Friday, March 26, 2010

Indie Hops Goes Green, Commits to 20 Acres Organic
Organic hops. Should we or shouldn’t we?

The answer is: bring it on.

Here’s why. We believe. We believe organic hops can be grown successfully. They can impart new and different flavors and aromas. They are good for the environment. And consumers will continue to give up more green for pure, green produce.

All it takes is finding the right hop farmer. A farmer with confidence, curiosity, and stamina. A farmer who’s willing to experiment, to learn from failures, to get back on that tractor. A farmer who is “intrigued” by the enormous challenge of doing it the way of her ancestors and getting it right.

We’ve found that farmer. Her name is Gayle Goschie of Goschie Farms. Since 2008, Gayle has been growing a few acres of organic hops on Goschie Farms, a venerated 350 acre hop farm in Silverton, Oregon. She’s been growing organic hops without forward contracts, a testament to her confidence as a grower and her faith that if she grows ‘em, a market will buy ‘em.

Indie Hops is betting on both counts – that Gayle can deliver, and craft brewers will continue to demand US grown organic hops. We’re contracting with Goschie Farms, which obtained its organic certification in 2009, to put in 20 acres of organic hops. To put that number in perspective, figures vary, but last year it’s estimated that 75 acres were planted organic nationwide.

Betting the Organic Farm

It’s a risky bet. The rap on organic hops has been that they’re too expensive, their yields are too low, supplies of particular varieties haven’t been available, their quality is suspect and beer drinkers really don’t care.

A bad rap, yes, but not entiredly deserved, and certainly fixable. Organic hops are more expensive than the inorganically grown kind. First, the acreage must be certified as free of residual synthetic chemicals. Second, without the use of conventional fertilizers, the grower needs to intersperse plants that help the hop vines fix nitrogen from the air and soil.

Third, you better love it, because the labor bill is not cheap. If conventionally grown hops require close attention, organically grown demand the doting, patient, tender loving care of a special needs child. The yards must be hand-weeded. They must inspected weekly if not more often for aphids, spider mites and mildew. As a rule, growing hand-crafted, hands-on organic means doubling your labor costs.

Despite being a time-vampire, Gayle loves it. “I enjoy the learning process. Right now, we’re at the lower end of the learning curve, but we’re getting smarter.” She started planting 2 acres in 2008 and now has 7 acres in production. Her varieties have included Cascade, Fuggles, Willamette, Teamaker (a zero-alpha hop), Centennial and Liberty.

Double Double, Toil and Trouble?

Material costs are also about double for organic. Applications of non-synthetic biocides (e.g. soaps and plant based oils) are more frequent. The agents are “broad spectrum,” meaning they don’t zero in on a specific pest.

“It’s a soft approach,” explained Gayle. “The agents lower the population of all insects, the good ones and bad ones. When we try to combat the aphids, we’re also impacting their predator population -- the good guys, the ladybugs. It’s a broad attack with wide consequences .”

“The trick,” she mused, “is to find that happy balance. We can’t exactly eradicate every single spider mite or soft bodied aphid, nor do we want to, as that would remove the food supply of the lady bugs, which we want. The goal is to achieve and foster a natural balance between the insects, the hops and other plants. You can’t just spray for peace.”

To attract the good insects, as well as provide ground cover between the hop rows, Goschie Farms, is experimenting with integrating her yards with other flowering plants, like Elysium. It’s critical, Gayle says, to make sure the cover crop doesn’t block too much wind, which could create the kind of stagnant air pockets in which downey mildew thrives. At the ground level, she also plants clover, which attracts the good bugs when it flowers. Again, the trick is to diversify the plants so they flower at different times.

Boldly Growing into the Ungrown

In a sense, Gayle and other organic hop growers are boldly going where none has gone before. Unlike mega-crops like corn, wheat and soybeans, there isn’t a network of USDA extension agents standing by eager to assist in the event of an imminent calamity. There’s no manual for organic hop growers. They can’t run down to the feed store for a bucket of Monsanto-made smart bombs. Much of what they do is trial and error. They’re constantly tweaking and re-tweaking until they achieve some approximation of balance. It’s a game that takes time, resilience, and patience.

For example, Goschie Farms, which specializes in aroma hop varieties, has also tapped into the power of aroma to control pests. Goschie has found success in using garlic and spearmint oils as natural weapons to limit unwanted pests by attracting their “good” predators.

