A frustrated soybean farmer in the Alvinston area is growing hops, and hoping to eventually sell his harvest to a number of Ontario’s craft breweries.
Warren Graham’s hop yard is two acres in size, and constructed with numerous 18-foot high wooden beams, set vertically with hanging ropes that will be host to climbing hop vines.
It takes about three years to achieve a full hop harvest, and this is Graham’s second year.
“I’ve got buds here; those are going to be hops and they’re looking really good,” Graham said. “I’m going to get a decent crop here.”
The farmer decided to get into the hop business after a particularly poor crop of soybeans, and his desire to grow another crop on his land.
“I looked at quinoa, I looked at different nut crops, lavender, and this just seemed to be the best fit.”
A neighbour who brews his own beer suggested that Graham might consider growing hops – as the harvest could be another source for his home brew.
Intrigued, Graham explored the idea, admitting now that he knew little at the time of hop growing. What he did learn was that hops aren’t easy to grow. He turned to the Ontario Hop Growers Association for assistance and became involved with that organization.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he said. “The weeds, they’re a constant issue because you can’t spray – I’m not organic per se, but there’s nothing I can spray that’s not going to kill the hops too.”
Hop growing is incredibly labour-intensive. The enterprise starts with a clean field, on which the 18-foot posts are set into place. Once those are up, cables are strung between the posts, along with another set, to which the ropes are fastened.
“These things, they like to flower at about 18 feet,” Graham said. “That’s when most of them should be producing (but if) for some reason some are producing lower, which is fine, it makes it easier for me to harvest.”
Graham said once the whole crop is planted and growing, the work becomes more interesting.
“They’ll have a few thousand flowers in a couple of feet here,” he said. “It’s going to be fun trying to time all of that, because the timing is very critical for best quality.”
Once the hops are harvested, Graham has to dry them quickly to prevent mould. The hops are then frozen; they can stay fresh in the freezer for up to three years.
“But hopefully I don’t have them hanging around for that long!” he said.
Harvest happens in late summer — the end of August and first week of September. Once that’s done, Graham looks forward to getting the hops off his hands and into the beer of nearby breweries.
“About a month and a half ago I was down in Port Colborne and I spoke to about 30 different craft breweries, and they’re all interested,” he said. “They say that local trumps organic – people want to have local hops in their beer, and around here, I don’t know if there’s anyone else doing it.”
The association’s directory reveals several hop growers in Middlesex, Elgin and Oxford counties, but only Graham in Lambton.
While the thought of hops immediately brings beer to mind, Graham said holistic people also use them for medicine and tea. Because of the hops’ antiseptic qualities, they were originally used in beer because of their preservative qualities.
Graham said he’s been fortunate with moisture this year, as the rainfall has been timely. Last year, his plants spent most of their energy putting down their roots.
“Hops can be a little finicky, but they’re also tough as nuts,” he said. “The biggest challenge is going to be harvesting; I mean, they’re 18 feet in the air.”
Graham has built a moving platform to get up to the flowers, which he pulls with a tractor, moving from section to section. You have to cut the ropes off from the top and bottom and put them through a machine to get all the flowers.
Graham said hops haven’t been grown routinely in Ontario for about a century, so those farmers who are now growing hops are learning as they go. There are some more seasoned hop growers, however, and with the astonishing rise of Ontario’s craft beer industry, the two enterprises have happily collided.
“It’s an interesting plant, it really is, and it’s very labour intensive,” he said. “But I’ve got a buddy giving me a hand so we have a lot of fun, and my dog likes it!”