Pennsylvania hops growers want to link up to help struggling industry

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Harvested hops at Penn State's hop yard in 2019. (Farm and Dairy file photo)

When Curtis McFadden put in his hop yard, he ran into a lot of obstacles. One of the biggest issues was the lack of resources. He figured out how to rig the trellis system by looking at photos he found on Google Images. 

“The biggest thing was we were on our own,” McFadden said. “There was nobody out there to tell us what hop quality meant, how to get better hop quality, what to do to get higher yields. There’s nothing here in Pa. for that.”

Growing hops is often romanticized, particularly by those who have an interest in craft beer and some extra land at their disposal, but the crop is notoriously difficult and expensive to establish, grow, harvest and process. It’s even more difficult in Pennsylvania where there is no support structure for hop growers, farmers say.

Michael Reifsnyder, owner of GEMS Farm, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, wants to change that. He put out a call on social media earlier this year to find as many hop growers as he could operating in the state. He wants to form a network of growers to share whatever resources and information they can.

“We’re still learning hard lessons each year, it seems, because we don’t have many people to ask questions to,” he said. “We just don’t get a lot of support from the state or from the industry.”

Getting breweries on board

McFadden and his business partner were driving several hours away to a bull sale when the conversation turned to the viability of putting in a hop yard. McFadden worked in various capacities in the cattle industry.

They looked into it, and it seemed like a no-brainer. Pennsylvania ranks third for the number of craft breweries nationwide and second in production of craft beer. Surely, some of these breweries would want to source their ingredients from local farmers, taking advantage of the marketing opportunity there, McFadden recalls thinking.

He was surprised to find how few breweries were willing to even give local hops a chance. The ones that did were selective.

“This wasn’t like a vegetable stand where you put it out and people show up,” he said. “A lot of brewers run you through the ringer. They want to know what you’ve got quality wise.”

A survey of Pennsylvania craft brewers, conducted in 2019 by Penn State researchers Maria Graziani and Claudia Schmidt, found more than 51% of craft brewers surveyed were somewhat or extremely likely to purchase locally grown hops for their beer production. 

Brewers buy most of their hops from the Pacific Northwest, said Allison Feeney, professor of geography and earth science at Shippensburg University and author of “For the Love of Beer: Pennsylvania Breweries.” That’s where the majority of U.S. hops are grown and have been for decades. 

The hops from out West are more cost effective to buy than buying small batches of Pennsylvania-grown hops. It’s also where the highest quality and most desirable varieties come from, Feeney said.

“What we can grow in Pennsylvania isn’t those top varieties of hops that brewers want,” she said.

A majority of brewers say they’re willing to pay slightly more for locally grown hops, up to 15% more above average market price, according to the Pennsylvania Craft Brewers Survey. McFadden said the high price of local hops is what turned off many of the brewers he talked to. 

That’s why it’s critical for hop growers to make the connections with the breweries first, Feeney said.  

Break even

It’s hard to say what varieties grow well in Pennsylvania because the industry is so young and small. Some of the bigger farms, like McFaddens, have gone out of business several years after getting started. 

McFadden put in 300 hop plants on a third of an acre in 2017 at his partner’s farm, in Mount Wolf, York County. They called the business River Hills Hops. After harvesting by hand the first year, they put in a 5.5 acre expansion to justify the cost of harvesting and processing equipment. 

At nearly 6 acres, McFadden ran what was likely the largest hops farm by acreage in the state for several years. It’s estimated that Pennsylvania had somewhere around 100 acres in hops in 2019, although that number is likely less now. 

Hops take three years to fully mature and produce a full yield of cones. They’d finally gotten to that point last year, McFadden said. The relationships he’d built with local breweries were beginning to pay off as well. His main customers were buying more each year. But they still made the decision to close up shop this year because it was taking too long to become profitable.

“This past season was our largest year,” McFadden said. “We produced a hair over 2,000 pounds of pelletized hops. I’m still sitting on probably 600-650 pounds. But I sold 1,400 pounds, and the year before that I sold 500 pounds. So you increased sales 200%, but you still have hops left over.”

 

Research gap

Efforts are lacking on the research side, too. Pennsylvania State University had a hop yard at its research farm near State College for a couple years. It was funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop block grant.

Thomas Ford, Penn State Extension commercial horticulture educator in Cambria County, said their work at the research farm showed disease pressure was a significant barrier to producing Pennsylvania-grown hops.

Funding for the project ended in 2019 and the principal investigator and other researchers moved on to other things. No one has picked it up since then, although the hop yard infrastructure is still standing at the research farm, said Tom Butzler, one of the researchers. 

“In order for hops research to be restarted at Penn State, we are going to need a dedicated and reliable funding source from industry to fund the research, plus the necessary personnel to continue or expand this research effort,” Ford said.

Working together

The solution to some of these problems is to band together, Reifsnyder said. He and Feeney applied for a grant from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board earlier this year to fund efforts in finding, mapping and networking with Pennsylvania hops growers.

If awarded the grant, Feeney will GIS map all of the known hop farms in the state. Reifsnyder has identified about 19 of them, a handful of which are connected to breweries. Then, they’ll build a network from there, meeting virtually or in person as they can.

“Just to get to know each other,” he said. “We’re starting from the ground up.”

Even if they don’t get the grant, Reifsnyder is already starting networking efforts to be able to share information, equipment and product. With an organized group backing them, Reifsnyder hopes the Pennsylvania hops growers can make more progress with breweries and research efforts.

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To contact Michael Reifsnyder about the Pennsylvania hops growers group, email GEMSfarmhops@gmail.com or call/text: 717-961-9352

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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