Hop farm revival happening in Olympia

Urban farming is hopping in southeast Olympia on a 20-acre parcel that was zoned for an 86-lot subdivision.

Instead of houses, the property at the corner of Wiggins and Herman roads is home to hop plants, wine grapes, pumpkins, sunflowers and squash.

It’s affectionately known as the Parsons Family Farm and represents a great big labor of love for South Sound natives Michael and Stefani Parsons and their extended family. Parsons, 53, has been a land developer in the Olympia area for more than 30 years. When he purchased the old dairy farm from an Oregon bank in February 2014, he was planning to develop the property or sell it to another developer.

But the family, especially his wife, intervened, convincing him it was a perfect place to try something all together different — an urban farm.

“At first we thought about growing Christmas trees, but the water table here is too high,” Stefani Parsons said during a Wednesday tour of the fledgling farm. After consulting with their son-in-law, Redmond-based environmental engineer John Peters, they decided to focus their efforts on growing hops and grapes. They are joined in the effort by their son, Dylan Parsons, 24, a former Olympia High School football standout who went on to Oregon State University to play football and earn a degree in forestry.

Today, some 1,000 plants featuring nine hop varietals best suited for the Puget Sound region are sprouting out of mounds of soil on 7-foot centers, surrounded by hop-growing infrastructure that includes 19-foot-tall cedar and lodge pole pine posts connected by wire cable. String will run from the cable down to each hop plant, giving the vines a place to climb.

Mature hop plants, which are members of the hemp family, produce cone-shaped flowers that are a key ingredient in beer, giving it a unique, bitter taste.

The craft brewing business is exploding in the Pacific Northwest, creating a demand for hops that’s outstripping supply. About 75 percent of United States hop production takes place in the Yakima Valley. But at the turn of the 19th century, the Nisqually and Puyallup valleys, as well as other areas around Puget Sound and Southwest Washington were big hop producers. Those west side farms fell victim to aphid infestations and wet weather fungal outbreaks, leading to an exodus of farms to the warmer, drier Yakima Valley.

The Parsons are banking on new hop varieties better suited for the west side of the Cascade mountains. Peters said the family’s farm might be the only commercial hop-growing farm in Western Washington. Within three years, the long-lived hop plants will reach maturity, capable of producing about 2,000 pounds of hops per year, Peters predicted.

Hop production is confined to about four acres of the farm. There are also grapes for chardonnay and sauvignon blanc growing on a smaller scale, a roadside pumpkin patch and an old barn and 1937 farmhouse awaiting renovation. Stefani Parsons plans to host public events in the barn, and Peters and his wife, Mandi, plan to move their young family into the remodeled farmhouse.

“This is a true family effort,” Michael Parsons said. He seems to be having fun presiding over the growth of the farm and playing farmer on his new toy — a tractor.

The Parsons are fully committed to keeping the farm a farm. Late last year, they gifted the development rights for the property, valued at $1.25 million, to the Capitol Land Trust, an Olympia-based land conservation group. Part of the property will remain in forestland, including a split-top Douglas fir tree that plays host to a pair of nesting red-tailed hawks.

“This land will never, ever be developed,” Parsons said with conviction.

The farm has drawn a steady stream of visitors who stop by to ask what’s going on. Some recognize the hop-growing infrastructure and guess correctly. Two Oregon-based craft breweries have also reached out to the Parsons, telling them they would like to buy hops from them when they’re ready for market.

The family’s enthusiasm for their urban farm adventure is infectious. I wish them nothing but the best in their endeavor. And I’m sure their neighbors do too, thankful that the farmland was preserved on the edge of town.

I have another reason to root for the Parsons. When I recently wrote about my own Horsefeathers Farm for the last time, Michael quickly fired off an email to me, inviting me to visit the farm and share his family’s story with readers of The Olympian. I couldn’t resist, especially when he told me my occasional dispatches from Horsefeathers Farm had inspired him to try his hand at urban farming.