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October 2, 2014 at 6:05 AM

Love craft beer? Thank a farmworker, and pay them better

While sitting at many bars, I often picked up a pint of craft beer and proclaimed that beer is made with hops, most of which come from the same place I did: Eastern Washington.

Jose Chavez hauls in Tomahawk-variety hop vines during the final days of the 2014 hops harvest at Loftus on  Sept. 24, 2014 in Yakima.

Craft beers depend on hops. Jose Chavez hauls in Tomahawk-variety hop vines during the final days of the 2014 hops harvest at Loftus on Sept. 24 in Yakima. BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

“Washington is the largest producer of hops in the world,” I told friends or random strangers dozens of times during the 15 years I lived out of state. “We don’t just grow apples, you know.”

Many people were surprised to learn that Washington is the globe’s top source for hops, and this should be a source of pride especially as the craft beer movement is exploding nationwide.

But like many other crops that make up this state’s $49 billion agricultural industry, the workers who pick the crops often reap the least rewards — they deserve better wages.

As The Seattle Times reported Monday, the booming hops business is now suffering from worker shortages that have hit other major Washington crops, like apples and asparagus, in recent years.

Craft beer is a premium product valued for attributes like the artistry of how it’s made and complexity of flavors. The craft beer business shot up 20 percent nationwide in 2013 to reach yearly sales of $14.3 billion, according to Brewer’s Association, a trade group. In Washington, the state with the second highest number of breweries in the country, craft beer drives an industry of more than $1 billion per year.

I’m no big spender, but I find myself regularly plunking down $6 or more for a pint. I haven’t considered how much of that $6 went to the farm worker who picked the hops, but I’m sure it’s in the pennies.

People like phrases such as “farm to table” or “locally-sourced.” It sounds wholesome and pure. We like picturing a brewer standing over a vat focused intently on producing the best batch of beer.

We often forget to rewind a few steps back when the hops were picked so they could flavor that fermented drink.

Farmers complain they can’t compete for workers with apple growers who pay more. In a world of supply and demand, I question why hop producers don’t just up their wages instead of insisting on keeping them low. If paying workers more means the price gets passed on later on down the chain, so be it.

In America, however, we have a tendency to not consider the farm worker. Just like with food, we like bowls of fresh, shiny fruit on our tables and, similarly, an array of cold, artisan-made beers at our local bar to choose from, but paying more for those products outrages most Americans.

The average percentage of income Americans spend on food has gone down during the past several decades, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. The decline occurred even with the proliferation of high-priced chains like Whole Foods, gourmet farmers markets and marked-up organic produce in any grocery store. Americans still want their food cheap.

And for decades, we’ve been able to get away with it thanks to many immigrants, mostly from Mexico, accepting low wages to do strenuous jobs. We worry about working conditions for children making our T-shirts in India, but do we worry as much about the asparagus worker in Othello?

People cheer when a factory opens and hires hundreds of “unskilled workers,” but when it comes to long-time, essential industries like agriculture, both consumers and even unemployed workers prefer to look the other way as if produce magically shows up when we want to consume it.

So next time you see a farm worker, buy that person a beer, or least think about the work it takes for that pint of beer to end up in your hands.

Comments | Topics: agriculture, beer, farmworkers

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