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
Capitol Farms may be a modest-sized hop farm compared to other local growers, but the multigenerational family operation has deep roots and devoted workers. Some of the hop harvesters pictured here, Jorge Hernandez (foreground), Sergio Bravo (left) and Fidel Sosa, put in long hours when the cones are ready to come off the bines. Photo by Emma Browne
By Erica Tiffany-Brown
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
When you ask hop grower Mike Kerr about his favorite variety of hop, he’ll tell you it’s the Nugget.
“It’s just an absolutely outstanding hop to grow. It’s vigorous; it’s adaptive, if you will. It can adapt to hot growing seasons, cold growing seasons. It’s just a wonderful hop.”
Just like how the Nugget hop can adapt to whatever Mother Nature throws its way, Mike and his brother Andy have also had to learn how to become resilient.
At 160 acres, their Salem-area hop farm is quite humble compared to most local growers, but that hasn’t stopped Capitol Farms from having a full-scale amount of setbacks.
It was late summer 2013 when an aggressive thunderstorm made its invasion onto the farm, threatening the hard work the brothers and their crew had put so much time and effort into.
“We could watch it coming in on the radar and it was just horrible to watch. And it came and it knocked down 95 acres of Nugget hops. They were within just days of being harvested,” Mike said.
“At that point, you’re really faced with some challenges. You have your harvest window based on a 24-hour picking cycle and you immediately lose 12 hours because you can’t harvest at night because you have to bring in this complex machinery to help raise the trellis so that you can pick the hops. Then, you’re also faced with about a seven-day window before the hops start turning bad that are lying on the ground. So at that point, we didn’t think we’d be able to get through 50 percent of what was left. In fact, we knew we wouldn’t be able to.
“So, you’re out there walking through these fields that are just devastated … crop poles are looking like matchsticks … I mean it’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen in your life. And you’re looking at it going, ‘There’s just no way in hell.’”
And that’s when the Davidsons showed up.
A multigenerational family of hop growers about 20 miles north of Capitol Farms, the Davidsons had just finished harvesting their hops the day before and had sent their team home, but when they heard what had happened to the Kerrs, they called within hours to say, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll be there.”
All of a sudden, truckloads of equipment started coming in.
“Not only did they spend a week harvesting our hops side by side with us, but it wasn’t just a matter of sending their crew out to pick hops … I mean those guys were out in the field treating it like it was their own.”
Where does that desire to lend a hand come from? According to Mike, it comes from a family with a great sense of responsibility.
Jim Davidson, who passed away many years ago, held a monthly breakfast as a means to get other hop growers together and just chat, which helped foster a sense of camaraderie in the business that still lives on.
“The Davidson family was just remarkable; they literally saved our crop,” Mike said. “And I think you would find that anywhere in the industry today. People will really pitch in and help each other.”
Whether by blood relation or not, hop growing definitely seems to be rooted in a family environment.
Capitol Farms was started by Mike and Andy’s grandfather in 1951. He had grown hops in the St. Paul area and was the local buyer for S. S. Steiner, which is still a very prominent hop dealer today — located just down the road from the farm. His son, Mike and Andy’s father, came back after a stint in the Air Force and he farmed for a while before opening a computer store in 1980. Shortly thereafter, Mike ended up leaving Oregon State University to come back and help out with the farm, which ultimately led to the brothers purchasing the farm from their parents.
Mike and Andy made the decision a long time ago to diversify the farm, so they added a perennial nursery. “It’s a nice balance, it creates more work for our labor force year-round, which we feel is important,” but, Mike emphasizes, “Hops are our history, they’re our blood. Can’t imagine doing anything else.”
The brothers grow four varieties of hops on their farm: Nugget, Willamette, Centennial and Cascade. When asked about his favorite part of the growing process, Mike said it’s the springtime. “It’s the season of renewal. You start turning the earth and it just smells wonderful. It’s almost miraculous to watch the growth rate in the spring. Everything’s fresh, everything’s new.”
Mike, of course, enjoys the other times of the year, like the harvest season, but says, “It’s so go-go-go that you really rarely get a moment to pause to appreciate and enjoy it. You have to remind yourself to stop and enjoy those moments during that time because it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the rush.”
Although the Kerrs have weathered their share of storms, it sounds like they’ve found their balance. And just like those resilient Nugget hops, they’ll continue to adapt and grow with some helping hands and a good foundation.
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