Northfield Hops Farmer Shares Story about Family Farm During Festival

The Recorder, August 9th, 2015, by Rachel Rapkin.

Hops, a main ingredient in beer, can grow up to 30 feet high. These tall crops tower over 16 acres of land at Four Star Farms, a 28-year-old family operation tucked away in the Northfield Farms section of this Connecticut River Valley town. Jacob L’Etoile, grain operation manager, said the farm began specializing in hops harvesting only seven years ago with no knowledge of the process. Now, it’s the largest such plantation in the state with customers throughout New England.

“We didn’t know anything — anything at all,” he said. “My dad picked out, almost at random, six different varieties. We planted them, trying to see what would grow.”

He said three of the best hops during the experimental period were the cascade, the nugget and the magnum. This season, retailers can choose from seven varieties with varying aromas. The growing goal is 1,000 pounds to the acre. The current yield is about 800 pounds to the acre.

Most of L’Etoile’s life has revolved around his family’s farm. He took a four-year hiatus when he went to college to study engineering, but for some reason, the farm drew him back to his roots.

“I was sitting on a tractor while I was looking for work and realized I didn’t want to sit in an office,” he said. “I really love farming. I love growing things and there is something particularly satisfying in doing that.”

L’Etoile and his brother returned to the farm to help their parents grow their income. At the time of their children’s arrival, the sales of the main crop — turf — had plummeted due to the housing market crash and the family had to quickly research other options.

“One of the things my dad tried was barley,” L’Etoile said. “We were going to be malting that, but when we looked at the price of malt, we were selling the grain for as much as we could sell the malt for, so why put the extra work into that?”

Option number two?

“My dad started talking to brewers and thought, ‘Hey, why not hops?’”

The crops have a few more weeks until they are ripe enough for this year’s harvest. L’Etoile believes the process will begin the last week of August and conclude the second week of September.

Once the vines are plucked from their roots, they’ll be tossed into a large wheelbarrow pulled behind a tractor, driven to a warehouse and fed into a large metal apparatus called a hops picker that will separate the cones from the leaves. The final step is shipping the plants to breweries.

L’Etoile shared the farm’s story during hops field tours during a noon to 8 p.m. beer and music festival sponsored by Aeronaut Brewing Company.