A field of 17-foot-tall poles has become an extension of George and Leah Shetka’s Forest Lake hillside, but it took a while for community residents to understand they weren’t building something — they were growing hops.
“We put the poles up and [George] was at work one day and someone came to the door,” Leah Shetka said. “It was some county person saying ‘we’ve had some inquiries, people think you’re building up here.’ And I said, no, that’s just my garden.”
But it’s much more than a garden. It’s the Shetka’s home, farm and business, as their initial purchase of 75 hops plants became more labor than they bargained for. The work mushroomed into growing, picking, drying and packaging hops while taking care of almost 50 animals, such as goats and lambs, to help trim weeds and create fertilizer.
George and Leah Shetka began “Hippity Hops Farm” in 2008 as one of, if not the only, farm in Minnesota with the purpose of growing and selling hops, utilizing a one-acre plot of grass in front of their home. George Shetka was laid off from his job at Fujifilm more than a year ago, but he and Leah have found solace – and some frustration – in the tedious work it takes to become Minnesota’s premiere local hops supplier.
Five years after their first foray into the business, the Shetkas own and operate the largest hops farm in Minnesota, using 150 plants on a quarter-acre and selling hops nationally and internationally while grinding through the intensive labor of raising and processing 800 pounds per year.
“We should’ve started this 30 years ago,” Leah Shetka said. “We’re too old for this, but my dream is to step out and see the whole field with hops growing.”
The Shetka’s business began as a simple thought: “We’re tired of mowing our front yard.”
After a family referral and some research, they chose to plant perennial Cascade hops, which are an especially durable, disease-resistant type of hops and are easy to grow in the Midwest. The Shetkas have never lost product due to frost or disease.
“Hops are native throughout temperate climates,” said Charlie Rohwer, a research associate at the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca. “You can find them growing wild in Minnesota.”
Rohwer, who has studied hop growth in Minnesota since 2010, said the 45-degree latitude of Forest Lake is right in the middle of the 35-degree-to-55-degree range for an ideal hops climate, judged by the acidity and type of soil, sunlight exposure and type of hop.
Rohwer said the expansion of craft breweries in Minnesota bodes well for small hops farms like “Hippity,” because the region as a whole is an untapped market for hop growth.
“In total, there’s not a lot of [hops] acreage in Minnesota,” Rohwer said. “But there will be in a couple of years.”
‘It’s no hobby — it’s work’
Leah Shetka sometimes spends more than a full day’s work among her 150 hops plants, on her hands and knees ripping away the weeds or picking hops, depending upon the season.
Her arms are covered with scrapes and scars from the rough bristle of the hops stem. Her ring and pinky fingers are wrapped in tape behind gloves so they don’t get cut.
Her bumps and bruises pale in comparison to the three combined knee and ankle surgeries she has undergone to fix issues primed by constant farming and a history of arthritis.
“I used to call it my hobby farm,” Leah said. “I don’t even like beer, but I love this. And no, it’s no hobby — it’s work.”
Matt Hall, brewmaster at Lift Bridge brewery in Stillwater, came across the Shetkas’ operation a few years ago and the two combined efforts to start “Pickin’ and Grinnin,’” an annual event where hundreds of people help pick the Shetka’s hops to create a fresh wet hop brew at Lift Bridge that is uncommonly fresh in Minnesota.
“Other people normally would have those hops shipped from Washington, Portland,” Hall said. “Here we have a chance to go up the street to help with Hippity Hop’s fresh, organic, local hops.”
“Pickin’ and Grinnin,’” held after the state fair in September, uses up to half of the Shetka’s annual yield and takes care of one of their most ominous chores — picking hops.
“Picking is tedious,” George said. “It’s worse than picking raspberries; it takes forever. There’s so many hops on one vine, [and you] have to pick them one at a time. You could never pay someone $10 an hour to pick hops and think you’ll make money. You won’t.”
Hall said he embraced the Shetkas’ farm not only to help the couple personally, but to further the movement of hops growers in the Midwest.
“It fits in our wheelhouse and our beliefs to support local,” Hall said. “But we also want to support a region that was at one time a producer of hops.”
‘If you build it, they will come’
Moving forward, the Shetkas are open to taking on help with their farming operation but also want to expand “The Top Hop” — the packaging and sales side of the business.
The couple has shipped Forest Lake hops as far as Australia, China and Japan and has recently begun importing a particular type of hops from the Czech Republic to sell to breweries in the United States.
The Shetkas aren’t sure if growing hops is a sustainable future for them personally, but they would like to use their infrastructure to help others get their operations off the ground.
“We’ve got the drying facility, the packaging — can do whole leaf, can’t do pellets,” George said. “Your average home brewer throws a couple plants in his back yard and has all these hops left over. We can buy those hops if you pick them and bring them to us. We’ll sell them for you.”
It’s more lucrative to ship hops around the world than to sell locally, but the Shetkas are committed to starting up Minnesota’s hops industry. That’s why they still sell two-thirds of their product in-state.
“If growers want to get into it, go find yourselves a brewery [to sell to],” Leah Shetka said. “It’s almost like ‘Field of Dreams.’ If you build it, they will come.”
Andrew Krammer is a Twin Cities freelance writer.