growing hops

Yes we grow hops on our flower farm. We love them. They are a beautiful addition to floral designs and Nich likes to brew beer, so we fight over them every year. Our answer to this dilemma was to plant more hops! It all started about 5 years ago with a couple of rhizomes from a friend who thought we should grow some. So we did. The next year we planted a few more, and then a few more, and then…. We now have 22 different plants, all different varieties, growing in a line next to the hoophouse. Here are some of the lovely outcomes of our hops production:

Plant the rhizomes in the spring (like now) and we always spring for the jumbo roots. We have gotten some from a local home brew shop, Freshops.com, Great Lakes Hops, and an organic producer Thyme Garden. They all have great info on their websites but one of the best websites for when and how much individual varieties produce is Beer Legends. Another fantastic resource for us has been Gorst Valley Hops. They offer intense workshops and have done lots of research on growing/producing and what not. Rumor has it that they are going to be selling plants that are certified disease free, which is great because nobody else does that and we did get in a disease last year from a previously reputable source. Sounds like this is becoming more common with the growing popularity and demand for plants. The vines are actually bines, but I am going to call them vines because I always think bines looks like a typo. They are aggressive plants and need to be thinned and pruned during the season to keep them in check. We select about 4 of the nicer looking sprouts to keep every spring and then pinch out the other sprouts, you have to do this every week because they keep on coming. It slows down in July.

They are heavy feeders and drinkers, if you want pretty green cones you better make sure they get plenty of water. We have an irrigation line on them and feed with a granular three times per year as well as a good dose of compost in the spring. They grow about 20 feet high by their second year, you can grow them horizontally but they may require a bit of help. We set up this weenie trellis the first year which broke and then we tried a couple of other things in the next year but it was apparent that we needed serious support. And if you want to grow 20 plants you would need a lot of room to go horizontal. Black locust is the tree of choice for this because it is abundant in these parts, it is very rot resistant, and it grows tall and straight. So we went into the woods with Gramps, his tractor, and a couple of chainsaws and we came out with three 25 foot long posts. They went about 4 feet into the ground and were set in cement. Wire cables are attached to the top of each post and run down to ground anchors to keep the whole thing from toppling over. Those plants get tall and bushy and on a breezy day… well, the guy lines are a good idea. Wire cable also runs along the top and bottom with coir rope attached for each plant to grow up. Yes that is a twenty foot extension ladder and yes it makes me nervous. You have to go up every spring to tie the ropes and every fall to cut the plants down.

You won’t harvest much the first and second year. There will be some cones that you can pick but leave the leaves and vine in place. Much like peonies you need that plant to feed the root system so that you get nice plants in the future. By the third or fourth year you should have vigorous plants and it is then OK to cut the entire plant when you harvest.

I like to harvest when they are pretty and green, which is too early if you want them for beer brewing. It’s about a 2-3 week window before they begin to lose their vibrancy and get a little papery, which is still pretty… but not as pretty. With all of our varieties I can have hops for design use from about mid-July through September, maybe early October. So what are some of my favorite varieties? I will have to update this at the end of the season after some of these plants come into their third year but for now they are:

  • Cascade: this one is easy to find, you can probably pick one up at your local garden center. It is vigorous and produces tons of cones on appropriately sized side branches.
  • Nugget: produces big beautiful cones. I know some people like Chinook for this but I prefer the shape of Nugget.
  • Saaz: it is a European variety which I have heard complaints about it not growing very well here. I think it produces lovely cones and produces early. It is not as vigorous as others but it work for me.

A few issues/lessons learned:

  • They are prone to some viruses and downy mildews. Allegedly most of these should not be a problem for your flower crops but I don’t trust that. We thought we had some hops downy mildew and sent in a sample, turned out to be wind damage and probably also not enough water. Whew! What a relief. The leaves were not attractive and had to be removed but most of the cones were fine. We also though we had a virus on one…. and we were correct. The plant had to be destroyed and removed.
  • Japanese beetles can be a problem but we are already used to that. Not much you can do but pick off the unattractive parts
  • Spider mites, we got them bad one year. It was the year of the horrible drought which was also the year that soybeans were planted in the adjacent field. Most hops were not usable but we have not had that problem since.
  • They are heavy feeders! We planted these about 2 feet from the edge of my hoophouse. There were dahlias in there planted about 5-6 feet away from the hops. They did not perform well and some looked a bit chlorotic by August.
  • Use new rope every year. Even if you are able to get the hops off the rope intact that rope will not be able to support those heavy plants next year. It will come down with a strong wind three weeks before they are ready for harvest on a day when you really don’t have time to deal with it… hypothetically speaking of course.

