PIKETON — Farmers Patty Roberts of Wayne County and Erik Scott of Brown County share more than just their passion for growing hops. Both will be entering their third year of producing Ohio’s fastest growing cash crop.
They are not alone.
At the recent Fourth Annual OSU Hops Conference and Trade Show in Piketon, Roberts and Scott were typical of the hops farmers overflowing the conference at the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center in Pike County. Many were starting their third year of growing.
“I only know a few people who are starting their sixth year of growing hops,” said Scott, who operates Scott Farms near Georgetown. “I know a lot of third year growers like myself. I know a few four and five-year growers, but not many.”
That may be because the number of hops growers in Ohio has skyrocketed at the same rate as the growth in Ohio microbreweries over the last four years. Those microbreweries springing up across the state need hops – the small cone-like flower grown on tall vines that when pelletized and brewed with malt barley and water gives beer its distinct flavor.
The vast variety of flavors of beer here in Ohio and across the nation produced by smaller independent breweries called “microbreweries” are called “craft beers” and account for the huge growth in hops production in Ohio.
Roberts was asked what crops she grew before she began hops production. “I didn’t grow anything, unless you count pumpkins. And everybody grows pumpkins,” she laughed, sitting at a round table with other hops growers between workshop sessions at the conference.
She and her husband Mike operate For the Love of Hops Farm near Wooster, and have a hops yard of about one acre.
Last year, her second year growing hops, she said they did well. “We had a lot of first-year plants and some second-year plants. We had about 200 pounds of pelletized hops. We were very happy. We sold it all,” she said. They had sold their hops to a Canton brewery.
She talked with other hops growers at the table about area microbreweries and who they were selling their crops to. Most only want pelletized hops rather than just the “wet” cone flowers. “People are willing to buy if you have a different variety. It is best to just go to three or four breweries,” she said. Other growers around the table nodded in agreement.
Everyone wants to do a local beer in the summer, she said. “That is a great marketing thing. Growers need to sell their hops no matter what. The breweries are very into quality hops. They have been getting hops from places like Washington state, but want Ohio hops if they can get the quality and flavor for craft beers. And our Cascade variety might taste different in Ohio soil than Washington state soil. It is hard to say.”
The conference was sponsored by Brad Bergefurd, hops advocate and Ohio State Extension Educator, and the Ohio Hops Growers Guild.
“This is our fourth year for a hops conference,” he said. “Four years ago we started the Ohio hops industry’s growth. We appreciate the support of the USDA and the Ohio Dept. of Agriculture and it really helped get us started. Another group that has been really helpful has been the Ohio Hops Guild.
“We university folks know some stuff, but it is the farmers that guide and develop the industry and determine what they need. They are the ones putting their time and money into the industry,” Bergefurd told the overflow attendees.
One of the speakers at the conference was Kevin Martin, Extension Educator for Penn State University in New York. He said Ohio hops production and breweries are growing faster than most states.
He shared insight into why hops is such a growing crop in Ohio. Consider:
• As of two years ago, there were 143 craft breweries in Ohio (12th in the nation), and the actual number as of February of this year is probably higher. Nationally, craft breweries have jumped 54 percent in the last four years;
• In Ohio, 1,385,100 barrels of craft beer were produced annually last year, 4th highest in the nation. That’s about 5 gallons per adult a year.
• To meet the Ohio craft beer needs, there needs to be at least 1,000 acres of hops in production.
Farmer Dave Volkman stood at the Ohio Hops Growers Guild booth during the trade show greeting visitors and fellow hops growers. He was all smiles. The Warren County hops grower is one of the organization’s founders. He said membership in the hops guild has grown at least 25 percent each of the last four years.
How have things changed for hop growers in the last year or so? “We now have in the Growers Guild about 70 members. Last year we had 50, the year before that we had 25 and the year before that we had 10. So we have had steady growth,” he said.
