By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
The call for 100 more pickers at a Southern Oregon hop farm appeared on newsprint nestled between other want ads for a piano tuner and a maid along with comic strips. It was Aug. 12, 1943, and the need for extra hands had prompted this Grants Pass grower to look north and place his offer in Roseburg’s News-Review. But help wanted notices for hop yard labor in small-town papers was nothing new for that part of the state. Requests for 50 people here, 300 people there were staples of classifieds going back decades. However, besides the older folks who experienced the itchy work as kids and producers in the Willamette Valley who ended up buying equipment from the last operating farm, Rogue Valley hop cultivation has largely been forgotten.
Yet, it is not gone.
More than 20 years after the final growers’ poles and wires that served as the bones for leafy plants came down, bines were once again winding their way up strings on a plot of land that no one really expected to be very good for hop cultivation.
When Steve Pierce signed papers for a foreclosed home with a few acres of land that would someday become Alpha Beta Hops outside of downtown Ashland, he’d never even laid eyes on the property. And he had a pretty good reason — Pierce was in the Indian Ocean on an aircraft carrier. As a Naval intelligence officer, he’d previously spent four years stationed in Munich, which is in some ways like being sentenced to an endless Oktoberfest. It would be nearly impossible to emerge from a stint in beer-soaked Bavaria without becoming enamored with brewing. Pierce said that’s where he “got the beer bug” and had hoped to spend his last year in Germany before retirement, but the military had other plans. That’s how he found himself on an aircraft carrier a world away from Oregon while authorizing the purchase of a mystery farm where he’d soon start turning the soil.
Pierce’s wife actually found the place on the side of I-5 with yellowing grass looking toward the lush, green valley where others warned there wasn’t any water for agriculture. While the Carney clay ground in those parts might be a bit stubborn, stuff grows. But before they could even get to that point, there was enough demolition and rehabilitation to be done that the property could’ve been the focus of an HGTV home improvement show.
“So [my wife] said, ‘Don’t worry, we can fix it up.’ It was a wreck,” Pierce said laughing. “Oh it was horrible. Shag rug.”
Outdated carpeting aside, the next challenge came years later when Pierce decided to turn an adjacent hay field into a hospitable environment for hops. By then, his two grown sons had boomeranged back to Ashland after fulfilling that near-universal urge among young adults to get the heck out of where they’d been raised only to return after realizing their hometown was not so bad after all. Morgan Pierce and wife Jessica now live on the farm in a converted burgundy-hued barn, while younger brother Spencer Pierce is just a short drive away. The brothers became an integral part of the business after Morgan Pierce discovered his dad had a new crop on the way.
“Came home one day and he was out in the field plowing rows,” Morgan Pierce recalled. “And I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he’s like, ‘We’re planting hops! I’ve got 3,000 of them coming in a couple of weeks.’”
“It’s been a huge family project because we built the whole thing,” Steve Pierce said.
That includes every building, base to ceiling, and infrastructure on the hop field — aside from the bolts and wires. Every other aspect, from the solar kiln to the walk-in cooler, was constructed by the Pierces. It took eight months to get the terrain ready starting about 10 years ago. That meant unloading 120 yards of steaming organic compost that left faces and hands streaked in soot-colored grime that had them looking “like a couple of coal miners,” Steve Pierce described. After that, 160 20-foot-tall juniper poles had to be pushed into place. Wire was strung in the spitting snow to create what looks like an oversized clothesline where they’d dangle 4,000 paper strings. The family planted 1,800 rhizomes that first year with the goal of giving Ashland-area beer makers a neighbor they could buy hops from. Steve Pierce also wanted to help revive the crop in Southern Oregon.
“So it was just an idea that hop yards had been around earlier in the 20th century — kind of bringing it back,” he said.
What exactly happened, then, to Rogue Valley’s once-thriving hop farms, most in and around Grants Pass? Answering that question is no easy task since archives are scattered and memories fade. It doesn’t seem plausible that one day acres of aromatic buds suddenly sat bare. After all, Josephine County harvested 2,086,400 pounds of hops in 1946, according to “The Hop Press: A Memorandum of What’s Brewin’” from the Oregon State College (now University) Extension Service. Jackson County, while not as prolific, still saw a haul of 67,130 pounds that same year. Tracking down the trail of documents and people who were there begins to fill in the gaps about the hop farm disappearance. Steve Pierce chalked it up to the business of agriculture.
“Hops have always been a very volatile crop, and the price just shoots up and down. Grants Pass had a huge hop yard and that went out of business,” he explained. “But until the craft brewing thing started, where there were so many breweries around, the price stopped fluctuating as much and you could get a pretty good price for hops. So that made it more viable.”
