Friday, July 27, 2012

Hops Happenings at Black Creek Hops

The 2012 growing season has proven itself to be quite a challenging one.  I keep wistfully thinking back to the 2009 and 2010 growing seasons (our first ones) where the rains came at perfect intervals and the temperatures were moderate the entire summer.  Everything was easy, our first year hops produced beautiful cones.  We were lulled into thinking that hops were such an easy crop to grow.

After the training, trimming and weeding of the hops yard in early June, we were pretty happy with our results.  But then, we began to notice, day after day of beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies.  Hmmm... time to start hauling water out to the hop yard.  Although we have an awesome irrigation system installed at our hop yard, we have not yet made the "plunge" and established a water well.  We continue to use our tractor and tank system to get the water out to our hop yard.
So the hops are getting water, but probably not enough to make up for the complete lack of rain in our little section of the world.  Total rainfall for June:  0 inches  Total rainfall for July so far:  1.85 inches.

So here's the thing, dry conditions makes a wonderful environment for lots of nasty bugs which love to feed on hops - spider mites, aphids, potato leaf hoppers....

There are lots of nice bugs in our hop yard,  lady beetles and lacewings, but they were outnumbered by the bad bugs.  I consulted with a scientist who works at Dow chemical to learn the best method of dealing with all of these problem insects and to create the lowest impact on the beneficial insects.  We came up with  a viable solution.  Many thanks to Matt.

To help with the problem of too many pests, my husband unearthed a wonderful piece of equipment from my father's stash of old farm equipment -  A battery powered sprayer.  A little bit of clean up and it is ready to go.  I tow it around behind our atv and it works like a charm and allows me to spray insecticide and fungicide over our entire yard in about one hour.  It is so nice to be able to make use of the stuff we have lying dormant around the farm.  Thanks Howard!

Despite the drought conditions and the voracious insects, we are still managing to have some good progress in our hop yard this summer.

Our second year nugget are climbing high at the end of June
Burrs are forming on the Perle and Hallertau

Our second year Chinooks are forming some beautiful cones

Lupulin glands are present.  So, all in all, it isn't that bad.  We are going to have plenty of hops to harvest!
The irony of nature, is that weeds do not seem to be affected by drought or insects.  It is once again time to bring out our sheep "stihl" to take care of the problem.
Despite all of the drought, I can't help but notice the beauty that exists on our farm.
 This is the freshly harvested wheat field that we drive past on the way to the hop yard.  You can actually see the heat in the air in this late evening photo taken in mid July.

Our tenant farmers are doing an excellent job of growing corn in spite of no rain or irrigation.  I am amazed at how well this crop is holding up.

"Volunteer" sunflowers cheerfully reach for the sky in our garden.

It's not all bad, it rained 1 inch today.  Life on the hops farm is good.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Black Creek Hops gets a "sheep"

After the hops were all trained on their new strings it was time think about managing all of that unwanted vegetative material growing next to the hops bines.  Our field mower does a nice job of mowing down the cover crop between the rows but does not get close enough to the hops plants.

Internet research has informed us that a popular method of weed control in hopyards is to use grazing sheep. There are even some feasiblility studies being done in this country to see if this is a good method of weed management.

"baahhhhh...where's the hops???"

You have to admit, they are pretty cute.

After much deliberation, we decided to invest....

Here is our new "sheep" It even comes with a name,  "Stihl"

It stands still, doesn't require much care and isn't particularly susceptible to coyote attacks.

Shepherding isn't too demanding either.

"Stihl" isn't paricularly fussy about what it will eat big thistles.
A job well done.  Nice neat rows of 2nd year hops .  Thanks, Stihl.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Stringing the Hops

This year we decided to try using coir rope for stringing our hops.  "Stringing" the hops is the term used for setting a cord in place for the hops bine to wind around and grow tall.  Our hops grew well over 20 feet tall last summer.

Two questions that are often asked: Do hops get cut down each year?  Do you have to restring the hops each year?  The answer to both is yes.  Hops get cut to the ground at harvest time, lie dormant through the winter and grow vigorously again in the spring to reach stunning heights by late June. 

When the hops are cut down at harvest time, the entire bine, including the string upon which it grew is cut down also.  It is too time consuming and pretty much impossible to unwind the tangled bine from the string on which it grew.

Coir rope is made from coconut fiber.  It is very coarse and thick.  It has a very rough surface which makes it ideal for the bine of the hops bine to stick to.  I was wondering where it came from and how it was made and I was very surprised to see an episode of The Amazing Race on CBS in May, where contestants had to spin coir rope in India as one of their challenges.  It was very difficult for them and their hands were very sore.  It looks as though coir rope is spun by women in dark hot sheds in India.  Yikes,  I can't get that image out of my mind as I am uncoiling the strands we are about to use in our hop yard.

