Harvesting Hops, Brewing Hope for Sustainable Agriculture

This Labor Day weekend, I worked, volunteering with the harvest at Alpha Beta Hops, an organic Cascade hops producer in Ashland, OR.

What better way for a small-scale, sustainable, organic agriculture advocate to spend Labor Day than supporting family farmers who rarely get a day off? It was a great experience that brought home core truths for sustainable agriculture and business – doing the right thing pays off, and diverse collaboration is critical for success.

Alpha Beta Hops is a family farm, run by Steve and Rebecca Pierce, and sons, Spencer and Morgan. The harvest united four generations, friends and volunteers from World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

As we worked, conversation wove around the table as naturally as the intertwined hop bines (yes - bines not vines). This community moved a mountain of work quickly and afforded the Pierces and their friends the all-too-rare opportunity to sit and chat for hours.

The farm has incorporated ecological practices from the ground up since their founding and continues to innovate, showing an impressive commitment for a small operation. The hops are Certified Organic, grown without synthetic, persistent agrochemicals and fed with compost and organic amendments. Beneficial insects like ladybugs took flight as we plucked hops. The Pierces also use heavyweight paper cord for trellising, which they compost with the bines.

To close the loop, the farm uses a solar drying system. Heat from a concrete-slab greenhouse fills an adjacent room with hop drying bins. Several wind turbines provide clean power for the family home.

Alpha Beta Hops’ decision to do the right thing from the start is yielding strong dividends.

Regional craft breweries and homebrew suppliers seeking organic Cascade hops quickly became steady customers after the first harvest in 2009. Thanks to strong demand, the Pierces plan to expand next year.

A change in USDA Organic standards stands to boost sales further. Organic Regulations currently allow Certified Organic beer to be made with non-organic hops, due to purported limitations in organic supply. This year, the National Organic Standards Board ruled that Certified Organic beer must be made with only Certified Organic hops as of 2013. Breweries producing Certified Organic beers with non-organic hops will turn to forward-looking producers like Alpha Beta, providing well-deserved rewards.

Apart from that, the sun and wind provide free energy, a benefit that’s increasing in value as energy costs rise. Composting also cuts costs associated with inputs like fertilizer, and waste.

The collaborative nature of the harvest is also a reminder that it takes a diverse community to help organic and sustainable businesses thrive. The ways we can do so are as varied as the life forms on a healthy farm, including volunteering for farm work, donating professional skills, purchasing directly from organic producers and encouraging family and friends to do so, and advocating for policies that advance organic, sustainable, small-scale agriculture and level the playing field for these farms.

At the same time, diverse entities across the organic and sustainable food sector must make a concerted, effort to find common ground  and collaborate across differences to address the challenges and opportunities before us.

Cheers to organic pioneers like the Pierces, and all who paved new paths to fill our tables in ways that nourish people, planet and our economy. As the organic marketplace grows, such leaders are finally yielding long-overdue rewards. As we raise a toast, let’s pitch in and unite to brew a truly resilient movement for organic, sustainable agriculture and business. Our future depends on it, and we all win, in delicious ways.

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2 Responses to Harvesting Hops, Brewing Hope for Sustainable Agriculture

  1. Nice photos and article Melissa!

  2. Pingback: Creative Technology Ziio » Harvesting Hops, Brewing Hope for Sustainable Agriculture …

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