Upper Midwest Hop Growers Production Practices Survey Outcomes

Hop growers in the Upper Midwest were surveyed in winter-spring 2019-2020 on their production practices as part of a University of Wisconsin-Madison study on hop production in Wisconsin and surrounding states. The survey goals were: to identify current hop production practices in the Upper Midwest; to identify the needs of hop growers for education and extension on hop production; and to identify hop grower priorities for future research. The online survey was distributed by email through the grower networks of members of the Great Lakes Hops Working Group, and by flyers distributed at the 2020 Annual Hop Grower Conference in New Glarus, WI. The survey is now closed, and the text is available here: Upper Midwest Hop Grower Survey. A total of 36 responses were recorded, of which 24 were usable (others were from outside the Upper Midwest region or were incomplete). There were 9 respondents from Minnesota (Hennepin, Kandiyohi, Martin, Olmsted, Stearns and Washington counties), 12 respondents from Wisconsin (Clark, Dane, Dodge, Green, Marathon, Polk, and Winnebago counties), and 3 respondents from Michigan (Leelanau and Otsego counties).

Grower Experience and Production Size

Most respondents have been growing hops for less than 5 years, with only one in production for over 10 years. Most hop yards are in the 0.5-2 acre range. Five growers plan to substantially increase their production acreage in the next 5 years, while four plan to reduce acreage.

Table One: Hop grower years in production, scale, and plans for future scale

Total Wisconsin Minnesota Michigan
How many years have you been growing hops? Two to five years. 15 6 7 2
Five to ten years. 6 5 1 0
More than ten years. 1 0 0 1
How many acres do you have in hop production? Less than 0.5 acres. 6 3 3 0
0.5-2 acres. 9 3 5 1
2-5 acres. 5 4 0 1
5-10 acres. 1 1 0 0
More than 10 acres. 1 0 0 1
In the next 5 years, how many acres do you plan to have in hop production? Less than 0.5 acres. 5 3 2 0
0.5-2 acres. 10 3 6 1
2-5 acres. 4 4 0 0
5-10 acres. 2 1 0 1
More than 10 acres. 1 0 0 1

Varieties, Planting Stock and Planting Density

Cascade and Centennial are by far the most popular varieties, followed by Chinook and Saaz (Figure 1). The median number of varieties per yard is three, with a range of one to nineteen varieties grown. Varieties that were listed by only one grower were: Alpharoma, Bitter Gold, Cashmere, Challenger, Cluster, Columbus, Emerald Spire, First Gold, Gemini, Green Bullet, Mackinac, Northern Brewer, Perle, Teamaker, Tradition, Southern Cross and Vojvodina.

Figure 1: Hop cultivars grown by 24 survey respondents. A further 17 cultivars are grown by one grower each.

Eleven of the 24 growers use only transplants as planting stock, while four use only rhizomes and one uses only dormant crowns; all these growers were satisfied with their chosen planting stock (Figure 2). Eight growers have used rhizomes in addition to either transplants (7 growers) or dormant crowns (5 growers). Of these 8 growers, only one listed rhizomes as their preferred planting stock type, while 4 listed transplants and 3 listed dormant crowns. One grower commented that they buy planting stock almost exclusively from the National Clean Plant Network. Seven growers plant at low density (12-14 foot row spacing, with 36-42 inch plant spacing), 10 at medium planting density (10-12 foot row spacing, with 30-36 inch plant spacing), and 6 at high planting density (8-10 foot row spacing, with 24-30 inch plant spacing), with one grower planting at both low and medium density.

Figure 2: Hop planting stock use and preference among 24 growers.

Fertility and irrigation management

Fifteen growers provided soil texture information for their hop yard: 7 grow on sandy loam, 4 on silt loam, 2 on clay loam and 2 on heavy clay. Most respondents use fertilizer recommendations from online sources including Extension, observations of hop plants (e.g. signs of nutrient deficiency such as yellowing leaves), and soil testing to inform their fertility amendment plans, with 15 of 22 respondents indicating 2 or more methods used for fertility planning (Figure 3A). Most growers apply amendments as split applications, with fertigation also a relatively common method (Figure 3B). Growers noted that the method depends on the amendment type, with 6 growers using 2 or more application methods. While 13 growers are satisfied or very satisfied with their fertility planning and application practices, 5 are ambivalent and 5 are unsatisfied or very unsatisfied, indicating a need for education and outreach.

Figure 3: Responses of 22 hop growers on (A) fertilizer planning methods and (B) fertility amendment application methods.

The majority of growers use ground level drip irrigation, with a smaller number using suspended drip lines or relying on rainfall. Most growers using irrigation are satisfied or very satisfied with their chosen method.

Table Two: Irrigation methods and level of satisfaction indicated by 23 hop growers.


Bine and Weed Management

Growers use multiple methods to control early bine growth (Figure 4), with most growers using mechanical methods (mowing) to control early bine growth in April, with one southern Wisconsin grower beginning bine control in mid-March. Growers who use both mechanical and other methods tend to use non-mechanical methods to control re-growth. The timeframe for training bines is variety-dependent, but overall growers aim to train bines in early (4 growers), mid (12 growers) or late (4 growers) May, with one Minnesota grower training in early June. Growers are relatively happy with their methods for early bine growth control and bine training, with only 3 growers indicating that they are unsatisfied.

Figure 4: Spring bine control methods indicated by 23 growers.

Most growers use mechanical weed control (ie mowing) with many using herbicides and hand weeding, as well as cover crops between rows for weed suppression. A majority of growers are ambivalent (9 growers) or unsatisfied (7 growers) with their weed control methods indicating a continuing need for research and education. One grower commented that hand weeding is needed in first year hops, and that weed growth is not suppressed by the low shoot density of variety Southern Cross, requiring additional hand weeding.

