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FARMING ABROAD: Britain’s Hops Farmers Struggle to Survive

September 29, 1987

PADDOCK WOOD, England (AP) _ By the thousands, Cockneys from East London used to take trains down to the undulating, wooded Kentish countryside this time of year to pick hops for extra money and a little fresh air.

Today, only a handful go down for the harvest of the traditional beer ingredient.

The Cockneys, who in the late 1800s would number as many as 60,000 at a time, have been largely replaced by students and harvesting machines introduced in the 1960s on the 280 hops farms that are left from the 1,000 or so that once existed.

In stages over the last 15 years, hops farmers have lost key protections against foreign and domestic competition, resulting in dramatically weaker prices and an oversupply of hops.

The remaining growers are struggling to survive, slashing costs and varying their crops.

″We’re now in a situation that the British have to fight back,″ said Ray Vale, editor of the English Hops Journal. ″The decline has happened. The guys who are left are the ones who have decided to stay and fight.″

Hop plants are perennial vines that climb frames, typically 16 feet high, and some farmers still get about on stilts to tend them. The vines produce cones of yellowish-green, oily, soft petals with a distinctive and strong odor that is both pungent and fragrant. That’s what goes into beer.

Once hops are dried for about seven hours in conical ovens called oasts, they are packed into bales. Some then are made into pellets or extract.

When hops were introduced in brewing in Britain in the late 1400s or early 1500s, farmers who made mead used hops as a preservative to stretch the life of the drink from a week to a month.

As a hops producer, England ranks fifth after West Germany, the United States, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, but it is one of the oldest large-scale growers.

The industry peaked in the 19th century, when the area planted with hops hit about 72,000 acres, seven times more than today.

The growers’ current problems stem in part from their own success.

They have produced larger crops with the help of pesticides and the development of better varieties.

At the same time, however, demand shrank as brewers improved technology so that fewer hops were needed to make beer. In addition, people in Britain are drinking less beer, and more of the beer they drink is of the lighter variety, which requires one-third fewer hops.

On top of that, some British brewers who sought licenses to produce foreign lager - primarily German lager - agreed to use the same hops as the foreign brewers used, which weren’t English.

English hops are sold primarily to British brewing giants, such as Guinness and Whitbread and Bass.

Serious trouble hit in 1982 when the hops farmers’ marketing board was ordered closed because it was found to be monopolistic under European Economic Community law. The board, established in 1932, had set quotas for the farmers, and sold their crops.

″All of a sudden then, we’re out in this big, wide, cold commercial world,″ Vale said.

The farmers also lost protection from foreign competition when Britain abolished import duties in joining the Common Market in 1973.

Even so, hops farmers were reluctant to leave the business that their families had been in for generations.

But little else can be done with hops than make beer. Only 0.024 of an ounce goes into an English pint of beer, said Geoff Hall, a hops marketer. On a very small scale, hops are stuffed into pillows or eaten as salad.

The average price for hops now is $203 a zentner, a traditional measure equal to 110 pounds, down from $292 in 1984.

This year farmers had only 9,833 acres in hops, compared with 14,501 acres in 1982.

Two-thirds of the remaining growers have formed English Hops Ltd., a voluntary cooperative, which serves as a successor to the marketing board.

″We’re trying to become more flexible and market-oriented,″ said William Jacob, deputy chairman of English Hops. ″It’s not going to happen overnight.″

Some of the farmers believe they’ve seen the worst and that prices for future crops will be rising.

″There is a certain amount of optimism,″ said Robert Chater, a hops farmer. ″We’re now encouraging growers to start planting more.″

End Adv Tues AMs Sept. 29

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