Four partners in the Wyoming County farm of Avery Mountain Bines and Twine hope to bring new life to an old crop.
This year, area residents Joe Mitchell, Paul Robinson, Tony Caputo, and Mike Barziloski have one acre dedicated to a hop growing operation, and if you happen to be on Lane Hill, you might be surprised to see some hops plants approximately 20 feet high, growing along wire provided for support.
Hops is the main ingredient used in making beer, which gives the beverage its distinctive bitter taste.
Mitchell said their business entered into an agreement on Sunday with Irving Cliff Brewery of Honesdale to take their entire crop.
He explained at one time, that hops was a popular crop in Pennsylvania, and is allegedly where the name of Hop Bottom in Susquehanna County originated.
But in the late 1800s, many of the plants were destroyed by mildew, and Prohibition effectively killed the hops industry in the eastern section of the country.
The crop was cultivated in western states like Washington and Oregon where the laws were less stringently enforced, and is still a big hops producing area.
New York has also made a comeback in hops production, but Pennsylvania has been slower in re-introducing the crop.
Recently, Mitchell said that leading agriculturalist Keith Eckel, owner of Eckels Farm of Clarks Summit, happened to be passing by and asked about the operation.
“He looked at everything up and down, and asked what it is,” Mitchell said. “I told him it’s a hops farm. And he said, ‘Get out of here.’”
Last year, the four owners were thinking about starting a new business, casting about for ideas.
During a trip to Florida, Mitchell had seen a hops operation, and became intrigued with the possibility of setting up something like it in Pennsylvania.
Attending seminars and obtaining information from such sources as Penn State Extension Michigan State University, and the University of Florida, the owners set up an acre of land on Mitchell’s property and planted their first crop in May.
Hops come in more than 100 species, Mitchell said, and the guys decided to grow Chinook and Cascade.
“They’re more reliable,” Robinson explained. “More resilient to mildew.”
But they discovered their work was just beginning.
Unlike many other types of crops, hops require constant watching and care.
“Within a week, we realized it was going to be a struggle,” Mitchell explained.
Despite the information they obtained before starting, the owners still found themselves on a ‘learning curve’ about the growing of hops.
“We found out that hops need a lot of water, but they don’t like water,” Mitchell said.
At first, the owners used a water truck.
Mitchell explained that this is the worst thing you can do, because it encourages the formation of mildew, and is also detrimental to the plants in other ways.
The solution was to install a drip irrigation system, in which water is provided to the plants slowly.
“Our biggest hurdle is water,” Mitchell explained. “One hops plant needs about a gallon of water per day, then multiple that by 700.”
Bennie’s Nursery of Tunkhannock has been providing them with the necessary water.
Mitchell said that Veto Barziloski Sr., owner fo Bennie’s Nursery, has been very helpful in supplying the water.
Next year, Mitchell said, they anticipate having 3,000 plants, and will seek assistance from excavator Frank Strumski.
“He’s either going to put a well in, or put a pond in the back,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell added that he and his buddies had been told not to expect a crop for three years.
Yet, something fell into place for the operation, because there are now hops plants in the field more than 20 feet tall, ready to be harvested.
“We have moved up our timetable in some areas - what we figured we’d be doing in five years has now been pushed up to two years,” he said.
Caputo said they will be harvesting the hops this week. But they still must take great care in making certain nothing happens. Each day the plants are inspected for signs of mildew. Another big problem is insects - if left unattended the entire crop could be devastated by European corn borers, or tent caterpillars.
The cones of the hops plant are what breweries use to produce beer, Caputo explained. Looking like tiny green pine cones, they have the distinctive smell and taste associated with beer. This year, the operation is expected to yield a few hundred pounds of cones. More is anticipated next year.
Mitchell said he and his partners are very pleased with the results, and are looking forward to expanding the operation. Everyone they’ve worked with in setting up their operation has been very helpful and supportive in their efforts.
“It’s better to try, than never to try at all,” he said.