Hard Work, Education and Timing are Keys to Growth for Hop Farmers

Hard Work, Education and Timing are Keys to Growth for Hop Farmers

By: Laci Hansard, Growing America

“People like to drink beer in a brewery,” explains Patrick Smith with Loftus Ranches. The hop forward craft beer movement has the unique ability to transform neighborhoods by bringing living wage, skilled manufacturing jobs in a growing industry to gentrifying areas. Driven by consumer demand for a more flavorful IPA style beverage, breweries are creating community across the country everywhere from rural areas to large cities.

In the 1980s, there were fewer than 100 brewing operations in the United States. Currently, 7,000 breweries are in operation. The growth of this industry has been impressive for any commercial product, but most of the hops that create the flavor of these diverse brews still come from the same spot in the state of Washington.

Hops are the pale green, papery cone of the hop plant that have been used since the 15th century to act as a preservative to the brewing process while adding bitterness and aroma. Previously hops were just a supporting role to the other elements of beer: malted barley, yeast and water. Current tastebuds demand more of flavors and hops bring the diversity to the product.  

The Yakima Valley is an area of South Central Washington, about 150 miles east of Seattle, home to about 40 farms that produce 75% of our country’s hops. It is the perfect location for our nation’s hop crop for several reasons. It has the ideal combination of hot and cool desert climate, long summer days, soil composition and access to irrigation. Many of these farms, including Loftus Ranches, are anything but new and trendy.

In 1920, B.T. and Lois Loftus started their life in Moxee, Washington pursuing work on the railroad and farming a variety of crops and livestock. In 1932 they established their 5-acre hop operation. Eighty-six years later, the operation is owned and operated by 3rd generation farmer, Mike Smith, and his three children. Patrick runs the now 1,800-acre farm which also produces apples and cherries. Uniquely, a brewery exists right on the farm, Bale Breaker Brewery, run by Meghann and Kevin.

Hop production involves the same struggles that many large production crop farmers face. Labor shortages, rising costs, pests, timing, customer demand, and negotiating contracts are just some of the challenges a farmer faces. Harvest of hops occurs during the month of September and is a 24 hour a day project until harvest is over. The equipment never stops running. Loftus Ranches currently grows 9 different varieties of hops while valuing quality, sustainability, and innovation.     

In a 2016 YouTube video by Loftus Ranches Mike Smith explains the expansion of their operation was a result of these challenges. “Three to four good years can be followed by six to twelve bad years. Through every one of those down cycles we would lose participants. People who just weren’t that interested anymore or didn’t have the stamina, emotional and financial, to live through those cycles.”

Hard work and stamina are required to keep this operation going, but family and education are equally important. Patrick, Meghann, and Kevin were encouraged and required to leave the ranch after High School and pursue an education and experience that would benefit the family’s business. “Our Dad made it clear that he wasn’t going to hire us just because we were his kids. We needed to go out and gain experience to bring value back to the farm. That was a lesson that went all the way back to our great grandfather. The old story is he said when you could drive your fancy car by the farm and could trade it in for a farm truck, you could work here,” said Patrick.

All three 4th generation farmers are graduates of the University of Washington and all spent time working in various fields related to business, consulting, marketing, finance, and investment banking. Their time in the city was well spent, as they saw the perfectly timed rise in interest of craft beer and realized that they had something special at home waiting for them. They understood they were looking at a trend to take advantage of that might be a once in a generation chance. Additional brewing education and experience was pursued by Kevin Smith, Meghan, and her husband, Kevin Quinn. Patrick’s Master's degrees in Agricultural Economics from Purdue and Business Administration from Indiana University were a large part of the development of the Bale Breaker Brewery.

Now Patrick walks the fields with his own children, the next generation of B.T. Loftus Ranch. His siblings run the brewery, where taproom guests are welcome to wander the hops fields that surround it on three sides.  “Working in the same fields as I did as a child is a lot of fun. You have this connection to the land. It is a part of your DNA. It is part of who we are as a family and to be able to carry that on and see it with one of my children someday would be awesome,” says Patrick.

Posted December 14, 2018

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