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Hops farmer Eric Sannerud starting small, thinking big to find agribusiness ‘common ground’

He’s starting with a quarter-acre enterprise but envisions a future that has Minnesota among the nation’s leading growers of hops.

Eric Sannerud: “I’m literally touching and using the same dirt as my great-grandfather. That family connection is what inspires me.”
Courtesy of Eric Sannerud

The Ham Lake hops farm of Eric Sannerud covers a quarter of an acre – about the size of a generous backyard. Last year, his Cascade hops plants yielded a crop of about 20 pounds – enough to brew 10 barrels of beer.

But farmers are a patient, far-thinking bunch. And Sannerud, 23, envisions a future in which Minnesota competes with Washington state as the nation’s leading grower of hops. 

Sannerud farms land that’s been in his family for four generations. His father left the farm and made a career in business. The son is returning to the land his great-grandfather broke more than a century ago.

“I’m literally touching and using the same dirt as my great-grandfather,” he said. “That family connection is what inspires me.”

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He’s working to inspire others. Sannerud has a part-time job with the Farmers Legal Action Group and is the head of the Sandbox Cooperative, a group of about 20 young food entrepreneurs who meet monthly to exchange ideas and support each other’s businesses.

 One of the fascinating dynamics in agriculture right now — in Minnesota and elsewhere — is the tension between small food producers and big agribusiness. There are signs of a thaw, as I reported recently on MinnPost.  Sannerud said the issue is one on which both sides need to find common ground.

“Between me farming a quarter-acre of hops and Farmer Bob farming thousands of acres, we have the same connection to the land,” he said. “And that makes us inherently different from anyone else. If we can start with that similarity, instead of focusing on our differences, we can talk.

“And we will never make it if young people don’t do the hard work of making this industry exist,” he added. That means literally getting their hands dirty: growing food, finding markets for it, searching out every opportunity. “If that doesn’t happen, foodie-ism will be a fad and it will die.”

If you envision a future for Minnesota that includes a thriving food business, make a trip to Sociable Cider Werks in Northeast Minneapolis at 4 p.m. on Jan. 31 and join Sannerud in tapping the very first keg of pale ale brewed with his Mighty Axe hops.