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Les and Erica Goodman. Photo: Sarah Harris
Les and Erica Goodman. Photo: Sarah Harris

From milk to beer: Dairy family switches to hops

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Agriculture in the North Country is changing - and the evidence is everywhere. For the Goodmans, a longtime dairy family in Fort Ann, in Washington County, it's time to get out of the business. But Erica and Les Goodman are trying something new on their land: growing hops. And they're using social media to do it.

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I'm standing outside Erica Goodman's childhood home in Fort Ann. The Goodmans live in on a stunning Adirondack foothill. The valley below is just starting to turn green, and the Green Mountains are hazy in the distance.

Erica and Les show me the fields around their house. Right now, it's just grass and brush. But pretty soon, it'll be covered by towering hops.

Goodmanor Farm. The Goodmans have been farming here for six generations. Photo: Sarah Harris
Goodmanor Farm. The Goodmans have been farming here for six generations. Photo: Sarah Harris
"When I dream about it," says Erica, "I'm dreaming of different types of beer we'll be brewing based on different family history involved."

Erica's 28. She grew up in Fort Ann, and lives in Washington D.C. now. She's blonde, a runner, and little taller than her Dad, Les.

Goodmans have been farming here since 1853. When Les was growing up, he and his three brothers learned dairying from their dad. They milked 300 cows.

Les became an elementary school teacher, but helped his brothers with the farm for years.

Now they're older – and they're ready to get out of the dairy business.

"It's a lot of work being on a dairy farm, we used to start milking at 4 o'clock in the morning so you could get done at a halfway decent time so you could spend time with your family. It's 12-14 hour days," says Les.

The brothers don't want the next generation to work those same long hours. They've put the farm up for sale, which will pay for their retirement.

Erica lives in Washington, D.C., where she works for the American Farmland Trust. She wasn't ready to let the long farming history go.

"Knowing that the land was going to turn over and knowing that the idea was to sell, I talked a lot to my family about what are some opportunities to do – thought about vegetables, what's the market for a CSA or selling to a farmers market, or maybe it's doing something like grass-fed beef – something that's less intensive than milking twice a day and having a dairy farm but can keep the land active."

After a lot of research, Erica settled on hops. She'd noticed the rise of craft breweries. And last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo convened a wine, beer, and spirits summit supporting New York state-produced drinks. So Erica pitched the idea to her family.

"I didn't know what to think at first," Les said. "But Erica's very persistent too, you got to remember that – her goal, which I really believe in – she wants to keep some of it still in the family since it's been in our family for 160 years. You would like a little piece of the heaven that's here."

Erica and Les decided to try growing hops on ½ an acre right near the house. But they needed start-up money, so Erica decided to try crowd-funding from the Internet.

"Having friends who've had books they've put together or CDs come out, and getting those requests from crowd-funding sites across the way, I thought it would be an interesting opportunity and looked into it to see if other farms were doing it."

She set up a site, and made a video. Erica hoped to raise $10,000.

"I kind of put the $10,000 down knowing the costs of really setting up a hop yard are pretty pricey from the start, and thinking this is going to be a tough goal to reach. But it's really pulled in people from the woodwork of my life."

When I first interviewed Erica a few weeks ago, she'd raised $7,800. The campaign closed last week – and they'd surpassed their goal, capping in $10,593.

 And they've found a market. Adirondack Pub and Brewery in Lake George has agreed to buy their hops.

A half-acre doesn't sound like much. But hops grow up to 30 feet high. So, this is a strong start.

"It's been very exciting to see the support behind this, but it has also been a little terrifying because that raises your expectations, I think," Erica says with a smile. "When I go in saying I just wanna do something on the land and keep it in the family that's one thing. It's going to be a huge businsses that's gonna reap large profits for the family is another thing."

"I'm always proud of her but I'm also nervous," Les adds. "She knows I get nervous about stuff like this. I can see her getting a machine to make the pellets or to roast the hops. We have all the buildings here where we could set these things up and it would be a nice thing, but you have to go one step at a time."

For now, they're happy to be keep working a little bit of the land while the rest of the farm is up for sale.

"Being able to preserve the family history and to have this be my contribution to the family and what they've worked so hard for here for so many years and so many generations – It might be scary but it's a risk I'm ready to jump into and ready to be a part of," Erica says.

As the weather warms up, Erica will make more and more trips up from D.C.

She and Les will be building trellises and planting hops. They'll harvest the plants next fall – and Good Manor Farm will move from milk to beer.

Reporting by the Innovation Trail is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Visit innovationtrail.org.

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