Fostering Local Sustainability: Establishing Commercial Hops for Upper-Midwest Craft Brewers
WORK ACTIVITIES 2010
All the work we did in the hopyard this year was to achieve the final goal of establishing a crop of hops for demonstration, share our sustainable agriculture methods, and to test the profitability of this local project. In 2010, we planned and executed many tasks to get us closer to this goal.
• In March 2010, we worked with a WI State DNR Forester to secure a sustainable local supply of black locust poles for building the hop trellis. We then organized and ran a crew of volunteers to cut down and move these poles to the hopyard in preparation for the hop trellis construction. We have included some driving miles in the budget to cover the expense of driving back and forth from the black locust harvest site.
• In April 2010, we made rental arrangements for small and heavy project equipment and ordered all hardware and materials needed for the hop trellis construction.
• In late April and early May 2010, we gathered two volunteer work crews on two separate weekends to construct our quarter acre hopyard trellis – this was a huge project which we completed with success. As you can see in our budget, the majority of our expenses were incurred to build the hop trellis.
• In May 2010, we tilled the hopyard rows and planted enough rhizomes to establish 250 hop plants. We spent the next few weeks mulching the rows with straw, installing drip irrigation and planting all the beneficial insect attracting perennial plants.
• In June 2010, most of our time was spent installing twine in the hopyard then training each hop plant up the twine.
• July 2010 was a busy month maintaining the hopyard by mowing the aisles in between the rows, weeding the rows in and around the hop plants and removing newly emerging hop shoots from each hop plants’ crown.
• The main focus in August was the hopyard harvest. In order to calculate the exact date to harvest the hops: we looked at field notes from previous years’ harvests; we inspected each plant for varietal ripeness and we stayed in touch with other local hop growers to see when they were harvesting too. We ended up harvesting on two different dates in August which did not yield a sizeable amount of hops. After the hops were hand picked by our teams of volunteers, we used these picked hops to test the process of drying the hops. After drying, we packaged the hops and sold half the harvest to home brewers and saved the remaining hops to test for brewing quality.
• Included in Question 4 is a detailed description of our outreach activities in 2010. These hopyard events included a Hopyard Grand Opening in September and a Hopyard Mulchfest in October. These two events provided us with the chance to share our project information and have some end of the year fun.
• The most significant result of the project this past growing season was the establishment of our 1/4 acre hopyard trellis.
• From the work of planning and installing the trellis, we now have a solid network of hopyard suppliers and equipment vendors. This has proven to be very useful as we have shared our sources with other new growers looking to establish a commercial hopyard.
• Throughout the 2010 growing season, we kept bi-weekly plant records to track the survival of the hops. As of last Autumn’s hop plant count, we calculated that of the 250 hop plants that we set out to grow, 188 plants survived and became established during the 2010 growing season.
• In August of last year we harvested a very small amount of hops on two different days. These harvested hops were dried, packaged for sales and saved for brewing quality tests.
• To test the brewing quality of the hops, we brewed two beers that we served at our Hopyard Grand Opening in the Fall of 2010. The result of these brewing sessions provided two beers which imparted an excellent flavor and good aroma using the hops from our project.
• One administrative task which we have learned is the bookkeeping for our farming business. As we maintained the financial accounts for our business, we can see from last year’s expenses and income that–because this past year’s hop harvest did not provide us with a viable yield of hops, it will not be until our 2011 harvest that we will be able to calculate the economic sustainability of this 1/4 acre farming business.
• Another outcome from 2010 was our ability to test how to dry our hops. This was done in our farm’s barn where there is natural airflow. However, one lesson we learned is that the barn’s natural ability to dry the hops is done very efficiently and fast! Thankfully we did harvest 2 times as the first harvest was ruined by over drying the hops in our super fast drying barn. From that point on into our second harvest we learned to be very careful about how long the hops are to stay in the drying barn.
