Local farmers aim to cut cost of hops

By Katie Demeria

Two Shenandoah County residents are taking advantage of the growing hop industry in Virginia and have plans to make it easier for other farmers to get involved, as well.

Robert Andrews, of http://www.hopsfromvirginia.com, a hops grower in Strasburg, and David Clark, of 7 Hollows Farm — http://www.7hollowsfarm.com in Orkney Springs, have been growing hops for several years. They are intimately familiar with the cost of beginning to grow hops.

“People can’t afford to go big,” Andrews said. “To run a hundred acres of this would be $3 million, just to get started.”

Locally grown hops, however, are in high demand. The rapid growth of the craft brewing industry has caused many farmers, like Clark, to get involved. Clark harvested his first crop this year, and said they did very well.

“The local brewers are really doing a lot,” Clark said. “They’re being very creative, demanding fresh ingredients, and the more of those that open and start offering those styles and types of beers, the more likely it is that locally grown hops will become very important to the economy.”

But the price of expanding into hops growing could be too expensive for most, Clark pointed out.

Hops grow on trellises that are made up of large posts connected by wires. In states such as Washington and Oregon, where the hops industry is largely commercial, those posts can be up to 20 feet tall. But most Virginia farmers are using posts that are around 14 or 16 feet.

“Once posts get up to that size, they’re around $100 a post,” Clark said. “If you need 55, that’s $5,500.”

“It’s expensive to get started in this business, and I think that I underestimated that, and probably everybody will underestimate how much labor and time goes into planting and maintaining a hop field, too,” he added. “It’s very labor intensive, and because it’s labor intensive, it’s expensive.”

To help alleviate that cost to new hop growers, Andrews and Clarksay say they are hoping to start an organization that would allow them to share the equipment used to work the crop.

“The idea is that for the hop industry to flourish in Virginia, there has to be some support outside of the hop growers themselves,” Andrews said. “So to allow them to grow, the co-op can invest in the heavy equipment that they need. They could expand their farms, rather than spending money on equipment.”

Clark pointed out that once a farmer plants more than half an acre of hops, it becomes commercial farming, which requires a great deal of labor. Several machines aid that work, but they are only used a few times a year.

One of the positive aspects of the hops industry is its likelihood to stay concentrated with small, local farmers, according to Clark, rather than becoming too commercial with only a few farms supporting 300 acres, for example.

“And, talk about supplemental income,” Clark said. “There are a lot of people in the county who have an extra acre of flat land out there, which is the industry standard. We could all be local to each other, know each other, and be neighbors, basically, coming together and making really good use of the land.”

To find out more, contact Andrews by visiting www.hopsfromvirginia.com or email Clark at dclark@7hollowsfarm.com.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com