Farmers are getting lower prices for traditional commodities, so the word diversification is making rounds in agriculture.
As farmers look for alternative crops to keep their incomes steady, hops are one crop that seems to be taking hold in Nebraska. You may be thinking, “Don’t they put hops in beer?” If you are, you’re right.
Just what are hops?
“It grows up on a bine, not a vine,” said Andy Andersen, a farmer from Arlington, Nebraska. “Hops will grow up to twenty feet tall on a trellis. In my system I have 5 rows, with 2 telephone poles on each end. Then I take 2 strings from each plant, starting at the ground and going to the top in a V formation.”
He added, “You have to train a bine, and it will go all the way up the top by the end of the year, hopefully. You have to trim them back, usually around the end of April or early May. After that, it’s usually around 120 days till harvest.”
Andersen said hops are an annual that come back every year.
“They say you should get around 20 years of production out of the plants,” said Andersen. “I’ve had mine for about 6 or 7 years, and there are a few I’ve had to replace. I originally planted what’s called a rhizome, which is basically a piece of the root. You can also get plants as well if you need to replace a few or start a new yard.”
Once the hops crop gets established, you can use it to expand production.
“If I have a good plant,” said Andersen, “I can cut a rhizome off it now that they’re old enough. I can then plant that rhizome in another area that didn’t do as well, or maybe had a plant die off.”
The biggest expense in getting started comes when you first start growing hops.
“The right support system is what makes it expensive to put them in,” said Annette Wiles, a co-owner of Midwest Hops Producers based in Plattsmouth, Nebraska. “You have to put a trellis in, and each plant can weigh up to 45 pounds when it’s mature. That’s why you need some pretty heavy duty cabling and poles (for support).
As with other types of crops, there are several different types of hops.
“I planted the Cascade variety,” said Andersen. “It’s the type that will grow best in Nebraska. One of the other hops growers in the state planted up to 22 different varieties.”
Midwest Hops Producers put the 22 varieties in, which can be a little challenging come harvest time.
“There’s 2 purposes to hops,” said Wiles, “mainly they’re for bittering and the aroma. It’s similar to grapes or other fruits, each variety has it’s own time frame for harvesting, depending on what type it is. We put the 22 varieties in to see what grows well in Nebraska, but they’re all over from a harvest perspective.
Once harvest time rolls around, hops growers start chopping their bines.
“At the end of the 120 days,” said Andersen, “you start chopping bines. I recently began harvesting a couple weeks ago. I like to harvest by hand. There is harvest equipment you can use, but I like to do it by hand because of the number of plants I have, and the brewer I sell to prefer it that way. If I add anymore plants, I’d have to get some harvesting equipment.”
The hops hang off the bines in bunches, similar to some types of fruits.
“You cut the bines off the top and bottom (of the trellis),” said Andy. “They hang off the bines in groupings, and you pick them off. Then it’s off to the brewers. The last few years I’ve sold (hops) to Empyrean Brewing Company out of Lincoln.”
The hops he grows are then brewed into beers.
“They use it primarily for a seasonal (beer),” said Andersen, “primarily because of the consistency of the locally-grown product. You can’t get them consistently for the beers they produce all the time. They’ll use pelleted hops for that.”
Andy said they “wet-brew” the hops, which means he doesn’t have to dry the product before it’s sold.
He added, “I bring the hops to them and they literally brew the next day.”
Midwest Hops Producers grow the pelleted hops, and they’re actually looking at ways to make harvesting easier for themselves and for hops growers around the state.
“Equipment is a big challenge for growers to get started because it’s usually for a large number of acres and it’s expensive,” said Wiles. “There aren’t a lot of 1-to-5 acre harvesters available. We got a grant through the state to develop a prototype. We’ve developed a mobile harvester that we’re using for this harvest.”
Wiles added, “We’ll then modify it and go for another grant to actually manufacture or fabricate them.”
Growing up on a diversified family farm was part of the reason he got into growing something a little different than your standard crops.
“I grew up on a family farm,” said Andersen, “and my grandparents had an apple orchard. After that, we were into livestock. In fact, at one time my father was the largest pork producer in the county. Since then, I’m always looking for ways to diversify the farm.”
All it took was a conversation with a friend to persuade him to try growing hops.
“He had started growing hops,” said Andersen, “and we were having a couple beers and I thought it might be interesting to try as there seemed to be more demand for the product. I put a few plants in around 2010 when there was just a handful of growers in the state.”
Diversification was also the key for Annette and her husband’s decision to grow hops.
“My husband is a third generation farmers,” said Wiles. “We have been trying to identify some alternative crops. It’s really diversification. You don’t have to have a lot of acres like you would for row crops. The row crop equipment is incredibly expensive too. We saw it as an opportunity for us and for young people who want to get into farming.”
She added, “Again, you don’t need the number of acres, and we’re trying to come with a piece of harvesting equipment that’s affordable.”