Fostering Local Sustainability: Establishing Commercial Hops for Upper-Midwest Craft Brewers

Project Overview

FNC09-748
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $5,992.87
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: hops

Practices

  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, mentoring, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, e-commerce, agritourism
  • Pest Management: field monitoring/scouting
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, public participation, social networks

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    The project is located in Dodgeville, Wisconsin on a farm which operated as a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm until 2011. My wife and I worked as CSA farm members until the farm owners closed their CSA business in 2011. We have since signed a lease for the entire farm and we’ve moved our family onto the farm where this hopyard project is located.

    At our farm, we grow hops on a 1/4 acre hopyard and a variety of chemical-free fruits and vegetables on 2 more acres of land. Some of the produce grown includes: carrots, onions, garlic, strawberries, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, raspberries, broccoli, cabbage, and of course, hops.

    The hops and strawberries are mulched with organic straw every spring. Irrigation used on the crops includes drip, overhead and misters depending on the crops’ needs.

    This is a family run operation with the exception of a full time dedicated volunteer which we recruit every growing season. The produce grown on our farm is sold at a local farmers market and on site at the farm. Our hops are sold through the Internet on our hopyard’s website and through a Wisconsin-based hop growers cooperative (I now serve on this hop coop Board as an Advisor) where my hops are sold to local commercial brewers.

    Before this project started, I was participating in sustainable growing practices:
    (1)growing hops using earth-friendly methods for 4 years in a small test plot;
    (2)managing a large organic garden for 4 years prior and;
    (3)working on an Organic certified community farm for 2 years prior to the inception of this grant project.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION
    Prior to this hop project’s inception I had spent three years researching and testing best practices for hop growing and possible markets for eventual sale.

    Investigation took place by surveying brewmasters in the Midwest and researching commercial hop trellis engineering and financial sources. The brewer surveys focused on marketing geared questions which revealed that there was a mass groundswell of locally-minded commercial and retail brewers who would be interested in paying a premium price for locally-grown quality hops. Hop Trellis research uncovered that the cost of a ¼ acre hopyard would be a good test size for a commercial hopyard while still fitting the budgetary requirements for our family. With the market information from the brewer survey and a hopyard budget, I decided to establishing a commercial crop of hops where I would be in charge of growing, processing, and marketing the crop.

    In March and April, 2010 we built a ¼ acre hop trellis using 33 locally-harvested black locust hop trellis poles. We rented local heavy equipment and spent 3 weekends to complete the hopyard. The majority of this hop grant project’s budget was used to help establish this trellis. In May, 2010, we planted 250 hop roots (rhizomes), mulched the hopyard, installed irrigation, and planted beneficial plantings. June, 2010 was spent stringing the hopyard to give the hop bines structure to climb up and July 2010 was spent mowing, weeding and pruning the hop plants. August, 2010 was spent harvesting hops in 2 rounds, drying the picked hop cones, packaging, selling, and distributing the harvested hops. We did hold on to some hops which we used to brew with in order to test the finished quality. September and October 2010 we held 2 outreach events dubbed the Hopyard Grand Opening and the Hopyard Mulchfest. These two events gave us the chance to share our project with the local community, get some work done together, and have some fun too.

    Where it has been possible, many of the practices for our hopyard project include efforts to perform tasks by hand which produces a more community/environmentally focused work place.

    In 2011, we hosted a Spring hopyard event, joined a hop growers coop, hand harvested hops at an August 2011 farm event, hosted our 3rd and last hop outreach event and ended the year by selling all our hops to two local commercial brewers.

    • The hop growers organization we joined in 2011 is called the Wisconsin Hop Exchange. This hop grower cooperative works together to process, market and sell its grower members’ hops to local brewpubs in the Midwest. As you can see in later discussions, cooperation among small-scale hop growers is an affordable means to processing/marketing hops and can result in quality hop product which is highly desired by commercial, retail and home brewers.
    • We found that using a community outreach event to harvest hops and to share our project information, gave us and the community the chance to work shoulder-to-shoulder while accomplishing a fun goal together.

    In 2011, we had one of our varieties of hops tested for brewing quality. This hop quality test showed that our chemical-free grown hops compared equally to or greater than the same variety of hops grown using conventional growing methods.

