Steve and Jenn Howe are part of four generations of Hoosier farmers. Located in Crown Point, their collective story goes back to 1851 and provides a living history of Hoosier ingenuity, entrepreneurship and love of land. They’ve been a part of Indiana’s craft beer circle as pioneer hops farmers since 2013, joining 'farm to glass' with the 'farm to fork' movement .
In 2013 Howe Farms established a hops growing trellis system with over 200 20-foot poles, and within a year expanded their fresh hop capacity for year-round brewing. Howe added a harvester and a state certified processing room that allows for pelletizing the hops. While freshly picked hops are the focus in fall brews, it’s the pellets (refrigerated to preserve them) that flavor year-round beers.
Steve and Jenn continue their day jobs as teachers and it’s the hands-on generosity from family and friends that helps to keep the small farm up and running. So when Steve emailed, “We are expanding,” I asked for more information.
“We like to think of ourselves as craft farmers. We love the small batch attention and love that we can give just like the craft brewers do,” said Steve Howe in a return email. “We have decided to expand our woodlot pork production. We raise slow-growth Tamworth pigs. They spend their days just being pigs. Rooting around the woods and eating roots, nuts, bugs, and leaves. We feed non- GMO spent grains to the pigs from local breweries [Crown Brewing and Route 2 Brews], and take pride in giving them all love. We are firm believers in treating our animals like family, doing things with attention to quality and values rather than the bottom line. (Who knows, this may be the death of us, but we will enjoy it while it lasts).”
Howe Farms - Our pigs, chickens, and cows all enjoy their... | Facebook
Of course we wanted a fuller story for NUVO readers; here’s the email exchange:
NUVO: What is the ‘once upon a time’ beginning for your family of early settlers in Northwest Indiana?
: The land we farm on has been in the family since 1851. The land was willed to a distant cousin of ours, Thomas Wilcox, after his friend passed away while in the military. Our family at the time owned and operated a seed and grain business in Chicago.
The Great Chicago Fire took its toll on that business and the family started moving into The Region. At first they moved to Lansing, Illinois and ran greenhouses while renting out this land. The land then began changing hands within the family.
The land was eventually purchased by my great grandfather from his great aunt and then purchased again by our grandfather Edward Howe and his twin brother Victor Howe. They ran a dairy farm on the land until roughly 40 years ago. The land was rented by local farmers until 2013 when my wife and I decided to follow our hearts and family traditions and start a Hop Farm.
NUVO: What handed down stories inspired you to continue the tradition?
There are too many stories to tell, but inspiration has come directly from our grandfathers. My wife and I have been extremely lucky to both come from families with farming backgrounds. Our grandfathers were all great men who taught us not only how to farm, but also how to love family and your community.
My wife's grandfather, Javier Garibay, grew up farming in Michoacan, Mexico. We would talk for hours about a place I have never seen, but I believe I can draw a picture of the mountainside that he would ride his horse over each morning, or the plaza in the nearby town.
My grandfathers both grew up farming as well. Edward Howe, who we purchased the land from, was a man that taught me more about the importance of family than I could ever imagine. He is also the one that taught me the importance of a good beer! I will never forget the week he passed away, he wasn't eating or drinking much, but he made sure the one thing he tried was the wet hop beer "Howe Could You" from Four Fathers Brewing. To taste hops from the land he worked for so many years was a big deal for all of us.
Robert Staley is the grandfather that taught me how to farm. I worked side-by-side with him many summers growing up, and then during college. Through hard work I truly saw the benefits of farming not only for your heart, but your family and neighbors as well. I could tell story after story about these men who we so dearly love and try to emulate, but I think it is more beneficial to carry on their values and the things we learned from them. We try to take these values and pass them on to our own children, and with the help of our parents who devote so much time and love helping on the farm, I think we are on our way.
NUVO: What inspired you to diversify and create distinctive niches for family sustainability AND for cash income.
How do you gain and maintain the knowledge for this broad diversity?
