Edgar and Catherine: Vineyard Services + Hops Too!

Written by Janet Davies

When Catherine Crawford and Edgar Ramirez moved from Mexico to The County in 2001, she was coming home – he was jumping into a whole new life. “I did NOT meet Edgar on vacation at the pool!” she says. “That’s the classic assumption when you bring someone home from Mexico.” She was already living and working there when they met, and later when they had two young sons, they decided to move to Canada. “We wanted to raise them here,” says Catherine. “Not just in Canada, right here in The County.”

She knows The County. Her father Doug Crawford wrote the famous history book County Canners, and “My mother is a Foster,” she says in typical County fashion. “Born and raised on Cold Creek Road. We wanted to raise our kids in a small community, somewhere safe. Where you can just open the back door and have them go out and play in the neighborhood, without worrying.”

They had no work when they arrived. “We weren’t coming because there were jobs,” says Catherine. “We were coming because it was The County, we knew we could do something.” It was not easy. Edgar’s English was not good. Catherine’s mother Ruth helped them get started by recommending Edgar to her friends at By Chadsey’s Cairns who needed help in the vineyard. Now here comes Assumption No. 2. Edgar was not a farm worker. “I’d never worked in a field in my life,” he says. “I’m from Mexico City. I worked in tourism, in hotels and bars, but I was happy to take this work.”

“My first day working in The County, I think I was in shock,” he says laughing. “I didn’t know any farming language, never mind having to learn it in English, too!” Catherine admits she was hesitant about bringing Edgar home. “There was not a lot of cultural diversity back then,” she recalls, and Edgar cuts in, “Yep. I was just about the only brown guy around! It has changed now, but even back then people were very open and friendly. We didn’t face discrimination. I think they were all curious. In Wellington our kids made friends fast and through them we got to know all the neighbours.”

Edgar soon became well known in the winery business, too. He learned fast and proved to have a talent with tractors. “It was hard to find experienced people,” he says modestly. “I went wherever anybody needed me, using their equipment, like a contractor.” He did general handyman work, too, but vineyards took most of his time. “We realized this could be a business for us,” he says. “Edgar has a very good mechanical mind,” says Catherine proudly. “He learned everything so quickly and really got things done.” He was in high demand. It was time to be his own boss.

He took a small business course, how to make a business plan, how to keep the books and in 2006 entered his plan for Ramirez Vineyard Services into PELA CFDC’s Business Plan Competition. He won. “That was the big push that got us going,” he says. “We could buy equipment, a tractor and trailer and sprayer. I kept doing handyman work, too, because you never know. But we got very busy.” There was only Edgar, back then, and with just two main clients, there was too much work for him alone. Especially with winter coming and so much preparation. He needed more hands. He pulled in his sister and friends to help, but realized quickly he had to hire help. “So we have gone from just me to now having six people working for us.”

EDGAR’S CLIENTS

Edgar manages over 58 acres today – including his own hop fields. More about that later. “We work mostly for smaller private vineyards, generally not attached to wineries. We still do specialist contract work for major wineries, but it’s mostly working with people who love having their own vineyard. We take care of their vines, keep everything healthy, looking good to ensure a good harvest.” Some clients make wine from their fruit, some sell it to wineries. Edgar provides maintenance for the whole season from unburying vines in spring, maintaining new growth, pruning, weeding, spraying, right through to putting the vines to bed for winter. Do they harvest? “We do,” says Catherine, who trained as a midwife and is now helping to midwife the growth of their businesses, “But some of our customers like to do the harvesting themselves with friends and family and make a party of it. Which is good because we couldn’t do it for everybody anyway because the grapes all ripen around the same time!”

Photos courtesy of Eve Harvey

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Vineyard work is seasonal, they take the winter off, and, yes, they go south when they can – to Mexico where they visit with Edgar’s family and rest their weary bones.

PLEASANT VALLEY HOPS

Catherine and Edgar have a second business, Pleasant Valley Hops, and Ruth Crawford was instrumental in that, too. Ruth knows a lot about County history, and hops were once a big part of it. “She suggested we grow hops,” says Edgar. “I didn’t know anything about them, but I said yes, yes, when we get our farm we will try that.” They bought a farm property in 2011 and Ruth brought it up again. “I thought, okay, hops. That’s like a vine. Maybe it’s like green beans. I’ll build some nice little trellis!” He laughs to remember how much he didn’t know. In February 2012 he got serious and researched buying hop plants. “I had a hard time finding plants to start a test plot,” Ramirez says.  They couldn’t find hops rhizomes in Ontario, but undaunted, they ordered 600 pieces of root from British Columbia and eagerly awaited delivery. When it came they were shocked. “I thought is this what you get for all that money?” he says recalling a bag of little wet sticks. “But at least we had them,” he says. “So I thought, like with grape vines, I’ll put the plants in and build the trellis after.”  He gamely makes fun of himself and his rocky start. “That was a big mistake. First, you have to dig holes for 23′ tall cedar posts and string the aircraft cable trellis or you’re in trouble.” It was trial and error, patience and frustration, but they produced 80 pounds of fresh hops that year and sold them to Barley Days Brewery. After that Edgar was consumed with interest and curiosity about hops. “They are so very different to grapevines,” he says. “How could I have thought they were the same?”

