An Integrated Organic Hops/Cover Crop/Pastured Sheep Production System To Address Agroecological Challenges And Diversify Farming Operations

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2014: $22,288.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Amy Tennis
New Mission Organics LLC

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: hops
  • Animals: sheep


  • Animal Production: grazing management, pasture fertility, range improvement, grazing - rotational
  • Crop Production: organic fertilizers
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: feasibility study, agritourism
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, sustainability measures

    Proposal summary:

    Project Description
    To address multiple challenges in organic hop production, we will research an integrated livestock/hops production system, where sheep are rotated through organic hopyards to encourage early season weed control, cover crops are planted to enhance soil fertility, and the sheep are bred to extend our income stream throughout the year. 

    Description of farm or ranch and project coordinator background Delight of Life Farm (DOL):

    DOL, owned and operated by Heather and Chad Jordan, is a diversified, ten-acre farm located near the center of Leelanau County, MI. The original farmstead and acreage were part of a 160-acre multi-generational farm that began in the early 1900’s. The Jordans currently produce pears, chestnuts, raise pigs, chickens, ducks, and turkeys, and manage multiple vegetables year-round in two hoophouses. Farm products are sold to local restaurants and at an on-farm road-side stand. The majority of pigs are pre-sold through a Community Supported Agriculture pork-share enterprise. The Jordans have expertise in animal husbandry and have co-hosted several Michigan State University educational programs (eg. backyard chicken production) at their farm.

    New Mission Organics (NMO):

    New Mission Organics is a thirty acre MAEAP certified organic farm near Omena, MI in Leelanau County. The owners, Brian and Amy Tennis, grow ten acres of hops, plus 300 apple trees, 25 sweet cherry trees and 200 grape vines. Brian Tennis has a background in organic agriculture and his wife, Amy serves as the board president of Oryana, the local organic food co-operative in Traverse City, MI. New Mission Organics believes strongly in outreach. They have served on several grower panels and have participated in MSU Extension’s annual hopyard tour as a tour stop, each year since 2010.

    Hillside Homestead

    A Farmstay B&B in Suttons Bay MI.
    Proprietor:  Susan Odom

    Collaborator-MSU Extension (MSUE):

    Dr. Rob Sirrine is an educator with Michigan State University Extension and has statewide responsibility for hops research, education, and outreach. He was the lead author of MSUE bulletin E-3083, “Sustainable Hops Production in the Great Lakes Region”, has hosted several well-attended educational sessions on hops production and management, and has given talks around the state and internationally on hops production. Sirrine was a co-primary investigator on a multi-state USDA OREI grant entitled: “Plant breeding and agronomic research for organic hop production systems”, and a co-author of a 2011 Agronomy Journal publication entitled: “Challenges and opportunities for organic hop production in the United States.”


    Michigan has experienced considerable growth in the craft-brew sector in recent years. Hop production has followed suit. Since hops were removed from the USDA NOSB exemption list in January 2013, demand for organic hops in particular has increased. To meet this demand, farmers will need to improve weed and fertility management, two of the biggest challenges in organic hops production. New Zealand produces the majority of the world’s organic hops and the use of sheep and cover crops in hopyards is commonplace . We propose to develop an integrated organic sheep/hops system, where Dorper sheep are rotated in the hopyards for early season weed control, cover crops are planted to enhance soil fertility, and sheep are bred to meet the demand for locally-raised pastured lamb. While SARE has funded projects focused on hops, pasture based livestock systems, and cover-cropping, our proposal is innovative because it integrates all three concepts to improve agroecological practices, enhance farm profitability, increase on-farm diversity, and extend revenue streams throughout the year.

    Project objectives from proposal:


    1.    Determine the effectiveness of sheep for early season weed control in Michigan organic hopyards
    2.    Assess the fertility benefits of sheep and cover crops on organic hop production
    3.    Diversify farming operations to increase revenue throughout the year.
    4.    Conduct a cost/benefit analysis of integrated hops/pastured lamb production system


    1. Early season weed control - Early season weed control is crucial in hop production, because water and nutrient competition with young hop plants can reduce hop yields dramatically. Typical weed management includes herbicides and tillage (conventional) and tillage and hand weeding (organic). While marginally effective, these practices are expensive and depend upon seasonal labor, which has been increasingly difficult to source in recent years. 

    Proposed Solution: Integrating sheep will help control early season weeds, reduce excessive hop shoots, and eliminate the need for hand stripping of lower hop leaves.

    2. Fertility management - Because of their vigor, hops require 150 lbs. of actual N/acre from May-July. Without inorganic nitrogen, organic hop systems must have hi-levels of available nitrogen in the soil. Growers have used fish emulsion, compost, and blood/bone meal but yields could be improved with a better fertility regime that includes cover crops.

