By Sarah Bearup-Neal
Sun contributor

Scott Whybrew is a man with a plan for retirement: hops farming.

“You’ve heard of people spending their children’s inheritance?” he asks with a straight face. In October Scott and his wife Gerri, the parents of three adult children, purchased a 110-acre former apple orchard on Kittlinger Road in Empire Township. Over the course of the fall and a challenging winter, the couple employed a crew of eight-to-10 local men who turned the feral orchard into a working hop farm.

Scott, 54, is still years away from retirement; but, he adds, right now is the moment to figure out what he wants to do in that post-professional time. He is, both metaphorically speaking and literally, gonna get hopping.

“I’m not a (sitting-in-front-of-a)-big-TV-set kind-of-guy,” said Scott.

And as such, Scott Whybrew leads a busy double life. During the week he is General Motors’ executive director for global manufacturing engineering in Oakland County. On the weekend he returns north and shifts into Farmer Whybrew mode. On a recent Sunday morning, dense and wet with fog, at an hour when one could easily argue in favor of sitting on the couch with a first cup of coffee, Scott is in his hop field, training the vines to climb in circles around 20-vertical-feet of twisted twine. “Training” is all handwork, taking place one vine at a time. There are 28,000 vines. They were purchased locally from Empire Orchards—a local business with a hop farming operation, but more about them in a minute. The 28,000 hop vines were planted over 35 acres last spring.

The Whybrew Farm is the newest addition to a growing Empire hop industry. The Whybrew acreage boosts the number of hop acres in Empire to more than 100. According to Michigan State University Extension, there were more than 200 acres of commercial hops grown in Michigan last year. One hundred more acres are projected to be added in 2014.

Empire Orchards is owned by Dan Wiesen. “We’ve known the Wiesens for years,” Scott said. And Dan would talk about hops, he adds. In addition to growing apples, Dan Wiesen and his sons pretty much rule hop farming in Empire. According to son Alex Wiesen, Empire Hop Farms either owns or manages 114 acres of hops locally. That number includes the Whybrews’ 35 newly planted acres.

“I’ve never been too excited about the 100-foot-of-lake-frontage life,” Scott Whybrew said, using another metaphor to describe the retirement life he does not want. A sedentary retirement is probably not in his future as long as he is farming hops. Here’s some context—the backdrop, shall we say, to Scott Whybrew’s retirement plan. Let’s put the hops business part of it into perspective.

Pure Michigan, a fount of state-sponsored travel and tourism information, says Michigan is fifth in the nation in the number of breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs. “There are more than 130 breweries in Michigan at the moment,” said Dianna Stampfler, publicist for the Michigan Brewers Guild, in an email. “There are more than a dozen in Traverse City, one in Benzie and several in the works in the area (Northport, Lake Ann). Antrim County is home to Short’s Brewing, one of the state’s largest, and likely the largest producer in northern Michigan—they’re ranked among the five largest in the state last I knew.”

Where there’s demand, supply follows. Craft brewers use a type of hop called “aromatic.” These hops give the craft brewer’s small batch lagers, ales and other specialty beers their distinctive aroma and pronounced hoppy taste.

“And the demand from craft brewers keeps on increasing,” said Rob Sirrine, Community Food Systems Education with MSU Extension in Leelanau County.

Hops aren’t a new crop in the state. By the end of the 1870s, there were more than 400 acres of Michigan-grown hops, Sirrine said. The industry crashed after an infestation of hop louse at the end of the 19th century. Production moved west, specifically to the Pacific Northwest, thanks in part to the coincident completion of the Continental Railway. States such as Idaho, Oregon and Washington have become Hop Central, and here’s some more context: Of the 35,224 acres of hops grown in the continental U.S. Washington State has 27,000 acres in production. Hops, however, are a thirsty plant, Rob Sirrine said. A continuing drought in the Western states raises the question of how much longer the Western states will dominate this industry?

Hops grow well in the Leelanau. There’s enough light, land, rain and freezing temperatures, or “chilling requirement,” which is to say the temperature needs to remain below freezing for 40 days, Sirrine said. “We’ve easily got that covered.”

“It was a brutal winter,” said Alex Wiesen, manager of his family’s Empire Hops Farm. Alex wrangled the crew that transformed the Whybrew property into a working hops farm. They removed old apple trees, disc’d the land, marked holes, dug four foot deep holes, dropped “a lot” of 20-plus foot posts into the aforementioned holes “all before the snow came.” Throughout the winter, the crew erected a network of trellised twine and wire.

The Wiesens planted their first hops in 2008—8.5 acres on Frederickson Road in Empire Township. Six years later, the commercial demand for locally grown hops is “growing faster than we can keep up,” Alex said. Let’s put that statement into context. Alex’s yearly goal is to produce an average of 2,000 dried pounds of hops per acre. The Whybrew Farm is still a few years away from meeting that goal. The plants won’t mature for another year. There are, however, more immediate, existential fruit to harvest. And this brings us back to Scott Whybrew’s retirement plan.

“Being out here, weeding and stuff, takes me back to when I was a kid,” Scott said while working his new plantings. He grew up on a farm in mid-central Indiana, and spent his summers weeding bean fields, by hand. Now he’s engaged in a full-on battle with a vigorous species of parasitic plant he calls the “love vine.” It entwines and chokes whatever host to which it attaches itself. It competes for space, and Scott’s not having it. But even weed whacking has its virtues.

“You get into a rhythm,” he said. “In the business world you gotta stay calm but sometimes you’re rowing really fast to keep up. When I’m out here, I’m concentrating on what I’m doing out here and it’s really calming.”

Scott isn’t the only member of his family who finds working the hops yields great psychic benefits. Meet Megan Whybrew, middle child of Scott and Gerri, whose inheritance is being spent—a fact that seems to delight Megan. Here’s the deal. Scott and wife Gerri are in transition. They divide their time between a home in Oakland County and a home five miles east of the hop farm. During the workweek, Megan, 24, is out there by 8 a.m. helping to manage the operation. It’s an occupation 180 degrees in opposition to that she recently left downstate.

“I worked in a cubicle in Warren tracking (GM) parts,” she said. “I quickly learned it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

When offered the chance to work in the dirt and learn how to farm hops, Megan moved herself up north and hasn’t looked back. And so, on a recent Sunday morning, dense and wet with fog, at an hour when one could easily argue in favor of sitting on the couch with a second cup of coffee, Megan Whybrew considers her present circumstances. All smiles and good cheer, Megan—who is in the early days of her professional life—returns to a familiar, familial theme.

“I tell people that, at 24, I already feel retired,” she said.

Empire Hops Festival

Empire is a leading producer of hops in this part of Michigan, boasts Paul Skinner, who owns the Miser’s Hoard in Empire. So, let’s celebrate already.

The Village of Empire, home of the annual Asparagus Festival in May, will bookend its festival season with the inaugural Empire Hops Festival on Oct. 4.

“That date is basically very close to the harvest,” said Skinner, a member of the Empire Chamber of Commerce, the event’s sponsor; and a founding member of the Asparagus Festival.

The Hops Festival will emphasize the hops-infused work of local and regional brewers, food trucks vittles and the growers themselves. And there will be music to make it all go down with ease. Keeping things hoppy will be K. Jones and the Benzie Playboys and Black Jake and the Carnies. The latter hail from Kalamazoo, the home of Bell’s Brewery. Updates on the festival can be found on the Empire Chamber of Commerce website ( and on the Empire Hops Festival Facebook page.