Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hops Conference - Let the Ideas and Beer Flow

A few weeks ago, we attended the Hop Growers Conference and Annual Meeting for the Northeast Hop Alliance (NeHA). Over 120 growers from New York State and New England gathered in Troy, New York at the awesome craft brewery Brown’sBrewing Co. and learned everything you ever wanted to know about growing hops. You know you’re in a cool job when the industry conference is held at a brewery.
Hee-hee, that's punny
Heady Days for Hops Growers
According to an impromptu poll of the audience, about 75% of the attendees were just considering planting hops next year. In the room, there were double as many growers and perspective growers than in the entire Pacific Northwest, where the vast majority of U.S. hops are grown. While about 60 growers dominate the U.S. commercial market, acreage is different. Currently only 50 acres are in cultivation in the Northeast as opposed to 30,000 acres across Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

That might be about to change. This recent article in the New York Times describes the heady excitement about supplying local brewers with local ingredients. Chief among them is hops. Hops are a little more difficult to grow in our wetter region than out West. So we all gleaned as much as we could from experts from Cornell, USDA and even University of Oregon on important factors that affect hops production. Topics ranged from irrigation to soil health to plant fertility to pest and weed management.

Learning to Grow Again
Until the 1920s, hops for the U.S. markets were mainly grown in the northeast, particularly in central New York. But, a fungus outbreak and growing numbers of western suppliers pressured the market. Prohibition from 1920 to 1933 was the nail in the coffin for the northeastern hops. Thus, there’s been a long gap in New York hops cultivation and know-how. At the conference, everyone, even the experts, stressed the importance of grower experience in developing best practices for northeastern hops.
We do it all for these cones

As growers, we couldn’t help but reflect on all we learned in our first growing season. As we listened to different presenters, mistakes we made became clear as did some things we did right.

Here are our top six takeaways:
  1. We didn’t keep any of our hops to share as samples for breweries. Doh! Next year, we’ll approach local brewers before harvest so they can observe our growing practices and get ready to brew with fresh hops.
  2. Using fabric row covers for weed suppression was a smart decision. Weed competition limits the hops’ root growth, especially during the first year. Even if deer stamped holes in it and a few weeds still got through, the covers probably helped the first-year plants more than we could have anticipated.
  3. We need better soil samples. Soil health is THE determining factor in healthy plants. Really, it’s the foundation for all good farming. You have to know how your soil is doing in order to make solid decisions on improving it. We found out that we did our first samples incorrectly. The next week, we went out and did them correctly and just got the accurate test results.
  4. Laying down irrigation was a good move, too. Experts (and my farmer dad) said that first and second-year plants are healthier when they have consistent water.
  5. On the flipside, our hopsyard needs better drainage. You might remember the 50-foot-long trench we dug in the spring to drain the rain-soaked area. While that was a good start, the location will need a drain tile and soil build-up so we can expand acreage.
  6. Finally, starting small was smart. We planted just a quarter-acre while most perspective growers were planning to plant an acre (over 1,000 plants) their first year. However, the main limitation is not how much you can plant - although, raising a hops trellis is no cake walk – but how much you can harvest. At the conference, we learned more about equipment options and we are reaching out to nearby growers to share equipment.
There are twice as many hops growers here than in all the Pacific Northwest
Hops are Hip
The growing excitement for the hops movement filled the room. We think that the hops market in the Northeast will be different than the Western market. Eastern growers will probably never have lots of acreage. The demand stems from a different source altogether. Here, growing demand for local hops is uniquely linked to the local foods and craft-beer movements. So, being a small, local farm could actually be a good thing. For many Eastern hops growers, tapping and building strong local traditions might be the key to success. Brewers can observe their ingredients growing all season long and growers can get to know their customers’ needs. We came away from the conference with deep insights, more enthusiasm and some immediate action plans. Free beer was definitely not a bad, either.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Flash Back - Cobwebs in the Attic

A dusty box of papers in the attic revealed some amazing insights about life on this family farm back in the late 1800's. For years, dozens of post-Civil War Era receipts and contracts from my great-great-grandfather, Silas Wright McCollum, and local businesses sat collecting cobwebs. It wasn't until our "Big Clean" that some of these documents came to light. They give us a rare glimpse at the business of the historic farm. They also paint a vivid picture of this bustling town on the banks of the Erie Canal.