“We now have about 50,000 hops plants in the ground today among our members, it was about 35,000 the year before and 25,000 the year before that, and 5,000 the year before. We are projecting if everything works out to be close to 125,000 plants by next year. We hope to also increase our membership some this year,” he said.
Volkman operates, along with his wife Nina, Ohio Valley Hops farm near Maineville and has attended all four of the conferences, seeing the crop rise from just a handful of growers five years ago to the present boom caused by the growth of the microbreweries, who at first got their hops from the west coast.
He said Ohio microbreweries are now showing a growing interest in local hops farmers. “We had 35-40 breweries with Ohio-grown hops this last year. This is a rewarding sign.”
In addition to the hops growers at the conference, there were many prospective growers considering jumping on the hops bandwagon. How many new members will his group add this year? “That’s a great question. We don’t know year to year. We have been adding about 20-25 percent each year. We don’t know if it will slow down. We know there is plenty of room for growth in the state with the demand we have got and the acreage we have.”
But he was cautious to those interested in getting started. “If there is someone interested in growing hops, I would encourage them to first do their homework. There’s a lot to this, not just growing. There’s some unique processing requirements that you need to have if you are going to sell hops. We have a website: www.ohgg.org and it has an interactive map with the locations and contact information for our hops growers,” he said.
“Definitely go visit three or four hops growers before you do anything. Hear the good, the bad and ugly of hops growing before you do anything, said Volkman.
At his booth during the conference, Scott was also sharing information with would-be growers.
Andrew Ghiloni of Newark came by to ask Scott questions about his hops, pellets and processing. And of course he took a whiff from the bag of cones or flowers on Scott’s table. This was common for the growers; testing out the various aromas of the hops.
“This will be my first year growing,” Ghiloni said.
Scott said his farm has two acres of hops. “Last year we did much better than expected. We had around 700 pounds wet. We were not expecting anywhere near that. The soil in Brown County is a little bit on the tough side. We hand picked where on our land we’d put the yard. We did soil surveys and bio-assays to help us select the best site.”
Why hops? “We started out in barley tobacco, but that has been inconsistent lately, the prices fluctuate up and down. Hops is another crop we grow that is high value with a low number of acres. We grow corn and tobacco, but hops as a high value crop.”
He said tobacco and hops per acre are about the same amount of work. “There is about 190 man hours per acre for both,” he said. They use a mechanical harvester for the hops. “The average person picks by hand about a pound and a half. We can harvest with machine a couple of hundred pounds in an hour. It would be too expensive to pay someone to hand pick,” he said.
“We rent the harvester from another hops grower near us. We have a processor. We trade off. They bring the harvester here, and we process for them,” Scott said.
In his seminar at the conference called “Can we make $ at this?” Martin stressed this very method of co-op between hops farmers to reduce costs. He said for hops growers, keeping expenses low is everything.
“When you get started, capital investment is important. There is less land and a higher investment per acre. We want to look at how to minimize the investment costs per acre,” he said.
He pointed out that this is a growth-oriented industry. It is growing because of the micro-brewery industry. Nationally, craft beer production volume is up 18 percent, with beer overall increasing in volume just one-half of one percent.
But despite the growth, he has a warning: “For hops, predicted earnings are relatively low. If you are just in it for money, then there are probably other areas out there. There will be a lot of people who will fail, but there will be people who will figure it out and be successful.
For the best results, he said to start small at an acre or so with conservative plans to grow to medium size, about five acres; maximize partnerships with other growers; use that first crop to find a market; obtain a market and harvester the second year; in the fourth year begin growing harvesting capacity and yard size; and keep your day job.
“Know your hops, know the acid content. Brewers need to know this in order to brew it.” he pointed out. He recommended for beginners a variety called Cascade. It is a solid variety with high yields.
“Someone eventually is going to go big, and it will work. But I don’t recommend it. Someone is going to use the sustainability model and make a lot of money — but it might not be you.”
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.