The business of agriculture in Delta County has gotten a big boon with the state’s first commercial hops grower setting up shop in the North Fork.
“I think this has the potential for Delta County to add millions to its agricultural base,” said Paonia hops grower Glen Fuller, who also has the distinction of being one of only five organic hops growers in the U.S., a fact that a lot of artisan breweries are looking forward to.
Worldwide, beer production increases by 3-5 percent annually, and with a current worldwide hop shortage, farmers who plant hops are able to stay ahead of the game.
This season was Fuller’s first foray into hop farming. On 4.5 acres, he started with 5,000 plants. At harvest time, which took place the weekend of Aug. 30, Fuller and crew had 4,160 plants to harvest. Growing hops has been a learning experience, Fuller said, and this year he worked with a small staff, so the decrease in harvestable plants was expected.
That said, Fuller harvested and will sell between 35-45 percent of his crop, which was about 1,500 pounds. A crop the size of his at full production can bring in $150,000 profit, he said. He expects to have full production within three years; next year he promises to be at 80-85 percent full production.
Planting began in mid-May. Hops are grown on a high trellis system. Once the plants emerge from the ground, they are strung up on thin ropes that reach 18 feet up into the air.
Fuller grew five varieties; Magnum, Willamette, Nugget, Chinook and Cascade. Ninety percent of this year’s crop was Cascade, a hop that is used in IPAs.
The majority of Fuller’s hops have already been spoken for, and they will all go to high-quality craft brewers and microbreweries within the state, of which there are 88.
“Brewers are dying to have fresh, local hops,” said Dr. Ron Godin, a research scientist with CSU Cooperative Extension. “Small breweries can work with small growers.”
The harvesting process took about 10 days. After the hops were taken off the vines, they were dried at 140 degrees for 10 hours, left to cool at room temperature and then packaged for sale.
Breweries usually use hops in a pellet form, which Fuller plans to do with next year’s crop. Some breweries also like to use fresh-from-the-field hops, brewing beers within hours of getting their fresh hops. Part of his crop will be set aside for that as well.
Traditionally, the majority of hops farms in the U.S. are located in the Pacific Northwest. Colorado is a good place to raise hops, Fuller said. Because of our lower humidity and higher altitude, the hops are not as susceptible to typical diseases. They are also freeze tolerant.
Fuller has had lots of help from experienced growers around the country. “The largest hops production farms in the world have been very helpful,” he said. He’s also had the help of Ron Godin, a CSU grad student who is doing her senior thesis on hops production, and has an archaeologist on staff.
Fuller and Godin are already talking about how to make next year’s crop bigger and better. Fuller plans to plant an additional five acres of hops at his current farming site, as well as 50 acres on Rogers Mesa.
This year’s crop was successful in part due to the small size.
“The key thing in this county in getting a regional processing plant going,” Fuller said. This is a massive project he intends to pursue just as soon as this year’s crops are done.
The project entails pursuing grants and business partnerships with craft breweries to fund a $2 million processing center. Equipment will consist of a picking machine, commercial dryer and pelletizing machine.
Two Colorado breweries, Odell Brewing Company and New Belgium Brewery, have tentatively agreed to a partnership in funding the center.
The center will be a regional processing center, which means any hops grower can bring his crop to the site for drying, marketing and distribution.
Fuller owns Rising Sun Farms, a 39.5-acre farm with organic vegetables and peach, apple and plum orchards.
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From his apples, he also has a commercial pie company that is being launched mid-September. Called the Paonia Pie Company, homemade apple pies will be made and distributed to epicurean stores, bakeries and restaurants in the region.