Tag Archives: Seattle

A “Hoppy” Bubble? Linking Labor and Capital in Washington State’s Beer and Cannabis Industries

Blog Editor’s note: This is the second installment in FoodAnthropology’s series on Latinx foodways in North America. We welcome contributions from researchers in this area. More details about the series are here

Megan A. Carney
University of Arizona, School of Anthropology and Center for Regional Food Studies

Every fall in the Pacific Northwest, craft brewers and beer connoisseurs alike anxiously anticipate the availability of freshly harvested hops. Ranging from mid-August to mid-October, almost every brewer in the trade premieres a fresh hop beer. The widespread and increasing demand for freshly harvested hops turns the craft beer scene into some kind of frenzy: brewers buy as much as they can as soon as the hops are available and then proudly display their piling heaps of green and gold treasures – mounds of the fresh hop buds – with much fanfare to salivating beer aficionados. The hop bud enjoys much attention, even worship, during this time of year, its image projected onto all forms of marketing and advertising from bottle labels to bumper stickers and billboards.

Washington State’s Yakima Valley is one of the most productive hop-growing regions in the United States, accounting for more than 70 percent of total hop cultivation nationally. It is a $380 million industry that generates over 65 million pounds of popular hop varieties such as Centennial, Amarillo, and Cascade. While an agricultural tradition has thrived in the Yakima Valley for many generations, due in part to its proximity to the Columbia River and fertile soils, more growers have gradually begun cultivating hops. Hops production has been increasing since the turn of the nineteenth century with a particularly sharp increase in 2005.

The elevated status of hops, however, and its near fetishization among brewers and consumers tend to obscure the labor processes and larger shifts in agricultural land use that have enabled the increased availability of hops. Harvesting hops is a labor-intensive process despite certain advances in mechanizing hops production. Migrant workers, whose origins trace from Mexico and Central America predominantly, perform the bulk of this highly skilled labor. One brewery even recently released a beer to pay homage to this migrant workforce. Since hops harvesting is seasonal, these migrant workers often migrate to other regions of the United States in search of work in other seasonal industries. While migrant labor has historically sustained much of the agricultural production in the Yakima Valley, the increasing demand for highly-skilled migrant workers in hops cultivation and harvesting due to the industry’s rapid expansion is a more recent development.

Much remains unknown regarding the specific labor and living conditions of migrant workers employed in the hops industry. However, studies of migrant farmworkers in the Yakima Valley have found substandard living conditions, numerous occupational hazards, high rates of food insecurity, chronic health conditions, and inadequate or limited access to health care as characterizing the daily struggles of this population. My research aims to understand the lived experiences of these workers, specifically the daily and seasonal rhythms of their labor, living conditions, and broader effects for food insecurity and health. In addition, I seek to map the political-economic and institutional arrangements within which the lived experiences and life chances of workers in the hops industry and the “hop-crazed” brewers and consumers are connected.

The greater Seattle region has experienced rapid gentrification with unprecedented population growth during the past decade. Estimates are that the city grows by 1,000 new residents each week, many of them attracted to jobs with tech giants such as Amazon. These residents tend to be younger and wealthier as a whole, but with the city’s housing crisis, many are moving into what historically were more working-class neighborhoods. The shifting demographics of Seattle’s cityscape have been accompanied by the proliferation of microbreweries and recreational cannabis shops, the latter especially since Washington residents voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012. Meanwhile, crises loom around illicit drug use – particularly of heroin and other opioids – and widespread homelessness, troubling local residents, public health workers, and policymakers about specific actions to take. The growing demand for artisanal brews and high-quality cannabis among the region’s younger and more affluent residents on the one hand, and the gradual dispossession of the poor and growing homeless population on the other, arguably represent two sides of the same coin.

Another dimension of this research is probing into questions regarding shifts in land use toward hop and cannabis cultivation and the broader political-economic, environmental, and human health consequences. Food system scholars and practitioners consistently highlight the implications of shifting land-use from staple or edible crops intended for human consumption toward crops that support biofuel production, animal feed, or more “luxury” and recreational commodities. Hops and cannabis of course, tend to fit within the last category, notwithstanding arguments for how both crops may support human health in reducing stress and anxiety, or offering pain relief. Yet these crops – especially cannabis – also represent “big business” in generating revenues much higher per acre of yield than say an acre planted in pears or potatoes. Indeed, a substantial portion of Washington State’s land surface area devoted to agricultural purposes is now being cultivated for certain mind-altering substances and libations (e.g., grapes, apples, cannabis, hops). How the broader consequences of such shifts in land use unfold along lines of citizenship, class, and race within the greater Seattle region, Washington state, the Pacific Northwest foodshed, and beyond remain to be adequately understood.

Megan A. Carney is Assistant Professor in the School of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona.

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