“Beer is recession-proof. Even when things are going poorly, people still like their beer,” said Tanner DelValle, a horticulture educator at Penn State Extension.
In a presentation designed with Tom Butzler, a fellow horticulture Extension educator, the first thing DelValle and Butzler want you to know is that hops is “a bear of a crop to work with, as there are many hurdles to overcome in order to make it a success.”
Even so, this hasn’t stopped small breweries from forming all over the U.S. According to Butzler, “Over the past two decades, craft beer sales have gone from 5% to 13% of total beer sales, which is the equivalent of $27 billion.”
According to Butzler, two big disease issues are downy mildew and powdery mildew, with the former being more widespread. “If you have a bine that has some downy mildew, it will go onto the cones and you won’t be able to sell it,” said Butzler.
A huge aspect of owning a hops farm is the cost. Before you get started, Butzler recommended considering the high level of investment it will take to make the farm successful.
First, you need to answer some basic questions. What kind of soil are you dealing with? Is it suitable for hops? What is the soil pH? According to Butzler, hops like to grow in a pH of about 6.0 – 6.5. “If that needs to be modified or changed, you need to do it now. You don’t want to try to modify that soil chemistry one year or two years down the road,” he said.
He added, “Hops don’t really like wet feet. If this is a soil that doesn’t drain well … maybe that site’s not suitable.”
Second, you’re going to need poles that are about 22 to 23 feet tall. There’s going to be a lot of strain on these poles due to the weight of the water, wind and the immense stress from the plant foliage above the ground. The poles need to be well anchored into the soil – anywhere from three to four feet deep.
Poles come in a variety of different types of wood, such as larch, locust or white pine. While black locust is consider the best, it may be cost prohibitive. A work-around would be debarking several feet on the lower portion of the pole and then coating it so the wood will last longer.
You’re also going to need some equipment, such as an industrial-sized forklift. “One of the things that makes this a tough crop to work with is that often you’re going to find yourself high above the ground. You’re going to have to pay for equipment that will take you there in a way that maintains your safety. This is because you constantly must move from one pole to the next,” Butzler said.
Following that, you need to consider the planting of the trellis/wire system. On the farm that Butzler helped to build, they consulted with someone who had a background in engineering to help them with the design. He suggested that anyone starting their own hops farm would be wise to do the same.
When it’s time to start planting, you’ll need to consider what varieties you want to grow. However, be forewarned: As of 2021, six of the top 10 varieties of hops required a license to grow.
To compete in this kind of environment, Butzler suggested selling to micro-breweries and pubs. He recommended pointing out to potential buyers that the variety you’re growing in the Northeast has a slightly different taste than the ones that are harvested out West.
Butzler said to make sure you’re purchasing only female plants. He also warned it’s important to be selective when buying because “you don’t know what the seller has in place to control some of the disease problems.”
As for timing, you want plant in spring, when the frost events are over. Hops require an enormous amount of water, especially in the warmer months, when the hops are fully grown. “Be prepared to deliver about 54,000 gallons per acre per week. If you don’t have a readily accessible amount of water nearby, this is probably not a plant to grow,” Butzler said.
Hops plants are also heavy feeders. “They require a lot of nitrogen, and this is something that your soil testing lab will help you with, but you also might want to do some leaf tissue testing,” he said. “Make sure that you’re handling this correctly with not only nitrogen, but the phosphorus and potassium. It’s not a heavy feeder for phosphorus, but it is a heavy feeder of potassium.
“It needs a lot of nitrogen, but you can go overboard,” he continued. “Your hop cone should always look kind of pale green. If you see the cones looking dark green, you’ve applied too much nitrogen and you’re really gonna interfere with the quality of that lupulin that’s coming out of those glands.”
For harvesting, you can do so by hand, which would be sustainable up until year two, starting from the first day of planting. For efficiency, if you have more than one-third of an acre, Butzler mentioned mobile hops harvesters. However, he added, that could cost an additional $30,000 to $40,000 unless you can find something used.
Butzler pointed out that there are hops growers coming in and out of this business all the time, creating the possibility that there are those who might be willing to unload some of their equipment at a discount.
Overall, if you’re looking to grow hops, you’re looking at a heavy initial investment of over $20,000. That doesn’t include the equipment or the cost of labor.
by Jessica Bern