Growing hops a way to revitalize state's farmland
Group looking for farm acres to plant beer ingredient
By Gena Kittner, Wisconsin State Journal | Green Bay Press Gazette
MADISON — A team of hop enthusiasts is reaching out to Wisconsin landowners, offering the chance to become part of what they hope will become the state's hop-growing revival.
All you need to jump on the hop crop bandwagon — the product that provides the characteristic bitter taste to beer as well as its flowery aroma — is an acre of suitable farmland anywhere in Wisconsin or upper Midwest and about $10,000.
"The mission of Gorst Valley (Hops) is to provide farmers with a new high-value crop that they can produce on small acreage within a system that returns the majority of the value of the crop back to the grower," said James Altwies, the company's director and horticulturist.
So far the concept is gaining steam.
The company, started in 2008 in the western Dane County town of Berry, has seven charter growers around the state and one in Escanaba, Mich., who are raising a combined 15 acres of hops — a product at least one state brewery is eager to get its hand on.
Lakefront Brewery's new "Local Acre," out this month, is made with only Gorst Valley Hops and contains all Wisconsin ingredients. Middleton's Capital Brewery also is interested in purchasing hops once Gorst Valley has enough volume — possibly in 2011, Altwies said.
"We're never going to be able to supply one brewer with all the hops that they need," Altwies said. But "we can supply brewers with enough hops to brew specialty beers."
Businesses like Gorst Valley, which are finding new agricultural uses for farmland, also help keep the town rural — one of the goals in Berry's land use plan.
In the 19th century, Wisconsin grew one-fifth of all the hops raised in the country until mildew and aphid problems resulting from overcrowded plantations forced growers to move the crop to the Pacific Northwest. Now Altwies said state farmers have more sustainable production practices and new hop varieties that are disease and pest resistant and much higher yielding.
The state has the right growing conditions, including the right amount of sunlight, 120 frost-free growing days and very cold winters, which allow for the dormancy the hops require to flower properly and produce optimal yields, Altwies said.
Altwies, who works at Promega, also is a horticulturist with a master's degree from UW-Madison.
To launch Gorst Valley Hops, he brought together a group of friends willing to take an ownership stake in the company — each with an area of expertise who could address specific elements in the process of reintroducing hops as a cash crop in Wisconsin. They include an engineer, a chemist and a development director.
"Everybody brings something to the table and that's really been critical to our success," Altwies said.
Thad and Christine Molling, for example, offer information technology and agricultural research expertise, respectively, to the Gorst Valley cooperative.
The Mollings, who live near Mazomanie, were both interested in a sustainable side career in addition to their day jobs. Hops ended up being a good option.
The couple planted their first hop crop this year and, as part owners of the company, help Altwies lead workshops for potential hop growers.
"The interest is immense," she said. "We're probably scaring some of them off because of the intensity of the workshop. It's definitely a labor intensive crop and you have to really want to do it."
Owners have to pick the hops by hand, though Gorst Valley Hops is working on building a machine for small-scale hop harvesting.
Matt Link of Black Earth and one of Gorst Valley's charter growers, planted about 1,000 hop rhizomes — a starchy underground stem — on one acre this spring after finding the company on the Internet.
This fall Link harvested around 20 pounds of hops — not a whole lot.
"It's not a get-rich-quick scheme," Link said. "It's very much a long-term investment."
But Altwies said Link had a very high-yielding first year. Typically 1 acre will yield between 7 and 15 pounds of hops in its first year and by year four should yield between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds, he said.
While not usually profitable in the first year, an acre of hops could, within two years, generate $12,000 to $15,000 in crop revenue compared with $250 an acre for corn, Altwies said.
The goal is for the business to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, he said.
"Everything that we do revolves around that triple bottom line," he said.
Hops farmer James Altwies holds whole flower nugget hops in Madison.