    Proposed Solution: Planting N-fixing cover crops and integrating sheep will help improve hop fertility and yields.

    3. Lack of stable year round income - Northwest Michigan is known for its diverse fruit production. However, lack of a stable, year-round income supply is a challenge for farmers during the winter months. Since 60% of lamb meat consumed in the U.S. is imported, and there is unmet demand from restaurants for locally raised proteins, there is an opportunity to diversify our farms to increase revenue throughout the year.

    Proposed Solution: Increase production of lamb through breeding to extend farm revenue streams throughout the year.

    Description of Innovative Research

    We will purchase 30 Dorper Sheep in spring 2014. Pasture Mix will be seeded at DOL (44.925523,-85.654074), while a mix of oats, ryegrass, and white clover will be seeded at NMO (45.06955,-85.601056) and HH (45.0324003, -85.67529300000001). Sheep will be pastured at DOL until May, then transferred to HH (12 ewes) and NMO (9 ewes). Hopyards will be fenced in one-acre blocks and sheep rotated to eliminate weeds, hop shoots, and lower hop leaves. Each hopyard will leave a one-acre plot without sheep for comparison. Prior to hop harvest, sheep will be relocated to DOL for breeding and overwintering. Cover crops will be tilled after harvest in late September and winter rye seeded. In spring 2015, lambs will be raised, harvested, and sold to area restaurants at the appropriate time and the above methods repeated.


    1.    Early Spring 2014: Purchase supplies-cover crop seed, fencing, and sheep; Sow cover crop seed (perennial pasture and hopyard mix); Vet check; Outreach: weekly photojournal and blog

    2.    Spring 2014: Install one acre fencing at each hopyard and transport sheep to hopyards rotating one acre at a time; Outreach: weekly photojournal and blog; Evaluation: comparison of sheep/cover crop yard vs. standard organic hop management (eg. soil sample comparison)

    3.    Summer 2014: Sheep removed from hopyards by July 1 to abide by 90-day USDA Organic rule; Outreach: Host annual MSU Extension hopyard tour; Evaluation: comparison of sheep/cover crop yard vs. standard organic hop management (eg. SPAD hop leaf N content comparison)

    4.    Fall 2014: Transport sheep to DOL for breeding and overwintering, vet checks; Sow Winter Rye; Outreach: article for regional newspaper; Evaluation: comparison of sheep/cover crop yard vs. standard organic management, cost benefit analysis

    5.    Winter 2015: Submit annual SARE report, prepare for next year- lessons learned, vet checks; Outreach: present at the 2015 Michigan Brewers Guild Annual Meeting (January), N. Michigan Small Farm Conference (February) and the NW Michigan Food and Farming Network Summit (March).

    6.    Early Spring 2015: Raise lambs for sale to local restaurants, re-sow cover crop seed (perennial pasture and hopyard mix); Vet check; Outreach: weekly photojournal and blog; Evaluation: comparison of sheep/cover crop yard vs. standard organic hop management

    7.    Spring 2015: Sell lambs to local restaurants, vet checks; transport sheep to hopyards rotating one acre at a time Outreach: weekly photojournal and blog; Evaluation: comparison of sheep/cover crop yard vs. standard organic hop management (eg. soil sample comparison)

    8.    Summer 2015: Repeat Step 3

    9.    Fall 2015: Repeat Step 4

    10.  Winter 2015: Repeat Step 5


    Our outreach component includes presentations, internet blogs, a photo journal, field days, and publication in regional and local newspapers to reach growers, educators, brewers, and others. We will work with MSU Extension to publicize our results through the Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation (which has embraced pasture-based proteins as an economic development tool for the region), and the northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network during their annual summit in March 2015 and 2016. We will host a field day in conjunction with the 2014 and 2015 Michigan State University Northwest Michigan HopYard Tour, held in August of each year to highlight our findings. Typically more than ninety people attend these tours from across the North Central Region. We will also present at the annual northern Michigan Small Farm Conference in Traverse City, MI, in February 2015 and 2016, which is typically attended by over 800 people. Results and project updates will be provided to the American Hop Growers Association and the Michigan Brewers Guild Annual Conference in Kalamazoo, MI in January of 2015 and 2016 (attended by over 150 people), both of whom have an interest in promoting the use of organic hops. Results will also be presented in the Traverse City Record Eagle “Agriculture Forum” semi-annually (>100,000 readership). Finally, we will keep the public informed on a weekly basis via Facebook, and keep a detailed photo journal and blog that will be posted on the MHA website: 

    Previous Research

    Hops Research - While demand for organic hops continues to rise, producing hops organically is a difficult proposition. A 2011 publication in Agronomy Journal, “Challenges and opportunities for organic hop production in the United States” (Turner et al., 2011), explored these issues. The authors suggest weed management, fertility, and pest/disease management are the most important challenges facing organic hop growers. These challenges are difficult to address because “the availability of organic hop-specific research is extremely limited”. SARE has funded grants focused on these specific issues though, including: FNC10-804 that utilized IPM models to investigate biocontrol effectiveness in organic hops; FNE11-711 that investigated the effectiveness of irrigation and cover cropping in hops in Maine; FNE11-704 that examined soil nutrition and fertility options for organic hops growers; FNE12-742 that evaluated cover cropping and non-herbicide weed strategies in hops production; and FNC10-826 that investigated the feasibility of organic low-trellis hops production.

