On paper, hops are a perfect fit for Meander River Farm. Save for one thing.
The beer-making ingredient isn’t too labour-intensive, is another revenue stream, has tonnes of value-added potential, and is a great way for Alan and Brenda Bailey to attract more customers to their poultry, pork and lavender farm near Ashdale in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley.
The drawback? Hopyards aren’t cheap.
“The average establishment costs in the industry are about $15,000 an acre and that doesn’t include irrigation costs,” says Alan Bailey, who grows 2.5 acres of hops on his 186-acre farm, located about 60 kilometers northeast of Halifax.
While that’s not a lot for a large commercial-scale farm, the Baileys would have to spend after-tax dollars earned from their day jobs (he’s an IT manager and she’s a teacher). Their investment had to have a pay-back.
The couple first read about hops in 2008 in Small Farm Canada magazine, which noted a shortage had pushed prices to all-time highs at a time when craft microbreweries were popping up all over North America.
But they knew better than to just order hops rhizomes and start their own hopyard.
“The first thing we did was establish a relationship with a brewer and a brewing company,” says Bailey. “To me, that was the critical step. Without that, it would have been very difficult for us to do anything.”
When Bailey went to Halifax to meet with the owner and the brewmaster of Garrison Brewing Company, which has been producing craft beer since 1997, he found a receptive audience.
“I believe in using local products and the owner Brian (Titus) does as well, so it was easy for us to go in that direction,” says brewmaster Daniel Girard.
While Girard was happy to talk about hops varieties he wanted to source locally, and Titus was open to paying a premium price for the right product, they were still a bit cautious.
“I didn’t know Alan before he came here,” says Girard. “We were interested but didn’t give him too much hope because everyone talks as if hops could be a gold mine. But it’s not that easy. However, Alan was very realistic very fast, and that was good.”
While many enterprising, small-scale hops growers have done very well, there’s also plenty of room for missteps and Bailey was keen to get all the advice he could. Along with talking about varieties and production schedules (the ‘wet’ or non-dehydrated hops from Meander River Farm had to be brewed into beer within 24 hours of harvesting), Bailey also knew it would be critical to get a premium price.
“The fact is hops is a commodity and when you’re growing small volumes, you can’t compete on price.”
Having received an encouraging response from Girard and Titus, the couple then considered the agronomic challenges in front of them. And they were numerous. They had to select varieties suitable for their area; prepare the soil; choose the type of trellis system (hops can reach 20 or more feet in height); and control weeds and pests. Also, like wine grapes, prized artisan hops have a terroir (unique characteristics reflecting the influence of climate and soil where they are grown) and they wanted to tap into leading experts for advice on that front.
There was a lot to learn. Once again, the Baileys reached out to others, connecting with local producers and helping to found the Maritime Hop Growers Co-operative.
“When you’re small, you have to be creative and that’s why being able to talk to other growers in your region is so important,” says Bailey. “What works on a 500-acre farm in Yakima, Washington (the centre of North American hop production), may not work here. So it’s great to be able to ask other local growers, ‘Do you have this problem and how are you dealing with it?’”
The co-op, which has about 10 members, does some group buying and obtained federal funding to bring in hops experts from Quebec and Colorado. They provided invaluable advice on everything from planting and disease control to the optimum time for picking.
All of these collaborations have obvious benefits, but making them successful can be tricky, says Girard, who has visited the Baileys numerous times – partly to see how the hopyard is doing, but also to get to know the couple better.
“In business, relationships are very important and there’s always a chemistry involved – do you like the guy or not?” he says.
“I was sure that the ka-ching, ka-ching – if you know what I mean – was not the first thing Alan thought about. He knew that hops were going to be a lot of work and I could see his dedication.”
Having successfully established their hopyard (planted in 2009 and coming into full production this year), the Baileys are now leveraging their initial investment on their farm (facebook.com/MeanderRiverFarm). They already make a number of lavender products, and are creating hops products, including cooking oil and a hops pepper.
“You can use the distilled essential oil from hops in a variety of value-added products such as soaps and shower gels,” says Bailey.
The towering plants in the hopyard are also a great draw.
“People are infatuated by lavender, but amazed by the hops,” says Bailey. “One day, we would like to farm full time and our ultimate goal is to become an agri-tourism destination.”
That day may not be far off. The Baileys have obtained financing and are ready to start their own micro-brewery once they get through local zoning hoops.
“We’re not full-time farmers, but we would love it if we could be because the farm is the part of our lives that gives us the most pleasure,” says Bailey.
Because of their approach – to both farming and working with others – Girard predicts that day will come.
“When I see Alan and Brenda on their land, they are the happiest people on earth,” he says. “I look at them and think, ‘They’re born to be farmers.’”