From farm to tap

by: JEFF MCDONALD  - Blake Crosby, sales, marketing and operations manager at Crosby Hop Farm LLC north of Woodburn, says the new pellet mill will allow his familys farm to sell direct to craft brewers. With the state’s only hop pellet mill on a farm in place for the upcoming harvest, multigenerational farmer Blake Crosby wants to take the family business direct to the customer.

In his case, that means bypassing hop brokers and selling direct to craft brewers in Oregon and around the country.

“In order to sell to craft brewers, we had to sell in pellets,” said Crosby, sales, marketing and operations manager at Crosby Hop Farm LLC. “Our whole model is producing high-quality product in house and also partnering with other high-quality growers to get more Oregon hops into the craft industry.”

Crosby is great-great grandson of Albert Crosby, who established the family farm on Crosby Road just north of Woodburn in the 1860s.

His father, Kevin Crosby, runs the growing operation. His mother, Jennifer Crosby, manages the office. His uncle, Brian Crosby, is in charge of outside sales, Blake Crosby said. by: JEFF MCDONALD  - Hops grown on Crosbys farm and other farms around the region will be converted into pellets, which are more efficient for storage and brewing.

There is a lot of machinery and technology in place at the 250-acre hop farm, including the $1 million hop pellet mill, which became operational in May. With harvest time just weeks away, the farm also unveiled a new cold storage facility, where pellets from hops grown on the farm will be stored in nitrogen-sealed packaging until they are distributed directly to craft brewers around the country. by: JEFF MCDONALD - Harvest season is just weeks away for hop farmers throughout Marion County, which is the states leading hop producer.

With the new equipment, Crosby’s farm will become a broker for other farmers in the region growing hops. Their hops will add to the half-million pounds of hops Crosby Hop Farm grows per year, Blake Crosby said.

That will feed his expanding markets, which include all U.S. states except Hawaii, he said.

“There are a lot of opportunities out there, especially on the East Coast,” he said. “They are about 10 years behind the Northwest on craft brewing and people are starting to catch on out there.”

While overall beer sales nationally were down 2 percent over the first six months of 2013, sales by small and independent brewers grew 15 percent, according to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association.

Oregon ranks 2nd in U.S. hop production with $31.2 million in sales annually behind Washington state, according to the Hubbard-based Oregon Hops Commission.

The industry is concentrated in Marion County with about 20 growers growing 26 different varieties of hops within a 15-mile area from Independence to Butteville. The area includes Woodburn, Hubbard and St. Paul.

“It has the same growing conditions as the best growing regions in Germany because both are close to the 45th parallel,” said Nancy Frketich, administrator for the Oregon Hops Commission. “The conditions are good for aroma-type hops, which the state is known for.”

Most of the farms in the region are multigenerational due to the high startup costs of hops farming, which include picking machines, dryers, balers and other equipment.

“Costs can run up to $2 million,” Frketich said. “It’s not easy to start a commercial hop farm.”

Some growers may consider selling directly to brewers, but others would rather focus on farming, she said.

“A lot of farmers don’t want to mess with it because they don’t want to do their own marketing,” she said. “They just let the dealer deal with it.”

While still selling to brokers, third generation hop farmer Fred Geschwill, who co-owns F&B Farms LLC with his brother Bill Geschwill in Woodburn, said face-to-face meetings between hops farmers and craft brewers are more common than in the past.

Geschwill called Crosby’s farm “cutting-edge” and said his new model will increase exposure for all Marion County hop growers.

He met with a group of brewers, including Full Sail, Deschutes Brewery and others last week to discuss farming practices and different varieties of hops, he said.

“They like the fact that when they come onto our farm and onto (Crosby’s) farm that we will talk to them and deal with them,” Geschwill said. “In the past, the brokers had a real false wall up there. Farmers never talked to the brewers.”

The emerging craft brewing industry has further growth potential, said Geschwill, who plans to add about 50 acres of hops to their already-diversified farm, he said.

“It’s a real exciting time for hops and beer right now,” he said. “You look at the proliferation of wineries in the area. Now these craft brewers are doing the same thing.”