The purpose of this grant was to determine whether biological disease and insect control could be effective enough to maintain pest pressure below economic thresholds and still produce a quality organic hop crop.
As many new yards are cropping up all around the Midwest, people are needing to relearn what may be effective, sustainable, and responsible pest management strategies for hops in the modern day world.
In the winter of 2010, we engaged a biological crop protection person who marketed to the greenhouse industry and asked to experiment with those same bio-pesticides. We also set up to purchase beneficial parasites and predators from another vendor.
In the Spring of 2011, we used the approval of the grant to both expand the experimental test plot from 1/5 to 3/5 of an acre, purchase more rhizomes, and purchase the different OMRI bio-rational pest control products. Once the expansion was complete, we started to introduce beneficial mites to control any two-spotted spider mite damage that may occur. Our results can be found below.
Our objectives were to determine if biological disease and insect control could be achieved in an outdoor organic hop yard setting versus some of the more established biological programs found in greenhouse settings. Many people’s general conclusions were that because it was not in an enclosed setting, the beneficial organisms would either not survive or move off-site. We found out later that conventional wisdom was incorrect.
Scouting for diseases and insect pests, applying beneficial mites via shaker tubes, and monitoring damage were the main activities used in accomplishing our goals of the project.
We used hand lenses to randomly pick hop leaves and look for mite and aphid damage. Also while looking for bugs we looked for abnormal growth or discolored or mottled leaves. Admittedly the disease-end of scouting was more difficult and without a nearby lab that was familiar with powdery and downy mildew in hops, we did not have much help to determine eithers presence in our fields other than comparing to photos.
In 2011, in the organic test plot, we were both still involved in full-time jobs and raising a family concurrently with the hop yard project. In this environment of targeted timely visits to the hop yard, we scouted at every occurrence we could be there. The lack of an irrigation system, which was mentioned in previous reports, ended up being a limiting factor in producing enough full vigorous rows to do much of the disease control end of our experiments. Plus, the micro-climate and site selection of this particular yard did not lend itself to favorable disease inducing conditions (fortunately).
However, the hot and dry environment did lend itself well to spider mite infestation. Some varieties in particular seemed to be preferred over others. Where populations were flaring up we used beneficial mites and applied them via shaker bottles. Between one and three applications, two weeks apart, were applied that year on those plants. Control was effective and prevented economic injury.
In 2012, with the addition of the new commercial yard project, and the opportunity to no longer work multiple outside jobs, we were able to more closely study the effectiveness of beneficial insects in general on that yard in particular. Our time as Hop Head Farms Management team was devoted solely to establishing a 15 acre hop yard, state-of-the-art food grade processing center, and an organized business. We were able to be more proactive in all aspects of the operation. With a custom ferti-gation system in place for optimal growth and nutrition we were in a position to have sufficient plant material to evaluate potential disease and insect damage across 6 different varieties of hops, totaling nearly 15,000 plants. We also were able to trial a couple new OMRI products that were both for root zone health. One claimed to provide some insect control which we cannot verify at this time, though some establishment vigor was noticed. This product is not yet commercially available and needs another year of trialing for me to be able to either recommend or dismiss it as snake-oil. The other product is an activated carbon, also claiming to enhance micro-biological activity and promote releasing of bound-up nutrients in the root zone. This too will need further testing to give any opinion one way or another.
Also, the super-hot, dry summer of 2012 gave a perfect challenge to see if mite control would be effective with biological strategies. This year we had to apply the beneficial mites to the trays of starter plants as they arrived from the greenhouse over the 3 weeks between Mothers’ Day and the first week of June. The greenhouses were overwhelmed with mite issues due to several factors, the early emergent Spring weather, the excessive mid-to late spring blast of heat, and resistance due to improper or insufficient chemical class rotation in the production greenhouse. So we had plenty of opportunity to see if the field conditions could support our theory that early and preventative mite control can be effective in a hop yard, in this case a commercial setting. Depending on the variety, beneficial mites were applied 3 to 5 times throughout the growing season. These applications were determined by weekly scouting of several rows of each of the 6 cultivars. By working closely with our biological control sales representative, she was able to help us further by showing us other beneficial insects that had taken up residence in our hop yard and helped to control other insects that were too low in population even to detect, such as aphids or the occasional thrips or whitefly, perhaps lingering from their initial residence in the greenhouse. We were able to target hotspots where the mites particularly liked and applied the last two applications to those areas.
