From Empire Farm & Dairy magazine:
By DEBRA J. GROOM
Empire Farm & Dairy
More and more farmers in New York state are turning to a crop from days gone by to bring in additional cash.
Hops — that small green plant that looks like a pine cone and gives beer its distinct flavor — was the top crop in Central New York in the mid-1800s, but prohibition and a killer fungus ended all of that.
The surge of craft breweries and home brewers means more hops are needed today, so more farmers in New York are putting in the plant to grow and sell to breweries.
Steve Miller, the state’s hops specialist, who works out of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Madison County, said he receives 10 to 15 calls a week from people interested in raising hops as a cash crop.
He said hops growing in New York started small with a few farmers in the central portion of the state and the Finger Lakes region in the late 1990s.
Today, hops are grown in most counties in New York, Miller said. In fact, the number of acres of hops in the state has increased a lot in just the last three years. The 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, the most recent official statistics available, shows only 19 acres of New York land was in use for growing hops that year. Today, more than 300 acres of land statewide is growing hops, with the number growing by 75 to 100 acres a year.
Gone are the days when people drank beer made only by large companies such as Coors, Anheuser-Busch or Labatt.
“We estimate there is a need for 400 to 500 acres of hops in New York to satisfy the domestic demand,” Miller wrote in his hops FAQs, an informational handout sheet he gives to farmers. It’s also available at http://wdt.me/Hops.
In addition, he said the New York Farm Brewery legislation, which went into effect in January 2013, created new opportunities for on-the-farm brewing and sales.
Kate and Larry Fisher, who run Foothills Hops in the town of Stockbridge, Madison County, were among the first people to get into the resurrected hops industry.
“We were interested in local history and read a book ... about the early trains that were moving hops and hops workers. Then we went to the Madison County Hops Fest in 1999. From there, we put in one plant, then we were up to 100 plants, which then turned into an industry.”
The Fishers now have six acres of hops that they sell to small farm brewers — Critz Farms in Cazenovia for its hard cider, and Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, Empire Brewing Co. in Syracuse, and Good Nature Brewing in Hamilton, Madison County.
But it’s not as easy as just putting hops into the ground, harvesting and raking in the money, Miller said.
He said farmers should study hops and find out if it really is a crop they want to invest in. Several seminars and conferences are held each year for people interested in the subject.
“This is not the same type of farming at all,” Miller said, comparing hops growing to other popular crops, such as sweet corn or vegetables. “We encourage people to get information first.”
Here are some of the differences farmers will see with hops, according to Miller:
n Harvesting. The harvesting is completely different from other crops. Hops cannot be hand-harvested — it takes an hour to hand-harvest one plant — so machines must be purchased. The average machine can cost about $30,000.
n Equipment: Once hops are harvested, they must be dried, processed, baled and kept in a walk-in cooler. So to get started, a farmer will need a small tractor, trailer, weed sprayer, crop sprayer similar to what is used in a vineyard or orchard, and then a truck, drying equipment, possible pelleter, a cooler and a building for storage and drying. Some growers look at sharing equipment.
n Planting: The cost of plants and trellises for the plants to grow on can cost $15,000 an acre to start.
n Land: About 10 to 15 acres are needed to get a money-making hops operation off the ground. Some New York farmers have as little as a couple of acres. New York varies from the Pacific Northwest, where farmers grow from 500 acres to several thousand acres of hops.
Miller said land preparation is important, and all land where hops will be grown should be well drained, be flat or have a gentle slope, have access to water for irrigation, and have good air circulation and full sun.
“The biggest holdup people have in growing hops is knowledge and equipment,” Miller said.
Fisher said she and her husband advise anyone considering growing hops to spend a year before planting to ready the soil for the plants and be sure to have all the infrastructure — including lines and trellises — ready in advance.
“We didn’t do that (ready the soil), and we’ve been battling weeds ever since,” Fisher said.
In the FAQs sheet Miller provides to hops hopefuls, he said “expenses are variable, but most growers believe they need to have gross sales of more than $6,000 to $8,000 an acre to break even because of initial investment, equipment, harvesting and processing costs.”
Miller also said “if the hops are poor and your yield is low, you are losing money. The first year you may have some hops, a partial crop the second, and a full crop the third.”
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