Here is a link for an IPM guide, it’s a big one but if you really want to know something about IPM on hops this is the place to look.

Advertisements

in like a lion…

Around here we learned that March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb. Well if they are still teaching kids that today I’ll bet that they are confused. I had to go out and cover up all of my little plants in the hoop house. Come on, it is the end of March! I should not have to cover up cold tolerant annuals inside of a hoop. Forecasted lows in the single digits got me scared and out I went to cover those babies up. And yes I am still watering with melted snow in buckets, though they were mostly frozen this morning.

Image

Also on my schedule for today was to catch up with my seeding plan, which I mostly did. I’m feeling pretty darn good about that. There are few items that I have just decided to skip for one reason or another. And I have had to modify some of my plans since it looks like I probably won’t be planting out in the field for at least three more weeks (probably more). I had it on my schedule to start seeding into my paper chain transplanting system but that requires the ground to be in good shape (not too wet, not too dry) and most of what I am planning to plant probably shouldn’t sit in those trays for more than four weeks. The one exception is my lisianthus. Not seeds, transplants, only crazy people start seeds. I fill up that flat very loosely with my potting mix and then I just smoosh the little plants on top. The cell size is about the same as the flats that they arrive in but a little deeper and way easier to plant out afterward. And that is my favorite reason for having this fancy little system.

IMG_0276IMG_0280

 

3.19.14

Last week was a busy one for around here. The weather finally seems to be less of an issue so I started planting in the hoop house. Anemones, ranunculus, with sweet peas down the middle of the bed. Snaps, stock, and godetia in another bed. And those are buckets of snow melting so that I can water everything since the water source is located 300 feet away over at the house and there are still crazy snow drifts between here and there.

ImageImage

I picked up some willow cuttings and they look great. I am super excited about these guys. When I got home there was a box of lisianthus plugs and a box of dahlia tubers waiting for me. More exciting stuff! The willows I stuck in a bucket of water for now and the lissies I set aside to deal with later. The dahlias I had order because I lost all of mine from last year. I tried that plastic wrap method and it did not work for me. I had a moldy box of plastic and grossness. I tossed the whole thing and ordered new stuff.

ImageImage

The dahlias I potted up into some cow pots and I will take cuttings after they sprout. Since I had to start over with the dahlias I decided that it would be cost effective to propagate through cuttings this year. Of course I have never this before but I am really banking on it working since I only order about 40 dahlia tubers.

On my list for the rest of this week is more planting out into the hoop and starting lots more seeds. I am about three weeks behind. Some stuff I am just going to skip but I will try to catch up as much as possible. I should be mostly caught up by the end of next week. Then I can move on to the perennials and prairie seeds that I am going to start.

a look back: year six

2013, year six, was last year. I have said a lot about last year already but there are a few things that I have not said.

Last year I decided that it would be a minimum of three years (probably more like 5-7) before we can afford a farm. That is still the end goal in all of this. We had started the farm search with some limiting criteria: size, price, proximity to Milwaukee, condition of house and buildings. The criteria got looser and looser until we were looking at farms an hour away that would need 50k of work just to make them livable. I do have some long term plans sort of sketched out in my head. But for now I am committed to 3-7 years in my current situation, which has relieved a lot of stress and allowed me to move forward instead of constantly waiting.

I did get an FSA micro loan to help out with some infrastructure last fall. Let me correct that statement. I applied for the loan last fall and then with the government shut down things moved very slowly. It was supposed to be an easier process than the full on FSA loan but I found it to be tedious and redundant. I did get my money in December, $10 000. I had already purchased all of the stuff I needed with my credit card as winter was on it’s way and it’s hard to dig holes and stretch plastic in the snow.

I do not feel like it is a sustainable business model for a person to grow all of their own flowers and do wedding work. It is like having two full time jobs but this is what I need to do now to make things better for the future. I like wedding work but that is not why I started this business, there will come a day when I have to decide between being a floral designer and a flower grower. I hope that I have a few years because I am not ready to make that decision yet.

I think I made some really good decisions last year about how best to move forward in future years. I had previously been all about the year I was in. I started thinking more long term which made it a really hectic year. I wanted to get stuff in place, I was tired of waiting, I was tired of not making money. I have some more work do but I am finally starting to feel comfortable with my business. I know what my limitations are and I have learned to work with them. It has been a long and difficult journey at times but I really feel like it is going to start getting easier.

a look back: year five

2012 was my fifth year as a flower grower. There was a lot riding on this year. I had to make a profit or I was going to quit. I intended to throw everything I had at it this year. I was very cautious about my purchases, partly because I wanted to make a profit, partly because they might be rendered useless and a waste of money if I did decide to quit.

