Press Releases

April 15, 2015

Growing Hops: A Chat with Ed Atkins of Elk Mountain Farm

Growing Hops: A Chat with Ed Atkins of Elk Mountain Farm

At 1700 acres, Elk Mountain Farm is the largest contiguous hop farm in the United States, having grown hops for Anheuser-Busch breweries for over 28 years. With spring underway, the hop planting season has just begun, and General Manager Ed Atkins already has his hands full fertilizing, pruning, and stringing plants throughout the vast property.

Of course, caring for hops is a yearlong endeavor – Atkins's current duties are just the first stages of a long process that culminates with harvesting the bounty and preparing the land for the next annual batch. So what does it really take to grow 1700 acres of hops? We sat down with Atkins to learn more about the hop harvesting process and his experiences as a master of the industry.

Ed, what drew you to the hop farming industry?

I was raised on a cattle ranch in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. I'm fourth generation -- my great grandparents homesteaded here. I come from a family of loggers and miners, so farming is in my blood. Of course, hops are unique: all of my experience with hops has been here at Elk Mountain over the last 28 years.

And now Elk Mountain Farm grows more than 50 different varieties of hops?

Yes, many of which are experimental. We also grow commercial hop varieties, some of which are landrace hops -- meaning they go back as far as time.

So a landrace hop is a naturally occurring hop – it's not man-made?

That's correct. In fact, most current hop varieties trace their roots back to the Hallertau hop, one of the more famed hops from the Hallertau region in Germany. We also have some English hops, some Czech hops…

Does growing different types of hops from all over the world present a challenge? Or do all hops thrive in one general set of conditions?

All hops are unique. Historically, Elk Mountain Farm has focused primarily on European hops because we're roughly on the 49th parallel, which puts us in line with Munich. So conditions here are similar to what you would find in the famed growing regions of Europe, in terms of temperature, precipitation, and day length.

Does that mean you can't just grow hops anywhere? What about in a home garden?

Hops will grow almost anywhere – but that doesn't mean they'll grow productively. In small plantings, hops are relatively easy to grow if you have the right hop for your climate. But there are also some hops that will do reasonably well in almost any climate.

So how did you choose which hops were best to grow at Elk Mountain Farms?

Hops are split into two classes: alpha hops, with a high alpha acid content; and aroma or "flavor" hops, which have a lower alpha acid content. We grow primarily aroma-type hops here because they don't like extreme heat during the day, and like cooler nights, which slows their growing cycle and works wells with the local climate.

How do you know when it's time to pick? Can you wait too long or pick too early?

Generally, a hop needs to be picked within a five-day window. If you pick a plant too early, when it's too "green", you damage the plant for next year, because the plant relies on carbohydrates to reemerge in the spring. It's a perennial, so picking it too early doesn't give the plant sufficient time to translocate those essential sugars back into the root stock for re-emersion the next year. And, until it reaches maturity, it's not going to have the alpha content or the essential oils the brewers typically look for.

On the other hand, when you pick on the late side, the quality still may be acceptable to the brewer -- however, the products start shattering, or falling apart. You can see substantial yield losses.

But I hear that no matter what, "hop waste" is inevitable. What is "hop waste"?

A hop looks like a little yellow-greenish pinecone. The rest of the un-harvestable plant consists of stalk, arms (branches), and leaf material. The bulk of that material from cleaning is hauled to a compost pile. We'll turn that compost pile during harvest at least once a day for several weeks until it breaks down, and then in the spring of the following year, we'll spread it back into our fields as fertilizer.

What do you like best about being a hop farmer?

Hop farming requires a lot of people -- and I like working with people. Hops are not like a cereal crop, where you might have thousands of acres of wheat or barley and one or two people farming. Hop farming requires a lot of teamwork and interacting with many people to make it work. There's a lot of dynamics to the process and it's really challenging -- but equally rewarding in the end.

What's the toughest challenge?

It's always the weather. It's the biggest variable that you can't change and you're most dependent on it. You don't have to worry about any minor rain event ruining a cereal crop -- you have weeks to harvest the crop. That's not the case with hops -- we can't wait for it to stop raining or for the mud to dry out, because if we don't pick the hops, we lose them.

Any final tips for those growing hops on a smaller scale?

Start small: do some research, and find out what hops will grow (or are grown) in your type of climate. And don't choose obscure varieties – grow common varieties that are known for brewing the styles of beer that you like!

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