Project Activities – Year One
In year one our primary goal was to establish plantings of six varieties of female hops. We began by building a hops yard and constructed our Maypoles. To begin conversion of underutilized pasture into a hops yard we laid out circles with a radius of 12 feet with a planting bed width of 4 feet. We first found our center and used a tape measure to measure 10 feet out from the center. With a string attached to our center pole we marked the string at 10 feet. Using marking paint held at the 10-feet mark on the string we walked around our center pole which gave us our inner circle. We measured our outer ring the same way at a radius of 14 feet. Since we were to plant six different hops varieties, we centered and marked six separate doughnut-shaped beds. We made sure that we left enough space between the beds for access and to mow circumferentially.
For soil preparation, we decided to use a tiller instead of a turf cutter to begin breaking up the soil. However, our soil is extremely rocky and we had to use a pick to break the soil and mobilize and remove many stones. It was then possible to till each ring several times. We added well-aged compost and composted chicken manure (chicken and sheep) from our farm. In the process we made sure the beds were raised slightly for good drainage.
For Maypole set-up, we purchased nine, 10-foot electrical PVC pipes, which are sunlight resistant. Three of the pipes were cut in half. Instead of digging a hole in the center of our bed centers as originally planned, we had six 6-foot pressure treated 3 inch fence posts pounded into the ground. Our intention was to slip the PVC pipe over the fence post so we made sure the PVC pipe would fit before we placed the fence posts in the ground. On occasion some of the fence posts needed to be trimmed. The half sections of the PVC pipes were slid over each respective fence post. This design made erecting the poles so much easier and no digging was involved. Toilet flanges with precut holes were used to attach 12 carabiner clips into the slots in the toilet flange. The toilet flange was placed in the top of the 10-foot PVC pipe and this assembly was fitted on top of its respective standing five-foot section. The intention was to be able to attach the ropes to each clip so that they could be lowered during harvesting. Next we used two 16 inch dog tie-out stakes and placed them in the ground on either side of the space in which the hop rhizome would be planted. Next, with the use of a ladder the ¼ inch sisal rope was threaded through the clips and the ends were tied to the dog tie out stakes.
Planting Hops Rhizomes
We purchased twelve rhizomes of each variety from HopUnion in Oregon. These arrived soon after we received notice that we were awarded the grant in March 2007. Because the weather in March and April 2007 was so erratic, we could not plant until the end of April. The rhizomes were stored in the refrigerator, as recommended, until we were finally able to plant all of them on April 28th, 2007 in their respective locations between two stakes in the bed. Each hop variety was planted in a separate bed, and the Maypole was labeled with an indelible label marker to identify its variety. Marigold seeds were planted in the beds to help deter insects. We mulched exposed areas of the bed with aged wood chips. Fish emulsion was used twice during the growing season. The inner rings were mowed and the inner and outer edges were maintained with an edge cutter. Areas surrounding the hops beds were also mowed. We irrigated using a garden hose about once every five days.
2007 Varieties Planted
We had proposed planting Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Crystal, Fuggle and Northern Brewer varieties, but not all of these were available in March 2007 from HopUnion or other varieties were requested by local brewers in our area. Thus we made some substitutions and planted Cascade, Centennial, Glacier, Northern Brewer, Sterling, and Willamette.
Project Activities – Year Two
In year 2 our primary goal was to compare the performance of the different varieties of hops in terms of growth, disease/predation problems, production of hops cones and suitability of fresh hops cones for use by a local microbrewery.
Before the growing season in 2008, crimson clover was frost-seeded in the ring centers in February in order to add nitrogen to the soil. Additionally, at the beginning of the season, we side-dressed the hops plants by adding aged chicken manure and lime to the beds.
In terms of sprouting and initial growth, by May 27, 2007 the varieties sprouted as follows: 12 of 12 Cascade, 7 of 12 Centennial, 10 of 12 Glacier, 9 of 12 Northern Brewer, 10 of 12 Sterling, and 9 of 12 Willamette. We assume one reason some of the rhizomes didn’t sprout was because of the prolonged storage in the refrigerator. The only insect damage that we observed came from Japanese Beetles. They ate the leaves but seemed to leave the cones alone. Since leaf damage could negatively impact the cone quality and quantity, we manually removed and destroyed the Japanese Beetles repeatedly throughout the growing season. In terms of damage by larger pests, we did not have a problem with deer or any other animal eating the plants.
