Editor’s Note: First off, this fantastic story was first printed in the August/September issue of Farm and Ranch Living, which is an excellent lifestyle journal focused on farming — from raising livestock and growing crops and gardens to putting up produce for winter consumption and everything in between. Each issue of the magazine features month-long diaries by four farm or ranch families in different parts of the country. The magazine approached Craft Brewing Business about re-running the diary below — from last year’s harvest — by Blake Crosby, a fifth-generation hop farmer at Crosby Hop Farm in Woodburn, Ore. Crosby Hop Farm services and sells to a variety of craft breweries, and the log below has a farm-full of great insights about everything from producing hop pellets to invasive species like spider mites. For similarly great stories, sign up for Farm and Ranch Living right over here.
Crosby Hop Farm has been growing beautiful Oregon hops in the Willamette Valley for more than 100 years. I’m a 27-year-old, fifth generation hop farmer and have worked on our 250-acre farm since I was young, doing anything from irrigation and tractor-driving to sweeping the floor of the hop picker during harvest.
My dad, Kevin Crosby, has more than 40 years’ experience growing hops. He and my mom, Jennifer, still live on the farm. I have one sister, Jackie, who also helps out. I’m in charge of CHF’s craft brewing sales, where I get to interact with amazing brewers from around the country. I also head up our sustainability efforts, which include being one of the only salmon-safe certified hop farms in the United States. I guess it’s true that farming gets in your blood — maybe even more in hop farming, as it’s such a small and unique community.
The hop is a perennial vine that’s hand-trained to grow up twine hung on 18-ft high wire trellises. Even with modern pruning and harvesting equipment, it requires lots of skilled hand labor. I’m ever thankful for our full-time employees — Beau, Pat, Fermin, Ken and John — and the 35 seasonal workers we’ll hire for harvest.
Currently, we’re expanding into the craft brewing sector, which is a tremendous growth industry. To respond to these demands we are adding a pellet mill that will allow us to get fresh hops to our customers at the peak of quality. Most craft brewers use hops in the pellet form versus the traditional whole bale form. This is a big move for our farm and our family. I’m also pursuing a Master’s of Business Administration at Willamette University’s Portland campus. I attend four-hour classes on Monday and Tuesday evenings, which can be grueling with my busy workweek. But I’m continually inspired by the talented individuals in the program.
Though farming never has been easy, I’m optimistic about the future and thankful for the opportunity to work in such an interesting and dynamic industry. Now off to the diary below.
Aug. 1 — Wednesday. This morning I met with construction contractors for our hop pelleting facility. It will process about 2,000 lbs of dried hop cones per hour and will be the only facility of its kind on an Oregon hop farm. I’ve spent a lot of time on this project, and we hope to have it up and running by fall.
Aug. 2 — Thursday. Thursday always feels good because I’m at that point in the week where I can focus on work and don’t have to start thinking about homework yet. Cheers to Thursday and to getting farm stuff done!
Aug. 3 — Friday. I started the day in the office working on some hop sales projections. Traditionally, many hop farms sold hops to brokers who processed and distributed the products. Our farm sells an increasing number of hops direct to brewers around the country, and with this growth comes the need to forecast and plan.
Aug. 4 — Saturday. After running a few errands in town and checking the drip irrigation, I scouted some of the hop yards for spider mites, aphids and mildew. My dad and I regularly check the fields and work with our crop consultants to develop treatment plans appropriate for the environment, our picking schedule and the weather. Hot weather tends to bring out pests like spider mites.
Aug. 5 — Sunday. Generally, the farm is pretty quiet on Sunday, though today I checked the drip irrigation and walked around a Cascade hop yard to survey the crop. So far things look good.
Aug. 6 — Monday. The farm was very busy today, as we’re still watering most of our hops. The temperature reached 95, which means we have to treat certain fields for spider mites at night. Our spray program is a little different than most because our farm is certified salmon-safe, which allows only products that don’t harm the watershed. We also supplement with beneficial pests that prey on mites and aphids. I finished a long day on the farm with four hours of class.
Aug. 7 — Tuesday. I checked the maturity of our Centennial hop yard and it looks like we’re still a couple weeks from harvest. The hop cones still have a very green smell to them and have not developed much of an aroma yet. I spent the rest of the day working in the office, supervising the wash-down of our hop picker and attending another four-hour class. It’s the last of the semester, so I have the next five weeks off!
Aug. 8 — Wednesday. Today I focused on the upcoming harvest. It looks like we’ll start with our earlier-maturing varieties around the 22nd. It’s a 24/7 effort and it lasts about three weeks. I am tempted to take a little time off before then, but the to-do list keeps expanding. Went to lunch at a great spot in town, Luis’s Taqueria, then spent the afternoon helping prep equipment in the shop.
Aug. 9 — Thursday. This morning I met with the guys who will install the air system for our pellet mill. The air system is what moves the hops around throughout the pellet process. This afternoon I met with some brewers curious to see the progress of our crop.
Aug. 10 — Friday. Started the morning in the office to plan upcoming harvest tours. It really is a fascinating process and I never get tired of showing it to people. First, the strings are cut at the bottom. Then a sickle bar mounted on loader arms cuts them at the top, dropping the vines into a wagon for transport back to the picking machine, which strips the hops and leaves from the vine. A series of belts and fans separates leaves from the hops, which are then moved to the kiln where they’re dried to an 8- to 9-percent moisture content for baling.
Aug. 11 — Saturday. I stopped at my parents’ house for lunch and had a tasty ham sandwich and homemade chocolate-chip cookies. Definitely can’t beat home cooking! Afterward, we began the critical job of inspecting and replacing parts in the hop picker.