The thinking goes like this: if using crushed garlic can help control aphids in rose gardens by attracting aphid-loving ladybugs, why couldn’t it work with hops? Similarly, since spearmint oil has been used in vineyards to control spider mites by attracting predators like the minute pirate bug, why couldn’t it be used in hopfields? In both cases, the idea, converted to practice, has paid out small but important dividends.

Nature Adores Balance

“Finding a balance intrigues me,” enthused Gayle, who’s clearly fond of the word “intrigue” . “That part, the learning part, that “Eureka” moment, when it all comes together, excites me. It has also made me a better farmer all around,” citing the fact that last year, in 2009, almost one-third of her 350 acres of conventionally grown hops were free of spider mite infestations.

“What I learn from growing organically,” said Gayle, “I can also apply to my conventional fields.” Goschie Farms has long been a leader in growing hops in an environmentally respectful manner. Goschie was the first hop farm to be certified as “Salmon-Safe,” an endorsement which means it uses sustainable agricultural practices which limit the kind of unhealthy water run-off that imperils native salmon. As with its organic certification (from Oregon Tilth), Gayle sought the Salmon Safe approval not for economic advantage but because it was the right thing to do.

Growing organically is, to be frank, no bed of roses. Despite big cash, time and brain power investments, the yield from organic hops for now continues to be unacceptably low. As a general rule, organic yields are about one-half the size of inorganic hops. Gayle is convinced that over time, as farmers build on their skills, develop better collaboration networks, and learn more about how to prime the hop’s nitrogen fixation pump, organic hop plants will get stronger and more vigorous. When they do, their yields will bulk upwards, as well.

As for quality, the literature is virtually blank on any reported differences in the oil or acid composition of organic varieties. In the Garden of Eden, before the onset of synthetic pesticides, the fragrances and flavors emitted from a plant’s oils served to repel certain insects, fungi and diseases. Over time, as an organic hop ecosystem finds its equilibrium, one wonders what the future will bring. What oils will nature select for their survival value? What flavors and aromas will be associated with hearty survivors? We shall see.

Have Mission, Will Prevail

Just as growing big, bold, plump hop cones presents a challenge for the farmer, finding a market for organic hops also has its challenges. Under the current USDA rules on organic products, a brewer can market its beer as USDA certified organic even though the hops used are inorganic. The rule (section 205.606) has recently been challenged by the American Organic Hop Grower Association , which consists five growers. The group argues that since 2007, when hops were exempted from the USDA organic rules, there have been tremendous strides in the availability, quality and quantity of organic hops. Anheuser-Busch, which originally supported the hops exemption, has now written a letter advocating the removal of hops from the exemption list.

The group makes the point that under the current regulatory scheme hop farmers are discouraged from growing organically since brewers can use inorganic hops but still legally market their beers as organic. They say the rules both stymie the farmers and foster dishonesty in the marketplace, as the only impediment to taking advantage of the loophole is a guilty conscience.

Our decision to contract with Goschie Farms to grow 20 acres of organic Cascade and Centennial was made long before the AOHGA filed its petition to strike humulus lupulin from the exemption list. Our decision had nothing to do with legal loopholes and everything to do with advancing progress. We believe that Goschie Farms has the stuff and the spirit to set the standard worldwide for growing the highest quality of organic hops.

It won’t be easy, but nothing that lasts is. There will be obstacles. Can we improve the yields in the next few years? Can we meet the needs of brewers for particular, perhaps unique, varieties in their beer recipes? Can we help expand the handful of brewers who regularly use bona fide organic hops in their bottled brews? Can we figure out how to reduce costs so organic hops can be priced competitively with their inorganic sisters?

Yes, we can.

Like Gayle, here at Indie Hops, we are “intrigued.” We like the challenge. We like how it feels, even if it’s not an instant home run in the marketplace. We like being on the front end of a movement to, ironically enough, do it the way of our forefathers. As Gayle says, “This is a labor of love. In 1905, my grandfather, Carl Goschie, started hop farming. He grew hops without a lot of artificial compounds. He’d be happy to know that over 100 years later we were closing the circle – growing good hops and continuing to respect the land. “

Roger Worthington

Indie Hops Organic Pellets Available Fall 2012
We are planting 20 acres of organic Cascade and Centennial hops in 2010 at Goschie Farms. We will be harvesting crops in 2012 and 2013. Call for more details. Go Big Green!



  1. The University of Vermont Extension is actively supporting organic hop growers and planting a hop yard this year and there is a organic hop manual for small growers thats been out for several years produced by Cranog Ales in Canada .