From a distance, the field appears unused and empty, a yellow-green sea of grasses and weeds bordered by dusty roads and thick, leafy woods.
But a short walk reveals the field isn’t unused and empty at all.
An 18-foot-tall trellis system built from poles, twine, cable and plastic tubing towers over the open land. At the base of the structure, there are signs of growth: Green, leafy plants snake their way up the twine. By the end of summer, Greg Garrison, the young farmer who constructed the trellis, expects to harvest hops — small, green cones that provide the major flavoring ingredient in beer. He plans to host a picking party in late summer and sell his crop to breweries.
So far, Garrison is pleased with his crop.
“These are looking real good,” he said as he examined his plants.
More New York farmers are planting hops, with the goal of selling their product to craft breweries throughout the state and region. With new craft breweries coming online each year and growing enthusiasm from consumers for food and drink made from local ingredients, these farmers are optimistic about the potential for growth, noting that hops are a high-value crop.
Between 2010 and 2013, New York’s hop acreage increased from 15 acres to more than 110 acres, and today there are more than 40 growers with more than an acre and 60 more with at least a quarter-acre, according to Madison County Cornell Cooperative Extension, which publishes a newsletter called Northeast Hops News.
“We’re definitely starting to see an increase in farmers who are interested in growing hops,” said Steve Ammerman, the New York Farm Bureau’s manager of public affairs.
Steve Miller is a hops specialist based at Madison County Cornell Cooperative Extension. He works closely with the Northeast Hop Alliance, a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 with the goal of re-establishing commercial specialty hops production in the Northeast. Miller said the alliance’s earliest members were history buffs with an interest in the region’s hops history; today, the group’s members are more likely to be growers.
Even so, the state’s hops industry remains in its “micro-infancy,” said Gregg Stacy, vice president and director of marketing and sales for Brown’s Brewing Co. in Troy, one of the Capital Region’s most successful craft breweries.
The company has its own small hop yard at the Hoosick Falls farm owned by Garry and Kelly Brown, the brewery’s owners. The hops were first planted four years ago, and the first usable crop was harvested three years ago.
As of now, the hop yard is more of a fun hobby for the brewery than a major source of hops.
Stacy said the volume of hops grown is enough for one batch of beer, or 15 barrels. The company harvests the hops in late summer and uses them in its Harvest IPA, a seasonal beer that comes out in late August.
“We make a party out of it,” Stacy said. “It’s actually fun. It takes about five hours. It’s not really efficient at all.”
Stacy said the Browns would love to make more of its beer using local hops. The vast majority of their beers are made using freeze-dried hops from the Pacific Northwest.
At one time, New York was known for its hops production. According to Cornell Cooperative Extension, hops emerged as a major crop in New York around 1830, and by 1888, nearly 80 percent of U.S. hops production occurred in New York, primarily in Otsego, Oneida, Madison, Schoharie and Montgomery counties. In 1890, 13,162 pounds of hops were grown in Saratoga County, and more than 20 million pounds of hops were grown statewide.
But a combination of Prohibition, disease and pests proved fatal for the state’s hops industry, and even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the hops industry never bounced back. Today, most hops are grown in Oregon, Washington and California.
The Cuomo administration has taken steps to cultivate the growth of the state’s burgeoning craft beer industry. Last year, the governor signed a package of bills designed to make it easier for small craft breweries such as Brown’s to expand and distribute their product; included in the package is a measure authorizing the creation of farm breweries.
Under the new law, a farm brewery is any place on a farm in New York in which state-labeled beer is manufactured, stored and sold. Twenty percent of the hops and 20 percent of the beer’s other ingredients — barley, wheat and yeast — must be grown in New York. Those percentages will steadily increase, and by 2024, farm brewers will be required to grow 90 percent of their ingredients.
Much like wineries, farm breweries are allowed to hold tastings and open restaurants.
David Katleski, president of the New York State Brewers Association and owner of Empire Brewing Co. in Syracuse, said the state’s brewers are desperate for local hops and barley.
“The majority of New York brewers would use local ingredients if they could get them,” he said. “Not enough hops are being grown locally or regionally. We’re very encouraging of farmers who are converting over to hops.”
