Tag Archives: local

August Farming in Focus: One of my Favorite Things

This farm visit was by far the best smelling visit I have ever done. Mmmmmm… hops: smells like beer. I’ll talk about agriculture just about anywhere, but (no offense to the dairies and the sheep farms I visited) hands down, talking about beer in a hop house takes the cake. The only thing that would have made this visit better is if I could have been drinking a beer during it! But, then my pictures probably wouldn’t be so great. One of the things I just love about the Pacific Northwest is the beer and the culture surrounding beer. I love learning about beer, I love drinking beer, I love trying new beers,  I love visiting breweries – in fact, I consider it a personal challenge to visit every brewery in Portland, and eventually Oregon. My husband and I are well on our way to making that vision a reality. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it, right? 🙂 The hoppy flavor of the beer here took some getting used to, and I still have a tough time with an extremely hoppy PNW IPA, but practice makes perfect, my friend, and I never give up.

Technically I took these photos the first week of September, but I’m still counting them for August. This month I visited Ben Coleman in St. Paul, Oregon to see the hop harvest and to talk about how the craft brew industry has changed how Coleman’s farm grows hops.

hops-8Ben Coleman is a 3rd generation hop grower who farms with his two cousins, father and uncle in St. Paul. The Coleman family has a long history as hop growers in the Willamette Valley – Coleman’s grandfather built the oldest block hop house still in use in the state of Oregon in the 40s when they still formed the bricks by hand – as you can see by the handprints in the image above. His family also manages eight of the 30 hop picking machines in Oregon, so as far as hop growers go, Coleman’s family is one of the bigger growers in Oregon (although Washington has much bigger growers) – his family grows about 1,000 acres of hops. The Yakima Valley of Washington far and away grows the most hops in the nation, but the climate and soil in the Willamette Valley are just right for hops – and Oregon comes in a distant second for hops production. Idaho follows Oregon in a very close third place.

hops-9Coleman’s family grows more than just hops. All told they grow about 13 crops including grass seed, green beans, table beets, corn, alfalfa, wheat, pumpkins, radish seed, cauliflower, hazelnuts, garlic seed and kale seed. Though, when I asked him what he calls himself, Coleman said he definitely identifies as a hop grower even though in acreage they grow more grass seed than hops. Coleman told me this summer’s drought has been really good for the hops – they like it dry and hot. And with the recent surge in craft brewing, his family is steadily growing their hop acreage. This is the first year in six or seven that they’ve had enough yield to necessitate harvesting hops 20 hours a day. I’ll be honest, before I moved to Oregon I had never seen hops growing – I had no idea they grow on an 18 foot trellis. Another interesting tidbit: hops are closely related to cannabis – both are in the Cannabaceae family. Unlike cannabis which has multiple uses, hops are only used for making lovely, lovely beer.

hops-10In March and April stringing begins – a specially trained crew ties strings made of hand woven coconut fiber made in Indonesia from the ground to the wire cable running between the 18 foot poles. The crews can do a one-handed tie that allows them to string between five and ten acres per day. The hop bines (that’s not a typo – hops are a bine that climb without the use of tendrils, distinguishing it from a vine) grab tightly to the coconut fiber, making it an ideal choice for a trellis. Another alternative is thick paper rolled into a rope, and in Europe growers use metal twine. About three to four weeks after stringing, the plants must be trained up the trellis by hand. The crew passes through twice and prunes to ensure the bines all grow to the same height.

hop harvestWhether it’s coconut fiber or metal twine, it all comes down at harvest time. Figuring out when it’s time to harvest is a very precise science: the hops are regularly sampled as harvest time nears and dried in a food dehydrator to test for the proper amount of lupulin oil – what provides the distinct flavor and aroma to beer.  Coleman’s family has retrofitted old combines to be specialty hop harvesters. First, what they call the “mosquito” comes through and cuts the bines (and the strings) at the base of the plant near the ground. Then the second harvester pushes a truck in front of it and cuts the bines at the top, where they fall into the truck. A crew follows behind picking up any bines that have fallen or were missed.

