Breaking into Organic Hops Production
MARSHALL, North Carolina – It only took a few e-mails to area microbreweries for Rita Pelczar to discover the demand for local, organic hops. But producing the crop, uncommon in her area, has turned out to be more of the learning curve.
“Marketing has not been the problem. It’s successfully growing the crop and getting a price worthy of our production expenses that has been the challenge,” said Pelczar. “But each year we stick with it, we learn more, and I’m hopeful that we’ll find a profitable marketing niche.”
Pelczar and her husband, John Wright, are owner/operators of Blue Ridge Hops, a small USDA organic-certified family farm in western North Carolina. In 2008, when the couple decided to take their son’s advice and put a ½-acre of their 30-acre farm into organic hops, they quickly realized they were pretty much alone in the endeavor.
“When we decided to grow organic hops, we found out that nobody else was growing them around here, so we were on our own in terms of figuring out the production requirements,” said Pelczar. “Generally, hops are not hard plants to grow in northern regions, but there are some interesting production issues with the crop when you try to grow it in the South, particularly given our sloping mountain terrain, and especially when they are produced organically,” said Pelczar.
In 2009, the couple received an $8,268 Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education (SARE) Producer grant to identify the most productive varieties and nail down the right production requirements – from fertility to pest management to irrigation. Pelczar feels they have made headway, but there’s more to learn.
“We started out with 5 varieties and eliminated the ones that didn’t perform well. We are down to two varieties that have consistently been our best performers and the plan now is to continue to find good organic options for the challenges we face, and to increase our production to an economically profitable level,” said Pelczar.
Through trial and error and with the assistance of North Carolina State University Extension, the regional North Carolina Department of Agriculture agronomist, a NCSU hop research team, and other hops growers, the couple has worked out a variety of production issues.
“For example, we found out that the vines grow best when trellised straight up and down, rather than at an angle. Last year we nailed down the fertilizer requirements and put in an irrigation system, and that helped our crop tremendously,” said Pelczar. “It’s just making those little changes that have made a difference.”
This year, Pelczar introduced predatory mites to combat pest issues with spider mites and is currently devising ways to delay harvest since the crops tend to produce earlier in the season in the Southern region.
“It’s been really exciting and fun to contribute to the effort of growing organic hops in the area, but it takes a lot of work and there are so many challenges,” said Pelczar.
Pelczar is hoping that the upcoming changes to USDA’s policies on organic hops will eventually make the effort worthwhile. For now, brewers can use conventional hops to produce organic beer, but on Jan. 1, 2013 that will change. Certified organic hops will be required for the production of organic beer, suggesting that the demand for organically grown hops may increase, along with the premium price for producing the certified organic product.
To learn more about the project, “Growing Organic Hops for the Local Market,” log on to SARE’s national database and search for project number FS09-237.
For more information on Blue Ridge Hops, log on to http://www.blueridgehops.com.
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region.