Craft Beer Pays My Bills: The Hop Farmers

Locavore brewers turn to Four Star Farms for sustainably grown hops.

Locavore brewers turn to Four Star Farms for sustainably grown hops.

Photo by Mark Fleming

Gene L’Etoile, Four Star Farms.

“Beer crops” weren’t always Gene and Bonnie L’Etoile’s bread and butter. Their 280 acres in Northfield used to be home mostly to sod, for use on sports fields, home lawns, and the like. But five years ago, when sons Nathan and Jacob (and their families) decided to join the business, Gene realized it was time for Four Star Farms to diversify.

“We needed our farm to start supporting three families instead of just one,” he says. So he started planting grains like hard and soft winter wheat, spelt, and barley, as well as hops, a crop not commonly grown in New England.

The latter has become a specialty for the L’Etoiles, who are trying out several varieties to see what works best. “Most of ?what you find is coming from the Pacific Northwest, but many of the plants do really well out here, too,” Gene explains.

This year, he and his sons will grow two and a half acres of cascade, nugget, and magnum varieties, all of which require construction of an 18-foot-high trellis system to support the plants’ vertical growth. But the time and energy are worth it, Gene says. He sells his grains to nearby Valley Malt, and the hops are picked up by brewers such as the People’s Pint and Peak Organic. “Brewers want the whole-leaf hops, and they want to buy it direct from the farmers,” Gene says. And as consumer interest in sustainable beers continues to rise, brewers are willing to pay a premium for ingredients grown in the area. “They have to really want it to be able to afford it,” Gene says. “This local movement is making that possible.”