Being able to dedicate sufficient energy and effort to timely and consistent scouting and beneficial releases really was essential to the great results we had achieved. I think without any action the pest problems with last summer’s heat would have been out of control and we would not have had the beautiful result of perfect hop cones offered up for sale to some of the biggest and best craft brewers in the Midwest.
Impact of Results/Outcomes
Though the summer of 2012 was one for the record books and we had a less than stellar first year harvest, the continued experiment of biological disease and insect control strategies into the 15 acre new yard was a success with fantastic mite control, non-existent disease pressure, and a beautiful hop crop. Our hops made their way into many great beers last year, from the wet-hopped harvest ales of New Holland Brewing Company, Founders, and Greenbush, to the production run of Bell’s Christmas Ale and their pub-only harvest ale. Our crop also is a regular ingredient in our most long standing supporter of the local and sustainable food and hop movement, the Walldorff Brewpub and Bistro in Hastings, Michigan. Even with the relatively small amount of hops we were able to produce and process into pellets, we were able to sell some to Three Floyds, one of the top five rated breweries in the country as well as a couple other new and notable Chicago-land breweries.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The scope of the commercial yard project begun in 2012 caught the attention of not only our neighbors seeing a forest of poles going up, but also local news media from ABC, NBC, and FOX as well as print and online media via the Kalamazoo Gazette, M-live.com, and various bloggers and journalists. Articles about Hop Head Farms were also written in The Mash Tun, a Chicago craft beer publication, and Edible Michiana as well as by our journalist friend, Bob Benenson. Local and sustainable food and sourcing are continuing to be very important to consumers and as it turns out, with beer ingredients as well. We also recently worked toward and received MAEAP verification, which denotes those agricultural operations as being the most proactively environmentally responsible of our peers. Look for more information at www.MAEAP.org.
Though at the time of posting this report, our Hops 101XL class, held March 2nd at the Walldorff Brewpub and Bistro, will have already occured, I can tell you the interest in commercial hop farming coming back to the midwest is on a steady rise. Over 60 registrants have signed up to be part of an educational course that covers all the basics of hop yard construction, economics, field prep, MEAEP verification, biological pest and disease control (i.e. our SARE grant topic), as well as proper timing of harvesting, drying, and packaging.
Continue to look for TV, print, and online content regarding Hop Head Farms, LLC and our ongoing efforts to revitalize quality and responsible hop production for the Midwest craft beer community.
We hope that the outcome of our experiment will encourage others to go the non-traditional route away from a nozzle-head mentality of spraying every week, preventatively, for a problem that may or may not show up. I think by providing this information to others by way of seminars and symposiums about hops (such as the one we just held March 2,2013, at the Walldorff Brewpub with over 70 people in attendance) we will convert some people to try the soft, beneficial and bio-rational approach before reaching for the big guns to knock down pest pressures.
I only see more need for acknowledgment by the state agricultural entities to recognize hops as a commercial crop worthy of attention by way of census, insurability, and a viable input to the various states economies that are re-engaging the local hop crop growing efforts. Also, by that same recognition, understand the need for hop-specific labeling within these reemerging states for the chemical controls that will indeed need to be used should and when softer, more environmentally friendly bio-pesticides and beneficial insects and organisms cannot keep up with the pest pressures on hops that will come in time.
The explosion of the craft beer industry and by its design, popping up in small town America all over will continue to support local hops, only if the quality is equal to what is commonly and readily available from the Pacific North West and Europe. In order to compete with the large-scale players, hop growers in the non-traditional areas will need to differentiate themselves to create and maintain viable business models that will demand a higher price-point due to lack of the economies of scale afforded the traditonal hop growing regions. Not much longer will Joe Shmo and his garbage bag of hops be able to walk into his local brewpub and say, Hey, you wanna buy some local hops. Quality is still and will always be key and to obtain that essential component that brewers demand. We look forward to continued research beyond this grant opportunity and to finding other methodologies, beneficial organisms to combat pests, and bio-rational compounds to further protect both the safety and the quality of the hops that have the Hop Head Farms brand name on them.