    Pasture Based Livestock Research - A large number of SARE grants have also been awarded for pasture-based livestock systems as well including: FNC99-265 which investigated low-input pasture finishing of lambs; FNE02-432 that attempted to optimize forage quality and production to extend the grazing season; FNC08-710 that used multi-species grazing to renovate pasture; and FNE09-674 that pastured hogs on field peas and barley.

    Cover Crop Research - Literally dozens of SARE funded projects have investigated the use of cover crops in diverse farming systems across the U.S. For example, FNC98-236 sought to determine cover crops' influence on soil quality in no-till corn/soybean rotations; FNC06-626 evaluated annual legumes as alternatives to red clover for use as cover crops; FW08-311 restored plant diversity and soil health in Napa and Sonoma vineyards; FNC09-775 investigated the transition to sustainable agriculture using continuous no-till and cover crops; FNC10-837 researched the effect of multi-species cover crops on weed control and fertility in organic no-till fields; and FS11-253 demonstrated the potential for Triticale and annual ryegrass as alternative winter crops and a soil organic matter-building practice. The SARE funded publication, Managing Cover Crops Profitably, also demonstrates the success of various cover cropping schemes as well and we have researched it extensively.

    Toward An Integrated Approach

    While there is no doubt that these studies and others have contributed to the knowledge base of many farmers and ranchers, Turner et al. suggest that: “An integrated approach will be necessary to meet all of the needs of an organic hopyard.” (p. 1652). We propose to test these recommendations through an integrated livestock/hops production system, where Dorper Sheep are rotated in the hopyards in one-acre fenced paddocks to encourage early season weed control, cover crops are planted to enhance soil fertility, and pasture raised sheep are bred to meet the demand for locally-raised pastured lamb. While SARE has funded farmer grants focused on hops, pasture based livestock systems, and cover cropping, our proposal is innovative because it integrates all three concepts in a group proposal to address multiple agroecological issues and meet the demand for pasture raised livestock in the region. The end result will be improved agroecological practices, enhanced profitability, diversified farming operations, and three thriving farms in the Grand Traverse Region that will serve as a model for others in the North Central Region.


    1. Determine the effectiveness of sheep for weed control in Michigan organic hopyards Weed growth and hop shoot suckers will be measured visually, chronicled via a photojournal, recorded, and compared to the standard organic hop management protocol. Agreocological Indicators of success: Visual determination of weed control in sheep managed plots as compared to control; hop sucker suppression as compared to control; hop lower leaf stripping as compared to the control.

    2. Assess the fertility benefits of sheep and cover crops on organic hop production Cover crop growth will be chronicled via a photo journal. Annual soil tests will be taken and sent to the MSU Diagnostic Lab for quality analysis. In summer, we will measure leaf nitrogen content (SPAD chlorophyll meter) to determine plant nitrogen use and requirements and send leaf samples to MSU Diagnostic Lab for nutrient analysis. Agroecological Indicators of success: Higher SPAD N measurements in cover cropped plots as compared to control; Soil quality improvements as determined by soil test results for MSUE; Hop leaf quality nutrient level improvement as compared to control.

    3. Diversify farming operations to increase revenue throughout the year. We will document local restaurant demand for pasture-raised lamb and sales figures to local restaurants. Socio-Economic Indicators of success: Healthy sheep herds established on each farm; Consistent market channels in place for sale of lamb to at least two local restaurants; Healthy return on investment for all along the pastured lamb value-chain (farmer, processor, restaurant owner) 

    4. Conduct a cost/benefit analysis of integrated hops/pastured livestock production system. We will conduct a cost/benefit analysis for each farm (DOL, NMO, and FROG) to determine economic viability of this integrated system. We will measure input costs, labor, hop yield, and returns on lamb sales from local restaurants. Economic Indicators of success: Profits outweigh input costs and allow for a reasonable return on investment for each of the farms moving forward without the need for grant subsidies.

    ***In addition, we will work with MSU Extension to develop a survey and conduct pre-post retrospective surveys after outreach events like the MSUE Hops Field Day, to determine changes in participants’ knowledge and likely future behavior.

    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.