Figure 5: Weed control methods used by 23 growers.

Pests and Diseases

Japanese beetle and potato leafhopper are the most serious pests noted by growers, followed by two-spotted mite, hop aphid and rose chafer (Figure 6A). One grower noted leaf rollers and corn borers as problematic pests. Most growers use conventional insecticide programs with an IPM approach of scouting for pests and spraying when populations exceed thresholds (Figure 6B and 6C). A substantial minority use organic insecticides and aim to promote beneficial insects, although there is no strong overlap in these groups. Note that due to an error in survey design, respondents could choose only one response for strategies used to promote beneficial insects, so it is possible that a greater diversity of strategies to promote beneficial insects are in use than appears from the responses.

Figure 6: Hop pests noted by 23 growers: (A) Major pest insects impacting production; (B) Methods used to control pest insects, and (C) Strategies used to promote beneficial insects.

Downy mildew is the most serious disease problem facing hop growers, followed by powdery mildew and virus diseases (Figure 6A). Growers use a diversity of approaches to counter disease impacts (Figure 6B). Weed control and strong plants were noted by one grower as factors in managing pests and diseases in the hop yard. Of the 23 growers, six were unsatisfied with their pest management strategies and six were ambivalent, while eleven were satisfied or very satisfied. Nine were unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with disease management strategies, six were ambivalent, and eight were satisfied or very satisfied.

Figure 7: Hop diseases noted by 23 growers: (A) Major diseases impacting production; (B) Methods used to control diseases.

Harvest and Marketing

Most growers use several methods to determine the best time to harvest. Percent dry matter is most influential, with the color, feel, smell and/or taste of the cones also being considered. Access to a mechanical harvester and to processing facilities also influences harvest timing. Eighteen growers are satisfied or very satisfied with their methods for determining harvest time, while two are ambivalent and three are unsatisfied. Of the 23 growers responding, 15 harvest mechanically and 8 harvest by hand. Twenty of the 23 are satisfied or very satisfied with harvest methods, with two hand harvesters unsatisfied and one mechanical harvester unsatisfied. Almost half of growers have yields under 500 pounds of dry hops per acre. Unsurprisingly most of these growers would like higher yields, with seven unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with yields, while one is ambivalent and three, two of whom are hobbyists, are satisfied. Growers in the 500-1000 lb per acre yield range are eager to increase yields, with four of the seven unsatisfied and two ambivalent, while one is satisfied with yields. Growers with yields in the 1000-2000 lb per acre are mostly satisfied with yields.

Figure 8: Harvest methods and yields reported by 23 growers: (A) Methods used by growers to assess harvest timing; (B) Grower yields and level of satisfaction with yields.

Most growers market their hops directly to brewers, with other marketing through a grower cooperative or using both these marketing options. Only one grower sells their hops on the wholesale market. Most growers are satisfied or very satisfied with their experience marketing directly to growers, with a substantial minority ambivalent, unsatisfied or very unsatisfied. Satisfaction with the grower cooperative marketing experience appear to be lower based on this small sample (Figure 8A). Overall, the pattern for satisfaction with hop prices is similar to the pattern for satisfaction with marketing choices, but overall growers seem less satisfied with hop prices (Figure 8B).

Figure 9: Marketing methods used by 23 hop growers, including level of satisfaction with (A) marketing methods; (B) hop prices.

Other Grower Feedback and Comments

Responses of growers to three final questions are summarized below:

What are your major production and marketing issues as a hop grower?

Several growers mentioned the need for new and/or proprietary hop varieties, noting that “local brewers are dependent on brand name hops and are reluctant to buy local”. Growers also noted that it is challenging to choose varieties to produce, since demand for specific varieties is highly changeable. A greater focus on marketing and promotion of local hops, especially through grower cooperatives, is desired, with more effort directed toward connecting growers with potential buyers.

The labor intensity of hop production is an important production factor, with growers mentioning the amount of time spent on weed control and the lack of cost effective equipment, especially for harvest. Since there are specific periods with high needs for labor, such as planting and twining, identifying labor pools for those periods would be beneficial. Other production issues mentioned were disease control, winter kill, fertilizing and irrigation, and the high cost of chemical controls.

What are your needs for research, education, and/or extension on hop production and marketing?

Hop breeding is identified as a research need, with several growers mentioned the need for new hop varieties with disease resistance traits, bred specifically for the Upper Midwest, and available exclusively in this region. Pest management is a major research need, with weeds, insect pests and diseases all raised as topics for future research, and a strong desire for more information from Extension on these topics. Specific diseases mentioned by growers were powdery mildew, Phoma wilt, and Fusarium tip blight. While growers want better pesticide recommendations, they also are looking for alternative strategies for pest control. Research into cover crops for hop yards should cover multiple functions including weed suppression, soil health and fertility, and providing habitat for beneficial insects. Irrigation scheduling and nutrient management are also areas needing additional research and grower education.

A desire for more peer-to-peer learning was expressed by several growers who would like to have opportunities to discuss production strategies with fellow growers. Additionally, education of brewers on production issues in the Midwest was suggested.

What issues not covered in this survey are of importance to you as a hop grower?

Other issues raised by growers include the need for better access to disease-free planting stock, with standards for planting stock to prevent sale of pathogen-infected material. Growers are concerned about having pesticides available that are labeled for use on hops in their region. Post-harvest processing methods, costs, and marketing is another area of importance, with interest in alternative markets and uses for hops during times of oversupply. The lack of a Wisconsin Hop Association was identified as a problem.