hops-1From there, the trucks drive to the hop house where the part they’re after, the hop flower, is separated from the bine and dried. First the bines are strung up on a belt that moves them inside the house. Another interesting tidbit: in this image you can see birds flying around above the truck – swallows take advantage of the bugs that are roused into the air during the harvest process – they were all over the fields and dipping and diving above the truck.

hops-2

The bines travel into the hop house where they take an intense (and loud) beating to get the hops off the bine. They travel through a number of conveyor belts, turbines, and shakers to separate the flower from the leaves and bines. The leftover leaves and bines are composted and later spread onto the fields.
hops-3When all that’s left is the hop flowers, the next (very important) step is drying them.  The hops are spread at a precise depth in a kiln heated from below at 135-140 degrees. It takes about eight hours for the hops to go from about 75 to 80 percent moisture to the target nine to ten percent moisture. One of these square kilns holds between 12 and 20 bales of hops, depending on the variety. For perspective, one acre of hops produces between five to 12 bales of hops. One bale is equivalent to about 400,000 12 ounce bottles of beer. If you drank one of those bottles each day, it would take you over 1,000 years to drink one bale of hops!
hops-4As I mentioned, the key part of the hop flower that brewers are interested in is the yellow waxy substance inside the hop flower called lupulin – not only does this give beer it’s distinctive aroma and flavor, it also contains antibiotic properties which limit bacterial growth allowing the yeast to ferment. Different hop varieties contain different amounts of lupulin. Coleman is holding cascade hops, which his family grows for Anheuser Busch. Coleman grows 16 varieties of hops, some of which he directly sell to both Anheuser Busch and MillerCoors, but many of which he sells to Indie Hops which supplies Oregon-grown hops exclusively to craft brewers. Coleman told me that the craft beer industry has drastically changed the way they grow hops. “The whole craft brew thing is really exciting, but we went from growing four to five varieties of hops really well to growing 16 different varieties. Sometimes we make a mistake now.” Not only that but the craft brews, particularly that hoppy IPA I mentioned, uses about ten times as much hops as high-volume domestic beers.

hops-5

The craft brew industry has also changed hop production by way of traceability. Craft brewers have placed an emphasis on using local hops, which requires that Coleman do a really good job of labeling his bales with both what kind of hops they are and where they were grown. Coleman foresees that it won’t be long until he’s labeling with specific field-by-field information. Coleman said he spends a lot of his time making sure that labeling process goes just right. Keeping those 16 varieties straight is important because different hops have different uses – some are bittering hops, some are aroma hops – and they’re used at different times during the brewing process. hops-6

Craft brewing has also changed hop production from a food safety perspective. It used to be that hops were added to the boiling part of the beer making process, which essentially pasteurized the hop, but craft brewers also do what’s called dry hopping where they add the hops after the boil, usually in the secondary fermenter,  to get that super hoppy aroma characteristic of an IPA. Adding the hops after the boil means the hops are not pasteurized, so brewers are demanding a much cleaner process of hop production on Coleman’s end to help reduce the risk of infection. Don’t freak out about your IPA, though – like I said, lupulin has antibiotic properties, which is one of the historical reasons hops were added to beer in the first place, so the risk is inherently low.  hops-7Another risk associated with hops is the risk of spontaneous combustion. Not for you, beer drinker, but for the grower and the transporter. Earlier I talked about the target moisture range of nine to ten percent, and part of that is because that prevents the bales of hops from catching on fire. Coleman told me that hop houses and warehouses have burned down in the past because of that, and his cousin just barely saved their own storage warehouse from that same fate. Walking through the warehouse, his cousin smelled something amiss and started feeling the bales until he found a few that were hot to the touch. They pulled them out of the warehouse into the field and sure enough when they slit it with a knife the whole thing went up in flames. The moral of this story is to get a good moisture reading on your hops, like Coleman is doing here. Also, Coleman is paid by the pound, so he wants to make sure that the moisture level is at that top end of the target range – the more moisture they have, the more they weigh, and the more he gets paid. From  here the hops are delivered directly to cold storage and are tested for moisture and leaf and stem content. Smell is of utmost importance, so brewers get a special sample cut out of the bales and sent to them just so they can smell and verify before they put it in their beer.