    PEOPLE
    • Matt Sweeny, Project Leader: researched, planned and executed this project.
    • Darryl Moffitt, Hopyard Assistant, volunteered to work in the hopyard and at events.
    • Jeff Donanhue, Brewmaster of Brewery Creek Brewpub in Mineral Point, bought our hops.
    • Andrew Kerr, Farm Owner, leased us the land to grow the hops and helped with farming operations.
    • Rick Terrien, Exec Director, Iowa County Economic Dev Corp., helped with marketing and business planning.
    • Gene Schriefer, Iowa County UWEX, Ag Agent, consulted on hop trellis setup.
    • Charlie Rohwer, Ph.D., Scientist, Horticultural Science, University of Minnesota, Southern Research and Outreach Center, Assist with dividing hop crowns and rhizome planting and was a 2010-11 event staff member.
    • Roger Reynolds, Master Gardener: consulting on perennial grass competition, trained our team on how to fell black locust hop trellis poles, helped haul poles and trellis construction.
    • Brad Hutnik, Lower WI State Riverway Forester, WDNR Div. of Forestry: provide a local source of black locust trees for hop trellis poles.
    • Dale Holthusen, Business consultant, Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program: Help writing business plan and counseling for hop farming business development.
    • Oscar Oswaldo Peregrina Aguilar, Oscar is a friend who helped for the 2011 growing season with all aspects of hopyard management, business marketing, event planning and helped with brewing.
    • Bryan Nelson and Scot Hanson, friends, Help constructing trellis / harvest workshop.
    • Michael Karnatz, friend: Donated time to assist with trellis design and operating 40 foot aerial boom for trellis hardware install, provide power-tools.
    • Too many to list: hopyard work and event volunteers from the general public, family and friends too.

    RESULTS
    • This project provided the establishment of a 1/4 acre commercial hopyard where we use on-farm events and our website to engage the community about how we use sustainable hop growing methods to provide local brewmasters with a much needed and very popular local brewing ingredient-- hops.
    • The 2010 season included the construction of a ¼ acre hopyard where we planted, cultivated, harvested, dried, brewed with (to test for brewing quality), packaged and sold ALL of our small crop of hops to homebrewers on the Internet. This harvest was executed on two harvest dates which included a total of one dried pound from 163 Mount Hood hop plants, 1 dry ounce from 6 Cascade hop plants and ½ ounce from two Perle hop plants (only 2 of 17 perle plants produced in 2010) for a total of 1 pound and 1.5 ounces of dry hops harvest in 2010 from our ¼ acre hopyard. [note: hops are measured by dry weight. Dry weight is equal to 1/5 the total wet weight.]
    • One of the great results of this project came through at the end of the 2010 growing season with a Hopyard Grand Opening where we introduced our hop business to 111 event attendees from the local public, gave hopyard tours and explained our sustainable business intentions.
    • In early 2011, I began giving presentations (for the Dodgeville Kiwanis and Grant County Entrepreneurs Club) and mentoring other Midwest farmers who would come to my hopyard to learn the basics of what’s involved in growing hops for local commercial brewers.
    • In May 2011, I hosted a Hopyard Spring Training event where I showed the 35 attendees the basics of sustainable hopyard operation while keeping the focus to Springtime hopyard activities.
    • Thanks to this hop project, In July, 2011, I signed up for membership with the Wisconsin Hop Exchange. This hop grower cooperative works together to process, market and sell its grower members’ hops to local brewpubs in the Midwest.
    • In August of 2011, our hop business executed the 2011 Hop Harvest Brewfest where we hosted 137 event attendees and staff from the Midwest public to work in 2 hour shifts to help pick hops. We organized the event by managing a staff of 12 while coordinating hopyard tours, hop picking, bands, parking, attendees, beverage concession and more. At the 2011 hop harvest event we hand picked a total of 6 pounds of dried Perle hops, 22 pounds of Mount Hood hops and 8 pounds of Cascade. All this outreach and volunteer work is thanks to this NCR-SARE grant project.
    • One of the varieties of hops harvested in 2011 for this project, called Mount Hood hops, produced enough hops to sell commercially. This required that my Mount Hood hops be tested for brewing quality in order to be marketed to brewmasters. The Wisconsin Hop Exchange used a vendor to provide the quality testing of my hopyard’s Mount Hood hops in 2011 which resulted in a lab analysis showing the proof that my hops WERE up to commercial brewing quality standards.
    • My hopyard produces chemical-free grown hops. All the other members of the Wisconsin Hops Exchange use conventional growing methods. When compared to other growers' hop quality lab tests, our sustainable growing methods did not produce a better or worse quality hop when looking for the contents of hops that brewers are looking to utilize in their beer recipes—the hop oil/acid content.
    • These 2011 hops were dried, milled, pelletized, tested, packaged and marketed through the Wisconsin Hop Exchange coop where our hops were sold to 2 local brewpubs. The Grumpy Troll Brewpub in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin made our hops into a beer called “Hop Farm Pale Ale” and The Brewery Creek Brewpub in Mineral Point made our hops into a British Mild Ale.
    • The remainder of our 2011 hop crop was sold to an Organic homebrew supply retailer; as fresh hops delivered the day after the harvest event to six homebrewers and one homebrew shop for online sales and; the last of our 2011 harvest was packaged and frozen/stored for personal brewing use.
    • In October of 2011, this grant project afforded us the chance to host the Hopyard Mulchfest. This small intimate farm event presented a chance to educate 18 attendees about how to use layered mulching to help improve soil, reduce weeds, moderate soil moisture content and temperatures. This event provided labor in exchange for sustainable farming education in a fun environment.
    • This project helped prove that small-scale commercial hop growing provides a viable sustainable business opportunity. Hops are a highly sought after local crop which are desired by small local brewers who are also thriving in their own businesses. This hop project gave the opportunity to test and prove that local brewmasters and homebrewers will continue to sell out my hopyard’s inventory by purchasing ALL of the hops and hop rhizomes every growing season as the small craft brewing industry continues to boom! Beer is and will always continue to be popular.
    • If this project was to be duplicated, I would suggest that the farmer establish at least 2 acres which would require full time work and would provide a living wage for a small resourceful farming family. Outreach events and using deep layered mulch are costly practices resulting in a ROI for a small-scale commercial hopyard beginning around the 4th growing season. This project helped identify the best model for building a strong foundation of relationships with brewers, other hop growers, and the community to establish a prosperous hop farming business.

