Dodge County farmers adding hops to crop mix
Gary and Brett Henslin started growing hops in 2015 on their farm south of Dodge Center. They were able to obtain used poles from a utility company to support the trellis, which allows coconut fiber twine to be strung 18' high. The twine connects the top and bottom cables of the trellis and supports the hop bines throughout the growing season. A bine is a climbing plant that grows in a helix-like pattern.
Brett said the perennial plants start growing soon after the snow disappears. They try to keep them all at a similar height in early spring so they will mature more uniformly. Even though they are winter hardy, each year they will need to replace a few plants that suffer winter kill. They buy female transplants that grow from rhizomes.
Hops grow much better in full sunlight, and they really want the bines to reach their full height by the summer solstice in June. The bines can grow as much as a foot each day. They use a variety of fertilizers including composted manure and liquid Nitrogen. Drip irrigation lines are installed along each row to keep them watered, as needed.
Hops do not like high humidity and mildew diseases can be a problem so they will use fungicides and insecticides to control insect and mildew infestations. There are about 80 varieties of hops and the Henslins currently are growing four of them.
In July the leaves will spread out on the plant and in August the flower cones develop. In early September, the cones are ready to be harvested when they reach a moisture level of 70-80%. The bines wrapped around the twine are cut down and taken to their home-built harvester. While being pulled through the harvester, the cones are separated from the bines and collected in a box.
The cones are then put in a dryer, which they also built themselves, and dried down to 10% moisture. This will take about a week with air circulating around them. Once they are at the proper moisture content, the dried cones are then placed in vacuum-sealed bags and stored in a freezer until they are sold. They will sell all of their production to a craft brewer in Rochester.
The Minnesota Hop Growers Association started in 2013 for growers, researchers, and those interested in MN hop production. Hops have been used for other medicinal products, but the first use in beer was in the 9th century in Germany. Hops were one of the earliest crops in America beginning in 1629. The first commercial hops production in the USA was in 1648 in Massachusetts. Washington, Idaho, and Oregon are the leaders in hop production with about 60,000 acres grown in the United States. The world leaders producing hops are Ethiopia, the USA, Germany, and the Czech Republic.
Hops contain acids and oils that come from inside the flower in the lupulin glands to give bitterness, flavor, and stability to the finished beer product.
The Henslins have about one-half acre in production, and many growers in Minnesota are less than 4 acres in size. Their goal is to produce about 1,000 pounds of hops per year. Hops will definitely not replace the Henslins corn and bean operation on this century-family farm but it is a unique sight to see. It is interesting to see how creative farmers can be when visiting their farm operations.