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.
By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
Some of the tiniest workers behind one of nature’s sweeteners that ends up in your beer are getting some much-deserved love this month. The Rogue Farms bees that normally spend their days making honey in Independence are now hundreds of miles away in sunny California. It’s easy to forget about the busy pollinators once the temperatures cool, the blossoms fade, and the final leaves tumble from their branches. Therefore, it might come as a surprise to learn that Rogue actually takes the extra effort to transport more than seven million bees south every year to provide them with a winter respite.
During the warmer months, the bees help pollinate a variety of crops at Rogue Farms as well as produce honey that goes into the business’s kölsch, braggot, mead and soda. One keeper oversees all of the hives. After the bustling hop harvest in late summer and early fall, activity on the farm and among the bees begins to slow down. As wild sources of nectar and pollen go dormant, the colonies adapt by reducing their population. When older bees die, they are no longer replaced. Mating seasons has ended, which means the queen stops laying eggs. Male bees, or drones, are excluded from the hive since their sole purpose is to reproduce. Feeding them when they’re not needed could use up precious resources during the winter.
Before the bees make their journey 600 miles south to California, Rogue cooks sugar syrup and distributes pollen patties as a food source. The keeper will check on the hives from time to time to help ensure other wildlife, such as skunks, foxes and deer, aren’t disturbing the bees. However, handling of the colonies is kept to a minimum. The keeper wants to avoid opening hive boxes because exposure to temperatures below 50 degrees can stress the colonies. And while the bees help enhance the beer with their honey, a beer ingredient can actually add to the lives of the bees. If any of the hives need medicating to protect against mites or fungal diseases, Rogue uses a treatment called HopGuard, which is derived from natural food-based compounds in hops.
After a few months of winter preparations, the bees finally set out for their California vacation in January or February. This year, they departed Jan. 15. Crews hand-stack the hives onto a flatbed truck in the evening and secure them with rope. The bees get further protection by being covered with a net during the drive down. Their journey lasts all night until they reach Tracy, Calif., which is located about 30 minutes west of Modesto, Calif. If the driver were to stop along the way, the bees would likely start to get much more active due to the warmer temperatures.
The months spent out-of-state are a bee’s paradise. Their temporary home is a bountiful almond orchard, which the bees will help pollinate while they begin to increase their population once again. The hives are scheduled to return to Independence in early April so that they can take advantage of the apple and cherry blossoms that should be among some of the first to bloom during the season. The journey across state lines and back again may sound like one big endeavor for a bunch of bees, but their contribution to the flavor of beer and the health of the environment in general is truly greater than their physical size.
By Peter Korchnak
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Since summer 2013, Mikki Trowbridge has led free yoga classes in Salem-area craft breweries. When Trowbridge, a certified yoga instructor who has been teaching yoga in Salem for more than five years, visited Rogue Farms in Independence, she thought the place needed a yoga class. The meeting hall's managers agreed, as did more than a hundred people who came to the first class. “I guess people love the combination,” Trowbridge said.
So much so that in early 2014 she expanded the program, called Yoga and Beer, to Vagabond Brewing. According to co-owner Dean Howes, each monthly class fills up (the space accommodates 40) and often they have to turn people away. “It's a fun program,” Howes said.
The example provided by Rogue and Vagabond inspired Laura Beans, events manager at Gilgamesh Brewing, to extend an invitation to Trowbridge. The brewery's south Salem location features a large backyard with a creek, providing an ideal ambiance for a biweekly yoga practice. Though the program at Gilgamesh is currently on hiatus, Beans said, “We’re happy to have Mikki come back next summer to lead this fantastic program.”
Both Howes and Beans know Trowbridge as director of special events for Boys & Girls Club of Salem, Marion and Polk Counties, where she spearheaded the annual Cinco de Micro Brewfest. Al Tandy, a local business owner, believes Yoga and Beer, where he has been a regular for over a year, is positive not only for attendees but also for Salem overall. “It's wonderful she donates time to improving our city,” Tandy said.
In addition, Tandy enjoys the camaraderie that develops within a large group at a brewery yoga practice compared to a studio class. “It's more low key,” he said, “and it's fun to hang out and socialize afterward.”
The social aspect of Yoga and Beer isn't lost on Trowbridge. Not only is “drinking the international way of making friends,” the high-energy classes, which spring naturally from her boisterous personality, are full of laughter. “I have groups of women coming for ladies night out, for example. Plus you can't be super serious doing downward-facing dogs while burly guys pour micros in the next room.”
For Trowbridge, a self-professed imbiber who became a full-time yoga teacher last November, Yoga and Beer combines two things she loves. It also expresses what's best about the local culture. Often she has heard people remark that pairing a yoga practice with drinking craft brews in a barn “feels so Oregon.”
An added benefit: the program promotes both the hosting brewery and yoga. “The stereotype that only skinny people in tight clothes do yoga makes a yoga studio intimidating for newbies,” she said. “A class at a brewery opened yoga to people who would never come to a studio.”
Each 75-minute class is open to all levels and allows attendees to “detox and retox,” a practice that is becoming increasingly popular across the country. But, Trowbridge said, “There’s no judgment if someone wants to do beer and yoga and beer, instead of just yoga and beer.”
Yoga + Beer Schedule
Vagabond Brewing: Second Wednesday of each month
Rogue Farms Hopyard: Last Wednesday of each month
Gilgamesh Brewing: Returns June 17, 2015
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.