The rope comes in a large bale and the bale contains sections of 20 ft. lengths, 100 per section.

We load the string sections on the scissor lift and go up for a ride to the top of the trellis.
Here is a view from the top of the trellis:

We got about half of the ropes up on our acre hopyard and the winds came.  With no crew on the ground to attach the strings at ground level we had to come down from above and tie down the strings before a huge tangle was created.
Like this...

The wind was so strong, it was not safe to go back up in the lift, so we postponed stringing until the following weekend when the family would be visiting again to help.

Well, at least I think Howie was helping....but maybe he was just tormenting his little sister.
Thank goodness for our family.  The job was finally finished on Memorial Day weekend.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Michigan Hops Farm - Weekend Warriors go at it again

This last weekend of April, our family (4 kids) all came home.  It was a good time to get some labor intensive tasks done in the hop yard.

Our daughters are taking their first ride up in the scissor lift.

Laura described the experience like a "junky carnival ride" after hearing the lift squeak and feeling a swaying motion when the wind caused the basket to sway.

Howie teases his sister with another new tool while she tries to assist with pole straightening tasks. 

Stephanie learns to drive the tractor.

Laura delights in testing the properties of the new flame weeder while Howie and Amber stand back for safety reasons.

Howard and Howie are hard at work adjusting tensions on some of the trellis cables.

Stephanie has become bored with her job of leveling and begins practicing her Jedi skills.

Laura is weeding around the second year plants.

Stephanie distributes some old bales of mulch straw to the expansion area of our hops farm.  The straw will decompose and add humus to the soil.

Amber clips early season growth off of the plants.  Many of the plants have frost damage on the tips from the overnight freezing temperatures we have been experiencing here in Western Michigan.

Even though it looks like we did lots of goofing off, we got lots of work accomplished on our hops farm today.  We enjoyed spending the day working and playing with our family.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Spring Happenings at Black Creek Hops

2012 is going to be a busy year for us at Black Creek Hops.  I was still busy working 60 plus hours per week in the heart of tax season when the new hops rhizomes arrived.  I ordered them from a large supplier in the Northwest.  With the mild weather we had in March, there was no reason to delay giving the Crystal, Spalt, Tettnang, Galena and Sterling hops a chance to get an early start. I took a break on a Sunday afternoon to get them planted.

I gathered up all the miscellaneous planting pots I could find in my greenhouse and prepared to get dirty.

I use a mix of organic garden soil and bagged manure to give the rhizomes a healthy start.

It is really important to label the rhizomes immediately upon planting.  I use popsicle sticks with the variety written on each stick, the most economical method I could think of.

Here we are in Mid April.  Tax season is over and we can begin our work out in the hops yard.  Howard is replacing one of the poles from our very first trial year row.  The old pole was planted in the wrong place and was out of alignment with the rest of the newer poles which we planted in 2011.

The field is green.  This is a very good thing.  Last fall I successfully planted rye seed and clover as a cover crop.  The rye and clover help to prevent soil erosion in the winter and spring months.  Rye grass helps discourage pesky weeds from growing and clover adds nitrogen to the soil.

Here is a close up view of one of the 2nd year hops plants.  This is some very vigorous growth.  At this time last year, there were barely any sprouts appearing.  In the middle of the growth there is a stalk which is dark and bent over.  This is the result of the heavy frosts which we have experienced in the past few weeks in western Michigan.  Luckily, hops are very resilient plants and new shoots will take over for the fallen ones.

Some of the bines are reaching, looking for their strings to grow on.  They are going to have to wait a few more weeks.

I have spotted my first enemy for the season.  There seems to be numerous butterflies near our yard.  I believe this is the Eastern Comma Butterfly.  I did a little research and found out that another name for this species is Hop Merchant.  This species happens to love hops.  I am dreading the caterpillar stage for this insect.  They feast on hop leaves at night.  The best way to control them is to manually pick the caterpillars off the bines.  Yuck!!!!  I am thinking I might like to go back to my office job in a few weeks.

Howard has finished replacing the old pole and now he is adjusting the tension on the overhead wires in this very first row of our yard.  He wants to get everything "right" in the first row before we move on to setting up the trellis in the remainder of the hop yard.  Another long day.  Plenty more to come.

Yet another task completed.  We took a trip to visit a fellow hops grower up in northern Michigan today to pick up a bale.  This bale contains 2400 strings of coir rope, imported from somewhere over in the Indian Ocean area of the world.  These are the strings which the hops plants are begging for so they can begin their upward spiraling growth.