Across the country chefs and consumers alike are pushing the demand for local supply chains to go beyond just your typical market produce. In Minnesota our exploding craft beer movement is reflecting this trend with many local brewers' growing commitment to sourcing local, sustainably raised ingredients in their brews. We've been anxious to get out and tour Mighty Axe Hops farm since we first noticed the stunning towering rows of Tamarack beams last summer during our tour of Born and Dyed in Minnesota. The owner of Mighty Axe might also be a glimpse of what our next generation of farmers will look like. Savvy, college educated entrepreneurs dedicated to healing the earth and expanding our definitions of what it means to be farm to table. This generation won't be leaving something behind to clean up, they are cultivating something that will nourish generations to come.
How did you become involved with this work and why do you do it?
We came to hops through a shared love of beer. We attended a conference where we met a small scale hops grower and off we went! Farming though for me is something much deeper. I grew up in the suburbs , Pizza Hut was my favorite food, and then, like the old saying, you can take the person off the farm buy you cant take the farm out of the person...I was called back to my roots.
Tell us about the land you are farming and/or about your operating facilities. (i.e. land origins, history of the site, site selection and location, etc.)
I’m the fourth generation to call this land home here in Ham Lake, MN. We started out here and will continue to grow here. Personally, hops production is my way of keeping the family farm in the family.
How many people volunteer or work here?
Ben, Brian and I are the founding team members. This summer we’ve welcomed three interns into the yard - Mitch, Michelle, and Nick - each with funding from the University of Minnesota.
Describe your growing technique:
We grow our hops using sustainable methods, though we are not organic. Hops are a hungry plant that needs plenty of fertilizer to reach full yield. A hop yard is basically a perennial buffet for diseases and pests. On the disease front we spray to treat downy mildew. For insects we employ IPM methods. For weed control we are testing various perennial and annual living and dead mulches to compete with weeds. We are Minnesota’s first Ag Water Quality Certified hops farm, which is cool. It is a certification from the MN Department of Agriculture that our practices are above the standard for protecting water quality!
How do you source supplies:
Our poles come from foresters up north, our plants from a greenhouse in Michigan. We order most of our hardware through the internet. The internet has been a great source for much of our hardware, allowing us to buy at wholesale prices instead of retail.
What are you most proud of this season/year? (i.e. new techniques, markets, niche products; beautiful produce, livestock, fish; business additions/growth, etc.)
We’ve more than quadrupled our acreage, fought off a disease, and survived a hail storm. Come harvest we’ll know how successful we’ve been at keeping the plants happy and healthy. Time will tell, but proud of our team no matter what the yield.
How can people support what you’re doing? (i.e. where can people buy your products and/or services, do you offer classes, do you have volunteer opportunities, etc.)
The biggest thing folks who like craft beer can do is to go to the local brewer and ask for local hops or even attend one our tapping parties! In addition to special tap room release parties, we host events on the farm, like August 29th’s Mighty Pick. (More info at: www.MightyPick2015.eventbrite.com) Information on all our events can be found at www.MightyAxeHops.com or at facebook.com/MightyAxeHops
What qualities do you think it takes to be a farmer/local foods producer?
A significant amount of entrepreneurial drive coupled with a persistent humility. Entrepreneurial ability and humility are traits not often found in one individual. The best farmers I’ve met know that no matter how many years they’ve been farming, there is always more to learn.
What are the biggest challenges you’ll face or are currently facing this season/year?
We’ll always be fighting against weeds, pests and disease, while hoping for kind weather. Otherwise our biggest challenge right now is fundraising to grow our operation.
How would you describe our local farm to brewery system in Minnesota? Where is there room for movement?
Our local farm to brewery system is in it’s very earliest stages. There are relatively few local hops growers, very few local malt grain growers and a distinct lack of the processing and marketing organizations to help grow either industry. For hops, we’re working with several interested folks to sort out a hops hub.
What are the greatest strengths of our local brewery supply growers?
Local hops allows Minnesota craft and homebrewers add resilience to their supply chains, diversifying their sources in the face of steadily increasing demand driven by the growth of craft beer and a changing climate. Local hops also carry a unique terroir, setting them apart from hops grown any where else in the world, and lending a distinctive “Minnesotan” quality to the beer.
What’s next for Mighty Axe?
More hops! Lots more hops.
What is it like being a young farming entrepreneur?
(For one, isn’t it interesting that being a “young farmer” doesn’t automatically imply also being an entrepreneur?) It is unlike anything else. My entire present and future is committed to this one tiny place on the surface of our Earth.
The risks are immense, there are many sleepless nights. Yet, I live a gift every single day.