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The Next Cash Crop

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HOPPING TO IT; Howard Covington works in his 3-year-old hop yard in Laurel Springs, NC. Courtesy photo.

Agriculturally, most Americans recognize North Carolina as a major tobacco producer. What they might not consider is our state’s ability to cultivate plants that possess a more alternative appeal: hops. An array of students, brewers and farmers have realized the economic potential North Carolina has in the industry. Through research projects at NC State, a pending fermentation science degree program at Appalachian, funding from local breweries and TLC from area farmers, hops may just be our state’s next cash crop.

In the States, hops are traditionally harvested in the Pacific Northwest. Washington state, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, is forecasted to be responsible for 81 percent of all harvests this year, followed by Oregon and Idaho. In Europe, the dominant hop producer is Germany. Historically, these areas hold the torch in hop production—until folks in our state got their wheels turning, of course.

In only the past three years, farmers in the piedmont and mountain areas have given hops a shot, as the soil and climate of the western part of the state make it a great place to plant. The hop plant, although there are several variations, needs a lot of moisture in the spring, followed by warm summer months, in order to flower. North Carolina’s humid (and, yes, hot!) weather seems to be perfect for hops—it’s a wonder our agriculture industry hasn’t considered this until now.

As for the universities, Appalachian already has an enology and viticulture program, which focuses on the study of wine-making, from vine growing to grape harvesting to the final product. The school is considering adding a fermentation science degree to bring hops to their curriculum.

Likewise, NC State is running a trial-and-error program of sorts: the North Carolina Hops Project. The goal is to pinpoint the best hop cultivars and prime production locations, as well as nutrition, disease and pest control. Their observations will be passed along to farmers across the state who have already established hop yards, or are looking to plant.

In the spring of 2010, NC State cultivated an experimental hop yard in Raleigh. In a quarter of an acre, the team of professors, agronomists and extension associates planted 200 hops in 10 different varieties. The best performing cultivars were Cascade, Zeus, Nugget and Chinook. (Cascade is the hop that gives Sierra Nevada Pale Ale its citrus-y aroma, while the other three are highly acidic, and Nugget and Chinook are often used for bittering.) All seemed to be very promising for the NC hops industry. In contrast, Sterling, Northern Brewer and Centennial didn’t fare as well.

Howard Covington, like a few other farmers, began his own experiment with hops even before NC State. Covington owns New River Farms in Laurel Springs, NC. It’s a third-generation farm with a traditional focus on growing and selling Christmas trees.

“My wife, Gloria, and I work the hop yard together,” Covington says. “Until we put in our first rhizomes [in 2009], we had never seen a hop plant, much less a hop yard. Everything we have learned is from experience, the advice of others floundering around in hop production like us, and some modest assistance from agricultural extension [associates].”

The Covingtons planted four rows of hops when they first began, and it seemed like an alternative crop that was manageable without hired labor. After testing the waters, their hop yard then grew to contain five more rows in 2010. This year, they’re only cultivating Cascade, Chinook and Nugget. He says all three varieties grow well in Ashe County.

“We now have about 180 plants,” the farmer explains. “That’s not a large yard, but about all that my wife and I can handle on our own. We have plenty of space to enlarge, and will do so if we can do it economically and the market remains viable. Tending hops is not as labor-intensive as growing Christmas trees, but it’s no cake walk either.”

For now, Covington has a way to make a little extra cash off his whimsical investment. Natty Greene’s Brewing Co. out of Greensboro, NC, is using Cascade hops from New River Farms to produce one of their newest beers, Deep South Pale Ale. This brew is wet-hopped, which is difficult for most companies to offer.

“Fresh hops have to be used within 24 to 36 hours of harvest or they begin to spoil—hence the dried-hop pellets that are used by every brewer, from Budweiser to Natty Greene’s,” Covington asserts.

Given the public’s growing desire to try new and different beers, as well as purchase many of their goods locally, the future for NC hops seems bright. “The development of small craft breweries offers some promise for hops as a commercial crop,” Covington shares. “As long as these local brewers are interested in the opportunity, then small growers can supply the needs.”

The folks at Natty Greene’s, like Bob High, brand manager of the eastern sales region, are excited about their ability to offer fresh, wet-hopped beer. There will surely be more collaborations with local hop yards to come. Hopefully, more farmers and brewers will follow suit, investing in and supporting the rise of the next Carolina cash crop.

“We source as many hops from North Carolina as we can,” High says. “We believe fresh beer is the best beer, so we want fresh hops whenever we can get them. The other aspect is local support; we want to support all of our local businesses and keep those dollars here in NC. In this case, we got the best of both worlds: fresh and local. We love that!”

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