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World’s oldest hops grower turns 100

By Bill Schaefer

For Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

The world’s oldest hops grower recently celebrated his 100th birthday in Parma, Idaho.

Ray Obendorf was born on June 24, 1923, in Caldwell, Idaho, and an estimated 200 family and friends came together June 24 at the Obendorf Farm to celebrate this milestone.

Way back in 1923, when Obendorf was born, President Warren G. Harding was traveling across the United States on a trans-continental railroad tour called the “Voyage of Understanding” and Charles Moore was governor of Idaho.

During Obendorf’s lifetime, Idaho’s population has grown from about 432,000 to more than 1.9 million today.

He attributes his longevity to genetics.

“My family, I had two aunts that were over 100 and my sister lived to be 99.5 or 6 or something. So good genes,” he said with a laugh.

Growing up wasn’t a cakewalk for Ray Obendorf.

In the midst of the Great Depression, his father died of a heart attack in 1933 when Ray was 10 years old. Four years later, when he was a sophomore in high school, he began his career as a farmer when he planted his first crop, a plot of onions.

“I started farming when I was 14,” he said. “My mother had a renter, Orien Nugent was his name, and he was running everything. He gave me some ground that I could run on my own. He was really, really helpful.”

He was a young man of 25 when his neighbor, J.R. Gooding, first approached him with a proposal to grow hops.

“He said, ‘Ray why don’t you plant some hops and I’ll dry them for you,’” Obendorf recalled on a recent June morning sitting in a chair in his living room.

At the time when Gooding approached him, Obendorf was growing onions, carrots and an assortment of vegetables.

“I planted some hops and he dried them for me and at that time the buyers were Williams and Hart from Salem (Oregon),” he said. “Then soon after that Steiner Company was in Yakima (Wash.) and they moved down to Caldwell and hired a guy named Howard Eisenmann. He was the broker. He made the deals, contracts with us and it just grew from there.”

From 20 acres of hops in 1948, Obendorf Hops has grown into the largest hops grower in Idaho with 3,200 acres of hops planted annually.

The majority of hops in the United States are grown in Washington, Idaho and Oregon. Idaho ranks No. 2 in the U.S. in total hop production, behind Washington.

Obendorf attributes part of his family’s agricultural success to the canals and dams of the Snake River and Boise River.

“We have plenty of water because we have the dams along the Boise River and that supplies us with irrigation water,” he said. “We can grow a good crop here.”

Obendorf cited drip irrigation as one of the most important innovations he has witnessed during the past 75 years of growing hops.

“Back then it was all furrow irrigated,” Obendorf said. “Now, it’s all drip irrigation so it takes a lot less water and does a better job.”

Ray’s son Greg said that he started farming full-time with his father upon graduating from the College of Idaho with a business degree in 1977.

Greg said that he learned everything about farming from his father and that he has passed that knowledge on to his sons.

“I talk to my dad every day,” Greg said. “If I have a question, if it’s too hot or too cold or too many bugs, I talk to my dad once a day, always.”

According to Greg, it wasn’t just agronomics that his father instilled in him but a work ethic.

“My dad taught me that when you make a deal with someone, your word is gold,” Greg said. “You shake someone’s hand, that’s a contract and you should always abide by that. You don’t lie, you don’t cheat or steal and I also instill that in my sons. Our handshake is our contract. It’s golden whether we win or lose, make money or lose money, you make the deal you stay with the deal and a lot of that doesn’t happen today in this world.”

Ray is retired now and Greg is semi-retired, but Greg’s sons, Brock, Phil and Christian, are continuing the Obendorf legacy of growing hops, onions, sugar beets, corn and seed corn in southwest Idaho’s Canyon County in the area surrounding the city of Parma.

Brock oversees the hops operation while Phil is in charge of the row crops and Christian helps run the packing sheds for the row crops.

Ray takes great satisfaction in the hard work and resulting expansion of the farm by his grandsons.

“I’m proud of them; my grandsons are super guys,” said Ray. “The grandsons have just increased it (the farm) tremendously.”