A Bright Future for Hops Farmers in Michigan

A Bright Future for Hops Farmers in Michigan

A Bright Future for Hops Farmers in Michigan

Craft beer brewing has enjoyed a mighty resurgence in the United States over the last 30 years. As small breweries spring up seemingly everywhere, so does the opportunity for nearby farmers to supply them with locally grown hops. In Michigan, a top brewing state, this supply-and-demand scenario is translating into not just a new crop for farmers, but a new crop of farmers.

“We’ve always been craft beer fans. When we found we could grow hops, we started with one acre five years ago, just to see if we could grow them. Then the demand was so high, we started planting more,” says Brian Tennis, who now grows 10 acres of certified organic hops on his farm, New Mission Organics, in Traverse City, Mich.

In a 2008 Michigan State University (MSU) Extension survey of 69 breweries in the state, all expressed an interest in sourcing local hops. Plus, they are paying a premium of about $14 per pound for local hops, versus $4 per pound on the commodity market, says MSU Extension Educator Robert Sirrine.

There are more than 140 breweries in Michigan. However, the cost of starting a hop yard can seem daunting to a beginning farmer: A trellis system of tall poles and wires is needed for the vine-like plant; full yields are not attained until the second or third year; and expensive harvesting and processing equipment are required.

That is why Tennis used a 2010 SARE grant to explore using a low-trellis system of 12-foot poles instead of conventional poles, which can be up to 21 feet tall. He found a low-trellis system was 40 percent cheaper to build and yields well when growing a semi-dwarf variety.

“If we didn’t have the grant, we wouldn’t be nearly as successful as we are now,” Tennis says.

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Jeff and Bonnie Steinman started growing hops as a backyard hobby in 2007. Today, they co-own Hop Head Farms in Hickory Corners, Mich., where they grow 30 acres for distribution in Michigan and nearby states.

The Steinmans used a 2010 SARE grant to study the effectiveness of biological insect control methods on their hops. Their main threats are leafhoppers and spider mites, which they discovered can be managed without pesticides, largely through beneficial insect releases and by encouraging native insect populations.

“We found we have a lot of naturally occurring beneficial insects, and by keeping down our sprays we invite them in and they stick around,” Bonnie says. The SARE-funded project “gave us the boost to do the research we were able to do, and to beef up what we felt would be a valuable practice.”

Expensive equipment poses a challenge to the scaling up of local hops production—for example, hops harvesters cost a minimum of $50,000—but farmers like Tennis and the Steinmans are already finding solutions.

The Steinmans built a $3 million facility that allows them to harvest, dry, pelletize and package their hops. Extra capacity means they can buy and process hops from nearby farmers, too. In 2011, Tennis and others started the Michigan Hop Alliance, a cooperative that shares equipment and aggregates crops from 10-12 farmers.

Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) FNC10-804, Michigan Organic Hops Production: utilizing current IPM models to investigate biocontrol effectiveness on hops pests and diseases in an organic production system , and FNC10-826, Meeting the Growing Demand for Organic Hops: Low-Trellis Organic Hop Production in the Great Lakes Region .

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