A Winter of Love and Loss
When we saw strange white things falling from the sky in early December 2016, we knew we were in for an unusual winter. It had been five years since we last had more than a dusting of snow at Rogue Farms in Independence. Located along the Willamette River in the central Willamette Valley it’s typically a bit too warm for snow to stick.
From coastal tornadoes in October to graupel (imagine ice bonding to a snowflake creating balls of frost), to record snowfall from December to February, Oregon’s winter weather was, to put it mildly, out of the ordinary. With the average temperature at just 33.5 degrees, this was the coldest January since 1985 and the seventh coldest on record.
The terroir of Rogue Farms in Independence and Tygh Valley is constantly evolving, and we as farmers must adjust as we continue to grow beer, spirits, ciders and sodas in collaboration with Mother Nature. Sometimes the surprise is welcome but sometimes it means an incredible loss in crops. This year, we had a bit of both.
The Flood That (Almost) Wasn’t
We’re no strangers to flooding at Rogue Farms, but like all the weather this winter, it was unique.
The Willamette River teased us all winter with unpredictable water levels. We were sure that we would be cut off from the farm in February, but that merely resulted in The Great Puddle of 2017.
Floodwaters bring in fresh silt, nutrients and moisture to the hopyard. Regardless of the incredibly fertile soil in the Willamette Valley, we welcome the boost flood season brings.
As February passed we thought we might see our first winter without the Willamette River rushing into our fields, but we’ve learned that there is no use in trying to predict what Mother Nature has in store. The river broke its bank just days before spring.
A Spring in our Step
Although we’re grateful for the winter rain and snow fall, needless to say, we were happy to welcome spring.
In early March, during a morning stroll through our 52-acre hopyard, we were greeted by the first hopbines emerging from the soil. This year is especially exciting. We planted two new proprietary varieties of hops last summer. Although we know not to expect many cones until their second year of growing, we hope we have enough to sample what’s coming.
Not to be outdone by the hops, our two-acre Prickless Marionberry yard began budding shortly after, and the apple, cherry, pear, and plum tree blossoms appeared.
No Rest for the Revolution
Spring is a beautiful time of year, but it also signals the beginning of a very busy few months.
In our 52-acre hopyard we’ve begun tying and staking 78,788 strands of coir for the bines to climb. Coir is a biodegradable, braided coconut husk imported from Sri Lanka. Stringing will be followed by hand training 78,788 hop plants to climb the trellis. Growing our own ingredients isn’t easy, but we know it’s worth it.
Each piece of coir is 21 feet long. A crew of six rides high between the poles, tying six strings to each section of wire. They average 126 feet of string going up every ten seconds — or a quarter-mile of string every minute.
After the hopyard is completely strung, we pick 2-3 of the strongest looking bines to train to climb the coir.
A Rogue Garden Party
Never content to rest on our laurels, we’ve decided we want to grow more ingredients — and to do that, we need some more space.
The long winter months gave us plenty of time to think about what we wanted to grow in the coming year. When we were drawing up the plans for the 2017 garden, we realized that the current location of the Revolution Garden just didn’t fit all our big ideas.
So we decided to move it. Agreeing on the perfect spot proved to be the easiest part of the process. Expecting the ground to be full of rocks at that specific location, we built raised beds to house our plants.
When we started digging the trench to lay irrigation, we were reminded once again how lucky we are to have found this location to grow. The soil in the new plot is rich brown, sandy loam. For farmers, that’s the equivalent to striking gold.
We have a lot more work ahead building fencing to protect the crops from deer and other wildlife, transplanting the woodruff, angelica, orris and other perennials, and learning to grow new ingredients.
We’re consumed by our passion for farming, growing our own ingredients, and challenging ourselves in the process. Nowhere on the farm is that more obvious than in the Revolution Garden.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be transplanting the garden, planting starts for our Dream Pumpkins and seeding the cucumbers for this year’s beers, spirits, ciders and sodas.
Our central Oregon barley farm in Tygh Valley is much more accustom to severe winter weather. However, we were even taken aback with nearly 45-inches of snowfall over the course of the winter.
In November 2016, we seeded 100 acres of our Risk™ Malting Barley. The winter barley variety is hearty. In a typical winter, the snow arrives just as the barley begins to emerge from the ground. The snow-fall covers the fields and insulates the shoots from the freezing temperatures.
This winter, however, took its toll. Just when the snow began melting from one storm, the next storm was right on its heels bringing freezing temperatures and more precipitation. Our barley couldn’t survive the pummeling of the winter weather and we lost the entire 100-acres we seeded.
It’s never easy to take a loss like this. In the past, we’ve lost 10-acres of Dream Rye to slugs, we’ve lost Dream Pumpkins to wire-worm, we’ve lost barley sprouts to migrating geese, but nothing this extreme. We knew the risk of farming when we planted our first rhizome in 2008. We know we can’t control Mother Nature. We also know Growing the Revolution means following our Dare, Risk and Dream creed.
In early April, we seeded another 100-acres of our Dream™ Malting barley, our spring variety.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. We’re still recovering from four years of drought. This snow-melt will provide much-needed water that will fill the rivers, reservoirs, and provide irrigation water that we and our fellow farmers depend on through the summer.
We’ll harvest our malting barley in late July and take it right from the field to the floor of our Rogue Farms Malthouse in Tygh Valley.
Looking ahead, NOAA predicts warmer than normal spring weather for much of the US. However, due to heavier than normal snow-pack and positive soil moisture, we should expect normal spring temperatures in the Northwest.
Bees Are All the Buzz
Without a doubt, we wouldn’t be farmers without bees. Bees pollinate a third of the foods we eat in addition to providing us with the sweet nectar of their hard work.
The oldest fossilized bee was uncovered in what’s now New Jersey and dates back between 74 and 96 million years. Bees are believed to have appeared on earth around the same time as the first flowering plants, which means bees have been buzzing around for what could be 146 million years.
Bees weren’t always so sweet. It’s understood that the honeybee evolved from the wasp when they developed a taste for nectar, stopped eating each other, and became vegetarians.
A rock painting in Valencia, Spain shows that humans have been harvesting honey since about 7000BC. Also found from this period, was the earliest evidence of alcohol. A rice mead was discovered in China from 7000BC that was produced by fermenting rice, honey and fruit. The Egyptians were the first to record their efforts of beekeeping and honey harvesting in 2400BC.
At Rogue Farms, we have the honor of carrying on the ancient art of beekeeping. Since 2012, our honeybees have pollinated and collected nectar from our marionberry, pumpkin, jalapeno, cucumber, lavender and garden blossoms. They forage on our neighboring cherry, apple, plum and pear blossoms. These flavors capture the terroir of the farm to create the proprietary honey used in our Marionberry Braggot and Honey Kolsch.
It’s no great secret that pollinator populations are declining. If you’re interested in what you can do to help grow bees, contact your local beekeeping association.