An invoice for seeds dated February 1883 from James Vick (of Rochester, NY) show what my family planned to plant and sell that year. It also gives a hint at what grew best on the farm and what produce was in highest demand during that time. Beans, peas, potatoes, cabbages and onions were among the many vegetables ordered. Near the bottom, you'll see an order for a plant called Salsify, an oyster-flavored root vegetable. I guess our tastes have changed.

With the farm being situated next to the Erie Canal and a railway, it is possible this produce was shipped out West, along the Atlantic Seaboard and even out of the county.

A Memorandum of Agreement dated March 1884 was signed between my great-great-grandfather and the Niagara Preserving Company. In this, S. W. McCollum agreed to plant fifteen acres of "the best variety of tomatoes" and sell them only to the Niagara Preserving Company in exchange for a pre-negotiated selling price of $8 dollars per ton.

Besides needing to feed his own family, Silas also had to feed his workers and care for a wide range of farm animals. This bill from Arnold & Little, merchants from a Lockport city mill, shows a balance of $180.89 for the purchases of flour, feed & grain between October 1883 and March 1884.

Just like today, advertising your products and services is a key part of doing business. At a time before radio, television and the internet, printed word was your best option to reach the masses. In this receipt from October, 1884, Silas paid $23.50 in advertising expenses to the Union Printing and Publishing Co., owners of the Lockport Daily Union and the Niagara Democrat, the "best advertising mediums in Western New York." In that spirit, we want to say, "Silas, welcome to Google."

Friday, November 11, 2011

Garlique Chic: Growing Speciality Crops

As a farmer, what do you do when you don’t have the land, equipment or know-how to plant the popular commodity crops, like corn and soy, which have kept many American family farms in business?

You zero in on niche markets. By specializing in unique products, we aim to leverage our business/ marketing skills and focus our time and resources as we learn to farm.

Growing hops, definitely a “specialty crop,” meets demand in the small, but fast-growing craft brew industry. That got us thinking about other fruits and vegetables for which consumers have specific preferences.  

Thus began our great garlic experiment.  Garlic as a “specialty” product? You bet! Consumers have distinct tastes in garlic. Mostly, it depends on regional cuisine. Although only a few varieties are offered at the general supermarket  (including Elephant Garlic which is really a type of onion), there are actually dozens of varieties – Italian, Polish, Russian, German and the list goes on. Immigrants have brought regional types of garlic to the U.S. for centuries, so today’s growers have the benefit of having access to heritage types that have been passed down through the generations.
Each clove will become a whole garlic bulb...in 7 months
In August, we purchased cloves from two online sources: GreyDuck Garlic, which grows certified organic garlic, and Seed Savers Exchange. SSE’s seed catalog is totally drool-worthy for the aspiring farmer and their mission to preserve crop varieties through organized seed banks is an honorable one. By September, several of the most popular varieties were already sold out. (Guess it is a growing market.) We ordered these three varieties that are known for their usefulness in cooking as well as their cold tolerance:
  • German Extra Hardy
  • Georgian Crystal
  • Siberian (there’s Bree’s regional preference)
In October, 100 cloves arrived in small FedEx boxes, along with thorough planting instructions – bonus! Last week, the soil temperature finally got down to the recommended planting temperature of 50F degrees. Although garlic can be planted in the spring, they say that the best tasting garlic overwinters. That is, it is planted in the late fall (after the first frost) and harvested in late spring.

Here’s how we conducted the Great Garlic Experiment: 

First, we prepped four test beds in a broad, open patch in the pear orchard. (According to The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya Denckla Cobb (here is her blog, Reclaiming Our Food), garlic is compatible with orchards fruits.) The tedious part was poking over 100 1x4 inch holes and then pushing single cloves into each hole, point up.  (If we plant next year, Rich is definitely going to develop some tool to make it go faster.)  Luckily, garlic cloves can be planted only six inches apart and require little maintenance apart from weeding.  One very common mistake people make is planting the cloves upside-down or in areas with poor drainage.
Last, we piled them under a thick blanket of mulched leaves and grass clippings for a long winter’s nap. And now we wait 6-8 months to see what sprouts.
Camouflage garlic patch - marked off so we don't mow over it.
Loss of food variety and flavors is very real in the U.S. Here, National Geographic’s dramatic infographic  visualizes the homogenization of our food options. They estimate 93% of seeds that used to be available for U.S. agriculture last century are now gone.