• An insight we stumbled upon is our excellent ability to solicit volunteers by offering free beer (which has graciously been donated by our participating brewers). 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 year we have also learned how to best manage a group of workers and how to ask for help from others.
• Now that we are finished with the 2010 growing season we also have a nice pool of retail, wholesale and commercial hop buyers who are either located in our immediate area or surrounding Midwest region.
WORK PLAN FOR 2011
• One of the first tasks to complete in the hopyard immediately is to take a count of how many hop plants survived the winter then inspect the hop plants for any rhizomes that need to be pruned or divided. We already have a waiting list of buyers who want to purchase these potential rhizomes.
• We have negotiated a barter with a hop grower in New Mexico who will be providing us with new rhizomes to fill in the plants which did not come up in 2010. Once these are received we will plant these new root cuttings into the hopyard rows.
• Other hopyard tasks this year include: tying twine; training the hop plants; weeding the rows and pruning emerging shoots; mulching the hopyard in the Sping and Fall; monitoring and inspecting the hops for pests and disease; running irrigation and; regular maintenance on the hop trellis.
• The Fall harvest presents an exciting time in the hopyard as we judge when is the best time to harvest the hop cones. As the hop cones become ripe we will take advantage of volunteers, family, friends, and harvest event attendees to provide us with helping hands to pick the cones from the hop plants. The 2011 harvest is completed by cutting the hop shoots at the base of the plant then we cut down the hop vines from the top of the trellis and move these to a large tent area where helpful pickers are waiting to work. We are exploring mechanical harvesting options but this next year, our calculations show that we should be able to hand harvest the amount of hops which will be produced by our size of hopyard.
• There are a number of challenges which we are facing this year as we move closer to a large harvest at the end of the growing season. These shortcomings to the small scale hop growing industry include finding a solution for hand-picking, processing and storing the hops once they are harvested. To solve these problems, we are talking with two small groups of like-minded hop growers in the region to pool our resources in order to make some larger purchases of harvesting, processing and packaging equipment that we can share as a cooperative.
• After the 2011 harvest, we plan to 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.
• One concern we have this year is during our drying process, we need to figure out how to measure moisture content of the hops. This is important as we need to dry the hops to a specific percentage of moisture in order to process some of the hops into pellets. If we are able to perform this calculation, we plan to pelletize and sell a large portion of our hops to a few select commercial brewers.
• In addition to the activities above, we also discuss our event activities for 2011 in the Outreach section.
• 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.
• 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) 18 more beer and farming related news articles published on the Internet in 2010.
• Our website www.simpleearthhops.com also is used to distribute information about the progress of our project and has become very popular receiving more than 5,000 website visitors 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.
o The second sustainable farming outreach event 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.
• 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, 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 and 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.
• Throughout the 2010 growing season, we received a number of requests from up-and-coming hop growers to talk with them about hop growing questions. In turn, we were able to convert these interested parties into volunteers by inviting them meet us at the hopyard to work together while we spoke about their hop questions. This method of cultivating hopyard volunteers has proved to be very successful as we continued to solicit volunteer help with hopyard tasks and farm events throughout the 2010 growing season.
Plans for sharing in 2011
There are two hopyard events which we will be marketing this year to share project information:
• The Spring Hopyard Workshop is a ticketed event where we will teach workshop attendees the tasks which have to be completed in the hopyard at the beginning of each growing season.
• Our second big community event is the Hopyard Harvest Open House and Brew Day. This end of the year event is open to the public and provides us with an opportunity to: give hopyard tours and talks about our ecological hopyard growing methods; reserve time from the event guests to get their help with hand harvesting our hops and; provide local brewers with a venue to actually brew beer on site at the event with the freshly harvested hops they pick right there at the harvest event.
This next growing season presents other opportunities to share project information including: (1) continuing to update our website users with the progress of our project; (2) using our position as the Madison Hops Examiner by writing articles about sustainable hop growing methods for www.examiner.com; (3) collaborating with two new groups of local hop growers to talk about how to organize and 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.