by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
New York State hops producers were privileged to have an opportunity to attend an Intensive Hop Production Workshop featuring international speaker and industry consultant Michael Roy, 4th generation hop farmer of Moxee, WA.
The workshop, sponsored by Brewery Ommegang of Cooperstown, NY in conjunction with Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Madison County, included presentations by Cornell staff and Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown.
Roy described his family farm as 3,500 acres located in the Yakima Valley, where desert conditions have been developed into an “agricultural hub.” The farm employs about 300 workers and focuses on good agricultural practices, food safety and traceability.
“I think it’s really important, whether your starting out or if you’re a hundred and nine-year-old hop growing farm like we are, that you record everything so that you can move the system forward, you can look at it, you can answer questions, you can look back. We record everything. Everything,” Roy emphasized. “From the time that we start operations in the spring to the time that we load that product on the shipping dock and it goes to the brewery, we record everything!”
Roy says all input, every foot step, tractor, and action taken on the farm goes into a central data base. Time, people, whereabouts and actions are all recorded. “We’re fully traceable, from the bale all of the way back through the field. If a brewery comes up and says, hey we have a problem with lot 111, we can work backward through the system, we can figure out what happened. Was it a fertilizer over application? Was it an oil leak in the baler?”
Over the several hours of his presentation, Roy walked attendees through the many steps of the hops production from spring operations through fall harvesting and winter cover crops, while using sustainable farming practices.
As with any business, setting up for success is a primary goal. “Set yourself up for success!” Roy said. “It’s a series of small steps, not one magic bullet.” He pointed out some areas to focus on, including site selection, soil analysis, variety selection, disease-free root stock and methods of irrigation.
Roy reminded attendees that, although they do need plenty of water; hops do not like wet feet. “They like water, but not around the crown. The sun can help a lot.” Roy Farms utilizes solar power whenever possible. Mounding will help keep water from pooling and benefit root mass.
Plants under stress will not always show visible signs; but will be less productive. Roy emphasized keeping plants stress-free to provide high quality cones and high yield.
Nutrients are mandatory for both the plants and the soil. “Feed the soil so the soil can feed the plant,” Roy advised, commenting that hop plants use an excessive amount of nutrients.
Roy Farms use mostly fish fertilizer spring and fall.
Phosphite mix, nitrogen and micros are applied in a liquid form through drip irrigation. Nitrogen is best applied to the ground where it can be absorbed through the roots. “Less, more often, is better than more, less often — at least we think so.” Nutrients are especially required during stages of “approaching bloom, pre-bloom and bloom.”
Irrigation is applied in consistent, even, wetting patterns through pressurized, pulsated action during the day. The plants rest at night. “Plant physiology says plants want to breathe at night and consume water during the day. That’s when you should be irrigating.”
Weed management is another concern. “Keep up on them! Shoot for no weeds!”
CCE Hops IPM Program Educator, Jason Townsend scouts 15,000 square miles of hop yards from Rochester to Albany, and he reported on this year’s extensive problem with downy mildew.
“Obviously this season, downy mildew has been rampant. Perhaps it approaches something like a regional epidemic. There’s definitely far more than I saw in yards last year,” said Townsend. “And signs have been visible since very early in the season.” Townsend showed photos of the disease in the field, explaining that the disease overwinters and shows up in the early spikes growing from the ground. “Certainly it’s an endemic disease that we’ve got to deal with in New York without a doubt.”
He advises getting diseased material out of the yard and burning it. Remember the spores may be spread to the clothes you are wearing and all clothes, gloves and footwear need to be kept clean.
Townsend also reported, although not yet confirmed, he had seen photos of what appeared to be powdery mildew in the southern tier of the state.
Roy commented hop plants have “zero tolerance” for powdery mildew and downy mildew. Fungicides are essential. “Get a spray program. Spray early and spray often! Address the root as well as the vine.” Roy reminds growers to select a variety of plants that have resistance to mildews.
“A spray program is critical,” Townsend said, commenting that local “yields have already taken a hit.”
Insects that damage hop plants — including spider mites and potato leaf hoppers — have also been spotted in the area, and Japanese beetles will soon follow.
Roy reported spider mites will take a toll on yields and aphids will also stunt vines. Scouting plants is essential. He limits a sighting of mites to 20 per leaf. Aphids are limited at 10 per leaf. “Use herbicides, pesticides and fungicides in a responsible manner,” he cautions. Power sprayers should be used to attend to bottom sides of leaves where pests hide. He noted although predators are useful, he has seen lady bugs and ants “farm” aphids and mites for their own use.
Pruning is essential. Timing is critical. Methods of pruning and tilling were discussed. Roy showed a video of a German style crowner used for pruning hops back in the spring.
Male plants must be removed from the hop yard as soon as possible to decrease seeds and assure quality of the cones. When male plants are noticed while scouting, cut them down and remove them. Flag the hill so it will be easy to spot for future removal of the crown.
Harvesting, machine adjustments, packing and baling were also addressed at the workshop. Clean food practices and safe environments were stressed. “Practice food safety. Have that mindset.” Roy advised.
Roy samples cones two or three times pre-harvest for quality and timeliness in harvesting.
“Harvest quality is impacted not only at the time of harvest, but throughout the entire year,” Roy said. Color, smell, oil content, Hop Storage Index (HSI), seed content and leaf and stem content of the harvested product determines quality.
Roy also reminded growers the hop harvest is highly combustible and that Roy Farms had suffered loss due to only a “small pile of hops” igniting.
Timing is essential for harvesting and equipment for harvesting is an issue in New York State. Madison County CCE Hops Educator, Steve Miller, coordinator of the workshop and affiliated with the Northeast Hops Alliance, reported on innovations in hop equipment for small growers. Miller noted there has been an increase in acreage for hops production in New York State over the past few years, with about 300 acres in production at this time. He commented that options are available for mobile hop pickers by sharing those already in the state. He reported there are now at least 16 harvesters in the state, whereas five years ago there was only one. A map is being assembled for growers, showing locations of harvesters, so time and costs of moving the equipment can be reduced. “There is a short window of time!” Miller attested. Miller also has information for plans to build harvesters. Contact him at email@example.com .
“I am very impressed by the enthusiasm and dedication of the new hop growers in the northeast,” said Charles Matt, hops consultant and international speaker from Zurich, Switerland, who attended the Cooperstown event. “I believe the return of hop growing to his historic hop growing region is a positive development for the local agriculture and the craft beer market. The main challenges I see are in finding varieties adapted to local growing conditions and optimizing yields through better site selection and cultural practices to combat the fungal diseases that affect hops grown in wet climates. I also believe growers in the northeast will have to continue to innovate in developing equipment suitable for small-scale harvest operations.”
Intensive Hop Production Workshop features 4th generation hop farmer Michael Roy
by Elizabeth A. Tomlin