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For Organic Hops Farmers in Wash., Gov. Obstacles

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YAKIMA, WASH. It wasn't until recently that Moxee farmer Pat Smith finished selling a crop of organic hops that he grew two years ago. But he's still sitting on another 100 bales from a more recent harvest. "We'll probably sell them all eventually," he said. "It takes longer than it should." That's because Smith and a small handful of other Yakima Valley organic hop growers are struggling against federal regulations that allow brewers to use less expensive non-organic hops to make beer that can be sold under the organic label.

Now, Smith and the others are petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to require brewers to use organic hops in beer labeled organic. Their petition will be considered when the USDA's National Organic Standards Board meets next week in Madison, Wis. "We suspect if the petition was successful, we'd be able to sell them quite a bit quicker," said Smith, who also farms 700 acres of non-organic hops. Quicker, and at a price that reflects the higher cost of growing organically, said Toppenish hop grower Jason Perrault, who grows both organic and nonorganic hops. Rather than spraying herbicides, workers remove weeds from fields by hand. That costs about $7,000 an acre compared with about $5,000 for nonorganic hops. With nonorganic hops selling for about $6 a pound, organic growers need a price at least double that, Smith said.

At least one craft brewer, Fremont Brewing in Seattle, believes that the state could easily lead the nation's organic hops industry because it's already one of the largest hop producers in the world. "The point of all this is not that we have an angle," said Fremont Brewing owner Matt Lincecum. "The point is that we are in a position and have a responsibility. We're committed to help jump start the (organic hops) industry."

Three years ago, the USDA allowed hops grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides to be used in beer labeled organic, saying organic hop production in the United States wasn't big enough to keep up with demand from organic beer makers. The ruling places hops on a list of about 30 products, including wheat germ and sausage casings, that don't have to be organically produced to be used in food or beverages labeled organic. As a result, many organic brewers - which still only account for a sliver of the brewing market - buy conventionally grown, less expensive, hops.

There are four organic hop growers in the Yakima Valley, including Smith. Their organic crops account for about 100 acres, just a tiny share of the Valley's 30,500 acres of hops. The Valley accounts for more than 30 percent of the world's hops production. Organic production in the Valley has grown from nearly none three years ago to its current 100 acres, but organic growers say they need a better market to survive. "The future is pretty bleak without a commitment from organic brewers," Smith said.


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