A Forest Lake couple started a business that grows an ingredient for beer. They now sell to Minnesota breweries.
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.”