Members of the Western North Carolina (WNC) branch of my family (Ruby and her Faithful Spousal Companion, or FSC) grow hops organically. I find no consolation in the fact that Ruby is a professional horticulturist with years of experience growing things so lovely that when she publishes gardening books, pictures of specimens in her former Southern Maryland back yard feature prominently. My hops, pictured at the end of this post, are sickly and stunted compared to theirs. Here's what they have to say:
"First, at the risk of making you jealous, we are experiencing the wettest spring here since becoming permanent residents. The regular rain--mixed with plenty of sun--was a major factor in attracting us to the mountains. Southern Maryland summers seemed to be turning dryer and dryer with every year. Little did we know that three straight years of draught would mark our transition to WNC. As I write, however, the weatherman is calling for severe thunderstorms today through tonight. This event will end @ six days of on/off rain. Can't really get in the fields with things so damp, but it sure beats irrigating with the hose….a major chore last spring. Of course all the moisture raises the alarm for things like powdery mildew! Ahh, the farmer's lament: it's either too much or too little. Maybe being a paper-pushing bureaucrat was a better option. Nahh, at least as long as my living doesn't depend on it.
"I suspect the precipitation is a significant factor in this season's growth in our hop yard, but we're still learning what is/is not to be expected as we enter season #2 with a major expansion. You may recall that last year's "test plot" was comprised of five, 20 foot rows with four hills apiece. This year we extended each of the original rows to 50 feet, and added seven more 50 foot rows plus three 75 foot rows. That translates into a total of @ 260 hills. We figured an expansion of this magnitude was necessary to produce a harvest of "commercial" relevance. Even with 260, we may have to await 2nd year yields to peddle cones at the wholesale level. Time will tell. While all five original varieties were expanded with the extension of the original rows, the 12 new rows were limited to three: Cascade and Willamette (due to vigorous growth & cone production); and Nugget (to provide a high acid variety)…
"Also, you may not be aware that we're working to get formally certified as organic (USDA sticker and all). Organic is a huge factor in much of the WNC community….at least one microbrewery is 100% organic. We believe that flying the organic flag will be a crucial marketing lever, and it should allow us to demand a higher price for product. Our first visit by inspectors is scheduled for next week…
"6footVine - To illustrate progress, this picture (taken cinco de mayo) shows the original ('08) Willamette hills, including above sprouts, with @ one month under their belt. That's a yard stick leaning against the center vine, attesting to the 6 foot milestone.
"08-09 Contrast - Seeing is believing: the second pic (also 5 May) captures a 2nd season Willamette hill (actually the same hill as sprouts above) as well as the '09 extension of that row. Quite a difference! Based on last year, the '09 plants will ultimately approach or reach the 12' trellis top and produce a "credible" number of cones. However, we're eagerly awaiting what the Lit tells us will be a much larger crop from the 2nd season plants.
Final Thoughts: This physical undertaking has given me new respect for the rigors of farming and those who choose it, forever reminding me that I'm no longer eighteen. Both Ruby and I have always wanted a rural life….for as long we both can remember. We've made it, but on many occasions I worry that we made it too late. That said, we're loving life (with limited endurance and sore muscles), and we plan to press for as long as the bodies allow. 20-something lower backs of our sons have been life-savers every now and then."
Compare with my second year of growing hops in San Diego: barely visible in this picture.
It's not that I envy their hops, so much as I'm disappointed in my hops. It's one thing for Ruby and FSC to have green thumbs, it's an entirely different thing for me to have to contend with drought, pestilence and plagues of locusts, at least figuratively speaking.