Opportunity Rings at Bell Crossing Farm
It started with a text.
“I’m going to quit my job and start a hops farm… are you in??”
The “typing indicator” bubble bounced.
There was radio silence for several hours.
Then, Steve Funston’s response:
His reaction was likely more shock than dissent, Desiree Funston says, laughing at the 2013 memory. After all, the couple had just moved to the Bitterroot Valley for her job just two years earlier. The Montana natives settled in Stevensville, bought a home, and fell in love with the area. But the ink was barely dry on their closing documents when she realized she wasn’t as enamored with her new job as they were with their new home.
“But we really loved it here. So one day I just sat down and asked myself – what do I love to do? What do I love to do that can also make money?”
- Being outside.
Bingo! The Bell Crossing Hops Farm dream took root.
But of course, it wasn’t that easy.
“I couldn’t just quit my job; it’s taken a little time to get here,” she says. “But we’re both into craft beer, and we love that Montana has this great craft beer scene. I don’t know what connected that to, ‘hops farmer,’ but it did, and I knew it was right.”
The Funstons aren’t the only ones seeing opportunity in hops farming. Nationwide, hops production in Idaho, Oregon and Washington increased 20 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to the last USDA National Hops Report. The Hop Growers of America noted U.S. hop acreage has increased 79.5 percent since 2012; hops production increased by 77 percent. 2017 recorded a record high production of 104 million pounds between the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Washington produced 75 percent of the nation’s hops crop in 2017; with Idaho (13%) and Oregon (11%) nearly make up the balance of the nation’s commercial production.
But the Hop Growers of America recently advised against further expansion in their 2017 report: “While global hop demand appears to be on the rise thanks to burgeoning international craft beer cultures, many industry leaders cautioned against additional acreage being added in the U.S. for the 2018 crop. All key indicators suggest current aroma hop demand has largely been satisfied by the unprecedented expansion of U.S. acreage in recent years.”
However, the Funstons – and a number of other emerging hops farmers in the state – see an opportunity in localized, craft hops.
“There’s definitely a demand here for Montana hops, and the local food movement is super focused on that,” Desiree says. “These Montana brewers want to be able to say, ‘my grain was grown in Conrad, my hops are from Stevensville, all our ingredients are grown in Montana, for Montana.’ That’s really cool.”
The Montana Brewers Association notes a total of 73 breweries in the state, with 12 known breweries in planning as of February 2018. Mike Howard is the master brewer and co-owner of Great Burn Brewing in Missoula. He bought and brewed with the first Bell Crossing crop in 2017, agreeing with the Funstons’ hunch on the local demand.
“It’s a tough market to compete in when you have the big boys in Washington to go up against,” Howard says. “But having a local source is important; it’s a no-brainer to me. We brew our product locally; we sell it locally. I use great Montana water, locally grown grains – so why wouldn’t I want locally-sourced hops, too?”
With that kind of research and encouragement, the Funstons were gung-ho to get farming. Once the initial shock of that abrupt text wore off, Steve was, indeed, ‘in.’ They found a property to lease nearby, and thought they were headed in the right direction for their farming dream. But the deal fell through at the last minute.
“That was devastating,” she says. “But it was the first thing that slowed us down and made us do a little more research. It ended up being the right thing.”
It was their first lesson in this venture of becoming a first-time farmer: patience.
“This shouldn’t have been such a surprise, but everything takes longer than we thought it would,” she says.
Over the next four years, she and Steve continued to plot, plan, research and dream. Desiree moved on to a different day job, but the vision of their hops farm never faded. Then, opportunity rang in 2015. They found 11 acres for sale, just down the road from their originally intended “Bell Crossing” location.
It was far from perfect, but it was theirs. Hops take three to four years to reach their full production capacity, which means a large investment up front without much immediate return. They were up for the challenge, with a little help from their friends.
They spent the first year dealing with weed control and preparing the soil, with assistance and farming guidance from their new neighbor, Montana Farm Bureau President Hans McPherson. Together, they planted a rye grass, tilled it in, then a clover cover crop to out-compete the weeds.
“He’s been such a good neighbor to have on our side,” Desiree says. “I can’t say enough about how kind and generous he’s been to us every step of the way.”
That brought lesson No. 2 in being a beginning farmer: use your resources.
They also spent time in northern Colorado, studying and networking with other smaller-scale hops farms to understand what the industry looked like at their scale.
“They understood what we wanted to do, as a small, local producer, and they were able to look us in the eye and say, ‘buckle up. This is a lot of work.’”
Then, a mini-grant from the Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition helped purchase trellis poles, weed cloth and rhizomes – “all absolutely necessary things to start a hops farm,” she says. “It wasn’t a big grant, but it was just enough of a boost to get us started and kick us into action.”
They also found small business assistance and wisdom in the Headwaters RC&D program, which organized the Hops Summit in 2016 and 2017 through the Food Alliance of Rural Montana and the Montana Department of Agriculture.
“That’s so valuable – to be able to get together and talk shop, to talk to people who get it and want to talk about the nitty gritty, the technical stuff – that’s where we learned a lot,” Desiree says.
There, they found their third lesson in farming from scratch: collaboration helps.
Hops are typically harvested in late August or early September. They’ll cut the plants at the base, pulling the bine off the trellis. Then the bine goes into a harvesting machine that will pull the cones off, which are then dried and ran through a hammer mill to powder. The powder is put through a pelletizer, and the pellets are bagged, flushed with nitrogen gas and frozen to maintain peak chemical balance.
Without the pellet process, the fresh hops must be used within 7-10 days of harvest. A fresh hop brew is desirable in its season, but that’s not sustainable for sales year-round.
“As soon as they can do that, I’d love to buy more,” Howard says.
This year, as they look forward to a larger crop, they’ll collaborate with Bozeman-based Crooked Yard Hops to use their processing equipment. But they’ve also cleared a space on the farm for a building to house a harvester, hammer mill, pellet mill, bagging machine and walk-in freezer. Once that’s established, they hope to “pay it forward” by partnering with other beginning hops farmers for their processing, too,
“We’re living our dream, and we didn’t do this in a vacuum,” Desiree says. “We had so many people helping us along the way. This industry has been incredibly open and helpful, so it’s important for us to give back and help people who come after us, too.”
Originally published in the Fall 2018 Spokesman
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