This is the third in a series of articles about polyculture and sustainable farming in Oregon. Read the previous installment, or start at the beginning of the series, which I wrote for The Faster Times.
After sipping wine made from grapes that had not been irrigated (divine!), and then visiting a winery that's practicing polyculture (following the spirit of biodynamics), it was time to visit a farm that produces Oregon's other quintessential beverage: beer.
Even though I've been a beer drinker all my life—my father used to homebrew the stuff and I once thirstily grabbed a Coke bottle from the fridge, only to discover mid-gulp that it was a dusky porter—I'd never, until this summer, seen a hop.
As it happens, the town I grew up in—Salem—is a mere 10 miles from what was once the hop-producing capital of the world: Independence, Oregon. In the 40's, the population of Independence swelled to 50,000 during hop season—with hop-harvesters camping out on the side of the road. Though hop production waned in the 50's, Independence is still the center of much hop activity, including the farm that supplies Oregon's own craft brewer Rogue Ales.
Hops before the harvest at Rogue's farm
As Dustin, a handsome young Rogue employee, showed an assembled group of journalists (and the crew from a new T.V. pilot lamely called "Beer Men") around the farm, he told us some hop history: it was Pliny the Elder who first documented hops, in his Naturalis Historia, but the Germans were the ones to first brew beer, in 732 AD. Of the three species of hop plant, it is Humulus lupulus that is used to flavor and stabilize beer. Dustin then led us into the high-ceilinged hop plant, with its well-worn stairs and rickety cat walks. I was bewildered by the masses of conveyor belts and pulleys going every which way. It all seemed so archaic and intricate. Thankfully, it was the day before harvest, so none of the machines were running. (I hear it's a deafening clatter.)
Dustin assured us that the guys who operate the machinery use food-grade quality oil and lubricants. It was at this moment that I realized I'd never once contemplated the origins of my beer—let alone that beer production involves such marvels of engineering, long before it's even brewed or bottled.
From Independence, I drove north with my friend Lisa Donoughe (founder and director of Watershed Communications, who had organized this hop trip) to the town of Mt. Angel. Better known for a Benedictine monastery and its Alvar Aalto-designed library, Mt. Angel is located smack dab in the middle of Oregon farm country.
After a tour of the Annen Brothers' hop collection facility, we met Gayle Goschie, a 3rd generation hop farmer who is turning heads in the beer industry with her commitment to sustainable farming practices. Gayle, along with her brothers Gordon and Glenn, farm 400 acres of hops, and sells them to everyone from Anheuser Busch to craft brewers such as Bridgeport and Deschutes Brewery.
Though most hop farmers say it's "impossible" to grow organic hops (particularly in Oregon, where powdery and downy mildew, mites, and aphids thrive), Gayle has started an experimental 6-acre organic plot. Instead of artificial chemicals or fertilizers, she plants companion plants like garlic and sprays wintergreen and spearmint oils to attract beneficial insects such as ladybugs. Last year, this organic plot thrived, but this past spring was extremely wet, which meant that aphids and downy mildew were out in full force. Nonetheless, Goschie recently told me that Deschutes enthusiastically purchased the majority of her organic crop this year, and is working hard to produce a 100% organic beer. (Interestingly, most beers that are USDA-certified organic are not necessarily made with organic hops, since they are still fairly hard to source—and cost twice as much as conventional hops. A product needs to be comprised of 95% organic ingredients to get the USDA organic label and organic beers do that by sourcing organic malted barely and wheat. Both Wolaver's and Peak are trying to source 100% of their hops organically, but haven't gotten there yet.) The Goschies are growing many varieties of organic hops including Willamette, Fuggle, Cascade, Teamaker, and Centennial. They're also testing 24 S.S. Steiner experimental varieties, as well as Summit and First Gold hops grown on low-trellises.
Gayle's eyes lit up as she told us about all she was learning from growing and nurturing organic hops. "I'm curious to know what's the difference in the hop cone between organic and conventional," she said. She's already noticed that organic hops are not as uniform as conventional hops. She's learned to discourage spider mites by allowing the foliage cover to stay put (instead of weeding it as conventional hop growers do). "Spider mites winter in the soil," she said. "They don't build if it's not hot—they won't come up the vine."
But as with wine, organic is just one certification for hop farmers to strive for. Goschie Farms is one of the few hop farms in the U.S. to be certified Salmon Safe.
Gayle Goschie, innovative hop farmer
(Photo by Annalou Vincent)
When I first heard about this eco-label, I did a double-take. What on earth could inland hop production have to do with salmon?
It turns out that many conventional farming practices in the Northwest hurt the salmon population: pesticide runoff, erosion, and damage to animal habitats to name a few. Salmon-Safe certifies everything from Willamette Valley hazelnuts to Walla Walla wines; recently, Real Simple magazine rated Salmon-Safe as one of 8 eco-safe labels you can trust. Hops are a new addition to the nonprofit Salmon-Safe's repertoire.
To qualify for Salmon-Safe certification, hop growers need to meet rigorous conservation requirements, including finding natural methods to control weeds and pests, protecting streams and wetlands, planting cover crops to prevent erosion and runoff, and reducing irrigation.
"A lot of this, including integrated pest management techniques, we were already doing," Goschie told us with obvious pride. Thanks to her grandfather, who started farming the Silverton land in 1905, she and her brothers know the benefits of composting, pest management, and polyculture. (They also grow specialty seeds, grass, and even some wine grapes.) Before seeking the Salmon- Safe certification, the Goschies had already converted to drip irrigation (as opposed to pipes, which waste a lot of water) and had installed moisture monitors in the field. Compost goes on all fields and they plant native grasses between their farm and the highways to prevent sediment runoff. (This is important so sediments don't ultimately cover nearby fish breeding areas.)
Goschie Farms and Sod Busters (another Oregon hop farm) are the only two to be certified Salmon-Safe in the country—and Deschutes is (as far as I know) the only brewery to promote lines of salmon-safe beer: Green Lakes Organic and Hop Trip (a fresh hop beer). Green Lakes, which had a clever ad campaign ("How to Drink Like a Fish...") deconstructing the Salmon-Safe label, is a limited release beer that's only available in the western states—oh, and Texas.