    DISCUSSION
    This project gave us the opportunity to produce and market hops which are used by local brewpubs in the Midwest. Here we have created a brand name for our hop growing operation called “Simple Earth Hops”. The motto for our hop company is “Slower. Smaller. Local.” Ironically, the greatest barrier to profitability was having too small of a hopyard, because of the exorbitant cost to establish and operate the hopyard. Another factor in needing a larger hopyard to show a viable profit--the high costs to process the hops and a lower than desirable selling price (when comparing selling hops by the pound to commercial brewers instead of selling the hops by the ounce to get us the best price) for our hop harvest.

    Bearing in mind this size barrier, the hopyard needed to provide multiple revenue streams which should be considered as viable for other commercial hop growing business. The most obvious choice for our hop business was to cultivate, harvest, process and sell the hops to local brewers. In this scenario the hops were harvested by hand, dried, pelletized and sold to:
    (1)retail home brewers,
    (2)commercial brewers or;
    (3)wholesale buyers like home brew retail stores who buy larger quantity at discounted prices.

    Additional revenue streams available to us and other hop growers include:
    (1)using the Internet to take pre-orders for hop rhizomes which sell to other hop growers or back yard brewers;
    (2)selling fresh/wet/green hops to retail and commercial brewers;
    (3)selling dried whole hops to midwives and herbal stores who make tea with the hops;
    (4)selling tickets to hopyard/farm events and;
    (5)selling our Simple Earth Hops brand merchandise.

    By examining the bookkeeping from our small ¼ acre hopyard’s previous years of operation, we calculated that a hop grower would need at least 2 acres of hops to provide a living wage to his or her family. By organizing beer-related farm festivals, it is possible to successfully hand harvest up to 2 acres of hops by planning and executing a community outreach farm event where the community helps to picks hops at a fun, family-friendly farm environment and with the motivation of free beer. The success of our past hop harvest events has come from new and repeat event attendees/hop picking volunteers who are motivated and feel connected through our hopyard events. A hop harvest event is a popular opportunity to solicit volunteers for help. We have found that most people in our region are glad to help if beer is provided as an added incentive. As we worked with volunteers throughout the this two-year project I benefited from learning how to best manage individuals or a group of volunteers and how to ask for help from others.

    It's highly recommended that the processing of hops be handled by experienced professionals and that hop growers must organize together in order to shoulder the financial burden of hop processing equipment by working cooperatively. In the case with this hopyard project, we did team up with other small Wisconsin hop growers where we have organized a hop cooperative to provide hop processing, marketing, and sales for the coop grower members.

