From Empire Farm & Dairy magazine:
By DEBRA J. GROOM
Empire Farm & Dairy
New York state used to be the king of hops.
The 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.
Madison County, just east of the Syracuse area, was the first site in the state where hops were grown, when “county resident James Coolidge introduced commercial hop growing to the state by bringing a rootstock from New England,” according to the Madison County Hops Fest website.
By 1828, hops production spread to 11 counties and the state was raising 80 percent of all the hops in the country. But then Prohibition, which began in 1919, and a fungus put an end to the state’s hops kingdom.
However today, thanks to the surge in craft breweries, home brewers and products like hard cider, the growing of hops has made a comeback in New York state.
Today, hops are grown in most counties in New York, said Steve Miller, the state’s hops specialist, who works out of Cornell Cooperative Extension in Madison County.
In fact, the number of acres of hops in the state has expanded considerably 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.
“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 wdt.me/Hops.
In addition, Miller said the New York Farm Brewery legislation, which went into effect in January 2013, created new opportunities for on-the-farm brewing and sales. He said he gets 10 to 15 calls a week from people who want to begin raising hops and the number of hops farmers with at least one acre has increased from about 3 in 2006 to about 75 in 2015.
“The farms are all over the state, except the Adirondacks and Catskills because of the cold, short season,” Miller said in an email.
Hops farmers in New York are a mixed bag — some grow hops to sell to brewers while some grow hops to make their own beer on the farm.
Chris Hansen, one of the three owners of Climbing Bines Hops Farm and Brewery near Penn Yan in Yates County, said he and friends Brian Karweck and Matt Klehamer started growing hops on the Finger Lakes farm six years ago and opened their own brewery 2½ years ago.
“That was the whole plan from the beginning,” Hansen said. “We knew that by growing our own hops, we could ensure the best ingredients and the quality of the beer.”
For the first couple of years, Climbing Bines did sell hops to others, Hansen said. But once the brewery was up and running, the seven varieties of hops grown on the farm’s 1.5 acres went into the more than 10 different types of beer brewed on site.
Today, Climbing Bines makes 500 to 600 barrels of beer a year — that works out to 15,500 gallons to 18,600 gallons of beer annually. And this year, the farm is expanding from its 1.5 acres of hops to about 3 acres.
The first craft brewery in Oneida County is Woodland Hops Farm and Fermentation in Marcy, just north of Utica. Co-owner A.J. Spado said the company, which just opened this year, is planting an acre of hops this spring and hopes to expand each year up to 6 to 10 acres.
They made and are selling beer this year, but used hops and malt grown by growers from New York and elsewhere.
Bluebell Hopyard in Farmington, Ontario County, grows 2 acres of five varieties of hops to sell to breweries and craft breweries throughout the state. Most of their customers are in the Rochester area, such as VB Brewery in Ontario County and Fairport Brew Co. in Monroe County, while some are in New York City and the Albany area.
They do not operate their own brewery and instead, sell all their hops to other companies.
Co-owner Kurt Charland said the company grows enough hops to “meet the demands of our current customers” and there are no plans for expansion right now. Both he and the other co-owner have full-time jobs (Charland is a civil engineer and his partner runs an animation studio) so the hop farm is a “full-time, part-time job,” Charland said.
Hops specialist Miller said any farmer thinking of putting in hops on his or her land should be sure to do some research first. He said it’s not as easy as just putting hops into the ground, harvesting and raking in the money.
Miller 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.”
Hops farmers are helped by programs held at various colleges, through the Northeast Hops Alliance and through Miller’s office.
At the recent Cornell Hops Conference and Northeast Hops Association annual meeting in December at Morrisville State College, attendees learned about pest control, genetic hop varieties and getting patents when developing a new hops variety.
Guest speaker Kevin Riel of Double ‘R’ Hop Ranches, Inc. in Washington state talked about how to produce hops, focusing on fertilizing, irrigating and training hops for yield and quality. Riel grows about 1,000 acres of hops.
Also, Ron Sirrine, a faculty member at Michigan State University, talked to attendees about what hops growers in Michigan are doing.
There was also a trade show with the conference so hops growers and those considering growing hops could talk to vendors about the equipment and supplies needed to grow hops (Miller said about 350 people attended the hops conference.
Anyone who missed the conference but wants to order DVDs of the speakers can contact Miller at (315) 684-3001, ext. 127 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Here are some of the differences farmers will see when growing hops:
** 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.
** 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.
** Planting: The cost of plants and trellises for the plants to grow on can cost $15,000 an acre to start.
** 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. 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.
** Cost: “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. 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.”
Source: All information and quotes from Steve Miller, New York state hops specialist