New hop yard harvests first crop

Oct. 16, 2018

A hop farm on the northwest edge of Sioux Falls has harvested its first crop.

Siblings Troy Grovenburg and Karli Baker started Herds to Hops on their family’s farm last year along with their mother and stepfather, Jeanne and Paul Persing.

The business venture was a homecoming for them. Baker wanted to be closer to family after living in Denver for 25 years, and Grovenburg was ready for a career change after working as a wildlife biology professor and researcher at SDSU.

The siblings saw an opportunity to help diversify the corn, soybean and cattle farm operated by their parents, but initially they weren’t sure what to grow.

Grovenburg and Baker considered a vegetable garden that would be operated as a CSA, or community supported agriculture, where customers buy a share and receive produce weekly, and they also talked about a pumpkin and melon patch. They decided, however, to create a hop yard because of the growing brewery scene in the area. The cone-shaped flower of the hop plant is one of the main ingredients in craft beer, providing the acids and oils that bring bitterness, flavor and stability to beer.

Now, with its first crop harvested, Herds to Hops has sold some of the hops to WoodGrain Brewing Co. and several breweries in the Black Hills are interested. A large hop yard in Iowa, Buck Creek Hops, bought a half-ton to help fill its brewing contracts. That leaves Grovenburg with a small amount to sell, and he’s hoping it ends up being used in local beers.

The farm is a full-time job for Grovenburg, but Baker works at Avera McKennan and assists when she can. They’re getting a lot of help from their stepfather, whose solve-any-problem farming skills have proven to be invaluable, Grovenburg said.

Being able to use their family’s land made it financially feasible for the siblings to start the hopyard, he said. There was no income in the first year while the plants got established.

“It will take three to five years for a return on investment,” he said. “We’re thinking it will happen in year four.”

In that first year, they planted 4,000 hop plants on 4 1/2 acres and let them grow on the ground that summer to help establish the root system for the perennial plants. They erected 322 telephone poles and wire cables in rows 12 feet apart and this year began the process of stringing coconut coir from the ground 18 feet up to the cable and training the bines to grow up them.

“It’s a very hands-on crop. We’re out there every day,” Grovenburg said of the growing season.

The “bull shoot” of the plant has to be cut back, so the regular, more productive bines grow stronger. Two strings are hung for each plant, and two or three bines are trained to climb clockwise up each string. They grow several inches in a day, and once they reach 6 to 8 feet high, the lower section is defoliated to spark more production at the top.

How is a bine different from a vine?

A bine grows by wrapping its whole stem around a support. A vine uses tendrils or suckers to climb.

Hops are susceptible to mildew, so they have to be sprayed frequently with a fungicide. If left unchecked, “in one week, it can wipe out a field,” Grovenburg said. Birds and animals aren’t a problem, but insects have to be managed with pesticides.

The crop also needs to be irrigated because each plant requires 16 gallons of water a week, Grovenburg said. Once the bines have reached the top of the string and started to branch out and set cones, “it becomes like a rain forest in there.”

At harvest time, which starts in August and runs through mid-September depending on the variety, the bines, which weigh 50 to 70 pounds each, are cut down and put into a machine that separates out the cones. Those are placed on a drying floor. Typically, the hops will go from 80 percent moisture to 8 percent, Grovenburg said.

This fall, Herds to Hops compressed them into bales, stored them in a cooler and then took them to Hoppy Trails Hop Farm near Inwood, Iowa, to be milled and pressed into pellets – the form that brewers use in the boil stage of making beer. At that point, the pellets are kept in a cooler or freezer until they’re used.

“It’s really surprising to see what you’re left with,” he said.

The family planted three varieties of hops: Cascade, Mount Hood and Michigan Copper. Each one provides a different taste in beer. Next year, they will add almost 1,700 plants of Tahoma, Triple Pear and Centennial. In the third year, they plan to add Simcoe and Amarillo, reaching a total of 10,000 plants growing on 10 ½ acres.

Once they reach 10,000 plants, growing beyond that becomes a different type of venture, Grovenburg said. It means a much larger investment in equipment and the need for additional manpower. Instead of expanding production, he envisions the possibility of adding an on-site brewery or growing corn for bourbon or planting other produce such as cucumbers that craft beer brewers could incorporate into their recipes.

With his background at SDSU, Grovenburg also sees the potential for using the hop yard for research. While the Brookings school doesn’t study hops, the University of Nebraska and Iowa State have research programs.

Next month, Grovenburg will be able to taste the results of his family’s labor. WoodGrain plans to use the Michigan Copper hops in an IPA that should be ready in late November, said Steve Hartman, co-owner and head brewer. That will be followed in early December by a pilsner.

“It’s nice to know who’s growing your crop, to make a personal connection … and to support our local economy,” Hartman said.

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New hop yard harvests first crop

Two siblings returned to the Sioux Falls area last year to start a hop yard on their family’s farm.

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