Diversification is huge for us. We don't have the manpower or land to do anything on a large scale. We believe that there is no get rich scheme, so we have picked entities that are slow growth and sustainable. We try to utilize our land to the best of our abilities while adding products you do not tend to find on a grocery store shelf. The goal is to have a 'living museum.'
Our farm is a blast from the past where everything is grown for quality over quantity. Our cattle and hogs are old heritage style breeds that forage well. We do not have corn or beans, which is a sin here in Indiana. We do not strive to be like anyone else and that is part of the fun. There are no rules.
If a family member, or a brewer, or a chef has an idea, my normal response is 'sounds cool, lets try it.' This is why we like to say we are craft farming. We can do what we want on a small scale, and if it does not work, we rip it out and try again with something else.
I think the first thing in gaining knowledge is realizing that you don't know anything. We have so much to learn. Farming is a passion that just keeps developing. I truly enjoy talking to anyone and everyone about what they are doing and how they are doing it. It doesn't matter if its a farmer, a brewer or a carpenter. Everyone has so many experiences to share and I am ready to soak it all in.
That's been a huge part of the fun. I have learned so much from people at the bar, at a brewery or even in a booth at a restaurant. It's been crazy how many people are willing to share their knowledge. I have also been able to just pick up the phone or stop by a farm and ask questions. So many people have been willing to share. Purdue has also helped us out tremendously, from [answering] questions to seminars they have been a great resource for farmers.
Once I think we have enough knowledge to start, I like to trial things on a small scale. Small pastures and fields are our pilot system. Once we see the results we are looking for, we begin to add to the entities to grow the scale a little. We are never going to do anything on a large scale, but each one needs to be done right and offer high quality. So slow growth is key for us.
NUVO: Then came hops farming …
Then came hops!!! There are many farms in the state with a wide variety. I am not sure if that was the right choice yet, but on a small scale I know we have to be different to compete. We grow Cascade, Chinook, and Centennial more than anything else... and I use the term "grow" loosely with Centennial. These are used by many brewers and [as] with Cascade and Chinook, we knew they would grow here in Indiana.
Cashmere, Tahoma, Nugget and Sorachi Ace are grown on a smaller scale to offer something different. What I tend to call our 'boutique hops'. There are many growers around the state that have some lesser known varieties planted for the same reasons. I'm always interested in some of the different ones like the New Zealand varieties Indy High Bines is growing. It's always cool to see something different.
The SARE Grant was a grant we received [for 2016] to collect data on fall vs. spring planting. We actually used some of the research that Hoosier Hops in Indy did when we did the grant [proposal]. They received a grant the previous year to collect data on planting rhizomes vs. developed plants.
We decided to use plants because of their results; this helped our planting tremendously. In our grant we planted half of a one-acre hop yard in the fall and half in the spring. We planted four varieties and collected data on growth rates, stage development, overall yield and soil erosion. The main result was that fall planting produced seven times more yield on first-year plants. This was what we expected, but to provide actual data for other growers is a step in the right direction for us here in Indiana. Spring planting is done out west, but their spring is February and we had frost still in mid-May this year.
NUVO: How do you interface with Indiana Craft Brewers, particularly Four Fathers Brewing in Valparaiso, Route 2 Brews in Lowell, Crown Brewing in Crown Point?
Brewers here in Indiana have been a breath of fresh air. Every time I leave a brewery I leave saying, "That person was cool as hell." Talking to people about their passions automatically makes you smile.
As for Four Fathers, Route 2 and Crown, these folks are family. It’s no longer a business relationship. These are people that make our lives better, not because they make great beer or help feed our livestock with spent grains, but because of the caring and kind people they are.
Some of the benefits that people forget about with local products is the relationships. When we are always a text message or phone call away, things get easier — from product development to just a helping hand.
