The Wisconsin Hops Harvest Partnership brought together five experienced Wisconsin hops farmers to test the technical and economic feasibility of designing, building and sharing harvesting equipment specifically customized for small-scale hops production. This collaborative of three established small-scale hops farms run by five farmers included:
Afterglow Farm: Joe LeSage has a BS from UW – Madison and brings 14 years of business management experience to his hops farm. He is producing hops on 1/2 acre of rented farmland in Port Washington, in Southeast Wisconsin for this project, and was in his 3rd year of growing hops at the time of the grant award.
Hide-Away Hops Farm: Kory and Andrea Stalsberg were in their 3rd year of operating a one-acre hops farm located in the Southwest corner of Wisconsin in Fennimore at the start of the grant period. Kory has a BS in Agriculture Education, a Masters in Education and teaches High School Agriculture Education.
Pine River Hops Farm: Jim and Janine Christensen are farm operators with more than 30 years of combined farm management experience with two large vegetable farms. They own and operated the one-acre Pine River Hops Farm, in its 2nd year of production at the time of the grant in Saxeville, located in central Wisconsin. Both have academic training in agricultural production. Jim has a degree from Ripon College and Janine has a degree from UW-Madison.
No significant sustainable practices were in effect before the start of this grant. Each farmer works to reduce chemical use, utilize existing resources (downed trees and salvaged phone poles for hopyard) and limit resource waste (gravity feed rainwater collection and watering).
The primary purpose of the Wisconsin Hops Harvest Partnership was to demonstrate the feasibility of designing, building, and sharing small-scale, cooperative harvesting systems to enable technically and economically viable small-scale commercial hops production. Specifically, the project partners did the following:
1. Designed, built and tested small scale harvesting innovations: The team developed and tested three custom harvesting machines that are affordable to build and reduce harvest labor:
–A new mechanical picker designed and tested by Pine River Hops Farm and Afterglow Farm utilizing alterations made to readily available agricultural implements.
–A second-generation mechanical picker, based on a promising first-year design developed by Hide-Away Hops Farm was tested to benchmark improvements in labor reductions.
–Hide-Away-Hops Farm also engineered and tested separating equipment that mechanically removed the leaves from the harvested hop cones which, when combined with more efficient picking could dramatically reduce labor costs.
2. Piloted the use of shared harvesting equipment: Pine River Hops Farm and Afterglow Farm shared the new mechanical picker. Hide-Away-Hops Farm also shared its separating machine with both Afterglow Farm and Pine River Hops Farm to test whether sharing of equipment can be done economically and efficiently while also allowing for timely harvest of a quality product.
Sustainable small-scale commercial hops production in Wisconsin, and in similar regions, is dependent on many variables. Most available research findings are focused on honing varietals to specific growing regions or on optimizing growing conditions. There is very little established on how to take small hops farms beyond these basic, hobby-level growing queries to a viable scale, by tackling harvesting and processing issues.
We decided on the project goals to address some of the key processing challenges for small-scale hops production. Small-scale processing can include drying, pelletizing and packaging hops for distribution direct to buyers. Hide-Away Hops Farm and Pine River Hops Farm have developed on-farm drying equipment (called oasts) that provides financially viable, technically proficient small-scale drying strategies. Various on-site packaging of the hops has also been experimented with to prevent oxidation. Our farmers have also tested pelletizing hops using a third-party regional processing aggregator. However, they have subsequently cultivated buyers who do not require the hops to be pelletized, surmounting what would otherwise be another mechanical barrier to viability. The experiences of our farmers are consistent with other research available in the field. Processing strategies require technical proficiency, vary wildly, and are critically important because mistakes can be very costly, in some cases ruining entire harvests. That said, these are challenges that are technically and financially surmountable.
So, the central inquiry of the process of this grant was to help determine how can hops be viably harvested at a small-scale. To date, our farmers have successfully tested process innovation by engineering and constructing portable small-scale harvesting scaffolding, automated hop mulching equipment and a small-scale mechanical harvesting picker. These innovations have achieved an 18% reduction in harvest labor. However, more is needed. The new and second-generation pickers tested with funding from this proposal use the same “picking fingers” currently used on industrial-sized equipment to remove the hop cones from the bine with minimal damage. We have determined that the most economical method to mount the picking fingers is vertically on a rotating drum. This picker included a separating mechanism to remove the leaves from the cones. Through experimentation, it was determined that the most effective way to remove the leaves is a combination inclined belt with a vacuum pulling air through the belt.