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It didn’t take long to learn that the European hop varieties they had bought were not happy in Prince Edward County. Edgar thought with the latitude so similar to England and Germany they would thrive. “Perhaps it’s the limestone soils,” he muses. “I know the pH is very high in our soils. But they were not happy here.” They turned to American hops, Cascade and Chinook among others, and discovered those varieties were delighted with County soils. In addition, a hop variety they found growing wild in their tree line has a new home in the hopyard receiving tender loving care, they have dubbed it Wild Loyalist after the settlers who undoubtedly brought these hops with them to The County.

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From 80 pounds  that first year they were soon producing 800 pounds. “But we don’t measure it by fresh weight any more,” says Catherine. “The industry measures by dried weight, and that is how it’s sold. If you have 100 pounds fresh you get 20 pounds dried. Last year we produced 240 pounds dried and this year it was 1,400 pounds.” Edgar, it appears, has got the hang of growing hops. Their goal for 2017 is 3,500 pounds from their 5,000 vines planted on five acres.

COUNTY DEMAND FOR HOPS

Craft breweries are proliferating in The County and demand for hops is growing.  “We heard a lot about a hops shortage and thought that would be good for us, but small growers are not going to fill that gap. “We can’t compete on price with the huge hop yards in the United States and elsewhere,” says Catherine simply.  It’s not why brewers buy local hops. They buy because they want to make a truly local product that has exceptional freshness and flavour. ” She adds that “feedback from brewers is that craft beer-drinkers are starting to ask where the ingredients are from and they want local.”  Edgar’s hops are said to have an outstanding aroma. Catherine believes that Ontario hops as a whole are going from strength to strength. There is excellence here. “Terroir makes a difference,” says Edgar firmly. “My friend in Owen Sound grows hops and we were smelling them side by side, comparing his Cascades and his Chinooks to mine. The aromas were very different. It must be the soils.”

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This year Pleasant Valley sold its hops to Barley Days, to County Roads Brewery at Hinterland, to Stone City Ales in Kingston, and other out-of-County micro breweries. But most of their crop goes to Parsons Brewing just north of Picton.

“Brewers are passionate about their beer,” says Catherine, “but some are very passionate about hops, and we can see when they’re passionate. They come and break open the hops and inhale the aromas deeply. You can see their delight in the product.”  She adds, “We love working with brewers who believe so strongly in keeping things local.  And they know they are welcome to come here anytime to see how things are growing.”

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Edgar agrees. “Brewers can come and visit our farm, see that we are doing it right, putting nutrients into the soils, caring well for the plants. We think there might come a time when the brewer will come into the hop yard and say harvest now! The way a winemaker comes into the vineyard and say I want them now!”

Will brewers be like winemakers? “That’s a fun part of it. There is so much more interest  among brewers now. Our brewer in Kingston is like that. He has come to visit our hop yard to check on “his hops” quite a few times.

Their goal is to boost production to help bring down the price, to expand their operation, grow more hops to justify the expense of machinery they want and need.

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“We have invested in European picking and drying equipment because part of our plan is to become a hop processing hub for this whole area,” says Catherine excitedly.  Once the hops are picked, they must be carefully dried, pelletized and packaged to preserve their delicate oils. “We have spearheaded a hop growers study group, we meet throughout the year. It’s hop farmers having coffee, sharing challenges and advice.  It’s great!” Catherine is passionate about building a brand for Ontario hops, but knows you have to start small. “Prince Edward County first,” she says. “Get some quality controls in place and make this area known again for producing spectacular aromatic hops. Historically, The County had a wonderful reputation for hops. You hear a lot about those old Barley Days – but we were famous for hops, too.” She grins. “I hope The County will be known for hops again, for their special aroma, their special qualities. PEC can become a beer-growing destination, too!”

AND FINALLY

Did we mention that Edgar and Catherine grow grapes of their own? “We have six acres of vineyards and we sell to Stanners, Lighthall and Harwood Estates,” says Edgar. “We get good feedback for The County whites our grapes go into. Winemakers want to protect The County brand, stick to true County grown grapes.”

“Edgar is doing his part,” says Catherine proudly. “He’s got a great reputation. He is the grape whisperer!”

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