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Ian and Joe Birkett with a hops vine. Photos: Angela Evancie.
Ian and Joe Birkett with a hops vine. Photos: Angela Evancie.

Farmers under 40: new direction for an old farm

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"Get big or get out" is a common wisdom in the dairy industry. And many small-scale farms have gotten out. Northern New York has half the dairy farms it did 20 years ago, and the remaining farms are generally much bigger. Some are much, much bigger.

In Vermont, the number of dairy farms dropped below 1,000 in May. But not everybody getting out of dairy is leaving farming altogether. One family operation in Ferrisburgh is repurposing the farm, and starting small. Angela Evancie has this installment of our series, Farmers Under 40.

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Hops grow UP. There's now a grid of cables and string connesting these 18 foot poles. Here, Fletcher Bach tends the new plants.

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The Birketts have lived on Satterly Road in Ferrisburgh, Vermont for a long time.

"Approaching 210 years. They had the small dairy barn here that was built, no one knows for sure. And then they had the hogs and the sheep and the whole everything and then the sheep kind of faded away and they concentrated on the dairy," Joe Brikett said.

A baseball cap shades Joe's eyes and his bushy grey mustache. Twenty-five years ago, he started running the family operation.  A few years ago, economic pressures forced him to shut down. 

He says it wasn’t a tough decision. "I had a few days of it – twinged a little," he said. "But after that I was happy."

He did wonder what to do with his 200 acres of land. "We can rent it out to another farmer, but it would be nice to have something tangible," Joe said. "To say, yeah, here we are again. We’re starting another phase of farming."

Then last year Joe’s youngest son, Ian, approached him with an idea to grow hops in the lower field. Ian is 26 years old and his friend, Fletcher Bach, 23, had gotten him interested in brewing beer. They wanted to try growing hops – which flavors and preserves beer – instead of buying it.

"We started with sixteen plants," Ian Birkett said. "We were like, these are growing really well here.  So we kind of put our heads together, wrote a business plan, and now we are on year two and we have 850 plants."

Now Ian, Fletcher and Joe are co-owners of Square Nail Hops Farm. The name comes from the antique square nails Ian and Fletcher found when they dug their first rows by the old Birkett barn.

Last year Square Nail sold its first crop of organic hops to the Bobcat Café and Brewery in Bristol. Bach said now they have a lot of breweries interested in their hops. "Most in Vermont and a few in Mass and New Hampshire have contacted us," he said.

Vermont has a vibrant local beer scene but ingredients like hops usually aren’t local.  The last time Vermont was a major hops supplier was in the early 1800s.

"All of the hops we drink come from Washington, Idaho, Oregon, maybe California, or Europe," Bach said.

Hops farms out West can be as big as a thousand acres. Right now Square Nail is farming one acre.

"So this scale is definitely unique," Bach said. "And odd."

It’s a size that allows Square Nail to work closely with brewers and pay special attention to each plant.  Ian and Fletcher did have a leg up on other twenty-something, first time farmers.  They didn’t have to buy land. 

This year they got a grant from Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education, or SARE. "It’s been really helpful. We applied for a research grant to compare different organic fertilizers and soil amendments," Bach said.

Bach said this summer Square Nail is growing five hops varieties: "Centennial, Chinook, Willamette, Cascade, and Nugget."

Ian and Fletcher are still testing soil quality and organic fertilizers. They want to add acreage, and convert one of Joe’s barns into a processing facility. They also want to sell fresh hops and rhizomes, or root stock, to home brewers. 

One way that hops are going to differ as an industry from dairy is that dairy in some ways was a faceless industry.  You sold to – you do sell – to one person, just the bulk tank," Bach said. "Economically, one power that we’re going to have is being able to work with a bunch of different customers because we’ll have all different breweries from around Vermont and New England buying our hops, and home brewers buying our hops.  And that allows us to set different prices, to have more of a brand identity."

Until Square Nail turns a bigger profit, its owners will have to work other jobs. Fletcher and Ian work at a coffee shop a few towns over. Joe works at another dairy. In Ian’s mind, it’s worth it.

"Definitely my passion is here," Ian said. "If I’ve gotta work, sling coffee to make it happen, like, totally."

The coffee shop is actually where Ian and Fletcher met. They were both recent college grads at the time.

"One thing that’s unique about this generation of farmers, in Vermont at least, is that a lot of us are educated. A lot of people have gone to college for a social science or something and then decided, I’m gonna homestead. Or I’m gonna start a farm or a market garden or something," Bach said.

So is the draw to farming just a fad?  It’s too soon to say.

"I definitely see myself going back to school. I mean, this hops farm will be here and the business will be successful and I’ll still be a part of it in five years," Bach said. 

"This is what I want to do," said Ian. "I’m definitely going to put as much energy into it as I have to to make it happen."

Joe is just hoping that new crops like hops can sow the seeds of renewal for a struggling farming industry.

"It’s just another…another thing we can do," Joe said. 

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