Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hop Around the World...to Lockport, NY

Yesterday we drove 3 ½ hours to Foothills Hops Farm in the village of Munnsville in Central New York…and back again. We were on an adventure to pick up our order of coir –twine made coconut husk that hops love to climb best – and to check out an organic hops farm. Incidentally, this coir had shipped from Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped country in the Indian Ocean, just south of Chennai, India, where we’d lived for 10 months. We were going to feel its rough scratchiness again, here on the other side of the world, in New York.

When we arrived, the scene was already busy. Larry Fisher, organic hops farmer and a founder of Northeast Hop Alliance (NeHA), was forklifting a bale of coir (about 350 lbs.) into a customer’s Jeep. It was muddy, about 30°F, and the wind and snow had just picked up. Rich jumped in to help and they were able to squeeze, push and stuff the bale in there. Note to self: Purchase a real truck soon, so farmers don’t laugh at us!

After checking out the fuzzy cute reindeer they have – even got to feed one! – Larry took us on an eye-opening tour of the farm. Since 2001, they’ve planted about two acres of organic hops and are renting neighboring land to put in a third this year. Larry, a professional electrician, has built a hops harvester and separator himself. It is a truly impressive operation and inspirational for us who are just starting out. He’s made most of his operational set-up himself, which includes:

  • Trellis and irrigation systems
  • 15-foot platform attachment for the tractor
  • Harvester
  • Separator
  • Dryer
  • Compressor/Small baler
  • Cold storage
  • Hammer-mill
  • Pelletizer
  • Vacuum packager for nitrogen sealing

What impressed us most is just how much equipment is needed to get our precious little hops cones from bine to beer-ready! There must be 500 tools, supplies and equipment pieces in the hops production system that need to work in conjunction with one another. That’s not including the various nutrients and plant food needed to ready the soil. We realized that, while we may be able to harvest the first year by hand, we’ll need a harvester, and eventually a pelletizer, for any future scaling up of production.

Right now, we are just happy to have met the folks at Foothills Farms, who are working hard to bring New York hops and beer-making back to their pre-Prohibition locales. We learned much and are inspired by their hard work, hospitality and, of course, very tasty hops mustard. (I understand it is served at Empire Brew restaurant.)

On the drive home, we passed through beautiful farm country, past farms that are still thriving, their tilled fields waiting for spring, and past crumbling barns, symbols of once-proud farms that weren’t so lucky. We traced the Erie Canal past Palmyra, NY, where Rich’s ancestor, Joel McCollum, married Rachel Scovell in 1818. He went on to co-found Lockport in the 1820s and build the house where we’ll live this summer. We’d come full circle – modern day settlers on the Niagara Frontier, with a long family history behind us and long rows of hops in front of us!

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