Sunday, May 17, 2015

Stringing Hops

While Midwest corn and soybean farmers waited for April’s muddy fields to dry for planting, southwest Idaho hop growers were already helping their crop reach for the sun. Corn and soybeans grow from tiny seeds each spring. Hop plants get a jump on the season by resprouting from sturdy roots.
As the first lobed and toothed leaves appear, sticky hairs on the stems attach to anything they can find to stretch toward the sky. Commercial hop growers in the Greenleaf-Wilder area of Idaho provide trellises and twine nearly 20 feet tall.

This is one of only four places in the U.S. where the crop is grown commercially. You might be tempted to call these champion climbers, “vines,” but botanists call them “bines.” Vines grip with curling tendrils; bines ascend using stiff hairs.

This April, workers at Jackson Hop Farm rode across the hop yards while standing on a platform a dozen feet above the ground. A tractor pulled the contraption perpendicular to overhead wires that stretch among sturdy posts. As the tractor passed under a wire, five men on the platform each picked up a 20-foot long piece of twine from a supply hanging over the partition in front of him. Then five thickly-gloved hands executed a flip and a twist with a tuck and the end of the twine was tied to the wire.
Occasionally, one of the men missed his dally. A shout from the platform stopped the tractor and backed it up for another loop.

The platform cowboys weren’t the only ones wrangling hops. A ground team flowed in the wake of the tractor and tacked the other end of the twine to the ground.
As a left hand caught a swaying twine, a right hand aimed a driver loaded with an M-shaped metal clip.
Catch-point-set-step-push and another family of glossy new leaves had a home to grow on.
(This is a brand new hop yard, established just this past winter. Red straws marked the spot where each cluster of roots was to be buried.)
The crew will be back during May to teach the bines to climb, clockwise, to the top of the trellis. Hop plants only make right turns and always follow the clock.

By mid-June the plants will be nearing the tops of the trellises.
At harvest, long hallways of broad green leaves will be festooned with lighter green cones oozing with hoppy goodness.

I
wrote about the fragrant hop harvest for last fall's issue of Edible Idaho.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

All it Takes is a Clothespin

I spent much of last winter in Cochise County, Arizona, where friends and I have failed for several decades to make money raising cattle. We’ve been more successful caring for the land and building a strong community along the San Pedro. I focus on the latter two on our Facebook page.

The San Pedro River Valley taught me new skills: turning large pieces of wood into small pieces of wood with a pruning saw, running a gas generator without a functioning starter cord, securing propane cylinders in the back of a station wagon, and removing mice from my car's ventilation system. (Tomcat mouse traps rock, but peanut butter still rules. Cochise County mice ignore Tomcat brand bait.)

I peppered my neighbors with questions as I settled in to my off-grid cabin. “How can I tell if the solar storage battery is charging or discharging?” “Can I use your wifi?” “Do your chickens eat onion peels, or should I put them in the trash?”, and “Where’s the transfer station?”

After I had water, heat, electricity, wifi, and trash sorted out, I moved on to a mystery. “What are the clothespins on the mailboxes?” My neighbor said, “That’s so people can deliver notices of community events.” “Really?” I said, “If I put a clothespin on my mailbox I’ll know what’s going on?” "Yes," she said. “All it takes is a clothespin.”