The final straw
Growers facing a looming hop-pocalypse in B.C.
Hop farmer Dwayne Stewart is leaving one third of his Abbotsford farm fallow this year, and many others are exiting the business altogether.
“I’ve got product in the fridge from 2016 that I haven’t sold yet,” he said.
“I know a dozen farmers who won’t grow any hops this year, so we are down to just about 20 growers.”
Despite the explosive growth of B.C.’s $280-million craft beer industry , hop famers have been left behind because brewers have little incentive to buy locally, he said.
Without help hop farming could all but disappear in B.C., he said.
A tax rebate to brewers who use locally grown hops would go a long way toward stabilizing and growing the hops industry, said Stewart, owner of B.C. Hop Company.
“That would go a long way toward giving us the kind of support that is shown to the wine industry, and to craft brewers, too,” he said.
New growers usually start small because erecting poles and trellises for vines and planting rhizomes costs up to $25,000 an acre and it takes three years before you can harvest, said Stewart.
Hop farms in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are often 10 to 20 times the size of farms in B.C., making it hard for local farmers to compete on price.
“A lot of yards started and failed within three years as people figured out the steep learning curve, high cost of capital and slow return,” said Rebecca MacIsaac of farm-based Crannog Ales in the Shuswap region, which grows its own hops.
“Only a few brewers are interested in local hops yearround, most are only interested in making a splash with one seasonal beer then sourcing elsewhere for their main — cheaper — supply,” she said. Changing tastes have left growers chasing the right variety of hops, or looking for varieties that will thrive and creating a market for them.
“Growers need brewers who will work with them on varieties as they figure out what grows best on their farms,” she said.
“They need brewers who will experiment with new or very old varieties, they need brewers who are willing to wait it out while they improve quality.”
Local farmers are not allowed to grow many of the popular citrusy and fruity varieties that brewers are looking for because they are trademarked and sold under licence, according to the B.C. Craft Brewers Guild.
“The other barrier is price,” said Gary Lohin, brewmaster at Surrey’s Central City Brewers + Distillers.
“If the government were to grant an agricultural tax break for using local hops, you’d probably see more brewers looking at local hops.”
Adding to the misery, September’s planned B.C. Hop Fest has been cancelled after Stewart struggled to meet the regulations governing agri-tourism events on land in the Agricultural Land Reserve.
The annual festival attracts 1,500 people thirsty for one-of-akind fresh beers and the event is the hop growers’ best opportunity to showcase their product.
“The majority of the products for sale — beer — were not produced on the farm,” said Stewart. “The (Agricultural Land Commission) couldn’t quite get their heads around the idea of promoting hops by selling beers that contain hops.”
Growing hops has becoming challenging for many B.C. farmers. Pictured is a farm in Abbotsford.