Bringing in the hops
The healthy splash of rain that turned up in the Willamette Valley during August's third full week was not necessarily a welcome sight for hop growers.
But it was short lived, and a couple of short days following hop harvest set underway with a flourish.
"Rain is not the ideal condition," said Cheyne Fobert, a fourth generation hop grower working on his family farm east of Hubbard near the Pudding River. "Vines get heavy and you worry about them breaking the post."
"If those vines get heavy enough they can snap the wires," agreed Dave Henze, president of French Prairie area's Coleman Agriculture. "Now that we're harvesting, we do not want rain. We'll go 24/7 until we get it done; around the end of September or another 6 or 7 weeks."
Coleman Ag is an area giant with six, sixth-generation farming owners: John and Liz Coleman, Tom and Melissa Coleman and Ben and Jen Coleman. Henze said of the 7,500 acres they farm, this year about 1,300 of it is in hops, but they are replanting and he estimates that will increase to about 2,200. The rest is a motley crop mix of grass seed, garlic, green beans, cauliflower, hazelnuts and hemp.
Out in the field
Cruising into a hop field just south of St. Paul, Henze offers a christening tidbit:
"The name of this field we are driving into is 'Aunt Dora' because somebody's Aunt Dora was the original owner."
Aunt Dora, the field, is bustling with harvest activity. A bottom cutter snipping at the base of the vines in one row prepares it for a top-cutter that snips high as the vines drop into a flatbed truck with wire-mesh side walls. About 10 to 12 trucks keep a seamless operation moving, hauling the vines to a nearby processing plant where machinery will pick, clean, heat and cool the crop before producing 200-pound bales.
Besides rain, equipment breakdowns are also unwelcome woes during harvest.
"If the bottom cutter breaks down, we'll get two guys out here with machetes to keep it going," Henze said.
Running seamless 24-hour harvest with two 12-hour shifts makes for a strong seasonal employer. Henze said of Coleman Ag's roughly 300 workers, 220 of them are working hops as the company harvests fields near Independence, Mission Bottom, Mount Angel as well as St. Paul.
Picking & packaging
It is equally busy up in Hubbard when Fobert cruises a Cushman cart in from the field to give an impromptu tour of the farm's recently upgraded hop-processing facility.
Cheyne Fobert, 29, works the hops along with his brother, Craig, 23, and father, Paul, 56. Cheyne Fobert's great grandparents moved to the area from Washington, kicking off their heritage in the area; Fobert Farms is one year away from becoming eligible as an Oregon Century Farm.
A handful of workers meet the foliage-loaded trucks as they pull in from the field, getting the vines into the picker quickly.
"We hook every vine individually, upside down. So when it goes up into the machine, it's easier to pick the hops off it," Fobert said.
A conveyor moves it into the picker, which strips the vines. Two cleaners air blow most of the leaf debris out, while a dribble belt further cleans the product. Fobert points out that while the initial cleaners do well with lighter debris, while the dribble belt culls out heavier stems and such.
Those vines, stems and leaves are funneled into side chute where workers collect the debris and prepare it to be transported back into the field and scattered as compost.
An elevated conveyor belt transports the hops into the top of adjacent building where Paul Fobert oversees the precision layering to heat the harvest in a pair of 32 x 32-foot beds above drying kiln, which uses natural gas burners for the task. Over the din of the equipment noise, he hollers down to his son, points to a thermostat and hand gestures to "turn it down a tad."
"My dad (Paul) has been drying hops up here since he was 17 years old," Cheyne Fobert said. "He's been making all the (drying and cooling) decisions since then."
Fobert points to an airplane hangar-style door on the picking building, a relatively recent investment that when opened spans outward to provide an awning of sorts.
"We're pretty proud of that (investment). The hangar style door provides more shade for the guys, or it can give them extra cover if its raining," Fobert said. "We just put it in two years ago."
Overall, the crop looks good at this point, but Fobert cautions that it's still early. The baled product, some of which has already been sold prior to the harvest, will go exclusively to brewers of beer nationwide.
Does Fobert try his hand at brewing himself?
"I've done some home brewing before, but I've learned that I have friends who do it better," he admits. "So I trade them fresh hops for beers."
Honing Oregon's hop heritage
While Oregon, and especially the mid Willamette Valley, is an impact player in the hop market, it's foray into hop production is embryonic when juxtaposed with global hop history.
Oregon Hop Commission Administrator Michelle Palacios notes that the hop plant is native to Europe, Asia, and North America, but its first cultivation dates back to 736 A.D. in South Central Europe.
Fast forward nearly a millennium, British and Dutch settlers arrived in North America and brought with them the knowledge of brewing beer and in 1622; the second Mayflower ship brought the first hop roots from England to the new colonies.
Palacios said as the population moved west, so did hop production; from New York to Wisconsin, and finally to California and Oregon around the late 1870's. By 1932, Oregon led the world in hop production, with 34,594 acres under cultivation.
While acreage numbers have vacillated over the decades, the quality and vitality of the harvest has not ebbed.
"It's an exciting time to be growing hops in the Willamette Valley," said Blake Crosby, CEO of the fifth-generation Crosby Hop Farm, located northwest of Woodburn. "Less than one week into harvest, we are already seeing great yield and quality from this year's Centennial crop."
Crosby said Centennial is the first of 11 varieties the farm is harvesting this year. He also anticipates the harvest running through September.
It's an inspiring time of the year.
"Fresh hop season also means it's fresh-hop beer season," Crosby said. "It is one of our favorite times of year, because instead of us visiting brewers, they get to come to us and witness this magical time of year.
"We also send fresh hops to brewers across the country so they can reap the benefits of the Pacific Northwest hop harvest."
Palacios reiterated that thought.
"Many hop growers have a close relationship with brewers that use their hops, and it is common for brewers to visit hop farms during the season," she said. "The hop industry has a unique opportunity to connect with the end user of their product, more-so than most agriculture commodities. We know that brewers appreciate knowing where their hops are from and how the hops are grown"
Beyond the harvest buzz, Crosby Hop Farm is toasting some broader milestones.
"This year we will achieve certification on the 2019 crop. It is currently the most rigorous third party food-safety program in the hop industry," Crosby said. "In 2016, Crosby Hop Farm became the first hop company to achieve the rigorous B Corp Certification, which emphasizes using business as a force for good."
"We are mindful that we don't inherit the Earth, we borrow it from future generations," Crosby added. "Our farm is powered by 100% renewable energy (70% solar, on-farm and 30% through PGE's Green Source and Clean Wind programs); all the hops we grow are certified Salmon-Safe."
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