- Agronomic: hops
- Production Systems: organic agriculture
Many farms in the Southern Appalachian region are small compared to those in Coastal and Piedmont areas. Moreover, mountain topography limits the use of large farming equipment employed on more level terrain. This combination of relatively small, family operations and challenging topography demands that any cultivation emphasize high-value crops that can be produced with minimal or no heavy equipment and can be marketed locally to optimize economic viability. Tobacco has historically been the cash crop for the region but that is rapidly being phased out. Hops, which are used in the production of beer, may offer an attractive alternative, particularly given the large number of regional microbreweries. Hop is a perennial vine that requires a system of trellising to support its growth. Like tobacco, its production is labor intensive. Although the Pacific Northwest (PNW) currently produces nearly all commercial hops in the United States, the climate of the southern Appalachians is quite suitable for its production. Industrial size operations in the PNW typically use 18-foot tall supports that are widely spaced to allow mechanized spraying and harvesting. For small-scale production of hops on level ground, tent or maypole trellises have been employed. Neither of these systems lends itself to use on mountain farms. Further, most local microbrewers depend on pelletized hops purchased from growers in the PNW. Pelletizing hops requires expensive equipment that would not be cost effective for small growers. A market niche for whole (fresh or dried), local hops must be developed and reliably serviced in order for this crop to become a sustainable agricultural option. The problem facing potential hop farmers in the southern Appalachians, which we will address, is how to adapt a hop trellising system to the size and topography of the small mountain farm, and to determine if the system yields an economically viable alternative crop. In March of 2008, we established a small test planting of 5 varieties of hops to determine their suitability to our conditions. The 2008 planting identified three important findings: 1) our conditions are favorable for hops growth 2) for commercial production there is a need to develop a trellising system designed specifically for use on small farms with sloping terrain and 3) there is considerable interest in the availability of locally grown hops from local consumers (microbreweries and home brewing suppliers). Our project seeks to test a system for trellising hops that we designed for use on slopes. To eliminate the need for large equipment such as boom sprayers for the application of pesticides and cherry pickers for harvest, we will support the hops on 10 foot (rather than the typical 18-foot) trellises. To offset this reduction and maximize the production area of the vines, they will be trained to grow diagonally (at approximately a 60 % angle) on sisal rope. To minimize the danger and to promote ease of cultivating and mowing on slopes, the rows will be arranged parallel to the slope and in-line with support poles. Based on our 2008 trial of 5 hop varieties, as well as input from local brewers, we have selected the three varieties that performed best and that have good local market potential for the current trial: Cascade, Fuggle, and Willamette. The hop yard will be established in an underused field next to last year's test plot. To encourage high yields and sustainable production, the soil will be improved with the application of dolomitic limestone and compost prior to planting. Plants will be monitored for pests and diseases and appropriate organic strategies employed to prevent crop damage. The trial will consist of twelve 50-foot rows, each planted with 14 hops rhizomes. Each 50-foot row of hops, will be supported by three 10-foot posts (12-foot posts, buried 2 feet deep). Galvanized, double loop chain will span the posts, secured by bolts at the top of each post. Rows will be arranged parallel to the slope with sufficient space between each to accommodate a small tractor for mowing. Hops rhizomes will be planted three feet apart within the row and vines will be trained to grow on sisal rope, secured at the base with tent pegs and attached diagonally to the top chain with spring clips at an angle of approximately 60 degrees. This arrangement provides a diagonal growing distance of 12 feet for each vine. Rows will be mulched with farm generated hardwood chips over newspaper to prevent weeds and reduce soil moisture loss. Unlike large-scale operations that cut vines for a single harvest, cones will be monitored and harvested from the vine at intervals as they mature, leaving the plant in tact for further harvesting as cones develop. This will maximize both quality and quantity of the harvested cones. Data will be kept for both first and second year production; for each variety, dates of harvest and fresh weight of hops produced will be recorded. The quality of the hops will be assessed by three of our cooperators: two commercial microbrewers and a brewing supply store owner. Cost of production will be analyzed as it compares to the value of the crop produced. After harvesting is complete, the vines will remain in place until after frost to encourage further development of the root system. After frost, vines will be removed and composted. For consumers requesting fresh hops, a coordination of harvest time and brewing schedule will be developed. Fresh hops will be delivered on the day they are harvested. For consumers who prefer dried hops we will utilize the food drying units at the Value Added Center at the Madison County Extension Service office, where harvested hops will be dried, weighed and packaged. Contact with cooperating microbrewers and brewing suppliers will be ongoing throughout the project. Wholesale and retail markets will be compared for profitability and time/effort demands.