    OUTREACH
    • Since the approval of our NCR-SARE grant was received, we began a marketing campaign to spread the word about our sustainable hop farming business. We generated a lot of interest by distributing press releases, publishing event announcements on websites and through the use of social media.
    • PLEASE FIND ATTACHED as a PDF and duplicate MS Word document, our Outreach Materials overview which includes press releases, news clippings, flyers, photos, logos and other marketing materials we created for this project. The documents can be viewed/downloaded directly from this PDF link as a MS Word document or as an HTML webpage. This document records the outreach materials and news generated by this project including: 3 press releases; more than 10 print and web news articles; interviews for TV, radio, and a webcast; 5 free outreach informational hop resources; many many photos; a set of produced videos; many social media networks and other logos, fliers, and handouts.  Outreach Materials for FNC09-748.doc
    • Beer industry news, online media and local newspapers were all very interested in publishing the story about our local sustainable hops project so we took every opportunity to participate with the media for interviews. These media highlights and interviews included:
    (1) a newspaper article in The Dodgeville Chronicle;
    (2) a newspaper article in The Country Today;
    (3) a TV interview with BrewingTV;
    (4) a magazine article for The New Brewer Magazine;
    (5) an email interview for a brewing book being published by Quarry Publishing;
    (6) a TV interview for the Discover Wisconsin television show and;
    (7) many, many more beer and farming related news articles published on the Internet and in the news in 2010 and 2011.

    • Our website www.simpleearthhops.com  is used to distribute information about the progress of our project and it has received more than 1,000 website visitors each month since its inception in April 2010.

    • In 2010, we organized and ran two sustainable hopyard outreach events.
    o The first of these events was a Hopyard Grand Opening at the farm on September 4, 2010 where we provided music, snacks, beverages, and sustainable growing hopyard tours. At the Grand Opening, we tracked the number of attendees by using a guest list where 111 guests were accounted for. The Hopyard Grand Opening gave us the opportunity to introduced our sustainable hop business to event attendees from the local public, give hopyard tours and explain our sustainable business intentions.
    o The second sustainable farming outreach event in 2010 was called the Hopyard Mulchfest where we inspired volunteers to help us put straw mulch down on the hopyard rows. This smaller event provided us with an opportunity to teach event guests about our experiences with using innovative ecological farming practices in the hopyard.

    One means of sharing our project with the community was flipping interested potential hop growers into farm volunteers where they would work in the hopyard during the growing season to help weed, train the hops, as event staff members, and to help harvest the hops in exchange for my time to educate them about the business of sustainable hop growing. Throughout the 2010-11 growing season, I received weekly requests from up-and-coming hop growers to talk with them about hop growing questions. In turn, we were able to convert some of these interested parties into volunteers by inviting them to meet us at the hopyard to work together while we spoke about their hop questions.

    In early 2011, I began giving presentations (for the Dodgeville Kiwanis and Grant County Entrepreneurs Club) and mentoring other Midwest farmers who would come to my hopyard to learn the basics of what’s involved in growing hops for local commercial brewers.

    In May 2011, I hosted a Hopyard Spring Training event where I showed the 35 attendees the basics of sustainable hopyard operation while keeping the focus on Springtime hopyard activities.

    In August of 2011, our hop business executed the 2011 Hop Harvest Brewfest where we hosted 137 event attendees and staff from the Midwest public to work in 2 hour shifts to help pick hops. We organized the event by managing a staff of 12 while coordinating hopyard tours, hop picking, bands, parking, attendees, beverage concession and more. At the 2011 hop harvest event we hand picked a total of 6 pounds of dried Perle hops, 22 pounds of Mount Hood hops and 8 pounds of Cascade.

    In October of 2011, this grant project afforded us the chance to host the Hopyard Mulchfest. This small intimate farm event presented a chance to educate 18 attendees about how to use layered mulching to help improve soil, reduce weeds, moderate soil moisture content and temperatures. This event provided labor in exchange for sustainable farming education in a fun environment.

    • Other sources of sharing our project information came from attending hop industry conferences, volunteering at beer industry seminars and speaking at local agriculture related events. In 2010 and 2011, these opportunities to share our sustainable farming methods with other interested parties including regional brewers, local farmers and new or existing hop growers included:
    (1) attended the Hops & Barley Seminar;
    (2) participated in a local hop grower’s open house;
    (3) volunteered at the Great Taste of the Midwest;
    (4) volunteered at a Dodgeville Kiwanis event;
    (5) volunteered at a local hop grower’s hop harvest;
    (6) volunteered for the Great Lakes Brew Fest and;
    (7) participated as the guest speaker at a University of Wisconsin grant writing class where I shared my sustainable hop farming project experiences.

    Future growing seasons present renewed opportunities to continue to share sustainable information including:
    (1) continuing to update our website users with the progress of our project;
    (2) use our position as the Madison Hops Examiner by writing articles about sustainable hop growing methods for www.examiner.com;
    (3) continuing to build and collaborate with the Wisconsin Hop Exchange local hop growers to talk about how to overcome small-scale hop processing challenges like harvesting/picking, drying, pelletizing, and packaging and;
    (4) continuing to participate in industry events to network with other growers, brewers and farmers to spread the word about our innovative hop growing techniques.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.