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‘Organic’ label vexes hop farmers, brewers

Matt Lincecum, founder and brewer of the Fremont Brewing Company in Seattle, holds a glass of Cowiche Canyon Organic Fresh Hop Ale, brewed using organic hops grown in the Yakima Valley.  (Associated Press)
Matt Lincecum, founder and brewer of the Fremont Brewing Company in Seattle, holds a glass of Cowiche Canyon Organic Fresh Hop Ale, brewed using organic hops grown in the Yakima Valley. (Associated Press)

USDA allows conventionally grown ingredient

YAKIMA – It wasn’t until recently that Moxee farmer Pat Smith finished selling a crop of organic hops that he grew two years ago.

But he’s still sitting on another 100 bales from a more recent harvest.

“We’ll probably sell them all eventually,” he said. “It takes longer than it should.”

That’s because Smith and a small handful of other Yakima Valley organic hop growers are struggling against federal regulations that allow brewers to use less expensive nonorganic hops to make beer that can be sold under the organic label.

Now, Smith and the others are petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to require brewers to use organic hops in beer labeled organic.

Their petition will be considered when the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board meets next week in Madison, Wis.

“We suspect if the petition was successful, we’d be able to sell them quite a bit quicker,” said Smith, who also farms 700 acres of nonorganic hops.

Quicker, and at a price that reflects the higher cost of growing organically, said Toppenish hop grower Jason Perrault, who grows both organic and nonorganic hops.

Rather than spraying herbicides, workers remove weeds from fields by hand. That costs about $7,000 an acre compared with about $5,000 for nonorganic hops.

With nonorganic hops selling for about $6 a pound, organic growers need a price at least double that, Smith said.

Fremont Brewing in Seattle believes that the state could easily lead the nation’s organic hops industry because it’s already one of the largest hop producers in the world.

“The point of all this is not that we have an angle,” said owner Matt Lincecum. “The point is that we are in a position and have a responsibility. We’re committed to help jump-start the (organic hops) industry.”

There are four organic hop growers in the Yakima Valley, including Smith. Their organic crops account for about 100 acres, just a tiny share of the Valley’s 30,500 acres of hops.

The Yakima Valley accounts for more than 30 percent of the world’s hops production.

Organic production in the Valley has grown from nearly none three years ago to its current 100 acres, but organic growers say they need a better market to survive.

“The future is pretty bleak without a commitment from organic brewers,” Smith said.

But Soo Kim, spokeswoman for the USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service in Washington, D.C., said the board only makes recommendations based on what it hears from the industries and the public.

“It’s a fully public integrated process,” she said.

The National Organic Standards Board is recommending that hops remain listed until 2013 to give brewers two seasons to secure contracts for organic hops.

Not everyone in the hop industry wants to see a change.

Moxee hop grower Ed. St. Mary, who also chairs the Washington Hop Commission, said that if organic brewers were forced to use organic hops, it would drive them to overseas markets because only a few varieties are produced organically here.

Of the 35 varieties of hops grown in the Yakima Valley, only five are grown organically.

While labor costs are considerably more for organic farmers, production simply isn’t meeting demand yet, he said, while noting that his comments don’t reflect the official stance of the Hop Commission.

“I can’t blame the guys for trying to develop a market for organic hops. I don’t blame them for trying to get a premium price,” he said. “But on the other hand, I think they want to create an exclusive market for their hops by having brewers buy organic hops when they don’t have to.”

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