Hop growers dig in for spring
Updated: Thursday, April 12, 2012 11:08 AM
Crews transplant root bundles to other fields, mend trellises
By DAN WHEAT
MOXEE, Wash. -- It's that time of year -- that narrow window of about three weeks -- when crews dig roots in the hop fields of Central Washington.
Workers expose roots by digging the soil around them and then cut and bundle six-inch chunks of root, also called rhizome or rootstock, that are held in cold storage for a couple of weeks and then replanted in other fields. Workers leave enough roots where they're digging for hops to grow there.
Ed St. Mary is a fourth-generation hop grower on Gamache Road south of Moxee. The road is named for his great grandfather, George Gamache.
The area is thick with hop fields. All that's visible this time of year are miles of hop trellises -- 18-foot-tall poles and wires from which twine soon will be strung for the plants to grow up. While some crews dig roots others mend trellises.
Growing season is April through August and hops are harvested in September. Most of the extract from the hop cones is used for making beer. Minor amounts are used in medicine and experimented with in antibiotics, St. Mary said. The hop extract has also been used to protect bees from mites.
There were 20 diggers in St. Mary's field on March 8.
"We pay 7 cents a root, $3.50 per bundle of 50. They average $12 an hour doing this," he said.
A shortage of hops five years ago led to high prices reaching $10 a pound. Now there's not much planting without contracts paying $2 to $3 per pound, St. Mary said.
"Our return per acre is not far removed from costs, even at $3," he said.
Oversupply of alpha hop varieties has caused growers to shift into more aroma varieties used in craft beers, but St. Mary said there's concern of that also becoming too plentiful.
Hops are big business in the Yakima Valley. The valley grew 79 percent of the nation's hops in 2011. Oregon and Idaho follow Washington as top hop producers.
Washington produced 51.3 million pounds in 2011 worth $141 million. Oregon produced 8 million pounds worth $23.5 million and Idaho was a 5.4 million pounds valued at $14.8 million.