When Europeans came to Ohio, one of the first crops they cultivated was hops; A small green flower that’s a main ingredients for brewing beer, which was a staple of their diet.
The Ohio Valley provided the perfect soil for the fast growing plant. But, in the early 21st century came Prohibition, plus plant diseases and harmful insects. So Ohio farmers eventually quit growing hops.
Fast forward to the recent explosion of local craft breweries, along with modern technology for pest and disease management, and Ohio farmers are now taking a second look at growing this specialty crop.
The local craft beer movement has brought nearly $3 billion and 15,000 jobs to the Ohio economy over the past decade. Some of those jobs have gone to Ohio Farmers like Dave Volkman and his wife Neenah who own Ohio Valley Hops in Maineville.
On a very warm summer morning Volkman takes me down a gravel road, through the woods that lead to the Hop Yard on his Warren County farm.
Thanks to the explosion of the craft beer industry in Ohio, places like Ohio Valley Hops have been springing up across the state, eager to work with local breweries. Dave was one of the founders of a coalition of state growers called the Ohio Hops Growers Guild.
“We’ve got about an acre and a half of hops,” says Volkman as we walk back the gravel road. “ We started growing about five years ago. When we first started doing it we weren’t sure if it was going to work, or if we wanted to really wanted to do this. So we started with a quarter acre, and we’ve added a little bit on over those five years.”
One acre can produce 4,000 pounds of hops, which can bring in anywhere from $5 - $10 a pound. But before you head out into your backyard with a rototiller hoping to get rich, growing hops is more complicated than just digging up some soil and sowing a few seeds.
Hops look like a vine, but the climbing plant is actually called a bine. They can reach 24 feet in one season, and need an extensive and sturdy support system. Dave’s hop yard consists of a grid of telephone poles and intricate trellising. These systems can average as much as $17,000 per acre for a grower to install.
“We have about 150 poles out here, and about two miles of cable,” says Volkman standing in the middle of a grid of tall poles and wires.“You figure it all in there with cables going crossways, and straight up the rows, and thousands of strings dropped from the cables to the grounds.”
“Right now we’re at the point that the hops are finishing their climb up to the very top of the wire,” Volkman says pointing to the different rows of plants climbing up toward the blue summer sky. “I’ve actually got ten different varieties here. We found out a few varieties are not working very well. Over here, those skimpy little ones, they’re gonna get pulled out this year. We’ve babied them, and we’ve tried to get them to grow, and they just don’t like Ohio soil, or Ohio climate.”
Once in the ground, it’s 3 years before the bines start producing a harvestable crop. Only the female flowering plants are desirable for hop production.
“They start to flower right about now. And a hop cone, which is the thing that a brewer’s gonna use to brew beer, ends up looking like a soft little pine cone. Hiding under the petals is a little bitty glands, called lupulin glands. They’re full of oils and acids,” Volkman explains. “So if you’re a bitter beer person, If you like a good, strong, IPA that turns your face inside out, those hops acids are the thing that’s gonna be used to create some bitterness. Whereas a lager beer has got hardly any at all.”
A half hour North at Little Miami Farms in Spring Valley, owners Jamie and Krista Arthur are experimenting on combining other crops along with their hops for local craft breweries.
“Once we started working with the local breweries and selling hops, and having success there, they immediately began asking about, ‘what we’d really like to see is some locally grown malt,” explains Jamie Arthur. “At the beginning we really weren’t sure what malt was, we knew it came from barley. We started conducting due diligence. We went to classes and we learned how to grow barley, and then malting is really a relatively simple process of germinating barley seed and drying it. And we thought, well heck we can do that on the farm here.”
His wife, Krista chimes in, “The crop itself, we can fit it in with a soybean rotation, so it’s really maximizing use of the land, but it’s also enabling us to grow and produce a complimentary product on a local level.“ Looking out over the farmland she adds, “We also partner with the Carillon Historical Brewing Company. Not only do we sell hops to them, but we also have grown other produce that they will use in their beers. Such as butternut squash for their Squash Ale and this year we’re growing beets that they’ll use in a beet ale.”
“It introduces a new dynamic that we didn’t expect when we started to grow hops, and market the hops to the breweries,” Jamie says. “Again, not something we expected to do five years ago, but once you go through that door, you don’t know what’s on the other side. And we’re having fun with what’s on the other side.”
These Hop farmers agree that the best part about growing hops, is drinking the beer made from their harvest. There are an estimated 250 craft breweries in the state now, with around 90 more scheduled to open, giving craft beer lovers a taste of Ohio.
There are more than 70 hop growers in Ohio. If you’re interested in learning more The Ohio Hop Growers Guild is sponsoring an open house of local hop yards throughout the state on Sunday July 28th, which includes the two growers in this story
County Lines is made possible by a grant from Ohio Humanities.