There is this sort of loose flower farming model that says for every acre that you grow you can profit $10-20 000 per year. You will also need about one worker (including yourself) per acre. From all of the people who I have heard this from, their main sales outlets are florists and farmer’s markets. Well I decided that with a half an acre and no employees the best I could do with this model was $10 000  per year. Not even close to enough so I decided to really pursue the retail end as much as possible. I really marketed the weddings and I started a bouquet CSA. I also intended to sell to a few florists with whom I had developed good relationships and I was going to sell those grocery store bouquets again. My thought was plant whatever I want for the weddings in large numbers and what I could not use from week to week would go to one of these other outlets.

Spring came very early that year and I had tulip bunches and lilacs in April, just in time for the the last two weeks of the winter farmer’s market. It was a good thing to get an early jump on sales. I had booked a good number of weddings and they kept coming in. I had a good handful of people buy the CSA, all farmer’s market pick-ups that year to make it easy on me. And one big decision that I made was to sell as many flowers as I possibly could even if I had to buy them from other growers. I really needed to see the sales potential before I could justify ramping up. I wound up buying flowers almost every week for weddings and to fill out my grocery store bouquets. It made the profits very low on those grocery store orders but I really wanted to see how much they could sell. It turns out quite a bit, now if I only had more room to grow….

I decided to squeeze those beds as close together as possible. I went from about 35 total beds to 42. Some already had perennials in them but seven more beds was a lot for me. The only problem was that we couldn’t get a push mower down them to mow so we had to string trim which made a mess on the flowers. But I had lots of room to plant. And plant I did.

In that year it basically stopped raining around mid May and really did not start again until October. Gramps said it was the worst drought  he could remember since the dust bowl. I had his well running day and night to keep stuff alive. It was not going to thrive but it was going to live. Some stuff didn’t, some stuff never got planted because the ground was too hard and dry. There were days I had to choose between watering plants and watering bare ground just so that I could till it and plant. I became acutely aware of how fragile life can be when you are relying on the weather. If I was going to buy a farm I absolutely was going to need an agricultural well. The cost of this alleged farm was really starting to become unforgiving.

Despite the relentless drought and the fact that I had to buy flowers on a weekly basis, I was able to make a modest profit that year. I had decided that with such a small amount of land I really had to focus on weddings as much as possible. I was cautiously optimistic that this would work. I went back to revisit my business plan and decided that it was now or never, time to buy a farm and expand. I revised my business plan and filled out most of that ridiculous FSA loan paperwork. And I was looking at farms, lots of them.

a look back: year four

2011 was my fourth year as a flower grower, I was more determined than ever to make this work. It just had to work. I had gotten a job that winter and I was not sure what I was going to do when the spring came. It was an ok job with some serious potential but it was still a job and I was not sure that’s what I wanted. I spent my free time that winter and spring working on a business plan, planning for the upcoming season, and looking for farms. I had tweaked my big master growing plan a bit from the year before. I made the walkways a little smaller so that I could squeeze in a couple more beds and a took over a little piece of shady lawn to plant some hydrangeas in. The previous fall I had planted a bunch of perennials hoping to get an early jump on the growing season. I had gotten them in late and only about half of it worked out as planned. I discovered that a good mix of early perennials is key to filling that gap between spring bulbs and summer annuals. Spring came late that year and I had actually booked a few decent sized weddings for early in the summer. I took that as a sign a quit my job.

Much of my planting had been planned for wholesale to florists but I was beginning to see that option was not going to pay out for me. The year before I had found a couple of new floral designers who were my age and committed to buying as much local product as possible. They both had closed up shop over the winter and had gotten themselves some “real” jobs. They were not the only ones to close up shop in 2010-11. I decided to try wholesale bouquets to a local natural food store chain. It was ok and I made some good money there, I had a few good florist clients, a handful of weddings and the farmer’s market. This was the first year that I decided to do only one farmer’s market, mid-week markets were just not worth it for me and I was done trying.

Weddings, this was the first year that I really saw the potential to earn money from weddings. I was starting to attract some attention and book more weddings from people who had some larger budgets. I was not able to grow enough of the flowers that I needed for the bigger weddings, especially early and late in the season so I started buying from other local growers to supplement what I had growing in my own field. It was nice to see what other people were doing with the same season, it was also nice to not be totally screwed if something went wrong in my production. I could still deliver.

