By GREG STILES
Mail Tribune via Associated Press
ASHLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Even amid the euphoria of their second-straight harvest, the owners of Alpha Beta Hops realize they still are in the experimental phase of their hop-growing careers.
Steve and Rebecca Pierce, along with their son, Spencer, are discovering the ins and outs of organic farming even as they resurrect a crop that until last year hadn't been commercially grown in Southern Oregon since the late 1980s.
In April 2009, the Pierces planted 1,800 rhizomes of Cascade hops, which produce small cones whose lupulin resin gives beer its bitterness and aroma. They harvested just a fraction of the farm's potential last fall.
"We feel like pioneers," admitted Steve Pierce, and the scene Saturday had a certain pioneer feel to it as his family was joined by about two-dozen friends who gathered to help harvest hops at the startup operation on Butler Creek Road.
Harvesting hops is fairly simple, but labor-intensive. Friends come in handy, and about 25 to 30 showed up, helping cut down the entwined vines, shake the cones loose and sort the flowers, which are dried on a metal screen, bagged in mylar and stored at 40 degrees.
"If we can get the nutrients figured out, we can get close to 2,000 pounds here," Pierce said. "Last year, we had a couple hundred pounds, and I'm hoping for 300 or 400 pounds this year."
Aphids attacked the first crop, so the Pierces countered with an army of 7,500 ladybugs, which quelled the aphids.
Spider mites took their turn this year, sucking chlorophyll from the lower parts of the plants.
"You just can't throw pesticides on them," Pierce said.
Nonetheless, when chilly weather damaged other types of crops in the spring, the hardy hop variety didn't miss a beat, he said.
Spurred by a wholesale price spike in 2007, the Pierces acquired juniper poles, wires and a tractor, and went to work converting a cow pasture not far from Grizzly Peak into a hop farm.
A large warehouse fire in America and crop failure in Germany pushed wholesale prices to between $50 and $60 a pound for hops.
"When you consider Northwest craft brewers use about a pound of hops per (31-gallon) barrel, it gets expensive," Steve Pierce said.
It looked like a good time to jump in.
"Of course, last year the price was down to $10 per pound, although there is more value for organic," he said.
Although no deals have been struck this year, Pierce thinks certified organic hops will fetch around $15 per pound.
Even though the Pierces plan to plant another 1.5 acres in the near future, the operation will pale compared to the average hop farm, which covers between 400 and 500 acres. Anheuser-Busch operates the 1,800-acre Elk Mountain Hop Farm near Bonner's Ferry, Idaho.
"You do things differently on a smaller scale," Steve Pierce said. "Marketing is my biggest challenge. I don't know if I'm going to have a crop four times this big next year, or if something will happen."
But it didn't keep him from sending out "Hoppy New Years" cards to 14 microbreweries.
Last year the family sold 75 pounds of hops each to Standing Stone Brewing Co. and Caldera Brewing Co.
Spencer Pierce said the organic nature of his hops and the regional appeal are attractive to local brewers.
"They want good organic hops, and keeping it in the valley means there's not a lot of travel," he said. "We're hoping to have some contracts instead of just being in the dark. What would be good is to have brewers lease sections so they would have their own rows."
Chris Geankoplis, of Medford, who helped with the harvest, said Saturday's gathering was similar to events that occurred when early settlers were carving out civilization in the Northwest.
"Some people believe that pioneer life was entrepreneurial and self-directed when it was a very cooperative period," Geankoplis said. "People would journey miles to help one another with crops. It was the small society where they lived."
Rebecca Pierce admitted she didn't anticipate the dedication it would take to grow the crop.
"I thought it would be a fun thing because Steve had been brewing his own beer," she said. "I didn't know what it would entail. Had I known, I might have dragged my feet a little more."
Alpha Beta Hops: www.alphabetahops.com
Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.