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How Olson & Son Hopyard went from backyard project to family-run farm

Whether it’s beer brewing, hop farming or special needs families, communities lift each other up. The Olson & Son Hopyard just happened to overlap a whole bunch of them.
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From left: Liam, Karin and Eric Olson

From left: Liam, Karin and Eric Olson

We don’t have a tractor at the Olson & Son Hopyard. There isn’t any picking equipment at harvest time, and the trellis system—lengths of bamboo cut and dried out of my father’s neighbor’s yard and lashed together with rope—is now pieced together with bolts, screws and two-by-fours to get us enough height to ensure any kind of significant yield. Three rhizomes thrown into some dirt behind my garage in 2011 have somehow developed into more than 70 hills of eight different varieties over four different yards.

It turns out the Olson & Son Hopyard has a secret weapon, a hero, a guiding force and an anchor to remind us why we work so hard. Because there isn’t any Olson & Son Hopyard without our CEO, my eight-year-old son, Liam.

So, let’s start at the beginning, because this story starts when Liam was born the day after Christmas 2008. Almost three months early and weighing in at 1 pound, 11 ounces, Liam would spend the first nine months of his life in either the neonatal intensive care unit or the pediatric intensive care unit. In his first three years of life, he spent more time in the hospital than out of it. He is diagnosed with Miller-Dieker Syndrome, a rare chromosomal translocation that presents as a brain deformity called lissencephaly (translated to “smooth brain”), meaning he’ll always have an intellectual disability and global developmental delay. Liam breathes with the aid of a ventilator, eats with the aid of a feeding tube and will forever be prone to seizures every day, but all that stuff is just details.

Not a single thing you’ve just read tells you any of the important things about Liam: that he is in the 2nd grade, that he loves Star Wars and Dinotrux and superheroes, that he may be nonverbal and unable to walk but he sure does give his mother and I a run for our money. He is a die-hard Boston Bruins fan. He loves his cat, and wants nothing more than to spend as much time as possible with his incredible mother.

And yes, Liam grows hops—or we do, together, as a family. In 1995, a friend (who I will forever be indebted to) handed me a Long Trail Ale. The hook set firmly in my cheek, from then on, I’d be a craft beer fan. At the time, there were barely 1,000 breweries in the country. Brewing beer just wasn’t a job I thought was possible, and there certainly weren’t any brewing programs at the local colleges.

I’d go on instead to begin a career in foodservice, slinging burgers in restaurants and bars around New England and the Northeast. But my priorities shifted once I got married to starting a family, to putting down roots (not yet rhizomes), to settling into a career. By the time Liam was born, and the need for top-notch health insurance became my number-one priority. Transitioning into a career as a brewer wasn’t even on my radar anymore other than very occasional twinges of regret as I watched more and more breweries and brewpubs pop up everywhere, and more and more brands hit the shelves of my local liquor store.

That changed at Christmas 2009: Liam’s first Christmas, and the first in our current home, where under the tree I would find my first homebrewing kit. I was hooked again, and as so many of you who also homebrew know, it wouldn’t take long before the hobby would totally consume my life. Homebrewing kept me close to home. Being away on weekends wouldn’t work as the father of a child with such complex medical needs, plus I’d prefer to be home with Liam anytime I wasn’t at work anyway.

Photo by Eric Olson

Photo by Eric Olson

I wanted a little piece of our family to be a part of our brews, and so a quick internet search and a few days later, with absolutely no idea what I was doing, I planted three rhizomes in the tiny little space behind my garage. A simple homebrewer’s garden, it would still be a few years before the Olson & Son Hopyard would be born.

Parenting a child with special healthcare needs can be a very isolating experience. When other parents get together to trade stories or complain about sleepless nights and dirty diapers, it’s hard to relate and engage when your own parenting stories include seizure medications, suctioning out tracheas and months and months of intensive care units. Isolated in our little family bubble with every day literally feeling like a life-and-death struggle (because many days truly were), my wife and I had a hard time not adopting an “us against the world” attitude. The saving graces were Instagram and Twitter, and my blog PressureSupport.com, which connected us to families all over the world with similar stories. If the parents in my family and local community didn’t understand the dark humor that can develop about daily seizures or other complex medical issues of children, our internet community of parents to children with other rare disabilities and diagnoses would.

