BONNERS FERRY, ID
Decades of Harvest: The Story of Ed Atkins, General Manager at Elk Mountain Hop Farms
INTERVIEWED AUGUST 23, 2016
AT ELK MOUNTAIN FARMS - BONNERS FERRY, ID
Located just ten miles south of the Canadian border, in the panhandle of Idaho, sits Elk Mountain Farms, the world's largest contiguous hop farm. Owned and operated by Anheuser-Busch since the late 1980s, the farm is as picturesque as they come—with 1,700 acres of hop-laden trellises nestled in the Kootenay River Valley, it's hard to imagine a more ideal place to practice your trade as a hop grower.
Despite how the acreage looks today, things haven't always been so golden at Elk Mountain Farms. General Manager Ed Atkins has been at the farm since its inception, and has witnessed the dramatic ups and downs over the years. Once one of the biggest suppliers of hops to AB, the farm has found new life since the company's acquisition of Goose Island Beer Co. We caught up with the man at the helm to hear how he went from mechanic to hop grower, how the best of times crept into the near abandonment of hop growing at the farm, how things have turned for the better in recent years, and how he manages his time during harvest season.
Ed, how long have you been with Elk Mountain Farms?
I've been here since it was constructed in 1987, so close to 30 years.
The scale of this place is incredible, as we see it today. But it must have been very different back then. What was the farm like back in '87?
This was the wild west. It was pretty wild back in the day. This was nothing but pasture land, full of Timothy-grass and a little bit of wheat and barley–with no roads into the property. In the Spring of '87, we came in here, pushed a road in, and started putting hop trellises up. We built two wings of housing and built the original processing plant. We built all of that that year and actually picked hops that fall.
You're now harvesting a vast variety of hops in 2016. But do you recall the varietals picked in your first harvest?
Why did Anheuser-Busch pick Bonners Ferry, Idaho to build a hop farm?
August Bush III commissioned the farm. Back in the mid '80s, there was a lot of price fixing amongst the hop dealers, and they eventually got caught. August was a forward-thinking individual and he wanted a secure a reliable supply of hops. He was heavily dependent on Hallertau, Fuggle, and Saaz for Bud and Bud Light. So he said, "You know what, I'm not going to be in this position. I want to understand the cost of hops so I know whether I'm being taken advantage of in the market." The other thing he wanted to ensure was that he had a secure supply of hops. So boom–he commissioned the farm. Hops were actually grown here as an experiment since the late '60s, in a small planting just north of Bonners Ferry. So he had a pretty good indication that hops would grow well here. It wasn't a lot of risk in terms of knowing whether that variety could be grown here or not.
What's your background prior to Elk Mountain Farms? Are hops in the family?
No, I actually came from the logging industry. I come from a family of farmers, loggers, and miners—fourth generation here. I'm a technician by trade and I started here at the farm as a mechanic, running the shop for five years.
Born and raised in Northern Idaho?
Yea, my great great grandfather's homestead was here in the 1800s, in Bonners Ferry. I went to work in the forestry industry as a mechanic which slowed in the mid '80s after a lot of the federal ground was locked up due to the endangered species act. The logging and mining industries started to collapse.
So you needed something new. How did you get involved with the farm?
I knew one of the local part store owners who told me about this project. They had actually hired him to be the maintenance manager, even though he owned the parts store downtown. So I said, "Why not, I've got nothing to do." So I started working at a small operation we had just north of town, which we've since shut down. I worked there a couple months and my boss never really showed up. Well that was fine, I knew what to do. So one day they said, "We're building this new farm, how about you go run the shop out there?" I'd never run a shop before, but why not? That's kinda how I got my start and I made my way up through the years.
So you were new to the hop business and you're suddenly working for one of the biggest breweries in the world. Did you have any idea of what you were getting into?
No, none of us did. All of us when we started were, for the most part, in our 20s with young families. We'd been around hops and ag, but we certainly didn't know all the ins and outs. We were all afforded an opportunity. And fortunately our manager–my predecessor–worked in hops in Yakima while he was in school so he had all the basics.
It seems there's always a new trendy hop that every brewer is trying to get their hands on. What's another big change you've witnessed over the years?
Up until the late '90s, August Busch III was really stuck on whole-cone hops. Meanwhile, all the other big brewers had moved away from whole-cone years earlier to pellets, or in the case of SAB, to extract. August was also stuck on the only brewers he'd use were German, and they had to come from the old country. He was convinced that if you weren't German, you weren't going to make good beer. At some point, he hired this guy named Doug Muhleman, a UC Davis graduate. Eventually, he convinced August that the quality of the beer would improve with pelleted hops. So that was a major shift for us.
What about more recent changes. How have things evolved in the last few years?
Obviously AB was bought [by InBev] in the fall of 2008. Shortly after, they came in and started looking at inventory. August always had this simple view that you can't brew beer with "this" [motioning toward the air/nothing]. He was always really long on inventories. It was a little disjointed and certain folks had no idea just how long we were on certain varieties. We were like 15 years long on some.
What do you mean by 'long'?
