- Agronomic: hops
- Production Systems: organic agriculture
Growing organic hops on a sloping mountain terrain in Western North Carolina (WNC) prompts adjustments to traditional trellis systems, complicates the application of treatments for pests and diseases, demands special attention to plant nutrients, and involves substantial amounts of labor. Although hops is not a common crop in WNC, there is a significant–and growing–market for locally grown hops that includes local and regional microbreweries and home brewers.
After three seasons, we have not yet made a profit with our hops business; however, we are hopeful that this will change with the maturity of our planting as well as our growing understanding of the crop’s requirements and how to satisfy them. Significantly, the recent USDA decision to remove hops from the “exceptions list” of organic products by the National Organic Program suggests that the demand for organically grown hops will increase. As of January 1, 2013, certified organic hops will be required for the production of organic beer (this has not been the case to date). The result should be a premium price for our certified organic hops.
Hops require a significant initial investment and a great deal of annual labor. Based on our multi-season effort supported by a SARE Grant, we can neither confirm nor deny that small-scale (1-2 acre), certified organic hops production on mountainous Appalachian farms can be a profitable endeavor. Nevertheless, we are encouraged by the steady progress of our hops cultivation and motivated by the robust and expanding WNC hops market. Consequently, we plan to continue production for at least several more seasons to determine if small-scale hops production is a viable business option.
Our project was specifically linked to the unique challenges of farming in the Southern Appalachian region. In contrast to comparatively larger operations in Coastal and Piedmont areas, the mountain topography in WNC often limits farm size and can preclude employment of large, unstable machinery that works fine on flat terrain.
Relatively small farms on sloping topography must cultivate high-value crops that can be produced with minimal or no heavy equipment, ideally for local marketing to optimize economic viability. Historically, tobacco has fulfilled that role. Given the potential market comprised by the large number of microbreweries in the WNC region, we sought to determine if hops could be an attractive alternative crop.
Currently, most US-grown, commercial hops are produced on industrial-size farms in the Pacific Northwest, where crops are cultivated on 18-20 foot trellises, treated and harvested by large, specially-designed equipment, and prepared for market in huge processing facilities. Following the success of our 20-plant test plot in 2008, we instituted a two-season expansion of our yard with the support of a SARE grant. Our objective was to determine if and how hops production and processing can be adapted to the size and topography of the small mountain farm to yield an economically viable alternative crop.
To determine if a shorter trellis system with angled growing lines provides a satisfactory support for hop bines. To determine if a significant slope is a limiting factor to hop production. To identify hop varieties that perform well in WNC. To identify appropriate organic controls for pests and diseases encountered. To establish a market for locally grown organic hops in WNC.