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Plant of the Month: Hops

As the craft beer industry reckons with its oppressive past, it may be time to re-examine the complicated history (and present) of hops in the United States

This industry, as Megan A. Carney has shown, was based on both the “violence of westward expansion as well as the central role of Native people in hops production,” among other marginalized groups. While early growers in the Northeast tended to employ white women, “because most men could not leave their farms or factory jobs for the entire harvest season,” by the time hop-growing became established on the West Coast white women “found themselves at a marked disadvantage as pickers, for they often became the center of attention.” As Michael Tomlan details,, Indigenous communities were “invariably preferred by growers” especially in the Pacific Northwest because they were understood as trustworthy and able to “pic[k] cleanly.” In other locales such as California, Chinese communities were employed on hop farms as “they were willing to pick for considerably less” than either white Americans or Indigenous peoples. Tomlan notes that in 1891 in Mendocino, Chinese laborers received $.90 per hundred pounds of hops, as compared to $1.00 paid to Indigenous pickers and $1.10 to white pickers.

In addition to rampant wage discrimination, Indigenous and Chinese workers faced ample labor abuses. Journalist Putsata Reang has shown how, in one case, more than 50 Chinese hop pickers in Butteville were “rounded up by seventy-five white men and forced onto the steamship Toledo [and] shipped back to their homes in Portland and warned not to return.” Racial oppression was enshrined in law in many cases: Oregon’s constitution of 1859 banned any “Chinaman” from owning property, and, in 1923, the state passed a law making owning property a right only for citizens. In a 1982 oral history, Ming Kee, who was born into a Chinese hop-growing family, describes the consequences of these laws: “You farm all these years and […] you’re not able to own your own farm and you’re paying a quarter [of profits] rent…. You’re just working for the other fellas.” The low wages paid to both Indigenous and Chinese pickers created “a system that resembled debt peonage,” with pickers in a “state of perpetual debt.”