Fifteen years of inventory. If you stopped buying that particular hop today, it would be 15 years of recurring use before you burned through it. Unfortunately, a lot of those long varieties were ours. So we pulled out a lot of the hops and planted wheat, canola, and chickpeas. Chickpeas weren't too successful, but wheat and canola were. Those were our mainstays for about two years.
Wow, so you went from one of AB's biggest suppliers to almost nothing as recently as 2008?
Yea, we ripped 'em all out—all but about 50 acres. We lost most of our workforce. We've managed to hang onto a few key people but most of them vanished. We were at this tipping point where the farm wasn't profitable. Wheat and canola won't even pay the property tax.
It's difficult to picture this place without the miles of hop trellises.
If you came in here then, there was nothing in the way of hops. It was pretty sad. We were all about keeping key people, as many as we could. We had to lay-off some seasonal folks—quite frankly, about 150 of them. They had helped build this place and knew nothing else. They were in their 20s, and this was home to them. Their kids were born and raised here. They were crushed. It was a tough time.
It sounds like you really prefer growing hops to wheat and canola.
Oh yea, hops are a lot more fun, and a lot more challenging. Wheat and canola are pretty simple. Quite frankly as a hop farmer, you don't get any credit. Everybody equates growing hops to wheat and canola. Those types of crops literally are 'simple.' You plant them, you fertilize them, spray them once–maybe twice–and you harvest. You have these large gaps of time where you're just not all that busy. It's a pretty cushy life. There're a lot of guys in the valley I'm envious of at times.
You appreciate that extra 'reward' of seeing your product in a beer.
The real reward is that we have a lot of people. You don't need many people to grow wheat and canola, but hops is a people business. It all coincides with the beer business—beer is a people business, about building relationships. Hops are that way too. Wheat and canola are simple commodities. A big difference is that you don't grow hops without contracts. If you do, you're suicidal. It's very expensive. You can grow wheat and canola for $150-250 an acre. Hops are about $6000 an acre. There's a lot more risk.
What was the biggest hurdle when learning how to best grow hops?
We still don't know everything about it. It's constant learning. A hop plant is a funny thing. You take a plant, and you go out in the middle of nowhere, you water and fertilize it– and that thing will grow like nuts. It's a weed, you can't get rid of it. But grow them in a large setting where you have all the disease load, especially mildew, it's tough.
Is that a pretty common issue?
Yea, it's what ran hops out of the East originally. It drove them to the West and then from there back towards the East. Of course now we have better tools to combat disease and hop breeding for resistance.
Looking at it now, it's incredible there were virtually no hops here just four years ago. How did you manage to things turn around?
We were approached by a grower out of Yakima about growing one of their varieties—Amarillo. We're like, "Ok, maybe we can make this work." If you agree to let us have access to Amarillo, which at the time was highly sought after and still is, we'll grow for you. That will get us back in the hop business. At the same time, Goose Island started talking to us...
Sounds like perfect timing. What were you thinking when Goose first reached out?
Oh, I was excited. My first exposure to Goose Island was this fella named Brett Porter. My boss at the time was looking at these opportunities. He calls me and says, "You need to talk to Brett Porter." Well, I don't know who Brett Porter is. He said, "He's the Head Brewer over at Goose Island." Ok...what's Goose Island? "Well, it's a little craft brewer in Chicago."
Who'd just been bought up by AB, at the time. How did that conversation go?
As soon as I talked to him, the passion and fire was there. He was so excited and couldn't wait to get out here. I'd just gone through this period of not growing hops, maybe never growing hops again — I didn't know. So I talked to this guy, and I mean, the fire was lit with me. I was like, "We're getting back in the hop business." This guy had all kinds of ideas. So, a long story short, he came out and we started talking about all the possibilities. He had ideas from Amarillo and things blossomed from there.
How would you describe the northern Idaho beer drinker?
Coors Light. We've never been able to change that, even with us being here. It's the number one beer here. Bud is big here, but Coors Light is the beer.
So you've grown the hops that have gone into some of the biggest beers in the world for decades. Now, your hops are used in beers that people line up for in the freezing cold for hours. Are you still a Bud guy or are you drinking more craft?
Nobody drinks just Bud anymore. I like my Bud, don't get me wrong. I like light lagers at times, but I like the variety too. I've developed a taste for IPAs. I've got to admit, the first IPAs I was exposed to were really high-IBU stuff. I've kind of drawn back. I like lighter IPAs like the Goose IPA. It's lighter, more drinkable. I don't like to sip beer, I like to drink beer.
So what would we find in your fridge at home?
There're two beers in there. Bud and Goose IPA. Plain and simple, that's all there is. There might be an occasional Bud Light that sneaks in there for my wife. Once in awhile, if there's some Bourbon County Vanilla around...I'll smuggle some of that.
Photography at Elk Mountain by Jack Muldowney.
A huge thank you to Ed for stepping away to talk shop during his hop harvest and busiest time of year. Check out our impressions of our visit to Elk Mountain Farms during their 2016 harvest. Hops from the farm can be found in dozens of Goose Island and other AB owned craft breweries around the United States.