Although growing sod in Sloughhouse provides the bread-and-butter for the Dave and Dia Utterback family, growing hops supplies the dessert.
Their tale of how they became hops growers by happenstance eight years ago delighted members of the River Valley Garden Club when they visited their farm on Aug. 23. Their hops have been used to flavor Ruhstaller craft beers since 2012.
“There is no money in hops,” Dave Utterback told the visitors. “But it is fun to do.”
The gardeners also learned a bit of history about the large hops farms that once dominated Sloughhouse on both sides of Jackson Highway thanks to Julia Signorotti, daughter of the best-known farmer. Hops were the main agricultural product in Sloughhouse for many decades, but production had completely stopped by the mid-1980s due to competition in Washington and Oregon.
The Utterbacks bought the John I. Haas hops ranch off Meiss Road in 1985 to grow sod. Dave Utterback said his family previously had grown sod on a more limited space. They were looking for more ground that couldn’t be pushed out by development.
“We decided this was a good place to go. Nothing can get us down here because it is a flood plain,” Dave Utterback said.
The new farm came with a lot of equipment left over from the hops operation. Curious about it, Dave Utterback asked George Signorotti, who was still growing hops, to let him work without pay for two harvests just to learn how it was done.
After George died, the Utterbacks bought a portion of the ranch from his wife Virginia Signorotti to grow more sod, although they had to wait two years for the corn lease to finish. There were still about 15 hops plants in the back when he was getting ready to laser-level the ground when her son Steve said his mother would dearly love to see some hops plants growing near her house.
Utterback dug them up, moved them in front of her house and erected two poles. Steve also showed him how to string the hops vines on a trellis.
“Basically, it was for a decoration,” Dave Utterback said. “For two years, they looked really great.”
A couple years later, Sacramento craft brewer J.E. Paino was trying to get his new Ruhstaller beer onto the shelves at the Corti Brothers grocery store in Sacramento.
Store owner Darrell Corti turned him down since his beer wasn’t different. When Paino asked what he could do, Corti told him he could use local hops and referred him to longtime Corti Brothers customer Virginia Signorotti. She, in turn, told him that Utterback actually owned the hops since he had since purchased the ranch.
That’s when Paino began calling Dave Utterback, asking him to taste his beer and to consider growing hops for him. He refused, saying there wasn’t enough money in it. Then the brewer brought his terms up, and Utterback said okay.
Paino then asked him what he would do with the hops growing at Signorotti’s home.
“I told him, ‘You could have them. If you are going to make beer, we will pick them,’” he said. “That was our first harvest in 2012.”
Dave Utterback picked a spot to grow the hops near his home, although he replaced the traditional trellis system with poles with cross bars.
“My first line was okay,” he recalled, saying he knew enough to get by. Besides working with Signorotti to harvest his hops, Dave Utterback had grown up next to a farm that raised hops.
Also getting into hops growing at the same time was Paino – he had a couple of acres in Yolo County.
They decided to hand pick their first crops and then let them dry in the sun.
“We soon figured out that wasn’t going to cut it,” Dave Utterback said.
Unfortunately, he had turned the drying kiln that came with his ranch into his shop. But he built a kiln using a shipping container with a wooden structure over the top. Once all the hops were dried, he decided he needed a baler and ended up building his own that ran off the hydraulics of a tractor.
All they were lacking was a harvester, which they found in Poland the following year.
The owner cut it in half, pushed it into a 60-foot container, and shipped it, with transit time taking three-and-a-half months. Once it arrived three to four weeks before harvest, they had to weld it back together.
“It was like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “It actually worked pretty well.”
Nevertheless, Dave Utterback still had a lot to learn about actually growing the hops. As he was beginning his second year in 2014, one of his workers learned that Lefren Orejel, who had managed the Signorotti Ranch in its heyday, was back in town. He agreed to help.
The Utterbacks and their two kids were so proud of their hops when Orejel came to see them that April. They were stunned when he took out his knife and started hacking all the plants.
“Basically, he took all of them down to the dirt and told us to grow them over again,” Dave Utterback said.
Orejel taught Utterback the right way to cut the rhizomes (the roots), how to plant and how to prune.
“He was very particular,” he recalled.
Dia Utterback told the garden club they invited as many people as they could find to hand pick their first harvest. The Utterbacks cut down the vines, and their friends sitting in chairs plucked off the hops and stuffed them in bags. They continued to have hops-picking parties in subsequent years, treating their guests to barbecued hot dog dinners and Ruhstaller beer at evening parties, and donuts at morning parties.
The handpicked hops would go into so-called wet brewing. The remainder of the crop would be harvested by the Utterbacks and their workers and harvested the customary way.
Because of the pandemic, the garden club couldn’t try any of the different varieties of Ruhstaller beers displayed on a table. But Dia Utterback provided some interesting details. Not only did she write haikus for labels on two of the varieties, but also her picture was featured on a canned variety of the beer.
“The picture was taken a year ago this week at the hop vines when I was bald, and now I have hair,” she told the group.
Many of the beers were made using the Utterback hops, and Utterback Cascade was named after their hops.
Daughter Michelle Utterback encouraged all the garden club members to rub a hops cluster in their hands until they could see the yellow pollen and to take a good sniff. Called lupulin, the pollen is used to flavor the beer and, in the old days, it helped keep beer from spoiling. She also brought the gardeners over to the vines to explain what a healthy plant ready for harvest should look like.
Asked by a garden club member how much he was growing, Dave Utterback said that, with a second field in the back, he had about four to five acres of hops. That was about how much Signorotti was growing at the end when he was providing hops to only one brewer.
In Oregon and Washington, the commercial growers raise hops on long rows, pick them with machines and load them on trailers. Such pieces of equipment run $100,000 to $150,000.
“That is where it puts you in that box. You either have to go big or stay small,” Dave Utterback said. “My perspective was to grow the best we could grow and still have the best product.”