MOXEE, Wash. — The Desmarais family has produced hops in the Moxee Valley for more than a century, a milestone that is especially noteworthy as hop harvest peaks around the region.
The family's fourth generation is in the thick of another harvest, farming some 1,500 acres and producing about a dozen varieties of the beer-flavoring ingredient.
It's doubtful brothers George and Louis Desmarais, originally from Quebec, Canada, could have imagined the success to come when they arrived from Crookston, Minn., in 1900 in search of opportunity.
They were likely attracted by advertisements by the Yakima Commercial Club and the Northern Pacific Railroad about irrigated land for sale. The Moxee Land Co., created in 1886, put land under irrigation and tried a variety of crops, including tobacco, cotton and sugar beets.
After working for others, the brothers broke fields out of sagebrush and planted their first hops in 1904, a total of 13 acres, according to a 1968 story from the Yakima Herald-Republic archives.
They certainly weren't the first hop farmers. That distinction belongs to those such as the Carpenter family, who began raising the cone-shaped crop in the 1880s when the cradle of production was the Ahtanum Valley.
But the Desmarais brothers are considered the first French-Canadians in the Moxee area to grow hops on a trellis system, Their story is part of the continuing evolution and adoption of new technology that defines hop farming and other crops grown in the Yakima Valley.
G. Lee Desmarais, 68, grandson of George Desmarais, said hops previously were grown on poles harvested from cottonwood trees along the Yakima River.
"The poles were about 2 to 3 inches in diameter," Lee Desmarais said. "The hops were trained up the pole and a man would lift the poles out of the ground for the hops to be hand-picked."
Lee Desmarais retired in 2001 after 34 years as a grower and his son is now running the operation. Brother Marc, 56, and brother-in-law Rich Van Horn continue to be active in their farming operations.
They and the remainder of the industry are now in the 2012 harvest with an estimated 24,200 acres in production, making the Yakima Valley the nation's largest hop-growing area.
Ann George, administrator of the Washington Hop Commission and Hop Growers of America, said the industry is changing partially because of the emergence of craft brewers — mostly small, independent operators experimenting with new flavors and the amount of hops used in beer production. Increased interest from craft brewers in aroma-type hops, those that contain less of the alpha acid bittering component, is responsible for much of the 1,000-acre increase in production this year, she said.
"The side of the industry that is really experiencing growth are the varieties that we collectively refer to as flavor hops," she said. "Craft brewers and industrial brewers are looking to hops to provide more unique flavors."
That wasn't the case when George Desmarais grew hops. He grew the cluster variety that once again is gaining interest from brewers because it can provide both the alpha acid component as well as some flavoring characteristics.
Craft brewers use larger amounts of hops in their beer than do the traditional, large brewers like Budweiser.
Lee Desmarais agreed craft brewers, defined generally as brewers producing less than 6 million barrels a year, are having an impact on the industry.
"Craft brewers are willing to pay more per pound to get the hops they want," he said.
Today's hop farms are busy places during harvest, with trucks ferrying piles of vines to picking machines where the cones are stripped and conveyed to nearby kilns for drying and baling.
But the early hop farms also were beehives of activity with lots of hands needed to bring in the crop, Lee Desmarais said. Without a migrant labor force, farmers relied on local residents and American Indians from Montana and British Columbia who created encampments during harvest.
Marc Desmarais said it's likely many older residents of the Yakima Valley worked in the hop harvest when they were younger.
Most farms had their own company stores where workers could purchase necessities.
"Our aunts ran the store," Lee Desmarais said. "We could buy fruit and candy bars."
Farmers relied on family members to work. George Desmarais and his first wife, Amablis, had eight surviving children. Two died at a young age. A third child, a son, Paul, was killed on Okinawa late in World War II.
Following her death, George returned to Quebec and remarried, bringing Marguerite back to the Yakima Valley.
He died in 1965 at the age of 68 and his two surviving sons, Steve and Joe, continued the legacy. Some of the family history is still visible. On the original homestead on Desmarais Road, a building with bars on the lone window that once served as a jail holding facility still stands. Lee Desmarais said his grandfather had been deputized to hold offenders.
Four of the five daughters born of the first marriage wed into hop-growing families that George Desmarais helped get started.
Harvest used to end about the time of the Central Washington State Fair, Marc Desmarais said, adding that has changed with the production of newer varieties that extend harvest into early October.
Brothers Lee and Marc said they are grateful for the opportunity to be in the hop business.
"I like the challenge of trying to grow a quality crop," said Marc Desmarais. "We have been fortunate to put food on the table even in the tough times."
Information from: Yakima Herald-Republic, http://www.yakimaherald.com