Four Fathers, Route 2 and Crown all use hops from our farm, and we use spent grains from their breweries to help supplement feed for our livestock. We are also currently working with Four Fathers' chef, Bob McLellan, on some farm to table projects that he would like to incorporate into his menu when they open. These interactions are few and far between these days. It's an old school model where brewers and chefs can see things from start to finish and [each] have a say in it. They are part of the story; it's beautiful.
NUVO: How are you managing to stay small and family oriented in a culture that has been promoting "get big or get out" as a way of agriculture in Indiana?
Family is everything. That is the number one priority for us and one that resonates with our customers. That family value is felt on our farm just like it is when you walk into your favorite brewery.
I think things are changing. Knowing your farmer or your brewer is something that has been lost in the past couple decades. The story is important, and knowing that there are generations working hard to provide a high quality product is really starting to become important to people again. It's cool to talk to a brewer about their beer, and even cooler when they can explain what went into getting the hops specifically for that beer.
It's cool to talk to a chef and they can explain exactly what was eaten by the pig, or why this particular vegetable tastes a certain way at this stage of growth. It's even better when you can meet the farmer or their children and they can explain why a radish tastes better when it was picked that morning.
Our story can connect people to generations of the past. There is a beauty in three or four generations still helping out on the farm any given day. We aren't trying to get big, and who knows if one day we aren't pushed out, but I know that we will work our ass off to make sure we provide high quality products that our customers and our grandchildren can be proud of.
Here’s Where to Taste Howe Farms Hops
in Crown Point just now is releasing “And Howe! Midwest IPA” showcasing Chinook and Cascade Hops from Howe Farms. Brewmaster Steve Mazylewski adds to the description, “Mango and floral notes with a touch of lemongrass blend with a rather simple malt bill that doesn’t get lost in the hops. A somewhat aggressive bitter finish gradually fades, welcoming other sip or two 6.7%ABV; 64 IBU.”
211 S. East St., Crown Point, IN; 219-663-4545
The Sept. 11 Howe Farms Facebook post: announced: “Howe Could You? Is on tap at Four Fathers Brewing, LLC
. This is their delicious wet hopped ale using hops right from our hopyards. These hops went from field to kettle in just a few hours. The wet hop ale joins a tap list that also includes Dr. Terminus and Howe Farms Smash, which also utilize our hops. We won't pretend...it's pretty cool to see half the tap list featuring our hops.”
Kimberly Oswald, Owner and manager of Four Fathers Brewing LLC, shares the back-story for their full scope of Howe hop brews:
“Four Fathers opened in 2014 as a small microbrewery. Our relationship with Steve Howe and his family started out as a business one but quickly became family. His dedication to quality and educating those around him is inspiring. The beers we create with his hops have quickly become fan favorites and are always rotating on our tap list. Dr. Terminus is one we have a hard time keeping in stock once it hits the shelves. [It’s] an American Pale that uses a special blend of hops that Steve worked with our head brewers Jason and Colin to come up with. Another fan favorite is our annual wet hop ale that only happens after harvest. We take whole cone hops and they get put directly in the boil. Each year the flavors and the hops change. Which is the best part!
Stay alert for a new address coming soon; currently find Four Fathers Brewing LLC, at 1555 W. Lincolnway, Ste. 105, Valparaiso, IN; 219-464-9712
Christopher Fast, owner/brewer of Route 2 Brewery, LLC
in Lowell reports, “We currently use Howe Farms hops in four mainstay beers: Psychotic Blonde (Blonde Ale), Horny Hefer (Bavarian style Hefeweizen), Munkey Junk IPA and Devil’s Pride Imperial IPA. And we also have used Howe Farms hops in many of our seasonal beers.
“We met Steve and his family about a month before we opened [in 2014] and since then they have become family to us.
“It’s absolutely fantastic to support the local community by using locally grown and sourced ingredients in our beers. Our taproom customers love that you can sit and enjoy a superior quality, locally crafted beer made with ingredients grown only a few miles away. They also love that once in a while they can chat with the brewer and hop farmer.”
Route 2 Brews, 141 Harding Dr., Ste 1, Lowell, IN; 219-690-3080