Frequently Asked Questions

FAQs for starting up a hop farm in New York by Steve Miller 5-17

Thank you for your interest in growing hops. The following is some information that has been put together for people interested in getting started in hops. This information is a general primer to answer commonly asked questions. This is an exciting time for the industry with excellent potential for marketing to over 200 microbreweries around the state.  There are more applications pending. The NY Farm Brewery legislation creates new opportunities for on the farm brewing and sales. This legislation went into effect in January 2013. Contact Stefan Fleming at the Empire State Development Corp to get info on obtaining a Farm Brewery License 585-399-7068 or stefan.fleming@esd.ny.gov.  There are 150 new farm breweries in NY as of January, 2017, however their production is only about 50,000 barrels.

History

Yes, we had a very important hop industry here a hundred years ago. In 1880 New York produced 21 million pounds of dried hops.  This was the majority of the US crop which sold upwards of $1.00 per pound. What happened and why can we grow them now? New York State produced a large portion of the hops in the US at one time. Disease pressure from downy mildew and powdery mildew, aphids and spider mites made production much more difficult and risky. The industry started moving to the mid-west and then the Pacific Northwest fleeing disease pressure. Along came prohibition, the price went from a high of $1 per pound to 5 cents overnight.  Most of the hops in NY were pulled out of the ground.

There are several reasons why we can grow hops commercially again in New York. The industry in the PNW has funded strong plant breeding.  IPM research for many decades has gone into developing new varieties with disease resistance. These varieties are doing well in NY and offer the best potential. Secondly, pest management options, both chemical and cultural have come a long way in the last hundred years. These advances make commercial hop production viable in New York.

Finances and Costs

What's the minimum acreage for a farm to make enough on hops to have a livable income?

It looks like if you are doing a good job of it, 10-15 acres should provide a good income. It doesn’t sound like a lot but it is a lot of work and about $12-$15,000 per acre (see below) investment to get started. Currently there is no one in New York with more than 20 acres of producing hops ,but I do expect that to change.

What returns can be expected and how many years does it take to get a return?

There is great potential now for growers in NY. Local prices are all over the board, anywhere from $10-$14 per pound for dried, pelleted, hops.  With an average 800-1200 pounds per acre yield if you are doing an excellent job. Some growers have obtained yields over 1,500 pounds per acre. Brewers currently pay from $4-10 per pound for hops grown on the west coast or from Europe.  This varies greatly on the amount they purchase, the variety, and market demand. Aroma hops in particular are in high demand by craft brewers.  Predictions are that about 12,000 new acres of aroma hops needs to be planted between 2015 and 2020. It is important to keep market prices in mind when developing a business plan.  Brewers are conscious of their contracted prices for hops.  Although most are willing to pay some premium, prices need to be realistic. Also quality is more important than where they were grown, so “local” will not make up for poor quality hops.

The first year you may have some hops, a partial crop the second and a full crop the third and fourth years. Expenses are variable but most growers believe they need to have gross sales of more than $6-8,000 per acre to break even.  This is because of initial investment, equipment, harvesting and processing costs.

What are the fixed costs to start up and what are the variable costs for ongoing production?

It costs about $12-15,000 per acre to get started.  This includes labor, plants, trellises, irrigation.  Then add on the equipment you buy. Growers are looking at sharing some things, such as harvesters, kilns (oasts) and pelletizing and packaging machines. USAHops.org has an excellent publication on the cost of hop production. Go to their website and look under resources for %A 10A or 20A detailed spreadsheets.

What are the costs, such as harvesting machines, etc.? 

Harvesting is one of the main costs in producing hops. Hand picking is not feasible for anything more than an acre or so. A stationary Wolf 140 or 170 harvester will cost in the range of $30-35,000.  These are not easy to find in the US so shipping is involved from Europe. There are 15 of these privately owned around the state. Keep in mind that the harvester you use needs to be within an hour of your farm because of transportation time and costs. Growers are developing small scale machines and several types may be available soon. Larry Fisher of Foothill Hops has built his own and will be sharing the plans. There are plans from UVM in Burlington, VT for a harvester they designed and built with funds from SARE.  They also have plans for  a small scale kiln and baler. Growers have used the plans to build one.

What other equipment is needed to grow hops?

Small tractor, trailer, weed sprayer, crop sprayer like what is used in vineyard or orchard, truck.  Also drying equipment, possible pelleter, a cooler, and a building for storage and drying. Growers should plan on drying their own hops but there are 4 pelleting companies in NY that will pellet and package. These are Whipple Bros Kendall, Northern Eagle Hop Processing Oneonta, Foothill Hops Munnsville, Pedersen’s Farm in Seneca Castle. Others may have opened since this update and can be found listed in NeHA newsletters.


Marketing your hops

What is the demand for hops in New York State to local brewers and in the future?

Hops are easy to ship once dried, however the demand right now is from micro-brewers and local is “in”. The growth has been slow.  Brewers want to be sure that they can get a consistent product, both in quantity, availability and quality. As the number of acres increases the demand will also increase. Brewers like the quality that they are getting from local producers! The demographics of the consumers of these products are in their 20s and 30s.  It seems unlikely that they will go back to more generic beers. This is a good indicator that there is plenty of room for longevity and growth in the craft beer industry. We estimate there is a need for at least 400-500 acres of hops in New York to satisfy the domestic demand for hops. Craft brewing production in New York exceeds 1.5 million barrels a year now.  Keep in mind that farm brewery production is less than 5% of that number.  You must be prepared to compete with West Coast hops to be successful.  As of January 2017, there are about 400 acres planted in New York.

