The Hopfathers 

The storied past and tenuous future of Idaho's beer barons

click to enlarge PHOTO BY: NICHOLAS COLLIAS
  • Photo by: Nicholas Collias
"It's hard to explain this all the way it is right now, but you get the idea," says Mike Gooding of Wilder as we tour the warehouses where he has processed his hop harvest for the last 25 years. Gooding, a fifth-generation hop grower and president of the Idaho Hop Grower's Association, doesn't take long to lead me through the buildings. In spring, they are dark, quiet and contain little more than limp metal thresher arms, industrial fans and a few hop blossoms that missed being hauled away with last year's crop.

However, during the few hectic days in late summer when Gooding and his employees pick, dry and bale hops the building is, well, hopping--loud, busy and overflowing with "a very, very pleasant smell, especially when we're picking 'aromas.'" He means aroma hops, one of two types of hops grown in the Treasure Valley around the towns of Wilder and Greenleaf. The other type, "bittering" hops, are much more popular, but are still only grown locally around Wilder and Greenleaf.

Gooding picks up a dry, pale green hop bud off the floor and crushes it in his hand. We both take a whiff. He says the smell--a pungent, sour odor somewhere between a glass of India Pale Ale and a cloud of pot smoke--is no coincidence. Hops and marijuana, both members of the nettle family, are so close genetically that to call them "cousins" might be an understatement. From Gooding's position on the national Hop Research Council, he has even heard about hops being grafted onto marijuana plants. But for now, Idaho's hop crop has no other commercial use other than making beer taste, and smell, like beer.

While I dally in the image of a warehouse that literally puts the bud in Budweiser, we drive out to one of Gooding's fields. In this thin stretch of farmland between the Boise and Snake rivers that constitutes southern Idaho's only hops district, the value of my early-season tour soon becomes apparent. More than almost any of the over 50 crops grown in the Treasure Valley, hops require a human touch to be successful, and we're about to see why.

Even in April, when the hop plants--or "hills"--have yet to make their perennial creep out of the ground, field workers are already a regular presence above them. On this particular morning, three men stand atop a tall metal tower covered with thousands of strands of woven coconut husk string that Gooding and the other hop growers import from Sri Lanka. As a tractor slowly tows the structure up and down the field, the men tie the strings in double half-hitches to each crossbar of an 18-foot-high trellis system that covers the entire field, letting the other end. About 100 feet behind the tractor, another group pick up the loose twine ends, attach them to small metal clips and press them into the ground.

The two teams are assembling the framework that in a few months will support approximately 890 female plants and a few sneaky males, most well over 20 feet tall. Barring a visit from historic foes like spider mites, hop aphids or powdery mildew--a new bane which almost single-handedly eradicated the New England hop industry--the hops will transform the trellis rows into leafy, fragrant hallways that are one of the most distinctive visual displays in Idaho agriculture. But first, a few weeks from now, these same workers will return to the field to ensure the budding hop bines (a term for a winding, clinging stem) are all finding the twine and climbing it in the same clockwise pattern.

"A percentage will get on the string on their own, but we always have to help them along. It's called 'training,'" Gooding says.

The hops industry has changed plenty since Idaho's first hop farmers installed their trellises in 1934, but progress has yet to improve upon this kind of training. The same can't be said for harvesting, explains Reed Batt, whose grandfather, Roger Batt, and great-uncles Don and PG Batt, were those first hop farmers. After importing plants from the Yakima Valley in Washington, Reed says, the Batts employed nearly 800 pickers each fall on 70 acres, paying workers by the pound. The growers' financial return was 13 cents per pound, a pathetic number even by Depression-era standards.

But Roger Batt and his clan stuck with their crop, and in the mid-1940s their patience paid off. First, World War II caused a worldwide scarcity of hops. Second, a British company manufactured the first hop-picking machine in 1945 eliminating the need for a standing army of pickers. By 1948, hop growing was such a promising prospect in Canyon County, 10 different farmers started just in that year, recalls 82-year-old Ray Obendorf. Obendorf was one of those 10 farmers. He was also the last to call it a day, finally giving over the reins of his operation to his son Greg just a few years ago.

Ray Obendorf, a Wilder lifer who paid his way through college by farming onions, exemplifies the unique type of patience necessary to last as a hop grower in Idaho (although in truth, none of the farmers mentioned here grow hops exclusively). In this small market, he and the other growers are quick to point out, "demand" has never been determined by public consumption as it is with crops like apples or onions. America's taste in beer may change over the years, but its appetite is stable and predictable. Instead, the demand for hops is driven by unpredictable corporate brewmasters. Hop growers are the prep cooks of the brewing industry--except that unlike cooks, growers rarely know what brand of beers their hops end up flavoring, since almost all transactions are performed through a hops broker.

When he was told during the 1940s and '50s that "Cluster" hops were the norm, Obendorf recalls, he grew Cluster. When scientists the University of Idaho Experimental Agriculture Station in Parma developed a new extra-bitter hop called "Galena" in the 1970s, he was near the front of the line to plant and sell the popular strain. When brewers soured on the aroma hop "Cascade" about a decade ago, Obendorf says, he took out his Cascades, root systems and all. Then, when the brewers reversed their decision and demanded Cascades a couple of years later, he replanted.

"It's a fickle business," he says.

But despite all the new strains, new demands and new pests that have emerged since the first Batt farm, the small number of contemporary growers all agree that the most important conclusion will never change: Hop farming is all about timing.

