Most Oregonians aren’t thinking about fresh hops in April, but hop farmers scattered around the Willamette Valley certainly are. Preparations for the season begin even before snow is done falling in the Santiam range, visible from many hop farms. Field work, mechanical repairs and moving inventory out of cold storage to brew kettles take up much of a hop farmer’s time in the spring. The month-long crush of the harvest starting around mid-August — when temporary labor can double the number of workers — may be the busiest time of the year, but preparation is just as important.
Young hop shoots started popping up in February after a deceptive warm spell. Because of the moist conditions that can promote mildew, the shoots are pruned to the ground until the rains die down. The timing of operations, including tilling, hanging twine, training the young bines onto the twine and regular fertilization, are determined by a combination of the weather, farmer’s intuition and hard science.
On a blustery day in early March, Gayle Goschie tugged open the door to a cold shipping container. Inside were large wooden bins full of freshly dug and cut hop rhizomes. This bundle is Strata, a new hop developed by Worthy Brewing and Oregon State University. The rhizomes, just a few inches long with several small shoots emerging, will go in the ground soon and become productive bines in 2019.
“I love to walk and hike. I’m in the fields every day to see how the plants are progressing. I’ll grab some leaves and look for aphids or mildew spores,” says Goschie, one of three siblings that run Goschie Farms on more than 550 acres in Silverton. Constant observation is any farmer’s first line of defense against trouble in the field. The farmers also take regular soil moisture readings, and have a lab test petiole samples (the stalk that attaches the leaf to the stem) to check nutrient levels.
In the 1930s, an outbreak of downy mildew caused many Willamette Valley hops farms to shut down, and the epicenter of hop growing moved to the Yakima Valley in Washington. Over the years, with the development of mildew-resistant hops and agricultural techniques, the industry bounced back. Because of the Willamette Valley’s moist spring weather, care must be taken to avoid mildew. Drip irrigation is effective in reducing residual moisture, and also saves water. “As hops start to grow, tilling helps air move through the rows,” says Goschie; grass will prevent air movement along the ground. “Even a few more minutes of morning dew can have an impact.”
“Timing is key to allow lush growth and still have light penetration,” says Blake Crosby, a fifth-generation hop farmer at Woodburn’s Crosby Hop Farm. “You make a good crop in spring with good pruning and thinning,” and adding nitrogen fertilizer at regular intervals. “We’re trying to hit wire,” the cable that runs across the tops of hop poles, “by July,” Crosby says. If the hops hit wire too soon, they may grow too lush at the top and block sunlight lower on the plant, reducing its yield.
Crosby and Goschie, along with many other hop farms in the region, are certified Salmon Safe; Goschie Farms was the first hop grower in the country to get the certification. “I’m proud to say that, as we continue to be Salmon Safe, it’s not a lot different from what we did before. What we failed to do was talk about our practices,” says Goschie. “It’s always worked. Maybe it’s kept me from sleeping some nights, but it’s always worked.”
The Portland-based nonprofit Salmon Safe certifies businesses that take steps to reduce their impact on watersheds, thus allowing salmon to spawn and thrive. Carefully chosen chemical intervention, riparian buffer areas along waterways, native plant zones and cover cropping are some methods used by Salmon Safe businesses, (which also include breweries and the City of Portland). The practice makes sense to Crosby, who sees the process as not only better for the environment, but efficient for the business. Broad spectrum pesticides like paraquat, allowed for use by conventional hop growers, kill all of the bugs, including the beneficial ones. The saying “nature abhors a vacuum” applies here: killing them all leaves room for the bad ones to return in force, perpetuating the use of the hazardous chemical.
Hop farmers occupy a unique space in agriculture. Because of brewers’ strong interest in the nuances of hops, growers are often the people who introduce them to new breeds. “In agriculture, you can get so disconnected from where the product ends up. As hop growers, we have a good connection with not only brewers, but consumers,” says Goschie, who gets to shake the lupulin-covered hands of many brewers who visit her farm during hop harvest. “It keeps you energized to work hard for another good crop.” She is excited about Strata hops not just because of its potential in the market, but because it closes the gap between producer and consumer. “How can you be at Reser Stadium and not want a beer with a hop that came from the university?”
Crosby also purchases hops from growers locally and internationally; bales from New Zealand will arrive in April. Blake Crosby takes a big-picture look at the industry, which is constantly changing and adjusting to changes in supply and demand. Every year, hops are torn out of fields and replaced with other varieties. There is an ebb and flow of the balance of alpha (primarily bittering) and aroma hops in production, which averages around 20-percent alpha. Occasionally, an imbalance causes some scrambling for brewers and growers alike.
Aside from new hop varieties, Crosby also wants brewers to take a look at some varieties with fresh eyes (and noses).
“We’ve been growing Chinook here for the last three or four years, and that’s not one that’s really grown in Oregon. We stumbled on the fact that it has a very different and unique character in our terroir. It tends to be a lot more grapefruity than the traditional resiny pine that you get from some of the Chinook in Yakima or Idaho.”
While many months lie between planting and harvesting, the season will twirl bines up the twine until eventually crews spend day and night working to get the hops from the field to brewers. All that hubbub so we can put a glass to our noses, sniff and exhale “Ahhh!” •