By Matt Reese
Next month more than 75 Ohio hop growers will gather for the 2019 Ohio Hops Conference and Trade Show in Columbus. The Jan. 9 and 10 event is a sign that, as Ohio’s craft beer production has boomed in recent years, agriculture is starting to follow to meet the exploding demand for one of the key ingredients for brewing beer.
Members of the Ohio Hops Growers Guild (OHGG) have more than 70,000 hop plants under cultivation and many craft beer brewers and drinkers put a premium on Ohio-grown ingredients. Ohio’s climate, however, does make hop production challenging.
A century ago, Ohio was home to very robust hop production to match the state’s substantial brewing industry. In subsequent years, though, Ohio’s insect and disease issues pushed the nation’s hop production to the drier climates in the Pacific Northwest. But with the recent brewery boom, many farms are again taking a look at Ohio hop production.
“Today less than 2% of the hops brewed in Ohio are grown in Ohio. The fact that we have so few Ohio hops available helps with the demand. The Ohio Craft Brewers Association and the breweries are extremely supportive of the Ohio hop grower industry and most of them do pay a
premium price to support their local growers,” said Jamie Arthur, who serves on the OHGG board. “If we growers get a premium price, we have to show up with the best product we can. Many of the Ohio growers hand deliver and don’t charge freight. And they are establishing and deepening relationships with their local brewers. Again, because of the premium for locally grown hops and to sustain these grower-brewer relationships, we cannot compromise on quality. Our quality has to be as good or better than out-of-state suppliers or we will not get a premium price for very long.”
The potential for hop production appealed to Jamie and his wife, Krista Arthur, for their Little Miami Farms in Greene County near Xenia.
“We purchased two small farms — less than 100 acres — back in ‘02. We had no real farm background, but 5 years ago wanted to focus more on the farm and less on the corporate careers. We were in a basic corn/soybeans rotation at first. We then started to bale hay and do other related things, which led to a more serious look at specialty crops,” said Jamie Arthur, who serves on the board of the OHGG. “I was getting less interested in a corporate career and this opportunity with hops was sort of a catalyst to pursue specialty crops. The market was right with a lot of new breweries opening. That was in ‘13 and we started researching hop production and in ‘14 we started growing hops. We’ve just completed our fifth year. We were lured by the demand and unmet opportunity. At that time there were maybe 150 breweries and maybe three or four hop growers in Ohio. Michigan already had some pretty good-sized hop yards and Brad Bergefurd with OSU Extension South Centers saw the opportunity. He was testing hops and putting on seminars down in Piketon. We learned the basics through what Brad was doing.”
The challenges in getting started were substantial.
“We had to decide how big we wanted to start out, what varieties to grow and where we were going to do it. We wanted a nice setting for people to come and visit the hops,” Jamie said. “Southern Ohio is a little far south for ideal growing conditions. Hops like sandy, well-drained, lighter soils. The soils here are pretty thick with clay. We probably did not do enough soil amendment. You need a high organic matter content. We had between 1% and 2% and it needs to be more like 3% to 5%. We put in some compost and we probably should have added much more. We installed a French drain and some tile. We dug a trench for tile, put gravel down then 6-inch tile 2 feet down. We created raised, 4-foot wide rows with a two-bottom plow and a three-point hiller. We started with a one-acre hop yard, which is tiny for Pacific Northwest hop yards, but about average for Ohio growers to start with.”
A significant part of the high upfront cost is the substantial trellis system for growing hops.
“If you do a poor job on the trellis you can lose a lot of hops during summer storms. We took a three-point auger, to drill the holes and purchased and installed 25-foot utility poles — a total of 75 for an acre. We then had to run cables and rigging. The cables hang between the poles and the poles have to be anchored down with guy wires,” Jamie said. “It is similar to a vineyard trellis but three times taller. Most of our cables are 20 feet high. Each year, we use coir, which is coconut fiber string, and tie one length of that string to the cable in the air and run it down to each hop plant which are planted every three feet. We used baler twine the first few years, but it is no longer strong enough to hold the weight of mature hop plants. We can purchase the coir in pre-cut lengths which means we don’t have to measure it out while standing on a scissor lift. The cost is comparable.”
Typically, there are 1,000 plants per acre, but the Arthurs’ acre is divided into two yards with 700 plants. The layout of the hop yard is also important to consider.
“Fewer, longer rows are easier to manage but you have to consider the prevailing wind so it blows down and through the rows to reduce disease,” Jamie said. “Our rows are planted on 12-foot centers so we can more easily move equipment through the yards.”
Variety selection is also very important, and challenging.
“We can’t sell what we can’t grow, so we tried to select varieties common in beer recipes that are disease resistant and grow well in our soils. We also didn’t want them to all mature at the same time. You get full production from a hop plant for 15 or more years and if you ask brewers what they are looking for, it could easily change in a couple of years. So we planted what we can grow well and find demand for,” Jamie said. “And, of the top 10 hop varieties that brewers want, at least seven are trademarked so we can’t grow them. That is a bit of a challenge since if you ask any brewer in Ohio, the majority of hops they want can’t be legally grown in Ohio. We started off with Nugget, Chinook, Cascade, Centennial, and Zeus hops. Our advice is to not load up on one variety because you don’t know what the demand will be and they may not grow well. Later we added Crystal and Southern Cross.”