By testing the equipment on three farms, we subjected it to different users and growing conditions to determine the effective rigor and adaptability of each innovation. While the new equipment is dramatically more affordable than industrial scale, it is still cost prohibitive for start-up farms. By sharing equipment we thought we could assess whether potential further cost-savings can be realized by individual farms, even if only in the first years of start-up, or if the potential cost-savings is offset by insurmountable complexities of inefficiencies of sharing.
People involved were three farms:
Afterglow Farm: Joe LeSage has a BS from UW – Madison and brings 14 years of business management experience to his hops farm.
Hide-Away Hops Farm: Kory and Andrea Stalsberg were in their 3rd year of operating a one-acre hops farm located in the Southwest corner of Wisconsin in Fennimore at the start of the grant period.
Pine River Hops Farm: Jim and Janine Christensen are farm operators with more than 30 years of combined farm management experience with two large vegetable farms. They own and operated the one-acre Pine River Hops Farm, in its 2nd year of production at the time of the grant in Saxeville, located in central Wisconsin
The following are the key results we learned:
Harvesting can be improved with small-scale harvest machine innovations while maintaining consistent quality.
Over the 2011 harvest season, our three hops farms tested differing harvest approaches and three new equipment innovations, subjecting each to different users and growing conditions to determine the effective rigor and adaptability of each innovation. We determined that:
–The low-cost mechanical picker developed and tested by both Pine River and Afterglow Farm proved ineffective at improving harvest time. The picker was not mechanically proficient and resulted in hand re-work that effectively diminished overall impact.
–The second generation harvest machine designed by Hide Away Hops farm dramatically reduced harvest time and was mechanically superior to all other approaches tried to date by the three farms. Harvest times were reduced by more than 75%.
Sharing harvesting equipment is technically feasible and results in improved harvesting times while maintaining consistent quality. However, the economic and logistical issues make sharing equipment across spans of geography difficult and impractical.
While the new equipment developed by Hide Away Hops Farm is dramatically more affordable than industrial scale, it is still be cost prohibitive for start-up farms. By sharing equipment, we aimed to assess whether potential further cost-savings can be realized by individual farms, even if only in the first years of start-up, or if the potential cost-savings is offset by insurmountable complexities of inefficiencies of sharing. By sharing the Hide Away Hops Harvesting equipment, Pine River Hops farm was also able to dramatically reduce harvest time over hand-harvesting and the other inferior mechanical harvesting methods tried.
Although the benefits of sharing were significant, in the final analysis, we determined that the costs and complexity of attempting to share equipment – at least in this test example – did end up outweighing the costs of simply investing in the equipment on each farm. Furthermore, Pine River Hops farm used this experience to decide that the overall business of hops farming did not fit well in the overall farming plan and this experience helped them decide to exit the industry and shut down their hops farm rather than investing in their own harvesting equipment.
Small scale harvesting equipment can and is being innovated to create cost effective harvesting solutions for small scale farmers. The sharing of equipment may still be viable, but the model of bringing equipment to more than one farm proved cumbersome. We have found other models where farmers are now bringing their harvested bines to site-based equipment – in effect moving the hops not the equipment. For hops farms in closer proximity, than those in this model, this approach may still prove viable. The complexity of timing hop harvests and using equipment on compatible schedules may still remain an insurmountable challenge for any sharing model as farms grow.
Approximately 8 people attended harvest days at Pine River Hops Farm during one day of harvest. Twenty people attended the Hide Away Hops Farm during the harvest. Most were local individuals curious about the hop yard and harvest operations while two individual were from New Jersey. Attendees were able to observe the harvest machines in action and also participate in the harvest process.
As part of the final steps in our project, Kory Stalsberg presented findings to colleagues at a hops conference in partnership with UW Extension in 2012. We have also shared our findings and pictures on our website, and through our brewing partners.