She points out the obvious — all these new craft brewers coming into North Carolina want locally grown hops. “We know there is demand for locally grown hops, but so far I don’t know of any local growers who have found a way to grow hops on a large scale and do so profitably,” she adds.

“We’re working on it, but so far the hops industry in North Carolina is definitely in its infancy”.

Labor is definitely a limiting factor in establishing commercial size hop yards. Right now all the hops grown in North Carolina are hand harvested. It takes about an hour to hand-harvest a pound of wet hops, which sells to local micro or craft brewers for $16-$20 per pound. Dried hops sells to home brewers for $3-&5 per ounce.

To be profitable, the research indicates that commercial growers need to harvest at least one pound of wet hops per plant and sell those for about $20 per pound.

To brew a small batch of a seasonal beer with wet hops, most breweries need 25 to 30 pounds of hops. This is an attainable goal, but so far, none of the growers are reporting making a profit.  

The cost of establishing a hop yard is high, somewhere between $12,000 and $16,000 per acre, perhaps somewhat less if a grower has free access to tall, sturdy locust poles needed in the construction process.

When selecting a hops site, growers should pay special attention to three things, Davis says:

• Select fertile, well drained soils;

• Select a site with good air circulation;

• Select a site with good overall drainage.

Hops is a perennial plant that is usually grown from spring transplanted rhizome pieces. It grows and fruits best when it grows vertically, hence the need for tall, sturdy poles as part of the hops yard. As the hops yard matures, production typically goes up and production costs come down.

The over-riding key to have any chance at making a hops yard profitable is to choose varieties that are best suited to your growing conditions, the North Carolina State specialist says.

“Hops are typically grown from rhizome pieces, and it is critical to get clean, healthy rhizomes for transplanting, she adds.

The North Carolina specialist says not keeping the sprouts pruned back long enough in the spring is probably limiting production. “Waiting until April to let these sprouts grow seemed to work best for growers this year,” she says. Research continues to uncover production tips and these are passed along via myriad conventional Extension channels and not-so-conventional social media outlets.

So far, so good with the few hops growers trying it on a small scale, Davis says. “Hops are doing surprisingly well here, considering how far south we are located! They seem to be doing particularly well in the mountain areas, she says.

“Our hops mature really early here; we start harvesting in July. We aren’t sure what that means for the plants in the long-term. We have more disease, insect, and weed pressure than in the Pacific Northwest, but we expected that and we are figuring out ways to cope.

“I think our success will rely on having markets that will pay a premium for high quality, locally grown, hand-harvested hops,” she adds.

rroberson@farmpress.com