Telling our stories and jokes online would help us to feel less alone in this world, and through blogging, my advocacy work for the families of special needs children would begin. Speeches at area hospitals, presentations for national conferences … before I knew it, my little blog and Instagram account had a very small but incredibly loyal and loving following of fans and friends from all over the world who had made a connection not with me, but with Liam. (He’s pretty popular for an 8-year-old.) In addition to occasional speeches and my own blog, I am the co-chair of the advisory council for patient- and family-centered care at the hospital where Liam was born, working with administrators on policy that affects not only their patients but also their visiting families. I sit on the board of directors of the Rhode Island Parent Information Network, a non-profit dedicated to giving the families of children with special health care needs support and advocacy.

And for the past ten months, my wife and I have worked with our state representative to help write and push through new legislation in our state to ensure that parents of children with complex medical needs, rather than school departments, have control over their children’s one-on-one nursing care. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, Rhode Island’s House of Representatives voted on this legislation without a single nay vote. We are hoping that in the coming weeks we can get it moved through the Senate side and onto the Governor’s desk.

From left: Karin, Liam and Eric Olson | Photo by Eric Olson

From left: Karin, Liam and Eric Olson | Photo by Eric Olson

You wouldn’t think there would be a pathway to becoming a part of the beer community through the special needs parenting community, but there is. For Father’s Day a few years ago, my amazing wife Karin had two T-shirts made—an adult extra large and a children’s small—with “Olson & Son Hopyard” across the chest with clip-art hops and barley stalks underneath. They became our harvesting uniform. It was in the fall of 2015 when Liam and I (rocking our Olson & Son gear) were harvesting hops, and I posted a picture of Liam in his shirt on my Instagram page. That’s when everything changed. The transition began, and instead of being an advocate with a home garden, I’d work to become a hop grower, with an overlapping and interconnected side gig of advocacy.

In between, though, and like many of the small breweries that have popped up in the past ten years, there was a time there when we were just a T-shirt company. “We’re more of a lifestyle brand,” I used to joke, because back then (like today), it’s kind of hard to describe exactly what the Olson & Son Hopyard business is.

Liam Olson | Photo by Eric Olson

Liam Olson | Photo by Eric Olson

The comments came in quickly. “Do you sell those shirts?” a follower from Texas asked. At the time, I don’t believe I had any followers in the beer or hop-growing world. Afraid that real hop farmers would see it as an insult to compare what I was doing to the work involved in running a hop farm, I wouldn’t even use the hashtag #hopyard back then. “If you think people would buy them, sure. I’ll look into it and put something up on my blog,” I commented back. Within 10 minutes I had 10 more comments. “I’d buy a shirt.” “Love the shirt, I’ll take one too.”

August 15th, 2015: The three hop plants behind my garage stopped being a hobby, stopped being my garden, stopped being just some crazy idea. That was the day that the three rhizomes thrown in some dirt behind my garage became the Olson & Son Hopyard. Where it would spin out from there continues to surprise and amaze me. The community I knew I wanted to be a part of embraced and welcomed us with open arms, treating us and about 400 square feet in our backyard in Riverside, Rhode Island, the same as they would were it 40 acres of plants in the Yakima Valley. YCH hops in Yakima reposted a picture of mine a week later and told the hop-growing world about us. Before I knew what was happening, hop farmers around the country would be sending us pictures of themselves wearing our shirts while working their own yards. The die was cast. The blog posts on my special needs parenting blog became fewer and farther between; the Twitter, and Instagram went from Liam and other interests to all hops all the time.

Eric and Liam Olson | Photo by Karin Olson

Eric and Liam Olson | Photo by Karin Olson

Seemingly overnight, I had parents of children with complex medical needs emailing me to ask about beer and hops, while hop growers and brewers emailed me to ask about Liam, and ventilators and feeding pumps. Worlds were colliding. I couldn’t be stopped from talking about the hopyard project and Liam’s connection to it. How else do you expect that a presentation made to the 2016 National Conference of the National Association of Perinatal Social Workers (social workers who primarily work in neonatal intensive care units) would involve a short interlude to talk about hop plants along with photos of Liam watering his crop?

