The Land: Hop farm quenches Michigan’s thirst.

August 30, 2016

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#MasonCountyAgriculture #TheLand

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

CUSTER TOWNSHIP — Over the past decade there has been a rapid growth of microbreweries and brewpubs across the United States. Michigan is ranked as the fifth largest state in terms of number of breweries. As that industry grows, so does the need for the crops that make the beer. One of the key ingredients is hops. While much of the publicity about the hop industry tends to focus on Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties, Mason County is also becoming a player in the market, currently, there are about nine farms growing about 25 acres of hop with more acreage planned.

Just east of the Custer village limits, along First Street, is Pine Ridge Farm. Dan Wolf’s grandfather started growing asparagus here in the 1960s. Today, Dan and his wife, Allyson, continue that tradition and grows 100 acres of asparagus. Five years ago they decided to diversify their farm and learned about the up and coming hop industry.

“We did some research and took some Michigan State University classes to decide if this is what we wanted to do,” Allyson says. “We planted our first acre in 2012.”

From there, they added more. Today, they grow five acres with plans to expand to five acres next year and then eventually have a total of 15.

Hop, humulus, is a small genus of flowering plants in the family Cannabaceae. It is native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Hops are the female flowers/cones of the hop species H. lupulus. One of the ideal locations for growing hops is in the area along the 45th parallel north which happens to be Michigan. That region includes parts of Germany and Poland, where a lot of the world’s hops are grown. It also includes the northwestern United States, which is where the majority of the hops in the US are grown.

“Michigan had quite a thriving hop industry in the 1800s,” Allyson says. “But, the high humidity of our climate caused an outbreak of mildew on the plants, causing those farmers to move out west where the climate is more arid.”

Raising hop is very different than any other crop, Allyson says. “It’s completely opposite of any crop we have had here before.” Hop is a perennial with a lifespan of about 25 years. It grows on bines (not vines) that climb up string that hangs 18 feet from the ground. “There’s a lot of upfront cost to this. You have to install 22-foot high poles with wires, put in drip irrigation, buy a narrow tractor and a blast sprayer. We had to install a new well also. Every spring, we have to put new strings up. There are 2,000 strings per acre.

“While hops sell for $10 to $12 a dried pound, the farmer doesn’t see a lot of that.”

Hop yards require a lot of oversight, Allyson says. The biggest problems are downy mildew, spider mites and Japanese beetles. Deer, however, do not like to touch the sticky plant. “That’s actually one of the nice things about hops, the deer leave them alone,” Allyson says.


Land_006Harvest time takes place in the fall. Last year the Wolfs harvested in late September. This year, it’s late August.

“We started late this year due to the cold weather in the spring, but the warm summer accelerated the plants meaning we are harvesting now.”

Harvest time is determined by the alpha acid levels in the cones. When the cones reach peak, they are sent into a laboratory that determines what those levels are. The alpha acids determine taste, which is important for consistency in beer.

Harvesting hops requires a machine that separates the cones from the bines. There is currently one manufacturer in the United States that is making a portable, power take off (PTO) driven machine. But, most hop growers are purchasing used mammoth machines that are built in Germany and are decades old.

“A lot of the hop farmers in Germany are getting out of it,” Allyson says. “It’s too much work for the younger generation. So, they are selling their machines. We purchased ours two years ago. It came in two 40-foot long shipping containers, basically cut in half, with no instructions. All the wording on the machine was in German. We’ve spent many hours putting the machine together and had a lot of help from friends. This is the first season we have been able to use it.”

The Wolfs built a pole barn to facilitate the machine and also to dry and package the hops.

“The bines are brought into the building and then they are fed into the machine,” Dan explains. “It’s like it has all these little fingers that strip the cones off the bine. It gets the leaves off and then chops up all the access waste. The cones then go up a grain elevator into the drying room. We have three variable speed corn driers that sit below the room and it takes a minimum of six hours to dry. The hop is then cooled down, bailed and shipped to a broker who then pelletizes it. He then sells the hops to breweries.”

Allyson says much of the Pine Ridge Farm hops are sold locally, including Starving Artist Brewery in Amber Township and James Port Brewpub in Ludington.

“The local brewers like to use local hops,” Allyson says. “The hops are fresher and they are Michigan products. We have had many conversations with them and they are excited to work with us and all the other local growers.”

While growing hops has been a challenge, it also has its rewards.

“This is a long term investment but we are excited to see the returns. It’s been an adventure to get into this,” Allyson says.

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