A new generation of hops growers
It's early fall, so the hops at Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass., have been harvested. What remains in the hopyard are metal cables strung between wood and concrete pilasters. Eugene L'Etoile has farmed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts since the 1970s, and just recently started experimenting with hops. In 2007, the grower and his sons expanded their 250-acre turf and grain operation to include six varieties of hops on .75 acre. The question was not whether, but how hops would grow in their microclimate. Hops will grow almost anywhere, but the disease-prone plant won't thrive in just any location.
A hop cone is split apart to reveal lupulin glands, which produce the beta acids present in hops.
Photo by Stephen Ausmus/USDA-ARS.
Hops grow best in areas with long days, temperatures above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, lots of water and about 150 pounds per acre of nitrogen, along with good potassium and phosphorus levels. The hop has one of the fastest linear growth rates of any crop plant and can grow upwards of 6 inches a day under optimum conditions.
Washington, Oregon and Idaho boast the nation's largest hopyards, with farms ranging from hundreds to thousands of acres. Many of the largest yards are also the oldest - legacy operations that have been handed down through generations. Yet, like L'Etoile and his sons, growers with a variety of backgrounds and passions are stepping into the yard and seeing if they have what it takes to brew success.
Tapping into heritage
Before choosing varieties, L'Etoile contacted local breweries to learn their preferences. "If they won't use it, there's no sense growing it," says the farmer. Tim Manchego of Pompey Mountain Hop Farm in Pompey, N.Y., followed the same formula, and so did Ron and Michelle Yovich of Ella J Farms in Longmont, Colo. Each farmer took that information, and then looked for the most disease-resistant and highest-yielding varieties suitable for their farm. The L'Etoiles chose four varieties developed in Oregon: 'Cascade', 'Willamette', 'Nugget' and 'Sterling'. They also planted 'Kent Golding', an English variety, and 'Magnum', a German variety.
Hops don't fruit in the first year; the plant is trying to put down roots and build a rhizome. For L'Etoile, years two through five were a success. Three top performers emerged, and brewers in the local market pounced. In year two, L'Etoile sold his small harvest of 10 to 15 pounds to a microbrewery in Northampton, Mass. By the fourth year, Four Star Farms had a clientele of five microbreweries for its 'Cascade', 'Magnum' and 'Nugget' hops.
A hopyard of 'Willamette' in Oregon near harvest.
Photo courtesy of David Gent, USDA-ARS.
With the rapid success of their little crop of hops, in spring 2012 L'Etoile and his sons erected a second hopyard on 2 acres, where 2,000 'Cascade', 'Magnum' and 'Nugget' plants grow. An additional 4 acres of hops will be planted in 2013, with further expansion planned for 2014. "It's not something you do halfway," he explains.
Ella J Farms grew 'Nugget', 'Cascade', 'Chinook', 'Crystal', 'Mt. Hood' and 'Tettnanger' on 10 acres. The Yoviches are new to farming and are working toward organic certification. They planted their first crop in 2011 and harvested 10 percent of their crop in 2012. Though they have faced challenges, including entering agriculture with zero prior experience, the couple celebrated early success. They presold the 'Chinook' and 'Cascade', which formed the majority of their crop, to AC Golden Brewing Co. (MillerCoors), and the 'Nugget' to a smaller Colorado brewery.
Eugene L'Etoile in the hopyard.
Photo by Rebekah Fraser.
Cones of the cultivar 'Willamette' are ready for harvest.
Photo courtesy of David Gent, USDA-ARS.
At Pompey Mountain Hop Farm, Manchego is growing on 4.5 of his 10 acres. Passionate about home brewing, Manchego opened the first brewpub in Houston in 1995. He later moved to New York and started growing hops for his personal home brew. When a friend with a home brew shop in Texas called and asked for his hops, Manchego sent a package to help him out. His friend sent a big check, saying his business would have gone under if not for Manchego's hops. That was when Manchego realized he had a viable business opportunity and started growing commercially. Each year since, he has expanded with one or two new varieties. In 2012, he grew 'Cascade', 'Centennial', 'Chinook', 'Magnum', 'Kent Golding' and 'Mt. Hood'. In 2013 he'll add 'Perle' and 'Willamette'.
As they expand production, L'Etoile and his sons will also experiment with new varieties. One unusual choice is 'Teamaker'. Some breweries use 'Teamaker' in their beer, but L'Etoile is interested in growing the cultivar for use in teas. "It doesn't have the bitterness. It has antibacterial properties and helps people sleep. It's supposedly good for health; if it is and it will grow well here, we'll give it a try," he says.
From the Pacific Northwest, 'Teamaker' is the work of John Henning, a researcher at the USDA-ARS station in Corvallis, Ore.
Despite the distance and differences in climate and disease pressure, L'Etoile stays on top of research in Corvallis as much as possible. Learning about new varieties and treatments for disease helps L'Etoile combat the top challenge he faces in growing hops: lack of knowledge. "It's all out west," says the grower. "Hops is a new crop around here. Washington State and Oregon State do a lot of research that is publicly available."
The hops cultivar 'Willamette'.
Photo courtesy of David Gent, USDA-ARS.
