- Agronomic: hops
- Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study
Once producer of one fifth of the world's hops, Wisconsin now produces almost none. An extraordinary brewing history, a favorable climate, and strong demand for Wisconsin hops from the robust local craft-brewing industry makes commercial hops production potentially viable.
Yet, despite clear market opportunity, and the success the applicants and others have had in farming hops, in 2010 there was only an estimated ten hop producers in the entire state of Wisconsin, including the three partner farms on this application. Wisconsin hops farmers typically have three harvest years (or less) in experience and operate under 20 combined total acres yielding less than 10,000 pounds of hops annually. For comparison, the combined total production of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (the major producing states) exceeds 50 million pounds annually.
The high costs of existing harvesting equipment designed for industrial scale puts mechanical automation out of reach for small farms, making it nearly impossible for small-scale hops production to be profitable. This has been the critical barrier to entry for successful small-scale hops farming in Wisconsin and elsewhere. To date, small-scale producers have relied on hand harvesting, mostly from volunteering friends, brewery partners, and family. Occasionally, seasonal laborers are hired. Without volunteer labor or the availability of small-scale hops harvesting equipment, the state's farmers incur high labor costs together with inefficiencies of scale.
The applicants have demonstrated that hops can be grown profitably in Wisconsin with modest acreage, if harvesting innovations are achieved. A hops yard, once mature, can gross $10,000 to $20,000 per acre. These high yields make the relatively higher initial investment (when compared to traditional crops) in plants, trellises and irrigation systems economically feasible. Of the annual costs to maintain the perennial plants, including irrigation, fertilizing, harvesting and processing, the latter two account for 90% of variable costs.
The primary purpose of the Wisconsin Hops Harvest Partnership is to demonstrate the feasibility of designing, building, and sharing small-scale, cooperative harvesting systems to enable technically and economically viable small-scale commercial hops production. Specifically the project partners will:
1. Design, build and test small scale harvesting innovations: We will develop and test three custom harvesting machines that are affordable to build and reduce harvest labor:
• A new mechanical picker will be designed and tested by Pine River Hops Farm and Afterglow Farm utilizing alterations made to readily available agricultural implements.
• A second-generation mechanical picker, based on a promising first-year design developed by Hide-Away Hops Farm will be tested to benchmark improvements in labor reductions.
• Hide-Away-Hops Farm will also engineer and test separating equipment that will mechanically remove the leaves from the harvested hop cones which, when combined with more efficient picking could dramatically reduce labor costs.
2. Pilot the use of shared harvesting equipment: Pine River Hops Farm and Afterglow Farm will share the new mechanical picker. Hide-Away-Hops Farm will share its separating machine with both Afterglow Farm and Pine River Hops Farm to test whether sharing of equipment can be done economically and efficiently while also allowing for timely harvest of a quality product.