MYRRHEE HOPS GROW­ERS HIT­TING THE HEIGHTS

The Hand­cock fam­ily has a bet­ter han­dle on hops than most, hav­ing grown the fas­ci­nat­ing, fast- grow­ing crop for the last four gen­er­a­tions.

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Anita Mcpher­son photos Marc Bongers

The Hand­cock fam­ily has a bet­ter han­dle on hops than most, hav­ing grown the fas­ci­nat­ing, fast- grow­ing crop for the last four gen­er­a­tions.

THE last few weeks be­fore har­vest are a tense time for a hop grower like Neville Hand­cock.

The fourth gen­er­a­tion farmer from Myrrhee knows that there are no guarantees when it comes to na­ture and a hail storm or heavy rain could throw a ma­jor span­ner in the works.

By the time it gets to Fe­bru­ary, there is noth­ing more he can do to make them grow, so it’s a ner­vous wait­ing game un­til March when the crop has hit its heights and har­vest gets into full swing.

Last year a hail­storm nar­rowly missed the fam­ily prop­erty lo­cated along the 15 Mile Creek, in a re­mote and al­most eerily quiet par­cel of ver­dant land hid­den away in the depths of the val­ley.

It’s a lit­tle gar­den of Eden that is not only home to hops, but to echidna, platy­pus and an ex­tra­or­di­nary num­ber of rep­tile and bird species.

Neville’s fam­ily set­tled in the re­gion in the late 1800s, and they’ve been grow­ing hops con­tin­u­ally since that time, in­ter­rupted only by a short pe­riod dur­ing the First World War.

His great-grand­fa­ther Charles Hand­cock was a run­away child who jumped on a pad­dle steamer and found his way to Echuca, and lit­tle more is known about him or why he headed in that di­rec­tion.

What is known, is that Charles and his wife Har­riet and their five chil­dren be­gan to walk all the way from Echuca to Be­nalla.

“My great-grand­mother gave birth to a baby un­der the bridge at Be­nalla and got the next day off, be­fore they started walk­ing again, end­ing up at the Forge fam­ily prop­erty (in Myrrhee),” said Neville.

“My grand­fa­ther Henry would have been about four and he had some vague mem­o­ries of walk­ing be­side the wheel­bar­row on the way here.”

It’s be­lieved that Neville’s great-grand­fa­ther may have been hunting for lyre­birds, their quills in de­mand for use as ink pens, when he made his way down the 15 Mile Creek val­ley and dis­cov­ered the iso­lated prop­erty.

He de­cided to es­tab­lish a graz­ing lease of 900 acres and be­gan sawmilling with the in­ten­tion of also cre­at­ing an or­chard, even­tu­ally fenc­ing a use­ful par­cel of around 300 acres.

“They were go­ing to grow fruit on the hill but it didn’t work out - it was too far to take it down to Glen­rowan (to sell),” said Neville.

“For some rea­son, and I don’t know why, they got hops sent to them from Gipp­s­land which ar­rived on the train at Whit­field where they went and picked them up, and that’s how they started grow­ing them.”

The Hand­cock Broth­ers be­came a sig­nif­i­cant sawmilling en­ter­prise at a time when the prop­erty, orig­i­nally known as “Musk Vale” in the re­gion of Toom­bullup, would have been thick with veg­e­ta­tion.

They thought they’d “ring” a few big trees and clear the land, but the dense scrub kept com­ing up and fill­ing the void.

Neville said at that time, the creek’s course took a dif­fer­ent path and the hops were grown on a river flat that no longer ex­ists.

“When they went away to the war, the creek got in and when they got home, ev­ery­thing they had was washed away so they had to start again,” he said.

Neville’s grand­fa­ther Henry Hand­cock proved to be a suc­cess­ful hop grower, ex­pand­ing and mod­ernising the op­er­a­tion and build­ing a sub­stan­tial shed on the site in around 1959, just be­fore power reached the farm.

He ex­panded the hops con­sid­er­ably once mech­a­ni­sa­tion came in and with Neville’s fa­ther Vic and Un­cle Ernie fol­low­ing in their fa­ther’s foot­steps, the crop has been grown there ever since.

