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.

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