Jane Kuhn - Oct 10, 2016

Thinking About Growing Hops?

Photo Credit to Tootie & Dotes 

The number of breweries in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2011, now approaching a count of 4,300, according to the Brewer’s Association. The craft beer business is booming; seasonal batches and unique ferments from local ingredients are filling the kegs of hip bars in every city. There’s no doubt beer is a product consumers are excited about, and hops are a key ingredient. Integrating hops into your crop plan is a significant commitment, but it’s worth entertaining; here are a few key considerations to get the juices flowing.

The Basics
Hops need a minimum of 120 frost-free days, and around 15 hours of daylight. Irrigation is  necessary for an abundant hop harvest; and given that their roots can extend to a depth of 15ft, sandy loams tend to be the most preferred soil type. While yield fluctuates by variety, this perennial plant typically has five productive years.

Infrastructure
Not unlike other perennials, hops require strategic planning and come with some hefty upfront costs. Eric Sannerud, CEO of Mighty Axe Hops in Minnesota, advises that “Hops are a costly crop to get into. For starters you need to build an elaborate trellis system…(comparable to) a vineyard but 18 feet tall. Then, once your hops are ready for harvest you'll need a specialized picker to get them off the bine, drier to bring them to stable storage moisture, and a pelleter to take those dried hops to pellet form.” The first steps are to consider the style of trellis you’ll use, how to budget for it (check out slide 58 in this great powerpoint on hops production by CSU extension), and how to construct it.

Harvesting
It’s said to take about one person hour per mature plant to hand harvest, so if you find your yourself growing on anything greater than one ace, machines are going to be a necessary addition. Large scale hops harvesters start at about $30,000 used, but there are some compact models on the market more feasible for small growers. Some hops farmers contract out the harvesting process, but it’s also worth investigating local co-ops in your area for resource sharing.

A few hops co-ops out there include:
Old Dominion Hops Cooperative
Michigan Hops Alliance
Northeast Hops Alliance
Know of any others? Post them in the comments section below!

If you’re looking to keep the harvesting process in house, but aren’t growing on the large scale, University of Vermont Extension put together plans for building a mobile hop harvester, a really neat option that’s both portable and efficient for mid-sized productions.


Mighty Axe Hops in Ham Lake, Minnesota

Scale of Production
Given that harvesting is the primary cost in hop growing, scale of production plays a big role in determining what size fields make sense. “Hops are a specialty crop that require lots of special attention, and equipment, which makes investing in hops as part of a diversified operation a difficult decision” heeds Eric. “You'd want to be sure that, financially, the hops can stand on their own and support the necessary harvesting and processing equipment.” You’ll also need to be mindful of seasonal timing so that the big labor pushes in spring and harvest time don’t overlap with other busy times in a diversified farming production.

Eric’s advice for those new to the hops growing game: “Take. Your. Time. Hops are a patient crop. You don't need to grow one million acres in year one. Plant a handful, or a 1/4 acre or some size that if they don't work out or you don't like 'em or you get distracted you're not going to be financially ruined. Grow slowly, grow smart.”

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Jane works as a Field Production Specialist at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, where her days are filled with tractor work, irrigation coordination, orchard care, and educating apprentices and interns. Her favorite way to end a long day's work in the sun, is running down the hill to Mitchell's Cove and jumping in the Pacific.

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