"We tend to put them up a little bit early and hold them back, so that the plants coming out of the ground will see longer days and realize that it's a growing season, not a finishing season," says Gooding as we look out at the field where the workers are busy stringing. He says he expects the plants to reach the tops of the trellises by "between the 1st and 10th of July." Greg Obendorf is more specific, saying they need to be there by the Fourth of July.

"One or two days is the difference," he says. "We've got to be right on the goddamn money."

For this reason, hop field workers are expected to perform their uniquely delicate, demanding work on a very tight timeline. In return, Gooding says, these workers make close to double the wage of other seasonal farm workers, and will often work for the same growers for decades.

"One family has been with me since the '60s," he says.

But here's where it gets complicated: Even when the system works, in the hops industry, there's a drawback to increased production.

The hop varieties that dominate the contemporary southern Idaho landscape--Galena, Nugget, Chinook and the newcomer Zeus--have all been engineered to produce high yields or high amounts of hop oils or "extracts," which are also used to flavor beer. Hop brokers like S.S. Steiner, who purchases almost all of the hops in southern Idaho and sells them to breweries worldwide, can subsequently get more production from a smaller, cheaper crop--bad news for growers.

"The combination of a hop that has more extractability, plus improved technology to extract it, is a double whammy on us," Gooding explains.

Not only that, Reed Batt adds, but the major U.S. breweries have actually been cutting back on flavor. "They've gone toward the watery side rather than the tasty side," he says.

If this sounds like a case where America's burgeoning microbrews can ride in and save the day, forget it. As rampant as craft breweries may be, Greg Obendorf says, their effect on individual growers is negligible. "The general public, mainstream America, they don't drink that," he says. "When the guy in Parma sits down on Sunday with a case of beer in front of him, it's not a case of Fat Tire."

All these factors, when focused together, lead many hop growers into a familiar dance: Supply goes up, prices go down, and the feasibility of pouring significant capitol into a new hop production, or in holding onto one that hasn't been thriving, vanishes. Consequently, hop farming has become in recent decades an exclusive and consolidated club in Idaho. Whereas Ray Obendorf recalls 10 different growers beginning operations in 1948, today's community has been essentially whittled down to three: Gooding, Greg Obendorf and John Weilmunster, a friend of the Obendorfs who is relatively new to the hops game.

That's right, after ruling the roost for 72 years and even putting a hop grower--former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt--in the highest office in the land, Idaho's founding hop dynasty is no longer at the top the food chain. Reed Batt quit last fall after 32 seasons, selling his operations to Greg Obendorf and Weilmunster. The reason, Batt says, was simple: "The market forces and the pests and a variety of issues just compelled me to take a stand and quit."

But despite the threats they face, and despite being responsible for a relatively small chunk of the American hop harvest--around 8 percent, according to the Hop Growers of America--the future seems on the surface to be bright for the remaining members of Idaho's hop cabal. After leading southern Idaho with 1000 acres of hops last year, Greg Obendorf has a private lake he's busy stocking with trout, he oversees several additional newly acquired properties and has enough time and resources to occasionally indulge his passion for big game hunting.

Weilmunster, has already mastered what he calls "a few fertilizer tricks" that helped him to set what the Obendorfs say is a national record yield. In just his second season farming, Weilmunster produced 22 180-pound bales of hops per acre. Spread over his then-200 acres, that average would produce enough hops to produce more than six billion kegs of beer. "I encourage everybody to have some," he says.

Gooding, who now has the smallest hop operation of the group, can still reel off plenty of good news--especially when it's about the latest studies extolling the health potential of hops. He points to one study by Oregon State University, identifying several natural cancer-fighting agents in hops. Others have linked hops to easing rheumatoid arthritis, improving cardiovascular health, staving off bone loss and even helping symptoms of menopause. Just last week, the University of Arkansas released research claiming that hops could work as organic chicken food, effectively replacing chemical antibiotics and growth hormones.

So, with hops finally poised to make an unprecedented leap beyond beer, why is Gooding depressed? In a word, "Houses."

"This whole sonofabitch is going to be houses, and I hate it," he says, looking from his farm back toward Wilder. "I didn't ever think I'd live to see the south of Caldwell booming like this." Despite being a fifth-generation hop farmer whose ancestors started growing in Oregon's Willamette Valley back in 1895, Gooding says glumly, "At this point, I don't hold much hope for a sixth." Gooding places the onus of preserving Idaho's agricultural future on a familiar and maligned party--county planning and zoning.

"It's up to them to step up and do something with this good farm ground, or it's going to be gone soon," he says.

Reed Batt, despite his admission of defeat, is hopeful that his cronies will survive the challenges that made him step away. "There'll still be hops in Idaho," he says. "You're just going to see more consolidation of coverage and some larger growers, maybe, but I don't think they're going to sell all the farmground."

Ray Obendorf is the most resigned in his prediction. Chalk it up to the years he spent bending backward to meet brewers' demands, or maybe he's just softened over last few years that he says he's spent simply "riding around in a pickup acting busy," but Obendorf is content to hate the sin and not the sinners.

"It's gonna happen," he says conclusively while standing in front of his well-preserved barn, which is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places. "It's right close to us. You can't make it farming, so you sell out. I don't blame anyone who does it."

But if any industry could be the exception and weather the seemingly insurmountable invasion, adds Greg Obendorf, it could be this sturdy and successful clique. "The people who work in hops have been there for years," he says. "All this has more to do with the people than the place."

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