
Terroir is what wine growers call the effect a particular place has on a grape — it’s the culmination of earth, climate and farming techniques. And that may be just as important to the flavor of hops. “I assume that the type of soil can definitely have an impact on that,” Jordan says before he ticks off the hops he is growing. “Cascade, Chinook, Crystal, Centennial, Galena and Willamette hops” are his choices after talking to brewers.
Since Sauvie Island Hops is new and still growing, the farm may only sell fresh hops in its first year. But looking to operations like Ladyhops and Smith Rock Hop Farm in Central Oregon, Jordan knows there’s a market for cones right off the bine from smaller producers. “A lot of brewers look at it as a challenge to come up with something, like a really good fresh hop. It’s something that needs to be consumed within a few weeks of being bottled.”
Sauvie Island Hops didn’t plant until early May and will need a long, slow end to summer for its first crop to fully ripen. Meanwhile, sitting next to the hop yard, Jordan daydreams. Maybe, he imagines, there will be a small brewery in his future that creates farmhouse ales. Maybe he’ll create a special strain of hop named after his son. It’s all possible, you know, because the dirt is good.
Sauvie Island Hops
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.