That’s pretty much everything I learned about hop production. I hope you learned something, too! Now, I need a beer. Cheers.

Please like & share:

5 Comments

Filed under Farming In Focus

What Does Local and Organic Mean to You?

I went to the local farmers’ market recently and was a little blown away by the marketing I saw. Signs promising “no spray:  nada, zip, zilch” and pictures depicting farms with a mountain in the background (Mt. Hood?) and happy organic cows with happy organic farmers. The terms “local” and “organic” seem stapled together so strongly that you almost can’t find local without the organic. Interestingly, though, all you have to do is go to the grocery store and you can find plenty of organic without the local. It’s a question I think about a lot: is the perception of local and organic the same as the reality of local and organic?

IMG_20140613_153607760_HDRI think there is a bit of a disconnect between what people like to imagine organic means and what it actually means.  The spirit of the idea is good: people want to believe that organic food comes from small local farms that produce food that is healthier and more environmentally sustainable than conventional agriculture. But that doesn’t line up with what it actually is: not more nutritious and not more sustainable.  They pick up organic produce at the grocery and imagine small-scale local farmers sitting in their front porch rocking chair in their overalls with a piece of straw between their teeth, enjoying an ice tea after a long but fulfilling day of hand weeding and picking bugs off by hand.  The old-school way; the way nature intended; the way my grandfather did it.

There probably are organic farmers that fit that mold. But when you buy organic produce at the grocery store, you are probably not supporting that farmer. In fact, that farmer probably contributes to about four percent or less of the total organic sales. The University of California-Davis came out with a review in 2009 that looked at California’s organic farms by size and sales and the bottom line was that small organic farms contributed to very little of the organic market. The smallest sector (what can be grown on about 0-2 acres) contributed so little that they show up as zero percent in the study. The next sector, which is roughly the 2-20 acre range, contributes to four percent of the organic market.  Most of the organic produce (at least in California, which is a good model of the organic industry) comes from the mere eight percent of farms that likely have around 700 acres. Those farms are not what most folks consider small.

IMG_20140327_105638394Ok, well, if it’s not small-scale, at least it’s local organic food, right? This idea of “local and organic for all” is a bit of a farce. In 2011, the percentage of US acreage that was certified organic was less than one percent. In fact it was 0.64 percent. In Oregon, where one can expect quite a high amount of organic agriculture, roughly two percent of the total acreage is certified organic. Considering more consumers are buying organic, you might wonder from where that organic produce is coming? The Organic Trade Association states that almost three quarters of Americans buy organic at least some of the time.  It seems unlikely that less than one percent of the US acreage is feeding our organic consumption. So that has to mean that a whole lot of it is coming from outside the US. Even if you accept that imported organic food does in fact meet the US organic standards, how exactly does that fit into the local and organic idea? So it’s not small-scale, and a lot of the time it’s not local, either.

The other big fat ugly misconception around organic produce is that it is pesticide-free. The organic industry has done a mind-bogglingly good job at marketing it that way, and so people believe that it is that way. It is not that way. Let me be a little clearer: organic production often uses pesticide. Here is a list of synthetic substances approved for use on organic produce (including copper sulfate, elemental sulfur, paracetic acid, Streptomycin, Tetracycline, magnesium sulfate, selenium, cobalt.) Pesticides approved for use on organic production are approved based on their natural-ness, not based on their safety. Just because it’s natural, doesn’t mean it’s safe. Cyanide, nicotine and caffeine are also natural. If you’re unfamiliar, Streptomycin and Tetracycline are antibiotics (yes!! antibiotics) used to control fire blight in organic apples and pears. There’s been a bit of controversy lately over those in particular, and they won’t be allowed after October of this year. Copper and sulfur have problems of their own. Copper accumulates in the soil and copper fungicides are more toxic to mammals and aquatic vertebrates and are used at much higher rates than their synthetic counterparts. Sulfur pesticides lead to the most farm worker complaints and appear to be harmful to birds. Even these pesticides, when used properly, are really nothing to worry about (except that they are less efficient).  The same way that there is really nothing to worry about with conventional pesticides.  All of these pesticides, whether approved for organic or conventional production, are regulated by the EPA.  But the point is still there: organic farmers are not immune to the same struggles that conventional farmers face. They also have to fight weeds, bugs, and disease. They also have to produce a crop that makes them money.   And they do this by using pesticides.

