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.
“That is precisely what we want to encourage,” said Anthony Varda, town of Berry chairman.
As part of the town’s planning, officials want to promote diverse agricultural businesses that could replace traditional family farms, which aren’t being passed on, he said.
“(Gorst Valley Hops) is a different take on agriculture,” added Sue Studz, town of Berry supervisor. “It’s a good example of how smaller parcels can be used for agricultural purposes.”
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 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.
“I knew that we could grow hops here,” he said. “We did it back in the 1860s well.”
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.
But “I didn’t want to be a regular farmer,” Christine Molling said. 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 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.
“We wanted to use that land somehow to generate some income,” Link said. “It’s a good small-scale business.”
This fall Link harvested around 20 pounds of hops — not a whole lot.
But that’s to be expected the first year and he’s not too discouraged.
“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.
Gorst Valley owners provide all the technical and farming support in the hop growing process, which includes design work for the irrigation system, trellis system and pest management. Once harvested, Gorst Valley mills the hops into powder, pelletizes them and sells them to local breweries.
Altwies said the company’s goal is to add 10 to 15 acres of hops a year for the next five or six years, which is what the current processing facility will handle.
The money landowners spend up front is used to buy hop rhizomes — an investment directly into the farmer’s land, Altwies said. Gorst Valley makes money once farmers’ hops are sold and there is no upfront fee for the charter grower program.
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 to $250 an acre for corn, Altwies said.
And just two years into the business, Altwies said the company is profitable, however the owners aren’t taking a salary, instead reinvesting the profits into the company.
“We’re trying to use this charter grower program as a model for other high-value crops,” Altwies said, adding the business could some day expand to growing botanicals for herbal tea or herbs for essential oils.
He even envisions building a community processing center where people could process their perishable fruits and vegetables into a product, such as turning tomatoes into tomato sauce to sell.
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.
Gorst Valley Hops will hold two all-day workshops this winter and spring. Intro to Small Scale Hop Production will be held on Feb. 27th and Intermediate Hop Production Technical Workshop will be help on March 20th. Visit www.gorstvalleyhops.com for more information on the time, place and cost of the workshops.