"This is a whole new industry for farmers," Clabaugh said. "I was making $600 an acre from soybeans. I can make about $6,500 an acre taking barley to brewery."
He hopes to tackle hops next, a crop the Ruhlmans have found manageable but somewhat labor-intensive. The perennial plants take a few years to establish themselves, and vines can grow up to 25 feet long and need something to climb, Ruhlman said.
"Hops bitter the beer, give it flavor and act as a natural preservative," Ruhlman said. "The more hops the brewer uses, the more preserved the beer is."
He plucked a cone-shaped flower from a hops vine and crushed it to reveal a yellow, citrus-scented powder known as lupin. He has also made homes for bees and bats: The bees not only produce honey but pollinate the plants, and the bats eat mosquitoes and other insects.
Ruhlman expects to move beyond hops into barley. A neighboring farmer has promised 400 bushels of barley so Ruhlman can try malting. His sons Matt and Dan are on board.
"Beer production is a marriage of science and art," Dan Ruhlman said.
His brother demurred.
"It is more the combination of persistence and hard work," Matt Ruhlman said.
Clabaugh said beer offers an advantage: "It's much more recession-proof than the roller-coaster ride of income we get from other farm products."
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