By Tony Forder
Colleen and Orca Bates with their son Waylon in their Muckland Farms hopfield in Pine Island, NY
Hops are hot in New York State and while central and upstate is where hop farming has its roots, the Hudson Valley is coming on strong.
Perhaps you’ve seen those tall poles standing against the horizon as you drive by, bines (not vines) reaching for the sky. Believe it or not they used to be a common sight in New York State a century and a half ago, before blight, and eventually Prohibition wiped out the crop. Now the bulk of US hops are grown in the Pacific Northwest, but, thanks to various state initiatives, they are making a comeback in the Empire State.
In 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Farm Brewery Bill, which encourages breweries to use state-grown ingredients (hops and barley) in their beers. The bill, which provides a discounted licensing fee for farm breweries, requires the use of NY state-grown ingredients on a sliding scale – currently 20%, rising to 60% in 2019, and 90% in 2024.
Soon after the Farm Brewery Bill passed Justin Riccobono founded his Hudson Valley Hops company. He was working with Eastern View Farm and Nursery when they decided to launch Dutchess Hops with a 4-acre plantation. They soon began to receive calls from brewers and farmers all over the Hudson Valley who wanted to get into hop growing. So he started out on his own and five years later has worked with about 15 hop farmers in the Hudson Valley – consulting, constructing and servicing.
Different people have different needs. As farms have taken a downward dive in the state some enterprising individuals have bought up farm property and are looking to preserve their agricultural exemption which can mean up to a 75% property tax break (this requires $10,000 in farming income). For brewers with a farm brewery license, or even a regular microbrewers license, growing your own hops can make a lot of sense. There are established farmers who are looking to diversify; a new generation on the family farm may not be interested in baling hay and cattle farming. These farmers already have the equipment necessary for hopfield construction. Pennings for example is an apple orchard in Warwick which planted a hopfield five years ago. They sell hops to local brewers who make beer “Brewed with Pennings hops.” Riccobono said hop acreage has grown in the state from less than 100 acres when he started to around 500 acres. (That’s still a drop in the bucket compared to 40,000 acres of hopfields in the mid-1800s).
Although hops do grow wild, hop farming is far from a question of just throwing the hop rhizomes in the ground and waiting for a bountiful harvest. Riccobono estimates the cost of constructing a 1-acre hopfield (approximately 1,000 plants) at about $20,000. That includes the poles, the cable trellises and strings, the plants and irrigation. If you do the installation yourself, materials will run between $13 and $15K. And be warned, there will not be a significant yield until the third year of growth. Down the road, Riccobono estimates a mature acre of hops can yield $10 to $15K in harvest, but after annual maintenance costs, a farmer might net about $7 to $10K.
Other things to consider include your land – relatively flat with good sun and sandy or lomish type soil is preferable. A good water supply for irrigation is also essential – hops are thirsty plants. There are resources available; one person that probably every hop grower in the state has spoken with at some time or another is Steve Miller at the Cornell Cooperative Madison County Hop Extension, which provides web resources, field meetings, the monthly newsletter Northeast Hops News, individual consultations and an annual conference. He’s seen interest in hop farming grow over recent years, spiking with the passage of the farm brewery license. He estimates about 130-140 hop farms in the state, about half of which he calls commercial – an acre plus. He says there are still a lot of misconceptions about hop growing in NY state.
“Some brewers will tell you that they can only get Cascades, but that’s not true,” he said. “There’s over 40 varieties being grown in the state.” And just as proprietary hops out West like Citra and Mosaic have become brewers’ favorites, Steve said, proprietary strains are being developed in NY state. The most common hop varieties available for brewers right now are the three Cs – Cascade, Chinook, Centennial – as well as traditional varieties like Hallertau, Saaz, Tettnanger, Nugget, Magnum and Fuggles and newer ones like Sorachi Ace, Newport, Alpha Aroma and Ultra.
Muckland Farms in Pine Island is an example of a do-it-yourself hop farm. It is owned by Orca and Colleen Bates who moved out of Brooklyn with their two young boys a couple of years ago to the Black Dirt area of the Warwick Valley. Avid homebrewers, they planted an acre of hops with the eventual goal of setting up their own brewery; Orca, a general contractor, did the installation himself. A year in, they said they learned a lot…a lot about weeding! “It was neverending,” said Colleen. Overall, Orca said it was not 10 times, but 100 times more work than he expected. Still they have no regrets and are expecting a decent (but not full) yield in their second year. They love the area and are enjoying the camaraderie of likeminded young farmers.
One of them is Rich Coleman, owner of nearby Westtown Brew Works, who has been growing hops longer than his brewery has been open. He’s up to about an acre and a half on his property on Schafflers Road in Westtown which now houses his brewery, tasting room and beer garden overlooking the Warwick Valley (he has a new production facility underway in Pine Island). Coleman warns prospective hop farmers, “It’s extremely time consuming. During the growing season it’s a 7-day-a-week job.” He advises potential hop growers to volunteer at a farm to see if it’s really something they want to take on.
Coleman harvested his crop by hand the first couple of years, with whatever help he could muster. “My whole basement and house were full of drying hop flowers,” he said. Now he contracts with HV Hops to process the harvest. He’s also learned which hops do well and which don’t on his property. From an original eight varieties, he’s down to six, this year pulling out Mt. Hood that never really took off.
The hop revival may be in its infancy in NY state – “I think we’re just coming out of the trial phase,” said Riccobono – but there’s no doubting the demand for local hops. Some see it as a restoration of NY heritage; others, like Riccobono, see it on a bigger agricultural scale. “It’s helping to save farms,” he said. “And it’s creating new ones.”
http://madisoncountycce.org/agriculture/hops-programNortheast Hop Alliance, http://www.northeasthopalliance.org/