One of the best lessons you’ll ever learn about the power of will, spirit and commitment is the story of Yakima Chief Hopunion, which celebrated its first 30 years with a big, but not gaudy bash at Carpenter Farms near Granger.
Because Tom Carpenter Jr. and I became friends over the years, I had the opportunity to observe this enterprise going from a babe in the womb to an adult with boundless opportunities ahead. I knew what Tom intended to do, and I was certain it would be accomplished. All I wanted to see was how.
When Tom and his son Steve met with the Mike Smiths and Steve Perraults at the library in Granger in the late 1980s to seek a new way of marketing hops, they were looking for a way to save their farms from the volatile worldwide hop market.
Steve Perrault reminded me of that last Friday.
He recalled an interview I had with him at that time. It had slipped from my memory, but it was brought back to me when Steve said, “We were about to go under.”
Those were almost the same words he used that day.
The hop market was almost unbelievable as it yo-yoed from year to year.
In the 1980s and 1990s the market was so volatile it was difficult to plan ahead. It was so volatile that a few of the growers in the Yakima Valley, led by Tom Jr., decided there was something wrong in the way hops were being handled.
The result of that meeting and others was an understanding that growers were earning little money because brokers and brewers were picking off more than their fair share. In order to survive, growers contracted their hops before growing them.
If the market stayed the same or declined, they were okay. If it went up, they lost what they could have gained.
Those growers who could do it, planted “spot” hops, or hops that weren’t contracted. If demand went up, the spot hops were a victory. If it went down, those hops were value-less.
Friday’s celebration was for the triumph of the 30 years since that meeting. Taking the approach they were going to save family farms from the corporate world, the Carpenters, Perraults and Smiths forged ahead. Each family would farm its own way on its own ground, but they would market together.
Today, there are 11 hop-growing family farms that own Yakima Chief Hopunion, the No. 1 supplier of hops in the Northwest. The common goal that got these families to the top was the saving of the family farm.
Friday, you could easily see that family is still the foundation of Yakima Chief Hopunion. Countless were the times I heard that word. Tom’s five sons were there. They’re not all part of the ownership, by choice, but they are all still family — smiling, laughing and chatting away with family and guests.
In all the years I’ve known Tom Jr., he was all work and business. He’s the guy you’d have to drag to a party and even then, not get him there. His day still starts at about 3 a.m. It ends when it ends. He’s 81 now, and I’ll bet he still operates on 1-2 hours of sleep a day during harvest.
When I caught up with him at the celebration, I teased him by saying I never thought I’d catch him at such a shindig.
He smiled and said, “It wasn’t my idea.”
But once the celebration was decided upon, he was all in. He turned about 100 half-bins — I’m guessing — into beautiful flower planters all around the celebration site.
“He was out here every day,” one of the celebration’s shuttle drivers said. “It took about all day just to water all these flowers.”
Didn’t surprise me one bit. People who have had the opportunity to be around Tom Jr. wouldn’t have been surprised.
When Tom Jr. sets his mind on doing something, it gets done.
I’ve enjoyed being around Tom Jr. all these years because I always learn something. I would have been wise to spend even more time with him. The most important thing I learned is to treat people right and fairly.
Back maybe 40 years ago, I asked Tom Jr. why he continued to work so hard when he already had all the money he’d ever need. He pointed to his five sons.
“And then there will be grandkids and great grandkids,” he said.
Friday those grandkids — adults now — were there. Many of them have taken their place on the family farm.
The lesson that sticks with me most wasn’t spoken. I was at his place, and he invited me to lunch. As I walked toward the dining area of this wealthy man’s home, my mind conjured up prime rib sandwiches and wine, or something like that.
Then we sat down to a meal of macaroni and cheese and bun-less hot dogs.