Garrison’s farm, on Middleline Road in the town of Ballston, has been in his family since the early 1900s, when his great-grandfather purchased it.
His father and uncle ran a dairy farm until 2008, when they decided to retire. Hay is still grown and harvested on the property, and Garrison wanted to continue farming the property, but didn’t consider dairy a viable option.
“The dairy industry is not in good shape,” Garrison said. “In college, I knew I couldn’t continue with dairy.”
His passion for agriculture and beer, he said, drew him to hops. He entered into what he called his “research phase,” learning as much as possible about the climbing plants. Today, he has about 200 hop plants on three acres, with a goal of putting in about 800 more plants this year. Next year, he hopes to start growing barley.
There are more than 100 varieties of hops. Garrison grows five: Willamette, Newport, Fuggles, Perle and Cascade.
The name of Garrison’s business is Saratoga Hops. His business card contains a simple slogan: “Bringing hops production back to Saratoga County, one bine at a time.” A bine is the climbing stem of the hop.
Someday, Garrison said, he’d like to be able to sit on his porch and drink a beer made entirely with ingredients grown on his farm.
He notes the area was once known for hops production; Hop City Road is just around the corner.
Growing hops is not Garrison’s full-time job.
The trim, athletic-looking 29-year-old is a technology teacher in the Washington County town of Argyle, where he teaches seventh- through 12th-graders. He lives down the road from his hops field in a former one-room schoolhouse that was vacant for about 20 years before he moved in. He said his uncle and father appreciate what he’s doing.
“They like it a lot, because I’m bringing back new life,” he said. “I’m having a blast.”
In 2009, Judy St. Leger and Marc Kratzschmar moved to an old farmstead in the Montgomery County hamlet of Stone Arabia with the goal of farming. In addition to raising chicken and sheep, the couple started growing hops on one-tenth of an acre a couple years ago. They were inspired to do it, Kratzschmar said, by the hops they found growing in the hedgerow on the property — hops are perennial plants that come back each year on existing root stock.
“Possibly they were left over from when hops were grown here before,” Kratzschmar said.
He said they like beer and the idea of growing a “potentially lucrative cash crop.”
Kratzschmar and St. Leger harvested their hops by hand last year.
“We picked and dried and bagged them and gave them away to friends who brew,” he said. “This year, we’re going to try to sell them. … We hope to develop relationships with one or more very small breweries.”
How much they sell depends on the yield.
“Two years ago, we got a surprisingly large amount,” he said. “Last year, there was no irrigation and it was very dry, and we got almost nothing.”
Kratzschmar and St. Leger moved to Stone Arabia from San Diego; St. Leger has family in the area. Kratzschmar is a software consultant and St. Leger a marine mammal pathologist for SeaWorld.
Growing hops is both labor- and equipment-intensive.
Getting started is a bit like building a vineyard, as trellises and an irrigation system are essential. Harvesting hops on a large scale requires an expensive piece of equipment called a hops harvester. Without a harvester, hops must be picked by hand, within a short window of days.
One Suffolk County farmer, John Condzella, recently started growing hops and used the social networking site Kickstarter.com to raise $30,000 to purchase a hops harvester.
The idea, according to Ammerman, is to share the expensive machine with other local farmers who might find it difficult to obtain the capital needed to purchase their own.
Right now, there are several harvesters in New York, but none in Northeastern New York. Miller said he’s working to obtain one for the region, in the hope that it would be shared by hops growers in the area.
“You need a place to sell the hops,” Miller said. “You need a place to grow them. They have to be processed.”
Like Garrison, 28-year-old Erica Goodman plans to convert a family dairy farm into a hops farm. Her ancestors acquired their Fort Ann farm, called Goodmanor Farm, in 1853.
Recently, her uncles decided to get out of the dairy business, and Goodman became interested in finding another use for the 400-acre property.
“I asked myself, ‘Where is there a niche?’ ” said Goodman, who works for the American Farmland Trust in Washington.
This is Goodman’s first year planting hops. In the fall, she plans to have a picking party with beer provided by Adirondack Pub & Brewery in Lake George. The brewery will then purchase her hops for use in their beer.
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