From Hops to Hydroponics: Grow Where Demand Is

3/16/2013 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

WINCHESTER, Va. — Farmers, in addition to toiling from dawn till dusk about 11 months of the year, need to work smarter, not just harder, to succeed.

For the ninth year in a row, the Forum For Rural Innovation, held March 8 in Winchester, Va., put together a program that offers some of those “work smarter” ideas to farmers and rural entrepreneurs in northern Virginia and eastern West Virginia.

Keep the land profitable, the theory goes, and it will stay open and rural and not succumb to the regional rush to grow condos and townhouses, in the words of 2013 Innovation Award winner Rick Brossman.

The forum is a cooperative educational effort by the offices of Agricultural Economic Development and Cooperative Extension in Clarke, Loudoun and Fauquier counties in Virginia, Berkeley and Jefferson counties in West Virginia, the Town of Berryville and the Small Business Development Center for the Eastern Panhandle.

Ideas on the agenda for 2013 included putting in a hops yard to meet the growing demand from craft breweries; growing up not out; and expanding production of ethnic crops to put on the plates of the country’s growing — and hungry for home — immigrant population.

A panel of finance experts with ideas for getting started and/or getting bigger rounded out the day.

Putting in a hops yard can’t be done on the cheap, said New York state hops specialist Steve Miller. But it can, with proper management, pay itself off in the fifth or sixth year, he said.

New York state once led the country in hops production, Miller said, until Prohibition effectively eliminated the market. Today, the Pacific Northwest leads the country in hops production and New York, with more than 100 craft breweries, is reestablishing itself in the market.

In Virginia, a partnership between Blue Mountain Brewery and Stan Driver, a hops grower in Nelson County, has led to the formation of a hops growers cooperative. The co-op made its first group purchase this spring and will use its combined buying power to keep prices for materials down.

Brewers have been adding hops — the female flower of the hops vine — to their recipes since the 11th century to add bittering and aroma to the final product.

Most good American strains were developed in the Pacific Northwest, Miller said. Driver uses the Cascades variety, which he praised for its vitality, rapid growth, good balance of bittering and aromas, and disease and insect resistance.

It will cost between $12,000 and $16,000 an acre to establish a hops yard, Miller said. That cost includes poles, stainless steel or galvanized braided airline cable, anchors to tether the growing strings, drip irrigation, disease-free rhizomes to grow the plants, land preparation and labor.

“This is labor intensive. You can’t do it yourself,” Miller said.

The first year after planting, Driver said, the vines will be halfway up the poles. They will bear 90 percent of a full crop the third year, and 100 percent after that.

A pound of wet hops — delivered straight to the brewer the day they are harvested — will bring $15, Driver said. And as more and more craft breweries set up shop, demand is only going up.

Demand is also going up for cucurbits, garden eggs (a type of eggplant), celosia, purslane, edible hibiscus and hot peppers, said Yao Afantchao, head of the specialty crops department at the University of the District of Columbia.

“Ethnic produce presents a significant opportunity for mid-Atlantic farmers as high-value alternative crops and an excellent source of income,” Afantchao said. “For some consumers, ethnic produce is not only a source of food and fiber, but also a source of cultural values.”

Afantchao got his first introduction to ethnic foods when he worked with Peace Corps volunteers in his native Togo in the 1960s. The young Americans, he recalled, complained of burger-deprivation. They craved their ethnic food.

Then he came to New York in 1967, his baggage laden with fruits and vegetables from his homeland.

It all ended up in the customs trash basket.

He ran a USAID-funded agricultural training center in Togo from 1974 until 1980, when he returned to the U.S. “with the idea of creating an ethnic food system for the ever-growing immigrant population.”

He concentrates, in a D.C. demonstration garden, on African foods. But mid-Atlantic growers can see markets in Asian, Hispanic and Pacific Island populations as well.

“Ethnic food products in North American account for more than 12 percent of all retail food sales, Afantchao said, “and are projected to grow 5 percent annually.”

Both Virginia and West Virginia have USDA grant money, thanks to the Specialty Foods Competitiveness Act of 2004, to help growers get started and to fund research. West Virginia’s deadline to apply for 2013 has passed, but Virginia is accepting applications until April 17.

Dale Didion, chief operating officer and vice president of Vertical Farms Produce LLC, promised a farmer freedom from the variables of sunlight, rain, air circulation and temperature.

His company is in the building phase of a 20,000-square-foot building/vertical farm in Fergus Falls, Minn. Company President Gary Madden said the first seeds should go into peat pots in late summer.

They are using technology developed at a pilot project in Saskatchewan, Canada, Madden said.

The plan is to grow greens and herbs in a the cinderblock building with no windows. Plants grow on stacked flats, 11 inches apart, from floor to ceiling, and computers control light, water, nutrients (organic fertilizer) and air circulation. There’s no soil.

He will harvest a crop in 28 to 30 days after putting the seed in a peat pot, Didion promised.

Total cost to get started, Didion said, is close to $5 million and the set-up takes seven to eight months.

“But 30 days after I put the first seed in, I harvest the crop.”

Didion claimed the high production will pay off the start-up cost in the first year of operation.

His listed the advantages to vertical hydroponics:

It reduces fossil fuel use. He locates within 60 miles of a distribution center. Produce trucked in from the Salinas Valley in California adds $4,000 to the cost column and racks up carbon miles. Plants from the pilot project showed a shelf life of three to four weeks.

It reduces nutrient pollution. He uses an organic liquid fertilizer.

It reduces pesticides. There are none.

It reduces water use. One crop cycle will use 2,000 gallons of water, and 90 percent of that is recycled.

It offers the chance to reuse abandoned properties. Old, shuttered, windowless warehouses are perfect.

It’s cleaner. There is no chance of chemical or manure runoff from a neighboring farm. The process also uses no herbicides or fungicides. The USDA certifies the crop organic.

“A package of seeds costs about $2,” Didion said. “I sell herbs by the ounce, like something illegal.”

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