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Let me hop picking begin!

At the beginning of August most of the hop plants are finished and ready to be harvested. Hops start forming on the plant in July after the plants “bur-out”. Hops are cones bright green cones that hang from the vines. If you break one open you can see a yellow powder called lupin. Once the hop cones have matured and dried out a little they are ready to be picked and harvested.

This is and can be a very time consuming process. For this reason, most hopyards host hop harvest events to help attract volunteers. Two of the hop farms I worked on, Whipple Creek Farms and Blue Mountain Brewery had these types of events. Marketing is crucial in getting the word out about these festivities and attracting volunteers. Social Media sites like Facebook are vital through this process. Posters, newspaper articles, and radio announcements are also useful and used. One way to attract potential volunteers while helping support other local artists and businesses is by adding additional activities and events. Whipple Creek Farms hop harvest was sponsored and supported by Devil’s Backbone. During this harvest festival they also included face painting, live music, local food and a new beer release.

Due to timing and a previous commitment I had to leave Virginia before the hop harvest at Whipple Creek Farms. However, I was able to attend and work at Blue Mountain Brewery’s. We arrived to Blue Mountain at around 9:30 am to start cutting down the hop plants. We did this using a ladder and the cart we used for stringing. We would then either bring the plants to tents where volunteers would be sitting at picking from 11am- closing, or cut the vines into 4 foot sections to be fed into the hop picking machine. At Blue Mountain Brewery’s festival the volunteers were promised a free lunch if they picked for 2 or more hours. This helped ensure that people were picking and encouraged them to stay for a couple hours. Volunteers sat and picked under tents while eating food, drinking beer and listening to local and live music.

The hop specialist, Stan Driver, purchased the hop picker last year. It is a fairly new piece of machinery and unfortunately has a lot of kinks that still need to be worked out. You insert the hop plants and twirl it around as these teeth strip leaves and the cones. These then tumble down into this cylinder and come down on a conveyer belt. Harvesting hops is an extremely labor intensive process. Hand picking takes hours, days and weeks. The hop harvester greatly reduces this and is extremely beneficial.

Although I sadly had to miss the Whipple Creek Farm and Devils Backbone hop harvest, I was fortunate enough to participate in another. Blue Mountain Brewery harvested about 25 trash bags full of hops and Whipple Creek Farms harvested about 800 pounds. Some of the hops from each hopyard will be dried and stored. Others will be used to make a “wet” hops beer.

I got to see how important marketing is and how many hop farms wouldn’t be able to harvest their yields without the help of volunteers. It was a great experience to work with the hop harvester, pick by hand and I got to meet a lot of great people.

Farmers Markets Everywhere

Since I’ve been in Virginia I’ve worked at 4 farmers markets in the area; Harrisonburg, Rockbridge, Staunton and Lexington. I went to Harrisonburg and Stuanton with Mountain View Farm Products and Lexington and Rockbridge with Cherry Ridge Farm. Harrisonburg Farmers Market is one of the largest in the Shenendoah Valley area. It’s set up in similar in Ithaca’s since it is also located in a large wooden pavilion. It is open Tuesdays and Saturdays and is a highly competitive market for vendors. The market managers and staff look for unique products and crafts like handmade dog collars, glass blowing and wood carvings. Along with these specialty items, they also have vendors that carry traditional vegetables and produce. Harrisonburg only accepts vendors that sell products that were made or grown directly from their farm. This helps ensure that customers are getting and supporting local products.

Mountain View Farm Products stand at the Harrisonburg Market

Harrisonburg also allows credit transactions because their volunteer booth uses a system where they can swipe credit and debit cards and exchange it for wooden tokens that can then be used as money with the vendors. This system also takes food stamps and then the market matches the amount. For an example, if someone had a ten dollar food stamp, the market would give them another ten and they would have twenty to spend. The market also has a cooking demonstration that offers benefits for low-income individuals if they come and watch it. This demonstration also uses ingredients from the market. I believe that this system is extremely beneficial to people in the community and helps promote healthy eating.

Marketing is very important to farmers markets. Many markets in the area had Facebook pages and used other social media sites to help promote the market, vendors and help increase awareness of the local food movement.

The Rockbridge, Stuanton and Lexington markets are much smaller and are not located in a pavilion or other infrastructure. For these markets the vendors bring tents and set them up in a designated parking lot. They also require all vendors products to be brought and produced directly on their farms.

Some of the markets are very competitive. There is a huge waiting list for the Harrisonburg market and a lot of politics involved. The Lexington market is also pretty picky about the vendors they let in. These systems showed me how important it is to have unique products, plants, produce and crafts. Value added products seemed to sell well because there was an abundance of beautiful produce. Its hard for vendors to compete and most of the markets had set prices for more mainstream produce.

Marketing for the volunteers and organizers of the farmers markets is vital. Marketing for vendors is also extremely important. Set up, product displays and speaking with customers all play pivotal roles in this process. Being friendly, inviting and informative is also important when dealing with customers and I gained experience and confidence in all of these areas. I was also able to meet a lot of wonderfully interesting customers and other vendors.