During the 2007 growing season, our soil pH was tested and the results were 6.3-6.7 (Hops grow best in soil that has a pH of 6.0-6.7).
In 2007 we had an extreme drought but because we had mulched the area, we think the adverse impact was greatly reduced. We did irrigate by garden hose about every five days during that long drought interval. Marigolds were seeded in the beds to help deter predatory insects. In our first year we were not certain whether this was helpful or not. Also, it seemed that in the sections of beds where the marigolds grew, there was a greater need for local irrigation. Fish emulsion was used as a fertilizer but only twice throughout the entire growing season.
Even though it was the first year, we did have some harvestable cones in 2007. We harvested 4 ounces of Cascade on August 21 and 36 ounces of Northern Brewer on August 22. These fresh hops were given to the brew master at our local microbrewery for his immediate use. We were invited to taste the brew and we were all quite pleased with the results of the fresh hops brew.
In year two our primary goal was to compare the performance of the different variety of hops in terms of growth, disease/predation problems, production of hops cones and suitability of fresh hops for use by a local microbrewery.
Most of the crimson clover planted in February 2008 failed to grow. Therefore we do not think that this cover crop contributed in any way to local soil fertility. Since the sisal ropes appeared to be in good condition we decided to leave them for another year. Unfortunately during the season the weight of the hops caused some of the ropes to fail and we had to repair ropes when they did.
Our hops started to sprout on April 12, 2008. Once again the weather was erratic. It was warm early and the hops started to sprout, only to be damaged by ensuing frosts. By May 4, 2008 growth had begun as follows: 11 of 12 Cascade, 6 of 12 Centennial, 11 of 12 Glacier, 9 of 12 Northern Brewer, 9 of 12 Sterling, 7 of 12 Willamette. We chose to not plant marigolds in the spring because we were concerned that if we had another dry season they might do more harm than good. Unfortunately we did seem to have problems with thrips and aphids later in the summer.
During the early to mid-portion of the growing season, we had the impression that several varieties of hops were not showing a clear increase in growth of bines that we had expected in this, their second year. We had more rain in 2008 than in 2007, so we did not irrigate except when we fertilized with fish emulsion one time. Because we had more rain we had more weeds. Due to some family health emergencies we did not keep up with weeding the beds until later in the season and that competition may have limited growth and yield of hops cones in the second year. We did not remove some of the excess bines as is recommended after hops are well-established. If we had done so, the remaining bines may have had more energy to produce more cones.
With this impression of limited growth of plants and some hints of either stress or leaf damage, we had our soil tested and the composted chicken manure tested. The soil pH was 5.2 which was lower than what is recommended for hops. Also, we sent multiple samples of plants to North Carolina State University (NCSU) for analysis and botrytis was found on the hops foliage and stem of one sample. No other diseases were identified but Soybean and Flower Thrips were identified but were not causing any plant injury. No treatment was recommended. No spider mites were found.
We harvested 1.91 pounds of Cascade and O.355 pounds of Northern Brewer on August 1, 2008. Over the next 4 weeks, we harvested Cascade two more times and collected about 7 ounces each time. The first harvest went to our local microbrewer who agreed to use the hops for a brew that would be served at the Field Day planned for October. The remaining hops harvested went to home brewers for immediate use in exchange for feedback and a sample of the brew. We were pleased with the unique bright meadow-like flavor of the results of this fresh-brewing experiment.
As some guidance for future growers in this region, our experience as described may serve as a sort of “lessons learned” document. In the future we plan to do the following:
• Replace ropes early each season just after hops sprouts appear.
• Mulch the center of inner rings and plant an additional deer resistant crop in the centers to utilize space.
• In late spring/early summer, once several strong bines can be identified and trained up the ropes, cut back the excess bines.
