Winter in Hop Country
The harvest dust has settled, tractors turned off, and kilns emptied. Growers enjoy the respite of rest after another successful harvest and the hurried hustle of the season quiets down. Temperatures begin to drop in the growing regions of the Pacific Northwest and a chill fills the air. Fog settles in the empty fields and the valley grows peaceful.
Welcome to Winter in Hop Country.
The major growing regions in the Pacific Northwest states of Washington, Idaho and Oregon are home to bountiful agriculture production because they experience all four seasons which is critical to the growth and development of crops.
But what happens on the hop farms during the Winter?
First, the farms take a break! Harvest season is a pedal-to-the-metal time of year with operations running 24 hours a day. After harvest wraps up, growers and workers will take a couple weeks off and with many members of farm crews having family in Mexico or Texas, they will take either a few weeks or a month to spend time with loved ones. After a well-deserved break, it’s time to get some things done and prepare for the crop year ahead!
Hops grow on trellis systems reaching 18-20 feet tall. Typically, as October comes to a close, trellis crews will repair any trellis or work on building new trellis system. This includes installing poles and topwire. These projects can start and end anytime between Fall and Spring, dependent on weather.
Mechanical Work & Repairs
Tractors, trucks, and equipment are brought into the shop for repair and maintenance. Mechanics on the team use this time to get machinery fixed, primed and ready to go. This can include fabrication and modification of harvest equipment like bottomcutters and topcutters. Hop harvest picking equipment is very unique with most systems being assembled by the farms and constructed from other harvesting equipment in the early years and adapted to meet the needs of hop operations. Some farms are adding new technology, building additional machines, and expanding kiln space as farms grow.
Hops are hungry plants! They need nutrients to climb the tall wire, reach the top and produce cones containing lupulin. Farms are meticulously managing their soil health and nutrient levels as part of their individual farm management strategies. This can require applying a dry fertilizer in the winter months to certain areas as needed, or some growers have adopted alternatives such as mulch and organic nutrients, to feed the soil. Much like humans needing vitamins and nutrients for growth and vigor, hop plants need macronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Most growers plant a cover crop to encourage healthy soil moisture and retain nutrients in the field. Cover crops aide in capturing CO2 from the air and converting it to oxygen.
Workers use tractors to cross cultivate the soil, aerating the soil to prevent soil compaction. This is a beneficial practice for soil microbes which help break down plant nutrients into usable form.
Quality hops start from the ground up. Post-harvest soil management is key to a healthy hop yard. Cheers to soil science!
Pray for Snow!
You know what they say about farmers, they love to talk about the weather! The winter season is important for setting the stage for the growing season ahead and we keep our eyes on the forecasts. Snowfall in the mountain ranges of the PNW are critical to soil and plant health in the upcoming months. For example, the Yakima Valley is nestled at the bottom of the Mt. Adams and the Cascade Mountain Range is just a short drive away but the Valley itself is a desert with a dry, arid climate. The dry climate allows agriculture in the region to flourish because it lowers the threats of diseases and pests in comparison to wet, humid areas. But in order to grow, crops need water. Snowpack accumulation in the mountains is monitored closely during the Winter months to gauge how much snow-melt in the Spring will feed down into the rivers and provides crucial irrigation to the desert valley. Low snowpack could indicate drought in the growing season and a heavy snowfall signals a healthy water supply for the next crop. The melting snow also carries down minerals from the mountains into the soil and nourishes the hop bines climbing up the wire!
Hops (humulus lupulus) are a perennial crop which naturally grows again the following Spring after harvest. The rhizome of the hop plant is the root system of the bine and grows underneath the soil through the winter. Each year, farms can dig up the rhizomes to propagate and produce more hop plants. This will typically occur towards the end of Winter, around February. Some growers have greenhouse programs and utilize softwood cuttings to propagate varieties. A warm greenhouse sounds pretty nice right about now, 30 degrees Fahrenheit here in Yakima currently!
Planning, planning and more planning! Growers use this time to develop their business plans for the year ahead and submit to lenders for approval.
While the spotlight on the hop farms shines brightest during the thrilling harvest season, the farms, crews, hop plants and Mother Nature are constantly in motion to produce another crop in the year to come. Trellis maintenance, mechanical work, soil management, propagation and of, course, weather all play a part in the bringing the hops you know and love to your brew kettle. It’s a wonderful life in Hop Country and we wouldn’t trade it for anything!