L'Etoile took advantage of the access to Washington State University (WSU) researchers in his first year growing hops. The typical hop bine grows to about 19 or 20 feet tall. His 'Sterling' plants only grew to between 6 and 18 inches. L'Etoile searched, but found no conclusive information. He called the University of Massachusetts Extension. The UMass Extension specialist was unable to identify the cause of the problem. L'Etoile called an agronomist, who came out to test the soil and found that it was disease-free. Finally, suspecting hop stunt viroid (HSVd), L'Etoile sent a sample to WSU for testing. The problem was identified as apple mosaic virus. Since the disease can't be treated, the plants were destroyed and the area left fallow for almost two years.
Since L'Etoile's run-in with apple mosaic virus, the University of Vermont (UVM) Extension Crops and Soils Team has started research on hops and established a mutually beneficial relationship with L'Etoile. Extension Agronomist Heather Darby planted a .75-acre experimental hopyard at UVM in 2010 and harvested the first crop in 2011. She and her colleagues are trialing 20 varieties, replicating each three times in the hopyard. They are also evaluating the impact on hop pests and beneficial insects of cover crops grown between hop rows.
UVM Extension specialists have also worked with farmers to implement projects on fertility management, and they've provided technical advice to individual farms. L'Etoile says he and Darby learn from each other. Meanwhile, L'Etoile continues to pore through information coming out of the USDA-ARS Corvallis research station.
The USDA began its hops breeding program in 1930. John Henning started working with hops at Corvallis in 1996. Pop open a bottle of Rogue Irish Lager, Morimoto Imperial Pilsner or Mogul Madness Ale and you'll taste his work and that of his predecessor, Al Haunold. Of the varieties Henning has released, three are in production: 'Sterling', 'Newport' and 'Teamaker'. To date, the USDA has developed and released over 20 hop varieties, with each new cultivar yielding more fruit than its predecessors, yet costing less to produce. (At least, that's the goal.)
The hops cultivar 'Glacier' in Washington.
Photo courtesy of David Gent, USDA-ARS.
The prophylactic sprays that protect hops against fungal diseases are costly and must be done regularly. However, when Henning successfully identifies and develops resistance to major plant pathogens in the hop plant, growers do not have to spray as much, or at all, for diseases. Much of Henning's work focuses on developing resistance to powdery mildew and downy mildew, but future work will concentrate on hop stunt viroid. The disease was first reported in Japan in 1970, but has no known cause and no known resistance within hops' wild or cultivated lineage. Hop stunt viroid causes yield reductions of 50 to 75 percent in certain varieties, and reduces the size and quality of the produce.
Research is also occurring at Colorado State University. The Yoviches say scientists' focus on the state's western slope makes the majority of the research less relevant to their farm on Colorado's front range, where the climate is quite different. The couple hopes to develop relationships with local researchers in years to come.
"[Diseases] coupled with the high cost of labor to produce the crop leave little margin for error. Low yields of many of the traditionally favored hop varieties exasperate an already delicate balance," states Henning.
Each of these recent entrants to the hop market has found rapid success and high demand. Yet in Pompey, N.Y., Manchego has battled extreme and unseasonable weather challenges. He grew about 5,000 bines in 2012. When temperatures rose into the 90s in February, followed by drought, the grower lost 70 percent of his crop.
In Colorado, the Yoviches contended with weeds and other pressures using only organic remedies. Timing is critical in addressing plant diseases and insects. Organic treatments available to protect hops are not as effective as conventional methods, according to Henning. While the benefits for the environment are clear, the cost for the organic grower may be great. As a result, the acreage that one grower can handle using organic production methods is significantly smaller than what can be handled under traditional production practices.
In Massachusetts, L'Etoile works to build his understanding of the crop and its response to disease pressure. "If there's a problem, I'm going to spray. From what I've learned, it's not worth it to try growing hops organically in this area," L'Etoile explains.
Still, the farmer does experiment with organic inputs when he believes the method will be effective. Studying reports from colleagues, researchers and predecessors led him to use neem oil for Japanese beetles.
Several years ago, organic hops were not readily available in the U.S., so the organic certification board excluded hops from the list of organic materials required to make certified organic beer. Starting in January 2013, organic beer producers will have to use certified organic hops. The Yoviches expect this to have a dramatic effect on the market for organic hops. "The key to our success is going to be the organic portion of the farm," says Ron.
Hops harvesting machines are room-sized stationary machines that cost thousands of dollars and are difficult to assemble. Bines are removed from the hopyard and fed through the machines.
Hand-harvesting hops is labor-intensive, and therefore expensive. It takes about an hour to pick 1 pound of hops off a bine. If a grower hires help, the minimum wage of $10 an hour means it costs $10 per pound to harvest the crop, exclusive of other costs.
Until two years ago, Four Star Farms was harvesting by hand. Acquiring a harvesting machine has made a huge difference, saving almost an hour of work per plant. Although L'Etoile still has unidentifiable parts on the ground next to the machine, it seems to work fine. Now, the L'Etoiles harvest three bines in about a minute, versus one bine per hour.
Hand-harvesting is also time-intensive. The Yoviches mowed down about 4,000 pounds of their 2012 crop due to lack of manpower and equipment for the harvest. "We were not able to acquire a picking machine this year, so we had to hand-pick. We picked as much as we could," Ron reports. Consequently, they sold their crop to only two brewers. "We're hoping to get a picking machine this year and be able to harvest a lot more. At that point we will start talking to a lot more brewers."
The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.