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Published September 29, 2009, 12:50 AM

Hops an odd sight amid Iowa corn and beans

OXFORD, Iowa (AP) — It’s an odd sight to stumble across while passing through the usual rows of corn and beans found down a country road in Iowa

By: Associated Press, Worthington Daily Globe

OXFORD, Iowa (AP) — It’s an odd sight to stumble across while passing through the usual rows of corn and beans found down a country road in Iowa.

About 40 poles, each standing 20 feet tall and webbed together by twine and vines snaking up from the soil, line a field just north of Kent Park in rural Johnson County.

It’s enough to bring traffic, or what counts as traffic out here, to a halt.

“When we first set up the poles, we’d see people stopping and looking and saying, ‘What is going on?”’ said Seth Somerville, who with his parents, Kevin and Mary Somerville, own a small farm called Green Castle Organics.

Seth Somerville and his family planted the poles along with about 500 rootstalks last year with the idea of growing hops, the ingredient that gives beer its characteristic flavor.

Somerville, 25, says he is one of the few, if not the only, Iowa farmer attempting to commercially raise hops, which are rarely found outside the Pacific Northwest.

Hops, the small cone-shaped flowers that grow on vines, are raised almost exclusively in the U.S. in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, where the abundant irrigation and moderate temperatures allow them to thrive. Hops growers in Iowa, however, with the exception of a handful of home-brewing hobbyists, are non-existent, Somerville said.

“We’re doing a lot of the stuff using self-research,” Somerville said.

His father, Kevin, calls it “learning by trial and error.”

The idea to grow hops took root when Seth Somerville was working in customer service at Millstream Brewery in Amana. A worldwide shortage of hops hit during the winter of 2007-08, caused in part by a poor European crop, which sent Millstream scrambling to find new hops distributors.

It also got Somerville thinking.

“I started by calling the USDA in Oregon and Oregon State University,” Somerville said. “I wanted to find out if they had any opinion on if it would be feasible to even grow hops in Iowa.”

About five years ago, the Somerville family inherited land from neighbor Luke Shupitar after he died. The Somervilles, who had raised a small number of hogs and a few acres of corn on their original property as a hobby, had to decide what to do with the newly acquired acreage. The soil was poor, however, so they had to get creative.

“We couldn’t do corn or soybeans, so we were looking for alternative ways to utilize the land,” Kevin Somerville said.

After converting much of the land to natural habitat through the Conservation Reserve Program, the Somervilles worked to create a certified organic farm, meaning no chemicals were used on the soil and crops for at least three years.