Aug. 12 — Sunday. Today was a pretty slow Sunday. I spent most of the day relaxing at home after attending church with my family. For dinner, we had a barbecue out on the deck, and I had a few of my friends over to catch up.
Aug. 13 — Monday. I feel really good because this is my first week with no night classes. I’m also excited because we secured some contracts with brewers we met at the Craft Brewers Conference in May. This was our first year of promoting direct sales at CBC and the response was great.
Aug. 14 — Tuesday. Gail Oberst from the Oregon Beer Growler, a publication promoting Oregon’s craft beer, came to shoot a photo of Beau, Pat and me for the harvest edition’s cover. Gail made it fun as always.
Aug. 15 — Wednesday. I got to the farm office around 7:30 and worked with our craft brewing sales coordinator, Beau, on some new promotional initiatives and ideas. The craft market is growing quickly and we have to be ahead of the curve at all times. Then I met with Dad to discuss this year’s harvest picking schedule.
Aug. 16 — Thursday. I took some brewers from Minnesota around the farm for a hop tour in the morning. By afternoon, it was getting pretty hot so we decided to reorganize our hop freezer. We store quite a few hops in our cold storage warehouse for year-round direct shipments to breweries.
Aug. 17 — Friday. I woke up around 6 a.m. and headed for the farm. The crew doesn’t come in until 7, and it’s nice to have some quiet time to brainstorm and strategize. For lunch, I met with another hop grower who serves with me on the Oregon Hop Commission. In the afternoon I helped combine wheat with my sister at our grandpa’s farm in St. Paul.
Aug. 18 — Saturday. I went over some financials with our bookkeeper at the farm office. After the number crunching, I went to my parents’ house, and my mom had lunch waiting — always a nice surprise. I spent most of the afternoon working on a new layout for our farm website.
Aug. 19 — Sunday. After church, my dad, sister and I toured the hop region here in Marion County. It was nice to see what other growers are doing and what changes we might implement. People might think we have this figured out after more than 100 years of hop farming, but we have to be open to new ideas and new strategies to be successful.
Aug. 20 — Monday. It’s the final countdown to harvest. I’m planning to kick it off on Friday with Centennial, one of the most widely used hops in craft brewing. Today, we met with the day and night crews and went over our harvest schedule and our safety and general guidelines. We are truly blessed to have many returning seasonal workers. Later, we prepared two pallets of hops for a brewery in New York City. It’s satisfying to think of our product bringing smiles to people’s faces in a place so far away.
Aug. 21 — Tuesday. Today was an office day. With so much going on around here lately, I’m spending even more time scheduling the construction of our hop pellet plant, planning special harvest events and promotions, and doing general sales stuff. The evening was great, as I was able to sit down for a nice, relaxing dinner with my whole family and discuss non-farm things.
Aug. 22 — Wednesday. This morning we did our final check of some hop yards (Nugget variety) for two-spotted red spider mites. The heat exacerbates the breeding cycle and therefore the proliferation of the mites, which ultimately can lead to major quality issues and production losses. Luckily, it looks as though the fields are holding well and there are no major disease or pest concerns going into harvest.
Aug. 23 — Thursday. I handled the final touches for tomorrow’s hop harvest. A number of guests are scheduled to visit, so things have to look just right — and they have to work, too! We staged all the tractors and trucks that will be used in the harvest and we conducted a dry run of all the hop-picking machinery, burners (for drying) and hop baler (for compressing dried hops into 200-lb bales).
Aug. 24 — Friday. The first day of hop harvest! Today, we picked Centennial hops. A few brewers picked up fresh (undried) hops for the seasonal fresh hop beers that are popular in the Northwest. I love this time of year!
Aug. 25 — Saturday. I slept in till 8, as we have a couple days off before getting into our next variety of hops — then it will be three weeks of 24/7 harvesting.
Aug. 26 — Sunday. I made this my day of rest. Tomorrow we start picking with two shifts, which is always stressful for a couple of days. From here on out, I’ll be working 14-hour days, so I took this time to relax and catch up around the house.
Aug. 27 — Monday. We started picking Sterling hops at 6 a.m. The crop looks a bit above average, and our day crew is doing pretty well. It’s always nice to have returning seasonal help, but inevitably there’s always some training to do the first couple of days. I was on the run all day as I cycled between the field crew, hop harvester and hop dryer.
Aug. 28 — Tuesday. Brewers from Burnside Brewing in Portland picked up 200 lbs of undried Sterling hops for their seasonal harvest ale. We started picking promptly at 6 a.m., and I trained my younger sister, Jackie, on hop-drying techniques. Thankfully, we have an instrument that pretty accurately tells us when the hops are ready. When I started working in the dryer, it was all by touch and feel.
Aug. 29 — Wednesday. Woke up at 4:45 a.m. feeling great; it seems my body is adjusting to the harvest schedule now. Temps have been in the mid-70s. The machinery is running smoothly and we finished our first 25 acres.
Aug. 30 — Thursday. I made an early pass through the hoppicking facility to make sure night and day shifts are keeping up with maintenance. Florists from Portland stopped to purchase whole, fresh hop vines. The day shift had a productive run and yields are looking good.
Aug. 31 — Friday. We finished harvesting our Sterling hops and moved into our Cascades — a popular hop in the craft-brewing segment for its fruity, citrusy character. I’m pleased with our harvest so far — no accidents, good run time, and everyone is working well together. I appreciate the opportunity to be able to share some of our family story with you. Cheers!