The era of family farms seems long gone and yet, sitting around a table under a canopy on a farm just outside Bemboka are sisters Jade McManus, Samantha McManus and Karen Taylor, together with Karen’s husband Morgan, the McManus and Taylor matriarchs, a scattering of friends and me.
We are all busy pulling hops from vines, eating popcorn, drinking beer.
I only have to spend a few minutes with these people to see that they are farmers – unlikely farmers, yes, with day jobs as an environmental manager [Jade] model and photographer [Samantha] cardiac technician [Karen] and welder [Morgan] but farmers nevertheless.
The casual way work is done, constantly but unhurriedly, speaks of farming. As does the way business is conducted in the field, with Karen fielding calls and making plans for deliveries on the hop.
But according to Karen, no one in this farming family had seen a hop farm before they were running one.
It was Jade who first had the idea for hop farming, sprung from an interest in brewing beer. She approached Karen’s husband Morgan about starting a farm on his parents land “Ryefield” in Bemboka.
It wasn’t long before Karen jumped in too.
“I figured if my husband and sister are going into business together, I better get involved,” laughs Karen, whose dedication to the project is apparent – giving birth to her third child, Reuben, just two weeks ago has not slowed this supermum down as she continues the hop harvest with baby strapped to her chest.
This is not the peak of the harvest for Ryefield Hops – that was last week when the urgency of getting the freshest hops to a new customer in Brisbane meant it was all hands on deck until 3 am.
Karen estimates that this year’s harvest will take about 700 hours of labor and produce about 700 kilos of fresh, fruity hops.
Hiring help for the harvest is not in the budget for this fledgling business, established in 2017, so the team have relied on their community so far, offering beer, food and a social experience in exchange for harvest hours.
“We’ve had so much help,” Karen says “probably sixty people helping overall, some coming from Sydney or Wollongong. We don’t let our helpers do the really bad jobs, like shoveling manure to fertilize, but the harvest is fun, sitting around and socializing while we work.”
“Yeah, we only ask our parents to do the really bad stuff,” quips Jade.
Morgan’s mother Narelle Taylor is here today and says she’s pleased someone is doing something with the family farm, used for dairy farming until about ten years ago.
“I’m building some credits up,” Narelle chuckles, pulling another hop vine towards her “I’m hoping they’re going to look after me later.”
Ryefield Hops are “the biggest small producer of a handful of small producers in NSW,” says Jade, and with the families recent purchase of a second-hand mechanical hops picking machine from New Zealand and the approval of the development application for a shed to house it, they are well on their way to the goal of quitting their day jobs.
“It’s been stressful at times juggling life and the farm,” says Morgan, “but we’ve had such a positive response from the brewing community – they’ve all come to us, we haven’t had to chase down customers.”
“We weren’t sure what the market uptake would be,” says Jade “we weren’t even sure if the hops would grow here, but all our research said it was worth a try. All the Australian beer companies were relying on imported hops.”
Jade’s interest in permaculture means that the farm is run organically, though it is not certified.
Next year, when the hops expand onto the flat below the current plot, doubling the size of the farm, the plan is for Jade, who lives in Sydney, to move back to the Bega Valley and farm full time, along with the Taylors.
The 2020 budget will allow for some local, seasonal hires as well, says Jade.
Ryefield Hops will be showcasing wet hop [beers brewed with hops less than 48 hours old when brewing begins] beers at their annual harvest events in Merimbula and Bemboka in early April. They also have a wet hopped beer exclusive to the Cobargo Folk Festival and an exclusive beer at the Sydney Easter Show.As a cold can of beer is plopped down amongst the hops vines on the table in front of me, I grab another handful of hops flowers for the bucket with sticky, yellow fingers.
“That’s the sign of a good day picking hops, you look like a pack-a-day smoker,” laughs Karen, looking at my hands.
The harvest at Ryefield will continue for a few weeks, depending on weather conditions – everyone is invited to harvest a few buckets of hops and learn about hops farming in the process.
Find out more at: https://www.ryefieldhops.com/