Is it possible to be classified as an organic producer?

Yes there are some growers going organic. It is more work and risky I’d say.  Time will tell if brewers will be willing to pay a premium for organic hops. Eastern hops are already higher in price than west coast hops. That said, there is interest on the part of growers and brewers. As of January 2013 organic beer requires the use of organic hops.

Is there a profitable online sales market?

I would say yes but with a caveat. New York hops are going to be more expensive to produce.  Many home brewers are looking to the PNW  because they are less expensive. You would have to build interest in “local” or uniqueness on the part of home brewers.

Land preparation

It is very important that you select the area where you will be growing and begin the get the land prepared. It should be well drained, have access to water for irrigation, be flat or have a gentle slope.  It should also have good air circulation as well as full sun. Those are the key ingredients to site selection. I would start by going to your CCE office in your county.  Obtain copies of the soil maps of your farm. The USDA NRCS or the County Soil and Water District staff can tell you about the particular qualities of each of the soil types.

I would also obtain a soil test box there for Dairy-One/Agro-One.  Send it in with the “F” form filled out for hops establishment. This will tell if you need lime or other minerals to be added before you plant. I also would suggest that you ask the Extension staff about establishing a cover crop this year to cut down on the weeds. Buckwheat followed by clover is a good choice. Will you be organic? What is growing in the field now? Grass, weeds, corn? Atrazine carryover can be harmful. You may want to kill off what is there with either tillage and cover crops or with glyphosate (Round-up).  Perennial weeds and grasses will be a problem.  You want as little of those as possible before the hops go in.

Here are a few typical questions about growing hops commercially:

What is the system of growing plants that will produce the highest yield?

The highest yields are still with full size plants on high trellises 16-20 feet. About 900 plants per acre are required about  3 feet apart and rows 12 feet apart. There are a few different high trellis systems being tried out in the Northeast. Low trellis systems (10 feet with plastic deer netting) are being used out west.  These require specialized ($350,000) over the row harvesters unless you plan to hand pick in the field. It may also be more difficult to manage diseases in low trellis hops so I do not see this as a viable option. Also there are very few varieties that lend themselves to dwarf production.  This means less diversity to offer a brewer.

What about irrigation?

Hops need at least an inch of water a week, more as the season progresses. Most growers are using drip with the emitters set at 18-24 inches apart. You need to know how many acres you want to put in and determine if you have an adequate water source. You usually can water one block at a time for several hours and then shift to another. An acre can use 5-6,000 gallons per day.

How are the plants harvested?

The plants grow up twine (coconut coir) and it is cut at top and bottom.  It is then brought to a barn to be hand-picked or trucked to someone with a harvester to be machine picked. Baling twine will stretch, causing the plants to droop and break at the soil line.  This will clog up a mechanical harvester especially the Wolf machines. Hand picking is not cost effective, about 1 man hour per mature plant. We have 20 Wolf harvesters in New York and a number of smaller pickers manufactured in the state now. As acreage grows we may see more of these purchased or built. Mobile harvesters are being built that can travel from farm to farm.  These have proven to be effective for use in the last few years.

What is the process to dry and possibly pelletize the crop? 

After harvest, the crop needs to be dried right away. Use plenty of warm air, no more than 100-120 Fahrenheit, too hot will destroy flavors. The hops can now be stored in air-tight bags in a cooler. Before pelleting, they may need to be ground in a hammer mill and then pelleted, vacuum sealed, and again, stored cold.

What is the shelf life of product?

This depends on quality but almost a year if processed right, vacuum packed in Mylar bags, and gas flushed.  They are then kept in a cooler or freezer. Many growers don’t pelletize until they have orders ready to ship. Well processed hops, cold stored, can last a year or more with minimal loss of potency. A 20 C license is required from NYS Ag and Markets to process and a variance is required for vacuum sealing.

What varieties are in demand?

For the most part brewers are looking for the more aromatic varieties.  They can get the bittering varieties more easily from PNW. Cascade, Willamette, Mt Hood, Fuggle, Liberty, and Perle are aroma varieties.  Brewers Gold, Chinook, Centennial, Nugget and Newport are a few bittering varieties that are being grown in the Northeast. We also must consider disease resistance. Mt Hood, Centennial, and Columbus (CTZ) for example, are not resistant to downy mildew. Saaz and most of the German varieties have had mixed results in the East so far but growers are experimenting with these.  Varieties like Citra and Mosaic are proprietary and we cannot obtain stock to grow them.

Finding more information

Go to the NEHA site www.northeasthopalliance.org and read some of the literature that is listed on the resource page. Copies of their newsletter are listed there as well as articles from U of Vermont. UVM has a great resource site at http://www.uvm.edu/extension/cropsoil/hops.  Also, consider joining the Northeast Hop Alliance. The Alliance supports research and development of the industry and is a small investment for your farm. The NEHA growers will likely be putting in a group order for coir and rhizomes each fall. Doing bulk purchases of supplies can save on start up costs.

P.S. If interested in brewing, contact : NYS Brewers Association PO Box 25353 Rochester, NY 14625 315 256 7608 www.thinknydrinkny.com

If you are interested in growing malt barley contact Kevin Ganoe, CCE of Herkimer Co at

khg2@cornell.edu (315 866 7920) http://www.nwnyteam.org/billsforagefiles.blogspot.com

For more information on hops, contact Steve Miller at hops.educator@gmail.com.

Last updated June 11, 2019