• Add blood meal to the hops beds to add nitrogen as needed.
• Weed more often.
• Continue to edge outer ring.
• In early-summer, trim the leaves from the lower 2-3 feet of the plant.
• As soon as we see a hint of a problem, send a sample to NCSU for analysis.
We plan to continue to grow hops.
Underutilized pasture/meadow space in the U.S. South can be converted to hops production; however, prospective producers should expect the transition to take several years for soil preparation and identification of cultivars that can succeed in that particular local environment before significant returns could be expected from this potentially high value alternative crop. Our project lasted two years. We had expected the hops plants to take one to two years to become established with scant production of marketable product, but then a substantial crop in Year 3 and thereafter. Our Year 2 production was limited and similar to Year 1. We think this was due to 1) erratic early season extremes of weather and then a degree of regional drought conditions later in the growing season; 2) inadequate early season pruning on our part; and 3) our own progressive “learning curve” about optimal soil conditions and pest damage/disease recognition in hops in our locale. Another “lesson learned” seems to be that in any given year, relative productivity of different cultivars may be higher or lower, perhaps depending upon variation in key local conditions including rainfall, density/type of pests, or prominence of disease. This suggests that producers may be well-advised to plant a few different varieties of hops to better sustain production from year-to-year. This is an important consideration in order to be a more consistent resource for the respective local microbreweries so they can anticipate seasonal production (August-September) of “fresh hops” for specialty beers and ales.
The interest in fresh hops by local microbreweries is high and we intend to keep this project going. In fact we added two new varieties last year and decided to plant them in a linear fashion. For farmers that want to grow a limited number of hops to meet the needs of a few local microbreweries in their area we really like the Maypole design especially since we now plan to utilize the space within the hops ring for a secondary vegetable crop when the soil is ready. The goal of this project was for farmers to produce enough fresh hops to meet the needs of a few microbrewers in their area. The intention was not to produce hops that would then be dried but instead it was to grow a product that would be unique to each farm and thus allow the microbreweries to produce a unique brew. That way storage of the prepared seasonal brew could be done through bottling and/or keg production.
Throughout the two year project I answered numerous e-mails and phone calls from people interested in my project and continue to do so up to the present time. During both years I gave away some of the fresh hops to local home brewers to use and give us feedback as well as for them to give me a sample of the brew they made. Typically I was told that the brew was consumed because it was so good and only once did I get a sample. The fresh hop cones were well received. In October 2008 I hosted a Field Day that was well attended. Farmers, home brewers, brew masters and people just interested in the project attended. I presented a PowerPoint presentation detailing my project from beginning to end. The brewer from the local microbrewery brought a sample of a brew made with my fresh hops for all to taste. He also spoke about his impressions of the marketability of fresh hops in our area. The local agricultural agent spoke about producing quality hops including soil fertility and potential problems such as diseases and pests.
Instead of hosting a web site regarding this project, I have made my presentation available to anyone interested in learning about our experience. (This PowerPoint presentation has been sent under separate cover.) I also attended a presentation by a group of NCSU students that, as part of their entrepreneurial class, included information about developing a hops production farm in this area. I was available to answer questions about my project. I was also invited to speak at a “Brewers and Hops Growers Confab” in Marshall, N.C.. I was unable to attend but sent my PowerPoint Presentation. The presentation was reproduced and made available to attendees interested in my project.
Over the past 20 years the microbrewery industry has “boomed” all across the U.S., including all Southern states. All of these businesses depend directly upon agricultural production of grains and hops with specialized beers, lagers and ales having various unique requirements. We wanted to establish hops as a new alternative crop on our farm in Mebane, North Carolina with the primary aim of producing fresh hops for use by the local and regional microbrewery industry while following sustainable organic practices. In our first year we established plantings of six different varieties of female hops. We used materials that were inexpensive and easy to find and handle. We chose a Maypole design because it was simple and compact and could be used where there is limited space. Hops need time to establish themselves and each year production should increase when well managed. Our results prove to us that hops can be successfully grown in the Piedmont region of the U.S. South.