Man leaves job, takes a leap of faith to grow hops

Man leaves job, takes a leap of faith to grow hops
In this Aug. 27, 2009 photo, Norman Vidoni Sr. is helping his son harvest his first crop of organically grown hops on his property Elmira, Ore. (AP Photo/The Register-Guard, Kevin Clark)
ELMIRA, Ore. (AP) - Out on a former cattle ranch in the foothills of the Coast Range, Norman Vidoni has taken a great leap - or maybe that should be hop - of faith.

A dedicated home brewer with no background in farming, Vidoni quit his job as a social worker so he could grow hops, the pungent green flowers used by beer makers to add bitterness and aroma to their brews.

With his first harvest this fall, Vidoni said he hopes to meet a growing demand for organic hops, a relatively scarce commodity, by marketing directly to home brewers and to home brew shops.

Vidoni said he figures to get about 1,000 pounds of Chinook, Cascade, Fuggle and Magnum hops this year out of his farm. Organic hops are going for about $22 per pound, so if he sells all his hops for that price, he'll gross $22,000. Given the hours Vidoni has put in, that's probably something less than minimum wage.

"It's not an easy thing," he said. "Most farmers work very long days for not much pay."

Vidoni said his yield should grow in coming years as his vines mature, and he noted that he's already completed the most difficult task: erecting 121 17-foot poles in a grid, providing the framework of the trellis on which the hop vines grow.

Vidoni's small hop yard marks the return of commercial hop farming to the southern Willamette Valley, a region that once was the epicenter of the hop industry. Skeptics might question the commercial viability of his enterprise - he's growing hops on just two acres, while the average size of a commercial hop farm in Oregon is 250 acres - but Vidoni said he's determined to make a go of it.

"For a small operation, it's pretty big," he said. "It's not a garden. It's definitely a farm."

Oregon ranks second among hop-producing states, trailing only Washington, which dominates the industry in the United States. But for decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Oregon was the center of the hop-growing universe.

The state's first commercial grower was William Wells, who planted hops near Buena Vista in 1867, according to "Tinged with Gold: Hop Culture in the United States," a book by Michael Tomlan. George Leasure planted hops near Eugene two years later in a yard that bore hops for the next 30 years, according to Tomlan's account.

By 1880, Lane County was the leading hop-growing region in Oregon. Most hops were grown in Springfield, notably by Alexander Seavey, a sailor, pack-train driver and pioneer merchant, and his sons. But Santa Clara, Crow, Coburg and Goshen also were home to large hop farms.

Prohibition, the ascendancy of larger commercial growers in Washington, and attacks of downy mildew - a plant disease that can quickly wipe out a crop - were blamed for the decline of hop growing in this area.

Today, most hops in Oregon are grown around St. Paul and Mount Angel, north of Salem, and the state's southernmost commercial hop yards are in Independence, southwest of Salem, said Nancy Frketich, administrator of the Oregon Hop Commission. Oregon State University in Corvallis also has a hop yard where it grows every known variety of hops.

The biggest growers have farms of up to 2,000 acres, while the smallest farm 75 to 100 acres, said commission chairman John Annen, who grows hops in Mount Angel on 285 acres.

Not many hop growers in Oregon use organic methods, but Goschie Farms, which grows hops on 370 acres near Silverton, is harvesting its first crop of organically certified hops this year on six acres, owner Gayle Goschie said. She was curious about growing hops organically for years and figured that it could be successful in Oregon's temperate climate.

"I refer to it as my experimental plot, and it has proven to be just that," she said. "I've learned a lot as to how I can maybe farm the rest of our acreage with a little softer, more natural approach."

It's also satisfying because many brewers are looking for a more secure source of organic hops, she said. Most organic hops are grown in New Zealand, which because of its isolation does not have to fight the same pests and diseases as U.S. growers.

Vidoni is counting on that scarcity, and the growing interest in organically grown food, to make his farm plan work.

"There are not a lot of organic hops available right now" in the United States, said Gary Glass, director of the American Home Brewers Association in Boulder, Colo. "If they were more widely available, more people would use them. A lot of home brewers out there are specifically looking for organic ingredients."

Jim Stockton, owner of the Home Fermenter Center in Eugene, said organic hops are not hard to come by, but not many varieties are available, and he hasn't seen much demand for them at his store. In the past, the higher cost of organic ingredients dissuaded many brewers from buying them, he said.

"People are becoming a little more aware of organic products, but it's always the cost factor that holds people back," he said.

Farming hops organically is more labor intensive than conventional farming, and it takes away tools farmers use to control pests and diseases that can wipe out a crop.

Four times a season, Vidoni weeds between rows with a tractor, then uses a hoe to weed around each plant, he said. Downy and powdery mildews pose the biggest challenge to his crop, he said. He controls the mildews with copper sulfate spray. He got hit with aphids, but the weather killed them off before they did much damage, he said.

Vidoni said he first got the itch to grow hops about four years ago. He was working as a social worker for DuPage County, Ill., and was ready for a change. He thought about trying to open a small brewery before deciding to give hop farming a go.

He moved out West with his wife and bought an 18-acre farm on Sheffler Road. He's invested about $40,000 in the farm, on top of the cost of the land, which his mother-in-law purchased. His wife works outside the home; when she's working, he takes care of their 2-year-old son.

He planted hop vines last year, but had to wait this year to get his first crop. It takes three to four years for hops to fully mature, he said.

Vidoni started bringing in his first harvest on the last Thursday in August with the help of his father, Norman Vidoni Sr., a retired software engineer who had traveled out from Iowa for the occasion.

Both men wore well-worn Cub hats as they worked. Norm Jr. used a tree trimmer to cut the twine holding the vines at the top of the 17-foot trellis, while Norm Sr. used clippers to cut the vines at the bottom, then threw them in the back of a battered Chevrolet pickup truck. They were taking down Fuggle vines, one of four hop varieties in the yard. Once the truck was full, Vidoni drove it into the barn, where he set up a makeshift picking table - two sheets of plywood placed atop sawhorses. Then the men picked the hop flowers off the vines and tossed them into wooden bins.

The work represents the culmination of two years of backbreaking work and exhausting hours. On a typical day, Vidoni said, he works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with a half-hour for lunch.

"I was not aware of the amount of work," he said. "As much as I enjoy farming, this much for one person is a lot of stress."

After he dries the hops, he'll package them in two-ounce, vacuum sealed bags. He said he may sell some to craft brewers - Oakshire Brewing in Eugene wants some for a fresh-hop ale this fall - but doesn't plan to sell to larger hop brokers or large breweries. Instead, he'll market directly to home brewers via his Web site and to home brewing stores.

Vidoni admits he has had moments of doubt.

"A lot of times I wasn't sure I was going to make it," he said. "I was looking at Plan B."


But now he's confident that if he can get his crop in, he'll be back at it again next year.

"I think I'm going to make it out the other side of this," he said.