Vic and Leo­nia Hand­cock had four chil­dren and Neville’s Un­cle Ernie and Aunt Nancy also had four chil­dren, with all eight grow­ing up on the fam­ily farm.

Since Charles Hand­cock set­tled in Myrrhee, the Hand­cock dy­nasty has been raised within the close com­mu­nity, with Neville and wife Donna’s son Chris­tian the last of around 40 Hand­cocks to have at­tended the Myrrhee Pri­mary School.

At the time when Neville at­tended, there were more than 20 chil­dren from fam­i­lies living just along the 15 Mile Creek Road go­ing to the school, some­thing which be­gan to change as they even­tu­ally grew up and moved away.

Neville met Donna 36 years ago, af­ter his mother put a sign up on the no­tice board at Wan­garatta Woollen Mills where Donna was work­ing, look­ing for peo­ple to work week­ends and train the young hops.

She de­cided to give it a go and it was there that she met Neville, the pair mak­ing friends over the week­ends they worked to­gether.

Invit­ing him on a so­cial night out sealed the deal and Neville jokes that “she came to work and never left”.

They mar­ried five years later and went on to have two chil­dren, their sec­ond son Nathan pass­ing away in tragic cir­cum­stances at the age of three, leav­ing the cou­ple dev­as­tated.

While Chris­tian is “an ap­pren­tice” on the farm and stud­ies a hor­ti­cul­ture course at univer­sity, whether or not he will de­cide to con­tinue in the fam­ily busi­ness is yet to be de­ter­mined.

Al­though Neville and Donna now live in Wan­garatta, Neville spends most of his time on the Myrrhee farm with the cou­ple try­ing to in­clude a lit­tle travel dur­ing the qui­eter months.

They have al­ways been com­mu­nity-minded and con­tinue to be in­volved in a va­ri­ety of com­mu­nity groups and com­mit­tees in­clud­ing the Moyhu Li­ons and Moyhu Foot­ball Clubs, Myrrhee Hall, Land­care and other lo­cal ini­tia­tives.

But it’s a case of all hands on deck at har­vest time when a team of staff come in to help ma­chine har­vest the 35 acres of Topaz hops, which will be dried for a few days be­fore be­ing baled, pro­duc­ing an av­er­age of 37,000 ki­los a year.

Hav­ing taken the reins for the last 20 odd years, ex­actly what needs to hap­pen comes nat­u­rally to Neville, as has hop grow­ing it­self.

Dur­ing the year he con­cen­trates on main­tain­ing the con­sid­er­able in­fra­struc­ture, slash­ing, weed con­trol and train­ing the young plants which grow from an­kle height in Novem­ber to a stag­ger­ing 18 feet tall by March.

Over the three weeks of har­vest, Neville will work 15 hour days, dry­ing the crop un­til late into the night, but he says the nat­u­rally se­dat­ing prop­er­ties of the hops con­trib­ute to a sound and sat­is­fy­ing sleep.

He said it’s the rea­son that in Europe, hop pil­lows have been used for cen­turies to pro­mote deep sleep.

“Any­one who works with hops will tell you the same thing - it’s some­thing that’s hard to de­scribe un­til you’ve experienced it,” he said.

Al­though Neville is not a beer drinker him­self, he’s do­ing what he loves, and is pleased to be part of an in­dus­try which is in the midst of a boom at the mo­ment with spe­cialty brew­eries pop­ping up across the re­gion and around the globe.

He said while his hops are on-sold to a dis­trib­u­tor, they’ve been known to turn up in brews made by com­pa­nies like Lit­tle Crea­tures and Fur­phys, and could very well be a com­po­nent of your next, thirst quench­ing ale.

“Beer is still a pop­u­lar drink and in some parts of the world, ex­tremely pop­u­lar, and I can’t see that ever chang­ing,” he said.

“Beer is still a pop­u­lar drink and in some parts of the world, ex­tremely pop­u­lar, and I can’t see that ever chang­ing.” Neville Hand­cock

TOP HOPS / Neville, Chris­tian and Donna Hand­cock are con­tin­u­ing the fam­ily tra­di­tion of hop grow­ing.

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