YAKIMA — Dressed in yellow rain gear, Edgar Silva swings his machete to chop the base of a hop vine missed by the crew in the blue-and-yellow truck driving in front of him.
“It’s a very challenging job,” says Silva, 20, who gathers and tosses the fallen hops into the back of the truck as it drives through the junglelike rows of hop vines that grow 18 feet tall in the Yakima Valley.
The 12-hour days at Loftus Ranches pay less than apple picking, so the farm lost employees to the orchardists. Working 10 men short, the crew fell behind schedule and didn’t finish harvesting until Saturday.
Washington hop farmers expect to harvest more than 29,000 acres of hops this season, a 7 percent increase from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But with seasonal workers scarce, farmers and brewers have had to adjust.
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“Typically a crew is out in the field doing post-harvest work (by now) — removing drip tube … prepping to get our cover crop seeded and irrigated,” says Patrick Smith, a fourth-generation hop grower and vice president of Loftus Ranches. “We’ll have to keep a few more people here to get caught up in October.”
Washington grows 77 percent of the nation’s hops. And as the number of craft breweries increases, hop growers face the labor shortage apple growers have been complaining about for years.
At Loftus Ranches, a crew of 80 worked around the clock to harvest 950 acres of hops since Aug. 27. One guy drove the bottom cutter down a row, cutting the base of the vines. The top cutter followed, clipping the vines off the wire trellis. Two men, holding onto ropes for balance as the truck bounced down the field, guided the hop-filled vines into the truck bed as they were clipped. One truck at a time, the field was harvested and the hops were transported to the picking machines five miles down the road.
The crew averaged about 25 acres a day, or about 50,000 pounds, depending on the variety, Smith says.
In the last three years, Loftus Ranches, which also grows apples and cherries, has added 200 acres of hops. Smith plans to continue adding more, but land in the Yakima Valley, which grows the majority of the state’s hops, is scarce.
“Everywhere that can grow apples usually does … it is more lucrative,” says Smith, pointing out a large apple orchard up the hill from his Tomahawk hop fields. “We are competing for acreage, labor, management … for everything with the apples.”
In 2012, apple growers employed 45,000 seasonal workers, about two-thirds of the state’s entire seasonal agricultural pool. Hops, on the other hand, employed 2,337 workers.
Last September, apple growers said they were short about 4,000 workers in a survey by the state Employment Security Department. The demand is expected to be even higher this year, with apple growers forecasting a record crop of 140 million boxes, or about 6 billion pounds.
Washington hop growers expect to produce 55.3 million pounds this year, the largest harvest since 2009 at 75 million pounds, according to the USDA.
With the number of Washington craft breweries doubling since 2009, the hop market has had to shift focus from traditional high-yield, bitter hops to the more popular and more valuable, lower-yield aroma hops.
Popular new hop varieties, such as Citra and Cascade, have already been locked up by existing brewers, leaving newcomers to scramble.
Bushnell Craft Brewing, which opened in Redmond in March, was able to find just one pound of Citra, which adds a citrus quality to the beer.
Jeremy Eubanks, who opened Flycaster Brewing in Kirkland in May, had to use a substitute for Cascade, which is both bitter and aromatic.
“I had to change my [ale] recipes due to the limitations on what hops were available,” Eubanks says.
Knowing the worker shortage will not improve as farms increase hop production, Loftus Ranches was the first hop grower to use the federal government’s H-2A temporary-work visa program.
Smith hired 19 workers from Mexico to harvest hops this year and expects to hire more than 50 next year. The apple growers are expected to hire 8,500 H-2A workers for this season.
Smith is renting apartments in Yakima for his new workers and pays for transportation to and from the farm.
“We’ll probably end up building our own housing in the future,” he says.
H-2A workers are contracted to stay on a specific farm. Other workers can leave in the middle of the harvest to go pick apples, because it pays more, Smith says.
Last week, Loftus lost three truck drivers to the apple industry. Working three men down for a couple of days while finding replacements put them even farther behind on their post-harvest field work, he says.
At the beginning of the season, Smith guessed his crew would finish harvesting last Tuesday, but they didn’t finish until Saturday.
“We lost four days … it may not sound like a lot, but that is 10 percent,” he says. “It could make a substantial difference because there is a small harvest window.” (Much like grapes, there is an optimal time to pick the plant before it loses quality.) Drivers also hang the vines on the picking machine, one of the more difficult tasks, Smith said.
Smith has increased wages to entice people to work hops, but said he can’t afford to compete with apples at $30 a bin.
He now pays $11.87 an hour, up from $10.30 two years ago, and his crew works 80 hours a week.
This year Loftus expanded its kiln, which dries the hops; added a new baling room to package them and added a new picking machine.
Bringing in more equipment to handle added acreage is a vicious cycle, he says, because he needs more workers to operate the equipment.
Jose Omar Aguilaris, a new employee from Honduras, is one of three men who hangs vines on the new picking machine. He says making $11.87 an hour is more than he would make in Honduras, so he doesn’t need to leave to go pick apples.