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

Project Overview

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


  • Agronomic: hops


  • 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

    Proposal summary:

    Hops are a perennial vine plant which are grown on a trellis and are propagated by rhizomes. This plant produces a flower which is one of four essential ingredients used to make beer. As of 2008, the North Central Region had 354 craft brewers. However, a very limited acreage of hops is grown in our region to supply these local beer producers. Contrary to the needs of the large number of craft brewers in the U.S. (1,443 as of 2008), the hops industry has evolved over the years with a focus on providing a reliable supply of hops specifically for sale to industrial sized breweries. A small controlling group of hop brokers contract with large hop farms located in the Pacific Northwest and overseas to grow hops for these macro-brewers who hold a majority market share in the U.S. beer market. After these contracts are met, the leftover supply of hops is made available to craft brewers. This frequently results in an inconsistent and inadequate supply of hops for craft brewers despite their need for a sustainable supply. Craft beer producers have made it clear that they desire a local source of sustainably grown hops. This, coupled with a lack of consistent supply, presents an excellent opportunity for local farmers in our region to produce a new agriculture product which can enhance economic sustainability.

    Growing hops to supply local craft beer producers has significant agricultural potential for our region for two main reasons:
    (1) the upper-Midwest is well suited for growing hops; and
    (2) hops have the capacity to be a valuable crop by meeting the growing market demand for locally-produced hops in our region.

    This project will address the need for a local sustainable supply of hops by small, locally-owned craft beer producers in the upper-Midwest. We plan to establish a 1/4 acre crop of organic hops to demonstrate to local farmers and other interested community members how to use sustainable agriculture practices to create a profitable crop for local small-scale brew masters.

    Tasks we have already completed in preparation for this sustainable farming project include:
    (1) a soil test to verify nutrients, organic content, and soil type needed to produce a high quality hop and;
    (2) negotiated with a hop broker to secure 900 rhizomes of three disease-resistant varieties of hops which we will plant in year one of this project.

    In year one of the project we will: (1) build a website to share the purpose and progress of our sustainable hop farming project and to attract other interested growers;
    (2) grow the hops on a 1/4 acre pasture which has been fallow for 10 years at a certified organic farm in Dodgeville, WI;
    (3) make use of locally-harvested black locust poles to build the trellis;
    (4) lay out the hopyard using a 10 x 3.3 foot planting grid totaling 300 hills on this 1/4 acre;
    (5) till the hopyard and seed white Dutch clover to help provide a habitat for beneficial insects and;
    (6) build houses for and introduce lady beetles throughout the growing season to combat possible hop pests.

    Because the project site can have strong winds, we will:
    (1) use a lower trellis of 14 feet;
    (2) add cross-wires and extra ground anchors to the trellis for better stabilization and;
    (3) plant two rows of giant sunflowers which will serve as a wind block to help protect the hop plants.

    In year two of the project, we will:
    (1) run a workshop to share our project information with the community and solicit help in hand harvesting our hops;
    (2) have a lab analyze the harvested hops to determine if our sustainable farming methods have yielded a quality product which can be used for commercial brewing;
    (3) sell the hand-harvested hops to a local brew pub as fresh whole hops, without the use of processing and;
    (4) measure the economic sustainability of this 1/4 acre farming business by comparing project expenses and income to determine the monetary return from this investment of time and materials during a full production year.

    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.