George and Leah Shetka grow into
experts on unique plant
It was only a matter of time until the dozens of pillars stretching 17 feet tall along Itasca Avenue attracted attention. Sure enough, an official from a nearby town eventually showed up, asking questions in that summer of 2008.
Leah Shetka answered honestly, leaving her guest dumbstruck.
“That’s a garden?” he asked. “Then just what are you growing?”
That would not be the last time Leah Shetka and her husband, George, would face questioning about their hop-growing operation, Hippity Hops Farm. Five years later, however, the Shetkas are considered pioneers in the small-but-growing Minnesota hops circle.
The Shetkas played a key role in the founding of the Minnesota Hop Growers Association in March. On a Saturday this month, novice and prospective hop growers exchanged ideas over mugs of beer at the Shetkas’ farm, located a mile off Highway 8 in northeast Forest Lake. The Shetkas enthusiastically answered questions and gave pointers.
For farmers who consider their work more a hobby than a job, the Shetkas have come a long way since driving the posts into the ground five summers ago.
Sprouting a dream
Just about any homeowner can relate to what sprung the idea for Hippity Hops Farm: disdain for having to continually mow the same piece of otherwise-seldom-used land.
“I was out there for a couple hours just to mow the field and I thought, ‘This is kind of a waste of gas,’” Leah Shetka said.
The former city girl figured she could cut hours off lawn-mowing duty by converting most of the front yard into a field.
But for what? The couple’s son-in-law, a home-brewer, had grown a small amount of hops and offered to help launch the farm. With disease wiping out hop harvests in the northwest and sending prices doubling, the Shetkas decided to give the crop a go.
Used for adding flavor and aroma to beer, hops also serve as a natural preservative. Most domestic hops are grown in Washington and Oregon, but Minnesota’s similar latitude means its climate is also ideal for hops.
The Shetkas figured they would be in over their heads at first, but they got the basic setup right. They drove the posts in six rows, ran metal cable along the tops and bottoms of the posts and strung twine diagonally in between the cables. With the framework up and ready, in 2009 they planted their first rhizomes (hop roots).
Naturally, the hop farm quickly consumed much more of their time than mowing ever did. Once the vines emerge from the ground, the Shetkas guide six from each plant around the twine. With 25 crowns in each row, they take to ladders to oversee the paths of approximately 900 vines. The vines grow quickly enough to show daily progress and would keep right on climbing if not for a canopy. It is only when their ascent is stopped that they spread arms, which produce the hop cones.
This year’s vine management will be especially tricky because of the late spring. The progress at Hippity Hops Farm is several weeks behind the typical schedule.
“What we’re afraid of this year, with the late, late season, is we’re going to run out of summer before they put their arms out and start making cones,” said George Shetka, who comes from a family of wild rice producers.
The Shetkas designed their farm to be fully organic. They plant clover between the rows to inhibit weeds and add nitrogen to the soil. The field is fenced in, and turkeys roam the confines, eating crop-threatening bugs and turning them into fertilizer.
The green, living web is a sight to behold, and the scent of the Shetkas’ Cascade variety is appealing. Picking hops, though, is a burdensome chore. Fortunately, Hippity Hops Farm’s hops are sold to Stillwater’s Lift Bridge Brewery, where beer fans for two summers have paid hard-earned cash for the right to take on the task at a hop-picking party.
“It’s the best thing that ever happened because when you get into picking hops, it’s probably the most tedious thing you’ve ever done in your life,” George Shetka said.
Two-hundred Lift Bridge fans last year attended the event, which features live music and beer straight out of the brewery. The Shetkas’ hops are then used in the creation of Lift Bridge Harvester, a German-style brew that is one of the only wet-hop beers made in Minnesota. Last year the brewery doubled its output of Harvester to 150 barrels, and it may produce even more this year.
The Shetkas dehydrate any hops that do not end up in Lift Bridge Harvester and sell them online.
“Hops out of Forest Lake, Minnesota, have literally gone all over the world: Iceland, Brazil, Argentina, Australia,” George Shetka said.
Meanwhile, hops from Europe have been coming to Forest Lake. On top of their duties in the field, the Shetkas operate The Top Hop, the lone North American distributor of the famous hop variety Saaz, from the Czech Republic. The side business is a tribute to, and a result of, George Shetka’s Czech heritage.
It’s more lucrative than the farm operation and less physically demanding. With the Shetkas in their mid-50s, their time farming may close sooner rather than later. At some point, they can’t continue to rely on their family for donated labor.
In any case, the Shetkas did what they set out to do with Hippity Hops Farm, and they did it well, becoming as close as there is to local experts.
“We’re still on a steep learning curve, but we’re doing good,” George Shetka said. “We’ve learned a lot.”
Along the way, they have enjoyed getting to know those behind the local brewing scene. Like the Shetkas, just about everyone seems thrilled to be living out a dream.
“It’s a lot of fun,” George Shetka said. “It’s a great business and has some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”