The 2016 season would go on to prove that what we were doing was something people wanted not only to see happen, but also wanted to be a part of. A new friend from Instagram named Scott, after a sample of some of my homebrew, offered up his own land along with his own labor toward our project. In an instant, we had expanded our capacity for yield at least five times over with the Olson & Son Hopyard Ashaway, our second yard about 45 minutes south of home base. My father cleared some space and the Olson & Son Hopyard Clam Alley was born outside of his pottery studio only blocks from us here in my hometown. With the opening of our online shop, we were on our way to supplying not only T-shirts and logo beer glasses, but now finally, hops to homebrewers all over the place. Our second limited edition t-shirt sale was a hit. No longer a hobby, this was a business.

Photo by Eric Olson

Photo by Eric Olson

There were, at the time, only two things standing in my way. First, for various medical expenses and for the purchase of Liam’s wheelchair-accessible van, Karin and I had set up a fundraising campaign called the Liam the Lion Fund. Terrified at the prospect that people would confuse the two and believe that the Olson & Son Hopyard was a charitable donation and not a family-run business, I worked to separate the two projects.  A statement released on both platforms was my attempt to explain the differences. Even when sharing as an advocate for the families of children with special health care needs, I am incredibly sensitive to the idea that I may be exploiting Liam, his agency, his privacy, and his diagnosis for personal gain. It is my hope that the Olson & Son Hopyard is not popular because my son has complex medical needs, but because my family, whatever that may look like, has a story to share, a story that people feel a connection to.

But how could I call myself a hop farmer and our small, suburban operation a hop farm? Luckily, I wouldn’t ever need to. The hop farmers who had seen us on Instagram would do that for me, and I’m so happy that they did. As I would come to find out, when family-run hop farms see other family-run hop farms, we relate to each other. We help each other, and surprisingly enough, we do so in ways I had already seen before. Seizures and suction, cold spring temperatures and rainy harvest seasons. Unless you know, it can be hard to relate. But whether it’s beer brewing, hop farming or special needs families, communities lift each other up. The Olson & Son Hopyard just happened to overlap a whole bunch of them.

Overcoming that imposter bias came from the support, the interest and the encouragement of farms like Six Finger Farm in Minnesota; Carpenter Ranches in Yakima; Indy High Bines and Howe Farms of Indiana; Powell’s Valley Hop Farms in Pennsylvania; Darlings Island Farm in New Brunswick, Canada; and countless others. Family-run hop farms each have a story to tell, stories just as interesting as ours. I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank the people and projects that helped us feel like we belonged, that we mattered, that our story and our photos and our products had value just like their own farms do. I can only hope that someday we can help do the same and help to usher in new farms or brewers or advocates in similar ways.

We are part of a community, a few of them actually, a Venn diagram of expected and unexpected layers.

We are part of a community, a few of them actually, a Venn diagram of expected and unexpected layers. And as we begin the 2017 season, that community has only grown to include a local craft beer-and-burger-focused restaurant that wants a wall of hops along its outdoor seating area and asked me to create it; a farm-focused nanobrewery in Philadelphia experimenting with our hops in specialty beers; a startup brewery and taproom only weeks from opening; and we’ve even begun talks with Narragansett Beer about a possible collaboration on their pilot system this fall.

Beer is about relationships. To think that our little homebrewer’s garden could wind up possibly supplying hops to one of the Brewers Assocation’s 50 largest craft beer breweries of 2016, a beer brand that could not mean more to my home state of Rhode Island (and my late Grampa’s favorite brand of lager) is mind-boggling.

I was hoping that by the end of writing this piece I would have distilled the essence of the Olson & Son Hopyard into that elusive 15-second mission statement, the “elevator pitch.” I haven’t found it. The story of the Olson & Son Hopyard is many things: It is a story about family, a story about advocacy; it’s a story about finding your communities. Thank you all so much for reading. Feel free to visit us at olsonandsonhopyard.com or at our much more active Instagram page @olsonandsonhopyard.

As you read this, our local (just about 4 miles from the hopyard) screenprinter is hard at work printing our third annual limited edition hopyard tees designed by my wife, and Liam’s mom, Karin. I may be in charge of the plants in the yard and the Instagram, but in the hopyard and in all other matters, Karin is really the one in charge. She just prefers that role to be in the background. The shirts should be available to ship on June 10th, and details can be found on our website if you are interested on becoming a part of the hopyard team! And now, since I have gone on and on enough, if you’ll excuse me, Liam and I have some hop plants to tend to.

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