'I Don’t Love My Hay Like I Love My Hops’

3/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

1st Maryland Hops Conference Draws Diverse Crowd of Would-Be Growers

FREDERICK, Md. — “If we have 100 growers with 10 acres each in Maryland, we still can’t grow enough hops to meet the demand,” said Tom Barse, president of the Northeast Hop Alliance and organizer of the 1st Annual Maryland Hops Conference held March 9 in Frederick.

The conference, co-sponsored by the University of Maryland Extension, Mid-Atlantic Farm Credit and four local breweries, gave practical information to a diverse group of more than 80 farmers who came to learn about growing hops as a cash crop.

“We set a limit of 75 attendees, and I had to turn away over 40 people,” said Terry E. Poole, Frederick County Extension agent emeritus, as he welcomed the prospective hops growers to the 8 a.m. session at the Flying Dog Brewery. “Most of these people here today are small farmers. Small family farms make up 91 percent of the farms in Frederick County, Md. They are looking for a crop and they are all enthusiastic as this is their dream.”

Presenters came from several states to share their knowledge of hops, among them Jim Weigle, the statewide integrated pest management specialist for Cornell University.

“About four years ago, there started to be interest in hops and we didn’t have any good answers for them,” Weigle said. “So we started doing some research and decided that the best way to answer those questions for New York state was to put in a hop yard and learn firsthand.

Weigle said the Northeast Hops Alliance is bringing together the resources of Cornell University, the University of Vermont and the University of Maryland.

“In the Northeast hops is an agricultural product that is growing on a very steep upward curve and I don’t know when it will level off,” he said. “It is going to be quite a while until we grow enough hops to meet the demand of the brewers we currently have in the United States.”

Since hops have been used as a flavoring and aroma agent in the brewing of beer since the hanging gardens of Babylon, the conference attracted a very diverse group of farmers with many different experiences. They were mostly small farmers, ranging from a former tobacco grower in Charles County still looking for a replacement crop to a father and son from the Eastern Shore who have never grown anything before.

“I have always wanted to grow hops and I wanted to see what the economics are,” said Mike Klein, who has been growing organic vegetables for about 15 years in Brandywine, Md. “I’m getting more info on the logistics, costs and demand for the crop.”

Rick Geissler has been tree farming for more than 45 years in Pennsylvania.

“I am looking for diversity and a little bit of income later in the summer when the tree business is a little slower,” he said. “I am not even a beer drinker. I’m just looking at this as a business venture, and if it is not feasible then I am not interested.

“Hops should integrate well with our tree business as hops uses a lot of the same equipment,” Geissler said. “We have the labor force, so once you have them planted you are pretty good for several years.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension hops specialist Steve Miller covered infrastructure of the hop yard, along with planting and rhizome starts.

“Hops grown in the Eastern states taste differently than those grown in the Pacific Northwest,” Miller said. “I won’t say that one is better than the others, but they certainly have differences based upon soil and climate. In fact, if you have one yard of hops and move 1,000 feet to another lot you will find differences in the chemical analysis.”

Growing hops is different than many conventional crops.

“You need to do a lot of site preparation,” Miller said. “Hops grow 18 feet high and their roots can sink 14 feet into the ground. The last thing you want to do is put hops in and not be ready for them. They need full sun to avoid disease problems and they need a lot of water, so you will have to irrigate.”

An acre of hops can use as much as 5,000 gallons of water per day, he said.

There are two types of hops — bittering and aroma.

“In the East, most of the brewers are able to buy all the bittering hops that they want, so they are looking for more aroma hops,” Miller said.

Hops was once a leading specialty crop in New York state, until Prohibition and plant disease took their toll. In the 1880s, Miller said, New York produced more than 20 million pounds of hops, and it took about 100,000 people to pick them all by hand.

Today, New York is seeing a hops resurgence.

“In New York state, we have quite a lot of hop production started,” Miller said. “We have growers who have been around for about 10 years and by this spring we will have about 125 acres in hops.”

Chris Callahan of the University of Vermont discussed findings from the school’s hops research program, as well as the mobile hops harvester he developed with help from Barse and Carroll County hops grower Brad Humbert.

“I kind of got wrapped up in all this a few years ago,” said Humbert, who is also a member of the Northeast Hop Alliance board. “I have a background in engineering and I wanted to develop a hop harvester. I found out I enjoy growing hops more than I loved engineering.”

Hop growers have an enthusiasm and passion for their crop.

“We put our first quarter acre of hops in the ground in October of 2011,” said Travis Kaysar, a hops grower in Oldtown, Md. “Last year we put in six acres and we are adding about seven or eight acres this year. It is the second year for our first lot and we are expecting a good yield. We want to do this organically and we hope to be there by the end of this year. It’s a great crop to work with.”

Following lunch at the the Barley and Hops Restaurant and Brewery and a discussion with head brewer Larry Pomerantz, the group visited the Milk house Brewery at Tom Barse’s Stillpoint Farm in Mount Airy, where Barse and Callahan spoke on harvesting, processing and marketing in Maryland.

The day ended with a tour of the farm’s hop yard and their home-built hop processing equipment.

“The first year we picked them by hand,” Barse recalled. “Fortunately we only got 10 pounds of hops off of 500 plants, but I knew then we needed mechanical pickers to do the job. I looked at designs all over and we just sat down and put it together and most of it works. If you are a farmer and you have an issue you have to figure it out.”

Growing local hops also gives brewers the opportunity to use “wet hops,” or hops that are used within hours of harvest.

“Wet hops are the most wonderful thing in the world to sell,” Barse said. “We developed these relationships with brewers. Their brewer would come to the farm while we were harvesting and waited until our hops were processed and ready to go and the brewer was ready to brew that night.

“Brewers in Maryland have never had the opportunity to do a wet hop harvest brew until local hops were grown,” Barse explained with an enthusiasm only a grower can appreciate. “They use it as a marketing tool. Flying Dog made their first wet hop brew last year. They made 150 barrels and sold out in less than a month at something like $13 per six pack.”

Flying Dog Brewery, Barley and Hops Restaurant and Brewery and Milkhouse Brewery are all members of the Brewers Association of Maryland.

“This event is about local beer and the local community,” said association executive director J.T. Smith. “That is central to our organization’s mission, which is the promotion and protection of the manufacture of local beer. It is an emerging industry of value-added manufacturing across the nation and we are seeing incredible growth in the craft beer segment here in Maryland.

“There is a connection between agriculture and brewing that is ancient,” Smith said. “Here in the 21st century, we can continue developing a local and independent economy which gives local farmers in the region a crop to get them out of a commodities driven market where they can see some real dynamic return on their investment.”

At the moment, there are about a dozen hops growers in Maryland, with about 15 acres planted around the state, said Barse, who has one acre and hopes to expand to three.

In a good year, he said he can expect 1,500 pounds of dry hops per acre.

“We can provide very high quality, very fresh local hops and we will never be able to meet the demand,” Barse said. “I think we will have vibrant hops production in Maryland in the near future. The Maryland brewers all support the local sustainable agriculture and farm-to-table local grower initiatives. I expect to sell out every year for as long as I grow hops.

“Growing hops is a labor of love,” Barse said. “It’s not like making hay, and we make a lot of hay around here. But I don’t love my hay like I love my hops.”

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