For some Michigan landowners, growing hops is a way to get started in farming or keep rural land in production. But since hops aren’t a traditional crop, most farmers need guidance as they start. That guidance is available from the Michigan Hops Alliance.
“It’s a grass-roots organization that tries to get smaller farms involved in growing hops,” said Brian Tennis, director of sales and marketing for the Michigan Hop Alliance. “It’s a way for a small farmer to venture into the marketplace, make a couple of bucks doing it, and hopefully, save some Michigan farms.”
As a relatively new farmer, Tennis’ first venture was growing organic sweet cherries. However, he found that despite doing everything right, one rain could ruin the entire crop. Tennis wanted a more reliable, hardy crop, so he switched to growing hops. He has been growing hops commercially for six years, and formed the alliance three years ago as a means to help farmers work together.
Tennis says that Michigan farmers have been growing hops since the turn of the century, but mildew problems forced many growers toward California and the Pacific Northwest. “We can control our crops a lot better now,” said Tennis, referencing developments in cultivation and disease management. “We have a better arsenal for dealing with problems.”
Growers in the alliance, which is patterned after a successful New Zealand model, account for about 40 acres of hops, a number Tennis expects will double in the next two years. “Brewers don’t want to deal with 40 growers — they don’t have time to deal with all the phone calls,” said Tennis. “The alliance is several farms with one mouthpiece and one marketing strategy.”
All of the alliance’s work is handled within the organization, with no outside investors.
Because establishing a hop yard is an expensive proposition — about $10,000 to $12,000 per acre — new growers benefit from guidance. “Hops require irrigation, so you need a well,” said Tennis. “You have to have tractors, a sprayer, and on top of that, a way to process the hops.”
Through the alliance, farmers who grow just a few acres of hops and have no processing equipment will be able to market their crop.
Hops farmers in the alliance nurture bines until they reach maturity and are ready for harvest. As harvest grows near, Tennis is in daily contact with growers, and hops are laboratory tested for qualities including dry matter content and alpha levels. “Some varieties develop early, others are mid or late season,” said Tennis. “We don’t have just one variety that is ripe all at the same time.”
Farmers chop down the entire plant and place the bines on converted hay wagons and scaffolding so that entire remains flat. “It’s a lot easier to get the cut plants through the hop processing machine,” said Tennis. Bines are taken to one of two processing facilities: on Tennis’ farm in Omena or the alliance’s facility in Traverse City.
“All of the growers are within an hour or up to two hours,” said Tennis. “Anything over that and we’ll have issues with plants breaking down. Once the hop plant is cut down, we want to get it in the picking machine within a few hours.”
Tennis explains that the giant picking machine, a Hopfenpfluecker, is about the size of a Winnebago. “We run the entire bine through that machine,” he said. “It strips the cones, and that’s what breweries use.”
The alliance will soon be getting a newer picking machine from Poland. “The one we’re getting from Poland will be one of the biggest ones in the U.S.,” said Tennis. “We’re pretty excited about it. We can pick hops a lot faster and have more efficient harvest and processing.”
Tennis says the alliance’s processing plants were developed with help from the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA). “Up until 2013, there were no stipulations for a hop processing facility,” he said.
“We worked with the MDA and came up with a food-safe kitchen and processing facility requirements. For the equipment itself, we experimented with dryers, hammer mills, pelletizers and sealers to see which would not degrade the product.” Tennis says it’s critical that no part of the process exceeds 140 degrees, otherwise aromas and essential oils remain may break down. Ninety percent of the finished pellets are used by breweries in Michigan.
When he first started growing hops, Tennis used rhizomes obtained from the Pacific Northwest, but now grows his own. “We have three greenhouses where we start our own plants,” he said. “The plants are much healthier, and instead of waiting three years to get to 100 percent production, we can do it in two. We sell plants in the spring, and farmers typically plant those at the beginning of spring.”
Tennis is currently working with about 30 hops varieties in his greenhouse following research conducted by Michigan State University. “We’ve identified about 10 or 12 that will do well in our area,” he said. “We’ve been working with USDA, the American Organic Hop Growers Association and Michigan State University extension, who have been very helpful.” Alliance growers benefit from knowing that the varieties will thrive in their geographic region. “Brewers in Michigan are adventuresome and looking for new and unique flavors,” he said. “The faster we can turn around and give them something they want, the better it is for us.”
Meeting the challenge of providing adequate growing space for hops production is one of Tennis’s current projects. While typical spacing is 3 ft. between plants, 14 ft. between rows and 40 ft. pole-to-pole, Tennis has been growing some hops in a short-trellis system. “At my farm in Omena, we have the only short-trellis system outside of the Yakima Valley, WA area,” he said. “It’s a hop yard on a shorter trellis, about 10 to 12 ft. instead of 18 to 20.”
The alliance holds several seminars each year and does on-farm consultations, especially with new growers, to ensure their success. Michigan State University also holds seminars. Tennis says the alliance also relies on area farmers as a resource because certain aspects of farming are the same for all crops.
“We’re dealing with a lot of first time farmers,” said Tennis. “They’re excited about Michigan agriculture or they’re craft beer fans. We didn’t know about flavor profiles the first couple of years — we figured we didn’t have anything to lose, so we just grew hops. And now we’re finding that the product we’re growing is world-class.”
Visit the Michigan Hop Alliance on Facebook and through their website at www.michiganhopalliance.com