Driving south from Moosomin on Highway 8 one can see the canola and wheat being harvested. The landscape has changed from the green and yellow of July to a golden brown.
At JGL Shepherd Farms, meanwhile, there are vines of lush green hops swaying in the wind.
Four years ago Justin Shepherd and his family started getting the farm ready to be the first major hops grower in the province. Now you can see acres of vines when you turn onto the property.
They started off with a 1.3 acre hop yard on their farm between Moosomin and Fleming and over the years have expanded. They have grown from 400 plants in 2018 to 9,000 plants today.
“We always knew it had to get bigger to be a commercially viable business, but there was not a set four-year plan to get to this specific size,” said Shepherd.
“We started with 1.3 acres. This is about 8 and a bit. So just over 20 miles of cable up top. We’re shooting for 9-12 acres—on that scale. This would be one of the bigger ones in the three prairie provinces right now.”
The last four years has been a continual process of expanding and upgrading.
“You have to keep upgrading. You always run into what is the next equipment that needs to be upgraded. Our harvester will do 10 to 12 acres of hops, so we knew we had to get to that size to make this machine pay for itself,” said Shepherd.
The need to grow at such a rate is not so much a matter of demand at this point, but a necessity.
“You need to be a certain size where a brewer has enough options. You can’t be too small and you can’t be too big,” said Shepherd.
Last week brewers were taking tours of the Shepherds’ operation. The hops have been used in products created by microbreweries such as Pile of Bones Brewing in Regina, and by larger operations such as Great Western.
“I would say we are still in market development mode,” he said. “We have days where we have brewers out to try and convince them that we are legitimate, we are a business, we are not doing this out of our back yard.
“There have been some of the brewers that have been more interested than others. Some have no interest in using our product, so it’s up to us to convince them that we grow a good product, that it’s high quality, and that they should try it.
“We’re still learning what our aromas are and how different we are. One variety we have is Centennial, and how different is that than the west coast. It’s slightly different. Is there enough of a difference there to say that’s terroir where there’s a real regionality, I don’t know.
“But hopefully year in year out we’ll see what that aroma profile is and how it develops over time. As the plants mature, it does change. So it’s a work in progress still.
“They know we’re here, but some of the ones that have showed up today (last Monday, when brewers were visiting for an open house at the hop farm), this is their first time visiting us. Some have used us and some have not. So this is a great opportunity to show what we are doing, the different processes, what makes us unique, why they might want to try our hops, and we’re hosting a field day closer to harvest this year just so when they walk through the fields, most of the varieties are close to harvest and have the aromas they would expect when we actually harvest . . . What you smell today is what you are going to get in a lot of the varieties.”
Shepherd says growing hops is more like growing grapes than the traditional commodity crops on the prairies.
“It’s more like grapes in how you sell them. For wheat, as long as you are willing to accept a price there’s always a market for it. Someone is willing to use it, whether it’s food or feed or animals. With this they could be free and if they aren’t the right aroma, they aren’t the right variety, nobody is going to use them. So it’s a real specialty crop, it’s not at all like a commodity crop, and it makes it a lot more challenging from the marketing side. But it also means there are fewer people willing to take on the risk.”
New industry in Saskatchewan
The goal is to one day be a big part of the brewing process in Saskatchewan, an industry that is growing, with more and more microbreweries popping up and potential for much more growth.
“Whether it’s a small micro-brewery to a group like Great Western, our focus is definitely the Saskatchewan market place.Maybe in a couple of years we will produce enough where we’d have to look outside. As we grow, Saskatchewan craft beers continue to grow. This year there’s supposed to be four or five breweries opening up. The biggest thing is to convince them that we can grow hops in Saskatchewan,” said Shepherd.
What sets JGL Shepherd Farms apart from other growers in the province is the fact that they have committed to be a large scale hops grower.
“There are a few people out there that has half an acre or a quarter of an acre, this would be one of the bigger ones in the three prairie provinces,” says Shepherd.
“There are lots of people trying. There are lots of people taking a stab at hop farms. It is as very high failure rate just based on the marketing and actually getting people to buy them. It is hard to grow them. There is no text book on how to grow them in western Canada so we are writing it as we go,” said Shepherd.
The Shepherd family have joined in with Justin’s passion project and that has made all the difference.
The hop yard has reignited interest in the farm among some family members.
“I didn’t know anything about hops when we started. I liked craft beer, that is all I knew at the start. We thought we could maybe start a brewery, I home brew, but that is not really my passion. We are farmers, we are good at farming. My family didn’t laugh me out of the room when I said, ‘let’s try something different,’ they thought this is a nice challenge and then they went along with it,” said Shepherd.
The new and interesting crop at the farm has ignited a new energy into the family.
Shepherd’s siblings, parents, aunts and uncles all help with the hop farm.
“My little sister does Instagram for us. We send her pictures and she puts filters on and does that marketing spin. My big sister does art work for us. She is in Regina and helps when she can. It’s been a big surprise to me that it has brought our family closer together in farming, where as growing up, maybe the rest of them didn’t really care about farming because it was wheat and hay, but now it is fun. We will see the whole family out planting together. Lots of us live in different parts and we all come back together for the harvest and for spring. It has been really rewarding to see family members interested in the farm again,” said Shepherd.
Local and quality
Marketing is crucial, since brewers won’t buy hops just because they are locally grown. “The hardest part to learn has been that brewers will not just buy it because it was Saskatchewan-made. You can get a sale, maybe, because it is local the first time, but it doesn’t get you a second sale. We always knew that we would have to care about quality and I think we have done a good job of that, but brewers have not been lining up at the door to buy either. They have their established suppliers and they have established groups they work with, so we just need to keep proving ourselves time and time again and get them out here, show them around and make them feel that this is a really neat place,” said Shepherd.
“Our product, it’s at least as good as anywhere else, if not better.”
The process might be hard, but there is progress being made.
“We are finally at the stage where we are selling hops and we are seeing them when a brewer shows up with beers and it has our hops in them. The first couple of years where we produced 10 pounds, it was not enough to be used commercially, you don’t really get that gratification out of it. Now we are at the point where we are seeing brewers use them consistently and that is a lot of fun,” said Shepherd.