Grants Pass was actually a standout growing area for the Cluster variety, which was being decimated farther north.
“The Willamette Valley was fighting and eventually losing the battle to save Cluster hops from downy mildew, a disease that was introduced accidentally in the late 1920s,” according to Dr. Al Haunold, a now-retired United States Department of Agriculture hop researcher.
Dr. Haunold first visited the remaining two Grants Pass hop growers in the late 1960s with plant pathologist and groundbreaking hop research Jack Horner. They’d been told that there were five farms in the area at one point, but all that still stood was an approximately 250-acre field owned by Chuck Lathrop and another 150 acres that belonged to Mel King.
“They both grew late Clusters, a vigorous hop with good yields and alpha acids content ranging from six to about eight percent,” Dr. Haunold said, having come back to Southern Oregon at least once a year during that time. “When Talisman, a Cluster-derived hop ... was introduced to Grants Pass, it produced even better yields than late Clusters. And some Cluster fields were replaced with Talisman, despite a slight preference from brewers for Grants Pass Clusters.”
Even though hops continued to flourish, there appeared to be competition for land with other crops, particularly fruit — perhaps most famously Harry & David’s Royal Riviera Pear. Dr. Haunold recalls that Lathrop mentioned getting offers for his fields from both pear and poultry farms. King eventually sold in the 1970s. Lathrop continued farming after his son, who worked with him, suffered severe injuries in a fall while performing maintenance on a hop picker. What finally prompted Lathrop to take an offer for the property — and the timeline — is still uncertain, but growers and researchers have settled on a few theories.
Just as today’s beer drinkers are always chasing the new, exciting hop varieties were debuting in the 1980s and Cluster just couldn’t keep up. Ultimately, it was an old hop that was falling out of favor with producers.
“It sounds like the biggest factor is the fact that there was just one farm down there. They’re kind of an island,” said Michelle Palacios, administrator with the Oregon Hop Commission. “And they grew a variety that was not very popular at the time, and so they had to make a decision: Do we plant something else or do we close shop? And it looks like their decision was to close shop.”
“Perhaps pricing pressures from other higher-alpha hops and also increasing land values convinced Mr. Lathrop to sell his operations,” said Dr. Haunold.
He wasn’t quite sure what became of the land, though Dr. Haunold speculated the pear farm snatched it up. Indeed, fruit bound for those Harry & David gift baskets was grown there by Wild River Orchards and then a family took over the pear trees. The property now feeds individuals in need of assistance thanks to the Josephine County Food Bank, which plants a variety of produce, and the City of Grants Pass.
Now it appears another island of hops has emerged in Southern Oregon. Steve Pierce has hosted plenty of visitors allured by the brewing industry with hopes of starting their own farm, but it’s unclear whether any had success. Even if the Pierce family is the only grower with bines crawling skyward for miles, solitude is not a deterrent.
Farming at Alpha Beta is more of a way of life. It’s where two miniature donkeys — Charlie Brown and Lucy — begin braying for attention first thing in the morning as soon as they hear their owner Morgan Pierce’s voice. It’s where his 4-year-old daughter can wrestle with the dog near the hop yard, and the dog will never tire of trying to get the ornery lamb on the other side of the fence to play. It’s where travelers from another state or country become family — even if only for a few days or months thanks to the Pierces’ participation in Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, USA (WWOOF), an exchange program for would-be farmers. Volunteers give their labor in order to learn from the producer along with the promise of two meals per day and a place to camp. Alpha Beta Hops relies on their help much like farms decades ago needed migrant workers who erected tent cities and picked. But the experience changes the volunteer lives, too. Steve and Morgan Pierce list off names and tell stories of past WWOOF participants like they’re teachers recounting favorite students: a nano-electrical engineer now travels the globe, farm to farm, with his guitar through the program; a man who desperately needed a change from his job denying health claims spent six months farming with the Pierces.
“We are introduced to all sorts of people from everywhere, all different backgrounds,” Morgan Pierce said. “The WWOOFer program is amazing. We couldn’t do the maintenance and the harvesting and everything without the WWOOFers and our community.”
And those vital members to the Alpha Beta operation gathered at the farm once again for an all-day pickathon at the very end of August. Fingers turned yellow and sticky as buckets filled. Food energized their efforts and beer fed conversation among four generations of people, including the Pierce family. Stories are always shared by those who used to help harvest in Grants Pass — back when cones were a bit harder to get to even with the use of slacked lines and stilts.
“We’re supposed to be picking...” Morgan Pierce described of the annual tradition.
“Well, a lot of talking,” added his dad. “It’s a lot of talking and just constant hum — almost like being in a beer garden.”
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.