It’s no wonder Lyn Tye enjoys working in a field of aroma hops on her Boissevain-area farm.
About 2,500 plants grow on 2-1/2 acres here. In late July the tall green plants look like an ocean-floor kelp forest, except that they’re growing rows. They’ll soon emit delicious spicy, fruity scents as the hops mature.
“It’s just a joy to be out here looking after these plants. I love being out here,” says Tye, who planted the field with her husband Randy last year.
There’ll soon be a lot more to love. The Tyes planted another 3-1/2 acres this spring, aiming for about 15 acres when they’re through.
The Tyes are on a quest to become high-quality suppliers of locally grown hops to craft breweries in Manitoba and Western Canada. Right now they’re establishing the fields, and acquiring the infrastructure needed to plant, harvest, process and package the product for their new company Prairie Mountain Hops.
“I came home one day and said, ‘We’re going to be hops farmers,’” jokes Randy.
It didn’t happen like that, of course. They’d already grown hops for some time, tending about 30 hops plants in their backyard for several years learning the ins and outs of growing them. Plus, they’d done plenty of market research to find out what demand there is for Canadian-grown hops among what are now about 150 craft brewers across Western Canada.
The hops industry is highly concentrated in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. although hops production has migrated back into the eastern U.S. to states such as Michigan and Minnesota where hops were once commercially grown in the past.
Their homework convinced them hops was both well suited to the growing conditions of southwestern Manitoba, and their interests and abilities.
“We’ve always wanted something that we could produce and have some revenue from on a small acreage like this,” says Randy who works full time for Mazer Group in Brandon.
Eight varieties of hops are now growing in the Tyes’ fields, including Centennial, Cascade, Willament, Comet, Chinook, Mount Hood, Nugget and Brewers Gold.
Cultivated hops been growing in Manitoba since settlement, but a fascinating aspect to a variety of hops is its ties to native Manitoba hops, say the Tyes.
That’s Brewers Gold, an open-pollinated seedling developed after hops researchers in England successfully crossed it in 1919 with a wild Manitoba hop plant sent over there.
In all likelihood, some of their own plants are genetic relatives to the wild hops also growing on their acreage, notes Randy.
There are just two other larger-scale producers of Manitoba-grown hops right now, including Prairie Gem Hops near Winnipeg, and Farmery at Neepawa, where large volumes are grown for that company’s own branded products.
To grow this crop is “a labour of love,” say the Tyes. But hops growing certainly is not a matter of putting in plants and watching the hops grow.
Certain times of year are intense, including when ‘stringing’ has to happen. That’s when supporting ropes the plants grow up on need to be attached to overhead trellis. For that job the Tyes have rigged up what they call a “mobile deer stand.” After the plant growth has begun its long flexible stems, known as bines, they must be trained to grow upwards around those strings too.
They’re bines, not vines, because they use stiff hairs along their main stem, not tendrils, to climb.
Hops can be rewarding in that the plants grow very fast and by June 21 have reached full height at 19 feet. You can see a field progressing daily, says the couple.
But there are insects and disease pressures to watch for daily, too. Randy keeps a jeweller’s eyeglass handy to check the plants for signs of pests such as aphids, spider mites or defoliating caterpillars, and they watch for powdery or downy mildew. Weed control is also critical.
“And we harvested this whole field by hand last year,” notes Randy, gesturing towards those 2,500 plants.
They’ve had good agronomic support, however. That comes from Scott Chalmers, a diversification specialist with Manitoba Agriculture, says the couple.
“He listens to our fears and worries and to our endless amounts of questions. He’s been very, very supportive and helpful.”
Mechanizing is taking the edge off too. A custom-built hops planter purchased this spring from R-Tech Industries Ltd. in Manitoba reduced the time putting in their newest field by days not merely hours.
“Last year I was down on my hands and knees and planted every one of these by hand,” she said. “This year I smiled every day.”
They’re now awaiting arrival of harvesting equipment and a pellet mill, too. The Wolverine Hop Harvester is coming from a New York-based company and has been purchased with funding support from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership (CAP) program. A pellet mill from Canadian manufacturer Lawson Mills in Ontario will accompany it.
The couple is confident this combination will enable them to continue to establish their new business, and to operate at the scale they want to be.
At full production the aim is to be producing about 1,300 lbs. of hops per acre.
They’ll be making their newly acquired equipment available to others to use, too and have already talked to those wanting custom pelleting and packaging services.
There is certainly room for more hops to be grown in Manitoba, says the couple, who hope to support other growers and eventually see a small association formed amongst themselves.
“I think there’s certainly opportunities for more producers for sure. We welcome that and we want to be able to support that,” he said.
Yet key to success will be capacity for processing and the know-how to produce a consistently high-quality product for the end-users. It’s estimated there’s about 150 craft brewers now found right across Western Canada.
“It’s a matter of getting out there and providing a product for those brewers,” he said. However, locally grown hops will also need to be competitively priced, and in volumes and to the specifications brewers need, he stresses.
About 80 per cent of all hops used by North American brewers are sourced from the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. where hops production has concentrated over time.
Freight costs, the fluctuating U.S. dollar, and looming NAFTA issues will all factor into brewer decisions about where they buy their hops.
“It’s a commodity like anything else,” said Randy. “What we’re hoping to be able to do is to say, ‘We can grow you as good a product right here, and produce it to the quality you want.’
“And we believe we can be competitively priced.”