As a boy, Dean Palmer could never resist running after the trucks as they headed off from the neighbouring hop farm, tightly packed with freshly-cut bines bound for the picking sheds.
He’d pull the fresh green hops from the few bines which inevitably bounced onto the road and save them in a plastic bag - only discarding them when his mother questioned the strange odour in his room several months later.
“Harvest time was always a period of high activity, of course, and I’d often go next door to watch it all happening,” Dean remembers. I was only a kid but, even then, I romanticised a little bit about being a hop-grower one day,” he says.
That passion for hop-growing is obviously in Dean Palmer’s blood. Generations of Palmers farmed hops on the family property in Waimea West, settled by Dean’s great great grandfather, John Palmer, soon after he arrived from England in 1843. Even in those early decades the quality of Palmer hops was recognised internationally. In 1881, they earned First Prize in the Hop Growers Awards at the seven-month-long Melbourne International Exhibition.
But, that impressive story of provenance very nearly skipped a generation.
“My Dad remembers telling his father he didn’t want to be a hop farmer. He’d grown up pitching in on the hop farm and decided that wasn’t going to be his career path.
“So, eventually the property converted to producing barley, tobacco, a few different crops of vegetables and there were sheep, too. Then, in the late 70s when I was just a kid, apples and kiwifruit became the main produce.”
In 1991, John Palmer’s investment in farming went full circle. He purchased a 125-hectare sheep farm at Tapawera. The first hop garden was established, with 12 hectares of hops planted.
Hinetai Hops was officially founded the following year - the Palmers were very firmly back in the business of growing hops. The family tradition hadn’t skipped a generation after all.
Initially, Dean came home to Nelson to work through his university holidays. In 2009 he invested in Hinetai Hops, having taken on the day-to-day role of farm manager. The little kid who once stuffed his school-bag with fresh aromatic hops, had finally become a full-time hop farmer.
This season, the Hinetai Hops farm is a vast sea of green bines spread over 63 canopy hectares. All the best bits are planted in hops, Dean says of the beautifully symmetrical and impressive sight from the hills. Ten varieties include an organically grown garden of the highly sought-after variety, Nelson Sauvin.
In 2016, and again in 2018, Hinetai Hops earned the ‘NZ Hops Grower of the Year’ title.
“I believe in doing some of the simple things well to develop our industry and produce really great hops,” he says. “I’m proud of our family history, too. Over 100 years of collaboration, sharing knowledge, Tasman’s growers working together – that all makes for a strong group of growers, producing a really great product.
Drawing a line through 40 days on his calendar each and every harvest time, Dean re-locates from his family home in Motueka to Hinetai Hops at Tapawera.
As intense as this busy time can be, with little time to spend with family, Dean says there are many rewarding moments.
“Craft brewers come to the farm - they feel the hops, smell them and photograph them. They’ll even stuff handfuls into their pockets,” he says. “It’s really worth seeing their excitement and enthusiasm.”
– written by Victoria Clark