Rain, rain go away!

During the early months of my internship, the region I was in experienced some wacky and unusually wet weather. In late May and June we experienced heavy rain on a daily and weekly basis. Because of this, multiple farms and the community experienced different effects from this. There was major flooding of fields, roads and homes. At times sections of the bottom field at Cherry Ridge Farm were completely submerged in water for days. The rain and flooding created some negatives and positives for the farming community in the area. Some examples of these were that the outside tomato crops get diseases and died and potatoes were rotting in the ground.

Another crop that was greatly effected were the hops at Whipple Creek Farm. In June we realized that some of our plants had downy mildew. Downy mildew produces stunted shoots and yellowed spotting of the leaves. We soon realized after doing a more advanced sweep of the field that the majority of the plants were infected.

Our next mode of action was to completely weed the beds of all the hops and strip all the leaves and new growth about 2 feet up the plant. This was extremely time consuming and labor intensive and took us about a week and a half. In conjunction to this we began using a fungicide called Zerotol to help control this problem. We used a mixture of 2 oz. Zerotol, and a gallon of water. We then used hand sprayers and individually sprayed every plant. This was another job that took a lot of time to complete and was also a health hazard if the person spraying wasn’t wearing the proper protective gear. We continued to spray about twice a week for about the next month and a half. The mildew eventually subsided and seemed to have mostly gotten under control.

The weather continued to be rainy throughout the summer and never seemed to be normal. This spring I took a class about Climate Change and Food Systems and learned about flooding and the problems it might cause our farmers. I feel like I definitely experienced the challenges that a rainy season brings and it helped prepare me for the some of the problems I might encounter later down the road with other jobs I have.

Mountain View Farm Products: Cheese, cheese and ice cream

Throughout my internship I was able to work with multiple different farmers and their businesses. One that I spent a lot of time with was Mountain View Farm, a 250 acre dairy farm that also made farm fresh dairy products. In the summer Mountain View Farm milks about 180 of their 200 cows twice a day, during the winter this number decreases. Their cows are grazed and fed a non-GMO grain. The owners, Fred and Christy Huger and their three wonderful kids live and work on the farm. Fred handles and manages the dairy and cows while Christie makes the dairy products. Their business has a great story and has evolved and grown in a short amount of time. Christie originally started making cheese out of their kitchen, then upgraded to a trailer. As demand continued to grow she quit her full time job as an art teacher and decided to make cheeses full time and eventually built a cheese making and cheese aging facility on the farm. They sell and make a variety of different products like hard and soft cheeses, milk, butter and ice cream. All the their hard cheeses are made from unpasteurized milk and because of certain laws have to age it for 60 days. Their soft cheeses and spreads all use pasteurized milk. Mountain View Farm makes a variety of different cheese products like: jumpin’ jack chive, cheddar, feta, gouda, swiss, pimento cheese, mozzarella, fromage blanc and colby. Many of these cheeses have different flavoring added, like herbs or habanero apricot jelly.

During some rainy days I helped make cheese at Mountain View Farms. One day I took the cheese wheels out of the press and put them in a mixture of salt water. I also took cheese from their aging room and dusted off the mold, then painted wax on the bottom and sides. I helped churn, make and package fresh butter, and this butter was amazingly delicious. Everything sold was hand packaged. When we made salted butter I sprinkled in the sea salt then hand stirred it in.


One very interesting business and marketing strategy that Mountain View Farm used was with their product, Meow Milk. This milk was commercially sold as a pet food product because it was hand bottled, lightly pasteurized and non-homogenized. For these reasons it could not be legally sold for humans. Despite this, it was a top selling item.

I also helped make mozzarella which was a delicious process! I stirred the cheese curds, then stacked them to be put in plastic bags and refrigorate overnight. The next day you have to heat up two pots of water, then put the curds in the first pot for a couple minutes, then switch it to the next. Then you take the curds and stretch the mozzarella and form a baseball sized ball. The trickiest part of all this is not eating all the warm and gooey cheese.

I also was able to go to two local farmers markets with Mountain View and help sell their products. I also grew very close with this amazing family and their kids even took me out shooting and hunting. The Huger family taught me about cheese making, running a profitable business, marketing products and working extremely hard and efficiently. I had a truly wonderful time with them and cant wait to go back and eat more cheese!

Vegetable gardens and Cherry Ridge Farm

The community that I live in has a lot of amazing people and farmers, and I have been able to visit and work on a couple other farms and projects. I spent a lot of time working on our vegetable garden here at Whipple Creek Farm. We planted about ten different varieties of tomatoes including beef steak, Cherokee purple, roma and early girl’s. We used pig cage panels to create rows and eventually to help support the tomatoes. We also planted broccoli, silver queen corn, bok choy, lettuce, cucumbers, squash, beans, swiss chard, artichokes and beets. We then used mulch mixed with manure as a weed control.