Hops can be started with plants or rhizomes. The Arthurs got most of their hop plants from a greenhouse in Michigan.
“We tried both and both were successful,” Krista said. “We found, though, that a couple of varieties we planted just didn’t do well. We pulled them out and replaced them with the varieties that are successfully growing in our yards.”
The hops are planted in holes made with a small auger on a cordless drill and then we train them to grow up the strings on the trellis.”
They are “bines,” not vines.
“We hang two strings per plant in a v-shape in order to train two or sometimes three bines per plant. We start training them by wrapping the plant around the strings,” Jamie said. “They want to grow up and around something. A wire runs along the surface of the ground but above the plants.
Once they got up and running, the Arthurs discovered a significant issue they had not thoroughly researched.
“We underestimated the need for water. We installed all the irrigation after planting and I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone. The cost was something we did not factor in. We use the pond for our water source and we have to keep pond clean enough so that murky water doesn’t clog the irrigation lines. The irrigation was the biggest miss for us,” Jamie said. “Now we have drip irrigation to maintain soil moisture.”
Nutrients are also important to consider.
“We soil test and use a prescribed nutrient program. Generally, hops require a lot of nitrogen — up to 200 pounds per acre,” Jamie said. “We apply nitrogen three or four times a year from May to July. After July 1 we cut back. You can negatively affect the quality of hop cones if you apply nitrogen when the cones start forming.”
With all of this initial work and significant investment lined up, Ohio’s real challenges start to show and need to be monitored and controlled carefully.
“The major disease impacting hops in this part of Ohio is downy mildew. Most hop growers are spraying four to five kinds of fungicide in five to eight applications a year. You need to follow a preventive maintenance program. Once you see downy mildew, it’s too late and the quality of effected hops will be poor. You have to stay ahead of it,” Jamie said. “However, powdery mildew and most other disease problems can be treated when the problem arises.”
In the first year, hops growers can expect a 20% production from the plants. The plants will reach full production after three or four years.
“We test the moisture content of the cones and they are ready for harvest around 78% to 80% moisture,” Jamie said. “The brewers gauge the hop quality on the alpha acid percentage so that, too, is how we gauge the peak maturity.”
The harvest is very labor intensive. There are mechanical harvesters for-hire in Ohio but the Arthurs still pick by hand.
“We started off hand picking, which involves cutting the bine down, taking it to the barn and picking the cones off. We contemplated either buying a harvester or outsourcing the harvesting, but after 5 years we are still hand picking. We could not do it without friends and family. We’ve partnered with OSU on hop research projects and as an added bonus they’ve helped with the harvest. Harvesting takes a significant amount of time and many of our fellow hop growers probably think we are crazy,” Jamie said. “We have a big table in the barn and we have hop picking parties with food, beer and music. We start harvesting in early August and finish by Labor Day. My mom is 86 and she’ll pick hops all day long so it must not be as bad as it sounds.”
Hand picking is challenging, but it helps ensure a high-quality end product.
“It really helps with quality control,” Krista said. “We only pick the best cones and harvesting is time sensitive. You can’t just cut down a bine and set it aside until you have time to pick the cones. We pick them off the bine within an hour of cutting the bine down. If you let a bine sit, the cones wilt and the bine pulls moisture and nutrients out of the cone.”
Most brewers then want pelletized hops. The Arthurs’ air dry the cones and send them off to be pelletized.
“The hop cones are about like handling foam packing peanuts,” Jamie said. “We air dry them and put them in grain bags and take them to the pelletizer. There are at least five pelletizers in the state and they are all inspected by the Ohio Department of Agriculture. We get the pellets back in approximately one month. We can get them in different sized weights and bags, but the standard packaged amount is 11 pounds for brewers.”
Some brewers want whole cone hops for specific recipes.
“There is a small market for dry whole cone hops and fresh, wet hops. For that you have to get them picked and brewed within 24 hours. We do about 25% of our business in fresh hops,” Jamie said. “It creates very intense, unique beer with a fresh aroma.”
Because of the production challenges, yields are a bit lower in Ohio than the western states.
“We usually get a half pound to three-quarters of a pound per plant. In Ohio, a good yield is typically 800 pounds of dried hops per
acre. In the Pacific Northwest, it will be 1,000 or more,” Jamie said. “There is not a set market price but most pelletized Ohio hops sell from $8 to $12 per pound. Pelletizing costs $2 per pound so it is our biggest production cost. And even though the pelletizing cost is significant to a grower, it is still not high enough for those with the pelletizing machines to make much money.”
The Arthurs’ longtime friend Amy Forsthoefel is part owner of their hop yard and responsible for marketing and getting a foothold in the booming brewery business in nearby Dayton. Given the craft brewing trends she was observing, she strongly encouraged the Arthurs to make growing hops one of their specialty crop endeavors.
“There are 20+ breweries in the Dayton area at this point and there is also a healthy home brewer community. We have gotten great support from our customers and haven’t had to go beyond this region to sell our products,” Jamie said. “Our favorite part of this is when the brewery releases the beer. We can see patrons enjoying it and we get to hear the brewer say, ‘Wow — this is a great beer.’ That makes all the work worth doing. We never got that feeling from our corporate careers.”