Hops offer new farming future

Matt McLaughlin checks his hop vines.

Hop vines produce cones that are harvested and used in beer production.

Hidden in the shadow of Suaratown Mountain, a small family farm is growing something new to Stokes County.

Three years ago, Matt McLaughlin and his wife Anna Cromer planted their first hop rhizomes and in the years since have developed their initial experiment into a growing business model.

Hops are one of the four key ingredients in beer production, providing the bittering and aromatic flavors most easily identified in India Pale Ales (IPAs).

McLaughlin said as the North Carolina beer industry continues to expand he wanted to grow high quality hops locally to help provide the essential ingredient to home brewers.

“With so many breweries opening up each year, the hop yards in the Northwest are contracting with the breweries,” he said. “What is left goes to the home brewers, but it is not always the freshest or the type and quantity that they want.”

Growing hops in the North Carolina climate is a bit of an experiment, but one that McLaughlin has found joy in.

Hops grow on large vines that rapidly ascend a trellis system each year. After an initial flowering the plants produce oily, resinous cones which are harvested and dried before being added to beer brews.

“I am currently growing them on an eight-foot trellis and doing it all organically,” said McLaughlin who currently has nine varieties growing. Each variety has different levels of bitterness and aromas varying from citrus to piney to grassy. “We have Sterling, Willamette, Magnum, Crystal, Canadian Red Vine, Mt. Hood, Centennial, Zeus and Nugget.”

Similar to grapes, each variety does better in a particular climate and takes three years to reach peak production levels. McLaughlin said he started with so many varieties to find out which ones would grow best in Stokes County.

“The Nugget, Zeus and Mt Hood are doing awesome for me,” he said. “Next year we are going to move to an 18-foot trellis and consolidate the varieties.”

McLaughlin has yet to sell any of his hops — he gave quite a bit away to home brewing friends last year — but expects to make his first sales when he harvests this year.

“This year it will be close to August when we start harvesting,” he said. “We will have hops throughout the month of August, but it will be on a first come first serve basis.”

He hopes to rent shelf space at several home brewing supply stores in Winston-Salem to market his crop and is also working on developing a website where brewers can order online.

“We do two harvests,” he added. “The first cones come out from between the leaf axle and the stem. Then you will have lateral shoots and those will provide the big harvest.”

A grand experiment

McLaughlin said developing Stokes County’s first hop yard has required a lot of trial and error over the past three years.

“We got so excited the first year that we rushed putting them in,” he said. “I have had my ups and downs with the hops, but we have had a fair amount of success.”

He said that rush resulted in a trellis system that does not maximize potential production, something he plans to fix when he expands the operation next year.

He has also learned over the three years how much time the hop yard requires.

“The first year, I was out there almost 40 hours a week working myself to death for two vines,” he said. “So the next year I went to the opposite extreme and they did fairly well. This year I have learned to balance it out. It is all a learning experience.”

McLaughlin has used the extra time to develop a vegetable garden which he has used to create a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program with this year.

“We only have three customers this year because I wanted to give myself a trial run,” he said. “Most of my customers are doing a weekly payment which is better for them because they don’t have to pay all at once. Right now we are charging $15 a box which is very low.”

He said everything on the farm, both hops and vegetables, are grown using organic and sustainable methods.

“We are not certified organic and would like to eventually get that certification, but the key thing is transparency with your customer,” he said. “People just want you to be honest.

“Our goal is to provide affordable high quality vegetables,” he added.

Big plans for next year

McLaughlin said his family plans to dramatically expand the hop and vegetable farm next year, with plans to eventually add a variety of livestock to the process.

“We have 10 acres at the very base of the mountain that we can use,” he said, noting that he plans to set up a new hop yard propagated from the existing one on that property while converting the existing hop yard into more of a testing area. “We want to slowly introduce livestock as well with cattle and poultry first and then move into hogs.

“We are trying to create a completely closed system approach to farming,” he said. “We don’t want to outsource any fertilizers or pest management.

He said he hopes to grow the CSA program to 2o to 25 customers next year.

“It is really exciting because we have been sitting here waiting for it to take off,” said McLaughlin. “Moving to the new property is going to wake us up and push us out into the market and allow us to reach out to connect with a lot more people.”

But while McLaughlin is excited to be expanding into a more profitable model for his farm, he says he is glad they started small and took the time to learn what works for their plan.

“Before I started calling up the FSA for a micro loan I wanted to make sure I had a legitimate plan ahead of me instead of just diving in,” he said. “We have taken a lot of necessary steps and have stepped back and looked at what we want to do to make this a successful business.”

The Sauratown Hopyard and Farm can be rached 336-816-4267 or at sauratownhops@gmail.com.

Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.

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