Day in the Life: Hop Farmers

Hops with truck

Day in the Life: Hop Farmers

Hello, we are Scott and Todd Hayhoe, we, along with our parents, run a farm in Elgin County, Ontario. Established in 1978, we grow a little under 2000 acres of corn and soya beans, and 6 acres of hops. 

We started growing hops in 2014 as a way to diversify our farms and we've been slowly expanding since. They make for a busier spring, and it's always a balancing act, but we've been happy with how it works for us.

To summarize one day in the life of a farmer can be a challenge as the job changes from day to day throughout the growing season. The hop season starts earlier for us. The plants start poking through the ground in the beginning of April. At that time, we are busy cutting the initial flush of growth, applying fertilizer and fungicides and running coir string. We are primarily grain farmers, and any grain farmer will tell you in your lifetime you get 30-40 springs to put a good crop in the ground. While hops are perennials, the principle remains the same, we're setting the yield in the first months of the season.

Our days look a lot different this time of year, compared to the middle of August when the plants are an 18 foot tall wall of green. While hops look the most impressive through the summer, we have arguably the biggest yield impact in spring. At this time we're dealing with vulnerable new growth in the coldest/wettest conditions the plant will face all year.  We're also trying to time all activities to ensure the plants will max out their trellis height at the end of their vegetative growth period around the summer solstice. 

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So, let’s look at a typical day on our farm around the second week of May.

7AM - Our day starts early. After we scout (look at) the fields and check on ground conditions for seeding, we plan the work to be done for the day. On a day when there is nothing ready to be planted first thing, sun and wind can change a lot, so we'll be scouting through the day. Planting takes priority on our farm in the spring, and timing when a field is fit to plant is one of the biggest decisions we make all year. A good decision can mean reaching full yield potential and a bad decision can lead to substantially reduced yields.

8AM - It’s time to head to the hop yard to train the plants. Training is a yearly job that happens after the plants have emerged, been pruned back to reset growth, and the entire yard has been strung with coconut husk coir string for each plant to climb.

We run two strings made from coir (coconut fibre) from the 18 foot high trellis to every plant and fix each to the ground. Training involves bending at every plant, finding the 4-6 best hop shoots from the dozens that have sprung and twist 2-3 on each string in a clockwise direction. It's an incredibly time consuming and physically strenuous job on account of the repetition, but is only done once a year.

Once the shoots have found the fibrous string, and they grab onto it they will continue the 18 foot climb on their own, twisting around as they grow.

6PM - While we're training, we are also scouting. Downy mildew is quite common in our cool wet springs and needs constant monitoring and control. I'll run through the hops with an air assisted orchard sprayer this evening spraying fungicide. We spray on a weekly basis throughout the growing season with a rotation of products, most regularly for downy mildew, but also for insect pests, other plant diseases, and foliar fertilizers on occasion. Every product we use in the hop yard serves to create healthier plants.

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We inspect the hops nearly every day looking for disease and insect pests. On about a weekly basis we spray fungicides and/or insecticides to prevent pests and diseases such as downey mildew and potatoe leafhoppers from destroying the hops. Irrigation is run daily to keep up with water demands. Hops need to be grown in light and soil that drains well, but they also need a consistent supply of water. We add fertilizer to the water we give the hops on a regular basis so that the plants get the nutrients they need all the way down to the root.

Harvest time for our hops happens over a month from middle of August to early September which is a few weeks before our corn and soy bean crops, which makes it manageable for us in the fall. We can tell the hops are ready by checking their moisture levels. We harvest them by cutting the entire plant down and taking it to a stationary separator called a Wolf picker.

Our season ends after we finish picking our hops, do maintenance on all our equipment, til the land, fertilize, spray, and more or less be completely finished with our hops weeks before we've pulled our combine out of the barn for the year.

We've been pleased with the third crop added to our operation. It's in many ways different than what we've done our entire lives, but the basics remain the same. Hops aren't an easy crop to grow and they're sold in a volatile market, but for us they've been a good way to diversify our farm.   

Scott and Todd Hayhoe run Hayhoe Hops on an Elgin county farm on the shores of Lake Erie.

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