Family and friends main ingredients in hops farm success

Growing hops isn’t easy and Indiana isn’t necessarily the best climate for it. Fortunately Dean Vonderheide's wife’s family farm, the Hoffman Farm, provided the necessary land. Its 340 acres abut the White River lending itself to the name of the venture, White River Hops.

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Sourced from Dubois County Free Press

This is his favorite time of the harvest; the moment in the waning summer light when his friends and family sit around telling jokes and stories while they pick the hops from the year’s vines.

Lawn chairs scrape and creak in the old chicken barn that’s been converted into a hops preparation line. Beer is involved, of course.

It’s tedious work to pick the buds from the 20-foot vines that grew on the Haysville farm over the summer. They grow up the coconut twine in groups of three; a bine. Each bine takes up to an hour to clear through by hand. Buds are graded visually for size before being plucked and dropped into a five gallon bucket; 40 lbs. harvested in an evening with friends and family rotating in and out of the circle of lawn chairs.

“Next year, we’ll have a harvester,” Dean Vonderheide said laughing at what his friends and family have put up with as he attempts to grow a new hops business on the perfect hill on his wife’s family farm just east of Haysville. With the acre plot expanding to three in two years, the work has been blessed with many hands.

“There is a hops farm between here and French Lick that I heard lost about half of his crop because he couldn’t get it picked,” he observed.

Dean walks along the rows pushing spikes into the ground to hold the coconut twine in place. Groups of three vines—a bine—will grow up the lines over the summer creating a canopy about 16 feet off the ground. Coconut twine can be composted with the vines at the end of the harvest.

Dean began looking at the crop as a business soon after retiring from Kimball. He had put in 31 years with the company, most recently as the vice president of human resources at Kimball International. “I was ready to do something outside,” he said.

A friend of his who works at Bloomington based Upland Brewery had mentioned there was a shortage of hops producers so Dean began researching it. He attended a seminar put on by Purdue University in January of 2015. Purdue was pushing for hops to be added to the state’s agricultural repertoire. With the explosive growth of breweries in recent years, the move to bring the earthy main ingredient home seemed to be a natural extension.

When he returned from the seminar, he knew he was going to give it a go to see if it would work out.

Ellen Vonderheide trimmed shoots back and assisted the vines as they wrapped around the twine guidelines. Each plant is manually helped to wrap clockwise around the twine as it grows.

Growing hops isn’t easy and Indiana isn’t necessarily the best climate for it. Fortunately Dean’s wife’s family farm, the Hoffman Farm, provided the necessary land. Its 340 acres abut the White River lending itself to the name of the venture, White River Hops.

The partners in the new business decided a nook on a rolling hill formed a nice microclimate to support the hops growth. With breezes from the west, a protective line of trees on the south and good drainage, the plants shoot up with some help from the many hands.

Before that though, the one acre plot of 2015 needed to be developed.

With very little machinery, Dean and any volunteers he could wrangle began building. Hop vines grow over 20-feet in length, wrapping around twine. The twine is tied to steel cables and form v-shaped tunnels as the vines grow. The cables are held in place by 24-foot tamarack posts specially ordered from New York state.

Each post had to be manually stripped of bark on the bottom four feet and then sealed before being set in the ground.

Family friend Jim Thyen drove the tractor between the rows of posts dragging a special trailer with a raised platform used to tie the lines to the steel cables about 16 feet in the air.

With his background in manufacturing processes combined with the intense amount of research he conducted, Dean laid the hops farm out meticulously. Each of the over 220 tamarack posts is numbered so anyone walking in the grove of vines can easily find and return to plants in need of care.

Posts and cables set, Dean and Ellen planted 440 rhizomes and young plants in about an acre the first year. It resulted in a couple hundred pounds of dried hops that was distributed to several Indiana breweries as samples. In their second year, they have learned a few costly lessons and made some changes to production. They also added another 1,780 plants and expanded to three acres.

Dean jokes he is now the second largest hops farm in Indiana.

Dean’s brother Kurt tied each of the hundreds of lines off on the steel cables. Eventually he was able to tie two lines simultaneously, one with each hand.

The first year they dealt with drought and had to add irrigation systems. 2016 brought record amounts of rain. A bout of downy mildew resulted. One weekend, Japanese beetles showed up and began decimating the rows of Perle vines. A big loss for the farm as the Perle variety of hops is highly sought after by brewers.

Balance around his duties as Jasper Common Council member and the chairman of the Jasper Public Library Board of Trustees entrenched in getting the referendum passed, the hops farm has extended his full days to 15 hours of nearly constant movement.

Each day of the season requires work. Constant weeding, trimming and inspecting to ensure the plants flourish. All done by hand, even Dean’s mother-in-law Mary Ann Schroeder helped weed and then joined the picking parties. Ellen, who was a little skeptical of the new operation in the beginning, could be found on the farm nearly daily.

Dean, early in the 2016 season, stapled the guidelines to the ground creating the paths for the vines to grow up.

Comprised of several varieties of hops—Zeus, Chinook, Cascade, Newport, Glacier, Centennial and Perle, the vines grow quickly up to two feet each week with the constant attention by Dean and the volunteers.

By the end of the growing season, the three vines per strand of twine will be filled with the hops cones; about 2,000 can be harvested from each strand. The process is fairly straight forward, the strand is cut down and laid carefully on the trailer bed for transportation to the former chicken barn. There the volunteers grab them and begin plucking the hops by hand.

Over 63 volunteers helped this year. A board in the barn lists each volunteer by name.

Midsummer blossoms will turn into hops. For those wondering, hops provide the balance to the sweetness found in the sugars as they ferment to create beer. It also adds to the aromatic qualities of beer

The hops is measured for moisture content and then transferred to special drying racks left in a drying room in the back of the barn. Dean checks on them early in the morning and if they have dried enough, he transfers them to bags and places them in a freezer.

About half way through the six-week harvest this year, the freezer went down and everything had to be transferred to another location to save the hard work until they could proceed to the next stage.

Marty Beckman and Kurt Vonderheide feed the hops into a grinder one evening in late September.

After the harvest is done, the dried hops is ground into a powder and then compressed into pellets before being vacuum sealed for shipping.

The entire barn is filled with the earthy, spicy aroma of the hops.

Tin Man Brewing in Evansville bought all of this year’s harvest.

Dean, his sister-in-law Selena and family friend Lisa Schmidt measure the pelletized hops out before vacuum packing them for shipment to Tin Man.

In the end, Dean expects the three acres of 2220 plants to yield over 650 lbs of dried and pelletized hops.

For 2017, instead of expanding again, Dean and his partners have decided they will work on refining the processes involved on the farm. The purchase of a harvester will cut their picking time down to a fraction of what it is now. On top of the time savings, it is a sound economical decision. “We can’t afford the food and the beer (for the volunteers),” Dean laughed.

The best part of the business for Dean has been that time with family and friends. “Working with my brothers, Kurt, Brad and Don, on a project like this as well as all my friends and extended family coming up has been a blessing,” he said.

With the season nearly behind him, he still has to prep the fields for the winter. The plants will begin to come up again around April and the process will start all over.