By Adam Folk
If all goes as planned, George and Leah Shetka’s half-acre hopyard will be growing lush Cascade cones for years to come. Chickens will be pecking spider mites from the bases of their 20-foot tall bines, and fans of Lift Bridge’s Harvestor Fresh Hop Ale will be able to sip on the brew flavored from the hops growing in the couple’s front yard.
But, if all goes as planned, George and Leah will no longer be the owners.
Last week, the couple announced on their Facebook page that Hippity Hops Farms is for sale.
“We’re in our 50s,” George said. “Our kids are grown. Do we really need a five-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath house? It’s just getting to be too much.”
The couple founded Hippity Hops Farms in 2008, on the cusp of an expansion of craft breweries across the country. Today, the few hundred Cascade rhizomes they planted are at peak production, providing nearly 800 pounds of hops to brewers across the country. Soon that will grow to more than 1,000 pounds.
Despite their decision to sell, the couple has moved forward with plans to nearly double the size of their hopyard. For the Shetkas, the hops have been more than a source of extra income — they’ve been a true labor of love.
“[Selling] has nothing to do with the hops,” says Shetka, “They’re going to be the one thing that’s the hardest to move away from.”
With his hopyard buried under a fresh coating of April snow, George told The Growler how he and Leah turned an empty field into rows of verdant hop cones ripe for the brew kettle.
It wasn’t always easy. While there is still little online information for fledgling hop farmers, there was even less six years ago.
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At a time when George said he “didn’t even know what a hop plant looked like,” he turned to growers in Oregon for help. He found a tutor at Freshops in Philomath, Oregon, who answered his questions and supplied him with his first rhizomes.
Soon the couple was busy searching for fertilizers, hop poles, and hundreds of feet of aircraft cable to hold the weight of the hop bines. Weeds immediately became a problem. George credits Leah, the “brains” behind their operation, for her diligence in keeping the field clear of unwanted plants. She also designed the irrigation system, manages the soil testing and fertilizing, and maintains the fences to keep the chickens in and the raccoons out.
And while growing their nitrogen-hungry plants was a challenge, selling the hops never was.
George has nothing but optimism about Minnesota’s hop industry, and the demand for their product. “It’s kind of, ‘If you build it, they will come,’” he said, paraphrasing the famous quote from “Field of Dreams.” He expects demand to keep rising as the craft brewing boom reaches regions like the southeastern United States, where both his sons live.
A a distributor of Czech-grown Saaz hops through his Top Hop venture, George said there’s already more demand than they can fill. “The price of Saaz is going to go through the roof. It’s sad because the price is also going to go up for pilsners, which are my favorite.”
Locally, the sale of Hippity Hops Farms could mean changes for Lift Bridge Brewing Company’s popular Pickin’ & Grinnin’ event. The Shetkas formed an early friendship with the Stillwater brewery’s brewmaster, Matt Hall, and for the last five years, hundreds of thirsty volunteers have picked bines from Hippity Hops Farms in return for a taste of the limited-edition autumn brew, Harvestor.
Hall, who called George “one of the pioneers for commercial hop growing in Minnesota,” said the fate of the popular event is still unknown.
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“It’s been great working with George and the whole family up there. It’s a little unfortunate, but we’re trying to work things out.”
Whoever decides to purchase the farm, the couple’s 3,961 square-foot home, and their John Deere Tractors, will have their work cut out for them. George isn’t shy about the six years of trial and error he experience getting the business off the ground.
The new owners won’t be without help. The Shetkas are selling the farm as a turnkey operation, one that comes with a very special addition – themselves.
“When we sell this place, I hope to still be a part of it to help with the transition. There’s a pretty big learning curve, but it’s a lot of fun.”