In mid-August with a crew upward of eight, Sean Trowbridge began the 2019 hop harvest, taking down 34,000 strings attached to a trellis system the hop bines climb. They use a European bine loader and harvest wagon to bring the plants out of the field and to the picking machine, which can harvest 280 strings in an hour.
There are about 17,000 plants and eight varieties spread over 17 acres to harvest, and it takes about a month — winding down about Sept. 12.
Harvesting with a bine loader is not perfect, though, and some plants escape the field harvest equipment, which means the crew makes a final trip each day to hand-pull the remaining bines.
“My money is hanging on those trellises, so it’s important that we get them all pulled,” says Trowbridge, who co-owns the farm in Goodrich, Mich., with his wife, Jennifer, and parents Mark and Mel Trowbridge. All are involved with the operation.
The team can harvest anywhere from three-quarters of an acre to 1.5 acres a day, depending on the size of the plants.
It’s been a tough year for farmers across the country, and many hop farms in Michigan also took a hit. “Production was down probably 25% this year,” says Sean, who left his environmental science job to be a full-time producer five years ago.
“Every year, there’s some type of curveball that we have to adjust to and learn from,” says Sean, noting that this year’s cold, cloudy and extremely wet May provided a trifecta of trouble. “The plants were not waking up, and normal seasonal practices just weren’t working as they should. For example, the plants were not fully utilizing the normally timed fertilizer application.”
Once the growing season starts, the perennial plant can grow to be 18 feet tall in about 40 days. “Like a professional athlete, they need a lot of care,” says Sean, who conducts soil and plant tissue samples to supply optimum nutrients. Pest management and scouting are also required.
“There’s always something to be watching for,” he says. “If it’s damp and cold, downy mildew can be a problem. But if it’s hot and dry, we’re looking for spider mites.”
New this year, growers were reporting problems with corn borer. “It wasn’t a huge issue for us, but we did notice some holes at the base of the bines,” Sean says. “We spray when needed to protect the crops, as part of a balanced pest management program.”
Quality is critical
Harvesting at the right time, with a product free of mildew or insects, is critical. At Top Hops Farms, harvest is a little earlier than for growers to the west and in the Traverse City, Mich., region.
“At harvesttime, you can destroy the crop in a matter of hours or minutes, if it’s not done properly,” says Sean, noting that it becomes a food-grade product once dried, baled and put into the freezer or cooler and must be treated according to strict guidelines. Top Hops Farms is inspected and certified.
In addition, Hops Growers of Michigan, a nonprofit that advocates for the industry and supports research, has developed a quality verification program that Top Hops Farm participates in to help ensure best practices are being followed. USA Hops has a similar program called Good Bines to help growers with food safety requirements.
“If hops hit the floor, it goes into the trash,” Sean says, while noting there also are requirements for employee hand-washing, checklists for cleaning and temperature requirements, among other things.
“Everything is done with quality in mind,” he adds. “You have to start with good quality to keep good quality.”
Hops are fragile, as they need to be dried within a couple hours of harvest or they can heat up and decompose, Sean says. “You can screw up all sorts of ways in growing hops — mildew, insects, nutrients deficiencies, or improper technique during harvesting, drying, pelletizing and storage.”
Different varieties of hops each can add a distinct flavor, like spices in the kitchen. “Some are citrusy, spicy, earthy or fruity,” Sean says.
The bulk of hops grown in the U.S. is done in the West, with Washington being the top producing state. Michigan is seen as a little fish in the industry, but one that is being fed well by the boom in thirsty, craft-beer enthusiasts.
“But we are still competing against some very good growers out West," Sean says. "So, just because something is local doesn’t mean it’s a good-quality product. In most cases, we can’t compete dollar for dollar with Western-sourced products. We need a small premium to make it work, and therefore, every aspect of what we do has to be as good as it can be.”
Mark Trowbridge acquired the farm about 12 years ago with recreational use in mind. The 25 tillable acres were rented and planted with row crops.
“I wanted to start in agriculture,” Sean says. In the early years, the family had pigs, turkeys, bees and a giant garden. In 2007, 15 hop plants were added as the craft-beer craze started escalating.
“We didn’t have enough land to scale up traditional agriculture to make a living on it,” he says. “But our yields were doing OK with the test run of hops. We did a lot of homework — attending a two-day conference in Wisconsin, several Michigan State University programs, hop farm tours in Traverse City and several other conferences. And it was good timing because my dad was just retiring from engineering, and he’s not a sleep in, drink coffee and read the newspaper kind of guy.”
They saw the potential in hops and developed a business plan.
The first five and a half acres of trellis and hop plants were put in 2013, the same year they purchased a picking machine, which separates hops from the bines. The crop then was transported to Grand Rapids, Mich., where it was dried and pelletized.
Additions and upgrades were made every year since. “In 2014, we built our own dryers and put up a drying and pelletizing facility,” says Sean, who notes they were still taking the dried product to be pelletized. The next year, a turn-key pelletizing machine was added, followed the next year with another 6.5 acres of hops being planted.
The operation is now full circle — from the farm field to picking, drying, bailing, pelletizing, packaging, and storing frozen product. Once pelletized, hops are stored free of light and oxygen, offering about a two-year shelf life. “We take the hops from soil to boil,” as Sean likes to say.
Even marketing is done in-house by Sean. “I reach out to brewers. I’m on the phone, I’m making visits, I’m inviting brewers to visit, and I’m sending out samples,” he says. About 65% of his customers are from Michigan, while about 25% goes to Ohio and the remaining at various locations throughout the U.S.
Marketing and sales is tough and challenging, but Sean enjoys connecting with “great people who are passionate about brewing. We all love hops and beer, and I’ve made some really good friendships.”
For those considering growing hops, Sean says educate yourself, make informed decisions, develop a business model and know where your product is going to go. “Growing hops is fun, but you need to have the sales part down otherwise it will be a rough go," he says. "And be honest with yourself on pricing.”
They now have seven growing seasons under their belts and are selling direct to about 40 to 50 breweries each year. “We love having brewers out," Sean says. "With craft beer currently so popular, hops are seen as being a 'sexy' or 'cool' business, but in reality, it’s still farming. It’s a labor of love.”
It’s also a work in progress. Sean admits that not every plant is a blue-ribbon winner. “But we strive for quality product, and the best way of doing things is sometimes the hardest — that’s how it goes.”