Penn State Extension educators and specialists recently received funding from USDA's Specialty Crop Block program to study hops. Soon thereafter, Penn State University Extension Educator Tom Ford was asked: "What should I think about in my plans to grow hops?" Ford lists these points to consider:
* The largest Pennsylvania hops operation we've seen so far is about 4.5 acres, and it was planted this summer. Start slow at first and limit acreage initially to one acre or less until you've gained some experience.
* Most hops entrepreneurs approach craft breweries before planting and are getting commitments for purchase prior to planting their first hops rhizome. Reach out to craft breweries to see what the demand is like.
Based on the current level of craft beer brewing in Pennsylvania, we believe that approximately 1,000 acres of hops would satisfy the current market. While we don't have a good handle on total acreage already planted, we're significantly below that threshold.
* Craft brewers generally tend to want producers to raise hops varieties that are either proprietary or are not adapted very well to our climate. See what varieties of hops they're interested in purchasing.
Currently, Pennsylvania growers are primarily raising Cascade, Centennial, Nugget, Willamette and Chinook. As we move forward with our study, we'll have a better handle on what performs best.
* Nematodes can be a problem in hops production, so consider submitting a nematode assay to Virginia Tech's Nematode Assay Clinic. Submit a sample from each field you wish to plant. Avoid fields planted to alfalfa since they tend to have more nematode issues than fields devoted to grass hay.
* Hops rhizomes and/or plants should be purchased from a "clean stock" program so you don't bring in diseases and/or viruses to your farm. The best varieties tend to sell out quickly, so you'll need to plan a year in advance in most cases.
Some growers have tried to shorten this timeline, and have settled for either inferior varieties or low quality rhizomes that failed to establish well or died prematurely. Good quality plants and rhizomes are key.
* Conduct a soil test so phosphorus, potassium, and lime can be fall-applied if needed. Kits can be purchased from your local Extension office.
* Review the herbicide history for all fields. Some herbicides have a long life in the soil and can impact hops establishment. Your county Extension educator can help you with that determination.
* Irrigation is a necessity. Have your water sources tested to see if they're suitable for irrigation purposes. Irrigation water can be tested through the Agricultural Analytical Services Lab. Once you have these results, your county Extension educator can review them with you and make sure that the water quality is appropriate for the crop.
* Locust poles 18 to 20-feet high are the norm for supporting hops bines. Consider sourcing them early in the planning stages since demand often exceeds supply. It's a sellers' market.
Educational program in the works
A day-long hops program will be held as part of the pre-Mid-Atlantic Vegetable Convention program on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016 at the Hershey Lodge in Hershey, Pa. The program will feature some of the most knowledgeable hops researchers and educators on the East Coast. For more details, contact Ford at 814-472-7986 or email [email protected] .