Wednesday, Nov. 26
EDITORIAL: A Thanksgiving party to grow hops, not houses
Just a few days before Thanksgiving, state and local bureaucrats held a celebration inside a chilly barn in Lucketts.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe flew in from Richmond by helicopter with an entourage that included the commonwealth’s secretary of agriculture. Loudoun County’s supervisors, economic development officials and tourism marketers arrived in force, shedding business suits for jeans, quilted coats and fashionable scarves. Invited VIP attendees included the A-list of Loudoun developers and business leaders. Celebrity caterers prepared a country feast of smoked brisket, mac-and-cheese and greens, while a Richmond distillery poured Virginia gin and a restaurant on the Chesapeake served Rappahannock oysters over ice. In a corner of the expansive barn, a bearded bluegrass band layered high, lonesome harmonies over a five-string banjo, fiddle, acoustic guitar and mandolin.
The pilgrims invited the natives to the party, too: a new breed of farmers, growers, brewers and distillers who hope to find new success with an old story. Barely audible from a podium set amid hay bales for seating, they described how they intended to plant, grow and harvest hops, build a hops-processing mill, then brew an economy in Loudoun County that would complement the county’s $69 million a year in agricultural products sold.
Jonathan Staples, a distiller-farmer who also happens to be a visionary entrepreneur, acknowledged he was a little overwhelmed by the hoopla. “I’m just here to grow hops,” Staples said, wearing unlaced farm boots and his best aw-shucks expression. Then he accepted a billboard-sized check for $40,000 from the governor, a grant to cultivate the state’s small investment in a promising new economy.
The grant was matched by the county, a small price to put supervisors on the right side of the longstanding preservation-versus-development argument over western Loudoun County.
McAuliffe and supervisors alike face pressure to re-boot an economy slowed by sequestration, budget cuts impacting federal contracting and jobs and the uncertainties of economic expansion amid population growth. Thus, the celebration at the freshly-named Black Hops Farm in Lucketts was a more joint marketing event than an economic breakthrough.
It will take years to cultivate a sufficient supply of hops from local growers that support a processing facility, and many more years to establish Loudoun as a Mid-Atlantic center for hops production that rivals the Washington-Oregon-Idaho region where 95 percent of hops are grown and cultivated in the U.S.
But a lucrative market for craft brewers and distillers is emerging in Virginia, from Richmond to the Capitol District to the Piedmont of Northern Virginia, so the ingredients are in place for a hops business that supports a regional craft-beer economy. Hops impart the bitter or tangy flavor of beer and are used as flavoring and stabilizing agents in beer-making.
Staples and his partners are realistic. They say they have no business plan and that they intend to start slowly. They’ve installed 30-foot-high polls over six acres on the hill at the entrance to the 54-acre farm. The first crop will be planted in spring. The vigorous, climbing perennial should scale the poles, connecting strings in a field called a hop yard. Staples says he isn’t entirely sure what happens next.
The investment by the agrarian entrepreneur and out-of-state settler – Staples lives across the Potomac in Frederick, Md. – goes well beyond cultivating a flower used in beer-making. An idea came to him making frequent drives on Route 15 from Frederick to Richmond. “Every time I made the drive I thought, ‘I wish the houses could stop at Lucketts.”
Now Staples has invested $1 million in a farm to grow hops instead of houses. That’s the bigger idea for Loudoun County. Amid the relentless assault on commercial and residential development of agriculture is a reasonable way to consider the future of the land in the western half of the county. Let’s not forget that agriculture is, by far, the largest part of Virginia’s economy with an annual economic impact of $52 billion.
The land is why people have been coming to Loudoun since it was established in 1757. Rich in agriculture, it contributed much of its grain to George Washington’s Continental Army, earning it the nickname “Breadbasket of the Revolution.” Part of the epic adventure of the land occurred in Lucketts, where a grist mill was built in 1850 and served as a commercial center well into the 20th century. Now an old and bold idea takes entrepreneurs back to the county’s roots.
Modern day pilgrims and natives came to a Lucketts farm last week for a feast that anticipates a bountiful harvest. That’s a reason to give thanks and honor our land with friends and family this Thanksgiving.
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