One promising solution to the high costs associated with hi-trellis hops infrastructure is the low-trellis organic hop system. According to the USDA ARS (2008) low-trellis systems can reduce labor costs by 30 percent and, by our calculations, establishment costs by over 50 percent. Like most organic systems, weed and fertility management are the major impediments to economically viable yields in hops production. In conventional hops, weeds are managed by tillage and herbicides. The effects of repeated tillage on soil structure, erosion, and nutrient retention are well documented in the literature. Weeds in organic Michigan hopyards have been controlled by tillage and significant quantities of straw mulch. While effective, these practices are both labor intensive and expensive.
To investigate some of these questions, in 2011 we installed a 3 acre low-trellis hops system with the variety Summit and seeded the understory with leguminous ground cover. Though the growth rate of our hop rhizomes was subpar in 2011, we began filling gaps in 2012, with plants from Yakima, WA that were grown to size in pots in a local greenhouse. In spite of an early March warm-up and severe summer drought, Summit plants yielded 2 lbs./plant on average.
Initial cost/benefit analysis suggests that the low trellis system is 40 percent cheaper as compared to the traditional tall trellis system. On a per acre basis, reduced yields are made up for by increased density in the low trellis system. We hosted a hop tour and field day to provide outreach to farmers, brewers, and potential farmers. Results indicated a very successful learning experience for those involved.
The objectives of our grant were to:
1. Determine the growth habits, yields, quality, and market potential of the hop cultivars Summit and Teamaker on a low-trellis system under Great Lakes growing conditions.
2. Assess the effects of understory nitrogen-fixing cover crops on soil quality, soil nitrogen levels, hop leaf nitrogen, and weed control.
3. Conduct a cost/benefit analysis of low-trellis vs. hi-trellis organic hop production systems.
On-farm manipulations were carried out near Omena, MI on the Leelanau Peninsula, N45 degrees, 04’6.24; W85 degrees, 35’49.92. In early spring 2012, replacement plants were received to fill in gaps, and grown to size in pots in a local greenhouse. Potted Summit hop plants were transferred from the local greenhouse and planted into the low trellis hopyard beginning on April 22, 2012. Plants were irrigated at 1 gallon/hr for 3 hours, twice/week during the summer (8 gallons/plant/week total). In terms of fertility management based on soil test results, a custom soil amendment from Morgan’s Composting was applied at two tons/acre in the spring using a side delivery compost spreader that we rented form a local vineyard operation. Nature Safe organic pellets were also applied at one ton per acre twice per year in 2012. White clover and mammoth red clover were seeded into the alleys using a no-till drill that we rented from the local conservation district. Pest and disease control efforts included four Diatomaceous Earth applications and the natural pest control benefits of a resident ladybug population.
Growth and Quality
We had much better growth this year compared with 2011. We believe the growth improved because plants were allowed to grow under ideal greenhouse conditions prior to transplanting into the field. Though this required more effort and labor, it was well worth the extra effort in our opinion. Second year plants averaged around 2 pounds of hops per plant and replacement 1st year plants were not measured because of minimal yield.
Alpha acid levels were lower than we would have liked this year, though this was also the case for most hopyards in the Grand Traverse Region in 2012. It could have been from the elevated stress of the extended days of heat and drought and also potentially a result of the unseasonably warm temperatures in March 2012. We will again measure alphas in 2013 to assess quality.
Current cost/benefit analyses suggest that the short trellis hopyard system is 40 percent less expensive as compared to the traditional tall trellis system. Though we used more poles per acre with the short trellis system, we still spent less because the 12 foot short poles were much cheaper- $12 compared to $45. In addition based on initial analyses, we expect a greater return per acre as there are more plants/acre in the short trellis system due to narrower row spacing (10 ft. vs. 14 ft.).
In terms of outreach, Michigan State University Extension held its annual Hop Field Day and Tour in August and our farm was one of the highlights. We reported on the progress of our SARE funded short trellis system research to approximately 70 people who signed up for the tour. The entire tour was very well organized and well received and we hope to participate again in 2013.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Outreach effectiveness was documented through use of a retrospective pre/post survey designed and administered with the help of Michigan State University Extension (MSUE). The following questions were asked and measured before and after on a 1 to 5 scale (1=completely disagree, 5=completely agree).
Highly significant changes:
1. Knowledge of hops production: I understand the key components of hop production (pets/diseases/infrastructure) (Before=2.51, After=4.09 +/- .001).
2. I have a specific knowledge of key components in hops production (Before=2.30, After=3.89 +/- .001).
3. I have the specific knowledge of hops picking and processing (Before=2.14, After=3.47 +/- .001).
4. I have the skills to grow hops. (Before=2.30, After=3.42 +/- .001).
5. I understand the effect of hops on beer taste and quality. (Before=2.60, After=3.44 +/- .001).
6. I intend to grow hops in the future. (Before=2.81, After=3.56 +/- .001).
7. Sustainable hop production is a potentially unique, value-added agricultural opportunity for Michigan farmers. (Before=3.57, After=4.31 +/- .001).
Lichert Scale Results (N=41)
Tour met expectations 4.4/5
Enjoyed Mission Table and Jolly Pumpkin Brewery 4.3/5
Enjoyed the workshop format 4.4/5
Registration was easy 4.1/5
Knowledge of hops picking and processing 3.7/5
Knowledge of market opportunities for hops 3.5/5
Knowledge of the effects of hops on beer 3.6/5
Confidence in growing hops 3.8/5
Participants were also asked to describe the most valuable part of the hop tour and field day.
Below is a selection of participant responses:
Networking, organic techniques and use of N, reality of affordability of this endeavor, cost analysis, different trellis systems and comparing them, talking with farmers and brewers, networking!!!! Love the great beer state, confidence in our state’s unity to coexist, understanding hop growing start-up, very basic understanding of growing process, seeing hopyards, hearing experiences from local growers and brewers, Annette very helpful with registration, networking, talk by Mike Hall (brewer)and Knowledge of Rob Sirrine MSU Extension, networking, visual comparison of different hopyards, education of brewing process by Mike Hall, chance to meet hop farmers and others, trellis and training, educational exchanges that took place verbally at each location including the program at MSU hort center, seeing the hops, talking to growers, seeing the equipment, talking with others, seeing fields and equipment, jolly pumpkin visit and tour, meeting various people involved in the hop and beer industry, Interaction between the growers and those who want to grow, seeing what is working for other farmers and what problems they have and how they are being addressed, questions and answers-knowledge of people answering questions, meeting other farmers, Brian Tennis in one on one conversation, site visits and growers, hands on with growers