Curbing that scary trend will take effort on both sides. Consumers need to be educated about the benefits of variety and locally-grown crops. In the case of garlic, most people only know about the Italian garlic typically grown in California. On the grower’s side, niche markets are often avoided because of their volatility.  As these markets rise and fall, small-scale farmers must remain flexible. (Hard to do when a crop takes six months to grow!)

That’s where we stand right now: poised to enter the growing gourmet garlic market.  That is, assuming we grow it well.  If so, we’ll expand our crop next fall. If not, we can chalk it up to research and continue to search for our perfect market fit.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fall Garden Clean-Up (and Winterizing the Hopsyard)

Time is flying. You can already sense the days getting shorter and nighttime coming sooner. Last week, we had our first hard frost of the year. That meant the end of the summer garden. Bye-bye tomatoes. Au Revoir banana peppers. With just a little bit of work, we transformed the summer dregs into a small Late Fall garden. Hello beets and leafy greens!

Goodbye Summer Garden!

Pulling tomatoes action shot

We found this article by Our Garden Gang to be a useful and straightforward checklist of how to thoroughly clean up a summer garden. It is common sense, really, but we wanted to make sure that we covered all our bases. Especially since we plan to garden in the location year-round, we must keep the soil healthy and fungus- and pest-free. And make sure that weeds and pests don't overwinter in the compost bins. Here's what we did:

  1. Harvested everything that wasn't too frost-bit
  2. Pulled up all tomato, pepper, broccoli, cabbage watermelon and cantalope plants
  3. Cleaned all the tomato and pepper stakes and stored for next year
  4. Wrapped up all hoses and pumps so they wouldn't freeze/crack and stored them for next year 
  5. Moved the herbs into the 4-tier starter greenhouse now set up the sunroom
  6. Weeded the fall vegetable plots - kale, spinach, onions and the interplanted beets and lettuce
  7. Anything with evidence of aphids didn't go into the compost bin
End-of-summer harvest: peppers, beans, tomatoes, dill and one eggplant (hidden)

Why are you still blooming?

Frost bit pepper
We will mulch in some compost and cover with grass clippings before the ground freezes.We plan to build 2-3 raised beds and cover them with old window frames we found in the barn to create cold farms. The garden site is a perfect place for winter cold frame gardening because it is a south-facing slope that gets full day sun now that the leaves have fallen off the trees in the yard.

We also winterized the hopsyard. That was a more involved activity that took a couple afternoons during a chilly rain. The hops got planted in a cold rain, so only fitting that we winterized them in the same weather. Hops are a perennial bine (hop vine), which means they will grow every year from the same rhizome. We weeded around the rhizome mounds and offed any dormant insect pests we came across. (Hey, it's law of the jungle out there.)

We'll try to save the coir for next year's harvest, so we untwisted the bines from the coir and cut them 3-4 inches from the ground. In Rich's trellis design, the coir twine is attached to the cables by hooks. So, we gathered the 5-8 loose-hanging coir strands in each section and wrapped them around the poles. This way, they should stay protected and usable next season. Finally, we cleaned up the cut bines and hauled them to the compost bins. (No signs of pests, just deer teeth marks.) We just purchased a lot of organic mushroom manure that we will use to cover the rhizome mounds for the winter.

This was a test garden and we learned a lot from it. We only spent about $30 on produce total this summer. We got so much produce from that we gave most of it away. Note to self: try succession planting next year, so everything doesn't get ripe all at once. We have taken notes on what works and what doesn't and we'll analyze that for next year's crops. We plan to double the size of the garden, plant some more variety and do more storing/root cellaring to stretch the garden's use into the colder months.
Healthy hop rhizome

This guy made a home in the herbs