Ok, so organic produce has organic pesticide residue on it, but at least it doesn’t have yucky conventional pesticide residue, right? Wrong. Organic produce is also allowed to have up to five percent of the tolerance level of prohibited pesticides (what’s a tolerance level?). Samples show that they do, in fact, have trace amounts of these substances on them. While organic produce surprisingly goes largely untested for residues, in 2012 the USDA did a pilot study to test a small sample of organic produce for residues of pesticides that aren’t allowed in organic production. It found that almost 40 percent of the samples tested had those allowable levels of conventional pesticide residues. Five percent of the samples exceeded the allowable limits and were in violation of organic standards. So if you’re buying organic produce because you think it is completely free of conventional synthetic pesticide, it is not. It does have very, very low levels of conventional pesticide, if any, but so does conventional produce. In fact, the PDP tells us that conventional produce has similarly low levels of conventional pesticides, well below the tolerance level. Just out of curiosity, I looked at how residues on conventional bell peppers from the 2014 PDP report compared to organic bell peppers from the pilot study.  red pepper-1A significant number of the pesticides tested had average residue detections at or below five percent of tolerance level which means they would have been allowable levels under the organic label. In all fairness, the organic produce did have even lower levels of residues, but come on, we’re taking about levels so incredibly low it’s a distinction without a difference. The bottom line is that the conventional peppers, and their significantly more expensive organic cousins, may have similarly low levels of conventional pesticide residue.

One other thing to think about when you think about organic: if you look at that list of approved synthetic substances for use on organic produce, under the “to use as herbicide” category there is very little listed. In 1975 the use of the short-handled hoe was banned to prevent worker injury. It turned out there was a bit of a loop-hole in the 1975 ban – they didn’t say anything about pulling weeds by hand. workers-1So in 2004, California also banned hand-weeding to prevent back injuries and protect workers. Seems like a good idea, no? You know who is exempt from that ban? Organic producers. Why? Because it would jeopardize the organic industry.  Organic growers filed for an exemption because without the use of herbicides, they have no other option but to pull weeds by hand in certain crops like lettuce. So picture yourself working on a 700 acre organic farm (an acre is nearly the size of a football field) and hand-weeding. That’s the “old-school” way, right? Yeah, old school like the 1800s when life expectancy was much, much lower.

“Ok, fine. You’ve convinced me, I’ll just buy local and forget about the organic.” I think that’s a good plan if you can actually find it. But, of course, there’s marketing in that, too.  At least the organic label has defined definitions. What does “local” actually mean? Within the state? From an adjoining state? From the US? From Earth?  There are no regulations on who can say their product is local. In fact, I was at the grocery store yesterday looking for apples and under the “local” sign were apples grown in the US. They didn’t say anything about what part of the US. In 2008 Congress defined local as within 400 miles. That really doesn’t mean anything about what the “local” sign at the grocery store means since it’s not regulated.

Look, all I’m saying is know what you’re paying for. Know that when you buy organic at the grocery store, it’s probably not from a small-scale local farmer, it’s not pesticide-free, and much of it requires back-breaking labor. If you can somehow afford to buy all your produce year-round at the local farmers’ market and you feel confident that your idea of organic lines up with reality, that’s awesome. But I don’t think most consumers are doing that. They may think they are, but they’re probably not. Don’t let fear and marketing convince you to pay twice as much (or more!) for a product that isn’t different or better. Call momsense on that.

Please like & share:

3 Comments

Filed under Something to Think About