I worked on another farm about once a week called Cherry Ridge Farm. I  helped out in their greenhouse, harvested vegetables for market, weeded and learned to can and preserve. The owner, David Bebe has a beautiful greenhouse with an aquaponic system with tilapia and a variety of tropical plants like figs and bananas.

There are also different houseplants, crops and seedlings. In the greenhouse I usually weeded the beds and pots, re-potted a lot of plants and seedlings and helped perform other odd tasks. I also helped propagate leaf cuttings of snail tailed begonias. We first made a couple fresh leaf cuttings then cut each leaf into small pieces about a couple inches long and wide. We made small incisions on the veins then lightly dusted them with a plant growth hormone. After that step we stuck them in the soil. These ornamental crops are very important for Cherry Ridge Farms business because they sell them for $10-30 and are very popular with costumers at Farmers Markets.

Cherry Ridge Farm sells their produce and value added products at the Lexington and Rockbridge Farmers markets. They have been experimenting with value added products like syrups, dried fruits and candies, all of which are made on the farm using their own products. They grow their own ginger in their greenhouse and sell it whole but also make a candied ginger out of it. This delicious treat takes a long time to prepare because you need to peel and cut pounds of fresh ginger, boil it, drain the water, add sugar, and wait for it to caramelize. Another product they sell and I helped make is ginger and shagbark hickory syrup. We saved the boiled water from the ginger candies and boiled it with sugar to make a syrup. We did a similar thing with shagbark. You first collect the shagbark, roast it in the oven, boil it and use that water. Other products included English mustard, peppered jellies chocolates with fresh fruit and dried figs. These products were large selling items, increased diversity and were unique.

I really enjoyed working at Cherry Ridge and with David Beebe. I learned a lot about a variety of plants, greenhouse operations, marketing and making specialty products. I acquired many skills that I will definitely implement into my life and career.

Virginia Hop Yard: Week 1

Greetings from Virginia everyone! This blog post follows my first week at my internship at Whipple Creek Farm, which is primarily a hops farm. Our farm has about ¾ of an acre of cascade hops. A little over half the plants were planted this year, and the other half are three years old. We grow cascade because they are very resistant to certain diseases and perform the best in this environment. On the farm we also have vegetables, chickens and piglets! I arrived here Sunday, May 26th and it’s already been a crazy time.

On Memorial Day I worked at our hop field stringing hops.  To string the hops you first need to put up the string using a ladder or tall device, then stick it into the ground on each side of the irrigation using hop clips. Then you pick 3-4 plants and twist them up the string clockwise. Our goal was to get the all the first year hops strung by the end of the week.

After a busy morning, I then went to Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company in Lexington Virginia to tour the facility and help my roommate (who is a brewer there) and her co-worker do a Belgium stout homebrew. Devil’s Backbone’s Lexington location is called the Outpost and has a 30 barrel brew system (1 barrel is 31 gallons). This was such a wonderful experience because I saw and helped with certain tasks required for larger beer production and do things like drain yeast. I also got to help make what will hopefully be a delicious homebrew.

Over the next couple of days we continued stringing hops. Then on Thursday I went to two other hop yards, Blue Mountain and The Barrel House. Blue Mountain Brewery has four and one year cascade plants, and intercrops them with soybeans as a weed control and to increase soil health. I spent the majority of the day helping string hops at The Barrel House. We used a cart that was pulled by a lawn mower type machine to first tie up the strings to the wires. I went up on the cart, learned the knot they use and finished a couple of rows. Later in the day The Barrel House had a stringing hops event that they posted on their facebook page and local newspapers that asked for volunteers to come from 3-7 pm to help string hops and eat free food. This was an excellent marketing strategy and we were able to have enough volunteers to get a couple rows finished. We drank good beer, ate delicious food and had great conversations while getting a lot of work done.

On Friday there was more stringing in the morning at Whipple Creek. We were so close to finishing, only one row left, but we had to stop early to go to West Virginia to pick up the piglets! We bought three Gloucester Old Spot piglets, two female and one male all about 2 months old. Before we picked them up we set up a small paddock on the property so they could graze on the tall fescue and orchard grass there. We used electric movable fencing and plan on rotating them weekly. The pigs will be bred and used for meat.

On Saturday I accompanied April (my roommate) and Devil’s Backbone to Strings and Spirits, a bluegrass and beer and wine festival in Roanoke Virginia. It was a super hot sunny day but I got to listen to good music, meet new people and try some local beer, cider and wine. It was a great festival that helped showcase local musicians, artists and brewers. We then went and got a tour of Buried City Brewery, whose main products include Dam Lager and Red Clay IPA, before we made our way back home.

On Sunday we finally finished stringing all the hops! Next step, weeding and mulching.

I made a new best friend. Everyone, meet Muchen.

Overall, it was a pretty great start to what I hope will be a wonderful summer.

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