It used to be when you’d pick hops, farmers would lower the cables where the vines grow, so workers could pick them from the ground.
Now a tractor that looks like a tall fork lift clips the vines and drops them into a truck. The vines are then put onto a hanging conveyer where they are separated, moved to dryers to roast and then wrapped into 200 pound bales.
The machinery that processes and dries the hops hasn’t changed much since the 1940s, but who picks the hops definitely has, says John Coleman, general manager of Coleman Family Farms.
Coleman’s hop workers used to be migrant workers, who came almost entirely from Jalisco, Mexico.
His family still owns a labor camp that is no longer in use.
“We used to have families that would stay on our property all summer long,” said Coleman. “They would come in the spring to plant hops, then pick berries, then pick the hops, and then move on to Washington State to pick apples.”
Coleman fondly recalls going to Mexico in the off season to visit many of the families that worked for them.
“Some of our workers were like family,” he says.
Most of the folks who work for the Colemans now live in Salem, Independence or other cities nearby — children and grandchildren of former migrant workers born here in Oregon. He remembers the immigration raids of the 1960s as a child working on the family farm.
The search for workers keeps getting tougher, says Coleman, since most who used to pick have moved on to other jobs or gone to school.
The politics of labor have been a part of farming history, but says Coleman, his family has tried to treat every worker with respect.
“We understand that everyone is trying to make a living here,” said Coleman. “We also believe that taking care of your workers is important.”
And the workers give a testimony to that care.
“I like working here,” said José Velázquez, who is originally from Guanajuato, Mexico and who now lives in Independence. “The boss is nice and it is a good place to have a job.”
Velázquez said he learned of the job through a friend. He earns $8.95 per hour — the Oregon minimum wage.
Velázquez waters, cuts, cleans and plants the hops and he enjoys every activity he does.
“I’m grateful for the Coleman family to give me this opportunity,” said Velazquez. “I’m a single father and need to provide for my son.”
Noemó Toribio from Oaxaca, Mexico, heard about the job from her mother, who already was working there. Toribio sweeps the floors of debris as the plants are processed. That debris is made into mulch for the hop acreage.
Rubén Victoria of Salem drives the trucks from the field to be processed. Even though he claims the job is fairly easy, he has to be careful when he drives the truck to keep it in line while it is filled it and be carefull with the columns that are every where.
“In my 16 years in Oregon, I worked in construction, farming, nurseries, and building houses and this one is pretty good,” said Victoria.
Coleman says currently there are engineers and farmers working on machinery that would eliminate even more human jobs from the hop picking process, but he hopes that the human element will never be wholly dismissed from farming.
“Technology could be the savior of a lot of things,” says Coleman. “But farming will always need human spirit.”
Jon DeBellis Of the Catholic Sentinel
INDEPENDENCE — When pickup trucks filled with hops drive in from the field to be processed at Rogue Ales’ Hopyard here, tendrils of the perennial plant hang off the side view mirrors.
Originally used as a preservative in beer and ales, hops are a valued ingredient in the craft beer industry that is making Oregon famous. The use of the plant’s flower (which resembles a soft, greenish pinecone) has led to distinctive flavors and aromas in an industry built on building tasty brews.
To visitors, the Hopyard appears to be owned and operated by Rogue Brewery for the production of its own product. The farm is actually the result of a partnership between Rogue and Coleman Family Farms; the sixth generation of a family of Willamette Valley Dutch Catholic farmers.
A lot has changed in the world of agriculture since John Coleman’s great-great-great grandfather bought a farm in St. Paul, Ore., back in the mid 1800s. What crops are planted; how they are picked; who picks them; how they are processed are all changed.
Adaptation has been part of his family’s legacy of farming, says John, general manager of Coleman Family Farms, but it is also the wisdom passed down six generations that has keep him strong, diversified and faithful.
The Rogue Ales Hopyard is an example of such adaptation.
Since the mid-1980s, the Coleman Family was growing 800-900 acres of hops for Anheuser-Busch; one of the largest brewers in the world.
Then, in 2008, Anheuser-Busch was sold to InBev, a Belgian brewer that slowed down and eventually stopped its order. They grew small orders for InBev until 2011, early 2012.
“I believe InBev was searching for savings, in the old Anheuser-Busch, and realized they had more hops than they needed,” said Coleman, a member of St. Paul Parish in St. Paul and cousin to Father Jim Coleman, pastor at St. Luke Parish in Woodburn.
This was a huge financial hit to the farm.
Soon after, a phone call came from Jack Joyce, chief wisdom officer of Rogue Brewery.
The year 2008 was also a hop shortage year, and he was looking to work with local farmers to create a network of locally grown hops that he could rely on.
“We literally let our fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages looking for hop farmers,” said Brett Joyce. “John was the first to be willing to work with us.”
The conversation was a fruitful one. Rogue agreed to grow hops with Coleman Family Farms, 40 acres of which would be used to craft their beer. Ideas kept coming.
The property, in addition to being a working hop farm, isnow a destination for recreation. Rogue has added to the farm’s appeal by opening the farm’s house and buildings to hospitality, making it a weekend spot for cyclists, beer lovers and farm lovers. In addition to hops, Rogue also uses the property to farm bees, pumpkins, roses, peppers, chickens and turkeys.
“John’s a great guy, a great business man, and a great farmer and was really open to making the farm an experience for folks,” said Joyce.
Coleman also grows his own hops for sale on the property. He processes all the hops for both Rogue and his farm, selling the non-Rogue hops to brokers who distribute the product to craft breweries around the country.
Coleman’s farm has also been designated a certified Salmon-Safe farm. Founded by the Pacific Rivers Council, Salmon-Safe is a non-profit that helps farms transform land management practices so Pacific salmon can thrive in West Coast watersheds.
Coleman Family Farms also owns several other farms where they grow hazelnuts, grass seed, wheat, garlic, and seed garlic (later planted in California). The farms also grow bush beans, sweet corn and table beets for NorPac, a local frozen foods manufacturer.
“We’re farmers and we hope to be farmers for awhile,” said Coleman. “We have to take care of the land we have.”
Coleman says he’s proud that his family has been able to continue for so long doing something that helps feed communities around him.
“I grew up in farming — you can make a good honest living,” said Coleman, “but it fluctuates.”