Tree Farm Fuels Hops Revival in NY

12/21/2013 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

Family-owned Christmas tree farms struggle to compete with mass merchandisers capable of discounts and convenience they can’t match. But Wright Tree Farm in Waterloo, N.Y., has kicked off another revenue stream: growing hops.

Two years ago, Andy Wright, son of farm founders Bill and Joan Wright, suggested hops as a new crop to fill an overgrown lot and provide the farm with another revenue stream. Andy Wright’s son, Kevin, had worked in a brewery and he agreed that the crop could be successful in New York.

“It looked up and coming,” Andy Wright said. “I thought it would be a niche market. At one time, New York was the top hops producer in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A blight and Prohibition pretty much ruined the industry, and it moved” to the West Coast.

Prohibition has long since ended and growers have developed fungus-resistant plants. As a result, the hops industry is experiencing a revival.

The Wrights planted 500 hops plants on an acre two years ago — only 40 acres of hops plants were grown in the state at that time. Now, there are 140 acres of hops growing statewide. Hops plants take three years to mature.

Just having a cutting-edge idea though isn’t enough. Andy Wright learned the industry from other growers and from connections at Cornell. He joined the Northeast Hops Alliance to network and to help increase his hops knowledge.

Since hops require more care than Christmas trees, Andy’s brother, Paul, helps out on the farm.

Bill Wright, now in his 80s, established the tree farm in 1972. The operation thrived for decades and expanded to include Wright-owned properties in Phelps, Plattsburgh and Waterloo. The main operation, 39 acres in Waterloo, sells you-cut trees and decorative items. Joan Wright operates the gift shop and helps make wreaths at the Waterloo site. Trees are grown on the other sites for the wholesale market.

Bill — retired from working as a manufacturing representative — and Joan Wright — retired from the medical profession — view the tree business as a good postretirement business to avoid “going crazy,” as Bill Wright puts it.

“The kids help out during busy season,” he said. “They help keep everything trim, neat and mowed. We have a string baler that no one else in the area has. The big-box stores use netting. Customers much prefer the string.”

Another of the couple’s sons managed a nursery and garden at the farm. But when their son passed away, Bill and Joan Wright said they didn’t have the heart to pass on the role to anyone else. That part of the business has remained closed.

Andy Wright hopes the farm’s proximity to the Seneca Lake Wine Trail and the new Finger Lakes Beer Trail will help make it an agritourism destination.

Though the first harvest is still a years away, Andy Wright has a few possible hops buyers lined up. He’s also enthusiastic about legislation that would give the state’s breweries tax credits for using local ingredients.

“To take advantage of tax credits they have to use 10 percent of New York crops. Over the next four to six years, they’ll have to increase to 90 percent. It’s perfect timing to get into this,” he said.

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