That fall I bought a used hoop house frame but Gramps was reluctant to let me put it up. I was a bit reluctant myself, I thought we would be moving soon so it didn’t really make sense. Just like planting lots of peonies and hydrangeas didn’t make sense if I was just going to dig them up in a year. So we get to the end of the growing season and I have nearly broken even. I went to that ASCFG conference looking for answers. I started to get this feeling of “parents just don’t understand.” There were not very many young growers at these conferences (which is starting to change) and I was wondering if everyone had forgotten how hard it was to get started. You can’t tell me that in a room with hundreds of flower growers that every single one of them hit it out of the park right from the very beginning. Maybe I was asking the wrong people. I really wanted to know if this was all going to be worth it. Should I just quit now and go back to school?  I did learn that it usually takes five years to make any sort of profit and usually seven years before you start to get comfortable. I also learned that most of the growers have an additional source of income, or had a good job and money in the bank before starting their farms. That was not to say that one couldn’t make a viable long-term, save for retirement, buy your own health insurance type of career out of flower growing but I had yet to meet very many people who had done it. And at this point I should mention that Nich has a full time job that pays all of our bills. He has little in the way of benefits but he does make enough to pay the bills, buy groceries, and get us out for a little fun on occasion. He does not make enough that we can go on vacation, or save for retirement, or even afford a new (used) car. If we want these things (and we do) I have to contribute to our income.

And so year four ended with me getting a part time and temporary job. I had nearly broken even but was uncertain of my future. I was very sure that if things were not better next year that I would quit. I just could not keep doing this, it was exhausting both emotionally and physically and it was draining our finances.

a look back: year one

My first year as a flower grower was 2008. I had previous experience in the landscape and floral areas and decided it was time to do something with my life. I had considered this for a couple of years and decided it was time to do it. I asked my gramps if I could borrow a little land for a couple of years to get started and he said sure. I suspect that it was Grandma who made him agree to it. There was a little field (less than half an acre) that was not being used by anyone. He used to keep pigs but they were long gone and now it was just weeds that he mowed a couple times a year.

Here’s how it went…. I attended the Wisconsin Cut Flower Growers School in February, it was a stroke of luck that it just happened to be going on when I needed it. My mom went with me (and even paid for it I think) she has been super supportive if this endeavor, which has helped me to continue. At this two day workshop I learned a lot of things but the biggest take aways were: join the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers, subscribe to Growing for Market, buy The Flower Farmer  and  Specialty Cut Flowers, effective bed sizes, as well as a some vendor and equipment lists. So I went home and did all of these things and I can say, without any doubt in my mind, that if it had not been for these resources I would not have made it.

By the end of March I have some flats going in my strange attic apartment and started planting out Mother’s Day weekend. My husband and parents helped, they actually helped a lot that year. We didn’t get very far, that half an acre looked huge once it was all tilled up. There was not much for succession planting and I direct seeded a lot. With the weed seed bank having never been disrupted until now we had so many weeds, more than I knew how to handle. I was working 50 hours a week at a regular job and driving an hour to get the farm a few times a week. The water was coming off of 300 feet of hose attached to my grandparent’s house. It was hard to stay on top of things.

We got about 30% of that little field planted and our fist flush of flowers came on late in June and we did our first farmer’s market. It sucked, a lot. But I was not to be discouraged so I went back every week and it never got much better. I met a woman who was starting her own floral design business and wanted to use local flowers so I sold to her when she was in need, which was only a few times as she was just getting started.

By August I was on the verge of a melt down. I hated my job and I spent all of my free time getting sunburned pulling weeds that never seemed to end. And to top it all off, I was not making any money. I had a few melt downs that fall and I was really not sure if this was a good idea. By late September most of my flowers were done. Then Nich an I went to the ASCFG national conference in Portland. It was a bit expensive but I needed some learning and we both desperately needed a vacation. This conference saved me. Much of the content was over my head or systems/new plants that I was not yet ready for. But I met lots of people, people with answers to some of my questions. And most importantly, there were hundreds of flower growers here, they were making it work which meant that I could too.

We came home and I was ready to pick myself up, dust myself off and start getting ready for next year. But it all came to a screeching halt a week later when Nich was in a motorcycle crash on his way to work. He had a broken collar bone (as well as a concussion and some trauma) and he was out of work for eight weeks. The flower growing operation was going to be put on hold until the spring. To top off a shitty year we discovered that our health care coverage had been lost months earlier because my employer had stopped paying the premium. We only discovered it when Nich’s doctor visits and physical therapy claims started getting denied.

And so ended 2008, the next year had to be better, it certainly couldn’t be any worse.